The groups - the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Maddie's Fund - want the court to throw out a judge's February decision that gave the trustees for the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust sole authority to determine which charities would benefit from her estate.
In April, the trustees gave away $136 million to hospitals, foundations and the homeless. Just $100,000 went to an animal-welfare group, the ASPCA. Another $900,000 went to groups that train guide dogs for the blind.
Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society, said the five trustees - Helmsley's brother, Alvin Rosenthal; two of her grandsons, Walter and David Panzirer; her lawyer Sandor Frankel; and her longtime friend John Codey - substituted their own judgment for Helmsley's.
"She wanted the money to go, at least in large measure, to the care of dogs," Pacelle said Tuesday.
Pacelle, who joined leaders of the ASPCA and Maddie's Fund at a news conference at the ASPCA's Manhattan headquarters, said at least half of the $136 million should have gone to organizations that benefit dogs.
ASPCA Board Chairwoman Marsha Perelman said that kind of money would be "game changing" for animal-welfare groups.
"Almost 2 million dogs are needlessly euthanized in this country every year," Perelman said. "If funds from the Helmsley estate were available to address this problem, this problem could be made to disappear."
The trust, in a statement posted on its Web site, said Helmsley never wanted her fortune just to go to dogs.
"Did Leona Helmsley intend for this charitable trust to focus on the care and help of dogs, rather than people? Absolutely not," the statement said. "Have the trustees of this vast fortune acted improperly and ignored Mrs. Helmsley's instructions? Again, absolutely not."
A spokesman for the trust did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.
The hotel heiress, whose fortune had been estimated at $5 billion to $8 billion after her death at age 87, also named her dog as a beneficiary in her will, leaving a $12 million trust fund for the little white Maltese. But a judge whittled that amount down to $2 million.
Trouble's last known residence was the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel in Sarasota, Fla.
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