Wedge issue at PETA: widespread euthanasia

Michael Winerip / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

NORFOLK, Va. — Even some supporters do not know what to make of it.

PETA, considered by many to be the highest-profile animal rights group in the country, kills an average of about 2,000 dogs and cats each year at its animal shelter here. And the shelter does few adoptions — 19 cats and dogs in 2012 and 24 in 2011, according to state records.

At a time when the major animal protection groups have moved to a “no kill” shelter model, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals remains a holdout, confounding some and incensing others who know the organization as a very vocal advocacy group that does not believe animals should be killed for food, fur coats or leather goods.

This is an organization that on Thanksgiving urges Americans not to eat turkey.

“Honestly, I don’t understand it,” says Joan Schaffner, an animal rights lawyer and an associate professor at the George Washington University Law School, which hosts an annual no-kill conference. “PETA does lots of good for animals, but I could never support them on this.”

As recently as a decade ago, it was common practice at shelters to euthanize large numbers of dogs and cats that had not been adopted.

But the no-kill movement has grown very quickly, leaving PETA behind.

In New York City last year, 8,252 dogs and cats were euthanized, compared with 31,701 in 2003.

While there is no uniform definition of what constitutes a no-kill community, it is generally considered to be a place where at least 90 percent of dogs and cats at local shelters are put up for adoption.

For their part, officials at PETA, which has its headquarters and only shelter in Norfolk, Va., say the animals it rescues are in such bad shape from mistreatment and neglect that they are often better off dead than living in misery on the streets or with abusive owners.

“It’s nice for people who’ve never worked in a shelter to have this idealistic view that every animal can be saved,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s vice president for cruelty investigations. “They don’t see what awful physical and emotional pain these poor dogs and cats suffer.”

Over the past 30 years, PETA has run highly publicized campaigns targeting corporations for the way they treat animals, taking aim at Ringling Brothers (circus elephants), McDonald’s (chickens) and General Motors (test crash pigs). Their annual “We’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign, featuring nude models, is a public relations legend.

But lately the protester is being protested; PETA has become the No. 1 target among supporters of no-kill shelters. At the annual conference at George Washington, being held next weekend, seminars focus on ways to challenge PETA’s policies. Nathan Winograd, a leading no-kill activist, criticized PETA on his blog recently for “its long and sordid tradition of undermining the movement to end shelter killing.”

When Kate Hurley, the director of shelter medicine at the University of California, Davis, first heard about the no-kill movement 20 years ago, she agreed with PETA. She believed that no-kill was an unachievable policy, and that shelters claiming such a distinction were taking only the animals most likely to be adopted and forcing other shelters to euthanize the castoffs. “I felt in many places it wasn’t no-kill; it was kill elsewhere,” she said.

But Hurley’s views have changed in recent years. Hurley has been impressed by shelters that have started to take stray cats that would have been euthanized and instead spayed or neutered them, vaccinated them for rabies and released them back where they were found. “If they came from an alley, they know how to live in an alley, and if they’re spayed, they’re not making new cats,” she said. “The pieces for no-kill are in place. We just need to spread the word and make sure shelters have the resources and know-how.”

Over the past decade, PETA has euthanized 1,045 to 1,942 cats a year at the shelter here.

At PETA headquarters, Nachminovitch led the way to a cinder-block building in the back and then to a windowless room where the dogs and cats are killed. It looked like a well-maintained examination room in a doctor’s office. There was clean bedding on a countertop where the dogs and cats are placed for the intravenous shot from a certified euthanasia technician.

“It’s a humane exit from a world that’s treated them like garbage,” said Nachminovitch, a vegan who does not use animal products. “It’s very sad, but in these cases, it’s the best we can hope for.”

Euthanization numbers

There are no national figures on the number of shelter animals adopted or euthanized each year, but several states keep records, as do a few private organizations. From that data the trend is clear: Adoptions are up, and euthanasia is down.

In California, for example, 176,900 dogs were euthanized in 2011, compared with 303,000 in 1997, when the state started keeping track. In that same period, adoptions have climbed to 137,700 from 84,000. In Virginia, PETA’s headquarters, 61,591 dogs and cats were euthanized last year, compared with 103,327 in 2004.