Last year, the nonprofit group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals euthanized more than 2,000 dogs and cats at its sole U.S. shelter — and it’s not at all clear how it made the decision to do so.
The group has put down so many animals at its facility in Norfolk, Virginia, that in 2014 the state passed a law, SB 1381, that pointedly defined a private animal shelter as “a facility operated for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals.”
PETA lobbied against that bill, and in a July email released to the public last week, a senior executive at the animal rights group argued to a Virginia lawmaker that there was no need for the legislation to exist at all.
“We have always found permanent adoptive homes for our adoptable animals, and will continue to do so,” wrote Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of PETA, in a July 24 email to Virginia state Sen. Frank Wagner (R). “No one disagrees that animal shelters — private and public — should have as a purpose finding permanent adoptive homes for adoptable animals. There is no need for a guidance document or additional regulations on this.” (Emphasis in the original.)
That PETA should have balked at increased regulatory attention comes as little surprise, given the group’s preference for opacity over transparency in certain matters — particularly the question of how it decides which animals to euthanize, and why it puts so many animals to death each year.
Self-reported statistics filed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services show that PETA’s Norfolk shelter took in 1,606 cats in 2014, of which 1,536 were euthanized. Dogs fared a little better — of the 1,025 taken in, 788 were euthanized.
PETA doesn’t dispute the figures. In fact, the group trumpeted them in a press release listing its 2014 accomplishments.
But PETA has not been so forthcoming about what policies or processes it uses, if any, when making the decision to euthanize. Since the group’s 2014 statistics were first reported in January, The Huffington Post has asked PETA multiple times for more information about how it actually determines which animals in its care will live and which will die. In each case, PETA has either declined to comment, failed to address the details of HuffPost’s questions or failed to respond at all.
PETA says its euthanasia figures reflect hundreds of humane killings, intended to end the suffering of animals who are — in the words of a January press release — “elderly, feral, sick, dying, aggressive, and otherwise unadoptable.” The group describes itself as a resource for animal owners of limited means.
“More than 500 [of these animals] were brought to PETA by destitute guardians desperate to alleviate their animals’ suffering and others who had been turned away by ‘no-kill’ facilities that reject unadoptable animals in order to keep ‘save rates’ high,” the release reads.
The group’s methods, however, are far from clear. There are few details available about how PETA workers reach the conclusion that a given animal is so aggressive, dying, feral or diseased that it can never be adopted. HuffPost has asked PETA whether it gives each animal a medical and behavioral exam, as is standard practice in many other shelters — and how such exams, if they take place, inform PETA’s decisions about euthanasia. The group has not provided that information.
HuffPost posed these questions to PETA again last week, after the publication of Nachminovitch’s letter. In response, Colleen O’Brien, the group’s senior director of communications, replied as follows:
Thank you for your e-mail. PETA has always served those in our community who have limited resources — including those who can’t afford veterinary care, even for euthanasia when their dogs and cats are suffering during old age or from sickness or injuries. We’re there to take in the aggressive or feral animals rejected by other shelters for being unadoptable. We do so without appointments, waiting lists, fees, or restricted hours. And we save hundreds of lives every single day by preventing future homelessness with our fleet of clinics that spay and neuter more than 10,000 animals a year at no or low cost — and close to 120,000 dogs and cats have been “fixed” so far in this area alone.
Please look closely at these links that I’m sending you — and at whom we take in. Many are the ones that shelters with “no-kill” policies reject, put on a waiting list, or do not want because they’re unadoptable. Please also watch PETA’s video about our rescue team, which explains our work in some of the most impoverished areas of Virginia and North Carolina. And please also have a look at an op-ed that appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, the local paper here, about this issue. Thank you.
“The organization can certainly be its own worst enemy,” reads the op-ed O’Brien cites, an unsigned editorial by the board of The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk newspaper. “But PETA does a job no one else wants. Some of the region’s other shelters have transitioned to ‘no kill’; they euthanize no more than 10 percent of their animals and charge fees to those who drop one off. PETA fills a role that has been abandoned by other organizations … The premise that PETA should simply be like other animal shelters and find homes for all the critters it takes in, regardless of their physical states, is unrealistic — and unwise from a public policy perspective. As long as people abandon or surrender their pets, as long as other shelters choose to turn away injured, aggressive or feral animals, there’ll be a need for PETA to do what it does.”
O’Brien did not respond to a request for further comment.