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.
'We never turn an animal away'
PETA's many critics have described the group's kill rates as "shocking" and unnecessary.
Robin Robertson Starr, chief executive officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Richmond, Virginia, told HuffPost in March that it was "very troubling" for PETA to continually repeat the claim that "old, sick and injured animals" couldn't find adoptive homes.
"Older animals are still very adoptable and age should not be seen as an impediment to adoption efforts," Starr said. "It certainly is not at the Richmond SPCA, where we take in many senior pets and adopt them to lasting and loving homes."
The Virginia legislature and governor seemed to share that view, passing and signing SB 1381 this spring over PETA's objections. A few months later, Nachminovitch wrote her email to the state senator, in which she cited PETA's record of taking in "aggressive, dying, feral, diseased, and otherwise unadoptable animals."
"We never turn an animal away," Nachminovitch wrote. "Of course our disposition outcome statistics are different from those of a private animal shelter that rejects animals precisely because they are unadoptable or difficult to place."
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has the authority to interpret and implement SB 1381. The law's sponsors predict that the legislation will force PETA to reduce its killing and increase its efforts to find homes for its animals.
"To an organization like PETA, whose average kill rate of companion animals taken into its 'shelter' exceeds 90 percent, this bill posed a threat," wrote the bill's sponsor, Virginia state Sen. Bill Stanley (R), in an opinion column in March. "PETA does not operate a private animal shelter 'for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals.'"
The law was supposed to go into effect on July 1, but VDACS is still drafting "guidance documents." In an email last week, spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm told HuffPost to "check back" in three months on the status of the law.
Meanwhile, in Texas
While PETA is tight-lipped about its euthanasia practices, many other shelters readily share this information.
"Shelters are entrusted to care for the lost, stray, abandoned and abused animals," Steffen Baldwin, executive director for Top of Ohio Pet Shelter, a private shelter in rural Ohio, told HuffPost in an email. "Any shelter that hides how that care is provided, including end of life decisions, is doing a disservice not only to the animals in their care, but to the sources of the funds to provide said care, as well as the public at large -- who trust our facilities and our staff to do right by each animal that comes through our doors."
Many shelters simply post their behavioral and medical evaluation procedures online. Some also spoke with HuffPost directly.
The Washington Humane Society is D.C.'s municipal shelter. Like PETA, WHS has an open-admission policy, meaning that it will take in any animal. As with PETA, this means WHS accepts many animals that have been rejected by smaller or limited-admission shelters -- "animals that other groups won't or can't" take in, as Stephanie Shain, the group's chief operating officer, put it.
In 2014, WHS had a "live release rate" of 86.53 percent, meaning that more than 4 in every 5 animals left the shelter alive -- generally because they were adopted or reunited with their owners, or because an animal rescue group found a foster home for the animal and assumed care of it.
Shain said that at WHS, before any decisions are made about euthanasia, animals receive a physical and behavioral evaluation. Animals with medical and behavioral issues "routinely" receive treatment, she said, including some with hard-to-treat conditions.
Some animals found to have terminal or untreatable illnesses may get to live in an end-of-life foster home, where they will receive hospice care.
"These are for animals who aren't suffering but who have a condition that can't be treated," Shain said. "Those animals won't likely be adopted, but we want the end of their life to be in a home and well cared for."
But not every animal is saved.
"We do euthanize animals who have behavior problems we do not feel can be safely addressed or who have medical conditions that are beyond our ability to remedy," Shain said.
Baldwin's organization, Top of Ohio Pet Shelter, was similarly forthcoming when asked about its policies and procedures.
Baldwin said that his shelter takes in every stray dog, but not every cat, and not every dog given up by an owner. Last year, TOPS had a live release rate of over 90 percent.
The animals that didn't make it were thoroughly evaluated before euthanasia was even considered as an option, Baldwin told HuffPost. Each of these animals received a medical exam performed by a veterinarian, as well as a formal behavioral evaluation akin to the ones developed by the ASPCA, supplemented with observations from shelter staff and volunteers.
If it is determined that "the animal is suffering beyond the point where medical care can end that suffering, or when the animal’s behavior is unsafe for us to place into the public and rehabilitation efforts with a reputable rescue have been exhausted," the animal will be put down, Baldwin said.
The Austin Animal Center -- an open-admission city shelter in Austin, Texas, that takes in some 18,000 animals each year -- describes a similarly process. The shelter is known for maintaining a live release rate of at least 90 percent (though the office of the city auditor found earlier this year that AAC will need more resources to maintain that rate without overcrowding at the shelter).
Kristen Auerbach, deputy chief animal services officer at AAC, said that "animals receive initial and ongoing medical and behavioral assessments. We save the vast majority of animals that come into our shelter ... The only animals that are euthanized are ill and suffering with a poor prognosis or are unsafe to adopt."
Both AAC and WHS will euthanize an animal if the owner comes in and asks for it. But neither facility will do this without first conducting an exam.
"When we have a pet surrendered for euthanasia, it is always examined by our vets prior to being euthanized to make sure the animal is suffering and truly needs to be euthanized," Auerbach said. "We do not euthanize animals just because an owner requests they be euthanized."
In March, a reporter from Religion News Services visited the PETA shelter in Norfolk, as Virginia was considering SB 1381 and as PETA was on a campaign to stop the legislation.
The reporter, Lauren Markoe, saw the shelter's euthanasia room and seemed impressed with it, ending her story with these observations:
The euthanasia clinic is on the ground floor. There is one small room, softly lit by a standing lamp. A poster is mounted above the padded surgical table where the animals receive their lethal injections. It shows three dogs that PETA staff have cared for, and reads:
“This room is Sacred Territory. Leave your stress and troubles at the door. In here, only the animals we serve matter. For them, your gentle touch and kind words are likely their first and their last.”
But if PETA's euthanasia room itself is dark and quiet, the path that leads to that room could use a bit more light.
"If PETA is truly operating a private shelter, as they claim and as defined under Virginia law, then they owe the public an explanation of the medical standards and veterinary analysis they apply before euthanizing a supposedly sick or injured animal," said Starr, the CEO of the Richmond SPCA. "If they are in fact a euthanasia facility rather than a shelter, then they should acknowledge that honestly and not seek to come under the private shelter regulations."
Last year, incidentally, VDACS data shows that the Richmond SPCA took in 2,189 cats and 1,670 dogs. Starr says many came in with bad illnesses or injuries. Each animal was given thorough medical evaluations, and, where needed, veterinary care.
Seven of the dogs and one of the cats were euthanized.
Hilary Hanson contributed reporting.
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