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Animal Behavior

When the Ethical Treatment of Animals Goes Wrong

Is killing 95 percent of animals entrusted to a shelter ethical?

Could it be true that in an animal shelter run by a society dedicated to the ethical treatment of animals, the percentage of animals killed is nearly 95 percent, while their percentage of animals successfully adopted out is less than 1 percent?

I recently wrote an article (The Politics of Pet Dogs and Kennel Crates) which was inspired by half-page newspaper advertisements being run by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). These ads advocated banning the use of kennel crates for dogs. When I could find no scientific evidence suggesting that the use of kennel crates was harmful, I turned to PETA’s website, and much to my surprise I found that they offered no evidence of harm. In addition what I found to be most distressing is that the organization seems to have an agenda oriented against the keeping of animals as pets at all.

Following the publication of that article, my mailbox was filled with numerous messages, copies of documents and URLs linking to articles and news reports all suggesting that I had missed several much more important points about PETA’s activities.

I must admit that since I am not particularly politically active or engaged in animal “causes” other than supporting the SPCA and various humane societies, I knew little about PETA. I was aware of some of their high-profile activities against animal research. I also knew about their campaign against the use of animal fur in garments, mainly because their ads featuring a nude Pamela Anderson or Kim Basinger behind a banner reading "we'd rather go naked than wear furs" is bound to catch the attention of any male (even an old one like me). I also knew about their free spay and neutering program, which I feel is a valuable public service. However, many of the documents that filled my mailbox dealt with another aspect of PETA’s activities.

PETA was founded in March 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk (currently its president) and a fellow animal rights activist, Alex Pacheco. Its headquarters are in Norfolk, Virginia, and it is from the state of Virginia that many of the complaints about PETA came to me. Most of these had to do with PETA’s animal shelter, which is housed there. Many messages contained documents that were obtained from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) through freedom of information requests, and much the same information can be found on the VDACS website.

In Virginia all animal shelters must report the number of cats and dogs they take in each year, how many animals were reclaimed by their owners, adopted out, transferred to other agencies, died of natural causes, were euthanized (killed), and how many the shelter held alive at the end of the calendar year. My correspondents suggested that the proportion of animals being killed by PETA was extremely high and was causing public concern in Virginia.

I verified the various reports that I had received against the official records from the VDACS, then did the following simple set of calculations. For the last five years I added the number of dogs and cats euthanized and divided by the total number of dogs and cats taken in (excluding those held only for sterilization surgery, which were classified as “other” by the VDACS prior to 2010). This gave me the percentage of dogs and cats PETA killed in a given year. The results appear in the table below.

dog cat canine feline PETA euthanize kill shelter adopt

The official records indicate that nearly 95 percent of the animals taken in by the shelter are killed and less than 1 percent are adopted. I found this result to be quite distressing. So did the ABC television station WVEC, channel 13, in nearby Hampton Roads, Virginia. In 2011 the TV station engaged in some investigative journalism. They compared PETA’s euthanasia rates with other area animal control departments, shelters, SPCAs, and humane societies that have open admission policies for animals.

All had lower euthanasia rates. The rates were: 26 percent at Portsmouth Humane Society; 40 percent at Virginia Beach Animal Control; 50 percent at Peninsula SPCA; 46 percent at Norfolk City Animal Control; 1 percent at Norfolk SPCA; 29 percent at Hampton Animal Control; 32 percent at Isle of Wight Animal Control; 68 percent at James City County Animal Control (Williamsburg), and 58 percent at Chesapeake City Animal Control and Pound.

Such statistics triggered a complaint to Virginia’s Agriculture Department and VDACS then commissioned Dr. Daniel Kovich to investigate and conduct an inspection of PETA’s headquarters. In his final report he noted “The facility does not contain sufficient animal enclosures to routinely house the number of animals annually reported as taken into custody.”

Dr. Kovich went on to conclude that PETA’s “primary purpose is not to find permanent adoptive homes for animals.” He also determined that PETA employees kill 84 percent of the animals in their custody within 24 hours of receiving them—even though most are healthy and not showing any behavioral problems. Inquiries about how and if PETA attempts to actually find people that might want to adopt the animals that they received were not answered.

I believe that any rational person is left with the obvious question, “How can an organization that is supposedly dedicated to the ethical treatment of animals justify killing all but 5 percent of the animals entrusted to their shelter, with the vast majority of these executed within 24 hours of their admission—well before they can be assessed or any attempts made to find adoptive homes for them?”

Perhaps the best answer comes from Ingrid Newkirk herself. In an interview with Newsday in February 1988, she said, “In the end, I think it would be lovely if we stopped this whole notion of pets altogether.”

Apparently Newkirk believes that one way to help achieve this “lovely” outcome is to destroy virtually all of the animals placed in PETA’s care before they can be adopted and become well-loved pets in any family’s home.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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