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“Humane” Goals: Are Animal Rights and Welfare Groups Hurting or Helping?

By Richard Console on May 9, 2013

Amid accusations that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) kills massive numbers of adoptable animals each year instead of finding homes for the dogs and cats, it’s now worth wondering whether some of these organizations are doing more harm than good to the animal welfare cause.

The issue made headlines in April 2013 when Nathan J. Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, wrote a special exposé for The Huffington Post alleging that PETA euthanizes thousands of dogs and cats each year without giving them a chance to be adopted – some within minutes of receiving the animal. “Approximately 2,000 animals pass through PETA’s front door every year and very few make it out alive,” the article read. “The vast majority – 96 percent in 2011 – exit the facility out the back door after they have been killed.” According to the source, these animals weren’t euthanized because they were in pain. They weren’t sick or even elderly. In fact, in certain cases, veterinarians had deemed these animals “adoptable” and “healthy,” and they had reached out to the non-profit corporation for the specific purpose of finding these pets a loving home.

Cat Sick

Many animal lovers and animal welfare organizations respect the decision to humanely euthanize an animal (whether a well-loved pet or a stray, abused, or neglected animal) that is sick or injured beyond recovery, especially if the animal is suffering. The concern is whether PETA is killing animals that could be saved and adopted. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

“PETA prefers to spend donations, apparently, not caring for flesh-and- blood animals entrusted to it but on campaigns attacking medical researchers, meat-eaters or women wearing furs. It is as if PETA prefers the idea of animals to animals themselves,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Gate news site back in 2005, after a controversy in which evidence linked PETA employees to the killing of animals. “Why does PETA kill animals that might otherwise find a home?”

Why We Can’t All Just Get Along

PETA is, of course, firing back at accusers – but not in any way you might expect, where grand revelations of the truth clear the organization’s name. The truth, in fact, is every bit as grim as it sounds in the article in The Huffington Post. “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals acknowledged Wednesday that it did euthanize 95% of the animals at a shelter at its headquarters last year,” USA Today reported. “But it defended the practice and said accusations that ‘PETA kills animals’ are being made by a group representing ‘animal exploiters who kill millions of animals every year.’”

Instead, PETA put their time, energy, and substantial funds (the corporation takes in $35,000,000 per year, The Huffington Post reported) into making this video of no-kill shelter staff across the country essentially explaining that their shelters are full to capacity or even overcrowded, and that they can no longer accept any additional animals. Some shelters had months-long waiting lists. The point, PETA argues, is that even “no kill” shelters don’t have the capacity to hold all of the animals in need of homes and must turn them away to shelters that do kill.

Sanctuary Cats in Cubes

In No Kill sanctuaries and shelters, like Rikki’s Refuge, every spot is often full because animals that are not adopted right away live out their lives in the facility, being cared for by shelter workers and volunteers. These facilities do a world of good for the animals they help, but resources are limited, and they can’t help everyone. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Is the PETA video factual? I have no doubt. Overcrowding, if not overpopulation, is often a problem in shelters. But I think the bigger question here, the most important question, is why is this relevant?

Unfortunately for animal lovers everywhere and for the general public, the debate here exemplifies a problem that exists within the field of animal rights and welfare. When organizations that most people believe are similar don’t actually have the same goals, is it any wonder that they can’t get along? Rather than addressing the problem of overcrowding or the reason behind euthanizing animals without any attempt to find a home, these animal (fill-in-the-blank) organizations would rather throw up smokescreens, arguing over who is more hypocritical.

Abused dog

Shouldn’t we all be more concerned about how to help abused animals like this dog than about which animal rights/welfare organization is best or who is the most hypocritical? With veterinary care and a loving home, this dog recovered – and so could many others. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

There’s probably not an easy, short-term solution to the overcrowding problem, but killing animals on the spot isn’t exactly the “humane” answer that animal lovers everywhere are seeking. In some ways, when I hear the voices in PETA staff’s video making the point that even no-kill shelters must allow some animals to be killed, I have the impulse to say, “So what?” Are they actually arguing that if all animals cannot be saved, no animals should be saved? That makes about as much sense as saying that we’re all going to die someday, so life – human life, animals’ lives, all life – is irrelevant, period. Not a great standpoint for an animal rights organization to take.

The Trouble of Trust

This isn’t the first time that PETA has faced accusations of animal cruelty, but the news still shocks readers every time. Perhaps it’s because we as a society trust PETA not to harm animals, even if we disagree with some of their radical viewpoints and publicity stunts. Yet the accusations keep coming.

For those of us who aren’t in the inner circles of animal welfare and rights organizations, we don’t know who to trust. Go to PETA’s website, and you’ll see cute, sometimes sad animals, accompanied by sensationalized headlines and celebrities posing for awareness. You’ll believe (or want to believe) that the organization doesn’t kill animals

Dog Street Injured Tail

Images of sad dogs like this one are typical fixtures on animal welfare marketing materials – but is the organization trying to help these animals find homes, or just raise awareness of the issue? Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

PETAkillsanimals.com makes some bold claims against PETA, and the site has some pretty condemning evidence to back up their accusations, including photographs and inspection reports. The problem is that PETAkillsanimals.com is run by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that comprises restaurants and food manufacturing companies that have every reason to discredit PETA, regardless of whether or not the euthanasia claims are true. Even the journalist behind the exposé in The Huffington Post isn’t objective, being involved with the No Kill Advocacy Center. “There appears to be bad blood between PETA and the No Kill Advocacy Center – and Winograd, specifically – but it is unclear if and how the conflict goes deeper than disagreements about how to control animal overpopulation,” wrote the International Business Times. In fact, Winograd and PETA frequently write blog posts and articles condemning each other’s practices, and he has also publicly criticized the practices of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

“PETA and Humane Society attacked by reports – but are they real?” read an aptly-titled article on the topic in The Washington Post. While the article is full of statistics and quotes, it never reaches a definitive answer. Instead, it just undermines the credibility of virtually every party involved in the controversy.

Nobody’s Right If Everybody’s Wrong

I’ve made the case before that animal cruelty is a public health concern, and that it affects all of us. When we run into this situation where animal rights and animal welfare groups are so divided that they seem to spend more time smearing each other’s reputations than actually helping animals, it’s not just a problem of politics and power. The movement has let down the general public and animals everywhere. They say there are three sides to every story (yours, mine, and the truth), but in this case, I honestly don’t care who is “right.”

Injured Kitten with Neck Cone

In some ways, all of this attention on various organizations actually takes attention away from the real issue – protecting animals like this poor abused kitten. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

I’m not discouraging you from supporting PETA, the Humane Society, the ASPCA, or any other organization you choose. I don’t have the answers. Does PETA have a “good” reason for their euthanasia rates? I wish I knew. Is the Center for Consumer Freedom twisting numbers simply to push an agenda? They wouldn’t announce it, if so. What does the Humane Society do with their fundraising money? Whatever they want, basically. Why has the ASPCA allegedly killed animals that other rescue organizations offered to accept? In each case, I suspect that the real truth, whatever that may be, is buried so far below press statements, public relations campaigns, and mudslinging attacks that those of us who aren’t part of the in-crowd will never know the answers.

Sad dog in cage

It’s true that being caged up for years probably isn’t much of a life – but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for stray, abandoned, neglected, or abused animals to find homes. If they are healthy enough to recover, these animals deserve a chance to be adopted. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

I do, however, have a suggestion for animal lovers everywhere. Before you let the sad puppy eyes on a heartbreaking commercial or the next outrageous publicity stunt force you into opening up your wallet, find out first what your money is actually going to. If you want to contribute to awareness campaigns, then by all means, do so. If you want to find a loving forever home for an abandoned pet, skip the politics and consider supporting your local animal shelter, instead. Whether you contribute money, time, or materials, you can see the real results of your donation and know for sure that you’re helping the cause that you chose. A misleading non-profit can be just as unscrupulous as a for-profit company, and there’s nothing charitable about deceiving caring people into funding causes that are at odds with what they truly believe. When that poorly-defined cause leads to the needless killing of animals, it’s not just a matter of morality, but a threat to safety that impacts our communities and our families.

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