PETA, the sanctimonious, paint-flinging organization that showed us its vegetable dicks and ruined Valentine’s Day is catching some flack for its reluctance to move to a “no kill” shelter model amid a groundswell of no-kill support from animal rights advocates. How can the same group that criticizes a child celebrity for naming her chicken “Nugget” be so behind the curve when it comes protecting the dignity of animal life? According to PETA, its refusal to fully adopt the no-kill model doesn’t spring from a secret loathing of slatternly tortoiseshell cats that keep having kittens out of wedlock — PETA shelters shy away from no-kill policies out of an abiding sense of pragmatism.
The New York Times chronicles the outrage amongst animal rights advocates who see PETA’s no-kill holdout as particularly distressing, given recent evidence that suggests no-kill shelters aren’t simply kill-somewhere-else-shelters. The PETA shelter in Norfolk, Virginia, for example, kills an average of 2,000 dogs and cats per year, and does relatively few adoptions, giving away a mere 19 dogs and cats in 2012, and 24 in 2011. In New York, the no-kill movement has dramatically reduced (from 31,701 in 2003 to 8,252 last year) the number of dogs and cats being euthanized, but PETA hasn’t been part of the push for New York to become a no-kill community, something Matthew Bershadker, the president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, thinks can happen by 2015.
Ah, but what, exactly, constitutes a no-kill community? Is it a place where all domesticated animals have achieved immortality, walking through the city like deathless demigods, a terrible sense of immortal haughtiness gradually turning them into gluttons for whom no table scrap is quite satisfactory? Is it a place where even the ugliest and meanest of cats can find a loving family of responsible pet owners who don’t mind a little cat pee in their laundry? Not exactly, though a no-kill community could be either or both of those things.
Nobody can quite agree on what a no-kill community is, though most animal rights advocates agree that a community where at least 90 percent of dogs and cats are put up for adoption has, for all practical purposes, achieved no-kill status (in the first quarter of 2013, 84 percent of rescue and shelter dogs and cats in New York were adopted, transferred, or returned to their owners, compared with 76 percent for all of 2012). The no-kill trend, the Times explains, is catching on in communities around the country, and though no broad national data exists on how many pets are adopted or euthanized, state records can help fill in the picture:
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. Here in Virginia, 61,591 dogs and cats were euthanized last year, compared with 103,327 in 2004.
Out the Front Door, a blog that tracks no-kill communities, lists 161 that currently meet the 90 percent save rate; in 2001, there was just one, Tompkins County in upstate New York.
PETA’s critics have called the organization’s refusal to adopt a no-kill policy “outdated,” and even former no-kill skeptics such as Kate Hurley, the director of shelter medicine at the University of California, Davis, have come around, suggesting that some practical problems of shelter overcrowding can be solved by curbing the spread of diseases such as feline upper respiratory infection that drain shelter resources. Shelters have also grown more proactive about adoptions, and no-kill advocates insist that even those least toothsome creatures can find good homes.
That’s all fine, says PETA, but no-kill policies ignore the ugly realities of abused, neglected, and abandoned animals. According to Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s vice president for cruelty investigations, people who criticize PETA’s refusal to go no-kill are glossing over the grim fact that, for a whole lot of animals, life is extremely painful, and, for a whole lot of shelters, resources are extremely limited. Nachminovitch told the Times,
It’s nice for people who’ve never worked in a shelter to have this idealistic view that every animal can be saved. They don’t see what awful physical and emotional pain these poor dogs and cats suffer.
PETA, though, is often the loudest, most sensationalist voice when it comes to the mistreatment of animals, often opting for a full finger-wag in the face of relatively minor (though high-profile) instances of animal cruelty. Maybe even with financial incentives for pet adoptions (the well-heeled Maddie’s Fund, a foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area with a $300 million endowment, pays shelters a reward for each pet that’s adopted), no-kill policies are just impractical for poorer communities with an abundance of stray animals and a dearth of resources. Euthanasia, in those cases, might still be the most humane option, but PETA’s willingness to decry every single B-list celebrity for wearing fur or for naming a pet after a fast-food meat product makes the organization an easy target for charges of sanctimony and outright hypocrisy.
Image via AP, Eric Gay