This year, at the close of business on December 31rst, and by no later than midnight on January 31rst of 2014, Virginia animal shelters will be required by the state to prepare their closing entries for the 2013 reporting year and submit their final accounting of animals, their “animal reporting summaries,” to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Every animal taken into custody by a Virginia animal releasing agency becomes part of the state’s public record; each private and municipal shelter within the state is required to account for the origins and disposition of the animals it receives during any given year. At the beginning of each year, VDACS has a pretty good idea of how many animals entered Virginia animal shelters the previous reporting period, and how many were returned to their guardians, transferred to other facilities, placed in permanent adoptive homes or euthanized, and how many remain on-hand awaiting their fates in the new year.
And of the 212,000 or so shelter animals who are immortalized annually on the VDACS website, none have come under more scrutiny than the 2,000 or so who are served every year in the small, specialized animal shelter at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Norfolk headquarters.
The controversy isn’t accidental; every spring since 2005, as predictably as flowering perennials break through Norfolk’s cool sandy soil, before the electronic ink has even set on the VDACS Animal Reporting Record webpage, gut-grabbing headlines such as “PETA Refuses to Close Shelter of Horrors, Kills 89.4% of Adoptable Dogs and Cats in Its Care” have emerged to color public opinion with regards to what the animal rights group might be doing inside its shelter.
The business of making PETA’s shelter practices controversial is quite literally a business--one that’s earned its architect, Richard Berman, a $3 million-dollar mansion and all the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle. The “PETA Kills Animals” franchise is a working limb of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry front group whose mission is “protecting the rights of consumers” as they pertain to the financial interests of the tobacco, food, and beverage industries.
In May of 2005, with the intention of mitigating PETA’s impact on corporate bottom lines, the Center for Consumer Freedom launched the “petakillsanimals.com” website, a carefully crafted composite of PETA’s 2004 VDACS animal reporting summary and an array of intentionally stark, red, uncomfortable graphics claiming that the animal rights group had “killed” 87.2% of the animals it received into its shelter that year. This year the Center for Consumer Freedom published the following statement on its anti-PETA website:
For the 14th year in a row, PETA leaders have shown yet again they don’t care about the unlucky dogs and cats that come to its shelter for help,” said J. Justin Wilson, CCF Senior Research Analyst. “The animal rights group is talking out of both sides of its mouth – on one side preaching its animal liberation agenda, while on the other signing the death warrant of over 89 percent of pets in its care. It’s beyond hypocritical.”
Interestingly, as much as the Center for Consumer Freedom’s case against PETA seems to hinge on convincing the public that the animals PETA euthanizes in its shelter are healthy, adoptable, and “unlucky,” there’s actually no indication, as far as the state’s concerned, that any of them are, or that PETA isn’t acting in the animals’ best interests.
“That is correct,” Virginia State Veterinarian, Dr. Dan Kovich, DVM, MPH, explained during our interview earlier this month, when I noted that there doesn’t appear to be any data on the VDACS animal reporting summaries regarding the adoptability of the animals euthanized in either private or municipal animal shelters. “Remember, the state considers each of the three methods of disposition--adoption, transfer, and euthanasia, to be equal under the law, so there is no data collected as to whether the animals euthanized in shelters are adoptable or aren’t,” Dr. Kovich added.
When I asked Dr. Kovich what in his opinion makes PETA’s shelter unique, he explained that as far as he’s concerned, all of Virginia’s animal shelters are unique, in that each of them face their own set of challenges and have unique ways of meeting those challenges. According to Daphna Nachminovitch, Senior Vice President of PETA’s Cruelty Investigations department, PETA’s shelter is an extension of the work their Community Animal Project division is performing, and though PETA’s shelter does perform many of the same duties traditional shelters perform, it’s just not a traditional animal shelter. She went on to describe what sets PETA's specialized facility apart from traditional animal shelters:
Many things make our shelter unique: among them our gorgeous animal guest rooms with their couches and views, our stringent adoption guidelines (we do home visits and veterinary record checks), and our wide geographical service area, which allows us to focus on animals who live in poverty, are chained outside, are kept outdoors in all weather, have never been housebroken, and are unloved and unwanted, as well as those for whom no other services are available. Most of all, we don't shy away from accepting animals who have been rejected by other shelters because they aren't adoptable and would upset their euthanasia figures."-Daphna Nachminovitch
And indeed PETA’s shelter is unique. The primary purpose of PETA's small Norfolk animal facility is to meet the specific individual needs of animals who require PETA's assistance, not to attract and find homes for adoptable animals. Most of the animals who enter PETA's physical facility require humane euthanasia for a current crisis of illness, injury, or emotional devastation, but that doesn't mean that the individual needs of the relatively few adoptable animals PETA receives aren't being taken into consideration and appropriately met. PETA does have adoption protocols in place, despite the fact that it's not a traditional animal shelter. Adoptable animals who are not found immediate placement in adoptive or foster homes by PETA are transferred to the Virginia Beach SPCA, and other high-traffic/high-adoption shelters in their area.
Though their euthanasia practices receive a lot of attention, “Humane, veterinarian-supervised euthanasia is just one of the services PETA provides community animals,” Ms. Nachminovitch stated during our recent interview. Through its Community Animal Project, PETA identifies at-risk animals in impoverished communities, engaging both the animals and their guardians to build long-term relationships that improve the animals’ lives. Once an at-risk animal is identified by PETA’s CAP staff, “PETA works with that animal and his guardian for as long as necessary to make sure the animal has the best possible quality of life, and sometimes the relationship lasts over the span of many years,” Nachminovitch explained.
According to Ms. Nachminovitch, a major component of PETA’s community outreach work is providing free and low-cost spay and neuter services to the public by way of three mobile medical clinics. Spay and neuter services--including transport to and from the clinics for qualifying clients-- are provided at no cost to CAP animals, but no one is turned away because they cannot afford the clinic’s low fees, she explains. Statistically, guardians are more likely to surrender unaltered animals to shelters than animals who have been spayed or neutered. PETA has spayed and neutered almost 96,000 animals so far in free and low-cost clinics.
PETA employs a full-time veterinarian who, with the help of support staff, provides community-based spay and neuter services via these mobile clinics. This veterinarian usually oversees medical services provided through PETA’s Community Animal Project, including examining and treating animals that PETA receives who may have other medical issues.
Some of the animals received through the PETA’s Community Animal Project mobile spay and neuter clinics require other types of “quality of life” surgical intervention, which PETA provides for free or at a low cost. Recently, a CAP animal who had been hit by a car received a leg amputation through one of PETA’s mobile clinics. The black pit bull’s guardian couldn’t afford the $1,000 fee quoted by a local veterinarian, and he asked PETA for help.
The leg was dangling and gangrenous, and the dog needed immediate help,” Ms. Nachminovitch began. “I set aside nine spay and neuter appointments that day--which I of course hated to do--but allowing this animal to suffer was just not an option. She was in a good home, and her only other alternative at that point would’ve been euthanasia.”
The animal’s guardian was able to contribute $100 towards the procedure.
PETA’s mobile clinics are equipped to handle a lot of medical issues, but because PETA isn’t a full-service veterinary clinic, PETA works closely with several independent veterinarians who provide services and treatments that fall outside of PETA’s clinic’s capabilities. An independent veterinarian oversees the euthanasia services performed at PETA’s Norfolk shelter.
When I asked Ms. Nachminovitch if it was PETA’s practice to underwrite the veterinary expenses of the community in general, she replied, “PETA won’t pay a large vet bill, although we do frequently work with guardians who need a little financial help, and who are otherwise providing good homes for their companion animals.” Nachminovitch went on to say that as much as PETA would love to help every person who requests financial help for their animal companions, it’s the legal responsibility of animal guardians to provide veterinary care for their animals, not PETA’s.
And Ms. Nachminovitch is right. Under Virginia state law, not attending to the suffering of one’s companion animals is considered to be a class 4 misdemeanor. A second offense is a class 2 misdemeanor, and is punishable by a term of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. But while the law requires guardians to take responsibility for their animals’ suffering, according to State Veterinarian, Dr. Kovich, Virginia animal shelters are not required to offer the service of owner-requested humane euthanasia to the public. And as it turns out, very few shelters in the Hampton Roads area do.
“It’s a problem,” explains Virginia Beach SPCA director, Sharon Q. Adams. “Hampton Roads residents support municipal shelters through tax funding, sometimes paying into the system for ten or more years and never utilizing a shelter’s services. Then when it comes time to address the needs of their own suffering animals, shelters just aren’t there for them.”
As pressure mounts for Virginia shelters to decrease their overall euthanasia rates, the Virginia Beach SPCA is one of only a few shelters that still provide low-cost, owner-requested humane euthanasia as a service to the Hampton Roads community.
Though veterinarians may still offer the service of owner-requested euthanasia to the public, the fees are simply out of reach for many Hampton Roads citizens. The average cost of veterinarian-provided euthanasia in the area is $25 per pound of animal body weight, not including additional costs for cremation services. Affordable Veterinarian Services of Virginia’s fees start at $295 for the procedure itself, with an additional fee of $132 for their cremation service.
Dr. Kovich acknowledges the gap. “There are several communities that are underserved by veterinarians, or don’t have access to a veterinarian at all,” Kovich stated during our interview. “Shelters that offer owner-requested euthanasia are providing a valuable service to the community,” he explained.
As a service to the community, PETA provides owner-requested humane euthanasia, and cremation, at no charge. Which might explain why the small euthanasia room at their Norfolk headquarters is so well-attended by the public. PETA staff is always on-call to handle after-hours emergencies, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, nights, weekends and holidays. PETA's service can be accessed by calling PETA's Norfolk headquarters (757-622-PETA), and following the user-friendly prompts.
The thousands of animals PETA serves in their communities aren't listed on PETA's VDACS animal reporting summaries, because PETA never takes legal custody of the animals.