PETA campaigners at Seoul fashion week.
Peta, the animal rights group for which celebrities like Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford have stripped off, is under fire for putting down animals at its US headquarters.
Ricky Gervais has recently backed one of :Peta’s campaigns and other vociferous advocates among its 128,000 members and backers in Britain and Europe include Sadie Frost, Naomi Campbell and Sir Paul McCartney. Its headline-grabbing stunts have made it one of the most formidable global lobbyists against the exploitation of animals.
But now Peta – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – is itself on the receiving end of angry words over its own treatment of animals after it emerged that the organisation put down 96 per cent of the animals handed into its American headquarters. Of 2,216 animals taken to its premises in Norfolk, Virginia, last year, 2,124 were put to sleep – almost six per day. Homes were found for just seven.
The high-profile charity, famous for its “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaigns, has euthanised more than 20,000 pets in the last decade, according to figures it has supplied to Virginia state officials.
Peta insists that homes could not be found for the dogs and cats, usually because they were in such poor health or because they were “unsocialised” and aggressive, usually because of bad treatment by their owners.
But the organisation, which does not run its own animal adoption programme and does not accept animals into its care elsewhere, admitted to The Sunday Telegraph that some treatable and adoptable animals were also among those killed by lethal injection.
“We are doing the dirty work that others won’t,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, vice-president for cruelty investigations. “We are proud to be a shelter of last resort that takes in old broken animals and gives them a humane end.
“America is facing an epidemic of overpopulation. Six to eight million unwanted pets are turned in to shelters each year and half of them have to be euthanised. Our euthanasia programme is no secret.
“It’s a societal problem. We’re not going to turn our backs on these animals just so that our figures look good. We’re not saying that all the animals we euthanise are suffering from incurable conditions. But overpopulation is a crisis. It’s a matter of actually finding a good home.”
Now critics of the group are accusing it of being more interested in using its $32 million annual budget to fund its campaigns against the fur and meat industries than helping the cats and dogs in its backyard.
“Many people who contribute to Peta’s funds will be very disturbed to learn that their money is going towards killing animals,” said David Martosko, director of research at the US-based Centre for Consumer Freedom (CCF).
“It’s inconceivable that Peta is taking in only the least, last and lost of the animal kingdom. The odds that Peta is only receiving unadoptable animals are about the same as me winning the lottery and being struck by lightning on the same day. The reality is that Peta has no interest in trying to find homes for unwanted animals as they want to use their money to fund their political campaigns.”
A spokesman for its UK and European headquarters in London said the non-profit making organisation, which is not registered as a charity, raised almost £2 million on this side of the Atlantic last year. It does not attempt to look after animals directly in Europe – or, indeed, in America outside Virginia, where it runs a neutering programme.
The CCF last week released the latest Peta euthanasia figures it had obtained from the state of Virginia. The centre receives funds from companies involved in every aspect of the food business, from farm to fork, and Peta dismisses its long-term foe as a “front” for industry opponents.
Chrissie Hynde, former lead singer of The Pretenders and a Peta supporter, said: “It’s curious that the meat and tobacco industries, who destroy innumerable human lives with their ‘goods’, and billions of animals producing them, try to incite public outrage by throwing stones at a charity who’s very existence is to promote the welfare of animals and offer to put suffering animals out of their misery.”
But some animal rights activists who support “no kill” policies for abandoned and stray animals are also fiercely critical of Peta’s euthanasia programme.
Dave Shishkoff of the Friends of Animals pressure group claimed that he saw perfectly-healthy looking puppies and kittens killed at Peta when he worked there as an intern in 1991.
“Peta has a perverse definition of euthanasia – one that apparently demands that any animal with the slightest discomfort ought to be killed,” he said.
“The vast majority of the animals Peta kills are far from terminal or suffering from incurable conditions. Peta claims to have a $30 million annual budget, yet cannot find home for about 2,000 cats and dogs each year. Not with $30 million dollars, or millions of members and huge lists of email addresses. Literally an armful of cats and dogs somehow survive Peta’s ‘rescues’ each year.”
Ms Nachminovitch rejected the criticisms. “If people contact us with pets they want to have adopted, we refer them to other agencies,” she said. “The animals that end up with us are the dogs that have lived life on a chain, never been touched by humans, completely unable to socialise, and have terrible injuries.”
As well as the 2,124 animals that were put down, she said that Peta spayed, neutered and treated another 8,000 dogs and cats last year – a key element of its campaign against animal overpopulation.
Peta president Ingrid Newkirk explained the group’s position in a moving blog on the group’s website, entitled “Why we euthanise”, accompanied by pictures revealing the terrible condition of some animals it took in. But in a recent Canadian television interview, when the questioner pushed her on whether Peta euthanised adoptable animals, she acknowledged: “If we get them and cannot find them a home, absolutely.”
Peta has amassed a battery of celebrity supporters, including adoring pet-owners such as the actresses Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson. The Sunday Telegraph contacted representatives for all of them about Peta’s policy of euthanising nearly every animal handed in to them, but they either declined to comment or did not respond.
Peta is best-known for its anti-fur campaigns featuring naked models and actors. But it has consistently courted controversy with its uncompromising campaigns.
Germany’s highest court last month ruled that a Peta advertisement comparing animal slaughterhouses to the Holocaust was an offence against human dignity. The campaign had depicted images of factory farms next to Jewish concentration camp inmates and the slogan “Holocaust on your plate”.
Last year, a campaign aimed at children – “Your Mommy Kills Animals” – featured a graphic cartoon image of a woman in pearls and apron ripping apart a rabbit with a knife for fur. And eyebrows were raised when the group urged Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to replace cow’s milk with human breast milk in their products.
Patrick Holden, director of UK organic farming body the Soil Association, said: “The difficulty for Peta is that where animals are kept as pets or farm animals, their eventual death is inevitable.
“The moral question for society is whether we have a right to take the life of animals. Some say we do not, and I respect that, but we have a different position: if an animal life is taken, we have an obligation to respect and look after the animal during its life to the highest standards.
“Perhaps this is an example of how, in the real world, it is impossible to escape the responsibility that one sometimes has to take the life of an animal. There is an apparent contradiction in Peta’s philosophy.”