RICHMOND — Nothing is warm and fuzzy in the world of Virginia animal-welfare organizations this year as shelters attack each other over a seemingly slight tweak to the state code that some activists say could put a major shelter out of business.
At the heart of this fight is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and its record on euthanasia, which alarms other animal advocates.
PETA operates a large shelter at its headquarters in Norfolk, where every year the vast majority of cats and dogs taken in are euthanized. The shelter came under fire last fall after it euthanized a Chihuahua that was inexplicably snatched from its owner’s porch by a PETA contractor on the Eastern Shore.
So the timing was perfect for a bill put forward by Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) that has emerged from both houses of the state legislature and that defines a private animal shelter as “operating for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes.” Under the current code, that description is only one of several that can describe a shelter.
Supporters say the bill clarifies the law — but makes it harder for organizations such as PETA to euthanize animals without first trying to find them homes.
In 2014, according to state reports, PETA took in 2,631 cats and dogs. All but 307 were euthanized.
“It’s just impossible to consider that they are making an attempt to adopt out animals with that failure record,” said Debra Griggs of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies. The proposal codifies what “all shelters in Virginia are already doing — except for PETA.”
PETA supporters say the proposal is about something bigger. They say their opponents seized on the case of the Chihuahua to push a “no-kill” policy — avoiding euthanasia for abandoned animals under any circumstances — on all private shelters.
“When PETA retained me less than three weeks ago, I quickly discovered I was in the middle of a years-long battle between people who all love animals, all do what they think is best, all operate within state law, and still dislike each other,” lobbyist Stephen Haner wrote in an e-mail to House members. “But there is only one side of this battle that is seeking to impose its vision on the other.”
Haner’s e-mail is part of an aggressive, last-minute lobbying campaign to thwart a bill that he and others say could have far-reaching consequences.
The core of the debate is a philosophical disagreement about the most humane way to manage unwanted pets.
“The PETA screw-up came at a convenient time and is being used as a Trojan horse to ship the no-kill movement into Virginia,” said one longtime lobbyist on animal issues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while representing a group that is neutral on the bill.
A no-kill policy, if imposed on all shelters, would prompt “a retreat to 1850, where you drown them in the creek, shoot them in the head or just let them starve to death,” said Sharon Adams, who led the Virginia Beach SPCA for over 20 years. She works for the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters, which opposed the bill.
In addition to the bill, advocates of no-kill policies have asked state regulators for a rule requiring animal shelters to keep records of when, how and why each animal was taken in and when and why it was killed.
PETA would not comment on the pending legislation. On its Web site, PETA says it takes unadoptable animals that no other shelter wants and puts them out of their misery.
“Because of the high number of unwanted companion animals and the lack of good homes, sometimes the most humane thing that a shelter worker can do is give an animal a peaceful release,” the organization says. They lament that “this selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them . . . has created an overpopulation crisis.”
Such pronouncements have drawn accusations of animal cruelty. Critics question whether PETA, despite a radical, pro-animal outlook that encourages veganism and abhors zoos, cares about pets at all.
“They make no effort to get them adopted, and they are wild now at the suggestion that maybe they should even try,” Robin Starr, chief executive of the Richmond SPCA, wrote in a blog post. “They want no impediment to their killing. . . . PETA is a huge, rich, mean bully.”
Several shelter leaders say PETA’s objections to the proposed legislation and regulation are unfounded, although the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told lawmakers the bill could cause private shelters to stop taking in challenging animals. In that case, officials said, municipal shelters could be forced to deal with more strays.
“My colleagues in the state and the region don’t see this as a threat at all,” said Tawny Hammond, who leads Fairfax County’s animal shelter and views the bill as a “clarification” that won’t hurt any facility aiming to find most animals homes. “I don’t see this as dumping an undue burden on any organization and community.”
Besides ill pets that are euthanized at the request of their owners, she says, Fairfax has an adoption rate of more than 90 percent. As a public shelter, it can’t select which animals are taken in. Overall, a quarter of the animals taken in by Virginia county shelters last year were euthanized, a far lower rate than at PETA’s facility.
The legislation passed the Senate with only five dissenting votes and the House with only two. The bill was softened in the House to take out a line requiring shelters to“facilitat[e] other lifesaving outcomes” for abandoned animals.
“It does not change the essence of the bill,” said Stanley, who owns three rescue dogs and one rescue cat. “I think it’s important the public know that [the PETA facility] is not a private animal shelter that finds forever homes for these animals, but rather puts them down.”
The only point on which anyone agrees is that the issue has ripped apart a community that used to work together.
“There’s a lot of rancor,” said Dana Meeker, president of the SPCA of Northern Virginia. “There are other things we could have spent time on, but there was a lot of ill feeling towards that organization this year.”