People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are usually referred to as an animal rights organisation. But this is a mistake. No animal rights organisation would euthanise 89% of animals at their own animal shelter. This is what PETA has been found guilty of doing at their shelter in Norfolk, Virginia. Of course, many animals which are turned in may be suffering to an extent which would justify euthanasia. However, PETA’s high euthanasia rate does not reflect this. Many of the animals are treatable and adoptable. Even Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, admits to killing animals that are adoptable. In an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos on the 2nd December 2008, when asked: “Do you euthanise those pets, the adoptable ones, if you get them?” Newkirk replies, “If we get them, if we cannot find them a home, absolutely.”
Furthermore, Nathan Winograd, author of Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of America’s Animal Shelters, argues that PETA’s claim of killing so many animals because they are unadoptable is a lie. As he has stated: “It is a lie because rescue groups and individuals have come forward stating that the animals they gave PETA were healthy and adoptable. It is a lie because testimony under oath in court from a veterinarian showed that PETA was given healthy and adoptable animals who were later found dead by PETA’s hands, their bodies unceremoniously thrown away in a supermarket dumpster.” Most dogs and cats are killed within the first 24 hours of their arrival to the shelter.
In response to accusations of hypocrisy, PETA said that they had no choice, that given the overpopulation issue and the inability to find homes for these abandoned animals, euthanasia was the only compassionate choice. PETA has argued that many of the animals are turned away by ‘no kill’ shelters and that these animals are often elderly, injured, diseased or aggressive. They say that their high euthanasia rate is an unfortunate but necessary statistic. The alternative would be to abandon these animals on the streets or keep them locked up in cages. Part of their solution to the overpopulation crisis is by offering a spay and neutering service to prevent unwanted cats and dogs from being born.
On the other hand, some will claim that spaying (removal of ovaries) and neutering (castration of the scrotum) is incompatible with the animal rights perspective; by harming and mutilating them in this way we reduce them to mere property. But it’s a tough call – spaying and neutering no doubt alleviates the overpopulation problem and reduces the number of homeless pets. We should also appreciate how emotionally distressing it must be for PETA employees to have to euthanise any animal. The lives of some animals are so bleak and miserable that a peaceful end to their suffering really is the only option.
However, others beg to differ. Given PETA’s $37 million annual budget, surely this money could be spent on achieving higher adoption rates, instead of radical and shocking publicity stunts. The highly sexualised advertisements and stunts involving barely dressed or naked women verge on the pornographic and could also be considered sexist since they involve the objectification of women. Moreover, using domestic violence against women in an advertisement, in a gimmicky and light-hearted way, is extremely inappropriate and insensitive. PETA has used violence against women in a number of their advertising campaigns and publicity stunts. It is a very questionable marketing tactic.
An article in the Huffington Post tells of one pit bull, Maple, who was lost by its owner, Ken Foster. The two were eventually reunited, but if they weren’t, Maple would have been sitting on death row in one of PETA’s approved shelters. Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, has publicly stated that PETA supports an ‘automatic kill’ policy when it comes to pit bulls. It’s understandable that the organisation wants to prevent aggressive animals harming humans, but not all pit bulls are aggressive; Maple certainly wasn’t. Furthermore, many pit bulls are aggressive because they have been abused. We wouldn’t euthanise all aggressive infants who suffered abuse from their parents. Usually, it’s not the breed of the dog that is to blame for its violent behaviour, but the owner’s mistreatment, neglect and abuse of the animal.
A true animal rights organisation would oppose the use of animals categorically, including euthanising them for your own convenience. Part of the problem with PETA comes down to the organisation’s prolific nature – like many other big charity organisations, they are sometimes more concerned with promotional activities (such as advertising celebrity supporters) than they are with the actual cause. Another part of the problem with PETA comes down to the philosophy underpinning the organisation – the philosophy of animal welfare.
This philosophical position says that animals can still be slaughtered, used in scientific experiments and in commercial activities (in zoos, circuses, sports etc.). Animals can still be treated as property, so long as harm and suffering are minimised. The animal welfare position is usually opposed to the animal rights position. Some claim that increasing concern for the welfare of animals – the animal welfare movement in action – is a sign that we are gradually abolishing our use of animals altogether. The animal rights philosopher, Gary Francione, on the other hand, believes that these minor improvements in an animal’s life are a futile attempt to use animals in an ethical way.
These attempts are just as futile as an attempt to improve the conditions of human slaves or to promote ‘humane’ forms of child abuse or rape. Francione opines that the animal welfare movement is just as inconsistent and unjustifiable as a slavery welfare movement, a child abuse welfare movement or a rape welfare movement. Slavery, abuse and rape of any human are inherently wrong and cannot be justified by reducing the victim’s suffering. Slavery should always be abolished – it can never be ‘improved’. Similarly, Francione argues, the treatment of a sentient animal as a commodity is wrong in itself. It makes no sense to say that the well-being of an animal is taken into account when they are being killed, tested on or used for human entertainment. The very act of treating them as property automatically means that their well-being is ignored. The concept of ‘humane meat’ or ‘humane eggs’ is oxymoronic, according to Francione. ‘Happy exploitation’ is considered a contradiction. It is perhaps an attempt to make us comfortable with animal exploitation.
In a previous post, I examined why organic free-range animal products are a myth. Animals in ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ conditions are tortured and suffer in many of the same unimaginable ways as non-organically fed and non-free range animals. But to see the dark side of the animal welfare movement in action, look no further than the following examples. Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a label which is stuck on to all meat, egg and dairy products that come from “farm animals raised to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards”. But this is quite misleading.
As this rare footage shows, meat products will deserve an AWA label even when the animals (pigs in this case) have been gassed to death with CO2. This footage supports the claim that ‘humane slaughter’ is a myth and makes it difficult to trust ‘welfare labels’ on animal products. These labels are deceptive – they only serve to make the abolitionist approach more difficult to realise. They give consumers the false impression that buying products with these labels means that they are making an ethical choice. What they are is a marketing tool. Since these companies realise that there is a demand for ‘compassionate meat’, they are willing to provide a superficial proof of this compassion (with a label), whilst continuing to exploit animals. (For more on so-called ‘humane’ farming practices, check out this article.)
A letter from 17 animal advocacy groups, signed by the philosopher Peter Singer, endorses Whole Foods’ adoption of Farm Animal Compassionate Standards. While the intentions of these groups may be noble, this approval of ‘happy exploitation’ promotes the idea that the use and killing of animals is morally acceptable, so long as it is done in a specific way. This is counter-productive to the animal rights movement. Whole Foods have since used this letter and their ‘Compassionate Standards’ for PR and as a marketing tool. There’s no doubt that Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey saw these ‘welfare labels’ as a great way to charge double for the same quantity of meat.
Whole Foods now offers a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standard, backed by the Global Animal Partnership. However, if you visit the Global Animal Partnership website, you can see that step 5 and step 5+ are standards only provided by a handful of farms. Although conditions for Steps 1-5+ are probably better than factory farm conditions, there is no doubt that these animals will still suffer and be tortured on a daily basis. After all, is it possible to really care for these animals whilst trying to transport them, house them and kill them in massive numbers?
Another example of the animal welfare movement’s dark side is their support of cruel organisations. PETA agreed with KFC Canada’s decision to introduce the least cruel method of bird slaughter available – gassing them to death. But as you have seen already from the previous footage of gassing pigs, the cries and frantic behaviour of the animal suggests that there is nothing humane about gassing. PETA was “thrilled to announce” this as a “historic new animal welfare plan”; as well as using phrases such as “enormous victory” and “historic victory!” PETA then agreed to end their boycott against the Canadian division of KFC.
PETA compared this gassing method (CAD – controlled atmosphere killing) with traditional slaughter methods (electric stunning) and concluded that CAD is preferable from an ethical, environmental and economic standpoint. The Humane Society of the United States has also backed CAD for its economic benefits and likelihood to increase the quality of the meat. As Francione stresses, PETA sometimes cares more about brand image and publicity than they do about animals. As he puts it:
Indeed, this is the modus operandi of the modern animal movement: identify practices that are not economically efficient and that are in the process of being changed by industry anyway. Launch a campaign to bring about what would happen in the natural course of events, declare victory, and fundraise. That is exactly what is happening here.