Prudence the rabbit, now about six months old, was jammed into a filthy crate and exposed to bitter cold. She is now up for adoption at PETA's animal shelter in Norfolk, Vir. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

At PETA's shelter, most animals are put down. PETA calls them mercy killings.

Prudence the rabbit, now about six months old, was jammed into a filthy crate and exposed to bitter cold. She is now up for adoption at PETA's animal shelter in Norfolk, Vir. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Prudence the rabbit, now about 6 months old, was jammed into a filthy crate and exposed to bitter cold. She is now up for adoption at PETA's animal shelter in Norfolk, Va. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

NORFOLK, Va. (RNS) Prudence the bunny nibbles on organic greens, listens to classical music and hops about on soft blankets in a sweet-smelling space larger than many college dorm rooms.

She shares her “guest room” with no other animal, though staff at the headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, working in the adjacent office, visit frequently to cuddle her.

Here on the banks of the Elizabeth River, you could say PETA runs the Waldorf Astoria of animal shelters.

But that same facility also euthanized more than 80 percent of the animals in its care last year, a rate so shockingly high that Virginia lawmakers passed a bill in February -- nearly unanimously -- to define a private animal shelter as a place where the primary mission is to find permanent homes for animals in this life, not send them on to the next.

The bill, its sponsor made clear, is designed to protect animals and rein in PETA.

PETA? The group that doesn’t want you to eat turkey at Thanksgiving -- or any animal ever? The same PETA that wants to free circus animals and pushed the Vatican to "give peas a chance" by going vegan and to strip the leather seats out of the popemobile?

“It’s sanctimonious to say they are lovers of animals,” said Republican state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., the lead sponsor of the bill, who has never been to the PETA shelter but said it's clear it doesn't do much sheltering. "It's a way station of death, and it's a shame."

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has until March 29 to sign or veto the bill -- or send it back to be amended.

PETA is more widely known for its edgy protests and media campaigns to draw attention to animal suffering than for this riverside shelter, and some in the animal welfare community deem the group too radical. The high euthanasia rate at its shelter, the only one it operates, seems to many to run counter to its mission.

Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s senior vice president and head of its cruelty investigations unit, does not dispute that the vast majority of the thousands of animals in PETA custody each year are euthanized.

PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch with Soupster, a dog rescued by PETA that will go to a permanent home. Photo courtesy of PETA

PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch with Soupster, a dog rescued by PETA that will go to a permanent home. Photo courtesy of PETA

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In 2014, according to its own records, it took in 3,017 animals, about 1 percent of the total number brought to Virginia public and private shelters. Of those, PETA euthanized 2,455, or 81 percent. In some prior years, that rate has risen above 90 percent.

Statewide, 210,599 animals wound up in Virginia animal shelters last year, according statistics compiled by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Less than a quarter -- 49,302, to be exact -- were euthanized.

The statistics, Nachminovitch said, have been twisted to demonize PETA, focusing attention on the tragic symptom of euthanasia instead of the root of the problem: millions of unwanted animals who suffer neglect and cruelty.

"You can count animals, but they're not numbers," she said. "And there are many fates worse than euthanasia."

PETA puts a high proportion of animals down, Nachminovitch explains, because it ministers to those that many other shelters turn away, often because of the shelters' "no kill" policies.

PETA staff will drive more than 100 miles beyond Norfolk, at any time and in any weather, to help animals that are gravely ill, infested with parasites or too aggressive ever to be adopted, she said.

And PETA doesn't care if the animal in need is a dog or a cat or a chicken or a rat, Nachminovitch continued. It doesn't matter if the owner can't or won't pay for the services. More than 500 of the animals it euthanized last year were brought in by owners who wanted to end their elderly or suffering pet's pain, she said, but couldn't afford the vet's fee.

But even for many who appreciate PETA's free and low-cost veterinary care, its mobile spay-and-neuter clinics or the hundreds of dog houses it gives to owners who insist on leaving their pets outside in bad weather, the euthanasia rate seems high.

Paul Waldau, a professor at Canisius College who studies and writes about religion and animal rights, said it makes sense that people who care about animals hold conflicting views of PETA, given both its dedication to animal welfare and the many thousands it has put to death.

"There's a certain plausibility to the line they're taking," said Waldau. "If you take the very worst problems that others can't solve,  your rate of putting dogs down is going to be much higher than anybody's who has taken on the simple problems, the easy ones, the golden retrievers of life."

PETA's headquarters along the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Vir. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

PETA's headquarters along the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Va. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But PETA's euthanasia rate "is such an ugly number," Waldau continued. "We should also be welcoming people who say, 'Can't we find a way to kill fewer?'"

A spokesman at the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal welfare group in the nation, said it would not comment on PETA's euthanasia rate or the bill in the Virginia Legislature. The Humane Society's statement on euthanasia supports the practice as a last resort.

PETA -- honored by many in the animal welfare community and many Hollywood celebrities -- has never won over mainstream America. It's the animal welfare group many people love to hate, perhaps because it’s not just for animals, but against many of the things people like do with animals, such as eating them for dinner and confining them in zoos.

"I don't think anybody likes the idea that they might need to change their behavior," said Nachminovitch. "We provoke people to think about their daily choices: what they eat, what they wear, where they get their entertainment. It's human nature not to want to feel sad or guilty."

The room where PETA euthanizes animals inside headquarters along the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Vir. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

The room where PETA euthanizes animals inside headquarters along the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Va. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The group's reputation wasn't helped last October after news broke that PETA had taken a healthy Chihuahua from its owner's porch on Virginia's Eastern Shore and euthanized it. Nachminovitch said PETA was "devastated" by the mistake, and she drove to the owner's home and personally, tearfully, apologized. The employee was fired for what Nachminovitch said was a breach of PETA rules. But the dog's death was also a violation of state law, and Virginia fined PETA $500.

Stanley, the sponsor of the bill that could make it difficult for PETA to continue to run its shelter, has used the Chihuahua's death to question the organization's motives. He also talks about the four dogs he adopted, some with serious health problems, and wonders -- most recently in an op-ed in a major Virginia newspaper -- whether PETA understands that even sick and old animals deserve a chance to live.

"When I was a young man, my father told me that God put cats and dogs on this Earth as a reminder of the traits we should all aspire to have as human beings: perfect love, loyalty and forgiveness," he wrote in The Virginian-Pilot. "It is our obligation to care for them, love them, and above all else, do our level best to protect them."

It's great that Stanley adopted dogs in need of a home, Nachminovitch responded. "But there are millions more."

Last year, PETA transferred 353 pets to shelters that have larger adoption programs, and it placed 162 animals in permanent homes, its records show. It sent about 100 to foster homes.

Prudence the rabbit, who stays in one of the five cushy animal "guest rooms" that comprise PETA's shelter on the fourth floor of its headquarters, is going to be one of the lucky ones. Most of the time, PETA houses 10 or fewer pets awaiting adoption.

On a recent day, the shelter hosted Prudence, two 10-week-old puppies, a more mature dog, two cats enjoying an elaborate climbing post, and four sleeping rats. An outdoor dog park along the river provides a place to exercise.

In the adjacent offices, three cats, permanent residents of PETA headquarters, nap in desk drawers lined with flannel.

The euthanasia clinic is on the ground floor. There is one small room, softly lit by a standing lamp. A poster is mounted above the padded surgical table where the animals receive their lethal injections. It shows three dogs that PETA staff have cared for, and reads:

"This room is Sacred Territory. Leave your stress and troubles at the door. In here, only the animals we serve matter. For them, your gentle touch and kind words are likely their first and their last."



  1. That rate of 80% was just too sad is that?

  2. I work at a college of veterinary medicine in the south, and our students operate a major relocation project for shelter animals. Shelters in our region often are filled to capacity and do not have the funds to keep animals indefinitely if they are not adopted. However, to decrease the number that have to be euthanized, our students drive animals to shelters in the Northeastern U.S., which do not have enough animals to satisfy demand. I understand that this wouldn’t work for all of PETA’s animals since many are sick or very old, but it is very surprising that they are not trying something like this for some of the animals. My real problem with PETA, however, is their opposition to use of animals in biomedical research. Virtually every drug developed in the last 40 years depended on animal testing to prevent release of toxic drugs. Cell cultures and other methods are not reliable enough yet to replace animals.

  3. I eat beef, pork, chicken and tuna. I hunt venison. I fish Colorado streams. I fight with my cat and she with me. But I appreciate that PETA is attempting to address pet problems, both by adoption and sadly, ending the lives of adoptable pets. At times they have offended me with their attitudes but I believe they are part of an educational process that we can all benefit from; to realize that there can be ethical treatment of animals, that too many people take on pets and do not follow through, and that at times, animals deserve to be freed from pain in disease and old age. PETA can be part of the problem through their judgment but also part of the solution through their educational efforts. Neither of these makes them hipocrites in my book.

  4. Wanting to believe that “no-kill” is the answer is understandable, but turning a blind eye to the reality of these facilities is not. No-kill means SLOW-KILL. Dogs and cats need love, attention, play and to be part of a family … not sitting in cages waiting for a home that does not exist. It’s that simple. I applaud PETA for doing the heartbreaking, thankless work and those who are condemning them are in profound denial about the scope and scale of this crisis.

  5. Bless PETA for stepping up to help animals in their community who are suffering and have nowhere else to go—even when the kindest thing that can be done for many of these animals is a painless end through euthanasia.
    PETA takes in dogs who are aggressive and unadoptable because they have been kept chained their entire lives; feral cats with contagious diseases; animals who are wracked with cancer; elderly animals who have no quality of life and whose desperate guardians brought them to PETA because they can’t afford to pay a vet to euthanize them; and the list goes on.

    PETA pours its time and money into stopping animal homelessness at its source. Last year alone, they spayed and neutered nearly 11,000 dogs and cats at little to no cost to their guardians, preventing countless animals from being born only to end up homeless. They deliver warm, straw-filled doghouses to chained dogs; provide free vet care; educate the public about the need to spay, neuter and more.

  6. Thank you for this fair look at PETA – they do a lot of good that is often overshadowed by their euthanasia numbers. While it is sad to end any animal’s life (at a shelter or in a slaughterhouse), people have to understand that until we have ‘no birth’ we cannot have ‘no kill’.

  7. I work at a college of veterinary medicine, and our students (with money from their own pockets and local fundraisers) take shelter animals from our area, where there are more animals than people willing to adopt them and transport them to the northeastern U.S. where demand is greater than supply. They save dozens of animals each year by taking the trouble to spend some of their rare vacation time driving dogs more than 1000 miles to give them a chance to live. It would seem that PETA, an organization that seems to be dripping with money, could find a way to do something similar and at least make an effort to decrease their euthanasia rate. However, PETA’s real problem is that it’s members and followers are morally inconsistent. They do not want animals used in medical research, so they should refuse all medical treatments developed using animals (which is almost all medical treatments).

  8. I knew about–and supported–PETA’s policy on euthanasia long before I joined. No one can blame PETA or responsible animal shelters for doing society’s dirty work and euthanizing animals. There just aren’t enough homes, or even cages, for the millions of animals who wind up in shelters each year. Instead of pointing fingers at a group that works to help homeless animals by promoting spaying and neutering and shelter adoptions, please focus on breeders, pet stores, and people who buy animals and allow them to breed.

  9. I’m a huge proponent of quality of life over quantity of life & I strongly believe there’s a fate worse than death for some animals. But I have a hard time believing PETA encounters only the worst types of cases & with their budget are unable to save more of the animals they take in. PETA’s own site states “…we believe that it would have been in the animals’ best interests if the institution of “pet keeping” -i.e., breeding animals to be kept and regarded as “pets”- never existed.” Based on this belief, PETA shouldn’t be making decisions on who lives & who dies. It’s clear they think pets are better off dead than living with humans. This perspective likely has a lot to do with why their euthanasia rates are so high, which they typically justify by claims that they encounter only the most horrific cases.

  10. PETA are opposed to the very concept of pet ownership, so it makes sense that they would rather kill animals than place them in slavery to humans.

    You have to try to be empathetic and see things through other people’s perspective.

  11. Sen. Stanley wants to regulate PETA’s shelter without ever having laid eyes on it. I wish I could say this is an anomaly in Virginia politics…

  12. A shelter that the general public doesn’t know about. A shelter that if you go in ad ask the main floor about, you will be told there is no shelter. Officials were sent to the “shelter” not that long ago and it does not even meet the barest definitions of one.

    Seriously ask yourself when is the last time you have EVER heard of PETA hosting an adoption event?

    In no way shape or form will I support any organization that would be happy with the outright elimination of PETS as a part of our society. An organization that supports Breed specific legislation. Don’t care how you feel about VA politics, PETA is a sham run by a zealot and if you don’t believe me look at the things Ingrid herself has said.

    I am all for PETA having to play by the actual rules and not their own in the future.

  13. I’ve heard that there are efforts to have pet stores sell only ‘rescue pets’.

    What a great idea to help those kinds of animals find ‘forever homes’.

  14. PETA is just too radical to be of any service to society as a whole. Their ideology is too disturbingly weird and denies the reality of what a breeds and pets get out of life with their adopted family. Now, having said that, there should be laws about having to keep your pet until the very end and having the county you live in help with that. If a county is going to allow pet ownership, then there should be funds set aside to respectfully and with dignity, ends its life if that is the case.

    PETA shouldn’t be attacked for euthanizing the animals in their care. Even though I don’t support their mission, I’ll bet these animals they put down are treated with kindness and respect.

  15. I’ve seen this article almost word-for-word attributed to a number of authors. There is a trade group that represents the meat, fur, & pet industry that wrote it. I don’t always agree with PETA but in this case, they are simply dealing with a problem that pet owners caused, irresponsible breeding.
    By the way, I keep reading that there’s more demand for pets than supply in the northeast. I happen to know for a fact that many dogs & cats are being euthanized by city/ county shelters in the northeast. Pit bull mixes, which make up the vast majority of dogs at my local shelter, are euthanized on a regular basis.
    Rather than criticizing PETA, we should save our wrath for the idiots who don’t spay or neuter.

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