There was a time when I was a True Believer and a very good little soldier, I did what I was told to do, when I was told to do it. I didn’t question orders and if I did it was never to the face of the one giving them. Then, one stormy and snowy evening, I stopped by an abandoned house to check on a dog I’d been feeding and caring for. I pulled up in front of the home and saw him huddled on the open porch, under cover as much as his short chain would allow, his thick fur encrusted in ice. In that moment I made the decision to unchain him and usher him into my van and, unlike past days when he’d been slightly timid and unwilling to trust me completely, he followed me. I rubbed him with towels to dry his soaked fur, wrapped him in blankets to warm him, fed him dog treats, stroked his head. What followed is one of the great regrets of my life, one I can barely bring myself to write about. Back in a warehouse later that night I held his big head in my lap and whispered soothing mantras in his ear while a colleague of mine injected him with the chemical that would take his life, and he quietly slipped away. I don’t regret taking him, he would probably have frozen to death if I’d left him there. I regret being a good soldier, I regret following orders, I regret not listening to my heart, I regret not fighting for Black Boy. That was his name, this dog who’d been kept on a chain for his entire life in the yard of an abandoned house, never given affection, fed barely enough to sustain him. He’d been bought by the son of the woman who lived next door to the abandoned house for “protection.” She was terrified of him, she threw his food at him because she wouldn’t go near him. At first glance he was intimidating — a big black German Shepard mix who’d only known life on a chain and who was, understandably, protective of his space. But something about him had captured me. I spent time with him, a lot of time, and this is how he came to trust me enough to let me whisk him away on the night that ended up with him dead and me broken.
As a field worker for People for the Ethical Treatment of animals one of my duties was to visit various houses and check on dogs who were kept outside, mostly chained, many without shelter. Some were stuck in the yard for “protection.” Some were dogs who had started as cute puppies, needing training that never came, and ended with them chained to a metal stake in a plot of dirt. These dogs led lives of solitude and neglect, often severe neglect. Laws, and enforcement of those laws, were so lacking that very little could be done to help them. If I and my colleagues didn’t feed them, they often didn’t eat. If we didn’t give them houses then they slept in the dirt — exposed to the sun, rain, and snow. If we didn’t put straw in those houses they went without bedding. Often, without us, they went without any kind of companionship but, despite it all, these dogs were social sparks of light, wanting only to love and be loved. The situation was most dire in Portsmouth, Virginia, specifically a neighborhood called Fairwood Homes.
Fairwood Homes was a development full of tiny, decrepit homes that lacked central heat. The houses were originally intended to be temporary but someone had seen dollar signs and purchased the development to turn it into low-income housing. Fairwood Homes became a place full of people who had nowhere else to go. I spent a lot of time there, and the surrounding neighborhoods, getting to know people, educating them on the benefits of spaying and neutering, vaccinating, proper nutrition, and the importance of socialization for dogs. But I had very few resources and not a lot of support from PETA to focus on education, my focus was supposed to be on triage. My time was spread thin as, in addition to working in Portsmouth, I had to answer calls from all over the Hampton Roads area — to help with feral cats, investigate animal cruelty and neglect, answer calls about dog fighting, and provide transportation for our spay/neuter program from homes to local vets and back again. I worked from early in the morning until well past dark, I neglected my marriage and myself but I felt I was doing important work, and I was good at it. My first performance review earned me a raise and accolades from Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA and my direct supervisor. I was blind to the already developing cracks in my own seams.
In the beginning, I wanted to adopt out the majority of animals I brought in, and sometimes I neglected to report when I picked up an animal; in doing so I could bring them to a local shelter because the alternative was euthanasia at PETA. I was not yet a True Believer. Even after I became a True Believer there were certain animals, animals I knew I could easily place, for whom I requested an adoption green light. A few times I was successful in my requests, but I had to fight hard for each adoption and, increasingly, I encountered great resistance. I heard phrases like “a waste of resources” and “not adoptable,” my desire to save each animal was belittled as naive and trivial, I was told that I was missing the bigger picture. I remember one day bringing a tiny white dog into Ingrid’s office to tell her I wanted to adopt her out, not euthanize her. She rolled her eyes and asked why that dog was any more worthy than any of the countless other animals in shelters waiting for a home. I told her she was an adoptable dog — small, social, sweet, could be placed with very little trouble. After sarcastically berating me, with a smile on her face, she turned to a man in her office and asked what he thought, he said she was very cute. She sighed and said something along the lines of “fine, do what you want.” So I found her a home. The perspective I brought to PETA was that of an animal shelter worker. I’d been taught that, as an animal advocate and rescuer, I was duty bound to believe very few animals were beyond hope. While we needed to balance our limited resources, animals who came to us at least deserved a chance. This was not the philosophy I encountered at PETA, at least not from the leadership.
I was treading water in Fairwood Homes and other areas where I worked. More and more I was euthanizing all the animals I brought in, and I could never bring in enough animals, or work enough hours, to please Ingrid. I worked mainly on my own because there were only a few field workers in total and the need was overwhelming. Some of the work was dangerous, especially for a woman alone. I have been surrounded by groups of young men who accused me of stealing their pit bulls (I hadn’t), chased in my van through a swamp by hunters because I was documenting the conditions under which their hunting dogs were kept, chased by packs of feral dogs, pinned against a wall by a man who threatened me. I asked Ingrid for a phone that worked properly (my mobile phone was ancient and worked sporadically), and to be allowed to carry mace. She refused both requests. Eric was becoming increasingly concerned about my safety, I reassured him that I was fine, believing my own bravado. Physically I was fine, emotionally my cracks were spreading.
An equally overworked and emotionally frustrated colleague and I decided we would ask Ingrid if we could open a small shelter near Fairwood Homes, it would operate not only as a shelter but also a place we could vaccinate animals and educate the people in the neighborhood, it would give us a central base. Because, let me be clear, there was no shelter at PETA when I was there. What was referred to as the “shelter” was a large, empty storage closet across from our office. The only other holding facility we had was in the warehouse, where the animals were euthanized. And when I did use the room across from my office as a holding area for animals Ingrid would ask why I hadn’t already euthanized them, one time nailing me to the wall because the litter of puppies I’d placed in there for a night had pooped everywhere. I was told to euthanize the puppies immediately. Needless to say, Ingrid refused our request for a shelter — waste of resources, not the aim of the program, animals beyond hope, same old same old. I saw the opening of a shelter as a chance to make a real difference in an area where the animals so desperately needed help. And a lot of the people there were good folks, but they were treating animals the way they’d been raised to treat them, they didn’t know a different kind of life for a dog. They needed education and assistance, and the children needed to see empathy, compassion, and responsibility or nothing was going to change. I was gutted. I was also exhausted from the constant uphill battle I was fighting, I was tired of euthanizing animals I wanted to save, I was rapidly burning out.
And on that night, sitting on the cold warehouse floor, holding Black Boy and sobbing into his wet fur I broke, completely cracked open. I realized I had strayed far from my own belief system, and if I continued to walk the road I was on I would become a fanatic out of necessity, because it had to be done in order to survive the life I was living. I sobbed for Black Boy, for the life he could have had if I hadn’t lost my way. I was right to steal him, I was wrong to be complicit in his death, and, to this day, a part of me hates myself for that.
I began keeping sane work hours, which didn’t go unnoticed by Ingrid. I became a bit of a rogue in the field, no longer following protocol, bringing in fewer animals, skipping calls I felt were only excuses for me to berate someone. One day I took part in a meeting about the “allocation of resources” for our program. Ingrid announced that, in order to cut costs, we would no longer be paying to have male pit bulls neutered, we would only pay to have females spayed. She asked for feedback, which I knew she did not really want but I spoke up anyway. I told her that neutering was a necessity, without it the male dogs would be vulnerable to being used as fighting dogs. She maintained we didn’t have the funds for it. I told her that we had to find the funds, we didn’t have a choice. No, the decision was made and we would no longer pay for neutering. I took a deep breathe, looked at my friend and colleague who was seated across the table from me who had fixed me with a “don’t do it” stare. I took a deep breath, and told Ingrid that if we discontinued the neutering program in the particular area where my focus was then we would be as guilty of perpetuating the cruelty of dog fighting as those who were fighting the dogs, and that the suffering and death of each dog lost to a fight would be on our hands. The meeting ended.
A few weeks later I was given a letter of dismissal from the woman who had started out as my assistant but had since become my supervisor, her promotion happened around the time I’d stopped being such a good little soldier. Not cut out for a job in animal rescue, best of luck, effective immediately. I was told to clean out my desk and leave. I was upset, not because I’d been fired because I’d seen that as inevitable, and I was grateful for it. I was upset because, contrary to the excuse they’d invented in order to fire me, I was good at my job, what I was no longer good at was following orders that I knew were immoral. While I was packing my desk two men came into my office to “escort” me out of the building. As I picked up my box of belongings one of them wrapped his fingers around my arm, the subtle threat of force was not lost on me. I responded to his grasp with “don’t you fucking touch me” while shooting him with the same glare that had saved me from gang members and hunters. I left PETA that day, still broken, full of regret, burned out, but solid in the belief that I was back on my path and I needed to make amends.
It has taken me years to write about my experiences at PETA, the closest I ever came was this blog, where I addressed some of what I’m writing about now but in far less detail. Part of me needs this catharsis, but what made me finally decide to write about this was the bill that just passed in the Virginia Senate and is on its way to the House. Yesterday was the first I’d heard of the bill but I’m glad I did because I think it’s a necessary one. The bill would prevent PETA from killing the majority of the animals it brings in, which would be a very good thing because, unless things have changed drastically at PETA since my time there, and I doubt they have, they are responsible for the deaths of far more animals than they are disclosing, and they have no problem lying about numbers. And, while I’m hopeful that this bill would make a difference, I am also skeptical at how effective it would be because I know from first hand experience that the PETA leadership has no problem lying. I was told regularly to not enter animals into the log, or to euthanize off site in order to prevent animals from even entering the building. I was told regularly to greatly overestimate the weight of animals whose euthanasia we recorded in order to account for what would have otherwise been missing “blue juice” (the chemical used to euthanize), because that allowed us to euthanize animals off the books. I was told regularly to say whatever I had to say in order to get people to surrender animals to me, lying was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. I am not a PETA hater, I agree with many of the things they fight for, even if I think their methods often detract from their objectives. My own feeling is that PETA should be completely barred from taking animals into its facility, and from legally obtaining the drugs needed to euthanize — that is the only way to minimize the killing. I believe they should be allowed to continue to work in the field, out in the open, but that anything behind closed doors is dangerous.
My intention in writing this is not to be vindictive, or to lash out, or to absolve myself from responsibility. I was an adult when I worked there, I made the decision to follow orders, nobody forced me into it. I eventually allowed myself to buy into what I was being sold — the belief that the numbers were so overwhelming that euthanasia was the only option for the vast majority of animals we brought in, the belief that the animals were too broken to be helped, and the belief that it was okay to lie and create stories in order to get the work done. It wasn’t okay, the ends did not justify the means, the ends weren’t even the ends we should have been working towards. As strange as it feels to believe it, because I worked constantly, the philosophy that I operated under at PETA, the philosophy that I believe they still operate under, was lazy, and it betrayed the animals we were supposed to be helping.
I know that euthanasia, at this point, is a necessary evil but the solution that PETA has decided upon, the killing of the vast majority of the animals it takes in, not to mention the killing of animals whose existence is never recorded, is not the answer. And I really would encourage anyone who is wanting to donate to animals to look at organizations other than PETA. There are so many who are doing remarkable, peaceful work, and they do it with a much smaller budget. PETA, at least in the way it involves itself with companion animals locally, is not what it seems and my belief is that it never will be. I maintain what I wrote in my previous blog about PETA; working with animals who have been neglected, abused, betrayed, given up on, isn’t about bailing water out of a sinking ship, it’s about finding solutions, educating, building relationships, and fighting for animals. It’s about saving animals, first and foremost, and that is not done by killing the vast majority that you take in. The work of animal rescue, while exhausting and emotionally difficult, is a privilege. It is a privilege to work on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf of animals who want nothing more that to be a part of a family, to be near us, to spend their days with us, to give us unconditional love. Contrary to what PETA maintains, the majority of animals it takes in are not beyond hope, in my experience many would be considered highly adoptable by a shelter. The “better off dead” line is one that is dragged out in order to excuse what they do — and it’s a lie.
This is the most difficult blog entry I’ve ever written, even in this moment I’m not sure I’ll press the publish button. And I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to forgive myself for allowing myself for straying so far from the things that I know are right. So I guess I’m kind of looking at this as another way to make amends, especially to Black Boy who, in a very real way, saved me. I’d spent many hours over the course of months with him, it took a long time for him to trust me because he’d only ever known cruelty and neglect. In the end what I did is something unforgivable, I allowed myself to walk a path that I knew in my heart was wrong, I should have fought harder for him, I shouldn’t have followed orders and protocol and all the other shit I’d swallowed hook line and sinker. And all the shit I willingly drank down, and what it led me to do, is something I’ll never be able to cleanse myself of. That’s just a fact. But I hope by writing this, and by writing the truth about what I experienced at PETA, at least some people will open their eyes to what really happens behind its closed doors.