Case of cruelty, or compassion?

Public distaste for the practice of euthanizing unwanted dogs and cats has led many communities and shelters to adopt "no kill" policies. As a result, today almost half of such animals in the US live out their lives in adopted homes or in shelters, compared with just 12 percent 35 years ago.

But even as the trend swings toward no-kill, a debate has erupted among animal-rights groups about the merits - and possible dangers - of keeping "adoptable" animals alive at all costs.

In the middle of the controversy, not surprisingly, is PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a group whose in-your-face protests have sometimes flirted with illegality. Two PETA workers, employees at the group's headquarters in Norfolk, Va., were arrested last month on animal-cruelty charges, alleged to have euthanized dogs and cats they had picked up from area shelters. Police in Ahoskie, N.C. - just over the state line - say they watched the two move animals' bodies from a PETA van to a dumpster.

The case has stirred outrage among some local officials and animal-rights groups, who say they had entrusted PETA to find homes for the dogs and cats - not to euthanize them within the hour. PETA, for its part, has not commented on the June 15 arrests specifically, but it is not alone in arguing that euthanasia is more humane than conditions in overcrowded shelters.

The result is an increasingly hot war of words over animal-control policy in localities across the United States.

"One side is arguing for the ethical, philosophical concept that an animal deserves not to be euthanized just because at that particular moment it is unwanted," says Annette Rauch at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. "But every shelter has limited space, so when they adopt no-kill, they fill up. That leads us to the next question: What happens to the animals that get turned away?"

The debate is likely to intensify as more cities designate themselves "no kill" zones. Earlier this year New York set a goal to forgo animal euthanasia by 2015. Upstate, Tompkins County, which includes Ithaca, became America's first "adoption guaranteed" community about two years ago, meaning all shelters, organizations, and public agencies work together to promote adoption for healthy animals and to find lodging and care for unwanted or unhealthy animals.

"Organizations that do euthanize do not want to do that task. They do it because they do not think they have an alternative," says Rich Avanzino of Maddie's Fund, which pledged $16 million to help New York City achieve no-kill status.

PETA argues that while animals wait for homes or safe shelters tomorrow, they are suffering today. "We can't in good conscience oppose euthanasia as a means of overpopulation control when the alternative is animals being chained, deprived of companionship and exercise," says Daphna Nachminovitch, director of PETA's domestic animals issues and abuse department.

No-kill shelters often limit admission, adds Ms. Nachminovitch, leaving people little recourse but to abandon animals or take them to traditional shelters, where overcrowding can lead to discomfort and disease and where the least adoptable animals are often euthanized.

Even the adoptable animals don't always have a chance at a better life, says Kate Pullen of the Humane Society of the United States, which shares many of PETA's positions. "Just because an animal's considered adoptable and healthy doesn't mean there's a home for it," she says.

The two PETA workers, Adria Hinkle and Andrew Cook, are charged with eight counts of illegal disposal of animals and 31 felony charges for animal cruelty. Each animal-cruelty count could cost them up to 15 months in prison. As the pair await a probable cause hearing, set for mid-August, PETA is trying to draw the public to its side of the no-kill debate. It has posted pictures on its website of the shelters from which the animals were taken and has written a newspaper article in their defense.

Local officials in North Carolina say PETA was supposed to try to find homes for the 31 animals, and to euthanize only the unadoptable ones, in Norfolk. PETA says the shelters agreed to hand over unwanted animals to PETA for euthanization by lethal injection.

Animal control officers identified the cats and dogs as the ones Ms. Hinkle and Mr. Cook had picked up from local shelters and animal hospitals earlier that day, says Det. Jeremy Roberts, the arresting officer in Ahoskie.

Veterinarian Patrick Proctor of Ahoskie Animal Hospital, who had released a cat and two kittens to the PETA workers, says Hinkle told him they would be adopted. The hospital no longer entrusts its orphaned animals to PETA representatives, he says.

Northampton and Bertie counties in North Carolina have also cut ties with PETA. The group had agreed to assess each animal and its suitability for adoption before euthanizing it, says Sue Gay, Northampton County's health director. "The question is, did that occur?" she says.

The US currently has 5,000 traditional animal-control shelters and 1,000 adoption-guaranteed shelters, estimates Mr. Avanzino. By accepting euthanasia, he argues, people are giving up on alternatives to animal overpopulation. "If we say, 'This life that we're responsible for right now can't find a home, and therefore it's all right to kill it,' that animal has no chance. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy."

He cites San Francisco's no-kill philosophy. The city now euthanizes about 2,000 dogs and cats annually, compared with 65,000 four years ago, he says.

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