The first thing you see when you arrive at PETA headquarters in Norfolk, VA, is the line of people snaking around a row of buses, reassuring the anxious dogs and cats peering out from inside their plastic carriers. The humans wills return at the end of the day to retrieve their pets from PETA's veterinarians, who regularly take their buses to rural and low income areas across southeastern Virginia. The mobile clinics are one aspect of the Community Animal Project (CAP), a local outreach program that PETA has overseen since 1998 to prevent animal abuse in their own backyard.
Despite being an organization known for attention grabbing stunts like suing for a monkey's right to own its selfies or trying to remove what little clothes supermodels have left, PETA gets gets over 50 calls a week from people in a roughly 200 mile radius around Norfolk who need help with their animals, whether it be free food, houses, or medical care. One of the shittier aspects of their job is the identification and taking in of sick, injured, or abused animals that need to be euthanized—another low-cost service PETA offers the region at its headquarters. However, some critics claim that PETA's high euthanasia rates far exceed those of other shelters because of lax euthanasia protocols, while PETA attests theirs is a shelter of last resort that provides animals a dignified freedom from an otherwise miserable existence.
I rode along with Daphna Nachminovitch, Senior Vice President of Cruelty Investigations for PETA, and Kat Ferguson and Jes Cochran, two longtime CAP agents, on one of their daily excursions into the region late last year. Our destination was Northampton County, North Carolina, a community of about 20,000 people, a quarter of whom live under the poverty line.
Our first stop was at the house of some people who had requested a couple of dog houses. In exchange, PETA was hoping they could convince the owner to let them spay and neuter some of his dogs. According to the agents, this—offering much-needed supplies in exchange for allowing them to perform services that will serve the greater good—is a pretty common and successful tactic.
The owner, who the agents explained had previously resisted getting his dogs neutered because "it might make them gay," had four pit bulls chained up in his backyard. Each one was chained to plastic water jugs that had been repurposed as dog houses, arranged around the yard so none of the dogs could interact with each other. Frantic with excitement, they stood on their hind legs and strained against their chains, shining noses perked at our approach. While Daphna, Kat, and the owner discussed what they intended for the dogs, I made my way past piles of dog shit until I got to the skinniest pup. I let him sniff my hand, his breath gasping against the thick collar as I shooed him away from eating the partially burnt trash littering the lawn and slipped him a handful of the treats the agents had just given me.
After some deliberation, the owner agreed to let PETA take two of the dogs to be spayed and neutered, so we shoved aside the house-cubes and dragged new plywood houses from the van, each one spray painted with the number for PETA's hotline. As we began to leave, the owner mentioned hearing some dogs nearby barking for a couple of weeks, and he thought they might be near the recently abandoned trailer across the road.
Sure enough, we were greeted by a pair of dogs chained up behind the trailer, complete with empty bowls and buckets of water filled with leaves and bright green algae. One glowered at us from the shadow of its house, the other whimpered desperately to be petted. Both were surrounded by worn, asymmetrical halos of dirt in the grass that outlined their chain's circumference. After filling the food bowls and replacing the dogs' water, Daphna and the agents ran the trailer's address through their system and found they already had a case file for the dogs (each stop the agents make is written up and filed away for future use). They got in touch with the owner, who quickly informed them the dogs were fine, his daughter came out once or twice a week to feed them, and he had no interest in surrendering them. This total refusal of help, the agents told me, is how these interactions often end.
The next clients on the list were a mother and daughter who owned several chihuahuas and were battling a flea infestation. Cotton fields lined the road leading to their house, and shreds of loose fiber lay in the grass like dirty snow. When we arrived, an older lady emerged from the front door, gave the agents one look, and burst into tears. "I prayed the Lord would send y'all today!" she cried, hugging all of us. The agents caught up with the woman, who had been in and out of the hospital recently, when suddenly the front door slammed open and her daughter burst out. In a deep Southern accent, her daughter asked us to come out back and figure out why their dog couldn't put on weight.
A half-starved Black Lab named Jazz waited for us on a patch of hard dirt and thick roots, dragging its heavy chain back and forth. As I petted him and felt the ribs jutting from his thin body, the woman insisted she fed the dog every day, except when it was raining, because she couldn't go out in the rain on account of her bronchitis. I thought about how, at that point, it'd been raining heavily in North Carolina for a couple of weeks.
As Jazz ate treat after treat, the woman continued to go on about how she couldn't understand why the dog was so hungry. Jazz wheezed and coughed a little underneath my hands, which I learned later is a sign of heart worms. Daphna told her that Jazz was probably infected with parasites that were preventing him from absorbing the nutrients in his food. The woman listened while standing just beyond the reach of Jazz's paws, refusing to touch or acknowledge the dog in any way. "Don't you like to play with him?" Daphna asked the woman. She said she didn't because she didn't like to get hair on herself.
Daphna explained that if they treated the worms and he came back after treatment, he might end up getting parasites again from his environment, and that if he did have heart worms, he could need long, expensive treatment. The young woman agreed to let PETA take the dog for testing and, if it did end up being heart worms, then they could keep Jazz (spoiler alert: Jazz's story has a happy ending). We packed him up and rejoined Kat and Jes, who'd dealt with the flea infestation as best they could, and were ready for our next stop, a trailer park.
On our way there, I brought up one of the more unfortunate incidents in CAP's long history. Last fall, CAP's services were requested by the owner of Dreamland 2 Mobile Home Park, a trailer park in Accomack County, Virginia, due to the large number of stray and feral dogs that roamed the park and the surrounding area, scaring homeowners and attacking pets and livestock. Two CAP agents were sent to the trailer park to go door to door to find out which dogs were pets and which dogs were strays. During a subsequent visit, they rounded up the stray animals and accidentally mistook a family's uncollared pet Chihuahua, Maya, for a stray Chihuahua they'd been authorized to capture.
That same day, against normal protocols, those animals were euthanized, Maya included. When the organization realized they'd made a mistake, Daphna was the one who drove out to Maya's owner's home and delivered the tragic news in person. "There is no excuse for what happened, it just shouldn't have occurred," she said. "No one was more upset about the fact that this happened than us. It does not represent who we are and what we do, and our opponents are frankly thrilled that it happened, to them it's a gift from heaven."
The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a non profit organization run by former lobbyist Richard Berman, did appear to be thrilled. They capitalized on the incident through their website, PETA Kills Animals, which reads like a Breitbart-ian doublethink hit job, full of dramatic zooms on sad animal faces, harsh red and black fonts, and menacing voiceovers, arguing that PETA's mission is, well, to kill animals (never mind the fact that the CCF operates on behalf of such animal-killing organizations as Tyson Chicken and Outback Steakhouse). Since 2005, the website has been releasing full page ads, videos, and testimonies in media outlets all across the country, including this almost unbelievable one comparing PETA to Michael Vick. I reached out to the CCF for a statement about PETA, but hadn't gotten a response by publication.
Berman's the kind of guy who enjoys being described as "a real life Dr. Evil." He's bought billboards in Times Square to protest the Humane Society of the United States' efforts to better living conditions for farm animals. He's helped Smithfield Foods, Inc. bust unions in nearby Tar Heel, NC (he once told a group of potential investors, "I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions."). Berman runs Berman and Company, a D.C.-based management firm that operates a string of interlocking nonprofits, including the CCF, that act as advocates for Berman's corporate clients under the guise of protecting consumer freedom, an "endless war" that, he told potential investors, "you can either win ugly or lose pretty."
"He's a real scumbag," says Rob Blizard, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Norfolk branch. "My guess is that to the average person, if you see just those ads or read about some of those claims, they can really mislead you."
The trailer park was a frequent stop on PETA's trips through the area, and when we got out of the van, I could hear dogs barking everywhere, the sound seemed to go for miles. The PETA agents were checking up on a man, Steve, who had surrendered several dogs over the last couple years. He had four skinny pit bulls chained up behind his trailer, all of them panting and thrilled for some attention, and the agents were here to give Steve some bags of dog food and to find out what he was actually feeding them, since the dogs he'd relinquished had always been malnourished.
As the agents chatted and rubbed ointment onto the dog's raw, flea-bitten ears, Steve, with little prompting, told us he fed the dogs live chickens. He claimed it was the only thing they would eat. The agents laughed in shock, and while Daphna tried to convince him that kibble might be a better idea, Kat and I wandered over to the woodsier side of the park where Steve indicated he had chained up a few more dogs.
A heavy, rotting smell greeted us. The smell of organs and blood and death. I immediately started looking for a dead body, but there was nothing but a young pit bull tied to a tree and an unchained female that might have been its mother. Small white feathers turned in the breeze, forming cloudy piles, and I realized we were sitting in the aftermath of a feeding. Steve later told us that if we'd been here an hour and a half ago, we would have gotten to see the dogs eat.
After helping Steve as much as they could, the agents walked through the trailers, talking to people in their yards or front porches about their dogs. One concerned man said his dog Max had been hit by a car a few days earlier, and he relinquished the limping pet to PETA for an overnight checkup in Norfolk, with the promise that they'd have him back by the time his son got out of school the next day. A baby waddled across the lawn, clutching a newborn Chihuahua like a rag doll, its bulging eyes squished into the crook of the baby's arm. Uncollared dogs ran to and fro. The agents, already late for their next stop, handed out leashes and food and treats, packed up Max, and got back on the road.
The last stops were funhouse mirror images of the first. Starving dogs chained to decrepit houses surrounded by patches of dirt. A pit bull so ravaged by mange his skin glowed hot pink. A dog whose stomach had so many fleas you could see them flow across its skin like a thin black liquid. A litter of puppies we weren't allowed to pet because the dogs chained near them would attack us. A man who'd built a second doghouse around an old PETA shelter and neglected to add doors, instead nailing down boards to trap his puppy into the cramped, shit-ridden ad hoc enclosure to keep it from wrestling with its brother.
The overwhelmingly socially conservative people in this region might not agree politically with what PETA stands for, but they're rarely in a position to refuse free dog houses, food, and medical procedures that get handed out when PETA comes through, which is exactly what people like Richard Berman and his corporate clients are afraid of. They're scared that PETA might be able to convince people that animals are more than just things to possess, and from there the slippery slope of animal rights would begin to glimmer on the horizon, undoing a generation's worth of work to hide the horrors of industrial food production from consumers.
Our final stop was in Virginia to see a dog whom Daphna had been visiting for years, a sweet little terrier mix named Marley whose owner, Mr Outlaw, was an old man who kept Marley chained in the backyard year round. Daphna had thought there was a chance he'd relinquish Marley to them so he could have a new, freer existence, but as she asked him how he'd been and started to lean on his conscience, the man gently fended her off, insisting his granddaughter liked to play with the dog when she came around, and made a joke about how the agents had taken away "his dog's loving" when they'd neutered Marley on a previous visit. Despite several more attempts to nudge him, he stood his ground.
As dusk fell, we filled Marley's house with fresh straw and Mr. Outlaw mentioned he would be out of food by the end of the week. The agents offered him several cans of food, and their last big bag of dry kibble, which he accepted humbly. After making the man promise to call them if he ever wanted to get rid of Marley, the agents packed up for the final time, and we got back on the road to Norfolk, where the agents would unload the dogs they'd picked up over the course of the day, walk them, set them up for the night in PETA headquarters, and get ready to do it all over again the next morning.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a Center for Consumer Freedom ad comparing Michael Vick and PETA as one that explicitly defended Vick.
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