PETA’s call for a criminal investigation was warranted, but so is the need for an earnest campaign to reform the shelter and bring it and its cruel, outdated practices into the 21st century, as many communities throughout Texas have already done.

Given to them by a whistleblower, PETA has released photographs showing conditions inside the El Paso, TX, pound that can only be described as horrific. The photographs show dogs being mauled by other dogs, one dead puppy covered in blood with his forelimb gnawed to the bone. In a letter to the City of El Paso, PETA, which not only kills thousands of animals every year without ever trying to find them homes but which has publicly defended shelters with similarly cruel conditions in the past, called for a criminal investigation in this case.

Paula Powell, the director of the facility, does not dispute the authenticity of the photographs, nor does she dispute the conditions that gave way to them, but claims improvements have since been made, including modifications to the kennels, hiring key positions, and training existing staff. Likewise, a spokesman for the El Paso Police Department subsequently indicated that their investigation found no “criminal wrongdoing.” (I have requested the results of the investigation under the Texas Public Records Act and will provide an update depending on what information is provided.)

The Director Should be Fired

This is not the first time dogs have been killed or died because of neglect or recklessness at the pound. Last winter, dogs died from exposure when they were placed in an unheated barn-type structure subject to brutally cold temperatures. (They are currently housed in the barn with unsafe heaters, another disaster waiting to happen.) Last summer (when some of the photographs released by PETA were taken), dogs mauled each other. Yet Powell allowed dangerous conditions to continue. Early last month, the puppy in one of the photographs was killed and partially eaten, his leg cleaned of skin, meat, ligaments, and all, right down to the bone. (To view the graphic photograph, click here.)

These conditions are the very reason No Kill advocates in El Paso have been calling for reform. There is no doubt that El Paso is a challenging community — the facility is grossly outdated, intakes are extremely high, the staff lack the skill set needed to run a modern, complex, professional operation, and city leadership is not fully backing the reforms efforts with the tools the shelter needs to succeed. There is also no doubt that progress toward reform has been made despite these challenges: placement rates have nearly doubled since 2016 as adoptions, rescue transfers, and reclaims have all increased and the number of animals dying in their cages has declined. But none of this excuses the brutality revealed in the photographs.

Nor have such challenges precluded shelters in other communities from achieving improvement in lifesaving, without allowing dogs to cannibalize each other. Trying to end killing as quickly as possible, despite institutional obstacles to success, does not lead to what happened in El Paso. In fact, when such efforts are undertaken with competence and integrity, they do not exacerbate, but rather abate animal suffering. Efforts to end killing do not mean failure to correct problems the first time they occur. They do not mean failure to implement humane care, humane housing, and a system to find homes as efficiently and effectively as possible. They mean the opposite of all those things. In short, there is no excuse for what has occurred in El Paso, and the blame should rest where the buck stops: with director Powell, who should be fired.

PETA Wants to Further Harm the Animals of El Paso

That said, there is another aspect to the El Paso debacle that cannot be overlooked: PETA’s larger narrative. Here, PETA is also the guilty party, the party that is — as assuredly as Powell’s failures — anti-animal, inhumane, and arguably criminal (such as PETA’s history of stealing and killing dogs, acquiring animals by fraudulent misrepresentation in order to kill them, and misreporting drug doses in order to kill animals “off book”). Rather than use evidence of animal suffering in El Paso to call for an overhaul of shelter practices and bring them in line with those communities that not only have eliminated the killing of healthy and treatable animals, but have done so while providing high quality, compassionate care, PETA is using El Paso as a tool to bash No Kill, simply because El Paso is claiming, as most kill shelters do, that it is trying to achieve it.

But PETA is dead wrong for claiming the abuse these dogs, and ostensibly cats, suffered is because El Paso is “No Kill.” (For a copy of the photograph of the dead cat, click here.)

First, these kinds of abuses frequently occur at Kill pounds. (For photographs of that abuse, click here.)

Second, PETA does not care what happens to animals in pounds as long as that pound is also killing without reservation. For example, when similar abuse is uncovered in pounds that openly and unapologetically kill, not only is PETA silent, it has a history of defending those pounds. This includes pounds where sick cats and kittens were not fed over a long holiday weekend at one shelter, were puppies were flushed down trench drains to drown and never be seen again at another, when animals were subjected to intentional abuse by animal control workers, and when injured but suffering animals were denied care and treatment and allowed to die at still others.

Third, and more to the point, El Paso is not now and has never been No Kill.

That El Paso has claimed it is trying to achieve No Kill is irrelevant because (with the exception of PETA and a few others run by hard-hearted individuals) all “shelters” claim they are “trying” to end killing, arguing that “no one wants to kill.” More importantly, these kinds of conditions do not represent the No Kill movement.

No Kill does not mean poor care, hostile and abusive treatment, and warehousing animals without the intentional killing. It means modernizing shelter operations so that animals are well cared for and kept moving efficiently and effectively through the shelter and into homes. The No Kill movement puts action behind the words of every shelter’s mission statement: “All life is precious.” No Kill is about valuing animals, which means not only saving their lives but also giving them good quality care.

It means vaccination on intake, nutritious food, daily socialization and exercise, fresh clean water, medical care, a system that finds loving, new homes, and safe, humane conditions; conditions already exist in shelters throughout the nation that have rejected PETA’s defeatist, cynical logic that the only two choices available are shelters that cause animals to suffer or shelters that are allowed to slaughter them with impunity.

To imply that is a cynicism which has only one purpose: to shield PETA from accountability for their own slaughter of dogs and cats by painting the alternative of allowing those animals to live as darker. To deflect blame for rounding up to kill healthy cats and kittens, for stealing dogs and putting them to death, for acquiring animals by misrepresentation in order to kill them, and for killing or causing to be killed upwards of 99% of all animals while only adopting out 1% (and then historically only to staff who wanted to spare animals the needle), PETA has seized on the abuse in El Paso to promote their own agenda of defending an antiquated model of sheltering based on archaic notions of “adoptability,” regressive practices, the premise that animal life is cheap and expendable, and the draconian notions that living with humans is a master-slave relationship and that animals prefer to be dead.

By contrast, at the open admission No Kill shelter I oversaw, for instance, the average length of stay for animals was eight days, we had a return rate of less than two percent, we reduced the disease rate by 90 percent from the prior administration, we reduced the killing rate by 75 percent, no animal ever celebrated an anniversary in the facility, and we saved (by today’s measurements), roughly 95 percent or better of all impounded animals. No dogs mauled each other. No dogs died of exposure. Cats were not found inexplicably dead in cages. In short, we brought sheltering into the 21st century. There is no reason every shelter in America cannot do the same.

A Mandate for El Paso

If there is a mandate that arises as a result of the horrors in El Paso and the response to it by a group with a dark, self-serving agenda, it is that we must reform incompetently-run pounds which includes firing those responsible, giving those shelters the full resources they require, and passing shelter reform legislation, such as the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Companion Animal Protection Act, many mandates of which just became law in another Texas community.

At the same time, we must challenge and hold accountable the death cult of PETA which is exploiting the tragedy in El Paso to promote their own sordid and nefarious agenda that would perpetuate a system that visits upon defenseless animals even more death. Reforming sordid practices at the El Paso pound and holding PETA accountable go hand in hand.

They are, after all, two sides of the same, abusive coin.

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