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Zoos’ dirty little secret

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By Jennifer O’Connor

People around the world were justifiably outraged when a healthy young giraffe was killed because he didn’t fit into a Danish zoo‘s breeding plan. A second giraffe execution was in the works before public condemnation put a stop to it. But the only real surprise is how forthcoming these zoos were about it, since disposing of unwanted animals is typically the industry’s dirty little secret. Zoos everywhere, including right here in North America, routinely find ways to unload animals they no longer want or need.

Baby animals bring visitors through the gates. But little ones quickly outgrow their ticket-selling appeal. There’s never enough space for all the adult animals. Many of them are simply warehoused in off-exhibit buildings designed solely to cage and house animals with no place to go. Stored like used car parts, all they can do is wait for relief that never comes. Others are traded or sold to other zoos or roadside menageries.

The vast majority of animals who are bred in zoos are not endangered, and most of the ones who are in trouble aren’t going to be released into their natural homelands in order to bolster wild populations. For every elephant born in a zoo, two more die, yet zoos continue to subject elephants to painful and frightening artificial insemination, just to churn out more cash cows. Chai, an elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, has been subjected to the procedure 112 times, with only one successful birth—a calf who later died. According to investigative reporter Michael J. Berens, the overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is an appalling 40 percent—nearly triple the rate of elephants in the wild. In a 25-year period at the Houston Zoo, 14 out of 14 elephant calves died—a 100 percent failure rate.

Even though the U.S. is overrun with tigers in backyard menageries, sleazy roadside zoos and sham sanctuaries, zoos still allow tigers to breed, because cubs are marketing goldmines. No tiger born in a zoo will ever set foot in an Asian jungle or help wild populations rebound. They will help a zoo’s bottom line.

Gorilla families are led by one dominant male, but so many male gorillas are born in captivity that zoos are being forced to find ways to create all-male “bachelor” groups. But as these juvenile males mature into adulthood, conflicts naturally arise. Caged gorillas have no way to escape an aggressive cagemate.

And let’s not forget the zoo community’s most lucrative marketing coup: the panda. In China’s breeding centers, cubs are typically taken from their mothers before they reach 6 months of age to force females to go into estrus again. Female pandas are fertile only for a day or two, so when a female shows signs of going into heat, she’s poked and prodded and her vagina is swabbed to determine whether she is ovulating. Males are electroejaculated (a probe is inserted into his rectum to produce electrical stimulations that cause ejaculation) and the semen, often from more than one male, is then inserted into the female with a laparoscope.

Like all bears, panda moms are protective and nurturing. But the conditions of China’s loan program require that cubs be returned “home” within two years of birth. Treated as commodities, the young pandas and their mothers will likely never see each other again.

Zoos are businesses whose “merchandise” is living, feeling animals. As long as society considers it acceptable to keep animals in captivity so that humans can while away a couple of hours gawking at them, this merciless and mercenary cycle will continue.

Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

February 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

There’s no call for cruelty in Christmas

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By Jennifer O’Connor

Kicking off the holiday shopping season with “Red Thursday,” stores are doing whatever it takes to draw in customers. But while shoppers have a choice about standing in long lines and facing ugly crowds, animals used in holiday promotions face a bleak Christmas season.

Santa belongs at the mall. Reindeer do not. Yet some stores have been contracting to have reindeer, who, unlike Dasher and Dancer, are not entirely domesticated and easily become stressed out when hauled around and put on public display, brought in for photo ops and petting zoos. Reindeer don’t enjoy being petted or harnessed or forced to pull sleighs. These large, strong animals tend to be skittish and unpredictable—and nothing ruins a shopping trip faster than a runaway, frightened animal with antlers.

Today’s crowded mall parking lots are no place for horses, either, yet horse-drawn carriages abound. The season for operators to earn money is short, so horses are provided with few breaks to rest or catch their breath. They can end up overworked, exhausted, hungry and thirsty. Many also suffer from leg pain from pounding hard asphalt all day long. And when tack rubs against a horse’s skin for hours on end, it can cause sores and abrasions that may be difficult to see when covered by harnesses.

Horses are extremely sensitive to loud noises and unexpected sounds—like the blaring of a horn by someone trying to commandeer a parking space. Horses and people have been seriously hurt—some fatally—when horses have spooked and run amok or when impatient drivers have run into them.

And isn’t forcing animals to participate in crèches and holiday shows the antithesis of the spirit of the season? Over the years, camels, sheep and donkeys used as props in holiday displays have been beaten, mauled, attacked by dogs and killed by cruel people. Others, frightened and confused, have broken away from the displays, only to be hit and killed by cars. The city of Charleston, S.C., decided not to use animals in a tree-lighting ceremony this year after a giraffe—a giraffe!—freaked out and broke free last year.

As ethical human beings, we must recognize that animals should not be used as props, no matter how altruistic the intention. And live Nativity displays using animals aren’t even realistic. In Pope Benedict’s biography of Jesus Christ, he points out that contrary to popular belief, there were no oxen, camels, donkeys or other animals of any kind in the manger.

No one in authority ensures that these animals are being provided with food, water and proper care. Understaffed and overburdened animal control departments don’t have the resources to monitor these displays and enforce compliance with anti-cruelty laws. The exhibitors who provide the animals consider this their high season, so profits typically trump animal welfare.

Caring readers can extend the hand of compassion to all this holiday season by refusing to patronize reindeer photo ops, carriage rides and “living” Nativity scenes.

Jennifer O’Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

December 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Would you give your right arm (or leg) for a steak?

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By William M. Mullins, C.P.

The man sitting in my office had just undergone his third amputation in as many years. First, doctors amputated his right foot after a blister refused to heal and gangrene set in. Then, they cut off the leg just below the knee. Now, he had graduated to “AK” (above the knee). He was losing his leg, inch by inch, to “Big Mac attacks.”

As someone who makes prosthetic limbs for a living, I see a lot of tragedy: children who have lost limbs to cancer, motorcycle accident victims, farmers who’ve lost arms in agricultural machinery. But perhaps the most tragic cases of all are the diabetics who’ve essentially cut off their own legs with a knife and fork.

Diabetes has become an epidemic. More than 25 million Americans have diabetes, and more than 230,000 of them die each year from causes related to the disease. It is now the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. This November, National Diabetes Month, is the perfect time to do something about it.

Most of my patients have spent a lifetime eating diets rich in animal products loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol, which has left them overweight and suffering from the type-2 or “adult-onset” diabetes that afflicts 90 to 95 percent of diabetics. This form of diabetes usually appears after age 40—think Paula Deen and Aretha Franklin—although it is increasingly being found in younger adults (e.g., Ruben Studdard) and even teens and young children. It is often linked to obesity and inactivity, but even seemingly fit people, such as Tom Hanks, can develop it.

Diabetes can cause heart disease, strokes, blindness, kidney failure and pneumonia. It also leads to nerve damage and poor circulation in the feet and legs, which is where I come in. Limited blood flow makes it hard for sores and infections to heal and can ultimately lead to amputation of a toe, foot or leg. More than 65,000 people have diabetes-related leg and foot amputations each year. Sixty percent of all lower-limb amputations not resulting from trauma occur in people with diabetes. Most diabetic amputees don’t live long—the majority of my patients are dead within nine years of their first amputation.

So how can you stay on your feet and out of my office? Easy: Eat a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet. Recent studies indicate that fat impairs insulin’s ability to function and that blood-sugar levels are under better control when people eat diets that are high in fiber and low in fat.

A study led by Dr. Neal Barnard, author of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes Without Drugs, showed that 43 percent of diabetics on a low-fat vegan diet were able to cut back on their medications, compared to only 26 percent of those who followed the diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. A Harvard School of Public Health study suggests that eating red meat and processed meats can increase a person’s risk for type-2 diabetes by as much as 50 percent.

Dr. Barnard encourages diabetics to eat low-fat plant-based foods with a low glycemic index, such as beans, peas, lentils, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, brown rice, barley, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, bananas, apples, peaches, berries and citrus fruits. He also advises people to avoid added vegetable oils and other high-fat foods as well as refined sugar and flour.

Dietary changes alone can help cut back on the amount of insulin needed—or eliminate it altogether in some cases—and minimize complications. I’ve seen the “complications” of diabetes firsthand, and I want to keep my legs—which is why I’m a vegetarian.

William M. Mullins is a certified prosthetist who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., with his wife and a rescued dog and cat. He wrote this op-ed for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

November 13, 2013 at 5:24 pm

How ‘saving’ animals at all costs can be a dangerous proposition

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

All across the country, people are hearing calls to raise the “save rate” at animal shelters. But beware: As warm and fuzzy as that sounds, a shelter’s high “save” rate does not reduce by one puppy or kitten the number of unwanted animals born every minute in private homes, in puppy mills, in breeders‘ kennels and catteries, on the street or under a porch. In fact, it can increase that number, to the detriment of dogs, cats, taxpayers and law-enforcement officials.

Shockingly, pressure to raise shelter “save rates” actually increases the “pet” overpopulation crisis. How? To reduce the number of animals it euthanizes, a shelter must reduce the number of animals it takes in by charging high “surrender” fees, putting people on waiting lists, sending unsterilized animals to “foster” homes and more. Many people cannot afford high fees, and those evicted from their own homes or entering a women’s shelter or nursing home can’t wait for weeks or months for their animal to be admitted.

Cities learn the hard way that to play the “high-save-rate” game, something has to give. Because the number of homeless animals far exceeds the number of available homes, no matter what is done to try to conjure up more adopters, facilities are always full. Sick, injured, old, aggressive and other “unadoptable” animals are turned away—since accepting them would hurt the “save” statistics.

Shelter operating hours are also often reduced to decrease intake, leaving anyone who can’t take time off during the day out of luck. Elderly people on a fixed income and others who cannot afford the fees charged by veterinarians for euthanasia are left with nowhere to take their old and ailing dog or cat for a merciful release.

In San Antonio, Texas, where the shelter has gone “no-kill” and many strays are left to fend for themselves, animal wardens report that thousands of stray animals are breeding, forming packs and dying on the streets, with more than 28,000 dog and cat bodies scraped up in the last year alone.

Shelters trying to achieve a high “save” rate invariably stop requiring verification that previous animal companions have received veterinary care and stop conducting even basic home checks—vital safeguards that prevent animals from falling into the hands of people with evil intentions. And animals are handed over to anyone who can “foster” them, including to animal hoarders who stack cages in their house, basement or garage. This situation creates nightmarish scenarios, such as the recent Florida case in which 100 cats burned to death inside individual plastic crates, unable to flee as the plastic melted onto them, and the Angel’s Gate “animal hospice” in New York, where police found caged animals who had died in agony without veterinary care. Every week brings news of more little houses of horror.

Shelters that cram more animals into runs and cages than can safely be accommodated become so severely crowded that the dogs fight and injure themselves, the cats contract upper respiratory infections and disease outbreaks sicken healthy animals, as has happened in Washington, D.C., and is happening in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties in Florida now. In Austin, Texas, the city shelter stopped accepting cats and then, two weeks later, dogs. Where do they all go? In parts of Oregon where shelters have stopped accepting stray cats, they go into the woods or into a bucket of water.

There are literally hundreds more unwanted animals born every minute of every day. Once every available home or basement has been filled with animals from the shelter, where are all the new animals and their litters going to go?

What’s a community to do? To truly save dogs’ and cats’ lives, let’s reject this shelter “save-rate” nonsense and get to the root of the problem: the population explosion. Open-admission shelters, solid animal-control services, community education and reduced-cost spay-and-neuter programs are the keys to a real “save” rate.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

News flash: Vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters

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By Heather Moore

Health news can be so depressing. Virtually every day, we see discouraging reports about heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. We’re warned that certain drugs can be nearly as harmful as the conditions that they’re meant to treat. We’re reminded that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are spreading like wildfire, and we’re cautioned that childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years. Obesity now kills three times as many people worldwide as malnutrition. There is real cause for concern. But there is also a good reason to be optimistic. In a study published recently, researchers from Loma Linda University in California shared some encouraging news: Vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters.

The findings from the large-scale study—which was funded by the National Institutes of Health—should remind us that we aren’t powerless victims of chronic disease. We can all be healthier just by bypassing the meat counter and opting for plant-based meals.

The researchers tracked more than 73,000 Seventh-day Adventists for nearly six years. They used questionnaires to find out what type of diet the participants ate (many, but not all, Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarian) and then followed up to find out how many of the participants had died and how.

Here’s what they discovered: The vegetarian (and mostly vegetarian) participants—people included in this group ranged from those who didn’t eat any animal-based foods at all to those who ate meat only once a week—were 12 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who ate meat regularly. Those in the vegetarian group were 19 percent less likely to die from heart disease, in particular, and were also less likely to die from diabetes and kidney failure. In addition, they tended to be thinner and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Although the researchers were quick to note that the vegetarians were more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke or drink in excess, they attributed their findings largely to the participants’ food choices. The researchers weren’t completely sure why a plant-based diet has such a protective effect, but they speculated that it’s because plant foods tend to be higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat.

And unlike meat, which contains high amounts of cholesterol, sodium, nitrates and other unhealthy ingredients, plant-based foods are cholesterol-free and contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that help combat carcinogens and other harmful substances in the body.

Other studies, including a previous one involving about 30,000 Seventh-day Adventists, have also suggested that people who eat wholesome plant-based foods live longer than meat-eaters. Because of these studies, many hospitals and healthcare facilities around the U.S., including Boston Medical Center and St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in Los Angeles, have initiated programs to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods. Medical providers at the L.A. facility, for example, have begun writing “prescriptions” for patients to buy organic fruits and vegetables. By promoting vegan foods, healthcare practitioners hope to help patients maintain a healthy weight and prevent—and sometimes even reverse—deadly diseases.

We can’t predict when or how we’ll die, but we can try to increase our life expectancy and quality of life. Choosing vegan foods rather than meat, eggs and dairy products is a simple way to help ensure that you’ll be with your loved ones—and not in an emergency room—for as long as possible.

Heather Moore is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

July 24, 2013 at 10:02 pm

A ‘snip’ in time saves felines

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By Lindsay Pollard-Post

Visit any animal shelter in the country this month, and you’re bound to see litter after litter of kittens as well as sweet mother cats and cat dads in need of loving homes. It’s the peak of “kitten season,” and that’s why June is the perfect time to celebrate “Adopt a Shelter Cat” Month.

For anyone looking to add a feline to the family, there is no better place to find the perfect cat than at an animal shelter. Shelters have cats of every age and personality type, from rambunctious kittens to snuggly feline “senior citizens.” Most shelters are happy to help match prospective guardians with the perfect animal for their lifestyle and personality and will give adopters plenty of time to get to know their potential new family member one on one in a private visiting room.

Adopting has many benefits: Pre-loved cats are likely to be litterbox-trained, pros at sharpening their claws on a scratching post instead of on furniture and familiar with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of living in a human household. Most animals in shelters are screened for health and temperament and, for a nominal adoption fee, go home spayed or neutered, microchipped and vaccinated. Many shelters also offer free or low-cost follow-up support and classes to ensure that adopted animals make the transition to a new home successfully.

Every cat adopted is a life saved, but ultimately, even the most heroic adoption efforts are like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. We can bail for all we’re worth, but the ship is going down unless we fix the source of the problem. Cats reproduce much faster than we can find homes for all their kittens. Without spaying, one female cat and her offspring can produce 370,000 kittens in just seven years. And that’s just one cat. Across the country, countless cats will have litters this summer, and many of these kittens will end up in shelters—or worse, on the streets or in the hands of neglectful or violent people.

Every year, open-admission shelters are forced to euthanize about half of the 6 to 8 million cats and dogs they take in because there aren’t enough good homes for them all. With some shelters receiving hundreds of kittens each month during kitten season, cage space is at a premium and euthanasia is a necessity to make room for the never-ending stream of more animals. Not even adorable kittens and puppies are guaranteed a home.

That’s why it’s so crucial to have our cats (and dogs, too) spayed and neutered as early as possible—before they can have that first “oops” litter. It’s safe—and even beneficial—to have kittens sterilized as young as 8 weeks old. Females who are spayed before their first heat cycle have one-seventh the risk of developing mammary cancer. Spaying also eliminates female animals’ risk of diseases and cancer of the ovaries and uterus, which are often life-threatening and require expensive treatments, including surgery. Neutering eliminates male animals’ risk of testicular cancer and reduces unwanted forms of behavior such as biting.

Adopting is important, lifesaving and life-enriching—for both adopted cats and their human families—and I encourage everyone who has the time, funds, ability and desire to care for an animal for life to adopt a cat or dog from their local shelter. But if we want to one day celebrate “There Are No More Shelter Cats in Need of Adoption” Month, spaying and neutering are the keys.

Lindsay Pollard-Post is a senior writer for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

June 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm

On Mother’s Day, don’t forget animal moms

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By Jeff Mackey

If you’re like most people, you’ll no doubt treat your mom to brunch or dinner on Mother’s Day. But this year, while you are saluting your own mom, please honor all mothers by celebrating with a meal that doesn’t include meat, eggs or dairy products. Some of the best mothers in the world are found in the animal kingdom, yet few animal moms on today’s farms are ever allowed to nurture their babies as nature intended.

For mother cows and their calves, for example, it’s love at first sight. The first minutes after birth are spent developing a bond that will last a lifetime. Their attachment and affection for each other is so deep that both mother and baby become extremely distressed if they are forced apart. Mother cows bellow in vain and their calves wail inconsolably; they cry out for each other for days. Some mother cows have even been known to escape their enclosures and travel for miles searching for their babies.

Sadly, such pitiful scenes are common on dairy farms. Mother cows are allowed to bond with and care for their calves for only a few hours before the babies are torn away so that we can have the milk that was meant to nourish them. Wide-eyed and terrified, the calves are desperate to suckle but instead are given a bottle of milk “replacer” and a short life in a veal crate (for males) or a life just like that of their sad mothers (for females). Meanwhile, the mother cows will soon be impregnated again, only to endure the same heartbreak nine months later.

If allowed, mother hens would turn their eggs as many as five times an hour and cluck softly to the chicks inside, who chirp back from within their shells. Once hatched, the chicks are shielded from predators by their protective mother’s wings.

Yet 90 percent of our eggs come from hens who are treated like virtual laying machines. They are crammed together in wire cages where they never see the light of day and don’t even have enough room to spread a single wing. The stench of ammonia and feces hangs heavy in the air. Female chicks will follow their mothers into a lifetime of intensive confinement and constant egg production. Male chicks are worthless to the egg industry and will be tossed into trash bags to suffocate or thrown into high-speed grinders while they are still alive.

Pigs are also devoted mothers, who, if allowed, would spend days preparing a nest of leaves or straw before giving birth. Newborn piglets learn to run to their mother’s voice, and mother pigs “sing” to their young while nursing. The piglets would stay with their doting mothers for about 15 weeks.

On factory farms, however, most sows are confined to metal crates in which they are unable to lie down comfortably, much less turn around to nurse their piglets naturally. Many sows develop raw, painful sores from the bars.

The piglets are torn from their distraught mothers after just a few weeks—months before weaning would naturally occur—and spend their entire lives in extremely crowded pens on slabs of filthy concrete. The mother pigs are impregnated again and again until their bodies wear out and they are sent to slaughter.

As parents, we are compelled to love, shelter, feed, nurture and protect our children from harm. Why, then, do we ignore the very same innate needs in animals? Every time we pour milk on our cereal or fry up an egg, we are paying a farmer to tear a mother animal away from her beloved baby. This Mother’s Day, please remember that all mothers love their babies, and enjoy the day with a humane vegan meal.

Jeff Mackey is a blog writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

May 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm