Trial set to start for PETA workers caught euthanizing, dumping cats and dogs
By Harriet Ryan
The dog carcasses always appeared late on Wednesday nights, wrapped in black trash bags and stuffed in the Dumpster behind the Piggly Wiggly supermarket.
Over a period of three weeks in the summer of 2005, police officers in the small town of Ahoskie, N.C., pulled the bodies of 80 animals from the trash bin. Some were puppies, some were full-grown. Most were mutts.
On the fourth week, officers set up a stakeout, and when a white van pulled up to the dumpster, they pounced.
If the van's cargo — 10 dead dogs and three dead cats in black bags — was to be expected, its occupants were not. The driver and the passenger were employees of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the vehicle was registered to the organization.
The workers, Adria Hinkle, 28, and Andrew Cook, 25, were arrested and later indicted on 24 felony charges, including 21 counts of animal cruelty, for injecting lethal doses of an anesthetic into strays they had just collected from county shelters and a veterinarian's office.
For PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world, it was a public relations nightmare. The group, whose many celebrity supporters include Pamela Anderson and Alec Baldwin, made its name by obtaining and publicizing disturbing images of torturous lab experiments, blood-soaked fur farms and shocking abuse of circus animals.
Andrew Cook still works for PETA.
Now it was confronted with photos of a graphic scene of its own employees' making: a lifeless cream-colored puppy being lifted out off a pile of trash. A dead Dalmatian sprawled on its back. A jet-black cat and her two kittens cinched in a trash bag.
"It's hideous," the president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, acknowledged two days after the arrests. "I think this is so shocking it's bound to hurt our work."
Despite this assessment, Newkirk and PETA stood by Hinkle and Cook in the coming months, consistently advocating for their innocence and hiring the legal team that will represent them at the trial that begins Jan. 22 in Hertford County Superior Court.
"As the trial is about to start, we remind all interested parties that there was absolutely no cruelty involved in this case, that PETA has only ever helped animals in dire straits in North Carolina, and that if justice is served these facts will be made clear," a spokeswoman, Erin Edwards, wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
Although only Hinkle and Cook, two low-level staffers, are facing charges, the policies of the entire organization are on trial.
Critics have charged that many of the group's loyal supporters will be shocked when details of PETA's euthanasia policy emerge. The Virginian-Pilot reported that the group euthanized more than 6,000 animals between 2001 and 2003, about 83 percent of those it collected.
Officials with the group maintain that while Hinkle and Cook may have exercised poor discretion in dumping the animals behind the supermarket, they and other employees who did similar work were acting humanely when they euthanized animals removed from shelters.
Those who say otherwise, PETA claims, are not realistic about the future of the estimated 6 to 8 million dogs and cats left at U.S. shelters annually.
Statistics compiled by the national Humane Society indicate that only about half of the strays will be adopted. The rest will be put to death. PETA insists that in the case of the "unadoptable" — the old, sick, antisocial or not housebroken — it is more compassionate to euthanize them immediately than to let them live in shelters, where they may be mistreated.
"Critics may condemn PETA for supporting euthanasia, but we are not ashamed of providing a merciful exit from an uncaring world to broken beings," Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's director of domestic animal issues, wrote in an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the arrests.
That stance is controversial in the animal rights community.
"The responsibility we have to animals doesn't mean giving them a painless death. It means coping with their challenges like we would a family member or a child," said Rich Avanzino, the president of Maddie's Fund.
His organization, endowed with $300 million by PeopleSoft founder David Duffield, advocates making the United States a "no-kill nation," where animals are only euthanized if they are dangerous or suffering from an incurable condition.
The trial, which is scheduled to last a week, will focus on PETA's involvement with three rural counties in the northeast part of the state.
According to PETA, the group first became involved with North Carolina strays several years ago when they received a phone call from a police officer outraged at the conditions in county shelters.
"Some of the counties were euthanizing animals by shooting them in the head with an old rifle. Others were using a leaky and ineffective gas chamber," Cook's lawyer, Mark Edwards, said.
PETA agreed to collect animals several times a week and take them to their headquarters in Norfolk, Va., about 50 miles away. What was supposed to occur there is disputed. County officials say they were under the impression that the group would try to find loving homes for the animals.
One veterinarian, Patrick Proctor, said that when he handed the black cat and her kittens to Hinkle and Cook, they cooed over the animals and said they would be easy to place.
"They were saying, 'My, what beautiful animals. We will have absolutely no trouble finding homes for these,'" the veterinarian told CNN.
PETA officials contend that everyone involved knew that the animals would be euthanized, and its role was to provide a less painful death at their lab in Norfolk than they would have experienced by a gun or gas chamber death in the shelter.
"These animals were going to be euthanized, either by PETA or the state of North Carolina," Edwards said.
Newkirk has said that Hinkle and Cook deviated from PETA policy by disposing of the bodies in the Dumpster rather than cremating them.
Hinkle, who was more senior than Cook, normally assigned to the group's Web site, was suspended for 90 days, but both defendants continue to work for the group.
Submitted by Pasadena Phil