It's tough being the only vegan in fifth grade, maybe even the only vegan in all of St. Bernard's Catholic School. Your friends keep talking about the yummy stuff they're eating, and ask why you'd want to give that up. They're not trying to be mean; they really don't get it. But when you want to tell them about all the awful things farm animals go through, it feels so complicated sometimes that you fall back on "It's gross." Eating meat is just gross. You know that for sure. You have ever since you asked your mom what Charlotte was trying to save Wilbur from, and she told you it was from being eaten.
You aren't going to eat Wilbur -- not Some Pig. Not any meat at all. Not eggs, or milk, or honey.
So you pet your cats and volunteer at Miranda's Rescue. And something in you does a happy little leap when a friend switches from chicken to PB&J at lunch. And you read the e-news from PETA Kids, with the stories about kids who make a difference, and people on TV who are vegan, and why having classroom pets is cruel.
"She gets to see that there are other kids like her," said Christina Lewis, mom to the sparkling burst of 11-year-old enthusiasm that is Adara Lewis. "She gets to see that she's not alone."
Lewis got pulled into veganism by her daughter, first reading up to make sure she could raise a healthy child without any animal products, then learning more about factory farms, and only later eschewing meat herself. As to PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- well, there are nuances.
"There's always a place for the aggressive person who wants to make change," she said thoughtfully, as her daughter filled bird feeders on their deck. "They're a little too graphic for me."
Lewis was still in her scrubs this late February afternoon, just home from a surgeon's office in Eureka, where she works as a vascular ultrasound tech. She chatted beside the planters that have held summer and winter crops, most recently chard, carrots and kolrabi. Last summer Adara tended her own personal strawberry patch on this deck, which overlooks a grassy gorge in one of those hidden Eureka nooks that still look like country.
Her mother paused again, still pondering PETA.
"Everybody has their own path. I try not to be judgmental."
Whatever other concerns she might have, Lewis is certain that PETA's youth branch has been wonderful for Adara, who can immerse herself in games and stickers and stories, tips about what to say to the other kids, and fun booklets like "The Kid's PETA Guide to Helping Animals."
Then there was that Cutest Vegan Kid contest. It seemed perfect, Lewis said, because, really, every kid is cute. The contest was open to both boys and girls, and it was mostly about passion and commitment and how many supporters each contestant could recruit to vote on the PETA Kids website.
Adara remembered talking to her mother about entering. "She asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Of course,' because I love being a vegan." Here, Adara grinned and framed her chin with both hands before finishing, "And I love being cute." The "cute" came out extra high and sweet, in a semi-self-parody that said "you know and I know how silly and adorable this is all at the same time."
In between gymnastics and jujitsu, in between loving reading and math, Adara knows how to work cute.
The PETA people spotted that right off. Around 120 entries came in from all over the country, and Adara was named one of just 10 finalists nationwide. If she'd won, she would have gotten to appear in online ads on PETA sites.
It turned out that the honors went instead to 6-year-old Vaughn Anderson of Fairfield, Iowa, and Ciera Leughmyers, age 5, of Columbia City, Ind. Both will get what PETA calls a prize pack and a chance to appear in a PETA Kids advertisement. And both, when they get a little older, will be able to read up on PETA.
Maybe by then, PETA won't be euthanizing more than 90 percent of the cats and dogs it accepts in Virginia. (More than 1,600 of the 1,800 it took in last year alone.)
Maybe by then, the long and bitter battle between two groups of animal lovers -- PETA and the proponents of "no-kill" animal shelters -- will be over.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began its climb to fame in the early 1980s, when one of its co-founders went undercover in an animal research lab, igniting a firestorm that helped lead to changes in federal law.
Headlines have followed ever since.
Compared with the older and far more staid organizations that advocate on animals' behalf, PETA has staked out the edgiest ground, deliberately provocative and sometimes just this side of legal.
"We are complete press sluts,'' co-founder Ingrid Newkirk said in a 2003 profile in The New Yorker magazine. "It is our obligation. We would be worthless if we were just polite and didn't make any waves."
From PETA over the years have come the naked models scorning fur, the Holocaust on a plate, the aproned woman taking a bloody knife to a bunny rabbit under the headline "Your Mommy Kills Animals."
PETA wishes that no one would wear wool or keep a bird in a cage. In a perfect world, its website says, no one would ever have domesticated any animal at all, not even dogs or cats. "This selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering," the group's website says, because people manipulate pets' breeding, give them away casually and deprive them of natural behaviors. "They are restricted to human homes, where they must obey commands and can only eat, drink and even urinate when humans allow them to."
Newkirk has even opposed seeing eye dogs because they live "as servants," according to the New Yorker profile.
PETA takes on zoos and circuses and marine parks, sheep shearing and bee keeping. It declines to condemn lawbreaking that lessens animal suffering, as long as no one is hurt in the process. It says that feeding or spaying feral cats is morally acceptable only in the rarest of circumstances; otherwise it's better to kill them humanely.
And yet, over the years, from PETA have come the vivid exposes of chilling cruelty in slaughterhouses, farms and dairies, stories so compelling that they have helped influence even meat-eating moderates.
Nearly two-thirds of California voters backed a ballot measure in 2008 that required keepers of farm animals to give them room to lie down, stand up, turn freely and fully extend their limbs or wings. The vote came despite bleak predictions, all the more compelling during an economic tailspin, that the requirement would raise food prices. Would that have happened without PETA? No one can say for sure.
What is certain is that while PETA has campaigned to make life better for fish and birds and farm animals, it has also been killing cats and dogs.
In 2005, two PETA employees made repeated trips to a dumpster behind a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in North Carolina, each time to toss in plastic bags full of dead dogs and cats. At the trial that followed, a veterinarian testified that he had given a healthy mother cat and two kittens to PETA workers who said they would find them a home. Instead, they were swiftly euthanized in a mobile van and dropped in a dumpster.
In Friendly Fire, a book that examines the ways that animal advocates have failed the no-kill shelter movement, author Nathan Winograd writes that PETA simply lies when it claims that it kills only irredeemably ill animals. "It is a lie because rescue groups and individuals have come forward stating that the animals they gave PETA were healthy and adoptable. ... It is a lie because Virginia shelters as a whole are saving 56 percent of the animals they take in, and many of those are doing so without even really trying. ... It is a lie because PETA refuses to provide its criteria for making the determination as to whether or not an animal is ‘unadoptable.'"
At its headquarters in Norfolk, Va., the only place nationwide where PETA is required to report publicly on its euthanasia activities, PETA accepts animals surrendered by the public. Because it is registered with the state as an animal shelter, it can dispose of them as it sees fit.
For years, it has killed most of them, according to numbers it reports to the state. Compared to past practices, 2012 was a slightly better year for pets that came into its hands. PETA took in 1,843 dogs and cats -- and euthanized 1,647 of them. It placed 19 in adoptive homes. It gave 130 to other facilities in Virginia.
None of this has been a secret. A scathing episode of Penn and Teller's "Bullshit" took on PETA in 2004. Last year, the Atlantic headlined one piece "PETA's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad History of Killing Animals."
But PETA has long gotten some cover from its wealthy enemies. Pharmaceutical firms. Big agriculture. Food conglomerates. People who set up pseudo "consumer" groups like The Center for Consumer Freedom, which, by the way, runs a website named petakillsanimals.com. It is easy to imagine that the whole thing must be a frame up by huge corporations protecting their bottom line.
On top of that, PETA accomplishes so much good for so many animals that the details have long had trouble gaining traction. At a North Coast Journal planning meeting a few weeks ago, only half of those in the room had heard about the killings. Some animal advocates in Humboldt who belong to PETA or send money to PETA didn't know about its euthanasia practices until a Journal writer called them. Who could expect little kids who just want to be the cutest vegan to know?
Such children, said Winograd in a telephone interview, are "a living, breathing embodiment of love. Don't we owe them the truth?"
It is a thought long attributed to Jesuits: Give us a child until age 7, and we will give you the adult.
That's even easier when the child is already primed to embrace the message.
Annie Leal, who is a street team coordinator with peta2, the youth division for PETA, puts it this way: "Kids love animals. Any kid you talk to will say they love animals and they want to make a difference. Sites like PETA Kids allow them to make a difference and speak up."
Leal works in Los Angeles, where PETA established a good-sized outpost a year or so ago. She estimates around 50 people work there, doing marketing and media outreach, often in the company of their own cats and dogs.
PETA actually has two different youth operations, each with its own website, aimed at different age groups, PETA Kids for the little ones, and peta2 for those 12 and up.
For the older group, says Leal, "We have games, we have tips, we have recipes, things they can do with their families to get involved." For younger children, "We have free stickers, comic books, coloring books."
The bonds between children and PETA are natural ones to forge, she says, because the horrors of the food industry are so pronounced.
"Piglets have their tails ripped off without any pain killers; chickens and turkeys have their throats slit while they're still conscious; fish are suffocated and cut open while they're still on the decks of fishing boats. It's not an industry that kids want to support."
And every child who PETA reaches out to has friends, parents and other relatives who could be convinced vegan food is both delicious and morally nourishing. PETA has run a cutest kid contest for the past six years, although this is the first time that entrants have been limited to vegans instead of the broader pool of vegetarians.
"It's an amazing way to spread the word," says Leal, partly because the selection process includes encouraging friends and relatives to go on PETA websites to vote. More votes can help a child win. And all those voters are more hearts and minds, ready to be won by PETA.
"So many people who go onto the site to vote stay there and learn about the ways animals are treated on factory farms and how they can stop it by going vegan," says Leal, her voice bubbling happily through the phone.
There are unquestionably some great messages about animals that go out to little children through PETA, said Douglas Anthony Cooper, an author of both children's books and novels aimed at grownups. Then there's the rest.
"Part of it is absolutely nauseating," said Cooper, who last year wrote a Huffington Post piece headlined "PETA's Death Cult."
"It's all propaganda. It's an attempt to get kids before they're capable of reasoning their way through this. And it's true of teenagers. The interns they get are bright and bushy tailed." They don't go to PETA anticipating that they'll have to advocate killing animals. But they learn, he said.
Leal has learned.
Most of the animals that come in to PETA, she said, "are completely sick. They really can't recover or they don't have a home to go to. The best thing we can do for them is to try to end their suffering as fast as possible and as painlessly as possible."
At PETA headquarters in Virginia, "we really don't have the space to take in as many animals as needed, and throwing them back out on the street is just not an option."
What about partnering with rescue groups or no-kill shelters?
"The problem with no-kill shelters is they take in so many animals it actually can become a hoarding situation," she says. It's better to spay and neuter, she says, and to stop all breeding of dogs and cats, which only increases the number of animals that could suffer from maltreatment.
Eventually, after we ask when PETA co-founder Newkirk had stopped comparing the owner-pet relationship to the master-slave relationship, we're handed off to Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist for PETA based in New York City.
"That's a misconception," she says at first. "It's never been our stance that people should not adopt homeless animals." Later, she acknowledges that yes, Newkirk has said that sort of thing. "She's made that comparison to help people understand some of our problems with the pet trade, with breeding and selling animals," says Byrne. "As long as animals are being bought and treated as commodities, it's going to be harmful to them."
PETA does pick up abandoned or maltreated pets, Byrne says, and "we're euthanizing animals that have no place to go."
But surely, after collecting more than $30 million in donations in 2012, wouldn't PETA have the resources to find homes for animals with no place to go?
"The problem is, the homes are not there. The overpopulation problem is stunning, it's horrifying," she says.
That kind of talk infuriates Winograd, the Bay Area author who is also executive director of the national No Kill Advocacy Center. He's done the research that shows many more homes are available. He has found no proof of legitimate rescue groups collaborating with abusive animal hoarders. And he's still furious that in Virginia, PETA argued against a law similar to one that has saved tens of thousands of animals in California -- a simple requirement that shelters cannot kill animals if qualified rescue groups are willing to take them.
"PETA is the no-kill movement's most vociferous opponent," he said. And, in the name of averting suffering, it is trying to convince children and adults that the best fate for millions of cats and dogs is death.
No adoptable animal should be euthanized.
That became the official policy of the state of California in 1998, when the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1785, authored by then-Sen. Tom Hayden.
Coming just a few years after San Francisco began its no-kill experiment, the Hayden bill and other shelter laws passed in 1998 laid the groundwork for a national movement that has grown -- slowly -- ever since.
In one of its key provisions, the Hayden bill required animal shelters to hand over animals to rescue groups without a fee, except for the cost of spaying or neutering them.
Delaware passed a similar law in 2010, making it illegal for shelters to kill animals if qualified rescue groups stepped forward to save them.
"The Hayden bill really changed things a lot," said Sgt. Kym Thompson, who runs the Humboldt County Sheriff's Animal Shelter. "The rescue organizations didn't have to battle to rescue these animals."
That, in turn, drove down euthanasia rates.
Winograd estimates that statewide, the number of animals turned over to rescue groups annually in California nearly quadrupled, from 12,526 before the law went into effect to 58,939 in 2010.
In Humboldt County, euthanasia rates have dropped sharply since the mid-1990s, said Kim Class, director of the Companion Animal Foundation. She remembers an annual death rate in the thousands, and now it has plunged to just a couple of hundred.
Thompson said the county shelter has probably disposed of its records from the 1990s, but today, Humboldt's euthanasia rate is very low. Just 31 dogs and 146 cats were euthanized in calendar 2012, Thompson said, and most of the cats were feral.
The change has required vigilance and creativity -- telling animals' stories through social media, cutting adoption fees when space is tight, constantly tapping the Friends for Life Emergency Medical Fund, so taxpayers don't have to pay for heartworm treatments or other costly medical care.
And just as PETA suggests, the approach isn't perfect.
The county animal shelter takes in strays, but not animals whose owners want to voluntary surrender them. "We turned someone down here one day, and she went right up to the airport and dumped the dog anyway," said Thompson.
And sometimes an animal her staff sends out for adoption comes back, malnourished and mistreated.
"I'm the person who has to ultimately give the order for someone to euthanize animals here. That doesn't make me feel good," Thompson said. "I have a motivation to try to find a home for animals. Does every animal we adopt out have a good home? No, some of them come back here."
PETA's position is that because some of those animals suffer, shelter killing is the ultimate kindness. But as the no-kill movement grows, that suggestion is making more and more animal advocates sputter with fury. And some have uncomfortably joined the ranks of big ag and big pharma in revealing, over and over until it sinks it, just what PETA is really saying about pets.
"PETA is in deep trouble," said author Cooper, who is working on his third young adult novel, titled Arabella Asquith III and Every Single Animal in the World. "People are starting to realize how many animals they kill and they're beginning to realize that there is a compassionate and practical alternative. The more publicity that no-kill receives, the closer PETA is to disappearing."
Just by presenting people with the facts, he said, he has persuaded some to quit the group, and sometimes even demand their money back.
Class, of the Companion Animal Foundation, had vaguely heard something was up with PETA, so she hasn't renewed her membership and isn't sending it any more money until she has time to learn the details. But she didn't know until the Journal called that one of the oft-repeated PETA critiques of no-kill shelters is that they funnel animals to hoarders who don't care for them properly, or in fact are hoarders themselves.
"You know what, that is such bullshit!" she said. "We're a no-kill shelter and we don't hoard animals."
Class, like PETA, is certain that the best way to raise a generation kinder to animals is to start young.
"Why do some people see animals as unique and important for who they are, and others see animals as disposable and worth very little? We believe it all starts with the children and the messages they receive," the Companion Animal Foundation says on its website. She wants to found an education sanctuary, and the group is taking donations for that.
Thompson says the county shelter is always eager for donations to the emergency fund for vet bills.
Oh, and the Sequoia Humane Society would like word to get out, again, that none of the big national animal advocacy groups funnel any money to people here in Humboldt County who are actually trying to save animals' lives. She'd like people to keep at least some of their donations at home.
That's also the message of no-kill advocate Winograd, who says one of the best defenses against unwittingly supporting animal policies you disagree with is to find a local group that does what you believe in, and put your money there.
Winograd is a vegan. He has raised two kids on vegan food, and with his wife he's written a cookbook, "All American Vegan."
But despite all the good it has done, he said, "Companion animals would be better off if there were no PETA. ...
"When you send PETA money, you're helping to pay for a freezer for them to store the bodies. ...You're helping pay for a contract with pet cremation services. ... You are paying for the death van that went around North Carolina."
And you are paying, he said, to school an entire generation of young people that it is better to kill an animal, because one day it might suffer, than to spare it, so it might one day run and wag and purr and play.