PETA's claim is fishy

The organization says animal shelters cost taxpayers $2 billion a year.
The organization says animal shelters cost taxpayers $2 billion a year.

Sometimes a "fact" is impossible to verify and can’t be hooked up to the Truth-O-Meter.

Such is the case with a claim by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The Norfolk-based group is urging state governments to mandate sterilization of cats and dogs unless their owners purchase breeding permits. PETA says the laws would reduce overcrowding and euthanasia at pounds, and save taxpayers’ money.

"The statistics are staggering," PETA wrote in a sample letter posted on its web site Feb. 1 that members were urged to send to their governor. "In the U.S. alone, animals shelters must spend an estimated $2 billion in taxpayer money to take in, house, euthanize, and dispose of unwanted animals."

There are a lot of zeroes in $2 billion. We looked into the $2,000,000,000 claim.

Daphna Nachminovitch, a PETA vice president, said the organization got the number from a 1998 article in USA Today about Las Vegas’ efforts to promote pet adoption.

Sure enough, the story made this unattributed claim: "Rounding up homeless animals, housing them, killing them and disposing of their bodies costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $2 billion each year."  We called USA Today. The reporter who wrote the story no longer works at the newspaper and we couldn’t locate her to learn where she got the number.

A spokesman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said he hadn't heard of the $2 billion figure and offered no estimate of the total tax cost for sheltering unwanted animals. There’s no central place that collects such national statistics and to try would be like counting the hairs on a cat’s tail.

Tax-supported pounds are usually run by local governments. Some municipalities operate their own shelters, some contract out to charitably-run humane societies, some do a little of each. The AHA estimates there are 3,500 public pounds and privately-run shelters in the United States. It hazards no guess on the number of animals taken in, or the average cost of keeping one.

So where does this leave us?

Almost in despair from two days of work not worthy of the Truth-O-Meter.

But before closing our notebooks, we devised an inexact formula to see if PETA’s claim is reasonable. In Virginia, all pounds and shelters must send yearly statistics to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In 2009, the facilities took in a total of 241,658 animals. Of those, 140,136 went to public pounds.

Virginia is home to 2.6 percent of the nation’s people. So we made an assumption it also takes in 2.6 percent of the nation’s animals in public pounds. That would mean that about 5.4 million animals were impounded in the U.S. in 2009.

PETA, in its sample letter to governors, says the average cost of care -- and, perhaps, disposal -- of an animal is $100. That would put the nation’s total taxpayer cost at $540 million -- little more than one-fourth of the estimate used by PETA.

We asked asked Nachminovitch for the source of PETA’s $100 per animal claim and her answer surprised us. "Where do you see that figure?" she asked in an e-mail. "In the letter, we cite $200 per sheltered animal  as the average."

Well, not in the letter we pulled down from PETA’s web site.

Nachminovitch said $200 nears the average cost per animal in Los Angeles animal shelters, as documented in a 2009 study by the city.

So we applied the $200 figure to our formula and came up with a total national tax cost of $1.08 billion for animal pounds.

That’s a big number, but only about half of the estimate used by PETA.

A final note: If you read PETA’s letter carefully you’ll find that organization unwittingly destroys its own claim about the $2 billion taxpayer bill. PETA writes that an estimated 8 million animals are housed yearly in shelters across the nation. At $100 per animal, that comes to an $800 million total cost; at $200 a head, it comes to $1.6 billion.

Either way, PETA’s math does not add up. And that’s before we point out that PETA’s estimate of 8 million sheltered animals a year is substantially higher than the ASPCA’s guess of 5 million to 7 million.

We would also note that many of many of the unfortunate animals -- whatever their total numbers -- are not kept at taxpayer expense.