When the Crusade for Animals Falls Victim to Oppression

Here’s what happens when a powerful social justice organization falls victim to the same oppressive mentality it is seeking to dismantle.

Four years ago this month, I penned a piece at The Dodo defending an organization to which I had dedicated nearly five years of my life managing animal rights campaigns: PETA. In it, I described a bill being considered by the Virginia legislature that would redefine an animal shelter’s purpose as existing to find “permanent adoptive homes” — and the work of PETA, with euthanasia rates that year of 77 percent of dogs and 95 percent of cats it took in, seemed to be on the chopping block.

The bill passed, despite a monumental effort by PETA to kill it, yet somehow PETA’s work for abused and neglected animals — which I described so heart-wrenchingly in my essay — continued on, uninterrupted. The fieldworkers continued delivering doghouses and straw to thousands of dogs relegated to the outdoors during all weather extremes, spaying and neutering tens of thousands of animals, transferring hundreds of animals they took in to high-traffic local shelters, and, yes, euthanizing: “1,798 feral, sick, suffering, dying, aggressive, and otherwise unadoptable animals” in 2018.

PETA might not have changed much over these four years, but I have. But before I jump into the things I’ve seen and the ways I’ve changed, I must make one thing clear: This is not an anti-PETA commentary. Those who are looking for fuel to take down the country’s largest animal rights organization should look elsewhere. Similarly, those who are still crusading for the organization, as I did for many years, need not be up in arms, prepared to head into battle.

Why? Because I am not opposed to PETA’s stance on euthanasia, in principle. I understand the math. There aren’t enough homes, animals are being warehoused in “no-kill” facilities around the country, and we can’t be “no-kill” until we are “no-birth.” I get it.

And I am not opposed to PETA’s mission. Its strides for animals cannot be ignored. Shutting down some of the largest animal experimenters. Creating thousands upon thousands of kinder eaters. Contributing to massive campaign victories like the end of Ringling’s abusive traveling circus. At PETA, I had some of the most challenging and meaningful experiences of my career. I became a true, full-fledged, career-long activist.

What’s to follow, though, will shed light on the reason I felt the need to begin with such a lengthy disclaimer. And why I have stayed silent for the last three years since I finally left the organization for good, up until now.

It’s what happens when a powerful social justice organization falls victim to the same oppressive mentality it is seeking to dismantle.

So what I’m writing about today is not what PETA believes, but the tyrannical ways in which those beliefs are asserted, i.e., the means — the ways in which individual expression is stifled, and employees are shamed, for PETA’s ends.

When I campaigned for PETA, fighting restaurant giants like McDonald’s and organizing “Lettuce Lady” demonstrations, my glimpses into its Cruelty Investigations Department (CID), which comprises fieldwork, animal sheltering, undercover investigations, spaying and neutering, lobbying for companion animal protection legislation, and cruelty cases, were managed carefully. At our monthly staff meetings, I saw the photographs of feral cats with mangled legs, dogs whose stomachs were filled with straw after they were deprived of food, and animals with prolapsed uteruses whose guardians couldn’t afford veterinary care — all released from their suffering by PETA. These were certainly cases I could get behind.

And my hands-on experiences, too, provided a powerful, yet incomplete, picture of PETA’s work. I regularly traveled out to rural North Carolina to deliver much-needed supplies and warm bedding to forgotten dogs. The dogs were overwhelmingly grateful to us, and we drastically improved their dismal lives — filling their mud pits or sewage-infested living space with clean straw and replacing their heavy chains with flexible tie-outs. Occasionally, unnamed, terrified animals who were no longer wanted were surrendered to us, and I sighed in relief believing that we would surely do better for them.

And much of the time, I still wholeheartedly believe, PETA is doing better for them. The pictures and stories are real. The caseworkers care deeply for animals. PETA is not a gang of bloodthirsty killers on a mission to hunt down and slaughter dogs and cats.

But anecdotal evidence does not create an entire picture. It does not mean that there aren’t outliers — many of them. It is not all-encompassing truth. And it is in these other cases, these incidents where, if you are not completely “drinking the Kool-Aid,” so to speak, your conviction might falter. And that is where the problem seeps in.

Looking back now, these red-flag incidents were there all along — I just couldn’t see them. There was the time that a family member was dying from cancer and needed help rehoming several cats. I created a post on Facebook, in which I mentioned being open to the possibility of a trustworthy rescue stepping forward. Soon after, I received a paragraphs-long email from the head of CID, who wasn’t on my friends list, explaining the problem with so-called “rescues”: that they were usually fronts for massive hoarding operations with animals languishing in their own waste and perishing from a variety of ailments without any veterinary care. At this point, I had been at PETA for two years. I knew a thing or two about vetting rescues and potential adopters. But I had a vice president of the organization breathing down my neck. I immediately rushed to edit the post. I couldn’t risk being booted from the tribe.

And, during my tenure working on the local emergency pager, I responded to a call from a concerned woman who’d found an abandoned days-old kitten under her porch. When I came to pick up the kitten, I had her sign a generic give-up form that spelled out that euthanasia was a possibility. But I was instructed to repeatedly convey that we would do our absolute best, and so that’s what I said, even as the woman described her careful search for an organization she knew would work around the clock to help this tiny being pull through. It was my job to make sure I did not leave without that cat — that I said whatever necessary for the woman not to change her mind.

The entire way back to PETA’s Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters, I sobbed, petting the infant cat in my lap, telling her things would all be OK, even though in my gut I knew it wouldn’t, that she never really had a chance. I even began plotting out how I might take a detour and deliver her to a rehabber instead. But how could I explain a missing kitten to the woman waiting with the needle? I couldn’t, so I complied without a word.

Why didn’t I narrate this harrowing experience in my Dodo piece, opting instead for a more clear-cut case: a puppy dying of parvovirus because her impoverished owners never vaccinated her? Because at that time, I believed that I was misguided for wanting to save that kitten’s life. And by even mentioning that the thought had crossed my mind, I would be written off, ostracized from my community, deemed one of those “no-kill freaks” upper management often talked about. I could never show my face again. So I sucked up my pain, fully believing that enduring it was what was necessary “for the animals.” And I quietly dropped off the pager rotation shortly afterwards, offering up an excuse about grad school eating up my time.

At PETA, we were told that euthanasia is often our best. Euthanasia is the happy ending for many animals. Humans created the problem, and PETA is cleaning up their messes. As someone who has seen the devastating effects of the massive overpopulation problem, I grasp that to my core.

But PETA went one step further. It made sure that employees not only understood this concept, but that it was also embedded into our operating principles. All employees are carefully groomed through issues training (a senior employee dictating PETA’s stances on animal issues to room full of wide-eyed new hires) and videos to ensure they have fully adopted the “us versus them” mentality: people who support every single euthanasia decision the organization makes at all times, versus everyone else. And that “everyone else” category was defined by two types of people: hoarders who stuff their houses with mountains upon mountains of animals to avoid euthanizing them, and followers of the meat industry-backed Center for Consumer Freedom, which runs the infamous “PETA Kills Animals” website in order to exploit the organization’s euthanasia numbers and undermine the animal rights movement as a whole.

So if an employee, like many animal rights advocates who believe in the rights and autonomy of each individual animal, wanted to critically assess whether a euthanasia decision was truly the best thing for an individual animal in his or her unique circumstances, there was a real, true fear of being branded as an advocate for hoarding or a secret supporter of the enemy. Thus, speaking up could have meant being booted from the tribe.

And as most new PETA employees are blooming animal rights activists, freshly plucked from college and determined to do whatever it takes to succeed in this demanding, low-paying activist world, PETA’s methodology of indoctrination is quite successful. These employees soak it all in like a sponge, as I did at the age of 21 when I started there, and begin to spout the organization’s soundbites at every turn. They will start to do so so naturally that they can’t see where they themselves end and the organization begins. And they won’t see any problem with it: The office abounds with vegan food, they’re working for a cause they love with friendly people, and they get to play with dogs all day long.

They are happy, they think.

I recently had the courage, after several years of recovering from my indoctrination, to post on my Facebook page about what I experienced. To take a deep breath and accept the risk that I could quite possibly be banished from my community for daring to stick out a toe. As expected, several PETA employees rushed to the organization’s defense. Some described their personal experience with ailing animals in the field, whom PETA peacefully relieved of their suffering (for which I am grateful). Others narrated their wonderful office lives with solid benefits and rewarding work.

I don’t doubt these anecdotes. But anecdotes do not discredit others’ experiences. And the dozens of people I have spoke with over the years quietly holding onto experiences similar to my own shouldn’t be invalidated by happy anecdotes of employees who haven’t yet had their own moments of stepping out of line with the status quo.

The organization sometimes asks its employees to flood various websites with pro-PETA comments, like leaving positive reviews on employment websites. To create and maintain a flawless public image. This drowning out of voices contrary to the central leaders’, ironically only provides further evidence of the cult culture at play.

But here’s something I’ve learned since my time at the organization: It is possible to be critical of something without being an enemy. It is possible to want to question a top-down decision in a respectful way to help better an organization you love. It is even quite probable that progressive change will flourish when people are encouraged to put on their thinking caps and help build their workplace’s culture, rather than operate only as an army to advance their leaders’ goals.

Four years ago, although there were many examples of this groupthink dynamic at play during my campaigns gig, I swept them all under the rug as I wrote that Dodo article, playing mental gymnastics to devise an adequate defense of the organization I loved. Then, I worked for nearly a year inside CID itself, and as the days went on, my mental anguish grew deeper.

So it is time to finally put an end to my silence. To stop feeling ashamed that I have real, true emotions regarding the euthanasia incidents I contributed to or facilitated. Because death is death — it is serious, raw, and disturbing. And no human being should be silenced in their experience of processing death.

Through my work in CID, I rescued and cared for a pair of birds from a cruelty case for weeks, bonding with and growing to love them. When the decision was made to euthanize the boy because of a debilitating medical condition, the girl was also euthanized because it was thought that she would be lonely without him. She was one of those lumped into the “unadoptable” category PETA brushes past as it explains its euthanasia statistics each year. I was expected and required to swallow my emotions for her for the good of all animals. I was expected to welcome her death as a positive outcome in order to maintain my employment.

Another time, I rescued an unloved dog whose body condition and personality were unremarkable, meaning there was no immediate indication for euthanasia. I quickly heard from my mom that she’d be interested in adopting him. I excitedly emailed the manager of the shelter to make this offer but never received a reply. A few days later, I checked in with her and was told that he had already been killed. There was no explanation given. But he was a pit bull, a breed who has often been central to many of these more mysterious cases, and I was petrified to ask for any further details. I stayed silent.

As I write, I’m reminded of a mandatory presentation some years ago about the euthanasia stance of the organization. We were flat-out told that we weren’t allowed to ask questions because the mic apparently wouldn’t pick them up in the recording for other offices. This explanation just didn’t make sense. I anonymously submitted a comment about my discomfort with this logic and was fed a carefully crafted bit about streamlining for efficient dissemination to a large audience. But questions were welcomed individually at any time, I was told.

Yet very few dared to submit questions that remotely challenged the prevailing ideology. Ultimately, the culture was terrifying and desensitizing — and I gradually felt that my view of death, of taking animals’ lives, was being warped, my emotions being stripped away.

I no longer could see where I ended and PETA began.

I finally left the organization in 2016 after a particularly intense period of micromanagement that left me having a panic attack in Human Resources. My colleague who supervised my work seemed completely baffled at why I was faltering under the stress of being sent on a sudden cross-state trip with little warning, during which I was sent an urgent assignment for the president of the organization and had the status of my other work checked up on behind my back — all while I was literally driving up the coast with animals in tow.

I felt as though my emotions over this extreme stress, and the 50-to-60-hour work weeks required to prove my dedication, were being interpreted as unreasonable. My colleague looked at me as though I thought the sky was falling when in his eyes it was a bright and sunny day. And as I departed, I was erased. After my years of dedication and contribution, I was struck by the realization that I had only really been a cog in their machine.

Imagine the true growth and innovation the organization could experience if employees like me were truly valued for their individuality and talents beyond their ability to fall in line.

But growth requires risk, and PETA is scared. PETA knows its enemies well, and its fear that animal agriculture operates on a multi-billion dollar budget to undermine animal rights work by exploiting the organization’s one real weakness is real and valid. Yet it uses that fear as an excuse to stifle any type of dissent, dismissing critiques, even from its allies and its own employees, as unfounded, stemming from enemy propaganda. It is willing to sacrifice the mental freedom of its employees for its misguided perception of the greater good. And somehow, in that process, it’s forgotten its own philosophical basis: that it operates to protect the rights of the individual. So a dog, a cat, an employee — as individuals, their well-being is often forgotten while PETA’s army presses on.

Before I ever dared write this, I had begun to feel hopeful that, possibly, things were evolving over the last few years since I left. But then, very recently, PETA put up an ad comparing the separation of mothers and children at the border to the separation of mother cows and their calves. My opinion on this tactic is not what matters here, although I feel fortunate that I am entitled to have an opinion at all. At PETA, however, employees cannot, because the founder sent everyone an email telling them that PETA was not the place to work if they disagreed with this ad.

Imagine dedicating years of your life to a cause you feel so completely passionate about — and then being told on a regular basis that if you dissent about one small thing like a case of euthanasia or an ad, you are worthless to that organization you’ve pledged such loyalty to. It is dangerous to one’s mental health, and I have spent years recovering from that, feeling all the while that there was something wrong with me for straying.

Since I finally spoke out on Facebook, I have heard anonymously from many. People whose work for animals in the community was attacked by PETA because it didn’t fall in line with the organization’s views on rescue work. Former employees who were forced to participate in euthanasias they didn’t believe in. People who were fired because they refused to do so. People whose medical decisions for their own animal companions — their family members — were challenged because of their employment there.

One former worker who came to me anonymously also noted, “Most of [euthanasia] staff believes that their ability to euthanize animals makes them ‘badass’ — to not want an animal euthanized is considered ‘weak.’ I strongly believe this is due to the fact that staff is desperate for the approval of supervisors, primarily [the head of CID].” The employee continued, “Considering how passionately PETA believes ‘euthanasia’ is an act of mercy (which it often is), they do not internally use the term. Rather they use the phrase ‘take care of’ — which, I believe, is to help them become desensitized to the procedure.”

This employee also informed me, “When questions would arise from non-CID staff regarding the whereabouts of surrendered animals (who had just been euthanized), I was told to direct them to [the head of CID] — as it was known that staff would be too intimidated to actually pursue asking her.”

A quick review of Glassdoor was also revealing. Said one former staffer, “Anyone disagreeing with even one tidbit of the official encyclopedia of PETA positions is seen as an enemy combatant. You have no autonomy; you’re a clone of the PETA ‘gods,’ or you’re out.”

And another: “Co-workers spy on you at work and in town, at the park, near your house — and then report you to HR. One friend was reported to HR because someone thought her dog’s nails were too long.” And yet another: “[The organization’s president] is of the mind that everyone is replaceable and if employees have complaints or concerns, they should work someplace else.”

In wrapping up this piece, I was drawn to some additional food for thought. In his work on modern cults, psychologist Len Oakes writes, “[T]he follower is embattled; to squarely confront the many failings of the leader and the group is to call into question one’s own great work. Only by daily recommitting himself can the follower continue to work toward his ultimate goal. Each follower works out a secret compromise, acknowledging some things while denying or distorting others. Clearly this is a high-risk strategy that may go awry.”

Clearly, at PETA, things have gone quite awry. But PETA is not the sole example of this attitude, I am certain. It is, however, the sole entity with which I have direct experience of this power dynamic at play. As activists, though, it is our job to be hyper-alert to this kind of activity, whenever and wherever it occurs, and to expose it.

Unfortunately for me, coming out publicly puts me at a very real risk of being ostracized from my community. But not to do so, at this point, would make me complicit with oppression — which I have pledged my life to dismantling. I hope, though, that those who might rush to attack me as an animal rights detractor take a moment to consider here that sometimes, by stifling freedom of thought within our own movement, we are positioning ourselves as a weaker player in our own fight.

I thought, when I wrote in The Dodo, that by arguing over euthanasia we were forgetting the real enemy, the animal-abusing industries themselves. I thought it was better to keep quiet. But then I realized that we aren’t fighting each other because of that enemy. We are fighting because of real oppression of freedoms within our own movement, and we can only be stronger in the face of our enemies when we turn our backs on that.

We are tasked with defending the rights of every single individual — dog, pig, human. So we must do better for every. Single. Individual.

UPDATE: Since publishing this story, I have been contacted by individuals from all over the country expressing their gratitude, and their own fear, about speaking out about their experiences. People who worked at PETA and were forced to lie about euthanasias, people who were forced to euthanize animals they loved as a condition of their employment, and people who were told by leadership that they were worthless. There are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of us. Most are still afraid to break their silence. But I am here as an example that you can still stay standing, and hold onto a supportive community, inside the movement, even after speaking up. As expected, I have also been contacted by current employees attempting to stifle me, claiming that I am harming the animals. Perhaps ironically, a major branding campaign of PETA’s several years ago was “Never be silent.” I guess, to leadership, that mantra can be selectively applied.

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The views expressed here are entirely my own and not representative of my employer.

Laura Lee Cascada is an activist and writer based out of Portsmouth, Virginia. She spends her time preparing her debut novel, Dellie’s Run (spring 2019), managing PR for the annual Hampton Roads VegFest, and speaking up against the plight of wild hermit crabs for the souvenir trade.