February 20, 2011
PolitiFact is a valuable on-line tool that researches claims made by politicians and others as to their veracity. It is now carried on the Times Dispatch website where you can see its assessments of public statements that run the gamut from “True” to “Pants on Fire” and everything in between. It provides well-researched analyses of claims people have made in an effort to persuade others and it contributes significantly to ensuring honesty in public debate.
Recently, Warren Fiske, the Editor of PolitiFact, assessed a statement made by PETA in a sample letter that it is urging its supporters to send to governors across the country to persuade them to support mandatory spay/neuter laws. The statement is this: “In the U.S. alone, animal shelters must spend an estimated $2 billion in taxpayer money to take in, house, euthanize, and dispose of unwanted animals.” A PETA representative told Mr. Fiske that they had based this claim on a 1998 USA Today article. No kidding, PETA’s only source was an article that appeared well over a decade ago and that provided no citation or foundation for the claim when it appeared.
Mr. Fiske called me for my help in trying to confirm or refute this statement. Neither of us could find enough statistical data in reference sources to know for sure how much taxpayer money is spent in the US annually on sheltering homeless animals and taking their lives. It is a sad commentary that there is so little empirical data to be found. What was clear was that no current information backed up the PETA claim and that the organization had made no effort to be sure that the claim could be supported. As a result, PolitiFact termed the claim “fishy.” Well said.
To read the PolitiFact analysis of the PETA claim, go to this link: PETA's claim is fishy
Making wild and unsupportable claims has become a cottage industry among many who view themselves as animal activists. There seems to be a prevailing notion that playing fast and loose with the facts is okay if you are doing it in an effort to help homeless animals. In truth, making claims that cannot be supported with real facts and statistics does not help homeless animals because, at best, it damages the credibility of our cause with the public and, at worst, it makes us look like a bunch of kooks.
While we certainly agree with the general effort to urge support for spaying and neutering, there are complex issues that argue both for and against laws mandating the sterilization of pets. Those issues are beyond the scope of this particular column.
The point I am making here is that, regardless of the merits of the particular argument, people and organizations in the field of animal welfare must act responsibly to convey accurate information to the public and to take the time to be sure that we do not just pass on inaccuracies because it is easy and it helps support our point. When we lose the faith and trust of our communities then we have done the animals who need us the worse disservice of all.
What I promise you is this: what we say and write on behalf of the Richmond SPCA about issues relating to the concerns and needs of homeless animals will be as honest, well examined and well researched as we know how to make it. If we are not sure about something, we will say so. The most precious thing we have is your trust.
Robin Robertson Starr
Chief Executive Officer
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