Animal rights, writ too large?

Have you seen the billboards around town that say “Protect Your Right to Own a Pet”? They show a child hugging a puppy and provide a website,, flanked by international “no” symbols (a circle with a slash though it) containing the initials PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and HSUS (Humane Society of the United States).

When I first passed one a couple of weeks ago, I was confused. Are we supposed to imagine that a PETA activist is about to snatch the puppy from the boy’s hands because it’s his “pet” and not his “animal companion”? Or -- and I admit this reaction is the result of living in a neighborhood with, shall we say, “conflicting” philosophies about pet care -- was something else afoot? Was “protect your right to own a pet” code for “protect your sleazy right to keep your dog chained up in the yard all day”?

Admittedly, I can be a ridiculous softy when it comes to animals. Nothing riles me up more than the thought of animal abuse, and I personally don’t think it’s everyone’s “right” to own a pet. But I’m no radical either. I eat meat, I wear leather and I occasionally pay to let my dog herd sheep, which I have a feeling PETA wouldn’t appreciate (for the sheep’s sake).

So although I was pretty sure I wasn’t for this sign, was I necessarily against it? To find out, I had to call Kathy Grayson, a professional dog handler in Riverside County who is behind the signs. She said she was fed up with what she considers unfair legislation -- primarily mandatory spay and neutering laws -- furthered by what are in her view manipulative messages from PETA, the Humane Society and others. Spay and neutering laws punish those who responsibly breed and show dogs, she said. True, you can pay for exemptions, but Grayson maintains that it’s too easy for exemptions to be revoked. “I’d drive home from dog shows and pass all these empty billboards on the interstate,” she said. “I started to think how great it would be to put a sign in the middle of Hollywood telling people the truth about extremist groups.”


Grayson called the Lamar billboard company, which offered her not just a sign in Hollywood but 100 throughout L.A. for $6,000 a month. She began gathering donations, which led her to join forces with a group called the National Animal Interest Alliance, a nonprofit consortium of breeders, trainers, veterinarians, researchers and others who feel threatened by animal-rights and even animal welfare groups. The NAIA created the “expose animal rights” website and now technically sponsors the sign, though the design was a collaborative effort between Grayson and a Lamar designer.

When I told Grayson I’d read it as a possible defense of bad owners and breeders, she was shocked. “That thought never occurred to me,” she said. “Of course I’m against tethering a dog. Of course I’m against puppy mills. I’m trying to reach the people, the people who support PETA and HSUS without realizing that, if they get their way and we have mandatory sterilization and breeders have to go underground, there will eventually be no dogs left.”

Oh my.

Let’s back up for a second. I guess I can see why you’d put HSUS and PETA on the same billboard if you believe there’s no such thing as pet overpopulation and no reason to push for spay and neuter laws. Both of these groups agree that there are far too many unwanted animals in the world. But unless I missed the memo, they don’t have a lot else in common. PETA is pretty radical in its concern for animals; it just went after the president for killing a fly. The Humane Society is a mainstream anti-cruelty and animal-shelter organization.


Grayson (echoed by Patti Strand, founder of the NAIA) claims that both groups are against even responsible breeding. When I called Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, he told me that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, he said that when he went on “Oprah” to talk about puppy mills, his advice about getting a dog from a good breeder if you couldn’t adopt from a shelter incurred the wrath of PETA, which does object to all breeding.

So the more I found out, the more I thought confusion was the best response to the billboard. Based on my conversation with Grayson, I think what she meant to say with it would be more along the lines of “animal rights isn’t necessarily the same as animal welfare” or “only YOU should decide whether to spay or neuter your pet.”

If I’m right, it’s too bad the billboards don’t just say that. But then again, it’s not easy to satisfyingly distill the nuances of the issues. And maybe that was Grayson’s problem.

In other words, these ideas are complicated and sometimes subtle, not qualities generally conducive to communication via billboards. As a result, the message becomes a matter of interpretation -- and maybe even a traffic hazard as people like me scratch their heads trying to figure it out.


On the other hand, I have new respect for all those billboards for gentlemen’s clubs. You know exactly what they’re saying.