NORFOLK, Va. Even some supporters do not know what to make of it.
PETA, considered by many to be the highest-profile animal rights group in the country, kills an average of about 2,000 dogs and cats each year at its animal shelter here.
And the shelter does few adoptions 19 cats and dogs in 2012 and 24 in 2011, according to state records.
At a time when the major animal protection groups have moved to a "no kill" shelter model, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals remains a holdout, confounding some and incensing others who know the organization as a very vocal advocacy group that does not believe animals should be killed for food, fur coats or leather goods.
This is an organization that on Thanksgiving urges Americans not to eat turkey.
"Honestly, I don't understand it," says Joan Schaffner, an animal rights lawyer and associate professor at George Washington University Law School, which hosts an annual no-kill conference. "PETA does lots of good for animals, but I could never support them on this."
But officials at PETA, which has its headquarters and only shelter in Norfolk, say the animals it rescues are in such bad shape from mistreatment and neglect that they are better off dead than living on the streets or with abusive owners.
"It's nice for people who've never worked in a shelter to have this idealistic view that every animal can be saved," said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's vice president for cruelty investigations. "They don't see what awful physical and emotional pain these poor dogs and cats suffer."
Over the past 30 years, PETA has run highly publicized campaigns targeting corporations for the way they treat animals, taking aim at Ringling Brothers (circus elephants), McDonald's (chickens) and General Motors (test crash pigs). Their annual "We'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign, featuring nude models, is a public relations legend.
But lately the protester is being protested; PETA has become the No. 1 target among supporters of no-kill shelters. At next weekend's annual conference at George Washington, seminars focus on ways to challenge PETA's policies.
Nathan Winograd, a leading no-kill activist, criticized PETA on his blog recently for "its long and sordid tradition of undermining the movement to end shelter killing."
There are no national figures on the number of shelter animals adopted or euthanized each year, but several states keep records, as do a few private organizations. From that data the trend is clear: Adoptions are up, and euthanasia is down.
In California, for example, 176,900 dogs were euthanized in 2011, compared with 303,000 in 1997, when the state started keeping track. In that same period, adoptions have climbed to 137,700 from 84,000.