Vick Case Ignites Battle Over Animal Rights

The fur is flying in an increasingly acrimonious fight over animal rights between two nonprofit groups after revelations that NFL star Michael Vick ran a dogfighting ring.

The Center for Consumer Freedom took a full-page ad in The New York Times today, citing the Vick case and accusing rival organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of hypocrisy and animal euthanasia.

"Who's Killed More Animals," the ad asked — Michael Vick (8) or PETA (14,400)?

The Center for Consumer Freedom bought the ad for more than $181,000, the most expensive category of "political" display advertising in the prime "A" section, the Times told

"PETA loves to point the finger at others when they should be looking at their own record of killing more than 90 percent of the animals left in their care," according to the ad.

The group cited records from the Virginia state veterinarian and court documents on what it called PETA's "roving death van" that "killed dozens of dogs and cats, tossing them into a trash Dumpster."

By the end of today, PETA had faced off against its critics on "Your World" with Fox's Neil Cavuto.

PETA countered that it upholds its motto: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on." They said that the numbers cited in the ad are misleading and that the only way to avoid destroying animals is to spay and neuter pets.

Hidden Agenda

PETA put The Center for Consumer Freedom in its sights, which it says has a hidden agenda.

"This is typical of an organization that is basically opposed to everything that is good for Americans," said Daphna Nachminovitch, director of PETA's domestic animal department.

"We've struggled hard against the overpopulation crisis in the nation's 6 [million] to 8 million animals in shelters each year," she said. "Half are put to death and it's the fault of breeders and pet stores. It's a tragic necessity."

In other campaign ads, the center has defended food, alcohol and tobacco interests.

Some of its recent news releases include "Deep Fried Hysteria," "Banning Junk Food Isn't the Answer to Curbing Obesity," "Bird Flu Epidemic Not Likely" and "Vegetarian Diet and Cancer."

The Center for Consumer Freedom told its agenda is simply educational and PETA had "a nasty track record."

"We are very open about the fact that we are funded by the food companies, as well as getting a lot of money from individual donors," said Sarah Longwell, communications director. "We simply educate about the other side — the people wearing the white hats."

Longwell said the organization had a "dramatic" response from the ad and didn't mean to suggest that it approved of Vick's behavior.

"PETA is trying to exploit the issue for their own gain," she said. "They are not morally superior and they are not as credible as their name would suggest."

"They go around trying to judge people all the time for eating meat and wearing fur," Longwell said. "They do this under the guise of protecting animals."

Nachminovitch said the ad's claim that 90 percent of PETA's animals were euthanized was misleading.

Destroying Animals

The organization has spayed or neutered 45,000 animals since 2001, primarily in poor areas of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, where PETA is headquartered and where a high number of animals are abandoned, often left abused, sick or dying.

"Many of the animals that we take in for euthanasia are from the pounds where they are gassing them and shooting them," PETA's Nachminovitch said.

"This ad is not surprising," John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told "They've been getting millions of dollars to go after PETA. It's an ongoing saga."

The man behind the ads is Richard B. "Rick" Berman, a former labor management lawyer and restaurant industry executive, who, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, works as a lobbyist for those industries. As the sole owner of Berman & Co., he "fronts" groups that defend his clients' corporate interests.

According to a July 31, 2006, profile of Berman in USA Today, his company has 28 employees and takes in $10 million a year, an unknown amount of which goes to Berman and his bookkeeper wife.

Under various groups, Berman has gone after secondhand smoke, mercury in fish, mad cow disease and obesity.

"He primarily operates as a 501-c3 [IRS-declared nonprofit organization] and it's easy to hide whose giving him money," said Stauber. "Now he's taking advantage of all the public attention given to Vick to elevate the attack in a more visible way."

Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons' quarterback, pleaded guilty today to supplying most of the gambling money for fights on his southeastern Virginia property and endorsing the killing of poorly performing dogs.

Past Ties

Some of the industries who have funded Berman are the livestock trade, fast food industry and restaurants like Hooters. During the national secondhand smoke debate, Philip Morris was one of his clients, according to the Center for Democracy and Media.

"He sets up front groups with industry funding and then attacks the industries' critics," said Stauber, "but he keeps his funders out of the press."

The Center for Consumer Freedom must reveal its donors to the Internal Revenue Service, but not to the public. "People think nonprofits are quite transparent, but it's a great way of hiding your contributors," said Stauber.

PETA stands by its work for animals, despite the ad claims.

And what about the "death van" that The Center for Consumer Freedom claimed had whisked away scores of animals for death?

PETA says the men were acquitted on animal abuse charges, a fact the ad does not mention.

"One of the shelters was using a windowless, rusty gas box to kill animals en masse," she said. "Dozens of cats were killed in the box. Animals were sick with parvo [deadly virus] and drowned. One puppy was found eating a kitten."

Said Nachminovitch, "We were performing a kindness by giving them a good death."