Journalists, activists and coroners - they'd all be out of business if it weren't for good old atrocity. This was the contradiction on my mind as I viewed a video from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).The video, taken secretly in a lab contracted by pet food companies to research ingredients, shows dogs spinning around and around feverishly in small cages looking for something they'll never find, or frantically clawing at the bars. All the animals live in cages with slatted metal floors, which may not sound cruel until you think about making a barefoot human do the same.
The press release named an Ontario pet food company that used the services of the laboratory. I got a call from the videographer, who got a job at the lab just to document it. "It was definitely the most difficult thing I've done," she says. "But I could leave every day - the animals couldn't. In the end I left and they're still there" - unless you count the injured ones whose veterinary care was euthanasia.
It's not something people tend to think about - animals losing their minds. I don't mean a dog freaking out at a vacuum cleaner. I mean animals having their minds atrophy through systematic neglect and nonchalant cruelty.
In trying to get publicity with the images, PETA is encouraging consumers to boycott numerous brands of pet food that use the services of this lab. Naturally, you want to know which brands and which lab. I can't tell you.
Here's something else people tend not to think about - journalists losing their minds. I don't mean a writer freaking out at a fax machine. I mean that I've figured out while working on this story that the most efficient way to get a reporter to stone-cold flip out is to call him up, tell him you have a really juicy scandal and then keep saying "off the record' because you can't name half those involved.
PETA did name the local pet food company in question but refused to tell me the name of the lab in the video, so it was impossible to connect the dots. You don't go around dragging a company's name in the dirt unless you've got the goods.
PETA has a worldwide rep for pushing the the envelope when it comes to defending animal rights. It may be that they've become too good at their job, and fear libel suits like the one slapped on them when they conducted a similar undercover study of Britain's Huntingdon Life Sciences a few years back. HLS brought a multi-million-dollar suit against PETA, which, facing the prospect of being mugged, settled out of court. "Not because we believed we'd done anything wrong," says PETA's Peter Wood, "but because we didn't have the funds to engage in a protracted court battle."
In terms of the lab video, it's also on the group's Web site, and Wood says, "We wouldn't put pictures on our Web site unless we were sure they were true."
Even if it means being sued?
"It is something we think about," he says. "But if we come across a matter that has to be told, we will do so no matter what the consequences." Unless those consequences are journalists asking for simple proofs.
A spokesperson from "the local company" says that since they perform no animal testing, she had no comment. Obviously having been alerted to the PETA press release, she ventured, "I believe that lab existed at one time."
If nothing else, all this has been an education in how money talks and the rest of us have to be sure not to interrupt. Meanwhile, animals live in cages and get tortured. Allegedly. For all our rumoured sophistication, big things picking on smaller things is still the rule.
So where does that leave us? There's a company somewhere using some lab somewhere to do something to some animals. And I can't tell you any more than that. But somehow, I think you already know the story.