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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 2,000 dogs and cats each year at its animal-shelter in Norfolk.

The shelter does few adoptions: 19 cats and dogs in 2012 and 24 in 2011, according to state records.

At a time 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 vocal advocacy group that does not believe animals should be killed for food, fur coats or leather goods.

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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 an associate professor at the 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.”

As recently as a decade ago, it was common practice at shelters to euthanize large numbers of dogs and cats that had not been adopted.

But the no-kill movement has grown quickly, leaving PETA behind.

In New York City last year, 8,252 dogs and cats were euthanized, compared with 31,701 in 2003.

“Through spay, neuter, transfer and adoption programs, we think New York City can close the gap toward becoming a ‘no-kill community’ by 2015,” said Matthew Bershadker, the president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of 150 rescue groups and shelters that make up the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals.

While there is no uniform definition of what constitutes a no-kill community, it is generally considered to be a place where at least 90 percent of dogs and cats at local shelters are put up for adoption. In the first quarter of this year, 84 percent of dogs and cats from New York’s rescue groups and shelters were adopted, transferred or returned to their owners, compared with 76 percent for all of 2012.

For their part, 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 often better off dead than living in misery 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.”

In 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 the annual conference at George Washington University, being held next weekend, 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. In Virginia, 61,591 dogs and cats were euthanized last year, compared with 103,327 in 2004.

Out the Front Door, a blog that tracks no-kill communities, lists 161 that meet the 90 percent save rate; in 2001, there was just one, Tompkins County in upstate New York.

The no-kill conference at George Washington attracted 860 people in 2012; in 2005, at the first gathering, two dozen attended.

More than any other group, Maddie’s Fund, a foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area with a $300 million endowment, has been responsible for the spread of the no-kill movement. Started in 1999 by Cheryl and David Duffield, dot-com billionaires, and named after their miniature schnauzer, the organization has underwritten several national programs promoting the movement. They have financed shelter-care medical-training programs at 18 of the country’s 29 veterinary schools, the idea being that healthy animals are cheaper to house and are more likely to be adopted.

When Kate Hurley, director of shelter medicine at the University of California, Davis, first heard about the no-kill movement 20 years ago, she agreed with PETA. She believed no-kill was an unachievable policy, and that shelters claiming such a distinction were taking only the animals most likely to be adopted and forcing other shelters to euthanize the castoffs. “I felt in many places it wasn’t no-kill, it was kill elsewhere,” she said.

But her views have changed.

In a series of research projects on feline upper respiratory infection, she and her colleagues documented the huge impact the illness can have on shelter resources. Treatment required expensive medical care and a lengthy recovery, reducing the animal’s chances for adoption and taking up space that could be used for other homeless cats. By doubling the size of the cages, however, contagion was reduced, the rate of respiratory problems and costs went down, and adoptions increased.

Hurley has also been impressed by shelters that have started to take stray cats that would have been euthanized and instead spayed or neutered them, vaccinated them for rabies and released them back where they were found. “If they came from an alley, they know how to live in an alley, and if they’re spayed, they’re not making new cats,” she said. “The pieces for no-kill are in place. We just need to spread the word and make sure shelters have the resources and know-how.”

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