Feathers ruffled over Pets Lifeline auction item

What was intended as a well-meaning offer for the culinary elite of Sonoma turned into heartburn for Pets Lifeline animal rescue center, as an auction item featuring a foie gras and duck multi-course dinner sparked a firestorm of Facebook posts and emails from animal rights activists.

Alerted this week by a board member who lives in Marin, the organization Animal Place publicized on its Facebook page the foie gras auction item for Pets Lifeline’s Paws for a Cause fundraiser, to be held Saturday, July 30 in Sonoma. Animal Place, currently based in Grass Valley, is a farm animal sanctuary with a Vacaville rescue, adoption and rehabilitation site, according to executive director Kim Sturla.

“We reach out to humane societies and SPCAs and encourage them to adapt a more animal-friendly diet for their functions,” said Sturla. Though Sturla says they usually contact shelter directors through email or phone calls, she said she was “astounded” by the Pets Lifeline auction item.

“I think all of us were combined baffled and astounded and angry all at once,” said Sturla. “Why in the world would anyone, especially a humane society, auction off foie gras?”

Nancy King, the director of Pets Lifeline here in Sonoma, characterized the auction item as “a dinner from a private donor,” directed at “the foodies that we are in Sonoma.”

The announcement of the auction item, which was forwarded to the Index-Tribune by Animal Place, announced a “real special treat dinner” for 10 at a private home in Kenwood, featuring a menu of “foie gras served 3 ways, an amazing duck multi-course dinner.” It was donated in part by Artisan Foie Gras, also known as Sonoma Foie Gras, which still produces the enriched duck liver delicacy at a ranch in the Central Valley.

In a statement, King said the organization first became concerned about the auction item after hearing concerns from local residents, and removed it from the event offerings. “We feel that the production of foie gras promotes animal cruelty, and therefore removed the item,” the statement read.

King further said, “We don’t advocate animal cruelty, which is why when we saw (the auction item), we said, ‘Oh, foie gras, we can’t do that!’” She said that the item was removed “kind of simultaneously” with the protests the organization received.

Sturla was skeptical that the item was removed prior to her organization’s alert.

On Monday, July 25, Animal Place posted the auction item graphic, with a banner reading, “Celebrating animals by selling animal cruelty?” that urged people to contact Pets Lifeline’s Facebook page, or email Nancy King directly, asking them to remove the auction item and serve an animal-friendly menu at their event.

“I do understand that most people don’t view pigs or cows or chickens with the same amount of concern or compassion as they do dogs and cats, our pet animals,” said Sturla. “I recognize that, but I do challenge it.”

Sturla, who said she formerly ran a humane society and animal control agency, asks that humane societies “try to role-model as much compassion to all animal species as they can.”

“We proactively reach out to humane societies, encourage them to change their functions to vegetarian or vegan, and explain why from an animal welfare perspective, for health, for the environment. I kind of liken it to the lung [cancer] association having ashtrays on their dinner table.” Their website includes what Sturla calls a support services “tool kit” with video at foodforthoughtcampaign.org.

The menu for the Paws for a Cause dinner features primarily vegetarian dishes, though it does include beef skewer hors d’oeuvres, Berkeley porchetta (from boned pig) and chicken Veracruz. “This menu has historically been well-received by our guests, and we respect their rights to choose items that best meet their dietary needs,” said King.

“Animal Place tried to help Pets Lifeline in the past, but they were not interested in aligning their menu policy with their mission,” said Gary Smith, a publicist for Animal Place. Sturla said they had been in touch with Pets Lifeline in 2014 and 2015.

“I have never spoken to or remember having any email correspondence with anyone about this issue,” responded King.

As to whether Pets Lifeline’s “menu policy,” as Smith puts it, aligns with its organizational mission is open to debate. On its website, Pets Lifeline says its mission is to “protect and improve the lives of cats and dogs in need in Sonoma Valley through sheltering and adoption, humane education and community programs.”

Sturla said this was the first time her organization had taken to social media in contacting a shelter over its event menu. “To be honest with you we’ve never done a viral outreach. Our communication with shelters is to the executive director through emails and phone calls and meetings, and we also table at all their events. It’s never taken on the tone of being combative, at all.”

She said they posted the message on Facebook on July 25, “and invited people to make comments, and we underscored polite and cordial comments, on their Facebook page.” But King had a less sanguine reaction to the comments she received.

“It went absolutely viral, we’ve been targeted by the social media trollers regarding the whole thing.”

Initially Pets Lifeline removed all the negative posts, but on the advice of social media consultant Word Mice they left the messages up. “We’ve found that deleted messages inflames people. They get made because they want to be heard,” said Donna Hays of Word Mice. “If you acknowledge what they have to say, it tends to turn the negative into a positive.”

A number of the posts remain on the events page for Paws for a Cause, on the one hand thanking Pets Lifeline for removing the auction item but including comments that levy accusations of animal cruelty regarding serving meat at Paws for a Cause.

King’s statement concludes, “We regret that those who claim to be working toward improving the lives of animals would attack a small organization who, last year, rescued and sheltered over 500 cats and dogs and successfully facilitated over 421 adoptions and returned 67 lost animals to their grateful owners.”

Tickets are still available for the Paws for a Cause dinner and benefit auction through the Pets Lifeline Facebook page.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.