PETA “Shocking Statements” Found Non-Defamatory

In Moore et al v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Illinois Appellate Court held that statements made by PETA about a dog trainer and her company were non-defamatory.  The statements described plaintiffs as training dogs by placing electronic collars on their genitals and included descriptions that “the Bichon was literally lifted into the air, that’s how strong the shock was.”  The court found that the statements were not actionable because there was “no positive factual statement of cruelty to animals.”  The court noted that plaintiffs’ own literature described that their training methodology included placing multiple electronic collars on dogs’ necks and “hindquarters.”   The court reasoned that if the plaintiffs own literature did not demonstrate “animal cruelty and in fact touts the uniqueness of her dog training” then the PETA statements did not either.  Further, the court found that the statements were substantially true because genitals “reside in the hindquarters of dogs.”  In addition, the court found that the statements could be innocently construed because they were mere reactions and descriptions by witnesses to the training and witnesses could be “disturbed by a wide range of behavior and, therefore, cannot be accused of defamation when that person is reacting to such behavior.”

It could be argued that the fact that the plaintiffs’ use of electronic collars on the dogs’ “hindquarters” is substantively different than an accusation that they placed electronic collars to deliver a shock to dogs’ genitals, and that the latter constitutes criminal animal cruelty and unethical treatment but the former does not.  The statements alleged to be defamatory also raised the number of times a dog was shocked in the course of training.  Thus, another court could have found that plaintiffs’ admissions to using the multiple collar technique did not, in and of itself, show that the defamatory sting was substantially true or demonstrate an innocent construction.

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