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Animal-Rights Group Targets O.C. Vet Who Is an Avid Hunter

Pet insurance firm owner Jack L. Stephens is hypocritical for engaging in pastime, critics say.

August 23, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

On the Web site devoted to his animal insurance business and a nonprofit foundation he created to celebrate the healing power of pets, prominent Orange County veterinarian Jack L. Stephens proclaims his love for nonhumankind.

"Very simply," the owner of nine dogs and two cats writes in an online resume, "I founded a pet insurance company to see that pets get the best of care and not have to be put to sleep." Discouraged by the prevalence of "economic euthanasia," Stephens "decided to do as much as he could to help as many pets as possible," the resume says.

All of which would seem to make him an unlikely target for the wrath of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a powerful animal-rights organization. The problem, PETA charges, is that Stephens is also an avid hunter and frequent participant in African safaris on which he bags big-game "trophy" animals whose heads end up on his wall.

A spokesman for Brea-based Veterinary Pet Insurance Inc., the company Stephens founded and leads, said Stephens makes no secret of his pastime. "It's certainly not something he's ever tried to hide," David Reiseman said. "Tons of people in the industry have known [and] he's never made any bones about the fact that he hunts."

Stephens, the spokesman said, was out of town and unavailable for comment. Reiseman could not say whether the former veterinarian -- who no longer has a practice and concentrates instead on VPI, one of the nation's oldest and largest pet insurance firms -- was on a safari. If he were, however, it's possible that it was organized by Grassland Safaris, which sponsors frequent hunting trips to South Africa and lists Stephens as a reference on its Web site.

"We have some excellent shooting and hunting," a spokesman assures potential customers browsing the Internet. "I've had numerous American hunters over the past seven years, and we got along very well."

PETA became aware of what it describes as Stephens "hypocritical" avocation while investigating allegations of animal abuse at a Missouri laboratory used by, among others, the Iams Co., a big producer of pet food and a major investor in VPI. In an effort to elicit Stephens' support against Iams, PETA spokeswoman Mary Beth Sweetland said, PETA wrote Stephens a letter alerting him about their findings. But instead of hearing back from him, she said, the organization received several anonymous e-mails describing his interest in hunting.

"I think most people would never suspect that a vet would be out killing animals deliberately to hang their heads on his walls," Sweetland said. "Hypocritical is an understatement. Hunting is a blood sport done for no other reason than ego gratification. It's a very selfish endeavor. There's nothing redeeming about the wholesale slaughter of exotic animals."

Earlier this week, PETA posted a notice on its Web site urging a boycott of Stephens' company.

Reiseman, however, insists that the real target lies somewhere else. "Truly," he said, "this is a pretty transparent attempt by PETA to use [us] to get to Iams."

The bottom line, he said, is that what Stephens does in his free time is no one else's business.

"Our company does not take a corporate position on hunting, and Jack is an employee of the company," he said. "We don't restrict or monitor an employee's right to participate in activities outside of work."

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