Ostensibly dedicated to “establishing and protecting the rights of all animals,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the largest animals rights organization in the world. Founded in 1980 and boasting a current membership of more than 850,000, PETA regards itself as an international nonprofit charitable organization. It maintains offices in Norfolk, Virginia; the United Kingdom; Germany; Asia-Pacific; and India.
PETA operates under a simple, self-stated principle – “that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.” Through the implementation of multifaceted media campaigns against fast-food companies, the creation of public service announcements featuring celebrity vegetarians, the organization of protests and rallies against the use of fur, and the persistent lobbying of legislators, PETA’s public persona is one of both education and activism. Like its ideological kin on the environmental and animal-rights Left, PETA places greater value on the welfare of animals than on the welfare of human beings.
PETA focuses its efforts on four main areas in which it believes that “the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time.” These are: factory farms, laboratories, the clothing industry, and the entertainment industry. Moreover, the group condemns the killing of pest animals, the use of animals in sports, and even the utilization of seeing-eye dogs for the blind.
PETA was founded by animal activists Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, who were inspired by ethics philosopher Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation; Newkirk continues to head the organization to this day. Throughout its history, PETA has tried numerous methods to bring a halt to what it deems abusive practices against animals – including calls for consumer boycotts of animal-tested products, and the enlistment of Members of Congress friendly to their cause. Among its accomplishments, the organization counts the following: an investigation of contract testing on animals by cosmetics companies, leading to a permanent ban on animal testing by Benetton, Avon, Revlon, and Estée Lauder; worldwide protests pressuring McDonald’s to become the first fast-food chain to agree to improve the living conditions of farm animals; and the decision by national chain stores such as Target, Walgreen’s, and Rite Aid to stop selling a toy known as AquaBabies, in which fish and frogs are kept in a small habitat container, which PETA views as imprisonment.
PETA, which has been described by Newkirk as an organization composed of “complete press sluts,” performs many dramatic and often vulgar stunts in order to garner media attention for its cause. From throwing buckets of red paint on people wearing furs, to enlisting actresses and models to wear lettuce fashioned as bikinis in order to promote veganism, PETA embraces controversy. One particular method that PETA’s campaigns employ is the use of religious themes. One of its advertisements, for instance, claimed that Jesus was a vegetarian. In a 2003 ad condemning the consumption of ham on Easter, PETA created a billboard featuring the photograph of a pig and a caption that read, “He Died For Your Sins – Go Vegetarian.” Said PETA spokesman William Rivas-Rivas, “All our faith-based billboards are meant to promote compassion, compassion for all God’s creatures.”
PETA has also aimed its message toward members of the Jewish faith. In addition to condemning the tradition of the Kosher slaughter, in one campaign PETA invoked the tragedy and loss of the Holocaust, equating the mass death of Jews with the wholesale slaughtering of animals for meat production. The campaign, titled “Holocaust on Your Plate,” declared that “like the Jews murdered in concentration camps, animals are terrorized when they are housed in huge filthy warehouses and rounded up for shipment to slaughter. The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.” When the Anti-Defamation League condemned the ad, PETA defended its position on grounds that “the logic and methods employed in factory farms and slaughterhouses are analogous to those used in concentration camps.” PETA remarked that in both instances, there exists a “concept of other cultures or other species as deficient and thus disposable, and that this indifference allows the slaughter to continue.”
In another campaign of recent years, PETA has called, unsuccessfully, for such cities as Hamburg and Frankfurt, Germany to change their names due to the association with the exploitation of animals for food (hamburgers and hotdogs, respectively). The organization has also asked the town of Fishkill, New York to change its name.
Many of PETA’s campaigns are directed specifically at children, and the organization has created a website, PETAKIDS.com, that indoctrinates youngsters in its ideology. On this website, children are taught, among other things, to oppose the wearing of fur clothing, to boycott zoos and circuses, to abstain from drinking drink milk, to refuse to participate in science classes that require animal dissections, and to “save animals’ lives” by becoming vegetarians. PETA also produces a magazine for children titledGRRR! Kids Bite Back, which derives its name from the catchphrase, “Bite Back,” popularized by the domestic terrorist group the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). PETA has also produced a comic pamphlet, called “Your Mommy Kills Animals!,” which depicts a woman stabbing a rabbit and is intended to arouse children’s outrage at the prospect of their mothers wearing fur garments. A counterpart pamphlet, titled “Your Daddy Kills Animals!,” compares fathers who go fishing to predators who steal children, and advises youngsters to keep their family dog and cat away from their father, lest he try to kill them as well.
Newkirk herself is intent on fashioning her own death into a PETA campaign. It has been reported that in her will, Newkirk has asked that her body be processed into Newkirk Nuggets (akin to chicken nuggets), which she stipulates must be grilled on a barbeque. She also asks that her feet be amputated and turned into umbrella stands and that her body be skinned and manufactured into wallets.
In 2005, PETA sought to compare animals to slaves in its campaign titled, “Are Animals the New Slaves?” This campaign featured an exhibit in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, which drew analogies between the past enslavement of African-Americans and present-day cruelty to animals. The press release for the exhibit stated:
"The exhibit reminds observers that not long ago, it wasn’t just other animals who were persecuted because they were deemed inferior. The display includes images of slaves who were chained, beaten, branded, and forcibly separated from their families; Native Americans who were evicted from their ancestral lands; women who fought for the right not to be treated as their husbands’ property; and children forced to work long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Today, animals are chained and beaten to perform in circuses; poisoned and cut open in laboratories; and bludgeoned, drowned, and electrocuted for their skins. Mothers and their offspring are separated, auctioned off, mutilated, and killed for their flesh."
"‘Today, we all remember the abuses of the past as shameful and wrong yet forget that changes only came about after an uphill battle to open people’s hearts and minds to the plight of others,’ says PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. ‘We’re calling for that same consideration now for feeling, thinking animals who are exploited, hurt, and killed for reasons that are no longer tolerable in a just society.’"
This comparison between human and animal life is a reccurring theme in PETA’s work. Says Newkirk, “When it comes to feelings such as pain, fear, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” This moral equivalence not only fuses PETA’s public campaigns, but also leads the organization to forge alliances with animal rights extremists and domestic terrorist outfits.
In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of its website, PETA poses the question, “How can you justify the millions of dollars of property damage caused by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF)?” It answers as follows:
“Throughout history, some people have felt the need to break the law to fight injustice. The Underground Railroad and the French Resistance are examples of movements in which people broke the law in order to answer to a higher morality. The ALF, which is simply the name adopted by people who act illegally in behalf of animal rights, breaks inanimate objects such as stereotaxic devices and decapitators in order to save lives. ALF members burn empty buildings in which animals are tortured and killed. ALF ‘raids’ have given us proof of horrific cruelty that would not have otherwise been discovered or believed and have resulted in criminal charges’ being filed against laboratories for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Often, ALF raids have been followed by widespread scientific condemnation of the practices occurring in the targeted labs, and some abusive laboratories have been permanently shut down as a result.”
ALF, which holds a spot on the FBI’s list of terrorist organizations, is the most active, extreme animal-rights group in America. Its self-defined mission is “to effectively allocate resources (time and money) to reduce animal suffering in the world.” Toward this end, ALF states that it “carries out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through the damage and destruction of property.” Between 1997 and 2003, ALF caused, in conjunction with the radical environmentalist Earth Liberation Front, approximately $43 million in property damage.
PETA’s hierarchy has made a number of specific statements in support of ALF and other radical groups. In a 1991 press release, for instance, PETA stated, “We cannot condemn the Animal Liberation Front ... they act courageously ... [their activities] comprise an important part of today's animal protection movement.” PETA’s so-called “vegan campaign director,” Bruce Friedrich, at an animal rights convention in 2001, said to the throngs in attendance, “blowing stuff up and smashing windows [is] a great way to bring about animal liberation.” In 1989, PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco opined, “Arson, property destruction, burglary, and theft are acceptable crimes when used for the animal cause.” Newkirk herself has said, “I will be the last person to condemn ALF.”
But in addition to merely voicing support for the actions and activities of ALF, PETA has also lent financial aid to the terrorist group and to some of its key members. In 1997, PETA gave $2,000 to ALF, following the latter’s firebombing of the Utah Fur Breeders Agricultural Co-op. In 1999, PETA gave an additional $2,000 to ALF spokesman David Wilson. In 2000, PETA gave $5,000 to the “Josh Harper Support Committee,” named for an ALF member who had been arrested and convicted of assaulting a police officer.
The most egregious example of PETA’s support for terrorism involves the case of ALF member Rodney Coronado. In 1995 Coronado was arrested for an act of arson at Michigan State University, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage, and for which Coronado was sentenced to 57 months in prison. At his sentencing, it was learned that PETA president Ingrid Newkirk had arranged for Coronado to send her two FedEx packages containing documents that Coronado had seized from the University’s research facility, as well as photographs of Coronado in a ski mask – the typical outfit worn by ALF members. Following the incident and Coronado’s subsequent arrest, PETA gave $45,200 to his “support committee,” plus an additional loan of $25,000 to Coronado’s father. In her book, Free the Animals! The Untold Story of the U.S. Animal Liberation Front and Its Founder, ‘Valerie,’ Newkirk writes: “The ALF has, over the years, trusted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to receive copies of the evidence of wrongdoing … I have also become somewhat used to jumping on a plane with copies of freshly purloined documents and hurriedly calling news conferences to discuss the ALF’s findings.”
It was reported that after his release from jail, at a 2003 event at American University, Coronado taught students how to turn a milk jug into a firebomb. Using this technique, days later ALF members attempted to burn down a McDonald’s restaurant in Chico, California.
In addition to its support for ALF, PETA has also sought to inject its own agendas into discussions about acts of international terrorism. In 2003, for instance, following a report of a donkey laden with explosives that was used in a Palestinian terrorist attempt to kill Israeli soldiers, Newkirk wrote a letter to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat (who she addressed as “Your Excellency”), calling for him to “appeal to all those who listen to [him] to leave the animals out of this conflict.” Newkirk did not ask Arafat to put an end to all suicide bombings, but implored rather that animals not be used in such attacks.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., PETA issued a press release that said the following: “Due to the tremendous loss of human lives, there will undoubtedly be many animals left orphaned. Other animals are trapped in buildings that have been evacuated and to which people have learned they are unable to return. PETA's headquarters is receiving calls from desperate New York City residents whose companion animals are trapped inside now vacated apartments, some so close to the World Trade Center that the animals inside can only be highly traumatized by the explosions, the sirens, the noise, the shaking ground, the smoke, and now the unexplained absence of their families.”
PETA further used the occasion to criticize Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, declaring that he “has a poor record when it comes to animals.” At the end of the press release, PETA provided contact information for the mayor, and urged, “If you have a difficult time getting through to Mayor Giuliani due to phone line trouble, please don't give up; keep trying.” This occurred while Giuliani was dealing with the largest loss of human life stemming from a single event in American history.
PETA had previously made headlines as a result of its correspondences with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people died and some 500 were wounded. McVeigh chose (by PETA’s urging) to eat vegetarian cuisine as his final meal before his execution. Regarding this, PETA’s vegan campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich said, “Mr. McVeigh's decision to go vegetarian groups him with some of the world's greatest visionaries, including Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Albert Einstein, all of whom advocated vegetarianism as an extension of humanitarianism.”
In light of PETA’s ostensibly hardline stance on animal rights and animal liberation, it is surprising for most people to learn that PETA actually kills many animals. Between 1998 and 2004, PETA reportedly euthanized more than 12,400 dogs, cats, and other animals at its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia.
In June of 2005, police arrested PETA employees Andrew Benjamin Cook and Adria Joy Hinkle, who were attempting to dispose of dead animals in a garbage dumpster in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Police had observed that more than 100 animal carcasses had been dumped at the particular location every Wednesday over a month’s time. The two PETA employees were charged with 22 felony charges of animal cruelty.They were also charged with three additional felony charges of “obtaining property by false pretense,” due to their euthanizing of three cats, obtained from a veterinarian, for which PETA had promised to find new homes. In response to these allegations, Newkirk said, “PETA has never made a secret of the fact that most of the animals picked up in North Carolina are euthanized.”
PETA’s income for 2004 reportedly exceeded $28 Million. The organization has received funding from such sources as: the Glaser Progress Foundation, which was founded by RealNetworks, Inc creator Rob Glaser; Animal Charities of America; American Foundation Corporation; the Park Foundation; the Richard and Marcy Horvitz Foundation; the Pond Foundation; the Diane Warren Foundation; the Alexander Foundation, and the Tides Foundation. In 2005, the Comedy Central Network donated $200,000 to PETA in recompense for celebrity animal-rights activist Pamela Anderson's appearance at a celebrity roast.
PETA has also attracted support from numerous celebrities over the years. These include such notables as Joaquin Phoenix; Charlize Theron; Anna Nicole Smith; Pink; Moby; Dennis Rodman; Martina Navratilova; Sean Astin; Paul McCartney; Christy Turlington; Chrissie Hynde; Michael Stipe; Belinda Carlisle; Alicia Silverstone; Lorenzo Lamas; Howard Jones; the Indigo Girls; Good Charlotte; Alec Baldwin; and Bill Maher.