Dedicated to “establishing and protecting the rights of all animals,” the Norfolk, Virginia-based 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 two million people, PETA describes itself as an international nonprofit charitable organization that maintains branch offices in the United Kingdom, Germany, India, and the Asia-Pacific region. Operating on the principle “that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment,” PETA focuses its efforts on four main areas wherein it believes that “the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time.” These are:
- Food: “Farmed animals … suffer horrific abuse … You can be a voice for these animals by advocating veganism.”
- Clothing: This campaign impugns the leather, wool, and fur industries for the suffering they inflict on cows, lambs, minks, raccoons, foxes, beavers, and other animals.
- Experimentation: “Many household products and cosmetics companies still pump their products into animals’ stomachs, rub them onto their skin, squirt them into their eyes, or force animals to inhale them as aerosol sprays. … New research methods … are more accurate, less expensive, and much more humane.”
- Entertainment: “Trainers use abusive tools … and force [animals] to perform. … [T]hese animals should be in their natural habitat, exploring, seeking mates, and raising families.”
In addition to the foregoing objections, PETA also condemns the killing of pest animals, the use of animals in sports, and the utilization of seeing-eye dogs for the blind. Through the implementation of multifaceted media campaigns and boycotts against fast-food companies, the creation of public service announcements featuring celebrity vegetarians, the organization of protests and rallies against the use of animal skins and furs, and the persistent lobbying of legislators, PETA’s public persona is one of both education and activism.
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. Described by Newkirk as an organization composed of “complete press sluts,” PETA performs many dramatic 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.
Some PETA campaigns make 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.” On Good Friday 2005 in Vienna, Austria, PETA activists gathered outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where they mock-crucified some of their members who were wearing animal masks. Some of the activists carried signs reading “Du sollst nicht töten,” German for “Thou shalt not kill.” Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, PETA tried unsuccessfully to display a billboard Easter message featuring a bloody, crucified lamb — seeking to depict the killing of animals for food purposes as a barbaric act that violates biblical teachings. Another PETA ad 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.” A 2005 PETA campaign titled “Are Animals the New Slaves?” featured an exhibit in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, which drew parallels between the past enslavement of African-Americans and present-day cruelty to animals. In recent years, PETA has called for such cities as Hamburg (Germany), Frankfurt (Germany), and Fishkill (New York) to change their names because they conjure up images of the slaughter of animals for food and other purposes.
PETA has created a website, PETAKIDS.com, that indoctrinates youngsters in the organization’s ideology. On this website, children are taught to oppose the wearing of fur clothing, to boycott zoos and circuses, to abstain from drinking 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 titled GRRR! Kids Bite Back, which derives its name from the catchphrase, “Bite Back,” popularized by the domestic terrorist group Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In addition, PETA has 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.
PETA’s hierarchy has made a number of specific statements in support of the Animal Liberation Front. “Throughout history, says PETA, 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 … breaks inanimate objects … in order to save lives.” In 1989, PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco opined, “Arson, property destruction, burglary, and theft are acceptable crimes when used for the animal cause.” In a 1991 press release, 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 “vegan campaign director,” Bruce Friedrich, at an animal rights convention in 2001, said that “blowing stuff up and smashing windows [is] a great way to bring about animal liberation.” Ingrid Newkirk has said, “I will be the last person to condemn ALF.”
Following the 1995 arrest of ALF member Rodney Coronado for an act of arson at Michigan State University that caused millions of dollars worth of damage — and for which Coronado was sentenced to 57 months in prison — PETA gave $45,200 to his “support committee,” plus an additional loan of $25,000 to Coronado’s father. Newkirk also 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 — which is typically worn by ALF members seeking to conceal their identities. 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. And in 2000, PETA donated $5,000 to the “Josh Harper Support Committee,” named for an ALF member who had been arrested and convicted of assaulting a police officer.
PETA also 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 (at PETA’s urging) to eat vegetarian cuisine as his final meal before his June 11, 2001 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.”
Toni Vernelli, a onetime coordinator of European operations for PETA, said that in 1997 she terminated her pregnancy in order to reduce her “carbon footprint.” Resolved that the “mistake” of pregnancy should never again befall her, she begged the doctor who performed the abortion to sterilize her at the same time. He refused, but Miss Vernelli “relentlessly hunted down” a doctor who would perform the surgery. In 1999 she found one. “Having children is selfish,” said Vernelli. “It’s all about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet. Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.” PETA officials have spoken out against the Iraq War on numerous occasions, in part because the U.S. military trains many dogs for such battlefield-related purposes as detecting bombs and land mines, and rescuing wounded soldiers. Among the preferred breeds for these duties are the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd. Says PETA spokesman Arathi Jayaram, “These animals never enlisted; they know nothing of Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and they probably won’t survive.”
In December 2005, PETA co-founder and President Ingrid Newkirk was a featured speaker at a Bethlehem-based International Nonviolence Conference sponsored jointly by Nonviolence International and the Holy Land Trust. Newkirk declared that “to allow one form of violence to exist while asking for the eradication of the other is painfully hypocritical.… Every day, millions of animals, who pledge allegiance to no flag, and who have done nothing to provoke aggression, are the victims of the longest running undeclared war in human history: the war on the animal nations.” Among Newkirk’s fellow speakers at the aforementioned conference were Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority; Naim Ateek, Director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem; Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees; Cindy Corrie, mother of the late International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie; Martin Luther King III; and Riad Malki, a member of the Palestine National Council. The speakers were generally individuals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and inclined to view Israel as an oppressor nation. The more notable organizations that participated in the conference included Christian Peacemaker Teams, the International Solidarity Movement, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.
In January 2003, PETA protested when a Palestinian bomb was strapped to the back of a donkey and detonated remotely as an Israeli bus passed by, killing the animal (but no bus passengers) in the process. In response to this event, Ingrid Newkirk sent Yasser Arafat a fax that read, in part:
“Your Excellency … We have received many calls and letters from many people shocked at the bombing … in which a live donkey, laden with explosives, was intentionally blown up. All nations behave abominably in many ways when they are fighting their enemies, and animals are always caught in the crossfire. The U.S. Army abandoned thousands of loyal service dogs in Vietnam. Al Qaeda and the British government have both used animals in hideously cruel biological weaponry tests. We watched on television as stray cats in your own compound fled as best they could from Israeli bulldozers…. If you have the opportunity, will you please add to your burdens my request that you appeal to all those who listen to you to leave the animals out of this conflict?”
In December 2005 The New York Times reported that PETA had been the subject of an FBI investigation into the group’s possible ties to violent terrorist groups like the Earth Liberation Front (to which PETA gave $1,500 in 2001) and the Animal Liberation Front. PETA characterized the investigation as a violation of its members’ civil liberties. The organization’s general counsel, Jeff Kerr, called the it a “shocking and outrageous” example of “an abuse of power by the FBI,” whereby “groups like Greenpeace and PETA are basically being punished for their social activism.”
PETA is an extremely wealthy organization. Its income for 2004 reportedly exceeded $28 million. The organization has received funding from such sources as: the Alexander Foundation, the American Foundation Corporation, the Bank of America Foundation, the Glaser Progress Foundation, the Richard and Marcy Horvitz Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Peninsula Community Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Pond Foundation, the Reiman Foundation, the San Diego Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Vanguard Public Foundation, and the Diane Warren 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 Sean Astin, Alec Baldwin, Belinda Carlisle, Good Charlotte, Chrissie Hynde, the Indigo Girls, Howard Jones, Lorenzo Lamas, Bill Maher, Paul McCartney, Moby, Martina Navratilova, Joaquin Phoenix, Pink, Dennis Rodman, Alicia Silverstone, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Stipe, Charlize Theron, and Christy Turlington.