When I was in college in the late 1980s, I was introduced to an organization people were uncertain of how to pronounce but still eager to discuss. People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals, which was known from its founding as its acronym, was pronounced as pet-a by some, like the word pet with a graceful ah at the end. Others knew that PETA had a hard e, and it was pronounced like the word pita bread, an essential part of the falafel sandwiches we had all recently discovered. However it was pronounced, though, the name started gaining broader recognition during my college years: it was the passionate, heady time in my life when I was discovering the sort of person I wanted to be, and PETA’s uncompromising, bold message was very much in synch with that. There were flyers of rabbits being tortured by Revlon laboratories stuck to the bulletin board in the Art and Design Building by pushpin; there were brochures produced by PETA and passed out by the university’s animal rights club at any opportunity. Their message was unambiguous and staccato, like a hammer hitting a nail repeatedly: Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment. PETA’s stance helped to fuel my revolutionary zeal.
Fast-forward twenty years, and the PETA of today is virtually unrecognizable from that stalwart grassroots organization founded by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco in 1980. They exploded on the scene that year with their undercover investigation of the staggeringly brutal experimentation performed on macaque monkeys in the Silver Springs, Maryland Institute of Behavioral Research, transforming PETA from what Newkirk called, “five people in a basement” to the juggernaut they are today, with offices in eleven countries, nearly two hundred employees, two million members, $31 million in revenue and the power to make a powerful CEO sweat at the mere utterance of their name. Clearly, PETA has moved up a floor or two from the basement: in fact, they have their own building in Norfolk, Virginia. I visited PETA’s office building almost seven years ago after hours with my friend who worked there, and it was a little overwhelming walking down those halls, a whole building of people working full time to change the public’s attitudes about non-humans. Other than the entirely vegan vending machines and mixed breed dogs resting on cushy beds in the various offices, it looked just like any other corporate business building. It was impressive and underwhelming at the same time with its normalcy.
Looking at PETA in 2009, though, it is obvious that they've changed in more ways than just size and scale since their inception. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have made the strategic decision that, regardless of how they were perceived, publicity was an end in and of itself: as the old saying goes, any publicity was good publicity, and this remains true today. They also discovered that controversy, or at least the providing the cultural identifiers one associates with controversy, is the most effective avenue in to publicity. In PETA’s bag of tricks today, almost inevitably, they reach for nudity, sexual innuendo and shock tactics when trying to court publicity.
Take the minor uproar surrounding their latest commercial, submitted to NBC to play during the Super Bowl. Shot with a lot of quick cuts and pounding rhythms, the commercial features models actively disrobing or in their underwear, presumably pursuing intimate relations with heads of broccoli and bunches of asparagus, wanting to show those pretty vegetables that their love of produce goers beyond the merely platonic. The point? According to PETA, studies show vegetarians have better sex lives. (And, below the surface, that a healthy woman’s libido doesn’t require more than a vegetable or two to be satisfied: the idea of the commercial featuring presumably heterosexual males in this particular relationship to inanimate objects is laughable.) The television network rejected PETA’s submission because of its explicit nature, but, despite their unusually coy claims of surprised disappointment, the organization got what they wanted: another giant media footprint and millions of viewings of that same commercial on their website. Instead of paying the network $3 million to screen their commercial, they got exactly the kind of exposure they sought and more.
The objectification of women in PETA’s various campaigns has been explored since they first started featuring undressed celebrities in their “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign in 1991 with The Go-Gos. From there, women have been objectified in a dizzying array of PETA campaigns, from being naked in cages (ostensibly to draw attention to the abuse of non-human animals) to making a parallel between a woman’s unshorn pubic hair (unattractive!) to fur trim on coats (also unattractive!). One could easily get the impression that PETA’s campaigns are conceived by a bunch of high-fiving, beer-guzzling, porn-addled frat boys with a soft spot for those with fur, fins and feathers. It is easy to understand why they are accused of haphazardly trading one oppression for another, and rightfully so. At the same time, they are not a feminist organization by mission, despite having an outspoken woman at the helm with Ms. Newkirk: their only objective is to advocate on behalf of animals. They are not beholden to any political party or orientation other than one that espouses kindness to animals. If a leftwing, otherwise progressive political figure takes her grandson to the circus, PETA will attack her with no holds barred. Similarly, if a fascist dictator happens to thumb his nose at animal products while enforcing some very draconian laws on the local populace, he can expect to be fully embraced by PETA. They see no schizophrenia in this.
In terms of having a positive influence on reducing animal exploitation and cruelty, their sway is questionable. There has been no effect on the use of fur, for example, and the consumption of meat is higher than ever. There are those who proudly claim to eat meat because of PETA, not in spite of them. Despite their detractors, and there seem to be at least as many outspoken critics as there are fervent supporters, PETA’s influence on popular culture is undeniable. They can be called – and have been called – many things, but their ability to insert themselves into the public dialogue and make themselves culturally relevant is remarkable.
The fact of their ubiquity is much of what makes PETA’s recent strategic decisions so troublesome to activists. In 2000, after McDonald’s Corporation implemented some basic, minimal improvements in their animal welfare standards, PETA agreed to self-impose a moratorium on campaigning against the fast food giant. This had many activists in a furor and also confirmed what some had begun thinking: that this once radical organization was now compromising, and, depending on one’s perspective, colluding, with the most conspicuous animal exploiters on earth. Emails were fired off, longtime friends severed ties, message boards fairly burned with the sort of vituperative rage once reserved solely for Ted Nugent and Colonel Sanders. Suddenly, many activists saw PETA as worse than McDonald’s: they were outright traitors, selling out the animals for negligible victories that were seemingly devoid of long-term, coherent strategy. In addition to being branded as turncoats, PETA’s agreement with McDonald’s seemed to point to something much more damaging: still perceived as the voice of the vegetarian activist community, their arrangement gave the public the impression that the animals that make up McDonald’s 99 billion served were “humanely” treated on their way to the grill. PETA’s moratorium reinforced the status quo and created an obfuscated state around the issues that made it easier, in fact, for people to eat animals with a clear conscience and thus more were eaten. To many, the confusion PETA created around the eating of meat was the most indefensible of their trespasses.
The effect of PETA’s agreement with McDonald’s was felt directly and immediately by many of us in the activist community. I remember tabling for a vegan organization on the first Earth Day after the moratorium was announced and several people told me how “wonderful” it was that they could now eat at McDonald’s with a clear conscience. I talked to other volunteers who reported hearing the same thing. Once the scourge of anything associated with ecological stewardship, McDonald’s now had a shiny new coat for itself in a distinct shade of green, thanks to their arrangement with PETA.
Many of us are still trying to find our way in this environment, one that is perhaps intentionally confusing to people. To illustrate what an ethical disarray PETA has created in their mad dash to garner publicity and remain culturally relevant, we need to look no further than their most recent ill-advised chess move against McDonald’s: they have decided to call off the moratorium against Ray Kroc’s fast food empire. This is good news, right? After do many years, had PETA returned to its grassroots, no-holds-barred style of agitating against animal oppressors? Not really. They dropped the moratorium in order to advocate that McDonald’s enforce that its suppliers gas the chickens as it is considered more humane than the current method of hanging them upside-down in metal shackles, slicing their throats and immersing in scalding water (many chickens are still alive at this point). It certainly is more humane. If I were given a choice of how to die of the two methods, heaven forbid, I would surely choose gassing, Given that there is no third option offered, it would require less brutality, less suffering.
I know there will be people who are offended by me saying this, but I have to: my ancestors were gassed in concentration camps. Groups were led into windowless rooms and they were locked in, no chance of escape. As they found their breathing diminished by the gas being piped in, I have no doubt they began to panic. I have no doubt their suffering was compounded by the terror around them, of beings desperate for that one elemental necessity we can’t go for more than a very short time without: oxygen. The climbed over each other, scratched and trampled one another to escape. They died, their systems poisoned, lungs filled with lethal gas.
That was a horrible, horrible paragraph to write. I did not do so flippantly.
If my primary purpose is to protect animals, I do not engage in any sort of negotiation where we haggle over the least atrocious way to kill for my consent. That is just not done. As long as non-human beings are considered property, I will fight to minimize the suffering and cruelty they must endure by the systems in place that hold them captive. I will not, however, stand behind such measures and give my stamp of approval as a vegan. My job is not to reinforce the dominant paradigm here: my job is to try to alter how our culture perceives animals. That’s PETA’s job as well, not to negotiate and approve of different methods of killing and consuming.
A month or so ago, my son had the day off from school on a Monday and we were looking for something to do. My husband found something in the newspaper as a suggestion: PETA would be in town that day protesting McDonald’s. That in itself wasn’t all that enticing – I’ve been on a sort of strike against PETA for so long because of their sexist campaigns – but he mentioned that Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders would be there. I have loved Chrissie Hynde since I was in high school and her Brass In Pocket became an anthem of womanly confidence to me. Now my interest was piqued: I would love to meet her in person. As I read the article, though, my enthusiasm came crashing down. PETA was going to be protesting outside of a McDonald’s to draw attention to their new campaign: pressuring McDonald’s to drop their current slaughtering method and gas instead. There was no way I could take my son, whom we have been raising to be a compassionate, non-violent person, to an event that advocated the gassing of sentient beings. I couldn’t consent to such a message. That would have been irresponsible and dishonest of me.
We went to the museum instead. Chrissie Hynde would have to wait.