Fowl play: A Peta protester poses provocatively as meat (Getty)
Do you love vegetables? So do I, but not in the style of “Veggie Love”, Peta’s latest campaign to shock people with animal cruelty in order to promote a vegan diet. Last month the animal liberation charity, notorious for its use of naked women in advertising, released a video to be screened during the US Super Bowl, depicting bikini-clad models fondling phallic vegetables while cavorting around in a sexualised fashion.
The advertisement, which would have cost $3 million to be screened, was rejected by NBC, the American TV network. In response, Peta released another, even more risqué, 30-second video for the Super Bowl — an event that even Obama celebrates with bratwurst and cheeseburgers. It shows a stream of models entering a casting agency wearing nothing but their sexiest lingerie, and then they are asked by the director to “Pick a vegetable and show us how much you love it.”
Founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk, a British activist, and fellow animal rights advocate Alex Pacheco, Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is the largest animal rights organisation in the world, with more than two million members and supporters. Its HQ is in Virginia, US, with offices in London, Rome and Mumbai.
Its goal is “total animal liberation,” meaning the complete elimination from the human diet of meat, fish, dairy products, eggs and honey. It campaigns for the global eradication of zoos, aquariums and circuses; a ban on the wearing or production of wool, leather, fur and silk; and a total prohibition of hunting and fishing. Peta is against any medical experimentation on animals, including that for cancer and Aids. Newkirk has said that, “Even if animal research resulted in a cure for Aids, we would be against it.”
I spoke to a small number of former volunteers, active members and employees. All mentioned the “cult-like” style in which Peta operates. “If you’re not radical enough you don’t stay there long,” a 25-year-old former activist told me. “There is no room in Peta for those who are not 100 per cent committed and fanatical.”
In its favour, Peta can claim to have enjoyed success in bringing animal cruelty to the attention of the mainstream, exposing genuine atrocities within the fur trade, factory farming, medical experimentation and fast-food outlets. “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” is a recognised mantra for the anti-fur brigade.
But there is another side to this cult-like organisation. Feminists, vegetarians and animal-rights activists accuse Peta of being inherently misogynist, with a philosophy based on a general intolerance of those opposed to Peta’s value system. Many claim that the organisation hates humans more than it loves animals. One lifelong vegetarian and animal liberationist who asked not to be named says: “Peta would sooner give chickens the vote than give a damn about people. They are misanthropes, through and through.”
Not everyone agrees. Since its UK office opened in 1994, Peta has attracted approximately 13,000 members here, as well as high-profile supporters such as Justin Bieber and Pamela Anderson. It has run campaigns against Fortnum & Mason for selling foie gras in its stores and restaurants, and forced McDonald’s to recognise the cruelty that may be involved in producing hamburgers.
But Peta’s tactics are questionable. In 2000, it started handing out “Unhappy Meals” outside McDonald’s US branches that featured gory plastic toys for children and cut-outs of “Son of Ron”, who was shown in a bloodstained shirt and brandishing a blood-stained knife. It has been known to accuse parents who feed their children meat of being child abusers. One of its leaflets in the US aimed at children tells them: “Your Mommy Kills Animals!”
Yet Peta itself has been accused of giving money and support to violent and criminal extremists. In 1995, Peta allegedly paid substantial sums to a committee supporting the defence of an Animal Liberation Front (ALF) serial arsonist, Rodney Coronado, convicted of burning down a Michigan University research laboratory.
Not only is it hostile to any medical research that involves animal testing, but Peta is at best indifferent to human health. In 2002 it launched a poster campaign entitled “Got Beer?”, a parody of the US campaign from the 1990s, “Got Milk?”. The “Got Beer?” posters, placed around university campuses, argued that beer is healthier than milk, and that drinking cow’s milk is cruel to cows.
Soon afterwards a research report suggested that dairy products could increase the risk of prostate cancer. Never one to miss an opportunity for shock tactics, Peta ran a poster campaign in which the mayor of New York at the time, Rudy Giuliani, was depicted with a milk stain on his upper lip with the slogan, “Got Prostate Cancer?” The mayor, recently diagnosed with the disease, threatened to sue before Peta withdrew the campaign. Then there was the controversy over breast milk, after a Swiss restaurant added it to its menu in 2008. Peta asked ice-cream producers Ben & Jerry’s to switch from “unhealthy bovine juice stolen from tormented calves” (cow’s milk) to “healthier, humane human breast milk”.
How does Peta compare with other animal advocacy organisations? Merritt Clifton, a former Peta employee who runs Animal People, an independent newspaper covering animal rights issues, is on record as saying that Newkirk runs Peta “like a guru cult”. Clifton tells me that there are a number of rival groups which promote similar campaigns. “Each of these organisations appeals to people who care about animals who are otherwise within the mainstream of society,” he says. “They attract tens of thousands of former Peta supporters — former because they have grown up, shed their former teenaged alienation, and have learned a great deal more about getting things done in the real day-to-day world.” Animal People rarely publishes photographs of Peta demonstrations, Clifton tells me, “because so many are downright offensive.”
Racist imagery can be found in more than one of its campaigns, such as the juxtaposition of a photograph of African-American men accused of raping white women being lynched in the American Deep South with that of a bull being strung up in preparation for butchering. Then there was the UK-based poster campaign which depicted a semi-clad black man as a “wild animal” in a cage.
What about misogyny? “Animal rights activists that have a problem with humiliating women as part of the direct action strategy are not looked upon favourably within Peta,” one female former volunteer from the UK told me. “There is no room for deviation or disagreement of any sort.”
Poorva Joshipura is Vice President of International Operations for Peta UK. I ask her if she accepts the accusation that the organisation exploits women for its campaigns. Like every Peta supporter I have spoken to, she adamantly rejects the accusation.
“Peta staff always say they are feminists. I certainly am and I do not consider it my business to tell women what to wear. The majority of women around the world do not get worked up about a self-made powerful woman taking her clothes off in order to campaign against animal suffering.”
Peta has a number of links to the pornography industry in the US. Ron Jeremy is one of the biggest names in pornography, having performed in more than 2,000 adult films. He is also a passionate supporter of Peta and lends his name to the campaign to have pets spayed and neutered. Sasha Grey, who has defended pornography as a career choice on national TV, is also a Peta advocate. The website pornstarpetsthemovie.com is dedicated to porn actors’ pets.
In 2008 I spoke to Anita Singh, former campaign organiser of Peta, about another of its campaigns that had upset a number of women. To mark Mothering Sunday, it staged an event to raise awareness about factory farming and the particularly unpleasant technique in which sows are squeezed into narrow metal stalls barely larger than their own bodies. A pregnant member of Peta’s staff knelt on all fours in a metal cage in full view of the central London public.
“Peta’s aim is to alleviate animal suffering,” Singh told me. “It is certain that we never set out to insult or alienate any groups, in fact the opposite, we are trying to reach out to the masses. Using activists who put themselves on the line, who have done the ads, or using a woman’s body to show that animals are made of flesh and blood and bones, just like you, is a very serious point that we are trying to put out, so that people can think of animals as sentient human beings, not just pieces of meat on supermarket shelves.”
But the accusation against Peta is that it does precisely that — portray women as nothing but pieces of meat, even lower down the food chain than the animals it seeks to protect. Singh’s response to this charge is revealing: “As a non-profit organisation we have limited resources. Not all men feel comfortable posing in skimpy underwear, and maybe more women feel sympathetic to our causes.”
Men come in for abuse from Peta too. A recent campaign against fishing targets anglers by suggesting that they, by default, have small penises. A billboard on display in Aberdeen during National Fishing Month last year depicted a man holding a large fishing rod with the strapline, “Stop Fishing. DoAnglersHaveSmallRods.com”
Every year Peta produces a spoof of the State of the Union Address, re-branding it “the State of the Union Undress.” This unfunny satire appears to apologise for terrorist tactics. Peta Vice President of Policy Bruce Friedrich is notorious for once telling an animal rights convention that “blowing stuff up and smashing windows” is “a great way to bring about animal liberation,” adding, “Hallelujah to the people who are willing to do it.”
What about the claims that Peta euthanises animals? “Well, we are not an animal shelter,” says Friedrich. “If we did not euthanise those who are ill-treated they would suffer more in life, being chained to a fence or freezing to death.”
According to public records from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Peta euthanised 2,124 pets in 2009 and gave fewer than ten to adoptive homes. Since 1998, a total of 21,339 dogs and cats have died in this way, making it more like a slaughterhouse than an animal rights campaign. It spends part of its $30 million-plus annual income on a contract with a crematory service in the US to empty periodically hundreds of animal bodies from its large walk-in freezer.
Carol J. Adams is a globally renowned animal liberationist and author of the seminal text, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. I ask her which particular Peta campaign enrages her more. “Whichever is its current campaign that uses women’s almost naked bodies, women stripping, women being debased on behalf of animals (in cages, cut up like meat), and women being used sexually to communicate a message about animals — that is the one that is the most offensive.”
Shock tactics can be justified — if they are relevant. I remember the days when Peta’s promotional material contained sickening and horrifying images of animal testing. It would appear that the visibility, acceptance, and funding of Peta has vastly increased since they exchanged monkeys with half-open skulls for Pamela Anderson wearing lettuce. I have spoken to feminists who are angrier at Peta than at Playboy or Hustler.
But Peta has never been known to apologise to its critics. Recently Peta sued one animal rights organisation that publicly criticised it — Friends of Animals — and effectively shut it down.
“Peta seems to be waging a war on almost everyone but their own members,” says a former US employee, who tells me that he regularly received threats on his blog for criticising Peta. “They spread hatred — towards parents who let their kids eat meat, to people who work in factories out of total necessity. They are like a cult.”
“You can see how much like a cult they are by the fact they can so easily persuade their employees and volunteers to take part in the most ridiculous stunts,” another former female US employee told me, “often in the baking heat, semi-undressed, or just looking like total idiots while most of the general public walk past thinking, ‘There go those Peta idiots again.'”
Peta makes a virtue of bad taste and its founder Ingrid Newkirk boasts of being a “media slut”. But she went beyond mere vulgarity when she compared the killing of animals for food with the Holocaust: “Six million people died in concentration camps,” Newkirk declared, “but six billion chickens die each year in slaughterhouses.” This is the woman who claims to have left a will stipulating that her skin be turned into wallets, her feet into lamp-stands and her flesh eaten. Under her leadership, Peta has adopted the fanatical language and methods of a cult. Campaigning against inhumanity to animals can never justify inhumanity to man, and especially woman.