Meat-lovers shudder upon hearing the acronym “PETA.” This animal rights group, which supports veganism among other causes, has made its way into the spotlight through contentious tweets. Most recently, PETA attacked Steve Irwin on the late conservationist’s birthday.
Backlash against the organization ranges from tweets featuring meaty sandwiches to those reminding PETA of certain allegations that attempt to highlight its possible hypocrisy.
My initial reaction to PETA was that of disbelief; I found the extent to which PETA tries to advocate for animal rights laughable. However, my astonishment turned to horror when I learned about what really happens at PETA’s shelters.
What is PETA?
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a Virginia-based, nonprofit animal rights group. According to PETA’s website, over 6.5 million people support the organization. PETA’s goal is to end animal suffering “in laboratories, in the food industry, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry.”
PETA has used education, research, lobbying, investigations, and protests to protect the rights of animals since its founding in 1980. Guiding these actions are the beliefs that just like humans, animals are intelligent and that they feel pain and have a right to freedom from harm. Thus, we humans need to put a stop to the trauma we cause animals. Our injustices to animals include eating them, wearing them, experimenting on them, using them for entertainment, abusing them, and exploiting them.
It is no secret that the meat industry abuses the animals we eat, and on its website, PETA does not shy away from posting videos displaying slaughterhouses’ blatant animal mistreatment. To avoid perpetuating this animal abuse, people will purchase “organic” or “free-range” meat and dairy products. PETA’s website argues that these labels hide continued harm to animals: for example, the dehorning of cattle or the branding of animals with hot irons. As a solution to end the cruel treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and on dairy farms, PETA suggests veganism.
PETA also attacks the clothing industry for using animal products such as fur, leather, wool, and feathers and even offers advice on shopping for vegan clothes. In addition, it condemns any group that uses animals for entertainment purposes, including circuses and zoos. A term to describe the distress that animals living in captivity experience is “zoochosis.” A PETA video lists its symptoms as pacing, circling, swaying, and self-injury. Another way humans hurt animals is through experimentation, whether for medical research or the development of cosmetics. Experimenters subject animals to pain in laboratories, all for the sake of research.
To support its agenda, PETA calls for people to take action in their own lives, like eating vegan clothes, buying vegan clothes, avoiding circuses and zoos, and forgoing products that researchers developed through animal experimentation.
How has PETA made a name for itself?
PETA has ventured into questionable territory to achieve its goals. Graphic videos of animal abuse pepper its website in the hope that they will move viewers to action.
But PETA’s most efficient platform is Twitter. I first learned about PETA when one of its tweets went viral. The tweet in question listed several “speciesist” idioms that discriminate against animals by illustration animal abuse and offered replacements. It trended on Twitter and even made national news headlines.
Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here’s how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations. pic.twitter.com/o67EbBA7H4
— PETA (@peta) December 4, 2018
Unsurprisingly, this tweet sparked public outrage. Not only did people consider the absurdity of changing phrases that in no way call people to harm animals, but they also argued that PETA’s “suggestions” could actually hurt animals.
For example, instead of saying, “Kill two birds with one stone,” PETA would prefer for us to say, “Feed two birds with one scone.” However, as one Twitter user pointed out, the consumption of bread can injure—and even kill—birds.
Another Twitter user criticized the use of “feed a fed horse” instead of “beat a dead horse.”
Feeding an already fed horse would lead to equine obesity, this seems cruel
— Scott Hussey 🍅 (@designerscott) December 7, 2018
PETA angered Twitter users once again on February 22, the late Steve Irwin’s birthday. To commemorate the well-loved conservationist and TV star, Google published a Google Doodle featuring Irwin and his family. On Twitter, PETA called out Google for honoring Irwin because he supposedly harassed and abused animals throughout his career by “[dragging] exotic animals, including babies taken from their mothers, around from TV talk shows to conferences & [forcing] them to perform.” Again, PETA found itself a national news headline.
#SteveIrwin was killed while harassing a ray; he dangled his baby while feeding a crocodile & wrestled wild animals who were minding their own business. Today’s #GoogleDoodle sends a dangerous, fawning message. Wild animals are entitled to be left alone in their natural habitats. https://t.co/9JfJiBhGLw
— PETA (@peta) February 22, 2019
Steve Irwin’s actions were not on target with his supposed message of protecting wildlife. A real wildlife expert & someone who respects animals for the individuals they are leaves them to their own business in their natural homes.
— PETA (@peta) February 23, 2019
It is harassment to drag exotic animals, including babies taken from their mothers, around from TV talk shows to conferences & force them to perform as Steve Irwin did. Animals deserve to live as they want to, not as humans demand––the #GoogleDoodle should represent that.
— PETA (@peta) February 23, 2019
Twitter users came to Steve Irwin’s defense, citing his many accomplishments in conservation and his commitment to protecting our planet and its inhabitants. Moreover, he inspired people around the world to care about animals.
I'm an Australian wildlife rescue volunteer. #SteveIrwin and his family gave an awful lot of quiet, unpublicised support to organisations like mine. He was a serious conservationist & did the hard & unglamourous work required. PETA are attention-seeking posers by comparison
— Greg (@humbleminion) February 23, 2019
This is what Steve Irwin taught me, to love animals. Currently have 3 rescued animals… peta you need to apologize pic.twitter.com/Y0R7g2xli2
— Dana Rio (@danakowsh) February 24, 2019
PETA defends these controversial, attention-grabbing publicity stunts. The organization designs its inflammatory remarks to grab attention so that it can take advantage of the “free advertising” that media coverage supplies.
What controversy surrounds PETA?
Despite its advocacy for the rights of animals, there is a darker side to PETA. Its opponents are quick to point out that the organization kills many of the animals in its shelters.
One website devotes itself entirely to spreading the word about PETA’s hypocrisy; this anti-PETA group claims that “95.9% of animals under PETA’s care have been killed in one year.” Although, at first glance, this website may seem like nothing more than a series of provocative claims meant to ruin PETA’s reputation, its words are not empty.
A 2015 Washington Post article corroborates this anti-PETA group’s assertions. PETA has one animal shelter near its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, and in 2014, it “euthanized more than 80 percent of the animals in its care last year.”
In contrast, animal shelters across Virginia euthanized no more than 25 percent of their animals in 2014.
A representative from PETA explained that the organization has a high euthanization rate because it takes in animals that no one else will. These animals are often severely injured or diseased and have no hope of living a high-quality life. Despite this claim, many people continue to highlight PETA’s hypocrisy.
One critic of PETA suggests that “‘we should also be welcoming people who say, “Can’t we find a way to kill fewer?”’”
My Take on PETA
Like I mentioned earlier, my first reaction to PETA was one of disbelief. Upon reading their suggested replacements for popular idioms that supposedly promote “speciesism,” I dismissed PETA as nothing more than a radical group that thrives on the publicity that inflammatory statements provide. I do not believe that this initial assessment was incorrect; again, as I mentioned earlier, PETA celebrates its controversial, attention-seeking tactics.
But I could not shake PETA’s viewpoints from my mind. Although PETA undoubtedly holds extreme beliefs, is there some substance behind them?
Then, this thought prompted a series of questions: we humans have rights, but what rights do animals have? How do we determine what creatures receive what rights? Who makes these decisions?
As part of its animal sensitive-idioms Twitter thread, PETA compared using “speciesist” language to using “racist, homophobic, or ableist language.”
Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.
— PETA (@peta) December 4, 2018
Discrimination against humans is wrong but is “discrimination” against animals, like that which PETA attacks in its tweet? One form of “animal discrimination” is animal abuse, such as beating an animal or denying it food, water, and shelter. In the United States, it is not socially—or legally—acceptable to abuse animals. But what about language that “discriminates” against animals? Where do we draw the line?
Our society has decided that although people living in other countries may not understand what we say, we should not verbally put them down. Although animals may not understand what we say, should we avoid using “speciesist” phrases?
How we speak to animals is much more important than what we say to them. You could say to a horse’s face, “Beat a dead horse,” and, “Feed a fed horse,” and as long as you speak with a positive tone, the horse would not know the difference. In contrast, when I yell at my family’s dog, his tail droops, and he stares at the floor; it is obvious that he understands I am angry even if he cannot comprehend English.
Despite PETA’s provocative nature, its core message remains relevant: animals under the care of humans deserve fair treatment, which includes the basic necessities of safety, shelter, food, and water. Whether PETA’s methods and claims are too extreme or whether it effectively fulfills its mission statement is for individuals to decide.