PETA's zeal pushes the envelope too far for some

Two representatives of Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals go naked outside the White House to protest the use of fur.

The Virginian-Pilot/December 3, 2000
By Bill Sizemore

Norfolk -- For 20 years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has waged a brutal war in the name of kindness. It champions the welfare of animals with a flinty, take-no-prisoners strategy that has alienated a growing group of humans. Among them are the likely cast of hunters, meatpackers, dairymen, furriers and animal researchers. Perhaps more surprisingly, the list also includes fellow animal advocates, some of them former PETA employees, who complain of a zealous culture that has little tolerance for the squeamish.  

Ingrid Newkirk, Co-founder
and President of PETA

``They're brutal on their people,'' says John Newton, formerly of Meower Power, a local organization that cares for stray cats. He uses the term ``cult-like'' to describe PETA. ``If you're not radical enough, they drive you out.''

PETA crusaders plot their outrageous, sometimes illegal antics from the organization's headquarters overlooking the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk. They often use shock, insult and even nudity as their hook.

The resulting press coverage fans the organization's recruitment and fund raising. It's that media savvy, PETA loyalists say, that has vaulted the organization into the world's most recognized and effective animal rights group.

Leading the charge and setting the tone is PETA's co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, whose wispy frame and soft British lilt mask a will of iron and an unbending demand for allegiance to the cause.

``Ingrid Newkirk runs PETA like a guru cult,'' says Merritt Clifton, founder and editor of the national animal protection newspaper Animal People. ``Sooner or later, everyone who questions her or upstages her in any way, no matter how unintentionally, ends up getting shafted in the most humiliating manner Newkirk can think of.''

Newkirk is unapologetic. She acknowledges that ``we have disgruntled employees who've left here. There is a little club of disgruntled employees.'' But she says the people she's fired over the years were fired for good cause.

``It is true, I am tough,'' she says. ``I believe we should be -- and I say this at staff meetings -- a lean, mean fighting machine. This is not a rest home for people who just have warm feelings about animals.''


An Office Thick with Tension

Sue Perna of Chesapeake went to work for PETA as a receptionist soon after the organization moved to Norfolk from suburban Washington in 1996. She says she found a high level of turnover and job anxiety. ``The tension was so thick you could feel it,'' Perna says. ``Everyone was so scared for their jobs at one point, we began to call the office telephone list Schindler's List.''

Firings came frequently and without warning, she says. ``It was done so capriciously and with such seeming zeal by Ingrid,'' she says. ``She seems to take joy in extinguishing people's careers.'' It's ironic, Perna says: A woman who has dedicated her life to fighting animal abuse is herself ``an abuser of the human animal.''

After a year on the job and several run-ins with Newkirk, Perna walked out. She remains a dedicated animal rights activist -- she was arrested two years ago for climbing onto the roof of a McDonald's in Virginia Beach -- but she steers clear of PETA. ``Many of us believe that the further we distance ourselves from PETA, the better off the animal rights movement will be,'' she says.

Sue Gaines tells a similar story. Gaines, who moved to Hampton Roads from Connecticut in 1996 to take a job in PETA's education department, says she found the work environment ``quite a shock.'' ``It is a very horrible place to work,'' she says.

During Gaines' tenure, PETA donated computer software to area high schools to be used in biology classes as an alternative to dissecting animals. At one of the schools, Green Run in Virginia Beach, a PETA protester -- dressed as a frog with its internal organs hanging out -- showed up with the software and was ordered off the grounds by school administrators.

Gaines got a call about the spectacle from the teacher she had been working with. ``She was almost in tears, afraid for her job,'' Gaines says. ``I went in to talk to Ingrid, and she laughed at me. It was of absolutely no concern to her that that teacher might lose her job.''

Newkirk denies laughing at the teacher's plight, calling the allegation ``dirty'' and ``scurrilous.'' As it turned out, the teacher kept her job but Gaines lost hers -- fired by Newkirk after a year at PETA.

``I think she thought I didn't have the guts to be a PETA person,'' Gaines says. ``I can't paint with a broad brush like they do. I don't think meat eaters are evil. If that's what it takes to be a PETA person, I guess I'm not one.''

Kim Bartlett, publisher of Animal People and wife of the editor, Clifton, worked for PETA briefly in the 1980s. ``I admire Ingrid in many respects,'' Bartlett says. ``She's done some amazing things.'' But she also describes Newkirk as ``totally confrontational. She doesn't understand the concept of compromise.''

Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research, investigations and rescue, who has been at PETA 13 years, says the attacks on Newkirk by departed employees are unfair and inaccurate -- even though her own sister, Judy, was among those fired. ``I don't think it's anything but sour grapes,'' Sweetland says. ``I think they need to get over it.''

Judy Sweetland says she harbors no ill will over her firing. ``Not everybody is cut out for PETA,'' she says. ``It demands a high level of energy and dedication. . . . They are unapologetic about helping animals. They take a hard, fast line, and that demands that you give 110 percent.''


Low pay, high profile

PETA's claim to be a ``lean, mean'' charity is borne out by the numbers as well as its antics. Most employees earn less than $25,000 a year. The biggest salary listed on the organization's most recent tax return is $62,370 for the director of media relations. Newkirk herself makes only $25,000. She lives frugally in a Norfolk apartment and does not own a car. Most of PETA's revenue comes from small donations. It gets uniformly high ratings from charity watchdog groups for spending less than 25 percent of its budget on administration and fund raising.

PETA's low salaries are offset in part by an unconventional package of employee benefits, including health coverage for gay partners and bereavement leave for deaths of ``companion animals,'' PETA's term for pets.

Employees are encouraged to bring their pets to work. Most employees are vegetarians or vegans -- those who avoid all animal-derived foods, including eggs and dairy products. That's not a condition of employment, Newkirk says -- but don't show up with a ham sandwich or a leather purse. No animal products are allowed in the building.

PETA settled in Norfolk because that's where it found the most affordable office space. It acquired its four-story building for $2.2 million.

PETA's penny-pinching ways have helped it grow from a ragtag band of volunteers into a $17 million-a-year organization with 132 employees -- 96 of them in Norfolk -- and branch offices in England, Italy, Germany and India. PETA's donations are about twice those of the American Humane Association, one of the country's oldest national animal welfare groups. The Humane Society of the United States is the largest, with a budget of about $35 million.

For PETA, success has meant altering the behavior of multi-billion-dollar corporations from General Motors to McDonald's. It has cajoled, bullied and embarrassed world-famous fashion designers, research hospitals and medical schools into changing their policies. It has won endorsements from dozens of Hollywood celebrities.

``People now know that if they do something ghastly to an animal, they can't necessarily get away with it,'' Newkirk says. ``When we started, nobody knew what animal rights meant. . . . Now, it's an issue.''

Key to PETA's results-oriented strategy is manipulating the media. It has learned that the more outrageous, provocative -- even offensive -- its methods are, the more attention it gets. Attracting that attention is the job of PETA's campaigns department, which has one of the largest staffs at the organization's Norfolk headquarters. Press coverage translates into donations, volunteers and clout. Even PETA's enemies concede that its strategy has worked.

``PETA thinks there is no such thing as bad media coverage,'' says Rick McCarty, director of issues management at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. ``And they're very unrepentant about it.''

Just last month, PETA activists stripped in front of the White House and displayed a banner reading ``I'd rather go naked than wear fur,'' continuing a campaign launched in 1991. The day after Thanksgiving, they got naked outside MacArthur Center in Norfolk to protest leather, one of PETA's latest crusades.

Last year, PETA enlisted the help of actor James Cromwell, who played the kindly farmer in the movie ``Babe,'' to narrate an undercover video that showed farmhands bludgeoning sows at a hog farm in Camden County, N.C. PETA's investigation resulted in the first-ever felony indictments against factory farm workers.

PETA's list of detractors has grown well beyond those in the livestock trade. In its 20th year, PETA has managed to incur the wrath of -- among others -- AIDS activists, the mayor of New York and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

``If it didn't work, we wouldn't do it -- if there was another way where we didn't have to embarrass ourselves,'' says Newkirk, 51. ``You know, I was still going naked five years ago, at 46. You think that's not embarrassing? When I first started doing it I used to think, `Oh, please, don't let my father see.' ``But it works.''


Cracks in the movement

For years, PETA's allies watched its antics with tolerance -- if not amusement. When PETA people parade around naked or shove a tofu cream pie into the face of someone like fashion designer Oscar de la Renta or chicken king Frank Perdue, it is, after all, hard not to crack a smile. But some are no longer grinning.

J.P. Goodwin, founder of the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, lashed out at PETA in an online forum in June, charging that its ``goofy stunts'' are turning people off and obscuring the movement's core issue, animal suffering.

``We are right on the issues,'' Goodwin said. ``However, some people have positioned the movement as flaky, based on silly claims and goofy stunts. It's time to say no to pie throwing, manure dumping, and naked models, and get back to talking about animals.''

It was two high-profile PETA campaigns this year that seemed to push some people over the edge. First, just in time for spring break, PETA blitzed college campuses with its ``Got beer?'' ads, which suggested that, based on nutritional value, students would be better off drinking beer than milk.

When Mothers Against Drunk Driving went ballistic, PETA pulled the ads. Next, after New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced that he had prostate cancer and ended his campaign for the U.S. Senate, PETA put up billboards depicting the mayor with a milk mustache over the caption, ``Got prostate cancer?''

The message was based on research suggesting that dairy products may be linked to the disease. The Giuliani ads were hatched in one of the weekly brainstorming sessions where Newkirk and her colleagues dream up PETA's media stunts.

Newkirk says her original idea was a billboard featuring her father, a prostate cancer victim who died in March. Then Giuliani, in a press conference, announced he had the disease. ``I thought, here's this man now using his prostate cancer -- because he was going on and on about it; he's no shrinking violet,'' Newkirk says.

``I thought, why use your prostate cancer for political purposes? You could actually use your prostate cancer more effectively than I could use my father to get people to think about the dietary causal relationship. ``So we were in a meeting and I said, `What if we put Giuliani's picture on this billboard?' ''

The mayor struck back, threatening to sue and taunting PETA by drinking a glass of milk for the cameras and praising its health value. To those who found the ads insensitive or cruel, Newkirk makes no apologies.

``It didn't occur to me that this was hurtful to a man like Giuliani, who is, like us in a way, a press slut,'' she says. ``He's out there all the time, just doing whatever he needs to do to further his agenda.'' As for the ``Got beer?'' campaign, Newkirk -- a native of England who grew up in India -- says it taught her something about American public opinion.

``I had thought the most offensive thing you could do was go naked -- or something to do with sex,'' she says. ``But apparently beer is worse than sex. This was a huge revelation to me.''


Drawing the line at violence

Is there anything Newkirk won't do to get her message out? Yes, she says: ``I won't cause physical pain and suffering unnecessarily to any living being -- man or mouse.'' PETA people will, however, break the law. Newkirk estimates she has been arrested between 40 and 50 times. Many of her followers have also been jailed.

Some PETA foes say that while the organization doesn't engage in violence, it doesn't publicly discourage it either. One of those is Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress, a Washington-based interest group that promotes animal research. Funded primarily by pharmaceutical companies, the group was formed in 1991 specifically to counter PETA's message.

``Every week I hear of some scientist getting a threatening letter, phone call or e-mail,'' Calnan says. ``None of it is under PETA's signature. But PETA is contributing by its notoriety, by its demonization of scientists.''

A year ago, anonymous animal rights activists calling themselves ``The Justice Department'' sent threatening letters booby-trapped with razor blades to more than 80 research scientists. No one was injured. But the act touched off a bitter war of words.

Within days, Newkirk sent letters to the editors of several newspapers in cities where the scientists lived. ``Perhaps the mere idea of receiving a nasty missive will allow animal researchers to empathize with their victims for the first time in their lousy careers,'' she wrote. Newkirk was ``basically cheerleading the violence,'' Calnan says. ``She did not denounce the violence. She's part of the rhetoric of polarization, the rhetoric of hatred.''

Newkirk says she wasn't cheerleading the mailing of booby-trapped letters, merely using it to make a point. ``We didn't do it,'' she says. ``We don't advocate it; we never would. It's not what we do. . . . All I did was comment on it.'' Calnan and other critics say that by seeming to condone that tactic and others, including vandalism and firebombing of animal laboratories by radical animal advocates, PETA helps foster a chilling effect on animal research.

``Very promising students are choosing not to go into the life sciences,'' Calnan says. ``Even of those who go into the life sciences, some will choose not to work with animals. Some folks say we have lost a generation because of the animal rights influence, and specifically PETA's influence, in the schools. PETA will say that's a victory. I say that is a blow to medical progress.''


When scientists become targets

PETA has earned the enmity of the animal research community with a series of explosive undercover investigations. A case in point was the work of Edward Walsh and JoAnn McGee, a husband-wife team of scientists at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb. The two studied congenital deafness by cutting open the skulls of kittens and severing a bundle of nerves, which caused the kittens to go deaf.

PETA argues that such experiments, besides being cruel, are unnecessary. Prompted by an employee's complaint, two PETA investigators got jobs as security guards in the lab and collected evidence for a year.

In August 1996, PETA filed a 53-page complaint with government regulators, accompanied by nearly 10 hours of videotapes showing the head incisions and kittens walking around in circles in a wobbly gait, wailing incessantly. The government found the lab in compliance with federal policy except for recordkeeping deficiencies that were subsequently corrected. But as a result of the PETA-inspired publicity, Boys Town stopped experimenting on kittens. Walsh and McGee now do their research on mice.

Four years later, Walsh remains bitter about the experience. He and McGee were the target of death threats, bomb threats and harassing phone calls -- some of them directed against their 5-year-old son and Walsh's elderly mother, who was visiting at the time. Pickets marched outside their home, and brochures were distributed to their neighbors.

``It was an extraordinarily stressful time,'' Walsh says. As for PETA, he says, ``they simply cannot disconnect themselves from the more radical elements of this movement. PETA is the voice of the movement, and it is, therefore, by my way of thinking at least, responsible for the actions that the organization inspires.''


Can it be kind o kill?

Some people who had bought into PETA's campaign for kindness to animals were surprised last summer by the revelation that PETA kills animals. The controversy shed light on a major rift within the animal rights movement between those, like PETA, that support euthanasia and those that don't.

According to statistics kept by state regulators, PETA euthanized 1,325 of the 2,103 animals it took in during 1999.

``For an organization that feels there's a place for every fish in the sea, I could not believe that they would kill healthy cats,'' says Dr. Gail Furman, a psychologist at the Department of Veterans' Affairs Medical Center in Hampton.

Furman is part of a loosely organized community of local animal lovers who take care of stray cats. She estimates that over the years she has picked up as many as 100 strays and had them spayed or neutered.

PETA has angered stray-cat caretakers by trapping strays, hauling them to PETA headquarters and euthanizing them. PETA argues that euthanasia is kinder than leaving cats on the street, where they are subject to injury, disease and freezing cold.

``It's either a quick, painless death or a slow, uncomfortable death,'' says Newkirk, who worked as an animal control officer in Washington before founding PETA. ``The difference, I think, between us and many of the `no-kill' people is that we don't pretend to have a magic wand.''

The ``no-kill'' debate may have contributed to the quiet departure last year of Alex Pacheco, who as a young political science student helped Newkirk found PETA 20 years ago. Pacheco left PETA to found a new nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, the Humane America Animal Foundation, which lists as its No. 1 mission the creation of a ``no-kill nation'' by promoting aggressive spay-neuter and adoption strategies.

Pacheco declined to talk with The Virginian-Pilot, but in an interview with Animals' Agenda magazine he said his split with PETA was driven in part by a concern that PETA's confrontational tactics didn't immediately result in saving large numbers of animals. ``I could've stayed and argued my case, but I stopped when things started flying across the room,'' he was quoted as saying. ``I didn't want to cause a civil war.''

Newkirk acknowledges that she and Pacheco were frequently at loggerheads. ``Our differences go back to the very beginning,'' she says. ``We were like Jack Spratt and his wife. We argued about everything. ``In the end we both decided that we had to have a professional divorce.''

Conceding that ``I'm no diplomat,'' Newkirk adds: ``One of Alex's strong suits is, he made an extremely good lobbyist. It's a bit awkward, when he's up arguing in the halls of Congress, to have us out on the street dumping manure or going naked.''

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