People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

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Author: Leslie Irvine
Editors: Craig J. Forsyth and Heith Copes
Date: 2014
Encyclopedia of Social Deviance
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Organization overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

The nonprofit group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, describes itself as the largest animal rights group in the world. PETA takes an “uncompromising” stance on animal rights, arguing that animals’ lives have inherent value, apart from their usefulness to human beings. As documented on PETA’s website, PETA president and cofounder Ingrid Newkirk has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights the knife.” This statement in itself represents an act of deviance through its contrast with dominant views about animals, which portray them as existing for human purposes and pleasures. PETA’s motto asserts that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment,” indicating four domains in which animals undergo sustained confinement and suffering. Thus, PETA’s campaigns focus primarily, but not exclusively, on industrial (or factory) farming, fur farming, animal testing, and animals in entertainment (e.g., circuses and rodeos). Many campaigns use controversial tactics to make people aware of animal abuse. PETA illustrates how social practices taken for granted in one era, such as the routine abuse of animals in laboratories and on farms, can become unacceptable over time. It also shows how a once deviant philosophy, such as animal rights, can move into the mainstream.

Founding of the Organization

PETA’s origins date to 1980 when, along with Alex Pacheco, Newkirk started the group to educate people about the concept of animal rights. Although a lifelong animal lover, the British-born Newkirk consumed meat and did not contemplate animal rights until adulthood. In her early 20s, she began working in an animal shelter, and then in law enforcement and animal protection in Maryland and Washington, D.C. She served as Poundmaster of Washington, D.C., and spearheaded legislation to establish the District of Columbia’s first spay and neuter clinic. She also served as Director of Cruelty Investigations for the Washington Humane Society. After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which argues against discrimination based on species membership, Newkirk wanted to start a group that would take action against cruelty. Pacheco and Newkirk met at a Washington, D.C., animal shelter, where Pacheco volunteered at the time. He had been involved in animal rights activism since visiting a slaughterhouse as a teenager. He had tracked whaling operations while on the crew of the Sea Shepherd, the first vessel of the nonprofit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. In 1980, Pacheco and Newkirk launched PETA as a more radical alternative to existing avenues for animal advocacy.

The Silver Spring Monkeys

The campaign that brought PETA to national and international attention lasted for more than 10 years. In 1981, Pacheco began working as a volunteer at the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, to observe firsthand what took place in animal research laboratories. At the Institute, the psychologist Edward Taub studied neuroplasticity, using monkeys as experimental subjects. Taub’s research involved deafferentation, or surgically severing nerves in the monkeys’ spinal cords that send signals between the brain and the arms. Taub then restrained the monkeys’ limbs in an attempt to retrain them to use the deafferented arms. Proponents point out that primate research on neuroplasticity has led to techniques that enable paralyzed individuals to regain the use of limbs after injury or stroke.

Pacheco found that the monkeys lacked veterinary care and lived in conditions he considered deplorable. He told Taub that he wanted to work at night, which allowed him to photograph the conditions in the lab. Pacheco reported violations of Maryland’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals law to the State Police of Montgomery County. They raided the laboratory in September 1981. Taub faced more than 100 counts of animal cruelty and failure to provide veterinary care. The case represents the first charges of this sort brought against a scientist in a U.S. research laboratory. Taub claimed that Pacheco had staged the conditions in the lab. After several trials and appeals, the court acquitted Taub in 1982, claiming that Maryland’s cruelty laws did not apply to researchers.

Battles over custody of the monkeys lasted for more than a decade and ignited national debate about the treatment of animals used in research. The Maryland State Police had given the monkeys to PETA during the raid, but the court remanded them to Taub. PETA filed suit to regain custody, and two sanctuaries had offered to house the monkeys. Because the laboratory at the Institute of Behavioral Research received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they retained custody of the monkeys and criticized PETA’s efforts as a publicity stunt. Courts repeatedly denied PETA’s claims for custody on grounds that the group had no legal standing. Five of the monkeys went to zoos. The others went to Tulane University’s Delta Regional Primate Research Center. The remaining monkeys were euthanized in 1991.

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Publicity of the case helped facilitate the 1985 passage of a revision of the Animal Welfare Act, which introduced guidelines for the use of animals in research, including the requirement that institutions receiving federal funding have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to oversee the treatment of animals in laboratories under their purview. The case also brought animal rights and PETA to public attention. By 1991, the organization that had started with Newkirk, Pacheco, and a few other people had more than 350,000 members, a paid staff of more than 100, and an annual budget of more than $7 million. Pacheco left the organization in 1999. Newkirk remains president of PETA. In 2013, the organization claimed to have more than 3 million members.

Campaign Tactics

Both Newkirk and Pacheco stated the need to use potentially controversial tactics to make people aware of the suffering of animals in its four focus areas. Throughout PETA’s history, the group has pursued media attention through celebrity endorsement, consumer boycotts, direct action, and street theater. In antifur campaigns, PETA activists have thrown red paint on store windows and catwalks at fashion shows. Through its Shareholder Resolution Campaign, PETA purchases stock in publicly traded companies, including McDonald’s, Monsanto, YUM Brands, and 3M. After becoming a shareholder, the group then introduces resolutions promoting the cruelty-free treatment of animals.

PETA often uses graphic images to make the treatment of animals visible where it would ordinarily be hidden from view, such as in laboratories and on factory farms. One of the controversial photos taken by Pacheco in Taub’s lab became readily associated with PETA. The image depicts a monkey, named Domitian, with his head and all four limbs restrained in a homemade contraption referred to as an “immobilizing chair.” The photo was, and remains, widely published in PETA’s literature, with the caption, “This is vivisection. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” Other images use less violent images that still have shock value. In PETA’s antifur campaign, for example, many celebrities have posed nude to protest the fur industry in photos featuring the caption, “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Activists have attended fur and fashion shows wearing leg-hold traps to call attention to the methods used by commercial fur trappers to capture animals.

PETA makes astute use of social media and online marketing to raise funds, educate the public about the treatment of animals, and promote cruelty-free alternatives. Many campaign videos have gone viral. Mobile apps, e-cards, and online games have allowed the group to reach the age 13 to 24 years demographic, in particular, through its youth division, peta 2. PETA Prime targets audiences above the age of 50, and PETA Kids reaches children through middle school.

Use of Undercover Investigations

Following the Silver Spring Monkeys case, PETA has routinely used undercover investigations to document animal abuse. PETA investigators gain access by visiting, posing as volunteers, or becoming employees in animal industries. Video and photographic evidence obtained undercover has often led to legal action against the offenders.

In 1984, PETA circulated a film titled Unnecessary Fuss to media outlets and the U.S. Congress. The film revealed the gross mistreatment of baboons at the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Injury Clinic. Newkirk and Pacheco compiled the film from video footage taken by the researchers themselves and stolen from the lab during a raid by a group identifying itself as the Animal Liberation Front. After reviewing the unedited tapes, a panel of veterinarians from the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, commissioned by the Office for Protection from Research Risks, found numerous violations of animal care standards. Although the NIH initially defended the research, a 4-day PETA sit-in at NIH headquarters brought negative publicity. The Head Injury Clinic’s grants were suspended, the university incurred fines, and within a few months, primate research at the clinic ended. Together with the Silver Spring Monkeys case, the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Injury Clinic case brought attention to the ethics of animals used in research.

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Undercover investigations have also revealed abuse in PETA’s other areas of focus. In 2010, PETA’s undercover investigations at a product-testing facility in North Carolina resulted in 14 felony charges of cruelty to animals. Investigations at the training compound for elephants that perform in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus revealed numerous instances of noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act. In 2011, the circus’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, incurred fines of $270,000, the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history. Feld denied any violations of the act. A three-month investigation at a North Carolina pig farm in 1999 resulted in the first indictments for animal cruelty on a U.S. factory farm.

Praise and Criticism

More than any other animal rights organization, PETA has raised awareness of animal abuse and shifted public opinion. It has brought media and legislative attention to many issues once considered insignificant. Opinions remain divided on the extent to which the group ultimately helps or hinders the cause of animal rights.

Relationships with Grassroots Animal Advocacy Groups

PETA is one of several animal protection groups that appeared in the 1980s. PETA’s public relations efforts, which brought it national and international stature, overshadowed many smaller organizations. Critics argue that people who would have supported local grassroots animal rights groups now donate to PETA instead. Others claim that PETA cooperates with local organizations, providing advice, research, staff, and literature, and helps generate publicity. PETA is often aware of and on the scene at sites of animal abuse before local organizations.

Promoting Animal Rights While Advancing Animal Welfare

Although PETA describes itself as an animal rights organization, some critics claim that the group actually promotes animal welfare. The animal rights position holds that animals have the right not to be used as a means to an end; their lives have intrinsic meaning. The animal welfare position approves of the use of animals, as long as people treat them humanely. Those who claim that PETA is not an animal rights group point to the organization’s willingness to work with targeted animal industries to introduce reforms and regulations. Proponents support negotiation with industries as necessary for improving the treatment of animals by ensuring compliance with existing welfare regulations.

Controversial Use of Nudity

PETA’s frequent use of full or partial nudity in protests, videos, and print ads has drawn criticism, both from animal rights activists who argue that it trivializes the cause, and from feminists, who claim that it objectifies and degrades women. PETA supports the use of any tactic necessary to bring attention to the suffering of animals. In response to claims that the ads objectify women, PETA points out that men have also disrobed for the cause.

Terrorist Watch List

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed PETA, and several other environmental groups, on its Terrorist Watch List based on what it referred to as “troubling” practices. The U.S. Justice Department later found that the FBI acted without evidence. Critics of the FBI’s actions point out that the targeting of groups engaged in nonviolent protest diverts resources from investigations of actual terrorist threats. PETA’s opponents argue that Newkirk has publicly stated her support for direct action and allege financial ties between PETA and militant animal rights groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front.

Leslie Irvine

Further Readings

Finsen, L., & Finsen, S. (1994). The animal rights movement in America: From compassion to respect. New York, NY: Twayne.

Hall, L. (2006). Capers in the churchyard: Animal rights advocacy in the age of terror. Darien, CT: Nectar Bat Press.

Jasper, J. M., & Nelkin, D. M. (1992). The animal rights crusade: Growth of a moral protest. New York, NY: Free Press.

Newkirk, I. (2000). Free the animals: The amazing story of the Animal Liberation Front. New York, NY: Lantern Books.

Regan, T. (1983). The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Scully, M. (2003). Dominion: The power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York, NY: Avon Books.


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