peta’s antics draw attention to big issues

Peter Fricker
The Vancouver Sun
Publication Date:
March 29, 2010


Animal rights organizations often attract derision from some quarters but none more so than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Animal industries, of course, constantly spew vitriol at PETA, but so too do many newspaper columnists, radio talk show hosts and online commentators. Sometimes it seems everyone loves to hate PETA.


The Sun’s Stephen Hume recently wrote a thoughtful piece about the controversial methods PETA uses to draw attention to animal suffering. Like many, he takes issue with PETA’s use of scantily clad women and celebrities such as Pamela Anderson to draw media attention to its message. Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president and co-founder, rejects such criticism, as she did in a 2008 interview with Mother Jones magazine:


“I would expect someone in, say, Iran, to tell us that we should cover up, but I don’t expect women or men in this country to criticize women who wish to use their bodies in a form of political statement, to tell them, you need to cover yourself up. There’s this idea of ‘naughty bits’ and I just think it’s funny more than anything else. It’s not sexist, it may be sexual, but no. No woman has ever been paid to strip. She has decided to use her body as a political instrument. That’s her prerogative and I think it is anti-feminist to dare to tell her that she needs to put her clothes back on.”


Whether you buy that argument or not, one thing is clear: Sex and celebrity sell. The fact that they do is not the fault of animal rights organizations like PETA. It’s simply the way Western society, especially its media, works.


At the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), we have long tried to interest the news media in the scientific arguments that lie behind many animal welfare issues. Sometimes we’re successful, but more often than not editors’ eyes just glaze over. On the occasions when Pamela Anderson has lent her name to our activities we’ve had instant media attention.


Sometimes it’s hard to accept that in the world of modern communications just telling people the facts doesn’t count for a lot.


When VHS criticizes the animal abuse in rodeos, we think we have a pretty sound, logical argument. But we are up against a hundred years of mythology about the “old West” and a narrative that idolizes the cowboy image created by Hollywood. It takes more than logic and facts to change such narratives.


Sometimes it takes a jolt to our senses and sensibilities to make us see things from a different perspective -and that’s what PETA does so well. One famous PETA ad compares pedigree dog breeding to the racist eugenics of the Ku Klux Klan. It may outrage dog breeders, but it makes valid points about the rigid and nonsensical “conformation” rules for purebreds (which require unnecessary tail, and ear-docking — practices also opposed by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, but who ever hears their views?).


One recent PETA campaign — to re-brand fish as “sea kittens” — attracted particular scorn from media commentators. But amid the scoffs and howls, much of the coverage generated serious discussion of issues like declining fish stocks and the scientific research on fish feeling pain. And guess what? That was the point.


While PETA’s messages and methods are endlessly debated, some of its hard-earned animal welfare successes are often overlooked by critics. Just one recent example: In January, the SPCA in Texas raided a large exotic pet trading business, acting on information from a PETA undercover operation that found horrific evidence of animal cruelty and neglect. More than 26,000 animals were rescued, the largest animal confiscation in history. It’s hard to find anything to criticize about that.