Newkirk was born in England in 1949, and raised in Hertfordshire and later New Delhi, India, where her father—a navigational engineer—was stationed. Newkirk, now an atheist, was educated in a convent, the only British girl there. She moved to the United States as a teenager, first studying to become a stockbroker but after taking some abandoned kittens to an animal shelter in 1969, and being appalled by the conditions that she found there, chose a career in animal protection instead. She became an animal-protection officer for Montgomery County and then the District of Columbia's first woman poundmaster. By 1976, she was head of the animal-disease-control division of D.C.'s Commission on Public Health and in 1980, was among those named as "Washingtonians of the Year." She told Michael Specter of The New Yorker that working for the shelters left her shocked at the way the animals were treated:
I went to the front office all the time, and I would say, "John is kicking the dogs and putting them into freezers." Or I would say, "They are stepping on the animals, crushing them like grapes, and they don't care." In the end, I would go to work early, before anyone got there, and I would just kill the animals myself. Because I couldn't stand to let them go through that. I must have killed a thousand of them, sometimes dozens every day. Some of those people would take pleasure in making them suffer. Driving home every night, I would cry just thinking about it. And I just felt, to my bones, this cannot be right.
In 1980, she divorced Steve Newkirk, whom she had married when she was 19, and the same year met Alex Pacheco, a political major at George Washington University. Pacheco had studied for the priesthood, then worked as a crew member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's first ship. He volunteered at the shelter where she worked, and they fell in love and began living together, although as Kathy Snow Guillermo writes, they were very different—Newkirk was older and more practical, whereas Pacheco could barely look after himself. Newkirk read Peter Singer's influential book, Animal Liberation (1975), and in March 1980, she persuaded Pacheco to join her in forming People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, at that point just "five people in a basement", as Newkirk described it. They were mostly students and members of the local vegetarian society, but the group included a friend of Pacheco's from the UK, Kim Stallwood, a British activist who went on to become the national organizer of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Pacheco was reluctant at first. "It just didn't sound great to me", he told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. "I had been active in Europe ... and I thought there were just too many formalities. I thought we should just do things ourselves. But she made a convincing case that Washington needed a vehicle for animals because the current organizations were too conservative."
The group first came to public attention in 1981 during the Silver Spring monkeys case, a dispute about experiments conducted by researcher Edward Taub on 17 macaque monkeys inside the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. The case led to the first police raid in the United States on an animal laboratory, triggered an amendment in 1985 to the United States Animal Welfare Act, and became the first animal-testing case to be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld a Louisiana State Court ruling that denied PETA's request for custody of the monkeys.
Pacheco had taken a job in May 1981 inside a primate research laboratory at the Institute, intending to gain firsthand experience of working inside an animal laboratory. Taub had been cutting sensory ganglia that supplied nerves to the monkeys' fingers, hands, arms, and legs—a process called "deafferentation"—so that the monkeys could not feel them; some of the monkeys had had their entire spinal columns deafferented. He then used restraint, electric shock, and withholding of food and water to force the monkeys to use the deafferented parts of their bodies. The research led in part to the discovery of neuroplasticity and a new therapy for stroke victims called constraint-induced movement therapy.
Pacheco went to the laboratory at night, taking photographs that showed the monkeys living in what the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research's ILAR Journal called filthy conditions. He passed his photographs to the police, who raided the lab and arrested Taub. Taub was convicted of six counts of animal cruelty, the first such conviction in the United States of an animal researcher; the conviction was overturned on appeal. Norm Phelps writes that the case followed the highly publicized campaign of Henry Spira in 1976 against experiments on cats being performed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Spira's subsequent campaign in April 1980 against the Draize test. These and the Silver Spring monkey case jointly put animal rights on the agenda in the United States.
The ten-year battle for custody of the monkeys—described by The Washington Post as a vicious mud fight, during which both sides accused the other of lies and distortion— transformed PETA into a national, then international, movement. By February 1991, it claimed over 350,000 members, a paid staff of over 100, and an annual budget of over $7 million.
PETA was based in Rockville, Maryland, until 1996, when it moved to Norfolk, Virginia. It opened a Los Angeles division in 2006 and also has offices in Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California. In addition, PETA has international affiliates in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Australia, and the Asia-Pacific region.
PETA is an animal rights organization and, as such, it rejects speciesism and also opposes the use and abuse of animals in any way, as food, clothing, entertainment, or research subjects. One oft-cited quote of Newkirk's is: "When it comes to feelings like hunger, pain, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." PETA lobbies government agencies to impose fines and/or confiscate animals when animal-welfare legislation has been violated, promotes a vegan lifestyle, tries to reform practices on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, sends undercover investigators into animal-research laboratories, farms, and circuses, initiates media campaigns against particular companies or practices, helps to find sanctuaries for animals formerly used by circuses and zoos, and initiates lawsuits against companies that refuse to change their practices. The group has been criticized by a few animal rights advocates for its willingness to work with industries that use animals for the purpose of affecting gradual change. Newkirk rejects this criticism and has said the group exists to hold the radical line.
The group has 3 million members and supporters, it received donations of over $50 million for the year ending July 31, 2014, and its website was receiving 4 million hits a month as of November 2008. Over 88 percent of its operating budget was spent on its programs in 2013-2014, 10 percent on membership development, and 1 percent on management and general operations. Ten percent of its staff earned under $30,000 and 43 percent over $40,000, and Newkirk made just over $40,000.
Pacheco left the group in 1999. Its current leadership, in addition to Newkirk, includes Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman, Senior Vice President of Laboratory Investigations Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of Communications Lisa Lange, Senior Vice President of Media Campaigns Dan Mathews, and Senior Vice President of Cruelty Investigations Daphna Nachminovitch. Its honorary directors include Pamela Anderson, James Cromwell, Chrissie Hynde, Bill Maher, and, until his death in 2015, Sam Simon.
The organization is known for its aggressive media campaigns, combined with a solid base of celebrity support—in addition to its honorary directors, Paul McCartney, Alicia Silverstone, Eva Mendes, Charlize Theron, Ellen DeGeneres, and many, many others have appeared in PETA ads. Every week, Newkirk holds what The New Yorker calls a war council, with two dozen of her top strategists gathered at a square table in the PETA conference room, with no suggestion considered too outrageous. PETA also gives an annual prize, called the Proggy Award (for "progress"), to individuals or organizations dedicated to animal welfare or who distinguish themselves through their efforts within the area of animal welfare.
Many of the campaigns have focused on large corporations. Fast food companies such as KFC, Wendy's, and Burger King have been targeted. In the animal-testing industry, PETA's consumer boycotts have focused on Avon, Benetton, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, Chesebrough-Pond's, Dow Chemical, General Motors, and others. The group's modus operandi includes buying shares in target companies such as McDonald's and Kraft Foods in order to exert influence. The campaigns have delivered results for PETA. McDonald's and Wendy's introduced vegetarian options after PETA targeted them; Petco stopped selling some exotic pets; and Polo Ralph Lauren said it would no longer use fur. Avon, Estée Lauder, Benetton, and Tonka Toy Co. all stopped testing products on animals, the Pentagon stopped shooting pigs and goats in wounds tests, and a slaughterhouse in Texas was closed down.
As part of its anti-fur action, PETA members have infiltrated hundreds of fashion shows in the U.S. and Europe and one in China, throwing red paint on the catwalks and unfurling banners. Celebrities and supermodels have posed naked for the group's "I'd Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur" campaign—some men, but mostly women—triggering criticism from feminist animal rights advocates. The New Yorker writes that PETA activists have crawled through the streets of Paris wearing leg-hold traps and thrown around money soaked in fake blood at the International Fur Fair. They sometimes engage in pie-throwing—in January 2010, Canadian MP Gerry Byrne compared them to terrorists for throwing a tofu cream pie at Canada's fishery minister Gail Shea in protest of the seal slaughter, a comment Newkirk called a silly chest-beating exercise. "The thing is, we make them gawk," she told Satya magazine, "maybe like a traffic accident that you have to look at."
PETA has also objected to the practice of mulesing (removing strips of wool-bearing skin from around the buttocks of a sheep). In October 2004, PETA launched a boycott against the Australian wool industry, leading some clothing retailers to ban products using Australian wool from their stores. In response, the Australian wool industry sued PETA, arguing among other things that mulesing prevents flystrike, a very painful disease that can affect sheep. A settlement was reached, and PETA agreed to stop the boycott, while the wool industry agreed to seek alternatives to mulesing.
In 2011, PETA named five orcas as plaintiffs and sued SeaWorld over the animals' enslavement, seeking their protection under the Thirteenth Amendment. A federal judge heard the case and dismissed it in early 2012. In August 2014, SeaWorld announced it was building new orca tanks that would almost double the size of the existing ones to provide more space for its whales. PETA responded that a "larger prison is still a prison." In 2016, SeaWorld admitted that it had been sending its employees to pose as activists to spy on PETA. Following an investigation by an outside law firm, SeaWorld's Board of Directors directed management to end the practice.
Patricia de Leon worked with PETA in 2011 to reduce support for bullfighting among Hispanic people.
Some campaigns have been particularly controversial. Newkirk was criticized in 2003 for sending a letter to PLO leader Yasser Arafat asking him to keep animals out of the conflict, after a donkey was blown up during an attack in Jerusalem. The group's 2003 "Holocaust on your Plate" exhibition—eight 60-square-foot (5.6 m2) panels juxtaposing images of Holocaust victims with animal carcasses and animals being transported to slaughter—was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, which said, "the effort by Peta to compare the deliberate systematic murder of millions of Jews to the issue of animal rights is abhorrent" and "[r]ather than deepen our revulsion against what the Nazis did to the Jews, the project will undermine the struggle to understand the Holocaust and to find a way to make sure such catastrophes never happen again." In July 2010, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that PETA's campaign was not protected by free speech laws and banned it within Germany as an offense against human dignity. The exhibit, however, had been funded by an anonymous Jewish philanthropist and created by Matt Prescott, who lost several relatives in the Holocaust. Prescott said: "The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible—that we can do anything we want to those we decide are 'different or inferior'—is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day. ... The fact is, all animals feel pain, fear and loneliness. We're asking people to recognize that what Jews and others went through in the Holocaust is what animals go through every day in factory farms." And analogies between animal rights and the Holocaust had been initiated by the prominent Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. In 2005, the NAACP criticized the "Are Animals the New Slaves?" exhibit, which showed images of African-American slaves, Native Americans, child laborers, and women, alongside chained elephants and slaughtered cows.
PETA's "It's still going on" campaign features newspaper ads comparing widely publicized murder-cannibalization cases to the deaths of animals in slaughterhouses. The campaign has attracted significant media attention, controversy and generated angry responses from the victims' family members. Ads were released in 1991 describing the deaths of the victims of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, in 2002 describing the deaths of the victims of serial killer Robert William Pickton, and in 2008 describing the murder of Tim McLean. In several cases, newspapers have refused to run the ads.
The group has also been criticized for aiming its message at young people. "Your Mommy Kills Animals" features a cartoon of a woman attacking a rabbit with a knife. To reduce milk consumption, it created the "Got Beer?" campaign, a parody of the dairy industry's series of Got Milk? ads, which featured celebrities with milk "mustaches" on their upper lips. When the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000, PETA ran a photograph of him with a white mustache and the words "Got prostate cancer?" to illustrate their claim that dairy products contribute to cancer, an ad that caused an outcry in the United States. After PETA placed ads in school newspapers linking milk to acne, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and strokes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and college officials complained it encouraged underage drinking; the British Advertising Standards Authority asked that the ads be discontinued after complaints from interest groups such as The National Farmers' Unions.
In August 2011, it was announced that PETA will be launching a soft pornography website in the .xxx domain. PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt told the Huffington Post, "We try to use absolutely every outlet to stick up for animals," adding that "We are careful about what we do and wouldn't use nudity or some of our flashier tactics if we didn't know they worked." PETA also used nudity in its "Veggie Love" ad which it prepared for the Super Bowl only to have it banned by the network. PETA's work has drawn the ire of some feminists who argue that the organization sacrifices women's rights to press its agenda. Lindsay Beyerstein criticized PETA saying "They're the ones drawing disturbing analogies between pornography, misogyny and animal cruelty."
Other campaigns are less confrontational and more humorous. In 2008, it launched the "Save the Sea Kittens" campaign to change the name of fish to "sea kittens" to give them a positive image, and it regularly asks towns to adopt a new name. It campaigned in 1996 for a new name for Fishkill, New York, and in April 2003 offered free veggie burgers to Hamburg, New York, if it would call itself Veggieburg.
PETA sometimes issues isolated statements or press releases, commenting on current events. After Lady Gaga wore a dress made of meat in 2010, PETA issued a statement objecting to the dress. After a fisherman in Florida was bitten by a shark in 2011, PETA proposed an advertisement showing a shark biting a human, with the caption "Payback Is Hell, Go Vegan". The proposed ad drew criticism from relatives of the injured fisherman. After Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer admitted that he had killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, PETA's president, Newkirk, issued a statement on behalf of PETA in which she said: "Hunting is a coward's pastime. If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged."
PETA sends its staff undercover into research laboratories, factory farms, and circuses to document the treatment of animals. Investigators may spend many months as employees of a facility, making copies of documents and wearing hidden cameras. By 2007, it had conducted 75 such investigations. It has also produced videos based on material collected during ALF raids. Some undercover efforts have led to lawsuits or government action against companies and universities. PETA itself faced legal action in April 2007 after the owners of a chinchilla ranch in Michigan complained about an undercover inquiry there, but the judge ruled in PETA's favor that undercover investigations can be legitimate.
One notable case led to a 26-minute film that PETA produced in 1984, Unnecessary Fuss. The film was based on 60 hours of researchers' footage obtained by the ALF during a raid on the University of Pennsylvania's head injury clinic. The footage showed researchers laughing at baboons as they inflicted brain damage on them with a hydraulic device intended to simulate whiplash. Laboratory animal veterinarian Larry Carbone writes that the researchers openly discussed how one baboon was awake before the head injury, despite protocols being in place for anesthesia. The ensuing publicity led to the suspension of funds from the university, the firing of its chief veterinarian, the closure of the lab, and a period of probation for the university.
In 1990, two PETA activists posed as employees of Carolina Biological, where they took pictures and video footage inside the company, alleging that cats were being mistreated. Following the release of PETA's tapes, the USDA conducted its own inspection and subsequently charged the company with seven violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Four years later, an administrative judge ruled that Carolina Biological had not committed any violations.
In 1990, Bobby Berosini, a Las Vegas entertainer, lost his wildlife license as well as (on appeal) a later lawsuit against PETA, after the group broadcast an undercover film of him slapping and punching orangutans in 1989. In 1997, a PETA investigation inside Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a contract animal-testing company, produced film of staff in the UK beating dogs, and what appeared to be abuse of monkeys in the company's New Jersey facility. After the video footage aired on British television in 1999, a group of activists set up Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty to close HLS down, a campaign that continues.
In 1999, a North Carolina grand jury handed down indictments against pig-farm workers on Belcross Farm in Camden County, the first indictments for animal cruelty on a factory farm in the United States, after a three-month PETA investigation produced film of the workers beating the animals. In 2004, PETA published the results of an eight-month undercover investigation in a West Virginia Pilgrim's Pride slaughterhouse that supplies chickens to KFC. The New York Times reported the investigation as showing workers stomping on live chickens, throwing dozens against a wall, tearing the head off a chicken to write graffiti, strangling one with a latex glove, and squeezing birds until they exploded. Yum Brands, owner of KFC, called the video appalling and threatened to stop purchasing from Pilgrim's Pride if no changes were made. Pilgrim's Pride subsequently fired 11 employees and introduced an anti-cruelty pledge for workers to sign.
In 2004 and 2005, PETA shot footage inside Covance, an animal-testing company in the U.S. and Europe, that appeared to show monkeys being mistreated in the company's facility in Vienna, Virginia. According to The Washington Post, PETA said an employee of the group filmed primates there being choked, hit, and denied medical attention when badly injured. After PETA sent the video and a 253-page complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Covance was fined $8,720 for 16 citations, three of which involved lab monkeys; the other citations involved administrative issues and equipment. The company said none of the issues were pervasive or endemic and that it had taken corrective action. In 2005, Covance initiated a lawsuit charging PETA with fraud, violation of employee contract, and conspiracy to harm the company's business but did not proceed with it.
PETA also goes undercover into circuses. In 2006, it filmed trainers at Carson & Barnes Circus—including Tim Frisco, the animal-care director—striking elephants while shouting at them. The Washington Post writes that the video shows Frisco shouting, "Make 'em scream!". A company spokesperson dismissed PETA's concerns as "Utopian philosophical ideology" but said the circus would no longer use electric prods.
PETA investigated angora rabbit farms in China in 2013. As CBS News reported of the resulting video footage, "In the video, the rabbits' high-pitched screams can be heard as farmers rip out their wool until the animal is bald. The rabbits are then thrown back into their cage and appear to be stunned and in shock." PETA claimed that 90 percent of the world's angora comes from China, and retailers that carry angora did not initially comment to CBS. Over the next two years, though, because of the investigation, more than 70 retailers, including H&M, Topshop, and Inditex (the world's largest retailer), discontinued their use of angora. Inditex donated its angora products, valued at $878,000, to Syrian refugees.
Between 2012 and 2014, PETA investigated sheep shearing sheds used by the wool industry in Australia and the U.S., uncovering "evidence of widespread animal abuse." In Australia, the group "sent three undercover investigators to 19 different sheep shearing sheds run by nine different contractors in three states." As NBC News reported, "PETA charges that in Australia, workers for seven contractors kicked, stomped or stood on animals' heads necks and hind limbs, while workers for eight contractors punched or struck sheep with clippers. One worker allegedly beat a lamb over the head with a hammer. Workers for five contractors allegedly threw sheep and or slammed their heads and bodies against floors." PETA also sent an investigator to "25 ranches in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nebraska" and subsequently "asked local authorities in two Colorado counties to file criminal charges against a specific shearer because of alleged acts of abuse witnessed at two ranches." Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz called the video evidence "highly concerning" and launched an investigation.
In 2014, PETA conducted an undercover investigation of the horse-racing industry, filming seven hours of footage that, as The New York Times reported, "showed mistreatment of the horses to be widespread and cavalier." Noted trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, were accused "of subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster." The newspaper noted that this investigation "was PETA's first significant step into advocacy in the horse racing world." In November 2015, as a result of PETA's investigation, Asmussen was fined $10,000 by the New York State Gaming Commission. Robert Williams, executive director of the commission, said, "We recognize PETA for playing a role in bringing about changes necessary to make thoroughbred racing safer and fairer for all." By contrast, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which also received PETA's allegations, found that Asmussen did not violate any of its rules. Asmussen remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for allegedly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Also in 2014, PETA investigated China's dog leather trade in the province of Jiangsu. As the Daily Mirror reported, "PETA has obtained footage showing workers grabbing terrified dogs with a metal noose, clubbing them then slitting their throats. ... The video footage is too graphic to be shown here and is very distressing to watch." The newspaper also noted that "this is the first time that the production of Chinese dog leather has been captured on camera." PETA claimed that "[p]roducts made from dog leather are exported throughout the world to be sold to unsuspecting customers."
In 2015, as The Washington Post reported, PETA investigated Sweet Stem Farm, a pig farm that supplies meat to Whole Foods. The resulting video footage "featured images of pigs, some allegedly sick and not given appropriate care, crowded into hot pens and roughly handled by employees," contradicting both the farm's own video self-portrait and Whole Foods' claims about "humane meat" (a term that PETA maintains is an oxymoron). The Post notes that "[i]n the wake of the PETA investigation, Whole Foods has removed the Sweet Stem video from its Web site." PETA has subsequently filed a class-action lawsuit against Whole Foods, "alleging that the chain's claims about animal welfare amount to a 'sham.'"
Other recent PETA investigations have focused on crocodile and alligator farms in Texas and Zimbabwe, a monkey breeding facility in Florida, pigeon racing in Taiwan, ostrich slaughterhouses and tanneries in South Africa, and a dairy farm in North Carolina, where cows were "wading knee deep through thousands of gallons of their own manure."
CBS News reported in November 2016 that PETA had captured footage from restaurants that serve live octopus, shrimp, and other marine animals. The group's video showed "an octopus writhing as its limbs are severed by a chef at T Equals Fish, a Koreatown sushi restaurant in Los Angeles." PETA noted that octopuses "are considered among the most intelligent invertebrates" and "are capable of feeling pain just as a pig or rabbit would."
Various states, including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Utah, have passed so-called "ag-gag" laws in order to prevent PETA and other groups from conducting undercover investigations of operations that use animals. But PETA and a coalition of animal-welfare groups brought a lawsuit, "citing First Amendment protections for free speech," against Idaho that overturned the state's "ag-gag" law in August 2015, setting a precedent that may help overturn these laws in other states. PETA, ALDF, and other groups are also currently suing the states of Utah and North Carolina. "Ag-gag" laws have been heavily promoted by the conservative think tank the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
PETA opposes the no-kill movement, and, according to its most recent filing with The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), euthanized 81 percent of the animals that ended up at its shelter. According to VDACS, PETA took 3,017 animals into its shelters in 2014, of which 2,455 were euthanized, 162 were adopted, 353 were released to other shelters, and 6 were reclaimed by their original owners. The group justifies its euthanasia policies toward animals who are not adopted by saying that it takes in feral cat colonies with diseases such as feline AIDS and leukemia, stray dogs, litters of parvo-infected puppies, and backyard dogs and says that it would be unrealistic to follow a no-kill policy in such instances. PETA offers free euthanasia services to counties that kill unwanted animals via gassing or shooting—the group recommends the use of an intravenous injection of sodium pentobarbital if administered by a trained professional and for severely ill or dying animals when euthanasia at a veterinarian is unaffordable. The group recommends not breeding pit bulls and supports euthanasia in certain situations for animals in shelters: for example, for those living for long periods in cramped cages.
PETA's operation of an animal shelter has drawn criticism. In 2008, industry lobby group, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) formally petitioned VDACS, requesting official reclassification of PETA as a slaughterhouse. CCF said in a press release that "(a)n official report filed by PETA itself shows that the animal rights group put to death nearly every dog, cat, and other pet it took in for adoption in 2006." A spokesperson for the VDACS said that it had considered changing PETA's status from "shelter" to "euthanasia clinic", citing PETA's willingness to handle animals that other shelters would not.
PETA has promoted legal initiatives to enforce existing euthanasia laws. In 1990, Georgia's Humane Euthanasia Act became one of the first laws in the nation to mandate intravenous injection of sodium pentobarbital as the prescribed method for euthanizing cats and dogs in Georgia animal shelters. Prior to that time, gas chambers and other means were commonly employed. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin was tasked with licensing the shelters and enforcing the new law, through the Department's Animal Protection Division. However, Commissioner Irvin failed to abide by the terms of the law, and instead continued to license gas chambers. PETA contacted the author of the original legislation, and in March 2007, the Georgia Department of Agriculture and Commissioner Irvin were sued by former State Representative Chesley V. Morton. The Fulton County Superior Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, validating the terms of the Humane Euthanasia Act, with an injunction prohibiting the Department from issuing licenses to shelters using gas chambers in violation of the Act. When the Department continued to license a gas chamber in Cobb County, a second court action was brought, which resulted in the Department being held in contempt.
Two PETA employees were acquitted in 2007 of animal cruelty after at least 80 euthanized animals were left in dumpsters in a shopping center in Ahoskie over the course of a month in 2005; the two employees were seen leaving behind 18 dead animals, and 13 more were found inside their van. The animals had been euthanized after being removed from shelters in Northampton and Bertie counties. A Bertie County Deputy Sheriff stated the two employees assured the Bertie Animal Shelter "they were picking up the dogs to take them back to Norfolk where they would find them good homes". During the trial, Daphna Nachminovitch, the supervisor of PETA's Community Animal Project, said PETA began euthanizing animals in some rural North Carolina shelters after it found the shelters killing animals in ways PETA considers inhumane, including by shooting them. She also stated that the dumping of animals did not follow PETA policy.
In November 2014 a resident of Accomack County, Virginia produced video evidence that two intruders in a van marked with a PETA logo had entered his property and stolen his dog, which was then killed. He reported the theft and killing to the police, who identified and charged two PETA workers, but the charges were later dropped by the commonwealth attorney on the grounds that it was not possible to prove criminal intent. The state later determined that PETA violated state law by failing to ensure that the animal was properly identified and failing to keep the dog alive for five days before killing it. Citing a "severity of this lapse in judgment," the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued PETA a violation and imposed a $500 fine.
PETA has also produced various Flash games showcasing its campaigns, including parodies of Cooking Mama, Super Mario Bros., Super Meat Boy, and Pokémon, in order to spread its message on animal welfare, vegetarianism and veganism.
One of the group's first notable satirical games, called Super Chick Sisters, parodying Super Mario Bros, was released on December 2007, in order to spread its idea of Kentucky Fried Cruelty. Within the game, KFC and especially Colonel Sanders is portrayed as evil and self-serving. The sequel, New Super Chick Sisters, featuring McDonald's and Ronald McDonald as the villain, was released on December 2009, in criticism of how McDonald's McNuggets were made. PETA claims that McDonald's chickens have been treated poorly and said, "There is a less cruel method of slaughter available today that would eliminate these abuses, yet McDonald's refuses to require its U.S. and Canadian suppliers to switch to it."
In November 2011, another satirical game was released featuring a skinned tanuki chasing Mario to reclaim its fur from him. This was widely criticized as "absurd and unresearched" by the gaming community, prompting PETA to explain that it was a tongue-in-cheek effort to draw attention to the real-life issue of tanuki being skinned alive.
Not all critical response to the games has been unfavorable. Fahey opined that New Super Chick Sisters "manages to be a rather capable little platformer despite its heavy-handed message." Nikole Zivalich of G4TV called Super Tofu Boy "actually a pretty good time waster" and, as she is a vegetarian, claimed to be "on Team Tofu." Overall, Mike Splechta from GameZone stated that "some are a little less flattering than others, but they do tend to get their point across." He also called Cage Fight "kickass", praising its gameplay and chiptune soundtrack, and encouraged readers to play it.
In some cases, the creators of the original games have responded to PETA's parodies. Such responses included Super Meat Boy developer Team Meat adding Tofu Boy as a playable character in a Super Meat Boy update, Majesco responding to Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals about the false information about the game characters' behaviour, and Nintendo criticizing abuse of its intellectual property with PETA's Pokémon Black & Blue game.
Each year, PETA selects a "Person of the Year" who has helped advance the cause of animal rights. In 2015, as Time magazine reported, the group selected Pope Francis, who took his name from the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi. Ingrid Newkirk noted, "With more than a billion Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis' animal-friendly teachings have a massive audience." Previous PETA persons of the year include Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Russell Simmons, and Ricky Gervais.
Newkirk is outspoken in her support of direct action, writing that no movement for social change has ever succeeded without what she calls the militarism component: "Thinkers may prepare revolutions," she wrote of the ALF in 2004, "but bandits must carry them out."
In 2004 The Observer described what it called a network of relationships between apparently unconnected animal rights groups on both sides of the Atlantic, writing that, with assets of $6.5 million, and with the PETA Foundation holding further assets of $15 million, PETA funds a number of activists and groups—some with links to militant groups, including the ALF, which the FBI has named as a domestic terrorist threat. American writer Don Liddick writes that PETA gave $1,500 to the Earth Liberation Front in 2001—Newkirk said the donation was a mistake, and that the money had been intended for public education about destruction of habitat, but Liddick writes that it went to the legal defense of Craig Rosebraugh, an ELF spokesman. That same year, according to The Observer, PETA gave a $5,000 grant to American animal rights activist Josh Harper, an advocate of arson.
According to Liddick, PETA has substantial links with Native American ALF activist Rod Coronado. He alleges that two Federal Express packages were sent to an address in Bethesda, Maryland, before and after a 1992 fire at Michigan State University that Coronado was convicted of setting, reportedly as part of "Operation Bite Back", a series of ALF attacks on American animal testing facilities in the 1990s. The first package was picked up by a PETA employee, Maria Blanton, and the second intercepted by the authorities, who identified the handwriting as Coronado's. Liddick writes that the package contained documents removed from the university and a videotape of one of the perpetrators. When they searched Blanton's home, police found some of the paraphernalia of animal liberation raids, including code names for Coronado and Alex Pacheco—PETA's co-founder—burglary tools, two-way radios, and fake identification. Liddick also writes that PETA gave Coronado $45,000 for his legal bills and another $25,000 to his father.
Newkirk is a strong supporter of direct action that removes animals from laboratories and other facilities—she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992 that when she hears of anyone walking into a lab and walking out with animals, her heart sings. Newkirk commented to the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1999, "When you see the resistance to basic humane treatment and to the acknowledgment of animals' social needs, I find it small wonder that the laboratories aren't all burning to the ground. If I had more guts, I'd light a match."
In an interview for Wikinews in 2007, she said she had been asked by other animal protection groups to condemn illegal acts. "And I won't do it, because if it were my animal I'd be happy." But she added that she does not support arson. "I would rather that these buildings weren't standing, and so I think at some level I understand. I just don't like the idea of that, but maybe that's wishy-washy of me, because I don't want those buildings standing if they hurt anyone ... Why would you preserve [a building] just so someone can make a profit by continuing to hurt and kill individuals who feel every bit as much as we do?"
PETA runs several programs though its Community Animal Project for cats and dogs in poorer areas of Virginia, near its headquarters. In 2014 the group sterilized 10,950 cats and dogs, including 851 pit bulls and 584 feral cats, at a discounted rate or free of charge. PETA also shelters neglected dogs and cats who are ill and injured, pursues cruelty cases, and sets up doghouses with straw bedding for dogs chained outside all winter. It supplied 340 doghouses, 1,000 bales of straw, and 2,500 dog toys in 2013. The group urges population control through neutering and adoption from shelters and campaigns against organizations such as the American Kennel Club that promote the selection of purebred breeds.
PETA takes the following position on dogs and cats:
In a perfect world, animals would be free to live their lives to the fullest, raising their young and following their natural instincts in their native environments. Domesticated dogs and cats, however, cannot live 'free' in our concrete jungles, so we are responsible for their care. People with the time, money, love, and patience to make a lifetime commitment to an animal can make an enormous difference by adopting an animal from a shelter or rescuing an animal from a perilous life on the streets."
Newkirk has stated that she doesn't use the word "pet," preferring the term "companion animal," and described PETA's vision:
For one thing, we would no longer allow breeding. People could not create different breeds. There would be no pet shops. If people had companion animals in their homes, those animals would have to be refugees from the animal shelters and the streets. You would have a protective relationship with them just as you would with an orphaned child. But as the surplus of cats and dogs (artificially engineered by centuries of forced breeding) declined, eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship—enjoyment at a distance.
PETA writes that millions of dogs spend their lives chained outside in all weather conditions or locked up in chain-link pens and wire cages in puppy mills, and that even in good homes animals are often not well cared for. They would like to see the population of dogs and cats reduced through spaying and neutering, and for people never to purchase animals from pet shops or breeders, but to adopt them from shelters instead. PETA supports hearing dog programs where animals are taken from shelters and placed in appropriate homes, but does not endorse seeing-eye-dog programs because, according to one of their Vice Presidents, "the dogs are bred as if there are no equally intelligent dogs literally dying for homes in shelters." PETA also opposes the keeping of fish in aquarium tanks, suggesting that people view computer videos of fish instead.
PETA opposes animal testing—whether toxicity testing, basic or applied research, or for education and training—on both moral and practical grounds. Newkirk told Vogue magazine in 1989 that even if it resulted in a cure for AIDS, PETA would oppose it. The group also believes that it is wasteful, unreliable, and irrelevant to human health, because artificially induced diseases in animals are not identical to human diseases. They say that animal experiments are frequently redundant and lack accountability, oversight, and regulation. They promote alternatives, including embryonic stem cell research and in vitro cell research. PETA employees have themselves volunteered for human testing of vaccines; Scott Van Valkenburg, the group's Director of Major Gifts, said in 1999 that he had volunteered for human testing of HIV vaccines.
PETA opposes the use of animals for producing clothing made with fur, leather, wool, or silk. It also opposes the use of down from birds and the use of silk from silkworms or spiders. The group notes on its website: "Every year, millions of animals are killed for the clothing industry—all in the name of fashion. Whether the clothes come from Chinese fur farms, Indian slaughterhouses, or the Australian outback, an immeasurable amount of suffering goes into every fur-trimmed jacket, leather belt, and wool sweater." The group's ongoing campaigns against the use of animals for clothing include "Ink, Not Mink," which highlights images of celebrities with tattoos, including Brandon Flowers of the San Diego Chargers and many others.
According to ScienceBasedMedicine.org, PETA has "a history of (as the old saying goes) using science as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination. In that way they are typical of ideological groups. They have an agenda, they are very open about their beliefs, and they marshal whatever arguments they can in order to promote their point of view."
PETA claims on its website that "scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods."
Studies such as these have been around for decades and are mainly centered around the concept that behavioral differences between people with autism and neurotypicals may be observed through a gluten-free diet. According to ScienceBasedMedicine.org:
Behavior in children, especially those with the challenge of autism, can be unpredictable. Unpredictable and variable symptoms lend themselves to confirmation bias, with a strong tendency to lead to the anecdotal experience that whatever is being looked for is real. For example, many parents believe that sugar makes their children hyperactive, when this is simply not true. [...] The evidence for any effect on behavior is weak and likely not real. There is also no credible evidence to suggest that casein plays a causal role in autism. The evidence is overwhelming that autism is a genetic disorder. [...] This is clearly, in my opinion, a campaign of fear mongering based upon a gross distortion of the scientific evidence. The purpose is to advocate for a vegan diet, which fits their ideological agenda. They are likely aware that it is easier to spread fears than to reassure with a careful analysis of the scientific evidence.
Even though the website cites studies, these studies are outdated, vague, relied on a very small sample size of children, were single-blind tests (which can be heavily influenced by an experimenter's bias), and conflated correlation with causation. The billboards put up by PETA promoting this research have also been considered offensive by many autistic individuals.
PETA is critical of television personalities they call self-professed wildlife warriors, arguing that while a conservationist message is getting across, some of the actions are harmful to animals, such as invading animals' homes, netting them, subjecting them to stressful environments, and wrestling with them—often involving young animals the group says should be with their mothers. In 2006 when Steve Irwin died, PETA's vice-president Dan Mathews said Irwin had made a career out of antagonizing frightened wild animals. Australian Member of Parliament Bruce Scott said PETA should apologize to Irwin's family and the rest of Australia.
PETA Asia-Pacific was founded by Ingrid Newkirk in Hong Kong in 2005 to support animal rights programs and campaigns in Asia. Jason Baker, a former staff member of PETA who was involved in setting up PETA India and PETA Australia, is PETA Asia Pacific's first director. Its offices are in Hong Kong and Manila. It works through public education, animal cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns. Its campaigns cover countries including China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea.
PETA Asia-Pacific promotes vegetarian and vegan diets through three specific campaigns: education about the benefits of a vegetarian diet, demonstrations and celebrity involvement against fast food outlets, and undercover investigations of animals used for live transport and traditional religious slaughter. The organization has also used the PETA Lettuce Ladies in local demonstrations. PETA Asia-Pacific regularly demonstrates against KFC outlets to promote better treatment of chickens used by the company.
PETA Asia-Pacific supports the PETA campaign "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur," in which celebrities appear nude to express their opposition to wearing fur. The group also stages anti-fur events to publicize their opposition to fur. PETA Asia-Pacific has been involved in several undercover investigations of fur farms in China.
The group regularly protests the use of animals in entertainment, including circuses. These demonstrations are specific to the area, including anti-bull riding, not keeping wild animals in chains, and stopping human–animal wrestling matches.
PETA Asia Pacific also coordinates protests against other uses of animals which it believes are abusive, such as improving the treatment of rats, and it advocates for improvements for companion animals. In 2016, PETA Asia Pacific shocked customers with a fake pop-up shop in Bangkok called The Leather Work, which seemed to specialize in "luxury" leather bags, shoes, and other clothing and accessories. Inside the items, though, were what appeared to be the gory flesh, sinews, beating hearts, and blood of animals slaughtered for such items. According to the Asian Correspondent, the stunt caused shoppers to jump back and gasp in horror. PETA claims "to have found workers in crocodile farms 'sawing open reptile's necks while the animals are still alive'" and that "snakes and lizards are cruelly 'nailed to trees' or 'decapitated' before being 'skinned alive.'"
PETA India, based in Mumbai, was founded in January 2000. According to the group's website, it focuses principally on "investigative work, public education efforts, research, animal rescues, legislative work, special events, celebrity involvement and national media coverage."
The group has launched investigations of jallikattu events, circuses that use animals in performances, and filthy horse stables in Mumbai, among others. The investigation of 16 circuses in India over a nine-month period "revealed that animals used in circuses were subjected to chronic confinement, physical abuse, and psychological torment" and also led the Animal Welfare Board of India to "ban registration of elephants for performance in view of the cruelties and abuse suffered by them."
In 2015, with support from celebrities such as Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson, PETA India rescued a 14-year-old male elephant named Sunder, who had been kept captive in chains "at a temple in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra for seven years." Sunder was transferred to Bannerghatta Biological Park, a forested sanctuary, where he can roam freely in the company of other elephants.
Indian celebrities who have collaborated with PETA India include Shahid Kapoor, Hema Malini, and Raveena Tandon, among many others.
PETA India is affiliated with Animal Rahat ("Rahat" means "relief"), a nonprofit organization that "was created to make a difference in the lives of working bullocks, donkeys, ponies, horses, and other animals." It's located in the sugar-mill district of Sangli, India, and is dedicated to providing "free aid to bullocks who work in sugar mills, donkeys who are used in the brick kilns, horses who pull carts, and other working animals" as well as helping "animals' owners, who are often too poor to afford the sustenance necessary to maintain animals' health and strength, pay for veterinary care in times of illness and injury, or give their animals time for rest and recuperation." The group, which began its work in 2011, "has worked to ensure that over 7,000 bullocks primarily employed in Maharashtra's sugar factories were replaced by mini-tractors."Jallikattu Ban
PETA also has affiliates in the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia.
In February 1995, a parody website calling itself "People Eating Tasty Animals" registered the domain name "peta.org". PETA sued, claiming trademark violation, and won the suit in 2001. While still engaged in legal proceedings over "peta.org", PETA themselves registered the domains "ringlingbrothers.com" and "voguemagazine.com", using the sites to accuse Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Vogue of animal cruelty. PETA later surrendered the domains under threat of similar legal action over trademark infringement.
Robert Garner of the University of Leicester writes that Newkirk and Pacheco are the leading exporters of animal rights to the more moderate groups in the United States—both members of an animal rights elite that he argues has shaken up the animal rights movement, setting up new groups and radicalizing old ones.
Philanthropedia says of the group: "A very controversial organization, PETA is known for bringing into public view the plight of animals of many different kinds. They have brought many issues to the front of people's consciousness about inhumane treatment of animals even though many experts find their marketing and communication tactics a bit extreme at times." The site's summary of expert opinion on the organization's strengths is as follows: "PETA is highly visible, consistent, and well organized. According to experts, they are very tightly focused on their mission and they are able to generate media attention to the cause."
Specific experts consulted by Philanthropedia, including academics and senior staff members of other nonprofits, made the following observations about the group's position within the animal rights movement:"PETA is not afraid to tackle ANY kind of animal abuse issue. They often start working on something well in advance of other organizations, take the 'heat' for others for years while educating people about the thing they're exposing. Then eventually, once a critical mass understands about the issue, it becomes 'mainstream'. I've seen this happen on a number of issues over the years, including fur, vegetarianism, animal research, wool, leather, etc."
"Students name PETA more than any other organization concerning which group influenced them to make positive personal changes and also be activists."
"PETA regularly convinces companies to replace their animal testing with non-animal alternatives as well as helping animals who are found living in cruel conditions in the pet and other industries. Their high profile campaigns result in many people becoming vegetarian and vegan."
"They have brought many issues to the front of people's consciousness about inhumane treatment of animals even though sometimes the way it is done is a little overboard. They have moved the bar from what was considered unthinkable 25 years ago (e.g., humane treatment of laboratory animals) to being considered normal and expected."
"I don't think one can talk about the animal movement without mentioning PETA. They put the issue ON the map. Whether agreeing or disagreeing with their tactics, [there] is no denying that they are probably one of, if not the, most-well known animal group. And if taken outside the animal movement, that they are a well-known 'brand' in general. That is an amazing impact for a so-called 'fringe' issue."
"Without PETA, the number of people who have even HEARD of animal rights/welfare/protection would be reduced by at least half, in my best guestimate."
Despite the group's successes, there has been criticism of PETA from both the conservative and radical ends of the animal rights movement. Michael Specter writes that it provides for groups such as the Humane Society of the United States the same dynamic that Malcolm X provided for Martin Luther King, or Andrea Dworkin for Gloria Steinem—someone radical to alienate the mainstream and make moderate voices more appealing. The failure to condemn the Animal Liberation Front triggers complaints from the conservatives, while the more radical activists say the group has lost touch with its grassroots, is soft on the idea of animal rights, and that it should stop the media stunts, the pie-throwing, and the use of nudity. "It's hard enough trying to get people to take animal rights seriously without PETA out there acting like a bunch of jerks," one activist told writer Norm Phelps. However, Phelps continued: "But it's hard to argue with success, and PETA is far and away the most successful cutting-edge animal rights organization in the world, in terms of both membership and spreading the animal rights message to the public at large."
The ads featuring barely clad or naked women have been criticized by some feminist animal rights advocates. When Ronald Reagan's daughter Patti Davis posed naked for Playboy, donating half her $100,000 fee to PETA, the group issued a press release saying Davis "turns the other cheek in an eye-opening spread," then announced she had been photographed naked with Hugh Hefner's dog for an anti-fur ad. In 1995, PETA formed a partnership with Playboy to promote human organ donation, with the caption "Some People Need You Inside Them" on a photograph of Hefner's wife. The long-standing campaign, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur," in which celebrities and supermodels strip for the camera, generated particular concern.
Newkirk has replied to the criticism that no one is being exploited, the women taking part are volunteers, and if sexual attraction advances the cause of animals, she is unapologetic. Asked in 2007 how she feels when criticized from within the movement, she said: "Somebody has to push the envelope. If you say something that someone already agrees with, then what's the point, and so we make some more conservative animal protection organizations uncomfortable; they don't want to be associated with us because it will be embarrassing for them, and I understand that. Our own members write to us sometimes and say, 'Oh why did you do this? I don't want anyone to know I'm a PETA member.'"
Gary Francione, professor of law at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, argues that PETA is not an animal rights group—and further that there is no animal rights movement in the United States—because of their willingness to work with industries that use animals to achieve incremental change. This makes them an animal welfare group, in Francione's view: what he calls the new welfarists. A proponent of abolitionism, Francione argues that PETA is trivializing the movement with what he calls the "Three Stooges" theory of animal rights, making the public think progress is underway when the changes are only cosmetic.
However, like Francione, PETA describes itself as abolitionist. Newkirk told an animal rights conference in 2002 that PETA's goal remains animal liberation: "Reforms move a society very importantly from A to B, from B to C, from C to D. It's very hard to take a nation or a world that is built on seeing animals as nothing more than hamburgers, handbags, cheap burglar alarms, tools for research, and move them from A to Z ..."
Francione has also criticized PETA for having caused grassroots animal rights groups to close, groups that he argues were essential for the survival of the animal rights movement, which rejects the centrality of corporate animal charities. Francione writes that PETA initially set up independent chapters around the United States, but closed them in favor of a top-down, centralized organization, which not only consolidated decision-making power, but centralized donations too. Now, local animal rights donations go to PETA, rather than to a local group. Some members of the animal-rights movement have responded that Francione's position with respect to groups engaged in actual fieldwork is unnecessarily divisive and hurts animal advocacy.