People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

LEADERS: Ingrid Newkirk, Alex Pacheco





People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, often referred to simply as PETA, is the largest animal rights organization in the world, claiming more than 700,000 members. Founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, the group supports "total animal liberation," opposing the use of animals for food, research, entertainment, and even as assistance dogs for the physically disabled. The group is well known for its outrageous publicity stunts, controversial advertisements, and an ongoing string of inflammatory public statements from its leaders. It has frequently been criticized for its use of heavy-handed tactics and has been linked to several acts of animal rights violence. PETA currently has offices in North America, Europe, and Asia.


The animal rights movement emerged during the 1970s, partly in response to the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer in 1975. This volume, while not fully consistent with the modern animal rights movement, proposed the concept of "speciesism," defined as discrimination against a particular being based solely on the species to which it belongs. As a philosopher, Singer took the position that human suffering and animal suffering are equal evils and that the use of animals for human food cannot be justified, since it requires animal suffering. Singer's overall perspective was actually rather pragmatic, proposing veganism as a lifestyle, but acknowledging the necessity of some animal experiments for medical purposes.

The year after the book's appearance, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) was formed. The group's roots actually ran back to the 1960s, when opponents of fox hunting in England would sabotage hunts in an effort to bring about their abolition. By the early 1970s, these efforts became progressively more violent, employing such tactics as slashing hunters' tires and smashing their car windows. In 1975, members of these groups formed ALF, which was registered in the United States as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 1979. Among the group's alleged members was Alex Pacheco, an animal rights activist whose previous work included a tour of duty on the Sea Shepherd, an anti-whaling ship specially designed to ram and sink whaling vessels.

In 1980, Pacheco joined forces with Ingrid Newkirk. Newkirk had worked as a Maryland law enforcement officer, winning numerous convictions against animal abusers, as well as in various other animal protection positions. While working at an animal shelter, she met Alex Pacheco, who gave her a copy of Peter Singer's book. After reading it, she and Pacheco founded PETA, which launched its efforts by picketing a poultry house in Washington, followed by the National Institutes of Health.

In 1981, PETA quickly rose to national prominence with what came to be known as the Silver Spring Monkeys incident. Dr. Edward Taub was a highly respected behavioral scientist working in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the time, Taub was studying an unusual neurological condition in which humans mysteriously lose the use of a limb; Taub's research involved inducing this condition in monkeys, then studying how to correct it.

Pacheco was able to secure employment in Taub's lab by posing as a student worker. He soon gained Taub's confidence and was given keys to the lab when he volunteered to work at night; Pacheco used this access to take photos of the lab animals, which later appeared in PETA ads.

During a vacation by Dr. Taub, two of the lab's student assistants called in with excuses and did not come to work. Because of these absences, the lab was not adequately staffed and the animal cages were not properly cleaned. Pacheco, taking advantage of the conditions, took additional photos. He also began inviting animal rights activists and members of the Humane Society to tour the facility at night.

After the tours, Pacheco's guests provided written statements that accused the lab of housing animals in inappropriate conditions. Armed with his photos and these statements, Pacheco was able to initiate a police investigation of the lab. A search warrant was issued, and seventeen monkeys were seized from the facility; Dr. Taub was served with a seventeen-count indictment.

Following a trial and an appeal, Dr. Taub was acquitted on all seventeen counts; four independent scientific groups also conducted independent investigations and found him innocent. PETA, however, immediately began raising funds for the legal battle, a practice the group continued even after Dr. Taub was acquitted. PETA also marketed a videotape describing the case as the first police raid of a research facility and the first conviction of a researcher on animal rights charges.

In 1982, the Animal Liberation Front made its first known break-in at a medical lab, burglarizing the University of Pennsylvania Head Injury Clinic. The break-in netted videotapes of researchers treating baboons inhumanely; PETA supported ALF's efforts by distributing ALF news releases and staging a sit-in at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. The university was eventually cited for failing to comply with animal care guidelines and lost federal funding for the project; the Head Injury Clinic ultimately closed. PETA's involvement and support suggested that PETA might be serving as the legal, public face of a partnership with the outlaw group ALF.

This possibility was further supported in 1983, when Ingrid Newkirk left her position at the D.C. Animal Control Division. A Washington Post article dated November 13, 1983, noted that while working there, Newkirk had repeatedly endorsed, and at times served as an intermediary for, the Animal Liberation Front. A fact sheet on the PETA web site likens ALF to the Underground Railroad of the Civil War; PETA also solicits donations to provide legal aid to activists arrested while trying to liberate animals.

In 1989, ALF members burglarized a medical research lab at Texas Tech University, stealing records, freeing animals, and destroying more than $50,000 worth of equipment being used by Dr. John Orem. PETA immediately began publicizing the raid as part of fundraising efforts and published interviews with two of the ALF members responsible. However, the group also published Dr. Orem's home address, ostensibly so members could write him polite letters, but also opening him up to harassment and threats. In the years that followed, ALF continued their illegal activities, and PETA continued to support and publicize them. The FBI has classified ALF as a domestic terrorist organization and blames it for more than 100 crimes. Alex Pacheco of PETA has stated simply, "Damaging the enemy is fair game."

In one of the lighter incidents in the group's history, Michael Doughney, a Maryland resident, registered PETA's web address; from late 1995 to early 1996, Doughney used the address as the home of a fictitious group known as People Eating Tasty Animals, which offered resources for "those who enjoy eating meat, wearing fur and leather, hunting, and the fruits of scientific research …" Following legal action, the website was removed, but the domain name remained in dispute until June 2000, when a federal court ordered Doughney to surrender the domain name.


Since its founding, PETA has taken the position that animals and human beings are equally valuable, thus criminalizing any human activity that takes advantage of, or creates "suffering" for, an animal. In advancing this radical viewpoint, PETA has employed a variety of tactics, many designed to elicit shock and attract maximum attention. PETA's earliest tactics included protests, picketing, and throwing blood on fur coat owners. In the years since, PETA has been linked to far more extreme tactics.

The troubling implications of PETA's position are perhaps best demonstrated by PETA's frequent public statements. PETA leaders may initially appear to be using hyperbole to make a point, such as when one leader likened hunters and fishermen to death-camp guards and slave owners. However, PETA's top officials have been so consistent in these statements that it has become apparent the leaders are not exaggerating simply to make a point but actually believe what they are saying. For example, at a 2001 Animal Rights conference, PETA vegan campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich stated that if the group truly believed in animal rights, it would naturally be blowing things up and smashing windows. And Tom Vernelli, while serving as coordinator of PETA in Europe, classified serving children hamburgers as child abuse, similar to serving them weed killer.

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, in particular, has a well-earned reputation for radical invective, offering a seemingly endless stream of startling sound-bites. In 1988, she told Harpers Magazine that she did not believe in pets; rather humans and animals should live separately. In 1989, she told Vogue magazine that even if animal research produced a cure for AIDS, PETA would oppose it. In a 1990 Readers' Digest interview, she likened mankind to a cancer, blighting the planet. Perhaps the most famous of Newkirk's statements came after Palestinians loaded a donkey with explosives and sent it into Jerusalem on a suicide mission. No humans died in the explosion, but Newkirk posted a letter to Yasser Arafat, asking that his group "leave the animals out of this conflict." When asked later if she would petition Arafat to stop killing human beings, Newkirk responded, "It's not my business to inject myself into human wars."

While PETA has used a remarkable variety of tactics, it has garnered the most media attention for its major ad campaigns, many aimed at large corporations. PETA offended many Christians with its "Jesus was a Vegetarian" campaign, which included an ad showing a hog and the words, "He Died for Your Sins." Numerous Christian leaders questioned both the taste and the accuracy of the campaign, with most mainstream theologians rejecting the vegetarian claim. PETA also attracted both positive and negative attention with its so-called "Lettuce Ladies," attractive women who appear in public wearing bikinis apparently made of lettuce and distributing information on vegan eating.

The response was overwhelmingly negative, however, when PETA launched its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign, featuring photos of Holocaust victims next to photos of dead animals, equating the butchering of animals with the Holocaust. Jewish groups were outraged at the campaign, although PETA claimed the ads were not attempting to equate the two situations.

PETA has frequently singled out specific corporations to bear the brunt of its efforts. McDonald's, as the nation's largest fast food chain, has attracted the group's attention. Calling its campaign "McCruelty," PETA repeatedly targeted McDonald's and attempted to bring about changes in its animal husbandry techniques. Using such eye-catching graphics as a so-called "Unhappy Meal" featuring an axe-wielding clown, the group's efforts eventually led to changes in the company's animal raising and slaughtering practices.

Burger King has also been targeted by PETA, which launched its "Murder King" campaign following the group's settlement with McDonald's in 2000. The Burger King effort included support from Alec Baldwin and other celebrities, as well as more than 800 protests at local Burger King outlets. In 2001, Burger King announced that it would agree to PETA's demands by allowing more space for chickens, increasing inspections at poultry plants, and instituting other changes in its meat-packing process. In response, PETA ended its action against the firm.

The "Wicked Wendy's" campaign against the Wendy's chain also ended in a claim of victory for PETA in 2001. For this campaign, PETA used graphics that depicted Wendy's founder Dave Thomas with his head inserted in his posterior and the company's trademark "Wendy" character holding a large bloody knife. These ads, along with protests at Wendy's restaurants, led the company to agree to the same standards adopted at the other two burger chains.



Ingrid Newkirk was born in England in 1949. During the 1970s, she held a variety of jobs related to animal protection, including law enforcement work in Maryland, where she prosecuted animal abuse cases. She eventually went to work in the District of Columbia as an animal protection officer and in 1978 became Chief of Animal Disease Control for the Commission on Public Health in the District of Columbia. In 1980, she co-founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

During the years since PETA's founding, Newkirk has continued to play an integral role in the group's work. She also sits on the advisory boards of several other activist groups, including EarthSave International and United Poultry Concerns. She is the author of numerous books related to animal rights and currently serves as PETA's president, as well as its most vocal spokesperson. Her frequent inflammatory statements provide the group an ongoing source of publicity.

Following two years of discussions, PETA announced a campaign against KFC in 2003. Supported by celebrities such as Pamela Anderson and Sir Paul McCartney, the "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" campaign employed traditional tactics such as protests at local restaurants. In 2003, KFC President Cheryl Bachelder met with PETA's Ingrid Newkirk, promising reforms; Ms. Bachelder left KFC shortly thereafter. In 2005, PETA once again met with KFC executives, however little progress was made. As of mid 2005, the campaign remains active. PETA has also discussed possible future campaigns against targets, including Chick-Fil-a, Churches Chicken, and Wal-Mart.

PETA has not limited its efforts to food industry firms. PETA has repeatedly targeted Ringling Brothers circuses for its alleged mistreatment of animals. The group has also set its sights on the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association in an attempt to end rodeos. Other PETA efforts have been aimed at the use of monkeys in the film and commercial industries, and operators of animal theme parks.

In trying to rid the world of fur coats and similar clothing, PETA has taken a two-pronged approach. The group's long-running and popular "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign features celebrities in various states of undress and puts an attractive face on the anti-fur effort. In sharp contrast, in 2003 the group launched a campaign targeting children of parents who wear fur. This campaign stationed PETA workers outside performances of "The Nutcracker" ballet. When the activists observed a woman wearing fur, they would hand the woman's child a flier which featured a photo of a woman stabbing a rabbit with a knife, along with the words "Your Mommy Kills Animals." Child psychologists criticized the tactics as manipulative.

In recent years, PETA activists also appeared to be adopting even more intrusive tactics in dealing with corporate executives. In one case, the group's efforts to influence a fast-food executive went beyond traditional tactics such as letter-writing and picketing. Instead, members met with the CEO's church pastor and went to his country club. Activists also protested outside the man's church during Sunday services, with one of the protestors wearing a chicken suit. PETA has also begun to buy shares in restaurant and food corporations, allowing the group to introduce shareholder resolutions in an attempt to change restaurant practices regarding meat and poultry. Fortune magazine described the group's tactics against corporations as resembling the way in which a speeding locomotive impacts a stalled automobile.

In 2005, two PETA members were arrested on sixty-two counts of animal cruelty in North Carolina. Police had observed the two throwing animal carcasses into commercial dumpsters over a period of several weeks. The dead animals were determined to have come from animal shelters, whose operators were told that PETA would find homes for the animals. The two PETA members were also in possession of restricted-use narcotics, which might have been used to kill the animals.


Peter Singer writes Animal Liberation, setting the stage for the animal rights movement.
Animal Liberation Front (ALF) registers as a 501(c)3 non-profit entity.
Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco organize PETA.
PETA targets Dr. Edward Taub in the Silver Spring Monkey incident; Dr. Taub is later cleared of all charges.
Animal Liberation Front breaks into the University of Pennsylvania Head Injury Clinic, exposing animal abuses; the clinic is eventually closed.
A Washington Post article links Ingrid Newkirk to the Animal Liberation Front, which PETA documents liken to the Underground Railroad.
The FBI classifies ALF as a domestic terrorism group. PETA continues its financial support of the group.
PETA organizes the "Running of the Nudes" through the streets of Spain to protest the famous Running of the Bulls held two days later. The run becomes an annual event.
PETA targets children with its "Your Mommy Kills Animals" campaign.

Tax records from PETA also confirm that the group continues to offer financial support to the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front; the FBI estimates that these two groups have combined since 1996 to commit more than 600 crimes and inflict more than $43 million in damage, making them, in the FBI's words, the country's "most serious domestic terrorism threat."


As a not-for-profit organization, PETA is required to follow specific regulations. In several cases, outside observers have claimed that PETA does not qualify for this tax designation or that it is not a properly administered charitable organization. A 1992 report by the National Charities Information Board cited shortcomings in PETA's operations, including its use of 42% of total income for fund-raising purposes. Activist watchdog groups claim that PETA's actual expenditures for animal relief total only 1% of its income, and that in 2003 alone the group killed more than 1,900 animals at its facilities. However, following a lengthy investigation, the IRS in May 2005 allowed PETA to retain its tax-exempt status.


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) remains one of the nation's most visible and active extremist groups. Well-funded and highly organized, it has managed to keep public attention on its cause since its earliest days of existence. Critics of the group say that its openly confrontational tactics, its financial support for recognized extremist organizations, and its leaders' often outrageous statements all raise questions about the group's legitimacy. Supporters of the group justify its actions in the name of protecting animals and argue that such in-your-face tactics are necessary to attract attention and advance the group's cause.



Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation, (3rd Edition). New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Best, Steven, and Anthony J. Nocella (eds.). Terrorists or Freed Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. New York: Lantern Books, 2004.

Web sites

Activist "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals." 〈〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

Mike Doughney's Page. "People Eating Tasty Animals." 〈〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).

The Center for Consumer Freedom. "GRRR … PETA Pitches Violence to Kids." 〈〉 (accessed October 19, 2005).


Animal Liberation Front (ALF)

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

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