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Can Animal Activism Go Too Far?

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The president of the national animal rights group PETA is donating her remains when she dies, but not to science or sick people. Ingrid Newkirk has instructed that the “meat” of her body be barbecued, her skin made into leather products, her vacuum-packed liver be sent to France to protest foie gras, and an eye be delivered to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “reminder that PETA will continue to be watching.”


Oh, and by the way, she would also like you to start calling fish “sea kittens.”


Newkirk’s grotesque will and her group’s loopy “sea kitten” campaign are signature PETA antics. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals doesn’t threaten researchers’ lives or condone bombing laboratories like more militant animal rights groups. But it does embrace an end-justifies-the-means approach, which has both attracted devoted followers and alienated many in the mainstream. In its nearly thirty-year history, PETA has garnered a reputation for its approach, which is one part porn—women with few or no clothes are a favorite PETA publicity stunt—and two parts shock value.


Because of—or in spite of—PETA’s strange strategies, the organization has made a large impact, spurring policy changes in many animal-testing laboratories and on livestock and poultry farms. Their investigations have resulted in criminal charges for workers who have abused animals, including one who skinned a pig alive. PETA has been a major force to change public opinion about the glamour of fur. But does their activism go too far, driving away would-be supporters and objectifying women in the name of animals?


Selling Animal Rights with Sex
To protest Canadian seal hunting, PETA held a demonstration with naked volunteers covered in fake blood “writhing” in the grass. The bloody bodies were supposed to represent slaughtered seals, but the image was far too evocative of violent porn.


Eva Mendes, Pamela Anderson, Kim Basinger, and Alicia Silverstone have all posed naked for PETA’s anti-fur “I’d Rather Go Nude” advertisements. 


In a campaign that reached cities across the United States, PETA volunteers clad in lingerie gave out bananas along with the message “Get a Rise out of Vegetarianism.” According to PETA, meat can cause impotence and infertility. Call me a cynic, but I find it hard to imagine that any man aroused by the women went to the PETA Web site and explored the reasons for becoming a vegetarian, let alone gave up meat. In another erotic PETA standby, yellow bikini-clad “chicks” crouch in wire cages illustrating the inhumane way chickens are often farmed. And to demonstrate the ethical dilemmas of eating pork, they have exhibited pregnant women in small pens on their hands and knees wearing nothing but panties.


Seeking the Spotlight
Another PETA hallmark is latching onto big media stories, ensuring the organization will get press coverage.


With the Pet Shop Boys making a come back, PETA asked the 80s band to change their name to the Rescue Shelter Boys. In a letter, PETA said that the name change would underscore the “cramped, filthy conditions” that breeders sometimes keep animals in and would “encourage your millions of fans to consider giving a home to an abandoned or unwanted animal from an animal shelter.” The band declined, but they did post the letter from PETA on their Web site.


The organization suggested that convicted dogfighter Michael Vick should get a brain scan and a psychological test to determine if he is a psychopath before he can ever be reinstated in the National Football League. The agency was also flirting with the idea of using Vick as a spokesperson, but decided he was too disturbed.


After the second death from swine flu in Texas, PETA jumped at the opportunity to make a statement. They sent a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry seeking permission to set up a hog farm on the grounds of the Capitol, “complete with gallons of urine, tons of manure, and a fan to blow the odors around.”


Weighing the Impact
At some level, PETA’s tactics have worked. With more than 2 million members across the globe, PETA is the largest animal advocacy group and comparable in size to the human rights organization, Amnesty International. Yet as effective as their guerilla tactics are at grabbing the passerby’s attention, they also make PETA seem ridiculous at times.


Most disturbing, though, is that the same (if not more brazen) use of women as sex objects to sell alcohol and fast cars is used by PETA to promote animal rights. PETA’s President Newkirk has argued that the women who volunteer for PETA campaigns are not being exploited, but have decided to make statements with their bodies. She also points out that the average person isn’t going to decide to read about animal cruelty, but if they click on a Web link to see a nearly naked Alicia Silverstone, they just might take the time to find out why she is a vegetarian. The key word, though, is might. Getting a peek of Alicia’s hot body is unlikely to inspire a desire to learn about slaughterhouses. Meanwhile, PETA is promoting the idea that women, even impassioned, smart activists, must rely on their bodies to be heard. That seems to be a gigantic step back for women’s rights, even if it is for the puppies’ sake.

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