The P word
Uma had an interesting post about PETA a while back, that got me wondering why PETA is so widely seen as the bogeyman of the animal rights movement. (Out of the last four stories I browsed about zoos, three mentioned PETA in deeply negative terms.)
I think this is an important point to address, because it throws an illuminating light on common perceptions of both PETA and the animal rights movement. PETA is often identified only by its celebrity-studded no-meat ads, often in terms of some disapproval: aren't they wasting money that could have funded shelters, hospitals and better care programmes for animals?
It often surprises me is how little people know about the rest of PETA's work. It supports and runs animal shelters. It lobbies big companies in order to improve conditions for animals on factory farms. It's been at the forefront of the gathering demand to stop laboratory experiments on animals and other abuses. And the organisation can come out with positions that are very nuanced, as with Ingrid Newkirk's explanation of why PETA might encourage a ban on the breeding of pit bulls and reluctantly endorse the "automatic destruction" policy that many shelters have towards pit bulls. Anyone who thinks that PETA is lacking in subtlety should read her letter. It's a lament for the tragedy of a dog created by human beings as the ultimate weapon, subjected to constant abuse by most of its owners, and it's a recognition of the terrible paradox that animal lovers are faced with in the case of pit bulls: "we can only stop killing pits if we create new ones".
I like the fact that PETA saw earlier than many NGOs the importance of grabbing mainstream attention: you won't run animal rights stories because they're unsexy, but you'll run a go-veggie feature because it features stars in the buff, no problem, here's one star to go. Part of PETA's job is to get people who might not otherwise think about animal rights to consider the subject; if they do that because they're confronted with some model wearing a cabbage leaf or two on a billboard, that's okay by me.
What I don't like about PETA is simple: I hate the hectoring tone, I hate the stridency, I dislike being at the receiving end of a lecture, and I wish they'd use their website to answer issues of this sort, where two of their employees have been arrested on animal-cruelty charges. [It's frustrating that PETA doesn't use its website to either explain what happened, or to correct misconceptions. To take a small example, the story mentions a website called Peta Kills Animals, and also mentions that the website is aided by the Center for Consumer Freedom. What it doesn't mention is that CCF is not quite as disinterested a body as it appears to be: it represents the interests of the food and restaurant business (Wiki has a list of 1998 members of its advisory panel, which includes several members of the meat supplying and processing industry--you can hardly imagine that they'd be paid-up PETA supporters!)]
Now here's the larger point about the animal rights movement: like so many other 21st century rights movements, this is not a neat army of the faithful going out to march for a specific mission. It's a loose coalition of people at different levels of awareness, commitment, fanaticism, caring and knowledge, held together only by the fact that they care about what happens to animals. PETA is one of the many organisations that works on behalf of animals; the fact that PETA inspires so much fear and loathing is also a tribute to the way in which it's managed to catch the public eye. You don't have to support or even agree with PETA in order to be part of the animal rights movement. But you do have to acknowledge the fact that the history of the animal rights movement in this century would have been radically different without PETA. It's because they scream so loudly that someone like me has the luxury of keeping the conversation pleasant.