The recent red carpet flour bombing of Kim Kardashian by Christina Cho, a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), did the unthinkable: it made Kardashian, who does wear fur, seem sympathetic.
Though PETA initially denied any official involvement, the organization later announced they would pay for Cho’s (whose sister is a top-ranking PETA official) legal fees if Kardashian files charges against her.
The incident caused Kim’s sister Khloé, who has posed for PETA’s anti-fur campaigns, to break from PETA. She wrote on her website: “I will no longer support PETA. Bullying and harassment is NEVER a solution, and I won’t be a part of any organization that thinks otherwise.”
The Kardashian flour bomb is just the latest of many years of stunts attributed to PETA. They’ve garnered infamy for throwing a tofu pie at Vogue editor Anna Wintour for her promotion of fur in the magazine, and captured the attention of the media for the Running of the Nudes, protesting the annual Running of the Bulls in Spain, in which hundreds of topless women and half-naked men painted red took to the streets of Pamplona.
While the Humane Society runs painful-to-watch ads of abused and sick dogs and cats shivering in cages set to Sarah McLachlan songs, PETA long ago figured out how to use sex and celebrity to sell animal right activism. Now that they’ve opened a new $2.5 million office in Echo Park in Los Angeles—a donation from the Price is Right’s Bob Barker—they can better tap into the celebrity market for their splashy campaigns like the “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” series, featuring scantily clad celebrities (including the likes of the now-alienated Khloé, Pamela Anderson, and Eva Mendes).
But they’ve also inspired the ire of many feminists who balk at the organization’s blatant exploitation of women in their advertising campaigns. The naked no fur campaign has long drawn criticism; but that seems mild in comparison to PETA’s anti-milk Milk Gone Wild campaign, modeled to look like Girls Gone Wild, which features women (dubbed “udder babes”) in salacious poses, offering their breasts as the milk source. (Aren’t there entire fetish magazines devoted to this topic?). Or the controversial “Boyfriend Went Vegan” ad—which depicted a woman who had been sexually ravaged so badly by her newly vegan boyfriend she was wearing a neck brace and looked abused, topped only by the “Veggie Love” ad—a faux porn “casting call” featuring half-naked models giving blow jobs to vegetables that came awfully close to the real thing.
PETA has achieved many victories on behalf of animal rights, not least of which is the elevated awareness of the horror of the fur trade. Sometimes PETA’s controversy for controversy’s sake approach misfires. Are they their own worst enemy?
Kathy Guillermo, vice president of PETA, has been with the organization for 22 years, so when asked about the Kardashian kerfuffle it was not surprising that she was unperturbed. To her, if PETA are bullies, it’s nothing compared to what the animals endure.
“I believe that anally electrocuting an animal is a violent behavior,” she said. “I don’t believe a bit of pie can be compared to that in any way.”
Gary Francione, a law professor at Rutgers University is one of the biggest—and most controversial—critics of PETA. Francione doesn’t believe that the animal welfare group goes far enough. He is an “abolitionist” who believes that the killing of animals for any reason is wrong. For him PETA’s approach fails on many fronts, not least the advertising campaigns and the protesting tactics.
“I’m opposed to all violence so my view is that if I’m ever going to get you to see my way on these things, I’m going to have to educate you,” he said. “And I don’t educate you by throwing a pie at you.”
And, he says, using sex to sell veganism exploits women as badly as it does animals: “As long as we’re treating women like meat, frankly we’re going to continue to treat animals like meat,” Francione said. “Pornography is a lot like consuming meat. You ignore the personhood of an individual and you sort of you reduce the person to body parts that you consume because those are the parts that you fetishize. It’s like going to the store and buying a chicken in a cellophane package. There is no animal there anymore. It’s just body parts in a cellophane package.”
Guillermo defended PETA’s advertising approach. “Well, we don’t think there’s anything sexist about using, about some people’s decision to use their bodies to spread an important message,” she said.
Francione is unconvinced: “If you ever find somebody who says, ‘I was a meat eater and I stopped being a meat eater and I became a vegan because I saw some naked babe in a cage’ or whatever,” he said with a laugh. “Tell me about it, because you know what? I never met one and I do this work all the time.”
Even when PETA is on the right side of an issue, the phrase “PETA issued a response” can induce eye rolling. Though their efforts to bring attention to the deaths of three horses on the set of the recently canceled HBO show Luck might have been well-intentioned, and even if their allegations that the horses were too old to have been working might even have been correct, you can’t help wondering whether anyone takes them seriously when they tell the press that HBO was engaged in horse “murder”.
In the aftermath of Luck’s cancellation, executive producer David Milch told New York magazine: “I was embarrassed for PETA when I read some of their statements, [of ] the savage ignorance of the realities of what we were doing.”
Guillermo said that PETA’s information came from six anonymous “whistle blowers” and that the PETA had never been on the set of Luck itself.
Despite the fact that they have a bigger L.A. presence now, Guillermo said PETA had no interest in becoming involved in monitoring animal welfare on Hollywood sets, even though she was not impressed with the Animal Humane Association, the organization that does oversee working animals in Hollywood.
“I think that the evidence that the job wasn’t done properly is in the fact that three horses died,” Guillermo said.
Kathy Rose, the senior vice president of AHA’s Film and Television Unit, responded to PETA’s criticisms. “Well, first of all they are not on the set. We have been doing this for 70 years. They have no idea how we do our work, I don’t think they have any right to criticize. Number two, we did an exemplary job on that show. It is tragic that that the horses died, but it that is not for want of oversight,” she said. “They [PETA] object to animals in entertainment and they object to horse racing, so they are taking, I think, a very opportunistic position here to advance an agenda. We don’t work based on an agenda other than protecting the animals.”
Perhaps the biggest controversy to hit the animal rights organization is one they didn’t willingly manufacture themselves. In March, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a supposed consumer advocacy group that is actually a part of the pro-meat industry lobby, filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) and discovered that PETA euthanized over 95 percent of all its animals in its Norfolk, Virginia shelter. They killed 713 out of 760 dogs brought to the shelter; euthanized 1198 out of the 1211 cats, and ended the lives of 54 out of 58 companion animals that were not cats or dogs, such as rabbits. A story in USA Today noted that this activity wasn’t confined to last year and said that state records from the past 15 years reported to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services showed that PETA euthanized more than 27,000 animals, so many that USA Today reported “the state considered changing PETA’s status from a shelter to a euthanasia clinic.”
Though many people will see PETA’s euthanasia of animals as conflicting with their hardline animal rights stance, Francione pointed out that in fact PETA’s stance on humane euthanasia is in line with the animal rights doctrine set forth Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of the animal welfare movement.
“The position of the animal welfare movement is that killing animals per se is not a problem, that animals don’t really have an interest in their lives, they just have an interest in not suffering,” he said.
Another animal rights activist,++ Nathan Winograd, a no-kill shelter advocate and author of several books, including the forthcoming Friendly Fire disagrees—he says that PETA’s stance is hypocritical.
“How to you square that [the Virginia shelter] with PETA’s claims that they’re for animal rights?” he asked. “I don’t think there is any way to square it. A movement can’t really be rights-oriented and ignore the right to life. That is the most fundamental right there is because if that can be taken away by killing, all other rights become irrelevant.”
PETA’s refuted the charges that they needlessly euthanize healthy animals. “We have been a shelter of last resort,” said Guillermo. “We have provided a peaceful painless death to elderly, ailing, and injured companion animals. And you’ll see that most of the animals, as is reflected in our record, we’re euthanizing at the request of their companion. When we get healthy animals in, we routinely transfer these animals to local open admission shelters so that they have a chance to find a permanent home.”
Winograd pointed out that this was not the first time that PETA has come under fire for these questions. In 2005, two PETA employees were taken to court in North Carolina for 22 counts of animal cruelty (later reduced to eight misdemeanors by the judge who said the State failed to prove malice), three felony charges of obtaining property by false pretense, and illegal dumping. While they were found guilty for only littering, witness testimony included examples of healthy animals being euthanized.
“First of all, PETA refuses to provide the criteria they use for making that determination,” Winograd said. “Rescue groups and individuals have come forward stating that the animals they gave PETA were healthy and adoptable.”
Guillermo maintained that they follow correct protocol. “I can tell you what is my experience as an employee of PETA, that when we get healthy animals we transfer them to open admission shelters. The vast majority of any animals euthanized are animals who are old, who are sick, and who are terribly injured.”
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that PETA excels at creating controversy. “Everything is for the media,” said Francione. “It’s always been that way really from fairly soon after it started.”
But not everyone is sure that flour bombing an inane reality TV star is the way to go.
“Look, Americans love animals,” said Winograd. “We spend $50 billion a year to care for our animals. It’s now the eighth largest sector of our economy. Hunting is at its lowest levels at any time, I think only about four percent of the American public hunts,” said Winograd. “So PETA has a natural pool of empathy to tap into and instead they throw the pie right in the face of it.”