PETA has done a lot with a little sex, shock and shame.
One of the longest-running and sexiest stunts you will see in online ads around the world is a group of naked women who choose to wear nothing rather than wear fur, said Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
For shame, there are photos, group posts and videos, like one of an angora rabbit screaming as its fur is yanked out one tuft at a time.
For shock value, two of the hundreds of petitions and lawsuits PETA has filed over the years stand out. One in 1982 sought to make PETA the guardian of all animals used in research experiments; and another in 2011 asked a federal court to declare five SeaWorld orcas to be considered slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment.
PETA did not win the guardian case, and whales were not declared slaves. But the Norfolk, Virginia-based non-profit is still using attention-getting tactics to fight for animal welfare as it marks its 35th year. It now has 3 million members and supporters, including celebrities ranging from Paul McCartney to Bill Maher. Its fundraising brought in nearly $52 million in 2014.
"Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way," is the organization's credo. And while its push for animal rights has coincided with larger trends, like the popularity of vegan diets, it's also led to real achievements, like an end to using live animals in car crash tests following aPETA campaign.
But wacky stunts and some questionable dealings complicate PETA's standing in the animal rights world. The group sometimes clashes with researchers and other organizations.
"By campaigning against animal research, PETA presents a threat to the development of human and veterinary medicine. Only days ago we saw the Nobel Prize awarded to Tu Youyou, whose work in monkeys and mice paved the way for the use of artemisinin to protect against malaria, saving over 100,000 lives every year," said Tom Holder, director of Speaking of Research, an international British-based advocacy group.
"If PETA had got their way 30 years ago, we would not have vaccines for HPV, hepatitis B or meningitis, nor would we have treatments for leprosy, modern asthma treatments and life support for premature babies," Holder said.
Newkirk was in charge of a Washington, D.C., animal shelter in 1980 when she co-founded PETA to publicize what was going on in slaughterhouses, factory fur farms and laboratories. One of PETA's first targets was the Ringling Bros. circus. After PETA acquired images of baby elephants being yanked from their mothers and trainers using whips and bull hooks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Ringling Bros. $270,000 for violating the Animal Welfare Act.
Thousands of PETA demonstrations later, the circus pledged this year to stop using elephants by 2018.
Former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson, who's been working with PETA for 20 years, says she thinks PETA's methods are "brilliant," especially the out-of-the-box campaigns. "Humor can bring attention to something that is difficult to listen to," she said.
One thing PETA's been criticized for is the euthanasia of animals at its lone shelter in Norfolk. PETA's 2014 annual report showed the shelter placed 162 cats and dogs, but euthanized 2,454. Newkirk notes that 500 of those animals were brought in by owners who wanted to relieve their pets' suffering from old age, illness or injury. Many of the other animals euthanized were feral, aggressive or otherwise unadoptable, and had been rejected by no-kill shelters.
"Animals don't evaporate if you refuse them admission to your shelter, which is the new game in town," Newkirk said. When shelters refuse to accept animals, pet owners "let the old dog die slowly on the rug or throw it in the woods."
PETA does not charge for euthanizing animals, and the shelter also spayed or neutered 10,950 animals for free or at low cost; provided free medical care for 1,500 pets; took 312 adoptable animals to shelters with more foot traffic, and helped 2,500 people work through behavior problems with their pets.
In addition to its big campaigns, PETA works with local groups. Projects with the San Diego Humane Society included the rescue of 83 rabbits from a backyard breeder. "We'll do all we can to give animals a second chance," said Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society.
Kathy Stevens, founder and executive director of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, New York, says she doesn't agree with all of PETA's tactics. But, she adds, "I think they have been an important voice in our work for a more compassionate world."