PETA are a controversial organisation by any standard, and barely a week goes by where a post doesn’t circle online about something PETA have allegedly done or said. The mere existence of PETA is often used against vegans as if PETA speak for our movement, so it’s something that is necessary to address.
PETA are the largest and by far the richest animal rights charity, but that does not not make them the voice of our movement, nor are their views representative of what all vegans think and feel. In fact, in my experience most vegans don’t support PETA, and many are publicly critical of their tactics, behaviour and message. There are many vegans who do support them and their work, as veganism as a movement which is as diverse as any other, but to suppose that the existence of PETA and the way they choose to advocate is somehow a reflection of the entire animal rights community is more than a little unfair.
As to why they are so controversial, PETA are problematic for many reasons. They are notorious for using shock tactics like sexist ad campaigns that purposely compare women to meat, fat shaming, racism (literally dressing up as KKK members), ableist slogans and a whole host of other offensive campaigns. PETA’s main tactic is, and always has been, to grab the attention of the public by being as outrageous as possible. In this, they are highly successful, regardless of how negative the attention is, everyone knows who PETA are because of these highly divisive campaigns. This is not to say that these campaigns should be supported, or even that there is any real evidence that they work, but in terms of publicity PETA never fail to make headlines.
These are very legitimate criticisms of PETA, but they are not usually the ones that people reference when they are being critical of the organisation. The chief concern is that PETA are hypocritical because they kill animals, since they operate kill-shelters. The more outlandish claims range from PETA abducting pets and them taking strays off the street in white vans and murdering them, neither of which have any credible evidence to support them as far as I can tell. Many of these accusations come from a notorious website named PETAkills, which is reportedly funded by the meat and dairy industries in response to PETA’s campaigns. I can’t speak for the truth of this but it would not be unusual; propaganda against animal rights campaigns and charities has been well documented throughout the history the animal rights movement.
As for kill shelters, PETA are open about the fact that they do run them. Their own statement on the topic is as follows:
The majority of adoptable dogs are never brought through our doors (we refer them to local adoption groups and walk-in animal shelters). Most of the animals we house, rescue, find homes for, or put out of their misery come from miserable conditions, which often lead to successful prosecution and the banning of animal abusers from ever owning or abusing animals again.
As long as animals are still purposely bred and people aren’t spaying and neutering their companions, open-admission animal shelters and organizations like PETA must do society’s dirty work. Euthanasia is not a solution to overpopulation but rather a tragic necessity given the present crisis. PETA is proud to be a “shelter of last resort,” where animals who have no place to go or who are unwanted or suffering are welcomed with love and open arms.
Regardless of how you feel about kill shelters, the fact of the matter is that PETA are not alone in this approach. Many animal shelters kill animals who cannot be re-homed and several reputable organisations also advocate this, yet they do not come under nearly as much criticism for it as PETA does. The RSPCA for example, kill 53,000 animals per year, many of them healthy, yet they are an organisation who enjoys wide support, often from the same people who are highly critical of PETA for their kill shelter policies. I suspect that this is purely because PETA are asking people to stop eating animals, whereas organisations like the RSPCA are actively encouraging it. Animal rights organisations have always come under more scrutiny than animal welfare organisation, and this seems to be little more than ammunition to use against them.
Personally, I don’t believe that PETA should be supported, not only for the reasons outlined but also because I don’t find them consistent in their message. Even if you genuinely don’t care about their sexist or racist campaigns, from a solely animal rights perspective, they are not good advocates for animals; they have praised animal agriculture corporations for tiny welfare concessions, have supported “humane meat” in the past, have campaigned for welfarist legislation and have rubbed shoulders with huge animal abusing enterprises.
I am not ignorant of the good PETA have done in bringing animal causes into the public eye, in advocating veganism and offering resources for vegans, this work doesn’t offset the harm they have caused. We have to remember that PETA is a corporation; even if their heart might be in the right place their practices are often abhorrent. I just do not believe that we as a movement have to throw other movements under the bus just to get our point across. I don’t believe that people who choose to eat animals have any business being critical of how PETA treats animals, and I think that they often do so purely in an attempt to discredit our cause. However, as advocates for animal rights we need to be critical of any organisation which behaves the way PETA does, regardless of whether or not their goals align with our own.