People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, sometimes styled PeTA) is one of the world’s largest, most aggressive, and most controversial animal liberation groups. The group has become notorious for aggressive campaigns against any and all human use of animals, even as it is dogged by allegations of hypocrisy for killing thousands of pets at its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia.
Motivated by a radical and occasionally militant belief that (in the words of PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk) “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” PETA campaigns against eating meat, wearing leather or fur, hunting and fishing, using animals in life-saving medical research, and drinking milk and producing other dairy products. Its tactics are extremist, designed for the principal purpose of attracting mainstream press attention.
PETA’s history is exceptionally controversial, with the group having allegedly maintained associations with violent radical extremists in the 1990s. PETA gave funds to the legal defense fund of animal liberation arsonist Rodney Coronado, to entities associated with the terrorist group Earth Liberation Front, and to other persons associated with alleged animal liberation extremist crimes. Ingrid Newkirk herself has stated, “I will be the last person to condemn” the extremist eco-terrorist Animal Liberation Front.
PETA has faced substantial criticism for its operation of a kill animal shelter at its Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters that has killed 90 percent or more of the dogs and cats it has taken in in some years. PETA is also hostile to the “no-kill” animal shelter reform movement, and has faced criticism for improperly taking pets and killing them.
PETA was founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk, an animal shelter official in the District of Columbia, and Alex Pacheco, a “direct action” activist who sailed with the piratical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. They were reportedly motivated by the publication of the manifesto Animal Liberation by the controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer, which outlined a radical interpretation of animal rights.
While PETA gained prominence and influence by opposing the use of primates in medical research, live animals in motor vehicle crash tests, and the production of fur clothing, the organizations underlying radical ideology was always present. As early as 1983, Newkirk would equate the production of food with Nazi genocides, writing, “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”
Associations with Violent Extremists
During the 1990s and early 2000s, evidence surfaced that indicated PETA had associated with eco-terrorist extremists, especially the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In 1989 and 1990, PETA reportedly functioned as “spokesgroup” for the ALF. PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk has said, “I will be the last person to condemn ALF.”
Through the 1990s, PETA provided financial assistance to individuals allegedly associated with the ALF and its acts of arson and vandalism against university research facilities and farms. PETA provided at least $45,200 in donations to the “Rodney Coronado Support Committee,” the legal fund of Animal Liberation Front member Rodney Coronado. PETA also gave Coronado’s father a $25,000 loan—allegedly not expected to be repaid—to support Coronado’s legal defense.
Coronado ultimately pleaded guilty to charges related to arson against a Michigan State University research facility (a crime to which Coronado finally admitted in 2017 after claiming innocence for over two decades). 
The depths to which PETA was involved in Coronado’s ALF activities allegedly went even deeper. Federal prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum in Coronado’s case alleged that PETA had issued the press release with ALF’s claim of responsibility for the Michigan State arson. Additionally, the memorandum alleged that Coronado attempted to send a package containing stolen documents from the MSU lab that was attacked to Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s founder. Newkirk allegedly arranged “days before the MSU arson occurred” for Coronado to send her the materials.
Other Extremist Financial Support
In addition to its large contributions in support of the ALF arsonist Rodney Coronado, PETA has contributed funds to other animal liberation and environmentalist extremists. In 2001, PETA reported contributing $1,500 to North American Earth Liberation Front (ELF) on its Form 990 tax return. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ELF was characterized as “the largest and most active U.S.-based terrorist group” by the FBI’s domestic terrorism chief.
PETA also reportedly contributed to alleged ALF activist David Wilson in 1999 and the “Josh Harper Support Committee”—named for ALF member Joshua Harper, who had been accused of multiple violent crimes—in 2000.
Rhetorical Support for Violence
In addition to the organization’s financial support for violent animal liberation extremists, PETA staff have provided rhetorical support for activists inclined toward violence. PETA’s then-“vegan campaign director” Bruce Friedrich told the Animal Rights 2001 conference that “blowing stuff up and smashing windows” is “a great way to bring about animal liberation.” He further stated, “It would be great if all the fast-food outlets, slaughterhouses, these laboratories and the banks who fund them exploded tomorrow.”
PETA claimed to have reprimanded Friedrich for the comments, but Friedrich was later made a vice president of PETA. Friedrich has since left PETA and works for a vegan meat-substitute company, the Good Food Institute.
In 2002, Gary Yourofsky, who had served jail time in Canada for an Animal Liberation Front attack on a fur farm, was brought on by PETA to lecture to middle- and high-school age students. Prior to joining PETA but after receiving money from the organization, Yourofsky had told the Toledo Blade that he “would unequivocally support that” if an animal liberation arson attack killed an “abuser.” Yourofsky has since left PETA, and he has continued to make extremist comments.
Kill Shelter Controversy
Since 1998, PETA has filed reports with the Commonwealth of Virginia detailing the disposition of pets it cares for at the animal shelter PETA operates at its headquarters. In that time, the animal liberation group has killed at least 36,000 dogs and cats. In some years, PETA has killed in excess of 90 percent of the pets it has reported taking in at its shelter.
This has brought PETA into conflict with other more mainstream animal advocacy groups, which have sought to advance the “no-kill” principle in animal shelter management. PETA has served as a vocal advocate for killing shelter animals. PETA founder and president Ingrid Newkirk has written that as an animal control officer she would personally kill stray cats, believing the animals would be less stressed if she did it.
PETA’s defense of its facially hypocritical conduct, that PETA kills lost-cause dogs and cats with no hope of recovery or survival, is suspect. According to an affidavit from a lawsuit against PETA, a former PETA employee alleged that PETA instructed her to deceive owners to obtain legal custody of pets that PETA would then kill. The former employee additionally alleged that PETA engaged in practices to avoid declaring all pets killed in its state animal disposition filings. PETA officials have previously admitted that “We’re not saying that all the animals we euthanize are suffering from incurable conditions.”
PETA pet-killing practices have also landed the organization and its employees in legal jeopardy. In the mid-2000s, PETA employees were accused of animal cruelty in North Carolina for taking pets from local animal shelters, killing the animals in a mobile van, and dumping the bodies in dumpsters. The employees were later acquitted.
In 2014, a family living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore accused PETA of stealing their dog, a Chihuahua named Maya, and killing it. Security camera footage emerged showing the PETA employees taking Maya off the family’s porch and placing the dog in a van. PETA later admitted to killing Maya and provided the family with a fruit basket. Outraged locals held a demonstration demanding justice against PETA after the incident, and the family sued PETA. PETA ultimately paid the family $49,000 in a settlement and paid a $500 state fine for failing to abide by a minimum hold-time before killing a shelter animal.
PETA has attempted to keep criticism of its shelter kill policies quiet. After a Huffington Post article exposing PETA’s sordid shelter went viral, the PETA sued the blog site demanding personal identifying information of internet commenters.
Pit Bull Sterilization
According to a report in 2004, PETA and former vice president of cruelty investigations Daphna Nachminovitch supported breed-specific sterilization of pit bulls. Nachminovitch argued that pit bulls are a “breed-specific problem, so it seems reasonable to target them.” An updated 2009 PETA position on pit bulls continues to claim the group supports anti-breeding policies for all dog breeds. Nevertheless, the position also says “we don’t oppose bread-specific measures to address what is obviously a breed-specific crisis.” PETA has a strong anti-breeding policy against all non-shelter dogs and argues that this is to save the lives of dogs in shelters, although the group also advocates for killing shelter animals. 
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has specifically opposed breed-specified laws and cites the opposition from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) as justification. Both groups argue that the data on dog bites is inaccurate due to the difficulty of identifying breeds, and that it is too costly to enforce such legislation.
PETA’s campaigns to ban eating meat, wearing fur or leather products, hunting and fishing, exhibiting animals in zoos and aquariums, researching medical advances using animal experiments, and possessing pets have been carried out by aggressive and extreme means. Ingrid Newkirk has said that PETA operate as “complete press sluts,” arguing that PETA “would be worthless if we were just polite and didn’t make any waves.”
As part of its efforts to prohibit all human use of animals by law, PETA engages in litigation designed to push the bounds of legal “personhood” to win legal equality for humans and animals. While no court has found that animals are legal persons, PETA has sued to free whales under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits slavery) and sued to have a macaque declared the legal holder of a copyright.
The whale-slavery case was dismissed by a federal judge, who wrote “the only reasonable interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s plain language is that it applies to persons.” PETA holds that “slavery doesn’t depend upon the species of the slave, any more than it depends upon the race, gender or ethnicity of the slave,” in keeping with its ideology.
While a lower court ruled that monkeys could not hold copyrights, that decision was set aside as part of a settlement to end PETA’s appeal of the “monkey selfie” case. Commentators criticized PETA for dragging nature photographer David Slater, who owned the camera found by the monkey, into financial ruin to (fail to) prove its point.
While PETA has claimed to have separated itself from the violent extremism it financially supported, the organization continues to wage intimidation campaigns, especially against medical researchers. PETA and PETA staff have been involved in the organization of demonstrations at the private homes of a researcher from Yale University and the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. Critics noted that PETA’s efforts against the Yale researcher, which included “doxxing” her on Facebook, could be aimed at chilling research by other early-career scholars.
PETA has also been suspected of intending to intimidate hunters: The organization sought “one or more drone aircraft” in 2013 to “stalk hunters.”
Child-Focused Propaganda Efforts
PETA runs substantial marketing campaigns aimed at children and youths. In 2002, Newkirk denied targeting children, claiming, “Everything we do is based at adults.” Contrary to this assertion, PETA was operating several online portals aimed at children from elementary school-age to high school-age. PETA also bragged about its so-called “humane education” programs, which provided lesson plans for schoolteachers and PETA-affiliated speakers for school presentations—including convicted animal liberation extremist Gary Yourofsky.
In 2016, PETA organized an “educational” campaign calling for a boycott of PetSmart, a pet supply retail chain. The campaign, which cost the group almost $39 million, called for an end to animal testing, the closure of the leather and wool production industries, and the end of meat consumption.
Barnum and Bailey Circus
In 2017, the Barnum and Bailey Circus (also known as the Ringling Bros. Circus), a traveling circus company, closed after 146 years of operation partly due to protests of its use of circus animals for entertainment and legal pressure from PETA. In 2015, the circus company stopped using elephants in its shows (partly attributable to criticism from PETA), leading to a significant decline in sales. 
In August 2018, PETA successfully pressured food supplier Nabisco to alter the packaging of its “Barnum’s Animal Crackers” product so that the animals on the box are no longer depicted behind circus cages. PETA then released a statement praising the redesign as a demonstration that “our society no longer tolerates caging and chaining exotic animals for circus shows.”
PETA is notable for its ability to rally Hollywood celebrities to support its causes. The organization has received funding from the Alec Baldwin Foundation, the private foundation of left-wing actor Alec Baldwin, including a $100,000 grant in 2011. The DJ&T Foundation of retired game-show host Bob Barker made a $2.5 million grant to PETA in 2009.
PETA advertising campaigns often feature female celebrities in various states of undress, usually to protest the use of wool, fur, or leather for clothing manufacture. The use of nude models for its campaigns has earned PETA criticism from numerous quarters, including left-wing feminists and Catholic news outlets.
Notable celebrities who have either posed for PETA or participated in its campaigns include Alyssa Milano, Pamela Anderson, Bill Maher, and Ellen DeGeneres. Numerous PETA celebrities have been criticized for participating in the organization’s campaigns while engaging in animal use activities which PETA seeks to ban, ranging from improperly attempting to import ivory products, visiting zoos and aquariums, and eating meat.
Despite its radical posture and questionable associations, PETA has received funding from organizations that consider themselves the mainstream of the American center-left. The Tides Foundation, a large San Francisco-based left-of-center grantmaking organization, has provided PETA with over $1 million in contributions since 2003. The John L. Neu Family Foundation, which has contributed to the environmentalist group Natural Resources Defense Council, the left-wing legal policy group Brennan Center for Justice, and the liberal Jewish group J Street Education Fund, provided $400,000 to PETA in 2015. The Arcus Foundation, California Community Foundation, and the Glaser Progress Foundation are also major PETA contributors.
Also see Foundation to Support Animal Protection (Nonprofit)
PETA has a supporting nonprofit organization, the Foundation to Support Animal Protection (also known as the PETA Foundation). The foundation of animal liberation activist divorcee Nanci Alexander provided over $20 million in contributions to the PETA Foundation. Alexander’s foundation continues to make seven-figure contributions to PETA, making a $1.5 million grant to the organization in 2015.
Ties to Other Animal Rights Groups
PETA is a radical organization, but it has close ties to groups purporting to be more mainstream. Numerous alumni of PETA have gone on to work for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), an animal liberation organization which maintains a more mainstream profile. HSUS’s food policy director, Matt Prescott, was a corporate campaign organizer for PETA; Mary Beth Sweetland, the group’s director of investigations, was PETA’s director of research.
PETA and its associated Foundation have funded the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal liberation group focusing on alleged health benefits of veganism and opposition to animal models in biological research. Critics of the animal liberation movement have alleged that PETA president Ingrid Newkirk sat on PCRM’s board for a period and that Neal Barnard, the president of PCRM, had been a PETA “medical advisor.”
Ingrid Newkirk is the co-founder and president of PETA. A longtime radical animal liberation activist, she has led PETA since its foundation in 1980. She has a history of extremely controversial statements, including a 1994 letter to the late Palestinian terrorist leader Yasser Arafat imploring that he reduce animal collateral damage in his campaign against Israeli civilians.
Newkirk is notoriously anti-humanity: She was voluntarily sterilized at age 22 and has said “I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life.” Newkirk has written a book profiling a founder of the Animal Liberation Front extremist group, and has reportedly given interviews to publications associated with ALF.