On August 21, 1980, animal rights advocates Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco found People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Rising from humble beginnings, PETA will soon become the world’s foremost and most controversial animal rights organization.
Newkirk’s interest in protecting animals began 11 years prior, when she found some abandoned kittens and was appalled by the conditions that awaited them at a New York City animal shelter. She set aside her plans to become a stockbroker and instead focused on animals, eventually becoming the first female poundmaster in the history of the District of Columbia. In 1980 she began dating Pacheco, a graduate student and activist who had sailed aboard a whale-protection ship, and the two co-founded PETA a short time later.
PETA’s first major campaign came the following year, when Pacheco got a job at a research facility in Silver Spring, Maryland in order to expose the experiments being conducted on monkeys there. PETA distributed photos of the monkeys being kept in horrific conditions, leading to a police raid and, eventually, the first-ever conviction of a researcher on animal-cruelty charges.
Having made a national name for itself, PETA continued to shine a spotlight on animal cruelty. PETA continued to conduct undercover operations and file lawsuits on behalf of animals, but is is perhaps best known for its marketing campaigns and stunts. An early-'90s ad campaign depicted bloody scenes from slaughterhouses with captions like “Do you want fries with that?” while another ad series featured a number of naked celebrities in protest of the fur industry. PETA activists have been known to wear elaborate costumes, body paint, or nothing at all to draw attention to their causes, and to throw red paint symbolizing blood on people wearing fur.
PETA has been criticized from all sides—many believe them to be extremists and find their methods distasteful, while other activists criticize PETA’s willingness to work with corporations in industries like fast food or fashion to make incremental improvements to animal welfare. Still others within the animal rights movement argue that PETA plays an outsized role, focusing attention on media controversies instead of concrete changes.
Nonetheless, PETA has achieved a litany of animal-rights reforms: convincing some of the world’s largest fashion brands not to use fur, animal-testing bans by thousands of personal-care companies, ending the use of animals in automobile crash tests, closing the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus and exposing thousands of instances of animal cruelty across the world are just a few of the organization’s accomplishments.