Transcript of the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 70.
Why Vegans Shouldn't Support PETA, and How to Assess Whether an Animal Sanctuary is Legit
You're listening to the No Bullshit Vegan Podcast, episode 70. We’re getting back into some serious BS-busting. Today, I'm going to share why I, as a vegan, don't support PETA, the world's largest animal rights organization, and why I think you shouldn't either.
Hey, welcome to the show. I'm Karina, your go-to no-BS, vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Thank you so much for tuning in. I am very excited to announce that today, the day this episode comes out, May 5th, is the release of my third book: Resistance Band Workouts: 50 Exercises For Strength Training at Home or On The Go. Now, of course, when my publisher commissioned this project about a year ago, we had no idea that we'd all be self–isolating, working out at home when the book came out. So it's definitely interesting timing. I realized that most bookstores probably are open right now, but it's available on Amazon and you can get the link in our show notes, nobullshitvegan.com/070.
So here's the official summary from my publisher: this is your one stop shop for anyone who wants to improve their strength and body composition, without having to purchase a gym membership. Fitness coach and author Karina Inkster will teach you about the overall benefits of strength, training and resistance bands.
In particular, you'll learn how to choose resistance bands, how to use them at home with a door anchor, and how to use them safely. An overview of the three types of resistance bands will help readers put together their own mini gym that can fit into a small bag. A collection of 50 resistance band exercises that work all the major muscle groups will inspire readers to create and maintain a regular strength training practice. Whether they're working out at home outdoors, or while traveling, once readers are familiar with the various exercise possibilities, they'll learn how to put together their own strength programs. So it's not just a collection of 50 resistance band exercises. I mean, that's all well and good, but it also shows you how to use them, and put them together into your own effective workouts. Again, you can get your hands on it at the link in our show notes, nobullshit vegan.com/070.
Now at the time this episode is released, we're still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. If you listen to our last two episodes, those were all about maintaining your fitness and health goals during lockdown. Today we're getting back to regularly scheduled vegan-focused content, and that is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, AKA PETA. It's not really my style to single out individuals or organizations and criticize them. That said, as The No-Bullshit Vegan, when I see some bullshit that needs to be addressed, I will call it out. PETA is the world's largest and most recognized animal rights organization, and they do a number of useful things. But overall, I feel PETA sends the wrong messages about animal rights, and they give all of us vegans a bad name. There are a lot of vegans out there who have a vague sense that there's something wrong with PETA, but they don't really have details.
So after this episode, you will have all the details you need. Before I get into why I don't support PETA, here’s what PETA gets right. So first of all, they don't support zoos. Second, they have lots of useful vegan resources available online and in print, including a vegan starter kit. And third, they believe pet animal breeders should not exist. PETA has been around for a long time and many ethical vegans already don't support them. So in a way, I guess I feel like I'm a bit late to the game pointing out why I don't support PETA. Penn and Teller even devoted an episode of their show, Bullshit, to PETA back in 2004, but they weren't vegan at the time. Penn is now actually vegan. And I want to make sure that this is covered from a vegan perspective. And the fact is: PETA is still around and they're still prominent, with a multi, multi-million dollar budget.
Many vegans still support them. And PETA is often the first thing non-vegans think of that represents our movement as a whole. It should go without say that I do not consider PETA to be a healthy or accurate representation of the vegan or animal rights community. My ideal type of activism is intersectional activism, which overlaps with other social issues and does not support the oppression of other groups in order to benefit one specific cause. Unfortunately, PETA falls short of this on many levels. I'm sure we all know about PETA’s shock value- based publicity campaigns over the years, some of which I'll discuss and all of which I find tacky and ineffective, but there might be some things about PETA that you didn't know.
Let’s start with euthanasia. And what I would consider animal cruelty. PETA does not believe in keeping animals in shelters. They believe animals are better off dead.
So they euthanize them; lots of them. Organizations like nokilladvocacycenter.org are working to establish fully no- kill shelters and it's happening. They keep detailed statistics from across the US, and they've got a long list of communities where placement rates (which is basically the adoption of animals in shelters) are over 90%. This is from consumerfreedom.com: PETA puts to death up to 97.4% of the animals in its care in any given year, including those it accepts from members of the public, who expect the group to make a reasonable attempt to find them adoptive homes. A few years ago, a law passed in Virginia that strictly defined a private animal shelter as: a facility operating for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for animals. Not really groundbreaking, right? That's essentially what we'd all use, I think, as the definition of an animal shelter.
So why did we need this law? Well, PETA’s headquarters are in Virginia, and at those headquarters, they killed thousands of animals each year. You heard that right. Masquerading as an animal rescue organization, rather than find adoptive homes for many thousands of animals, they killed them. And of course, PETA fought hard against the law defining animal shelter, because euthanizing the vast majority of animals that came into their care was not part of this definition. PETA used a large amount of donation money to lobby against that law, by the way. I found an article in The Atlantic where the author communicated with a PETA spokesperson. The spokesperson said, “Euthanasia is a product of love, for animals who have no one to love them.” Here's another piece of the article: “she called their killing a tragic reality. One that forthrightly acknowledges how sometimes animals need the comfort of being put out of their misery, a painless release from a world in which they were abused and unwanted.”
The default assumption is that any animal is better off dead instead of adopted as a pet. And if you ask me, excuse my French, that is fucked up. PETA clearly has a horrendous track record when it comes to the treatment of animals. And it also has a horrible track record for the treatment of humans. I've got five ways PETA has displayed appalling prejudice, or just overall treatment of certain groups of people.
Number one is fat shaming, and there have been several different instances of this, but here are a few examples. There's a billboard that they used in one of their campaigns, depicting a woman with a large body in a bikini and the slogan, “ Save the whales, lose the blubber, go vegetarian”. Using fat shaming and humiliation, basically likening women's bodies to whales, is no way to get people to think about their diets.
(This is a totally separate issue, but I think PETA really needs to stop promoting vegetarianism, especially as a so-called animal rights group. I realize it's a stepping-stone for a lot of people, but if ethics are really your main motivation, veganism is the only answer. )
There was another fat shaming campaign that did promote veganism a few years ago. A report came out that an emergency contraceptive pill in Europe, which is similar to the Plan B pill in the US or Canada, may not be effective for women who weigh more than 176 pounds. Keep in mind, this is an absolute weight, it's not a body mass index. Tall women, power lifters, bodybuilders, it doesn’t matter. It's just an absolute weight. PETA of course, took this to mean overweight or fat as the only option. They came up with a campaign.
In a press release, they announced that the program “ Plan V” will promote a vegan diet as a quote: “ plan B lifeline for overweight women.” The first problem here is that PETA uses veganism or vegetarianism to promote weight loss, a lot. They're still doing this, actually. They've been doing this over the years, but there was an article published on their site just last month about this. I do know that some people lose weight when they transition to a vegan diet, but it's not because of veganism itself. It's not veganism as a magic bullet. It's because they're eating fewer calories. Going vegan alone does not automatically lead to weight loss. The second problem here is that there's no acknowledgement of the difference between women who might be overweight, and women who are simply heavier. When asked about this distinction by a reporter, Alicia Wampler, PETA’s Special Projects Manager, emailed the following.
“ At six feet tall, I currently weigh about 150 pounds, which is a healthy weight for me, but I used to weigh more than 200 pounds, which is well above the threshold for Plan B. As a vegan, I lost 70 pounds, and have kept them off. I'm grateful to know that Plan B emergency contraception is now an option for me, but it is essential for women of all heights and weights to have access to family planning tools. So I hope that Plan B can be modified to work for everyone. In the meantime, adopting a healthy vegan diet is a great way for the vast majority of women to get their weight well within the current threshold, as well as to reduce their risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. I encourage all women to take their health into their own hands by going vegan.”
Of course, she's using her own experience and her own genetics as a baseline. There's no mention at all of other body types. I happen to know many women who weigh over 200 pounds, as high-level athletes. I'm betting that the existence of women like this would undermine PETA’s shittily researched assertion that going vegan or vegetarian will lead to weight loss. So, they just ignore the fact that there are innumerable body types out there.
The second example of PETA’s horrendous treatment of humans is anti-Semitism. On several occasions, PETA has compared victims of the Nazi Holocaust to farm animals. There was a “ Holocaust On Your Plate” campaign from the early two thousands, which was a traveling display, which in the words of PETA, “ juxtaposes images of animals and slaughterhouses and factory farms with images of humans and Nazi concentration camps.” The display was banned in Germany, probably not surprisingly, and included captions like, “like the Jews murdered in concentration camps, animals are terrorized when they are housed in huge filthy warehouses, and rounded up for shipment to slaughter. The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.”
Of course, farm animals, especially those in factory farms, are subjected to horrendous conditions and terrible agony, but it's just not acceptable to use mass genocide as an analogy. Now there's a whole lot more I could say here. I feel like I could probably do an entire podcast episode on this one issue, but I'm going to move on to the next point, which is misogyny and making light of domestic abuse.
PETA made an ad, which is still available on YouTube, called “ Boyfriend Went Vegan”. It shows a young woman in a neck brace, barely able to walk. The narrator says the woman is suffering from “BWVAKT boom”, which stands for “boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me.” The narrator continues: “ a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan, and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.”
This is wrong on so many levels; I don't even know where to start. It's making light of domestic abuse, normalizing the idea of women being used as sex objects. It is glorifying male virility. I mean the list goes on, but I think the main problem here is the issue of domestic abuse. PETA has a long history of using women (who by the way, only fit one body type mold) in its ads in very questionable, objectifying ways. This campaign “ Boyfriend Went Vegan” is just one of many examples. Going back to PETA’s obsession with going vegan for fat loss, it uses women with a particular body type to supposedly get people thinking about going vegan; so they too can have lean physiques. When they target males (like in this case, “ Boyfriend Went Vegan”), they usually focus on things like male virility.
The fourth way PETA treats humans horribly is racism. PETA has repeatedly likened the plight of animals to black slavery. PETA had a slogan 15 years ago: “ Are Animals The New Slaves?” Two years later, it compared the American Kennel Club to the KKK. PETA also sued SeaWorld, claiming that orcas should be freed under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. I fully agree that cetaceans do not belong in captivity, but comparing captive cetaceans to the murder, rape and enslavement of black people is not an effective or ethical way of presenting that message.
Lastly, PETA demonstrates queer phobia and transphobia in some of its messaging, including their “ Fur Is A Drag” campaign. The main message here is that wearing fur is as ridiculous as cross-dressing. This possibly also includes drag performers and trans people, which is of course not acceptable. Not all people who cross dress are queer or trans, of course. Campaigns like that one, which likens something abhorrent like wearing fur, to something like drag, just does not sit right with me.
In addition to these massive problems with how PETA treats humans, there are another four problems I came across, and the first one is non-evidence based information. This one actually also relates to the treatment of humans. PETA has on its website, a section about the supposed link between autism and consuming dairy products. I don't support consuming dairy products of any kind, but there's no good quality, empirical evidence, linking dairy with autism. One of the studies they cite was conducted almost two decades ago, and it had a sample size of only 20 children. More recently, the University of Texas investigated the studies PETA cited, and found them to be scientifically unsound.
There was a thorough literature review conducted in 2014, which showed no correlation between dairy consumption and rates of autism. In addition to the information that PETA has on its website, they had a “ Got Autism?” campaign, which shows a bowl of milk containing Cheerios, that are arranged into a sad face. We already know this is complete non-evidence based bullshit, but this campaign also tokenizes autism, and displays it in a way that suggests the only option is to feel negatively about it.
The second problem is violence and crime, which also could be an entire separate podcast episode. PETA has a long history of giving tens of thousands of dollars to convicted criminals, including arsonists. In the nineties, PETA paid over $70,000 to Rodney Coronado, an Animal Liberation Front arsonist who was convicted of burning down a Michigan State University research lab. During his sentencing, a federal prosecutor implicated Ingrid Newkirk, who is the president of PETA, in that crime.
A PETA spokesperson is actually on record saying: “ arson, property destruction, burglary and theft are acceptable crimes when used for the animal cause.” If you're a long time listener of this show, you already know this, but I want to go on record as saying groups like the Animal Liberation Front do more harm than good to the vegan movement. Sometimes we need direct radical action to result in social change. But many more times than not, illegal actions like burning down buildings or laboratories are going to alienate people from the vegan message, and alienate people who are already vegan from groups who do things like this. It's just not an effective approach.
The third problem is targeting children. PETA activists often target children, as young as six years old, with anti-animal product propaganda. I found one piece of literature targeting children that read: “your mummy kills animals.” I think it's important that we speak with children about where their food comes from, but this is not the way to do it. I would suggest educational resources like Ruby Roth's book, That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, as a much better, more effective tool.
The fourth problem, although I'm sure there are many more, is the use of donation money. In 2015, PETA had $42 million in donations, which increased to over $50 million by 2018. One report found that PETA spent 2% of its money on donations to researchers looking for alternatives to animal testing, and 17% of its money on fundraising to raise more money. They've spent many more times the amount of money on things like legal fees, than directly helping animals. Another report found that over a 10-year period, PETA spent four times as much on criminals and their legal defense, than it has on shelters, spay/neuter programs and other efforts that actually help animals.
It's clear that PETA is not an organization that we should support, so what should we do instead? What I wanted to do at first was to compile a list of alternative organizations, and I got some really good suggestions from my Facebook friends and followers on my personal page. You can actually go and check that out if you like; it’s public, we don't have to be connected on Facebook, just navigate to my personal profile. I was planning on listing some of those options in our show notes, but then I realized, as pointed out by some of the people commenting on this post, that there are also major problems with a lot of other large animal rights organizations, including harassment and bullying of staff by organization leaders.
Christine Crumbley, who by the way, is an awesome vegan badass with a PhD in Molecular Biology (and she’s also a strength athlete), commented: “ it seems that a lot of the larger organizations end up being problematic in one way or another. I like to work with local groups, where there's a lot less money and power involved.”
With listeners around the world, I can't suggest specific organizations, but I can suggest that you do your own research, and for rescue operations and sanctuaries, visit in person if you can. I may do a future podcast episode as a more in-depth look at this topic, but for now I have six questions to ask yourself when determining whether a particular sanctuary is run ethically. This of course doesn't apply to more general animal rights organizations, just to sanctuaries, but because most of these are smaller scale and local, I thought it was relevant here.
First of all, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries defines a sanctuary as “any facility providing temporary or permanent safe haven to animals in need, while meeting the principles of true sanctuaries, providing excellent and humane care for their animals in a non exploitative environment and having ethical policies in place regarding tours, commercial trade, exhibition, acquisition and disposition, breeding, and more.”
Here are the six questions to ask yourself when you're evaluating a particular sanctuary.
First: is there any breeding going on? Are there baby animals appearing regularly? This is a major red flag because sanctuaries do not breed animals. Keep in mind, of course, some may have rescued baby animals or pregnant mothers, but legitimate sanctuaries do not breed.
Second question: do they offer direct contact with animals? This applies to any sanctuary that rescues non-domesticated, non-pet animals. Like breeding, direct contact is one of the biggest red flags in existence, like an elephant sanctuary that allows visitors to ride their elephants. Any contact, including riding, petting, taking selfies with wild animals: that immediately discredits a sanctuary as a true sanctuary. This includes keepers by the way, or people taking care of the animals. It's generally a bad sign if keepers are entering animal enclosures. True wild animal sanctuaries will minimize contact between the animals and all humans. Again, there are exceptions here. My favorite sanctuary, for example, which I'll tell you more about shortly, involves rescuing animals who sometimes are severely injured or orphaned. In cases like these, human contact is necessary to keep them alive.
Third question to ask: do the animals have enough space? Meeting or exceeding the USDA requirements for keeping animals is not enough. Those requirements basically mean nothing, and they are the absolute bare minimum. A lot of sanctuaries actually advertise that they meet or exceed the USDA requirements, but it doesn't mean anything. This is going to depend on the species of animal, of course, but it's a really good reason to visit a sanctuary in person, if possible. You want to see lots of space for each animal, including space for seclusion (especially if the sanctuary offers tours for visitors), lots of natural materials, and definitely no restraints of any kind like leashes or chains.
The fourth question you can ask: why are the animals here? Look into the animals’ backstories. Why are they living at a sanctuary? Were they born in the where they born in captivity or in the wild? Legitimate sanctuaries rescue animals from horrific situations like circuses or private homes, and usually these animals are unable to return to the wild. They need a home for the rest of their lives.
Number five: what boundaries do they set around tours? We've already established that direct contact with animals is a huge red flag, but many (if not most) sanctuaries raise funds through giving tours. Does the sanctuary keep in mind the psychological needs of the animals? Do they limit tours to specific days or times? Do they limit the number of people in each tour? Most sanctuaries that are legitimate have limited visiting hours. And lastly, are they accredited or verified? The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries has a verification process, and you can look through a list of accredited sanctuaries on their site. I'll link to these in our show notes, at nobullshitvegan.com/070.
I do want to mention one particular sanctuary, which might sound a little bit random, because it's in Australia and I'm in Canada. I've only spent a total of seven weeks in Australia over two different trips, but I do feel some level of connection to the place, as I've been playing its national instrument, the didgeridoo for almost 20 years. My friend and training buddy Vanessa, who is from Australia, founded the Wombat Awareness Organization, which operates an amazing sanctuary in Southern Australia. The operators are both vegan. They're extremely transparent about how things are run, and they work around the clock to care for wombats, which are now one of my all time favourite creatures.
I support them financially on an ongoing basis, by having adopted one of their wombats, Noah, who like me has an anxiety disorder. The sanctuary is free range and cage free, which might make it the only free-range wombat sanctuary in Australia. It focuses on rescue and rehabilitation. If you want to check them out, I've listed their website in our show notes.
I'm going to leave it there for today. Thank you so much for joining me and supporting this show. Don’t forget that my brand new book Resistance Band Workouts out today. You can get your hands on it at our show notes, nobullshitvegan.com/070, where I will also have a list of resources on research into PETA, and legitimate sanctuaries. Thanks again for listening!