Animal rights group faulted as `cultlike' and abusive

PETA's radical tactics alienate some allies

January 18, 2001|By Bill Sizemore | Bill Sizemore,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. - For 20 years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has waged a brutal war in the name of kindness.

It champions the welfare of animals with a flinty, take-no-prisoners strategy that has alienated a growing group of humans. Among them are the likely cast of hunters, meatpackers, dairymen, furriers and animal researchers. Perhaps more surprisingly, the list also includes fellow animal advocates, some of them former PETA employees, who complain of a zealous culture that has little tolerance for the squeamish.

"They're brutal on their people," says John Newton, formerly of Meower Power, a local organization that cares for stray cats. He uses the term "cultlike" to describe PETA. "If you're not radical enough, they drive you out."

PETA crusaders plot their outrageous, sometimes illegal protests from the organization's headquarters overlooking the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk. They often use shock, insult and even nudity as their hook.

The resulting news coverage fans the organization's recruitment and fund-raising. It's that media wisdom, PETA loyalists say, that has vaulted the organization into the world's most recognized and effective animal rights group.

Leading the charge and setting the tone is PETA's co-founder and president, Ingrid Newkirk, whose wispy frame and soft British lilt mask a will of iron and an unbending demand for allegiance to the cause.

"Ingrid Newkirk runs PETA like a guru cult," says Merritt Clifton, founder and editor of the national animal protection newspaper Animal People. "Sooner or later, everyone who questions her or upstages her in any way, no matter how unintentionally, ends up getting shafted in the most humiliating manner Newkirk can think of."

Newkirk is unapologetic. She acknowledges that "we have disgruntled employees who've left here. There is a little club of disgruntled employees." But she says the people she's fired over the years were fired for good cause.

"It is true, I am tough," she says. "I believe we should be - and I say this at staff meetings - a lean, mean fighting machine. This is not a rest home for people who just have warm feelings about animals."

`Tension was so thick'

Sue Perna of Chesapeake, Va., went to work for PETA as a receptionist soon after the organization moved to Norfolk from suburban Washington in 1996. She says she found a high level of turnover and job anxiety.

"The tension was so thick you could feel it," Perna says.

"Everyone was so scared for their jobs at one point, we began to call the office telephone list `Schindler's List.'"

Firings came frequently and without warning, she says.

"It was done so capriciously and with such seeming zeal by Ingrid," she says. "She seems to take joy in extinguishing people's careers."

It's ironic, Perna says: A woman who has dedicated her life to fighting animal abuse is herself "an abuser of the human animal."

After a year on the job and several run-ins with Newkirk, Perna walked out. She remains a dedicated animal rights activist - she was arrested two years ago for climbing onto the roof of a McDonald's in Virginia Beach - but she steers clear of PETA.

"Many of us believe that the further we distance ourselves from PETA, the better off the animal rights movement will be," she says.

`Quite a shock'

Sue Gaines tells a similar story.

Gaines, who moved to Hampton Roads, Va., from Connecticut in 1996 to take a job in PETA's education department, says she found the work environment "quite a shock."

"It is a very horrible place to work," she says.

During Gaines' tenure, PETA donated computer software to area high schools to be used in biology classes as an alternative to dissecting animals. At one of the schools, Green Run in Virginia Beach, a PETA protester - dressed as a frog with its internal organs hanging out - showed up with the software and was ordered off the grounds by school administrators.

Gaines got a call about the spectacle from the teacher she had been working with.

"She was almost in tears, afraid for her job," Gaines says.

"I went in to talk to Ingrid, and she laughed at me. It was of absolutely no concern to her that that teacher might lose her job."

Newkirk denies laughing at the teacher's plight, calling the allegation "dirty" and "scurrilous."

As it turned out, the teacher kept her job but Gaines lost hers - fired by Newkirk after a year at PETA.

"I think she thought I didn't have the guts to be a PETA person," Gaines says. "I can't paint with a broad brush like they do. I don't think meat eaters are evil. If that's what it takes to be a PETA person, I guess I'm not one."

Kim Bartlett, publisher of Animal People and wife of the editor, Clifton, worked for PETA briefly in the 1980s. "I admire Ingrid in many respects," Bartlett says. "She's done some amazing things." But she also describes Newkirk as "totally confrontational. She doesn't understand the concept of compromise."

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