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What’s Behind PETA’s Systematic Killing of Animals?


By Nathan & Jennifer Winograd.

On my Facebook page, a reader took issue with our claim in Friendly Fire that PETA’s systematic killing of animals and embrace of their killing cannot be understood without a psychological analysis of both Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s founder, as well as those she recruits to do her bidding. In Friendly Fire, we argue that PETA appears to us to be a political death cult, a cover for Newkirk’s dark impulses. You can read an excerpted version by clicking  here. In response to that analysis, the reader suggested that PETA’s actions show the failings of the utilitarianism philosophy, as articulated by Peter Singer in what is ironically considered the seminal work of the animal rights movement (ironic because it rejects legal rights for animals),  Animal Liberation. While the comment was more nuanced, others have made similar arguments. But we think trying to find a philosophical basis for Ingrid Newkirk’s actions or the actions of her employees, misses the mark. Our response to the reader explaining why is below:

The reason my wife and I wrote Friendly Fire was to respond to the most common question people have when they learn that the biggest roadblocks to a No Kill nation are the large, national animal “protection” groups: Why?  

We attempt to explain the historical, financial and sociological reasons behind this paradoxical opposition so that it makes sense and gives people the confidence to challenge it. If people can set aside the naïve assumption that just because a group has a professed mission it will therefore always act in accordance with that mission, if they can allow for the possibility that such groups can become ruled by greed, pride and self-preservation at the expense of their mission, then they can understand why they act as they do and most important of all, they can expose it for what it is to others, and help people move beyond the deference they now accord these groups, a deference that the groups use to maintain the status quo of killing.  

As I would hope a reading of Friendly Fire conveys, we believe that the reasons behind the opposition of most of No Kill’s detractors can be understood in the context of basic human nature:

“While the result of the opposition to No Kill by shelter directors and others is anything but mundane, the motivation behind their resistance is ultimately attributable to pedestrian flaws of human nature: primarily uncaring, greed and narrow self-interest.”

We don’t, however, think this excuse is adequate to explain the killing done by PETA:

“Ingrid Newkirk is different. She opposes No Kill because the No Kill movement represents the antithesis of her definition of animal activism. To her, killing is the goal because she believes that life itself is suffering and therefore animals want to die.”

Without an appreciation of Newkirk’s particular and aberrant point of view, a whole lot of PETA’s behavior is inexplicable.

I understand the limits of trying to understand an organization via psychological evidence, not the least of which is that it tends to rely on subjective data prone to tautologies. Moreover, there are limits to a madman theory of history. But I do not believe you can discount it either and there is enough intersubjective evidence via comparison to studies of nurses who kill their patients or to the behavior of political death cults in history. Moreover, given the top-down nature of PETA, including firing anyone who admits a different point of view or even questions it, and the very real possibility that PETA is a front for Newkirk’s impulses in this regard, I believe it warrants serious consideration. That doesn’t mean it is the end-all be all, but I do believe that relying on a utilitarian explanation misses Newkirk’s role and denies the power of cults.

Admittedly, it has been 20 years since I read Animal Liberation, but I do not think utilitarianism can explain lying to people in order to take animals, in no danger of being killed, and putting them to death after promising to find them a home in the back of a van stocked with a tackle box full of syringes and poison and garbage bags in which to place their dead bodies (the circumstances surrounding such killing expose how deliberate and premeditated that killing is). Many people have read Animal Liberation but how many of them have created death cults as a result? How many people have read it and then attempted to recruit others to join them in an effort to round up and kill healthy animals?  

Rather than argue that reading Animal Liberation provided Newkirk with the impetus to kill, I think it would be more accurate to say that Newkirk wants to kill, and uses the utilitarian argument proposed in Animal Liberation in the same way she uses PETA: as political cover. To assert the reverse is to imply that no matter how bizarre or out of touch with the norms of human experience a particular behavior may be, if that behavior can be traced back to someone else’s philosophical writings, if it can find justification, then that behavior cannot therefore be considered the result of a disturbed psychological condition.  

I agree that many people who do not work at PETA but support Newkirk even when they learn about PETA’s killing may be influenced by Newkirk’s use of utilitarianism as a decoy and I don’t believe we ever suggested otherwise in Friendly Fire. I also agree, as I think you seem to be suggesting, that given the low regard for the value of animal life in our society, that people, even people who claim to be “animal rights” are unable or conveniently unwilling to “think” their own way out their support for PETA because not only are they reconciled to animals being killed, they are accustomed to the idea that PETA is something they are not—an animal protection organization—and therefore if PETA says the killing is necessary and okay, it must be necessary and okay.  

But I don’t think the same can be said for the individuals she recruits to her cause who work at PETA and do the killing on her behalf. I do believe that these people are under Newkirk’s sway beyond what we would consider a healthy state of mind or a healthy relationship. And I think it is important to point this out because with PETA continually trying to place the killing that they do in the context of “pet overpopulation,” and with people continually trying to ham-fist Newkirk’s agenda into an animal rights context, the urgency of the plight of PETA’s victims is diminished. What is lost in such discussion is the sense of horror at what, in truth, PETA is actually doing to animals. There is no rational basis for supporting PETA, there is no way to reconcile PETA’s philosophy with that of other rights based movements that have come before ours, and to suggest otherwise is in itself a betrayal to the animals.  

That is to say, if humans, rather than animals, were Newkirk’s target, no one would dare suggest there was a rational basis or justification behind her killing, or that that killing could be made to align with the philosophy of a movement intended to protect those people. They would see that such actions are in opposition, in fact the anti-thesis, of such a cause, not a manifestation of it. The flaws in such a suggestion would be immediately obvious to everyone, given our collective reverence for the sanctity of the individual rights of humans. And the only reason it isn’t in this instance is that we don’t collectively recognize the rights of animals in the same way, chief among them, the right to live.  

In essence, Newkirk is allowed to continue killing animals because animals do not have the rights and protections afforded by law that most people erroneously believe PETA exists to promote. It is that very paradox that has for so long shielded Newkirk from greater accountability and which must be pointed out to most effectively overcome their assertions that the killing they do is necessary and humane.

For further reading:

Friendly Fire


PETA: A Cult-ture of Killing


My Disturbing Encounter With the Mind of PETA


You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


The Butcher of Norfolk


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