Mankind has not always been the greatest friend of nature.
That, by the way, is a gross understatement.
Luckily, in the past five decades, we’ve begun waking up to this fact in varying degrees. Government agencies and non-governmental organizations have popped up all across the world to address various causes with regards to conservation of the environment and the animal kingdom.
One of those organizations is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The organization has a knack for taking the “rage marketing” approach to animal advocacy. And recently, they were at it again.
Last month marked what would’ve been conservationist and entertainer Steve Irwin’s 57th birthday. Irwin made a name for himself as the charismatic host of “The Crocodile Hunter” and as a vocal advocate for conservation. Irwin died in 2006 during the filming of a documentary series when he was stung by a short-tail stingray, but he left a very visible impact in pop culture. It goes without saying that we are currently obsessed with entertainment nostalgia and, indulging in the zeitgeist, Google made one of its signature Google Doodles to celebrate his birthday. Given the current ever-evolving news cycle, it probably would’ve gone largely unnoticed had it not been for PETA, which chose to tweet about the doodle.
“#SteveIrwin was killed while harassing a ray; he dangled his baby while feeding a crocodile & wrestled wild animals who were minding their own business. Today’s #GoogleDoodle sends a dangerous, fawning message. Wild animals are entitled to be left alone in their natural habitats.”
As you can guess, this left many people angry, but PETA’s official account tweeted on.
“Steve Irwin’s actions were not on target with his supposed message of protecting wildlife. A real wildlife expert & someone who respects animals for the individuals they are leaves them to their own business in their natural homes.”
Of course, this is Twitter and the cycle of rage continued.
And this is exactly what PETA wants to see. They’ve made sensational social media posts targeting everything from Pokemon to animal testing to farming and even recently sent out a post suggesting that we drop idioms such as “beating a dead horse” and “kill two birds with one stone” for more “animal-friendly” language.
This is PETA’s modus operandi. On the PETA website’s FAQ page, they literally state they “try to make our actions colorful and controversial, thereby grabbing headlines around the world and spreading the message of kindness to animals to thousands — sometimes millions — of people.” They go on to claim the approach has been successful and netted them 6.5 million members and supporters (from whom they derive their income).
In this regard, PETA has been extremely successful. They have mastered the art of getting attention. There’s no getting around it — this very column is giving them more of the attention they crave.
But accountability is not achieved by ignoring a source and that is why they have to be addressed, because whether it’s the president of the United States or PETA, tweeting sensationalists claims is a lousy way to make policy.
PETA itself is a pretty lousy advocate for animals. If they were a lawyer, they’d be Lionel Hutz from “The Simpsons” — they seemingly watched “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” in a bar, the sound wasn’t on but they got the gist of it. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that a shelter run by the group in Virginia euthanized 80 percent of the animals it took in the year before (versus roughly 23 percent of all sheltered animals taken in in Virginia that year) — with some years rising above 90 percent. There have also been multiple investigations into whether the group has ties to terrorism and its president, Ingrid Newkirk, has advocated for law breaking in multiple interviews.
But where the group truly fails to advocate for the ethical treatment of animals the most is in its rage marketing campaigns. PETA contends these campaigns are “to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.” The problem is, none of this happens. Whenever PETA starts a campaign like this, all that ever seems to come of it is an angry backlash and a bunch of memes. And this is sad because there are actually legitimate questions about how we interact with the animal kingdom — including for entertainment — that we should be having nuanced discussions about, and PETAs approach discourages them.
I think Steve Irwin’s efforts absolutely showed that he had a genuine love for the natural world and was committed to conservation in his lifetime. But it is not out of line to ask whether his hands-on “wildlife as entertainment” approach was the right one. Questions are even being asked of the ethics surrounding seemingly hands-off documentaries like the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet” franchises.
These franchises — from Irwin’s work to the “Planet” series — do a lot to make the animal kingdom “real” to a wide audience. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t been that long since people — unless they were a native of the habitat, an intrepid adventurer or a wealthy hunter — would never see a lion save for a written description, a painting or MAYBE a grainy black-and-white photograph. But as transportation improved and curiosities were piqued, we started to see attractions such as circuses, aquariums and zoos pop up. These entities gave the everyman their first chance to see many of the exotic creatures that inhabit this Earth. This is by no means a reason to discount the abuses and mistreatment that many of these entities have inflicted and, in some cases, continue to inflict on the animals in their care. But this is where these animals became real to so many people and why we started asking questions about animal ethics in the first place.
We shouldn’t forget that many zoos and aquariums have done some great research that has helped both the animal kingdom and humankind alike. Television has, in many ways, continued the tradition of not only making these animals real, but also exposing us to their natural habitats. The “Planet” franchises, Irwin’s projects and many others before and since have brought those places to life for those who haven’t visited those places or may never have such an opportunity.
It’s not improper to ask about the ethics of such projects, how they could be less intrusive, and how production and presentation could be improved. These are nuanced conversations that, no doubt, Irwin would be happy to participate in if he were with us today.
But PETA doesn’t want these nuanced discussions.
It would be ignorant of the situation to put all of the blame on PETA. If the group is like an incompetent lawyer, the citizens in the gallery have been little better about facilitating these discussions.
Probably the best example of this came in July 2015 when Dr. Walter J. Palmer, a Minnesota dentist and big game hunter, killed a lion named Cecil near Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Almost immediately, the same social media armies now defending Irwin were out to get Palmer by sharing personal details, sending him hate mail, vandalizing property he owned and even celebrating giving his dental practice bad Yelp reviews.
Politicians and social media alike then began calling for the banning of trophy hunting, a practice that is legal in a number of African countries. The problem was that very little thought was given as to why high-priced trophy hunting is legal in these countries in the first place. In August of that year, the New York Times published an article headlined “Outcry for Cecil the Lion Could Undercut Conservation Efforts.” In it, Namibian environment and tourism minister Pohamba Shifeta is quoted with a dire prediction of what this backlash could mean.
“This will be the end of conservation in Namibia,” Shifeta said.
Namibia faces the same struggles as many sub-Saharan African nations. Many are in a socio-economic position where trophy hunting is their primary — or only — source of funding for conservation and anti-poaching programs. Countries that have put bans or severe curtailments in place have seen untenable growth in certain species, significant drops in others and spikes in poaching. Ultimately, many even see severe impacts on those species the bans were put in place to save. There are many complex issues that have led to this situation, and none of them will be solved with dodgy memes, vandalism and bad Yelp reviews.
Due to incompetent representation — be it organized or not — there is one loser in the defense of the animal kingdom: the animal kingdom itself. This was underscored last month, just days before PETA targeted Irwin’s Google Doodles, when the Bramble Cay melomy, a rodent native to an Australian island in the Torres Strait, was officially declared extinct by the Australian government. It is cited as the first recorded mammalian species to be wiped out due to human-driven climate change. It’s unlikely to be the last. Despite the ominous confirmation of the loss of an entire species, the Bramble Cay melomy received no mention on PETA’s Twitter feed. It’s not mentioned once on their website either. Instead, criticizing a dead man who dedicated his time and energy to animals was the hill they chose to die on.
One thing is for certain — the animal kingdom needs a lawyer, and it probably shouldn’t be PETA.
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.