The Center for Consumer Freedom Web site is filled with misleading polemics designed to alarm animal lovers. The killing of “defenseless creatures” refers to the humane euthanization of unwanted dogs, cats, and other pets at a PETA-run animal shelter. Clearly, the goal of the campaign is to weaken the animal rights group, not to save animals’ lives. Of course, PETA itself is no stranger to exaggeration. In its many campaigns, the organization works to create a sense of outrage, regularly inciting a frenzy of misplaced concern when the facts of the matter would not provoke reasonable people to such a response.
Several years ago, unbeknownst to me and my colleagues at Wildlife Trust, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus added links from its Web site to our own (and to those of several other wildlife organizations). Almost immediately, PETA sent us a threatening letter demanding that Ringling Brothers remove the link, citing the thousands of PETA members who would be upset if we didn’t comply. We were given a deadline to respond with the news that we had severed the link. I wrote back, saying that I did not see the harm in luring readers from a circus Web site to learn about elephant natural history and conservation. I never heard back.
I was relieved that Wildlife Trust did not land in the center of the kind of storm of public protest that PETA can create. PETA may seem well-meaning and benign, but scientists and conservationists who work with animals see its other side and are wary of the organization because it attacks research in order to advance its mission. For example, PETA is opposed to the efforts of conservationists to reintroduce predators into ecosystems where they once belonged. In balanced ecosystems, natural predators keep prey species healthy, but PETA activists argue that bringing the wolf back to the American West is cruel. The group can marshal tens of thousands of its members to protest what they think is detrimental to the philosophical position of moral equivalence for humans and nonhuman animals.
PETA may seem well-meaning and benign, but scientists are wary of the organization because it attacks research to advance its mission
Last fall PETA set its sights on a scientist at the Oregon Health and Science University, Charles Roselli, who researches the sexual behavior of sheep. Roselli’s work, like all federally funded research involving animals, is overseen by a special committee composed of veterinarians, biologists, ethicists, and community representatives. His work is important, given that on average, 8 percent of rams seek sex with other rams rather than with ewes. As a wildlife conservationist, I am very interested in understanding what makes an “effective population size”: that fraction of a population that is fertile, actively reproducing, and able to produce the next generation. Roselli’s discoveries about the reproductive behavior of domestic sheep may provide clues to population dynamics in endangered wild sheep. The question of how and why animals choose mates is also one key in the much larger study of how evolution works.