(This is the fifth part of Douglas Anthony Cooper's examination of PETA. The first is "PETA's Celebs: Naked in the Name of Mass Pet Slaughter." Part two is "Ingrid Newkirk's Death Wish." Part three is "The Humane Alternative to PETA's Pet Slaughter." Part four is "Katniss Fight: Could Jennifer Lawrence Take Down PETA?")
Bill Maher is a merciless bastard. And I say that with the greatest respect. Lesser guys may be conned by righteous charlatans -- not Bill. He's the one in the front row, shining a rude light on the emperor's flashed genitals. Lo, if you have stupid beliefs, Maher's going to haul your ass onto the Carpet of Reason. Hence, he is pretty much the last person you'd expect to get sucked in by PETA, Ingrid Newkirk's cult of euthanasia.
Somehow Maher has decided that the one charismatic leader who ought not to be questioned -- after he's finished ripping Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha -- is Newkirk, the "animal rights" firebrand who insists that animals have no right to life. A woman whose organization is responsible for the pious butchery of 27,541 innocent pets.
These facts are not a matter of dispute: the kill record can be found in legal documents signed by Newkirk herself and her chief lieutenants. Nor is the truth all that obscure. I've covered this in various articles for the Huffington Post, but I am by no means the first: PETA's duplicity and viciousness have been widely reported by the mainstream media, and by committed activists, many of them former PETA members.
I don't expect blissed-out adolescents to do the research necessary to see through Newkirk's quackery, but yes: I do expect Bill Maher, scornful enemy of fraudulence, to do at least a little bit of homework before endorsing an impostor.
For a man who prides himself on drinking no one's Kool-Aid, Maher's certainly developed a taste for Ingrid Newkirk's. He may well be friends with this woman: I'm told she can be quite charming if you catch her without her needle. Certainly he knows lots of people who swan about with the Empress of Euthanasia -- she gets around. And I'm sure he's been exposed to the lie that this critique of PETA is entirely the work of the meat industry. (Some of it in fact is. The most rigorous critic, however, is Nathan Winograd, the vegan who heads up the No Kill movement.)
So, yes: unmasking Newkirk would likely have personal consequences. But this is the test of a man's character. It's also a test of moral acuity: The charlatans closest to home are always the hardest to identify.
Some would argue that Maher, by virtue of his radical rejection of religion, is more likely to be gullible than most. Consider the remark generally misattributed to GK Chesterton: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything." According to this notion, Maher is especially vulnerable to the pretenders: the sleazebags in messiah drag who work the global whorehouse.
Eh. I'm not sure that I buy this: Sometimes a psychological theory is simply too elegant. Me, I think it's just an instance of intellectual laziness. He let down his guard, and in wandered Tartuffe.
Maher's valentine to Newkirk focuses mostly on her book Free the Animals, which was first published 20 years ago. And there's no question: Newkirk's early work was instrumental in bringing animal cruelty to light. But that work has been more than eclipsed by over a decade of mass pet butchery.
We've seen this pattern before. Jim Jones was in many ways a good guy before he decided that his People's Temple would better serve mankind as a death cult. Not many people know this, but Jones was on the forefront of efforts to integrate Indiana -- he and his wife were the first white couple in the state to adopt a black baby. Worthy stuff.
But it doesn't quite compensate for the 909 deaths at Jonestown. And Newkirk's early efforts don't really make up for the mountain of dead pets produced by her cult.
Now is not the time to be praising the pre-Kool-Aid Jones. Nor Newkirk's kinder, gentler self, before she became the Butcher of Norfolk.
It wasn't Kool-Aid, by the way: it was grape Flavor Aid. While we're being accurate: Newkirk's euth fetish isn't a recent phenomenon. She happily recalls putting down an unspeakable number of pets in the 70s: "I must have killed a thousand of them, sometimes dozens every day."
These cults are almost never reported accurately in the mass media. Serious journalists, wedded to fact, can get blind-sided by the surreal.
PETA's current work in the area of animal cruelty lies somewhere between very slightly useful, and a menace to the innocent. Michael Vick's pit bulls? PETA wanted to kill them. Luckily, a small group of pit-bull advocates got to them before Newkirk could "euthanize" them. The story of how Vick's dogs were rescued from Newkirk is in fact a harrowing tale in itself: It would make for a mesmerizing Hollywood thriller.
Luckily, it has a happy ending -- 47 of the 51 Vick dogs were saved. And it wasn't as difficult as anyone expected: "'We had been told these were the most vicious dogs in America.' So what they found in the pens caught them off guard. 'Some of them were just big goofy dogs you'd find in any shelter,' says Zawistowski (the animal behaviourist involved). No more than a dozen were seasoned fighters, and few showed a desire to harm anything."
The most famous of them, Leo, became a beloved therapy dog; he spent his final days with patients undergoing chemotherapy, and seniors with Alzheimer's. (Leo died of a seizure a few months ago. R.I.P. He had five good years, however, after being rescued from Vick's dog fighting ring and Newkirk's hypodermic.)
PETA, by the way, thinks that all pit bulls should be killed. All of them. As soon as we can get our hands on them:
"At many animal shelters across the country, any pit bull that comes through the front door doesn't go out the back door alive," Newkirk tells us. Furthermore: "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals... supports the shelters' pit-bull policy, albeit with reluctance."
"Reluctance." That would be, I guess, the "ethical" part? Oh, but don't you worry your little head about it, Newkirk adds, with the special condescension she reserves for animal lovers:
"People who genuinely care about dogs won't be affected by a ban on pits. They can go to the shelter and save one of the countless other breeds and lovable mutts sitting on death row through no fault of their own. We can only stop killing pits if we stop creating new ones."
Er, no. We can stop killing pits bulls if we stop killing them. Just as we can stop killing shelter animals if we defund PETA and the HSUS, and give the money to No Kill organizations like Best Friends, and North Shore Animal League, and Scooby Medina in Europe.
Oh, and speak for yourself, butcher: I happen to genuinely care about dogs; and I will be affected if you are successful in rendering an entire breed extinct.
How about those horses being inhumanely slaughtered in Mexico? PETA wants them slaughtered stateside. It's a subtle distinction, I guess: getting killed by Newkirk-approved killers counts as humane.
I'm not convinced that faith is a fool's journey, but I'll grant Maher that most religions pour you more than a few body shots of silliness and hypocrisy. Not one world religion, however -- even at its most radical -- is remotely as bizarre and disturbing as PETA. Certainly not Christianity, or Hinduism, or Islam. To find the equivalent of this cult, you have to go deep into the rabbit hole: You have to look at Tom Cruise's Scientology, or Soka Gakkai International (Orlando Bloom), or Madonna's faux Kabbalah.
In short, you have to examine the extreme wackiness that appeals especially to celebrities, spiritually and optically deprived in their bubble of unreality.
I find Maher's naive zeal here particularly disturbing. Nobody looks to Tom Cruise as a hammer of hypocrites; nobody expects Madonna to comprehend the Good. (Madonna, don't preach. Please.) But for Maher to uncritically cheerlead for one of the ugliest cults in America is truly disheartening. And, unlike most of the celebrity cults, PETA does real damage, on a gruesome scale.
Four million shelter animals will be killed next year in America. If these shelters followed Newkirk's example, the numbers would be triply obscene. Yes, PETA pays lip service to adoption, but just try to adopt one of the pets that gets delivered to their headquarters in Norfolk. Your odds are slim (three per cent, to be precise); because that animal, even if perfectly healthy, has a 97 percent chance of dying swiftly at the end of a hypodermic.
Again, without apologies for the repetition, here is the archetypal PETA anecdote:
"A former PETA employee spoke of one particular incident that burned into her mind forever: A teary-eyed man showed up at PETA headquarters one day with his beloved pet rabbit. The man had grown old and sick and was no longer able to care properly for his friend. He supplied a cage, bed, toys, and even vet records for this pet. He was assured by PETA workers that they would take 'good care' of his rabbit and find him a home. The man left distraught but no doubt believing that his friend would be able to live out the rest of his life in a loving, compassionate home... PETA workers carried him to the 'death house' immediately and ended his life."
I've promised to re-tell this story in every article, because nothing else so accurately encapsulates Newkirk's approach to animal rights. Animals have one unalienable right, according to Newkirk: the right to die. A right that she'll defend to the death. (Theirs, not hers.)
And Maher, of all people, is singing this woman's praises: Newkirk, Flavor Aid of the Week.
How best to deal with celebrities is a real issue for activists. The PETA approach -- pornographic exploitation -- is remarkably successful, but many refuse to lower themselves to that level. I respect that: the No Kill movement, for instance, has been much more restrained in promoting a vastly preferable cause. On the other hand, they've paid the price: "PETA" is a household word. "No Kill" is a concept properly understood by a relatively small community of hyper-informed animal lovers.
For the sake of these animals, I am proposing a third way. No, you don't have to whore yourself, but celebrity is a potent force, and should be harnessed. Either that, or the good guys lose. I have already done my best, loudly and thus far without success, to draft Jennifer Lawrence into the No Kill movement. Her valiant words, "Screw PETA," have been heard by millions; let's append them to an intelligent and irrefutable critique.
Inspired by Newkirk, I also have plans to conscript an army of porn stars. We require them fully clothed. I intend to put them in the most conservative and unrevealing outfits -- business suits, burkas -- and have them staring demurely from posters: "We refuse to get naked for Newkirk's death cult. Screw PETA."
If you're reading this, and you happen to be a famous adult actor or actress, please contact me. I'm quite serious. It will be the most boring and least lucrative gig you've ever had. And you'll be instrumental in saving the lives of America's millions of shelter pets.
Celebrity, like wealth, is neutral and often fungible. Celebrities -- I know this will disappoint you -- can be good people, and bad people, and mediocre people: they are, in short, people. (Often short people.)
That said, fame is unquestionably potent stuff. It is, like it or not, useful. It can be used to accomplish virtuous things: witness Bono's guerilla humanitarianism. And it can be used to kill: witness every naked celebrity who's posed -- knowingly or not -- to further the cause of Newkirk's butchery.
Maher has an unusually effective bully pulpit. He is a celebrity himself, and he can offer a bullhorn to any celebrity he chooses. Talk show hosts are essentially celebrity squared: they bring fame to the famous. Unlike many of these, Maher has tremendous credibility: he has earned an almost unparalleled reputation for exposing self-righteous hypocrites.
With great fame, however, comes great responsibility. (Someone almost said this once.) Look, big guy: you're welcome to pimp anyone you please. It's your prerogative, being a famous funny person in a free country. But don't pretend the high moral ground if you're going to shill for this particular version of "animal rights." The right to death is not a right, and it's not right. You may think of yourself as PETA's hip badass St. Paul, but if Stephen Colbert were to characterize the creed of slaughter you've decided to sell to the world, I suspect he'd call it "animal rightsiness."
Bill? Sit down. Can we have some Real Time? You are -- and again I say this with great respect -- a merciless prick. But your unthinking support for Newkirk's death cult suggests that you're not quite merciless enough. And -- like Mick Jagger -- a prick of slightly less noble dimensions than previously thought.