Somehow you don't expect to read the phrase "throwing kittens on barbecue grills" in an e-mail exchange with Pamela Anderson.
But there it was on the screen during an electronic conversation about her longstanding involvement with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, an organization that's at least as well known for its strategies as its causes. Whether it's splashing Vogue editor Anna Wintour and other fur supporters with blood-colored red paint or enlisting stars to bare all in glossy advertising, the group has been enormously successful, if incredibly polarizing, in garnering support — and gathering enemies.
This year, PETA celebrates its 30-year anniversary, and with it, many animal rights victories the Virginia-based nonprofit believes it's had a hand in winning. U.S. mink imports were down 30% in 2009 versus 2008, according to the fur trade journal Sandy Parker Reports. Demand for the alligator and crocodile hides used in handbags and boots dipped 40% worldwide from the first quarter of 2008 to the same quarter of 2009, according to the Associated Press. Late last year, the New York Times reported that the U.S. alligator farming business is tanking.
Numerous retailers, including H&M and Overstock.com, have stopped selling exotic skins, such as snake, lizard and ostrich. And designers such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have all pledged to stop using fur in their jackets, boots and handbags.
But what's truly attributable to PETA and what's merely the result of a dormant economy, the cyclical nature of fashion or other cultural factors, such as the ever-growing green movement, is a matter of debate.
"PETA's done a remarkable job of making itself known," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn., adding that PETA has not only "made faux fashion OK," but caused celebrity stylists to think twice about putting their clients in fur, lest they be photographed and targeted for their insensitivity.
But the change of attitude toward fake furs also coincided with the democratization of fashion, Metchek said.
"It happened with the onslaught of H&M and Forever 21 and Topshop and Mango, where you can be fashionable at any price," she said. "It takes money to wear fur. There is a lot less fur at the lower levels."
Still, there were some animal-derived products, prompting PETA to pursue, and recently win policy changes from, Stockholm-based H&M, L.A.-based chain Forever 21 and the Internet retailer Overstock.com. Overstock, which generates annual sales of more than $834 million and, at the prompting of the U.S. Humane Society in 2008, stopped selling fur, and H&M, which has 1,800 locations worldwide, are no longer selling items made from real exotic animal skins, such as snake, alligator, crocodile, kangaroo, shark and stingray. Both retailers cited a PETA video showing snakes being skinned alive as a factor in their policy changes. Forever 21, having been pelted by a major PETA anti-fur campaign, now sells only faux.
Some industry observers say technology has played a role in the declining use of animal skins and fur.
"There's more great faux leathers and furs than ever," said Janine Blain, vice president of L.A.-based retail trend consulting firm Directives West, noting the increase in retailers' willingness to take on fakes has come on strong in the last year. "Stores are more than ever open to buying fake furs because the products look very, very good. In the past, there was never that variety," added Blain, who attributes the rise of fake furs and leathers to "an economy where people don't want to spend a lot of money. It's all about value right now. Obviously, [real] leather and fur can be cost prohibitive."
Furs, in particular, are the domain of the wealthy — and the fabulous. In other words, celebrities, whom PETA has pursued with a vengeance for the last several years, beginning with "Golden Girls" star Rue McClanahan in the '80s and continuing today with stars such as Pamela Anderson, Charlize Theron, Khloe Kardashian and Eva Mendes, all of whom have posed in PETA's ongoing, bare-it-all ad campaign, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur."
"PETA isn't going to the Roseanne Barrs of the world," said Nick Nanton, who runs the Florida-based website celebritybrandingagency.com. "They're going to people who set trends. You've seen them in US Weekly showing you what to wear before. Now they're going to show you what not to wear.
"Fur has always been associated with glamour and sexiness, so the closer you can get to glamour and sexiness and show people, 'Hey, you can be sexy without fur,' that's the most successful pairing."
One of the sexiest was Anderson, who stripped to her skivvies for PETA in 2003. The former "Baywatch" babe was hoping to shift the attention from her curves to something that really matters to her, she said in an e-mail interview. (The "kittens" reference came as she listed what she believed to be some of PETA's accomplishments, including the very public criticism of "jerks" who harm animals.)
Though Anderson's best-known act for PETA was probably appearing in the ad in which she bared all, she said she works with the group doing ads and events wherever she travels. Her biggest victory, she said, was learning that she had helped pressure KFC in her native Canada "to not only adopt more humane slaughter methods but to even add a vegan chicken sandwich to their menu," she said. KFC Canada confirms that in 2008 it reached an agreement with PETA to use suppliers whose methods were humane.
Eva Mendes, a Cuban American who "grew up eating meat and potatoes," she said, is now mostly vegetarian and never wears furs or exotic skins, having been approached by PETA in 2003. The up-and-coming star had worn a peach-colored fur shawl to the New York City premiere of the film "Stuck on You," after which she received "a beautifully written, nonaggressive letter from PETA. They said, 'You're an up-and-coming star, and a lot of people are looking at you. We noticed you were wearing fur and we wanted to bring this to your attention,'" Mendes said.
"I can't believe I was so nonchalant and not thoughtful about it," said Mendes, adding, "We really don't need furs."
Despite her beliefs and activism, Mendes' tack for spreading those beliefs is "playful," she said. "I don't think aggressive works with most people."
Yet aggressive is often how PETA is perceived. Whether it was dumping a dead raccoon on the plate of Wintour at the Four Seasons in 1996, after PETA heard that young Vogue models were being "bullied" into wearing fur, or, more recently, having Playboy centerfold Joanna Krupa wear nothing but a crucifix to draw people's attention to the euthanization of animals in shelters, PETA isn't above shock tactics.
"In our early days, our serious cruelty cases were what drove our campaigns. We've adjusted things," said PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews. "There is an awful lot of competition for people's attention these days, and when you're a nonprofit without an ad budget, you've really got to get creative and do things that monopolize people's attention. We don't always win popularity contests, but that's not what we're here to do."
According to the PETA website, what PETA is here to do is "focus attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest period of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade and in the entertainment industry," working "through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement and protest campaigns."
The largest animal rights organization in the world was recently ranked second as a top digital influencer in social causes, according to Sparxoo, a digital marketing and branding agency. An annual operating budget of $32 million has helped bolster its ranks of supporters; PETA says it has 2 million. Many of those are the result of an extremely effective use of the Web and its many tools, including a PETA-branded YouTube channel; media sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, where PETA has more than 820,000 followers; and its own website, which received more than 50 million visits last year, according to PETA's Mathews.
Not everyone is pleased. Increasingly, the industries PETA has attacked are fighting back. The Fur Council of Canada, for example, launched a "fur is green" campaign last year, to combat what the group sees as a misperception perpetuated by animal rights groups that have jumped on the green bandwagon.
Animal rights groups say synthetics require less energy to produce and therefore have a lower carbon footprint than real furs, which require a lot of resources to feed the animals and then "waste" the carcasses. But according to Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, the opposite is true.
"Most synthetics are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource with pollution and disposal problems," he said, adding that real fur is more sustainable. Not only is real fur biodegradable, it also solves several problems, he said.
Fur trappers are using part of the surplus that nature produces because all wildlife species produce more young than they can support to maturity, he said, and farmed fur uses human food waste that would otherwise be sent to landfills to feed the animals that are eventually killed for their fur. Their carcasses, he said, are then used for products such as mink oil or composted into organic fertilizers.
As for "humane" trapping practices, Herscovici said his industry is bound by law to abide by them.
"Aboriginal trappers and others who live close to the land [which account for as many as half the trappers in Canada] do not need lessons on respecting nature from urban PETA activists," he said.
And so the debate, and rage, continue.
Ultimately, what a person wears "is a personal decision," said Sharon Haver, founder and editor of the website FocusOnStyle.com. "If someone is comfortable wearing [fur or snakeskin] and they understand the process and don't have a problem with it, I don't think it's our job to be judging them. It needs to be looked at more calmly and intelligently."