While there are hundreds of ways to make a positive difference in the world, there is one way to be a dick about it: declaring your way is the only way. I’m not talking about reasoned critique or debate. I’m talking, of course, about PETA.
Yes, I admit I love Steve Irwin. I remember the day I first heard about him. Oddly enough, I was drinking with my girlfriends at our favorite bar, back in my twenties before we all moved or went off the deep end or both, when Liz breathlessly told us about this kids’ show with this amazing host: “he’s so excited, you think it must be fake, but it’s totally not!” I was skeptical, as I’ve rarely liked kid-oriented stuff, even as a kid. But I’m fascinated by snakes (she said there were lots of snakes) and I had cable at the time, so I checked it out, and watched him for years.
- Steve Irwin never held snakes behind the head. I’d always seen other handlers do that and it seemed way safer than what he did. It turns out he never did that because it can harm the snake.
- Steve Irwin led his crew to an area in Australia where there had recently been a fire (when is there not), and ran into the smoking bush, rescuing all the non-charismatic spiders, scorpions, etc. that he could.
- Steve Irwin once climbed a tree (with freakish ease) to meet an orangutan and wept as he tried to explain what it felt like when she put her arm around him and cleaned his hair.
But these are inadequate examples of what was truly wondrous about Steve Irwin: his unconditional love for all creatures great and small. What the Maharaji was to Ram Dass and apparently every sane person who met him, Steve Irwin was to animals. Actually, no. Sorry. His was an unconditional love for animals that was felt by people. Animals maybe don’t need or feel unconditional love (?) but people do. And Steve Irwin passionately and sincerely expressed that love in every adventure. He held no grudge against the mamba snake that nearly killed him, or, perhaps, against the stingray that actually did. I can see him, like Gandhi, using his final spark of energy to signal love and forgiveness to an animal that honestly doesn’t give a shit.
It was all for us: he didn’t have to say, “we are all one” or “love is the answer.” It was in his every action. He cultivated in his audience a curiosity about and respect for nature in a way that lectures never could. Look, I love David Attenborough. His documentaries are some of my favorite things in the world. But Steve Irwin was not David Attenborough. He didn’t have the resources to spend years recording footage for a Blue Planet 2 (no one did until, like, last year), and it wasn’t his style. He showed us how animals behaved in the situations in which he displayed them, and while I can sympathize with the argument against that, I can’t condone the condemnation.
PETA went after Irwin because:
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.
I vaguely remember the baby thing and I’m no fan of crocodile wrestling, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is veganism. Soy is terrible for the environment and devastatingly destructive of soil’s carbon-capturing capacity. Almonds are a massive waste of water. Most bananas and avocados are grown by slaves or murderous cartels. I’m not saying don’t be vegan; I’m saying it is impossible to walk on this earth without leaving a mark. These things are worth discussing, but throwing shade in a Tweet on a dead man’s birthday is not a discussion.
PETA has been on my shit list for a long time. I can name many examples, but the overall theme is that they are all about that hate. It’s not just that it’s icky; it’s ineffective. I had to be reminded by a friend recently that I have them to thank for cruelty-free cosmetics, and that’s great, but I also have them in large part to thank for people hating vegans and animal rights advocates. When every thing is the Worst Thing Ever, it’s very hard to see on what really matters. When every person who doesn’t behave exactly like you is an enemy, it’s hard to make friends. And just because you have decided on a solution, doesn’t mean it’s the right one.
I don’t like zoos, but I see the good in them. Just as I can see the good in being vegan, or bringing lawsuits against CAFOs, or showing the world the beauty and uniqueness of creepy animals, or volunteering at the humane society, or being a park ranger. There are so many ways to love animals, and I’m not quite arrogant enough to believe that my way is the only way.
I am arrogant enough to assert that maligning an animal lover because he didn’t love animals my way will not encourage anyone to love animals my way. It will build animosity towards my organization and the causes for which we advocate. But PETA must know that by now, right? They know they are the stereotype of liberal extremism, right? So why do they keep behaving like this?
It occurs to me that PETA is like Trump. They don’t care about bringing people over to their side, to winning the hearts and minds of meat-eaters and hunters. They are all about shoring up their base. And since people love to hate, they keep spewing hate in order to keep that extremist love flowing. I guess it is somewhat effective, but it’s not the way I want to live. I am averse to anything grounded in hate and fear. It is a tactic that Steve Irwin worked in opposition to, whether he knew it or not. He pursued things we fear; he admired creatures we hate; and he demonstrated respect for all. Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense that PETA would not support him.
Yes, I went a week without a post! I promise I wasn’t over-editing, I was just on vacation.