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WASHINGTON -- They have protested the fur trade and leather by standing topless near the White House, and called attention to their claims of animal abuse in circuses by sitting on the sidewalk, half-naked and painted like tigers behind wire cages.
Members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va., have a history of using often outrageous, sometimes offensive tactics to draw attention to animal rights. Their campaigns urge the public to boycott products made from animals, from fur coats to fried chicken.
Its critics are skeptical of its financial backing of other animal welfare organizations, arguing that some donations show it endorses violence.
"Based on the evidence, I know that they support terrorism financially," said John Doyle, spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which represents restaurants and food manufacturers.
Doyle cites a $1,500 contribution PETA made in April 2001 to the North American Earth Liberation Front, a violent group that has taken credit for setting fire to buildings and businesses. Most recently, it claimed responsibility for burning Ford vehicles at a large dealership in Pennsylvania.
The FBI lists the group and its counterpart, the Animal Liberation Front, as domestic terrorists. The government has said the two are responsible for more than 600 cases of ecoterrorism around the country, such as spray-painting buildings, breaking windows, and burning fur farms and laboratories.
PETA, which gathered $13-million in contributions through direct donations and fundraisers in the 2000 tax year, said on the tax return that it donated a small amount of money to the Earth Liberation Front "to support their program activities."
In all, PETA donated $206,655 to other activists and individuals operating animal shelters.
Jeff Kerr, an attorney for PETA, said the organization chips in to support other animal rights efforts.
"PETA tries to help out other organizations around the world that are doing good animal work," he said. "There are some people who are doing animal protection work on their own. The money is given to them to help support whatever animal work they're doing."
Kerr argued that a contribution to Earth Liberation Front does not mean PETA supports violence.
"PETA doesn't condemn or endorse what they do because it's not PETA," he said. "That's like saying everybody who contributed money to the Republican Party in 1972 supported Watergate."
The organization has not sent any more checks to Earth Liberation Front since April 2001.