By Carey Gillam
NORFOLK, Virginia , July 13 (Reuters) - With a cat snoozing on her desk and clad in a rumpled "Love Animals" T-shirt, Ingrid Newkirk hardly looks like a woman who could make corporate titans tremble.
As the founder and the passionate force behind People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Newkirk says her organisation is made up simply of "kind people" who want only to end animal abuse and exploitation.
But try telling that to the corporate retail and food giants who have seen -- and felt -- PETA's claws.
Using tactics that sometime make even avid animal lovers squirm, and backed by nearly $30 million yearly in private contributions, PETA has become known worldwide as a radical but formidable foe of big retailers and food companies.
At a May protest at a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) restaurant, PETA protesters dressed as Grim Reapers and carried a coffin with a human-sized chicken in it while decrying the fast food giant for "live scalding and painful debeaking" of the chickens it serves.
PETA has also run "McCruelty," "MurderKing" and "WickedWendy's" campaigns to assail fast food chains for the way animals used in their products are treated.
The group has picketed the homes of executives, dispatched undercover investigators to videotape animal mistreatment at laboratories and on farms and run stomach-turning advertising campaigns with bloody images of abuse and slaughter.
"Sometimes sadly, you have to look quite scary and carry a big stick," Newkirk says of the tactics.
Industry leaders say the campaigns are embarrassing but do little to deter customers.
But few deny PETA campaigns were the catalysts behind a range of animal welfare reforms made in recent years by McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's International.
"They've got $29 million a year, you can do a lot of massaging of public opinion with that kind of money," said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, whose membership includes restaurant and food companies. "PETA is very good at attacking."
HOW TO KILL A CHICKEN
This year, as PETA celebrates 25 years of largely successful campaigns, the group has set its sights on one of its toughest challenges yet as it seeks sweeping change in the $29 billion poultry industry.
PETA wants the estimated 9 billion chickens slaughtered each year in the to first receive a mixture of gas and oxygen to make them unconscious, a method used in Europe, but one that would require costly overhauls of poultry slaughterhouses.
Current systems shackle live chickens, hang them upside down and run them through electrified baths to stun them before their throats are slit and they are put into scalding defeathering tanks. PETA cited
Department of Agriculture reports as evidence that millions of chickens annually are conscious through most if not all of the process.
"I don't understand how anyone with a conscience can learn about the horrifically cruel conditions for chicken slaughter and not want to do anything about it," said PETA campaign director Bruce Friedrich.
Under pressure from PETA, McDonald's issued a report on June 30 saying it was studying the matter. Restaurant operator Applebee's International is also confronting the issue, thanks to PETA.
National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said the current slaughter system was both "effective and humane," and PETA's latest reform requests were efforts to drive up costs and put chicken companies out of business.
"They're just trying to come up with things that will be costly for food companies as part of their overall desire to move to a strictly vegan world," Lobb said.
Because of the issue, KFC, one of the world's largest fast-food purveyors of chickens, is emerging as one of PETA's staunchest foes.
Having seen PETA protesters smear fake blood on its restaurant walls and smear the company name with gory undercover videos of alleged abuse at its suppliers, KFC officials have dubbed PETA's actions "corporate terrorism" and have cut off communications with PETA representatives.
KFC officials are loathe to discuss anything having to do with PETA publicly. But the Center for Consumer Freedom is backing KFC and its brethren and is running anti-PETA adverts, including a billboard in New York's Times Square .
"We are taking the fight to PETA," said Berman. "They've hit a roadblock with the chicken industry." Critics accuse PETA of lying and other misdeeds including a range of deceit and misbehaviour, including financially aiding acts of violence and unfairly claiming tax-exempt status.
PETA officials say they have no intention of letting up on KFC, after staging 8,000 protests against the company so far.
Indeed, PETA's highly successful track record shows that some campaigns run for years. The longest, which put an animal trainer in Las Vegas out of business, lasted 16 years, according to Newkirk.
Other notches in PETA's belt include persuading General Motors to stop using animals in crash tests, convincing Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew Group Inc. clothing retailers to boycott Australian wool and pressuring Revlon, Avon and more than 500 other cosmetic companies to stop animal testing.
Over the 25 years since PETA was founded in Newkirk's suburban Maryland home, the organisation has grown to include more than 800,000 members and about 200 employees with offices in , , , and the .
Wealthy benefactors help fund sophisticated multi-faceted marketing and secret investigations.
Stray animals are given homes in PETA's headquarters, and cat-sized holes are cut into the bottoms of many office doors so the animals can move about freely.
Newkirk says PETA's ultimate goal is a world where humans don't eat, wear or exploit animals.
"We are the pit bulls of animal protection," Newkirk said in an interview. "Don't mess with us. We will win."