As recently reported by the BBC, and by other media outlets, PETA went off the rails on Friday by disparaging the name of Steve Irwin on the occasion of what would have been his 57th birthday. Irwin was a wildlife conservationist, enthusiast and television performer well known for his interesting and often breath-taking interactions with wildlife, crocodiles in particular. Irwin died in 2006 after a fatal interaction with a stingray during a wildlife program shoot.

The row came about after Google published a “Google Doodle” on February 22 in honor of Irwin’s birthday which featured Irwin working with animals at his family’s Australia Zoo. Apparently incensed by this action, PETA tweeted that

#SteveIrwin was killed while harassing a ray; he dangled his baby while feeding a crocodile & wrestled wild animals who were minding their own business. Today’s #GoogleDoodle sends a dangerous, fawning message. Wild animals are entitled to be left alone in their natural habitats.

On social media, the reaction to PETA’s attack on Irwin was swift and highly critical. Hundreds of tweets ensued praising Irwin, whose vision of conservation has been described by his family as people and wildlife living harmoniously together. After Irwin’s death, this vision has been carried out through Wildlife Warriors Worldwide, Ltd., an organization whose stated mission is to “protect our wildlife and wild places” through multiple research, rescue, conservation and other projects.

Many tweeters pointed out the hypocrisy in PETA’s position given the high euthanization rate of its Norfolk, Virginia animal “shelter” (which we wrote about earlier this month). Others called for PETA to apologize to the Irwin family and to close its social media accounts. The anti-PETA responses seemed to cut across geographic, demographic and ideological lines; some commenters identified as vegetarian or vegan. The backlash also led to online petitions to delete PETA from Facebook and for PETA to apologize for “smear[ing] a dead man’s face in the mud.”

Undaunted, PETA stood by its position in two further tweets as well as a statement issued by its President, Ingrid Newkirk:

PETA MUST ASK WHO COMMISSIONED THESE DANGEROUS, HAGIOGRAPHIC CARTOONS OF A MAN WHO DIED WHILE HARASSING A STINGRAY, DANGLED HIS BABY WHILE FEEDING A CROCODILE, AND “WRESTLED” WILD ANIMALS WHO WERE MINDING THEIR OWN BUSINESS. THIS FAWNING, IGNORANT TRIBUTE IS A SLAP IN THE FACE TO THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WHO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WILD ANIMALS ARE ENTITLED TO BE LEFT ALONE IN THEIR NATURAL HABITATS.

(Yeah, I also had to look that word up. “Hagiography” is the “biography of saints or venerated persons” — a description that many of the anti-PETA tweeters evidently agree would be applicable to Steve Irwin.)

Apart from the bad taste and poor judgment exhibited by insulting the memory of a deceased individual, PETA should know better than to casually accuse someone of “harassing” wildlife. Wildlife “harassment” is prohibited by law including, in the U.S., by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. PETA recently lost a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in which it asserted that the conditions in which a killer whale named “Lolita” is maintained in a Florida marine mammal exhibition facility constitute illegal “harassment.” PETA v. Miami Seaquarium, 879 F.3d 1142 (11th Cir. 2018), petition for rehearing denied (Oct. 30, 2018). PETA cited nothing about Steve Irwin in its tweets or in Ingrid Newkirk’s statement that comes even close to what the Miami Seaquarium court indicated might constitute “harassment.”