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Dear Lily Tomlin: Helping PETA Doesn’t Actually Help Animals

Lily Tomlin's revival of Ernestine the Operator for a PETA video may be funny, but PETA is still built on exploiting humans and animals alike.

Chris Hall  |  Apr 20th 2016


Oh, Lily Tomlin, why must you break my heart this way?

Perhaps “break” doesn’t quite capture the depth of disappointment that I’m feeling right now. Tomlin, a brilliant comedian whose work I’ve enjoyed for decades, has just done a PSA for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It’s really more like my heart has been gouged out of my chest cavity and smeared across the wall.

lily tomlin sitting at a switchboard in the persona of Ernestine the operator.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine.

Even I have to admit that the PSA is funny. How could it not be? It signals the return of one of Tomlin’s finest characters, Ernestine the obnoxious telephone operator. Ernestine occupies a place close to my heart (or at least close to the place where my heart used to reside); when I was four or five, I imitated her grotesque snorts and “one-ringy-dingy” from watching her Sesame Street bits. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the original Ernestine skits on reruns of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and learned to appreciate them even more from an adult perspective.

The video even scores some legitimate hits on the issue of SeaWorld’s treatment of their captive orcas. But all that’s beside the point; Lily Tomlin has teamed up with PETA, an organization that’s bad for people and animals alike. To talk about the considerable creativity on display is kind of like doing an analysis of Darth Vader’s fine taste in leather clothing.

If Lily Tomlin wants to advocate for animal rights, I’m happy to back her. But I’m exhausted at seeing people I otherwise admire falling for PETA’s con job hook, line, and sinker. As I’ve said many times before, the word “ethical” has nothing to do with the reality of PETA, and anyone who really cares about animals should have nothing to do with it. To name just a few things:

Lily Tomlin in the anti-SeaWorld ad.

A still from the recent ad.

Make no mistake about it: Even as PETA struts and preens about its “ethics” of animal rights, it has the blood of thousands of animals on its hands. PETA isn’t good at much, but it is very, very good at PR, so that blood doesn’t show up in the public eye too often, so I can understand how Lily Tomlin and celebrities as diverse as Krysten Ritter, Siouxsie Sioux, Alan Cumming, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson could get sucked into its orbit. The group looks just warm and fuzzy enough that it’s easy to see the appeal to a star who wants to do some public service.

The orca campaign is oddly timed: Thanks to public outcry inspired in part by the documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld announced in March that it will no longer breed orcas in captivity. Once its current population dies out, there will be no more orcas at SeaWorld. It’s a huge victory, and the Humane Society has endorsed it. PETA, however, wants SeaWorld to put the orcas in oceanside sanctuaries instead of keeping them in the park tanks.

I’m sure that there are a lot of animal lovers who will disagree whether or not the current agreement is acceptable. But that’s not the point: By loaning her name and talent to PETA, Lily Tomlin gives the organization itself legitimacy. Its stand against no-kill shelters and the slaughter that accompanies becomes a little more acceptable; the misanthropy that drives nearly all of its policies doesn’t seem quite so bad as it would without the approval of beloved entertainers and artists.

I love Lily Tomlin, but she’s really screwed this one up. Hopefully in the future, she and her colleagues will take a closer look at who they’re supporting.