A fly. Seven days after President Obama swatted the sucker, I googled “PETA” and “fly” together. One-thousand-one-hundred-and-eighteen news articles showed up. The first wave of mentions was speculative, as in: “The Onion ought to write that PETA's upset at Obama." The next wave was disbelieving, as in: “This may sound to you like a headline from the Onion: PETA’s upset at Obama.”

A handful of writers got past the visceral reaction: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals again displayed its unerring talent for drawing attention to the cause of animal rights. In this case, PETA didn’t even mean to draw the attention. A staff blogger happened to mention in a short post about “flygate” that “human beings have a long way to go before they think before they act.”

Overblown headlines buzzed around the globe like angry hornets. “Obama’s fly-swatting incident bugs PETA.” “PETA miffed at President Obama’s fly execution.” “PETA condemns Obama for murdering innocent fly.”

“It took on a life of its own,” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk told me in an interview. “But we benefited, because we did lots of [talk] shows that talked about the government pest control programs for coyotes and starlings, and more people just became aware of [animal injustices] they hadn’t thought about before.”

Yes, Stephen Colbert and Jeff Goldblum found fodder for a comedy skit. But, Newkirk points out, the organization sold 116 of its humane bug catchers in 20 hours.

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Generating outrage over an animal rights issue is meat and potatoes for what has to be the radical advocacy group of the decade. Often, the majority of the outrage is directed toward PETA rather than toward the wrong done to an animal.

But, with every brouhaha, the uncompromising vegan army feeds off its own controversy. And each feeding makes the group bigger, richer, hipper, and sexier. In the process, PETA has surely stretched the debate over animal rights in the direction of empathy for the critters. “We’ve been able to get so much of a change in public perceptions about who animals are as opposed to how we can use them because we’re not shrinking violets,” Newkirk says. “We’re rarely embarrassed to take on any issue, or to stand up for any animal, no matter how small or insignificant.”

Since 1981, when Newkirk and cohort Alex Pacheco organized PETA’s first headline-grabbing action -- an after-hours sneak photo session of tortured monkeys in Silver Spring, Md., laboratory -- the group has drawn as much derision on itself as on the practices it’s protesting.

The group has given money to animal-rights terrorists, plopped a dead raccoon on the plate of Vogue’s editor in a busy Manhattan restaurant, splattered fur-wearing women with blood, placed nude models in cages, and adopted a scantily clad, surgically enhanced, past-her-prime sex symbol as its mascot. When a traveling “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit equated calves in slaughterhouses with Jews in concentration camps, the Anti-Defamation League objected.

Try another Google search: “PETA went too far.” The relevant results go on for at least 79 pages. Too far in suggesting that Ben & Jerry’s make ice cream out of women’s breast milk. Too far in demanding that Michael Vick get a brain scan. Too far in asking Hamburg, Germany, to change its name to Veggieburg.

But PETA isn’t trying to win an election. It’s not even trying to pass legislation. The group’s mission is both simpler and more ambitious than that: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment." So its first priority is to draw attention to the message.

“If we’re telling people what they already agree with, what’s the point of us being here?” Newkirk tells MNN. “We’re here to get people arguing. We’re here to put animals on the map in a major way.”

Is there a sense, I asked her, that the more provocative you are, the more attention you’ll get? “Yes. It’s distorted. It’s annoying. And frankly it’s a depressing statement about our culture.”

But you’ll take advantage of it? “Absolutely.”

If animal rights were abolition, Newkirk would be John Brown, not Abe Lincoln. If it were abortion, she’d be Randall Terry, not Mike Huckabee. (See the full interview with Nekirk on my Cult of Green blog.)

There’s a Che Guevara-like charisma to the cause’s purity. Newkirk says celebrities flock to PETA because “they all know we’ll do something creative and interesting with their passion for animals. We won’t just send out a petition. We’ll do something interesting. We’ll spin something to their interests. With animals we don’t just have one thing. We have a host of horrors.”

I’m skeptical of the depth of PETA’s elegant moral message. In Newkirk’s order, animal rights (say, the right of a starling to prosper and multiply) trump environmental values (say, the need to eliminate non-native species that are, in fact, causing the death native animals). So I suppose it would be wrong to call PETA an environmental organization.

Still, its interests overlap with a lot of environmental interests. For the most obvious example, just go see the movie Food Inc. (Read MNN’s review of the film.) “You cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist,” Newkirk declares, with typical absolutism and some justification.

Even more than specific causes though, environmental groups have a lot to learn from the way PETA operates. Whether you agree with Newkirk or not, it’s difficult to argue that she hasn’t made amazing progress on her mission. After all, if we’re actually debating whether saving a fly is ridiculous, saving a rat sounds a lot more reasonable.

A willingness to offend potential allies -- feminists, environmentalists, even concentration camp survivors -- in service of the cause can backfire. But at least in PETA’s case, it’s sharpened the message and pushed the movement forward.“The lesson is don’t be afraid to be criticized. Stick to your principles,” Newkirk advises. “This is America, no one is going to pull your fingers out. They may say nasty things about you. They may not send you their 15 dollars. But at least they’ll hear what you tell them.”

Related on MNN: Read Peter Dykstra’s essay about PETA’s 2009 Super Bowl stunt.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. He blogs about media, pop culture and the environment at cultofgreen.com.

(MNN homepage photo: touring/iStockphoto)