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PETA dials back diatribe, edges into the mainstream
The animal-rights group has become much more savvy about promoting its message.
Sentinel Staff Writer
May 11, 2008
For nearly 30 years, blood-splattered furs and tag lines such as Kentucky Fried Cruelty have made People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint.
Although protesters still stand naked outside fur shops, the modern age of PETA activism is hardly a ragtag army.
Some activists have traded their birthday suits for business suits. Rather than marching in protests, they're walking on Wall Street, investing in their corporate foes along the way to exert influence. They design computer games that let children throw tomatoes at fur-wearers, and they launch media blitzes such as a competition to grow meat in a petri dish. In advance of Carson & Barnes Circus' recent visit to Daytona Beach, PETA sent letters to city commissioners urging them to ban the use of bullhooks on elephants. Now, in the wake of the collapse and euthanization of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby, the group is calling for young horses to be kept out of racing and for Eight Belles' jockey and trainer to be suspended.
"We have rolled with the punches of the changing information age," said Bruce Friedrich, the Norfolk, Va.-based group's vice president for campaigns. "We have attempted to be on the front of every curve of communicating one's message to the masses."
Working the system
Matt Prescott, 26, used to fight for animal rights by dressing as a chicken or a cow, but though his days of protesting aren't over, his latest weapon is an investment portfolio. As PETA's corporate-affairs director, Prescott buys stocks and then uses shareholder power to propose resolutions that would require the companies to use eggs from free-range hens and buy meat from suppliers PETA considers kinder.
Usually they get a small percentage of the shareholders' votes, but victories come when companies change practices so the animal-rights group gets its paws out of their business.
Prescott said that happened in March, when burrito chain Chipotle agreed to give preference to suppliers who gas chickens, instead of a more common slaughter method called electric immobilization. In August, the parent company of Hardees said it would purchase 15 percent of its pork from suppliers that don't put sows in gestation crates. (Prescott described this as "cram[ming] pregnant pigs into crates").
Nonprofits started using what's called "shareholder activism" this decade, according to As You Sow, a California foundation that focuses on corporate responsibility. PETA was a pioneer and issues more shareholder resolutions than any other grass-roots group, the foundation reports.
PETA's young army
Kissimmee resident Eden Martin recently protested outside the Florida Shrine Association's annual meeting in Orlando clutching a sign accusing the Bahia Shrine Temple of saying "yes to animal abuse" in its circuses. At 20 years old, she has been a vegetarian for nearly a third of her life. Two years ago she found PETA's Web site, signed up for action alerts and soon was at a KFC wearing a shirt that read: "I think therefore I am vegetarian" and telling the world she thinks KFC tortures chickens.
More than 300,000 young people have joined what PETA calls its "Street Team." The 13- to 24-year-old set is more likely to volunteer for PETA than any other nonprofit, according to a study by media company Label Networks.
And it's not for lack of trying. PETA has a hip-looking home page for teens and a cuddly-looking page for children.
Young activists can earn points toward T-shirts and concert tickets by sending e-cards about animal slaughter to their friends or collecting signatures against dissection in class.
"I would give PETA marks for brilliance for their Web marketing," said Gale Davy, executive director of States United for Biomedical Research, whose views on animal testing clash with PETA's. "It's really clever in that they begin to get kids to do things on behalf of PETA."
Children can also click on a pro-vegan game called Make Fred Spew (drag a piece of cheese to his mouth and he'll vomit) and play a game starring two chickens trying to rescue Pamela Anderson from KFC's Colonel Sanders.
When the Orlando Sentinel contacted KFC, it issued a statement saying it requires suppliers to follow guidelines set by its animal-welfare advisory council.
Do stunts always work?
Founded in 1980, PETA's premise has long been to shock people into seeing its point of view. An Internet- and celebrity-obsessed culture has made that even easier, PETA's Friedrich said. When Beyonc Knowles stopped wearing fur, they sent her a gift -- a faux fur.
She didn't respond to the gift, but it made news.
Friedrich said the stunts are critical to reach people.
"If we have to put a crippled chicken in a wheelchair and wheel it across the street in front of KFC, we'll do that," he said.
Joan Dunayer, who wrote Speciesism and considers herself an abolitionist for animals, said they do some good work but get off topic.
"I think to the extent that PETA actually distracts from the issues but just gets coverage for itself, it's a detriment to animal advocacy," she said.
Carla and Bryan Wilson, a Winter Springs couple, act as local spokespeople for the group but work for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. Last week, as part of an ARFF protest, they joined Martin in protesting the Shrine meeting (the Shriners respond that their trainers are very kind to animals), but they also organize monthly protests at KFC. Occasionally some of PETA's staffers in Virginia come to supply a bloody Colonel Sanders costume or a chicken suit.
But PETA's latest, quieter effort in Daytona Beach hasn't gone far. The city commission didn't pay much attention to the letter about elephant abuse. A circus spokesman said a video showing alleged abuse was nearly 10 years old and had been edited.
Lisa Wathne, a captive-exotic-animal specialist for PETA, said she's undeterred.
"Very often all you need is one council member who has a real soft spot for animals."
Copyright © 2008, Orlando Sentinel