Feature: Wednesday, June 5, 2003
Food Fascists? Part 1

\r\n\r\nIssue: June 5, 2003 \r\n\r\n\r\nMetropolis\r\n------------------------------------------------------------------------\r\nFood Fascists?\r\nForget about the radical right. Worry about the PETA puritans.\r\n

By Sarah Chacko

The young women in feathered bikinis worked the sidewalk in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on Collins during a lunch hour last month, waving at cars and talking to the men who stopped by. They weren’t allowed to literally stop traffic, but they got plenty of honks and hollers. One driver did pull over long enough for a brief conversation.

They didn’t look much like street preachers, but they were. Brandi Valladolid, 27, and Anna Murray, 25, live in Virginia but are traveling the country preaching the gospel according to PETA. The two young women — they call themselves the “Chickettes” — want people to know that, at least according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, KFC is abusing its chickens before they’re fried — cutting off beaks while the chickens are still alive, keeping them in terrible conditions.

“[W]orkers are intentionally torturing chickens,” Valladolid said. It was part of a mantra that she would repeat, not only at the protest but, it seemed, any time she opened her own beak.

Both women waved signs reading “KFC Tortures Chickens.” Murray wore a battery-powered television monitor strapped to her chest. As she walked, it played scenes of chickens crammed into huge pens, chickens so fat their legs would not support them, workers throwing live chickens into crates on a truck.

KFC customer Don Lee finished his lunch, then stood by his truck and watched the women protest. He wasn’t impressed by their arguments. “That’s what chickens are raised for,” he said. “I was raised on a ranch. We basically ripped off their heads and started cooking.

“One way or another, it’s over,” Lee said. “There’s no humane way to do it.”

Phillip Bradley went in to buy fried chicken, then sat in his car eating it and watching the Chickettes. He was enjoying both, but had no interest in PETA’s theories.

“It’s something nice to look at while I eat,” Bradley said as he pulled meat off a bone.

Some pedestrians — all men — did stop to hear their spiel. One guy took pictures. Most seemed to have little interest in the PETA propaganda. Only the lone driver who stopped seemed to have been converted. “I promise I won’t buy from them anymore,” he assured the Chickettes as he drove off.

Welcome to the wacky, tacky, and scary world of PETA. If you’re not a vegan or an animal-rights activist, you probably think of PETA as the group that splashes blood on rich folks who wear fur in public — kind of strange, but not something that poses an immediate threat to your routine by, say, shutting down McDonald’s because they serve hamburgers.

You may want to rethink that. Within the last five years, PETA has grown into a multi-million-dollar organization with 750,00 members, powerful enough to force major changes in the U.S. beef and poultry industries. And they’ve done it in part by hardball tactics that would make violent anti-abortion protesters proud. Their opponents say PETA harasses and intimidates those who disagree with them. One PETA leader has said he advocates “blowing stuff up and smashing windows” in order to further the cause of animal rights. Several have said that they agree with animal activists who have burned down labs where animals are used in research, although PETA itself does not use violence.

Having taken on major fast-food chains like McDonald’s (“McCruelty”), Wendy’s (“Wretch’s”), and Burger King (“MurderKing”), PETA is now taking on Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Kentucky Fried Cruelty”), trying to force the huge fast-food company to improve the practices at the chicken farms and factories that supply all those wings, breasts, and drumsticks to be fried up Original or Extra Crispy.

But it’s not just corporate stock farmers and slaughterhouses that are on PETA’s hit list. Those who engage in hunting and fishing for sport are under scrutiny. From trappers to the runway, the fur industry is definitely in PETA’s crosshairs. Anyone who’s been to a circus has probably seen the group’s fliers pasted up nearby. Even the March of Dimes and AIDS research groups have been attacked by PETA. Another vicious group that PETA targets: milk-drinkers.

In fact, PETA’s mission goes far beyond convincing the meat, fur, and dairy industries to treat animals more humanely. Their guiding principle: Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, keep penned up, or use for entertainment. The group’s aims are much broader than enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act and humane standards. They don’t really want nicer hamburger companies — they want no hamburger companies. “PETA’s objective is not to improve animal welfare but to eliminate meat, poultry and other food of animal origin altogether from the human diet,” read a recent press release from the National Chicken Council. “They desire a totally vegan society and will say or do anything to achieve this objective.”

Some question how much PETA really helps animals — and how much its tactics may actually hurt that cause. Last year, the group raised $17 million, but a PETA spokesperson said the organization probably only physically saved about 200 abandoned or abused animals nationwide — a small fraction of the rescues done by almost any state chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

One of PETA’s most incendiary campaigns, “Holocaust on Your Plate,’’ compares factory farms to Nazi death camps and dead birds to Holocaust victims. Launched four months ago, the drive links images of emaciated prisoners to bony cattle, men crammed into bunks to chickens packed in cages, a heap of dead humans to a pile of dead pigs.

The Anti-Defamation League denounced the campaign as abhorrent for trivializing the murder of six million Jews. PETA literature that suggests Holocaust survivors approve of the campaign is “outrageous, offensive and taking chutzpah to new heights,” the ADL said.

Ingrid Newkirk, a founder and current president of PETA, makes no apologies for any of her group’s tactics or beliefs. In an April 2002 U.S. News & World Report article, Newkirk said that unpleasant tactics seem to work best.

“We ask nicely for years and get nothing,” she said. “Someone makes a threat, and it works.”

A search for the truth about PETA’s claims and tactics can be a long journey. Skeptics who log onto the group’s web site are likely to be, at first, disgusted and shocked at what PETA says the meat industries and others are doing to animals. But opponents say PETA scare tactics rely on outdated and sometimes false information. PETA, in turn, tends to accuse anyone who opposes them of being paid by the meat industry, or otherwise being part of a conspiracy. But the experts that PETA relies on seem to have equally questionable agendas regarding animal rights or veganism (the practice or philosophy of eliminating all animal products — milk, cheese, eggs, leather, feathers — or use from one’s life).

PETA began its major fast-food campaigns in 1997 after McDonald’s won a highly publicized libel suit in London against protesters who accused the company of a host of corporate sins. The victory was bitter, however. The British High Court judge ruled that McDonald’s was “culpably responsible for cruel practices” in the raising of food animals, including starving chickens to increase their egg production. The case inspired PETA’s campaign against the company.

PETA negotiated with McDonald’s, then declared “war” in October of 1999. On its list of demands: that the company give chickens more living space, improve transport and slaughter standards, and re-evaluate the “gestation stalls” where breeding sows are kept.

The campaign caught the attention of Business Ethics magazine, which pulled McDonald’s nomination for a 1999 Business Ethics Award. In an open letter, editors and award judges explained: “We are concerned ... about inhumane treatment of animals slaughtered for food — an issue raised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, most noisily in the nationwide protests .... We have no reason to believe McDonald’s is below industry standard in animal welfare, and it may be above. The truth is, our entire society has a blind spot in this area. But because we share PETA’s concerns, we have decided to pull McDonald’s nomination for an award this year.”

It took almost three years of complaining and campaigning before PETA was satisfied with McDonald’s progress. Activists expected other fast-food companies, like Wendy’s and Burger King, to quickly follow suit. They recommended changes to insure animals were dead before processing them, to buy only free-roaming chickens, and to stop breeding animals for weight (a practice that had produced chickens so fat they couldn’t walk). Burger King was off PETA’s hit list within six months, but the Wendy’s campaign lasted almost two years. None of the corporations admit that PETA influenced their animal welfare practices. All three maintain that the improvements had been under way long before they were targeted by PETA.

When a meat buyer the size of McDonald’s or Burger King sets new requirements for its suppliers, the effect is felt throughout the animal-raising industry. Fast-food restaurants use almost a quarter of the chickens produced in the U.S. Of beef slaughtered for restaurants, 36 percent goes to fast-food chains.

“Companies don’t want to admit to PETA’s persuasive power because it’s like the big bully getting pushed around by the little nerdy kid,” said PETA activist Jennifer Whitmire of Dallas, who paints herself in stripes and sits in a cage to protest against circuses all over Texas. “Sooner or later the bully has to admit the nerdy kid is right and has valid points.” She seemed unaware that it is PETA that often comes across as the bully, creating bitter enemies who keep track of PETA criticism on web sites like the one for People Eating Tasty Animals.

Despite her group’s reputation for propaganda that many consider overblown or silly, Whitmire said billion-dollar companies are waking up and changing their ways as a result of PETA. “Legislatures and the public don’t like ‘murder’ screamed in their faces,” she said.

Perhaps it’s those kinds of end results that make PETA protesters seem unrealistic about the immediate effects of their protests. After the Arlington KFC protest, activist Brandi Valladolid said she was sure plenty of people had gotten PETA’s message — though few seemed interested at the time. “Flashy works. ... It gets people who, I think, wouldn’t normally take a second look at animal cruelty to take a second look,” she said.

In the Collins Street restaurant, supervisor Akram I-don’t-want-to-tell-you-my-last-name said that the protest hadn’t affected lunchtime business. “People are still coming,” he said.

The information PETA disseminates to the public is hard to trust once it’s examined more closely. PETA doesn’t disclose exact places or dates for most of the claims they make. For example, National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said the beak-trimming machine shown in the PETA video was used about 30 years ago and that the system shown is no longer in common use in the industry. “PETA’s attempt to portray this outdated method as today’s standard practice is false and misleading,” he said.

Several other industries targeted by PETA have made similar complaints. In its campaign against the March of Dimes, PETA cites an experiment in which kittens’ eyes were sewn shut that the March of Dimes says is over 20 years old. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus said footage of trainers abusing elephants is also old — and alleges that some of it is not even of the Ringling Brothers’ animals.

Still, changes often seem to follow PETA pressure. Earlier this year, KFC issued press releases denying PETA’s allegations about animal cruelty and maintaining that the company is “committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens” — and announcing the adoption of new standards for the conditions at poultry farms. The company also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Labor to review a PETA proposal for slaughtering chickens by gassing them rather than slitting their throats.

KFC spokeswoman Bonnie Warschauer wouldn’t talk about the specifics of PETA’s claims against her company or about any negotiations. “We have a general disagreement with PETA in our approach, but our animal welfare goal is the same, and KFC remains fully committed to that,” she said. “KFC is proud to be the first to adopt industry-leading poultry-welfare guidelines developed by the world’s foremost animal scientists.”

However, PETA is not satisfied. Dan Shannon, PETA’s vegan outreach coordinator, said in an e-mail that the company has still not addressed several of PETA’s major demands. “It is crucial to continue to push for more action,” he said. “Because KFC continues to support such large-scale abuse, including drugging and breeding crippled animals, breaking their bones, and scalding them alive, and seems to have no plans to stop doing so, we are continuing our KFC campaign.”

Shortly after 9/11, PETA pulled an anti-fur ad, deeming it too violent. The ad showed a woman wearing an extravagant fur coat being clubbed to death by a masked man and then being stripped of the coat. The ad ends with the question, “What if you were killed for your coat?”

It’s one of the few times that PETA has pulled back from an image of violence. PETA has never been directly associated with any terrorist acts but has been accused of maintaining close ties to organizations that do use violence, like the Animal Liberation Front. Some labs that performed research on animals have been torched in the U.S. and England. Researchers have been stalked, endured protests outside their homes, and had rocks thrown through windows and paint splashed on the walls of their houses by activists on the further fringes of the animal-rights movement.

Dr. John Young, a board-certified lab animal veterinarian and the director of comparative medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Fort Worth Weekly that harassment by PETA and its allies has silenced some researchers. PETA often lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of officials in the companies it targets and encourages activists to voice their opinions directly to them.

The harassment doesn’t happen only to those who use animals in research — scientists said PETA extends it to those whose findings run counter to PETA dogma. Dr. James D. Rose, director of a biomedical research center run by the National Institutes of Health, recently published research that purports to show that fish do not feel pain. PETA immediately attacked Rose and his research.

“You don’t want to antagonize these people,” he said. “When you do, you become a target.”

In April, during World Week for Animals in Laboratories, protesters vandalized the homes of two UCLA researchers. “These people have small children,” Young said. When their spouses and children are living in fear, he said, researchers start questioning whether their careers are really worth it.

While PETA officials adamantly deny supporting illegal activity or terrorism, they condone such tactics when used by other organizations.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit group funded partly by restaurants and food companies, taped Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s vegan campaign coordinator, at an animal rights conference in 2001.

“[If] these animals do have the same right to be free from pain and suffering at our hands, then of course we are going to be, as a movement, blowing stuff up and smashing windows,” Friedrich said. “For the record, I don’t do this stuff, but I do advocate it. I think it’s a great way to bring about animal liberation. And considering the level of the atrocity and the level of the suffering, I think it would be a great thing if, you know, all of these fast-food outlets and these slaughterhouses and these laboratories and the banks that fund them, exploded tomorrow. I think it’s perfectly appropriate” — he paused for applause — “and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for people to take bricks and toss them through the windows and, you know, everything else along the line. Alleluia to the people who are willing to do it.”

Last year, PETA propagandists got huffy when a Dallas elementary school principal refused to let 7-foot-tall “Colonel Corn” come talk to kids about the benefits of a vegan diet. The mascot brought along videos of “fully conscious cows being disemboweled and dismembered,” although PETA representatives said later that they didn’t intend to show the videos to kids, but only to the news media.

A PETA news release said Principal Rebecca Good “refused to allow the harmless corncob” to make his pitch. Good doesn’t recall the confrontation, but said she probably wouldn’t have allowed the Colonel into her classrooms. Teaching students how to treat animals is important, she said, but the extreme and graphic details that PETA likes to show aren’t appropriate for schools.

PETA’s efforts on behalf of veganism, rather than animal welfare reform, are some of its most outlandish. Costumed PETA activists frequently visit schools to pass out vegan goodies and cartoonish literature. (“Cows don’t want to be sliced up and made into hamburgers — they want to be with their friends and families .... Chickens don’t want to be ground up and made into nuggets — they like to be in the sun and use their beaks to peck at the dirt and grass....”) Other times, PETA ambassadors appear as scantily clad “Lettuce Ladies” (despite the fact that PETA likes to compare the animal-rights movement to women’s liberation.)

Then there’s PETA’s anti-milk campaign. The group buys billboard space to make fun of milk drinkers and runs a “milksucks.com” web site. This month, PETA’s ads were rejected by billboard owners in Abilene, Big Spring, and Lubbock. The ads would have shown former Louisiana politician and KKK leader David Duke sporting a milk moustache with the slogan “The white stuff ain’t the right stuff.” Duke is currently in the Big Spring federal prison, serving a sentence for mail and income tax fraud.

PETA also likes to hand out its disgusting “Milk Sucker” trading cards, introducing characters such as “Chubby Charlie,” “Loogie Louie,” and “Windy Wanda,” depicting health problems that dairy products allegedly induce. William Rivas-Rivas, PETA’s top anti-dairy campaigner, travels around the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom offering children dairy-free Tofutti Cuties ice cream and information.

Rivas-Rivas said schools might not be giving kids the truth about animal products that are stuffed with growth hormones, saturated fats, and cholesterol. Cow’s milk, in addition to being the number-one source of allergies in children, causes colic, chronic ear infections, and diabetes, he said. “The industry is not providing meat and dairy products for our health, but for profit,” he said.

PETA’s goal isn’t to promote a balanced diet with ethically produced meat and dairy products, but to encourage children to go vegan. Rivas-Rivas said they are educating children on the health benefits of vegetables and exposing the health hazards and animal cruelty that goes into meat and dairy foods. “We’re not selling a product,” Rivas-Rivas said. “We’re trying to save kids’ lives, and in the process, save animals’ lives as well.”

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