Feature: Wednesday, June 5, 2003
Food Fascists? Part 2

Registered dietician Emily Haeussler of Fort Worth said PETA is irresponsible in its targeting of children, especially since they’re giving them false information. The statement that they use on their web site, that eating meat causes cancer, heart disease, and stroke, is not true, she said.

In a chapter on nutrition in The Kimbell Museum Cookbook, Haeussler wrote that, while animal products can contain cholesterol-raising saturated fat, these fats are also found in some plant foods, such as palm oil, cocoa butter, and coconut oil. A diet high in saturated fats can lead to heart disease and stroke, Haeussler said, but a diet with meat can be healthy and a meatless one unhealthy. “Any time you get into the extremes, you’re cutting out a majority of nutrients and becoming unbalanced,” she said.

While she agrees children need more vegetables, they also need meat and dairy products, for protein and for the calcium and trace nutrients they also provide, she said. “If they cut those two food groups out of their diets, it will be hard to meet their nutrient needs.” Adult vegans must go to significant effort to get the protein they need to build and maintain tissue, hormone levels, antibodies, and red blood cells; a child in that situation would really be at risk for protein deficiency, which could cause major problems in growth and development, the dietician said. Maintaining a completely vegan diet could be as detrimental as weight-loss fad diet.

Haeussler also said PETA’s web site plays on children’s emotions and fears. “That to me is very offensive and almost to the point of victimizing children.” She is concerned that promoting food fears can actually promote eating disorders. “The incidence of disordered eating and disordered attitudes is very high. Eating disorders are growing rapidly, and fear of foods, fear of fat, is a base component of that.”

PETA’s “truth” about the food industry isn’t the only thing some people may find distasteful. Their “Holocaust on Your Plate” display is raising eyebrows and dropping jaws. Valladolid said the inhumanity that allowed Nazis to beat, starve, and kill millions of Jews and other prisoners is the same mindset that animal activists are fighting.

The PETA project arose from a book by American author Charles Patterson, inspired by a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer, a vegetarian and a refugee from the Nazis, was one of the first to equate the slaughter of humans with what goes on in meatpacking plants.

Singer wrote about a man who loses his family in the Holocaust and befriends a mouse. It ends with a eulogy for the mouse: “In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka,” referring to the infamous death camp near Warsaw. In his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Patterson wrote that animal agriculture and animal-based diets have devastating effects on human health, ecosystems, water, and other scarce resources, and contribute to worldwide hunger.

“I maintain that the exploitation and slaughter of animals was and is the model and impetus for human oppression and violence — war, terrorism, slavery, genocide, and the countless other atrocities we humans persist in inflicting on each other,” Patterson told an interviewer last year.

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenberger of the Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth said comparing cruelty to animals with the calculated dehumanization and murder of millions of human beings is absurd and obscene.

“The Torah includes numerous laws designed to promote humane treatment of animals,” Mecklenberger said. “But animals are not human beings, so equating the slaughter of animals to the slaughter of people trivializes the Holocaust and is offensive to Jews and others who mourn the loss of the six million.”

Patterson said the comparison is not intended to belittle the Holocaust. “The claim that the exploitation and destruction of the other inhabitants of the earth is ‘trivial’ says a lot about the person making such a claim,” he said.

By this point, it shouldn’t be surprising that a group that compares Holocaust victims to chickens would also object to organizations that fight birth defects and AIDS. Both are crucial foes in PETA’s mindset, because they conduct animal testing as part of their research.

Animal testing plays a part in the development of almost all medicines and vaccines. While federal law does not strictly require animal testing, researchers said it is almost impossible to get FDA approval without it. But PETA claims that animal research has not actually furthered medical science.

PETA says that the March of Dimes has paid researchers who have implanted wires in pregnant monkeys’ uteruses, cut open ferrets’ skulls, and injected chemicals directly into the animals’ brains. The group is lobbying the March of Dimes’ corporate sponsors to demand that their donations not be used for such experiments. Sponsors like Kmart, Sara Lee, and, most recently, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, now earmark their funds for uses other than animal research. (Representatives of Blue Cross Blue Shield said PETA did not influence their decision in that regard.)

PETA maintains that March of Dimes research has done little or nothing to reduce the incidence of birth defects — a claim that the charity vehemently denies and that the federal Centers for Disease Control cannot confirm. Although the CDC’s own researchers do not conduct animal experiments, the agency supports the use of laboratory animals as models to allow scientists to pursue hypotheses that are not possible to research in humans.

The March of Dimes contends that it cannot curb or treat birth defects without biomedical research involving laboratory animals. The 63-year-old charity maintains that many advances in children’s health have come from animal-based research, including polio vaccines, fetal surgery technology, drugs that obviate some heart surgeries, and other drugs that block HIV transmission during birth.

The March of Dimes advocates animal research only after exhausting alternatives such as cell culture experiments, computer simulations, and human clinical studies. “It is impossible to find the answers to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions without studying the structure and function of a whole living system,’’ the charity’s web site says in explaining why laboratory animals are essential to biomedical research.

Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), said that there is no need for animals in any research setting. PETA maintains that Barnard is not an official part of its organization, but Barnard said he is a science advisor for the group.

Barnard said animal testing can usually be replaced by comparative studies of human populations. He said researchers should study the people who contract diseases, to determine risk factors in lifestyles, gender, and environment. According to the PCRM, these types of studies have led to the discoveries of the relationships between smoking and cancer, cholesterol and heart disease, high-fat diets and common cancers, and chemical exposures and birth defects.

Animal-rights activists often ridicule researchers for wanting to justify their research medically by emphasizing medical similarities between animals and humans, but defend it ethically by stressing human beings’ superiority to other animals.

PETA leaders interviewed for this story repeatedly backed away from admitting that they value human and animal lives equally, but many of their past comments suggest they believe that. “When it comes to feelings like hunger, pain, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” Newkirk told The New Yorker. When asked if she would remain opposed to experiments on five thousand rats, or even five thousand chimpanzees, if it was required to cure AIDS, Newkirk said, “Would you be opposed to experiments on your daughter if you knew it would save fifty million people?”

Brandi Valladolid, the “Chickette’’ flapping about outside the Arlington KFC, said animal researchers are motivated by greed — that researchers are paid to yield results that pharmaceutical and chemical companies want.

The “greed” factor wouldn’t seem to explain the March of Dimes’ efforts, however. Michelle Kling said she has no specific figures, but that only a “relatively small number” of donors to the charity’s $220 million budget have put no-animal-research conditions on their gifts, not enough to affect the charity’s research programs.

Valladolid said that might not always be true. She said PETA’s long-term goal is to have all of the March of Dimes corporate sponsors and a majority of their private sponsors place such limits on their donations.

L.D. Carter, who heads the March of Dimes’ marketing efforts in the western United States, said some of the controversial experiments that PETA targets are outdated and part of the group’s misinformation agenda. “To them it doesn’t matter that the research we’ve done saves a lot of lives.”

PETA also publishes lists of charities that do not use animal testing, suggesting that philanthropists save their money for those groups. However, the list seems disingenuous — most of the AIDS-related charities that PETA supports, for example, have nothing to do with research, instead providing services to those already suffering from AIDS, such as housing, transportation, food, and counseling.

Dr. Young said PETA vilifies any charitable organization that actually engages in real research. “Giving money to these charities brings no hope to millions that have HIV or those that are going to contract it,” he said.

The cages at factory farms and research labs aren’t the only ones that PETAns would like to empty — they’d also like to free the lions, tigers, and elephants. In fact, a PETA-designed world would be missing many things (besides hamburgers and chicken nuggets) that people enjoy in life — circuses, hunting, even fishing. PETA has an entire campaign against anglers, based on some debatable research about whether fish feel pain.

When the Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus came to Cowtown Coliseum in April, it was preceded by PETA complaints — something that meets the circus in almost every place it performs. PETA news releases alleged that the circus had racked up more than 70 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act since 1999. That didn’t stop about 1,000 adults and probably as many children who turned out to see it.

Local PETA activist Jennifer Whitmire focuses her energy primarily on the circus industry, which she calls “a dirty underworld business.” She’s one of the PETAns who show up outside circus performances in “cages,” wearing almost nothing but a sign and tiger stripes of body paint. “If I don’t speak out, then I’m putting myself in a cage,” she said.

Sterling & Reid spokesman Phillip Dolci said PETA “wants to make circus animals synonymous with abuse, but that’s just not true.” And neither are the statistics that PETA was sending out, apparently.

Jim Rogers, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Sterling & Reid Bros. has never been found guilty of violating the Animal Welfare Act, although it had been cited repeatedly for problems. “What PETA is probably talking about is non-compliant items. A lot of times certain groups suggest that non-compliant items are violations,” he said. “Nothing’s a violation unless a judge says it’s a violation.”

Rogers said non-compliant items could include anything from not enough shade for animals to paint chipping on a door. It’s a broad overview of the circus. If the items aren’t fixed, the USDA opens an investigation to take a more specific look at whether the circus is in violation of the AWA. An investigation can close with fines, tickets, charges, or violations.

Sterling & Reid is currently under investigation for possible animal welfare problems, Rogers said, but has only been charged with a violation once, in January 2002, for food storage and animal confinement problems. The circus settled out of court on other proposed violations.

Valladolid questioned the USDA’s concern for animal welfare, saying the agency makes excuses for the industry instead of protecting the animals.

On the circus animal question, as with many of their other campaigns, PETA approval is a moving target. Even if circus animals are taken care of properly, PETA representatives said, such animals should never have been taken from the wild anyway.

“They go from roaming in a natural habitat to the cages of show-biz,” Whitmire said. “A tiger was not intended to jump through a ring of fire.”

Melinda Rosser, spokeswoman for Feld Entertainments, the parent company of Ringling Brothers, another major PETA target, said the import of animals from the wild stopped in the ’70s. She said the video footage that PETA likes to show of trainers brutalizing elephants with hooks is either from other circuses or zoos or more than 20 years out of date. Rosser said the media is always invited to see animals outside the big top arena, and invited the Weekly to take a look behind the scenes later this year when their circus arrives in North Texas.

PETA “will do whatever means to smear our name because we are the greatest show on earth,” Rosser said. “They aren’t the animal experts. They won’t claim that. They don’t spend any time with elephants.” She said PETA’s fundraising efforts are misleading — and that most of the money sent to the group doesn’t end up helping animals at all.

According to its web site, PETA’s 2002 budget was about $17 million, of which a little over $7 million went to international campaigns, public outreach, and education. Another $3 million was dedicated to research, investigations, and animal rescue.

Mary Beth Sweetland, PETA’s director of research and investigation, said her group receives more than 10,000 calls or letters a year regarding cruelty to animals by owners, pet stores, breeders, and even animal shelters. They refer the vast majority of the calls to other animal welfare groups — which presumably would have gotten the calls if PETA hadn’t.

Sweetland said PETA itself probably takes a couple of hundred animals a year to shelters or other sanctuaries. By comparison, the SPCA of Texas investigates more than 2,700 cases of cruelty each year.

Dolci, the Sterling & Reid spokesman called PETA a fundraising group, not an animal welfare group. “They don’t take care of animals,” he said. “If you want to help animals, donate to the humane society, not a national fundraising organization whose agenda is ... shutting down circuses.”

Whitmire, the North Texas PETA activist, said her group’s millions come from mainstream America, because people are becoming more sensitive to issues of animal welfare, corporate abuses, and the drawbacks to meat-eating. PETA provides solace to those trying to find their way back to an earth-friendly existence, she said.

Dr. Young, the researcher, views the organization much more cynically. “Ingrid Newkirk knows that her organization and its ability to raise money is based on emotion and ignorance,” he said. “Truth dries up revenue.”

Warren Cox, president of the SPCA of Texas, said the public is confused about the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Animals have certain rights under U.S. law, and organizations like his work to make sure those rights are upheld. “We’re not against the use of animals, but the abuse of animals.”

Cox compared animal-rights groups and welfare organizations to shock troops and occupying forces. The primary purpose of shock troops is to open eyes and doors, he said. They also can rouse emotions, but if they go overboard, their efforts can end up working against the cause. “If the people in the community would get behind their local agencies, we would accomplish what PETA wants to do,” he said.

Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, has a more positive view of PETA’s radicalism. “We don’t often do things the way PETA does, but we often agree with criticisms they level against certain forms of animal use,” he said.

If ends justify means, then PETA’s tactics are successful. The group has obviously made quite a niche for itself and its cause. “I don’t think anyone can deny that, since the organization began, it has had a huge impact on awareness levels in society,” Pacelle said. “Animal rights was a curious notion in 1980, but now it’s become common parlance.”

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