October 7, 2005
A hearse of a different color
Protester's vehicle plays a role in her anti-KFC campaign
By Katya Cengel
Aqua Man was the first to drive the white hearse with neon green under-car lights around Louisville. Cynthia Withers was the second.
It was Halloween 2002 when the 32-year-old Withers spotted the 1991 Buick hearse outside a local bar. The car, which she later named Lily -- after Lily Munster from the creepy 1960s CBS television show "The Munsters" -- was Aqua Man's prize for winning a costume contest. He drove it around for two months before selling it to Withers for $2,000.
"He had a girlfriend at the time who didn't care for it," says Withers.
Cynthia Withers' 1991 Buick hearse was serving as her portable protest platform long before she became People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Louisville KFC campaign coordinator in 2004. PETA paid for the $1,600 paint job taking KFC to task.
Every Friday Cynthia Withers protests in front of the headquarters of Yum! Brands Inc., which owns KFC.
Cynthia Withers and PETA say KFC suppliers treat chickens with unnecessary cruelty. KFC says it is "committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens" and expects suppliers to comply.
PETA activist Cynthia Withers shopped for vegan food. She remembers thinking at age 8 that a fish dinner wasn’t that different from her pet goldfish. By high school she was a vegetarian; later she became a vegan.
The dark-haired Hollywood native, who admits to being goth at times, had no problem riding in a car that once transported dead people from a funeral home in Wisconsin to their final resting place. Actually she found it rather fun. Of course there were a few snags -- parking and driving being the main ones.
"I had to practice in a parking lot when I first got it," says Withers. "My husband goes nuts; he thinks I'm going to hit everything.
"Which has happened."
Last month she hit a fence at Indiana University Southeast, where she is a student. She has backed into her husband, Chad Byers', Pontiac Sunbird more than once. But always softly. Withers has a gentle touch. Her voice is smooth, her hair long, loose and wavy, and her smile sweet. Only the horizontal surface piercing at the bottom of her neckline (called a Madison) and the blue tattooed lines and dots on her feet hint at an underlying edginess. And, of course, the hearse, which she takes clubbing, to school and camping -- it's made to fit a body perfectly.
And it has blood all over it. Not real blood, just red paint made to look like blood.
The blood is part of a drawing that includes a bleeding chicken, a blood-covered knife-wielding Colonel Sanders and the words "PETA KentuckyFriedCruelty. com." The knife-wielding colonel and bloody chicken appear on both sides of the hearse and in part on the back window. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals paid for the paint job, which cost about $1,600. But the idea was Withers'. The soft-spoken vegan was using her car as a portable protest platform long before she became PETA's Louisville KFC campaign coordinator in 2004.
First there was "War is Death," which became "Meat is Death" when Withers realized the war in Iraq wasn't going to stop because she spray-painted a slogan on her car. She has higher hopes for ending what she calls KFC's cruel treatment of chickens. Withers and PETA maintain that KFC chicken suppliers treat their chickens with unnecessary cruelty.
The fight has been going on for years. PETA launched an international boycott of KFC in January 2003. In July 2003 PETA filed a lawsuit against KFC and Yum! Brands claiming the company was falsely advertising a commitment to the humane treatment of chickens by its suppliers.
PETA dropped the lawsuit after Yum! altered the wording on its Web site, making clear that it recommends, but does not require, certain humane standards for the chickens purchased by KFC.
In 2004 PETA released a video showing slaughterhouse employees at a KFC supplier in West Virginia kicking and stomping on chickens. In response the supplier fired 11 employees, installed quality assurance monitors and ordered managers at other plants to educate workers about animal-welfare policies. KFC hired an inspector at the plant trained in animal-welfare investigations and said it would no longer buy from the facility unless assurances could be made that no abuses were taking place.
But PETA still wants KFC to require its suppliers to implement more humane methods of slaughter, such as controlled-atmosphere killing, a process that replaces oxygen in the air with an inert gas.
The KFC public-relations office e-mailed a message saying the company is "committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens and we expect suppliers to adhere to our industry-leading welfare guidelines."
For Withers, that is not enough.
That is why every Friday she stands outside Yum! Brands Inc. headquarters in Louisville, which owns KFC, waving at employees as they go to work with one hand and holding a white "Boycott KFC" poster with the other. Most Saturdays she does the same thing outside a local KFC. She parks the hearse, which boasts interior strobe lights, fuzzy blue seats, front door locks topped with red-eyed skulls and a "LV 2DAY" license plate, nearby.
On a recent Friday morning, Withers was joined by Byers, who held up a "Boycott KFC" poster with a picture of a little yellow chick on it, before heading to his job as vice president at a local software company.
"My dad used to take me hunting, and I always felt remorse," says Byers, a tall, bearded 35-year-old. "I thought if I didn't want to kill an animal, I shouldn't let someone else do the dirty work for me."
Standing next to Byers was Becca Nesbit, a tiny 20-year-old IUS student who was hidden behind a large "Beaks Cut Off" poster. Nesbit, who wore little makeup and many piercings, looked the image of a hard-core protester. She wore jeans, black Converse All-Star-type shoes and a green shirt. Withers wore loose black capri pants, a brown sweater and glasses balanced on her head. When cars passed, Withers offered a beauty pageant-style wave and a warm welcoming smile.
Her routine looks practiced -- and it is. She has been doing this for almost a year.
KFC, which didn't return phone calls seeking comment about Withers, doesn't seem to have taken note. But others have.
Outside Yum! Brands Inc. headquarters, passing trucks, minivans and delivery cars honked in support. Others offered a different kind of greeting.
"I got a few more one-finger salutes than usual this morning," said Withers, packing up after an hour or two.
She has also had people leave her notes in her door handle and on her windshield. One was from a Californian who said she finally felt at home in Kentucky after seeing such an over-the-top protest vehicle. The other six were a mix of supporters and detractors.
After the protest, in the parking lot outside a coffee shop on Bardstown Road where Withers was dropping off PETA Vegetarian Starter Kits, she and Lily greeted another fan.
"That is awesome," said Amy Rock, a 26-year-old University of Louisville student.
A few minutes later, a young man who worked on a chicken farm in Arkansas stopped to chat. Withers welcomes all comment; her husband has even made up a point system to rate each kind of reaction.
"He assigns more points to the negative response because he feels we are affecting them," says Withers.
A wave is one point, someone yelling is six. Withers can't remember the rest.
She does remember what started it all. She was 8 years old, and her mother was serving fish for dinner. It suddenly dawned on Withers that dinner wasn't that different from her pet goldfish. By high school she was a vegetarian; in her 20s she became a vegan.
Byers has been a vegan for two years. Their cockatoos, Marco and Windy, and sheep dogs, Masha and Mikhail, are vegetarian. Only Libra, the python, is holding out.
"I tried to offer her vegetarian alternatives, but she doesn't recognize it as food," says Withers.
Libra eats raw rodents or she doesn't eat. "I try not to make her feel bad about eating animals," says Withers.
After distributing a few more kits, Withers headed to Kroger to buy meat substitutes for a potluck casserole.
At the counter she pulled out her checkbook, with pictures of Libra curled in a tree and dressed as an angel. Back in the parking lot, Withers loaded her groceries into the back of the hearse.
"The thing about a hearse," she says, "there is plenty of room for groceries."
There is also plenty of room for furniture, dogs and friends. The car was the perfect vehicle to use several years ago when a friend underwent a sex-change operation and wanted to hold a mock funeral for her male self.
There is really only one place Withers wouldn't take her hearse -- a funeral.