PUBLIC IS HEEDING ANIMAL-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
By DAVID FOSTER

Grant this much to animal-rights activists: They don't just pick the easy fights. Peter Petersan went to the meat-eating heart of America to take on the Wienermobile, and he did it with relish.

On a sultry August morning in West Des Moines, Iowa, Petersan circled his target: a group of parents and children gathered outside a grocery store for an Oscar Mayer talent contest.

When a boy started singing "My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R," Petersan made his move. Wearing a pig costume and a "Meat Is Murder" sign, he climbed aboard the hot-dog-shaped Wienermobile and refused to budge. Police stepped up and threw the pig in the pokey. But not before Petersan got his message across. "They were exploiting children to sell their product--slaughtered animals," he says. Oh, those wacky animal-rights crusaders: They dress as lobsters to protest cruelty to crustaceans. They persuade fashion models to bare all and proclaim, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." Last October, they showed their holiday spirit in 10 cities by hanging banners saying, "Thanksgiving Is Murder on Turkeys. "Like clowns in a convent, they succeed wildly in drawing attention to themselves. But do these far-out activists really think they'll ever influence mainstream America? It appears they already have. A new Associated Press poll has found wide support for beliefs usually identified with a tiny minority of radical animal-rights activists. Two-thirds of the 1,004 Americans polled agree with a basic tenet of the animal-rights movement: "An animal's right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person's right to live free of suffering. "Two-thirds also say it's seldom or never right to use animals in testing cosmetics; 59% say killing animals for fur is always wrong, and 51% say sport hunting is always wrong.

The poll was taken Nov. 10-14 by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa., part of AUS Consultants. Its margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The AP poll reinforces other statistics that show declines in hunting, consumption of red meat and use of animals in research. "All you have to do is walk into a restaurant and open the menu to see how things have changed," says Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the nation's largest animal-rights group. "Even in steakhouses, you find vegetarian items. "To be sure, America is still a killing nation. More than 6.5 billion animals die annually at human hands, mostly for food, says Stanford University researcher Linda Cork. And critics of animal-rights activists say the treatment of animals hinges not so much on dancing lobsters and naked models as on more mundane things such as increasing urbanization and scientific advances. But no matter how much credit they do or don't deserve, activists such as Petersan are smiling inside their pig suits.

A lot of things are going their way: America now has more grazers than predators. In the AP poll, 7.5% say they rarely or never eat meat. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records, meanwhile, show 5.9% of all Americans bought hunting licenses last year--down from a peak of 7.7% in 1975."If current trends continue, hunting will not exist by the year 2050," exults Mike Markarian, national campaign director for the Fund for Animals, the nation's largest anti-hunting group. He hopes for an earlier end to his group's No. 1 target: Pennsylvania's pigeon shoots, in which shotgunners take aim at pigeons released from cages. At the best-known shoot, held each Labor Day in Hegins, protesters dash after wounded birds, rushing them to a veterinary MASH unit in the parking lot. Even some hunters oppose the Hegins spectacle as unsporting, but few believe Markarian's prediction about hunting's demise. "It's hard for me to imagine an anti-hunter convincing a hunter not to hunt," says Hugh Vickery, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. More to blame, he says, are an increasingly urban population and "No Trespassing" signs sprouting on private land. "It's harder to find places to hunt," Vickery says. In the AP poll, opinions on sport hunting were almost evenly split, with 51% calling it "always wrong" and 47% saying it's OK. Hunting was OK with 60% of men but only with 35% of women.

The number of animals used in scientific research has dropped by about half since 1968, says Andrew Rowan, a scientist at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. Technological advances such as cell-culturing and computer-modeling have reduced demand for rats, rabbits, dogs and monkeys, Rowan says. But animal-rights protests also have played a part, he says, forcing researchers to examine how much they really need animals. Most Americans appear willing to accept justified uses of research animals. In the AP poll, 70% approve of using animals in medical research under at least some circumstances. But only 31% believe it's right in testing cosmetics--and the cosmetics trade is listening. More than 500 companies now boast that they don't test cosmetics or household products on animals, PETA says. Those that do--Gillette and Proctor & Gamble are among the biggest--find themselves under fire. "We've reduced the number of animals we have to use for new products," says Michael Petrina, spokesman for the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. "But we're not at a point where we can completely replace animal testing. "Whom to believe? Furriers say sales are holding steady. Anti-fur protesters say the industry is fading like a fox in a leg-hold trap. PETA keeps a long list of top fashion designers, including Calvin Klein, who refuse to use fur. The Fur Information Council of America has its own long list of designers who do use fur. Public opinion appears to be shifting toward Klein. In the AP poll, 59% oppose killing an animal for its fur. That's up from a 1989 ABC News poll, worded exactly the same, which found 46% opposed. Happily for furriers, opposition softens among those who actually can afford a fur coat. In households earning $50,000 or more, 50% say they oppose killing animals for fur.

The economy, not fear of blood-splattering protesters, is what drives fur sales, says Stephanie Kenyon, spokeswoman for the Fur Information Council of America. Fur sales boomed during the high-rolling '80s but fell during the following recession. "It's truly a luxury product," she says. "If you look at the sale of other luxury items, like Jaguars and Porsches, their sales were also up during the mid-'80s and down during the early '90s."Animal-rights activists say the best way to be kind to animals is to stop eating them. So far, they have few takers--despite the breathless articles in trendy magazines that imply vegetarianism is sweeping the nation. True believers such as Petersan, 23, are strict vegetarians, or vegans. They don't eat meat, eggs or dairy products. They don't wear leather. They don't visit zoos or aquariums, unless it's to protest. They avoid silk (silkworms are boiled alive) and even honey (bees are smoked from their hives). "I don't believe any creature is put on this Earth for my benefit, be it a dog, elephant or worm," says Petersan, who works at the Silver Spring, Md., office of the Fund for Animals. Nobody would accuse him of being a typical American. In the AP poll, only 2% say they never eat meat, poultry or fish. Six percent eat meat rarely; 21%, occasionally, and 71%, frequently. Some groups are more receptive to PETA's pleas of "Eat your veggies, not your friends." Ten percent of women, as well as 10% of adults under 35, say they rarely or never eat meat, while only 5% of men fit that category. Animal-rights activists celebrate Americans' declining consumption of red meat, down from 126 pounds per capita in 1975 to 115 pounds this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But health concerns, not sympathy for suffering animals, seem to be behind that trend. During the same period, per-capita consumption of poultry doubled, and seafood consumption rose by 25%. Net result: More animals than ever are being killed for food.