ONCE VIEWED AS CRAZIES, ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SAY THEIR MESSAGE IS STARTING TO GET THROUGH
BY MICK DUMKE. Dumke's last article for the Magazine was on the fast-food work force
May 27, 2007
One recent Saturday, a dozen people gathered at Diversey Avenue and Halsted Street near a KFC restaurant whose windows proclaimed the week's specials: "12 PC LEGS THIGHS $8.99 / 12 PC CHICKEN $10.99." The Lakeview location is busy and loud, and if it weren't for the signs the group held aloft--"Boycott KFC," "KFC Tortures Animals" and "Scalded Alive"--it would not have been clear that a demonstration was under way. Helen Pollock, a singer/dance instructor from Chicago, moved into the street to hand leaflets to pedestrians and drivers waiting at the light.
The leaflets, produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, declared that PETA was boycotting KFC because, according to PETA, the chain's suppliers abuse chickens--routinely breaking their legs, cutting off their beaks and scalding them alive before they're slaughtered for food.
KFC responds that the hundreds of millions of chickens slaughtered for its restaurants each year are bought from the same companies that supply chickens to groceries across the country. And, it says, these suppliers follow guidelines recommended by KFC's own animal welfare advisory council.
The protesters dismissed these denials. The fliers quoted Rev. Al Sharpton ("I'm calling on people to boycott KFC until they adopt animal welfare systems recommended by PETA"), the Dalai Lama ("I have been particularly concerned with the sufferings of chickens for many years") and actress Pamela Anderson ("If people knew how KFC treats their chickens, they'd never eat another drumstick") and featured a photo of a bloody chicken carcass.
Several cars honked in support, and a passenger in one raised his fist in solidarity. Then two younger guys, probably in their mid-20s, reluctantly accepted Pollock's offer of a leaflet. Glancing at it, one of them remarked loudly, "I can't wait to get a chicken sandwich!"
Pollock shrugged off the comment. A regular volunteer for PETA as well as Mercy for Animals, the Chicago-based group that had organized the demonstration, Pollock said she's heard snickers and smart alec remarks before. "But I very seldom hear anything negative," she said.
As if to prove her point, three kids ran toward her, ahead of a woman pushing a stroller. All wanted a flier. Pollock happily set them up--they're the future of the animal rights movement, she says--and the mother, stuffing the leaflet in her purse, thanked her.
Animal rights activism is associated with outlandish tactics. But as most animal liberationists will tell you, it's the polite efforts at persuasion, like those on display that Saturday, that ultimately win hearts and minds.
"If you do it enough, you'll get more and more people understanding," said Deborah Uhlman, a Chicago real estate agent and avid animal rights activist who was leafleting with Pollock.
It seems undeniable that, over the past two decades, the ethical arguments of the animal rights movement have caught on with a broader public. Even many skeptics now agree that animals feel pain, should not suffer unnecessarily and should not be subject to every human whim. Their lives, on some level, clearly matter.
Examples of the change abound: Mary Kay, Revlon and other cosmetics firms no longer test products on animals; many school systems offer alternatives to dissection in science classes; companies like MasterCard, Visa and Sears have stopped sponsoring the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus because of concerns about animal treatment; clothing-makers Tommy Hilfiger, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren have gone "fur-free"; several states have restricted use of "battery" cages--so restrictive that animals cannot move--to house pigs and chickens;
Chicago and other cities have banned foie gras; zoos in several cities, including Chicago, have stopped housing elephants; two of the last three horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. --were recently shuttered by court order, and a third, near DeKalb, is on the bubble; many law schools, from Harvard to Chicago-Kent, now offer programs in animal law; animal cruelty charges have been filed against factory farms and furriers after PETA investigations; and most restaurants now offer some sort of vegetarian fare.
Thirty years ago, when the modern animal rights movement was in its infancy, its leaders were largely dismissed as oddballs and extremists. Their challenges to agribusiness, human dietary practices and the use of animals in clothing and scientific research inspired defensiveness and anger. In 1989, after some 600 people marched on Michigan Avenue in what was then Chicago's largest anti-fur protest, a Tribune reporter described the loud but nonviolent group as "jeering throngs" who'd spent hours lobbing "catcalls," "insults" and "verbal abuse" on passersby wearing fur and leather.
A Trib columnist warned that the animal rights movement "proposes to turn human society upside down by placing animals on the same moral plane as people."
To be sure, the movement's more radical and aggressive members provoked this backlash. At demonstrations around the country in the 1980s and '90s, protesters paraded nude to protest fur; others sprayed paint and hurled eggs at fur-wearers. Research labs were broken into. Farms, including several in the Chicago suburbs, were vandalized and their animals freed. The federal government still lists the Animal Liberation Front, once accused of setting fire to two Chicago fur salons, among the nation's domestic terrorist groups.
Even advertising campaigns, such as PETA's 1999 ad portraying Ronald McDonald as a mass murderer, have engendered a negative reaction.
But the image of animal rights activists was always a distortion, according to the movement's original theoretician.
"A tiny minority of more obnoxious types were simply played up by the media and opponents of the movement," says Peter Singer, whose 1975 book "Animal Liberation" is credited with launching the modern movement.
In an e-mailed response to questions, Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, said more people are rejecting the idea that humans have rights other species don't have. "But I also think," he wrote, "there is growing awareness of the cruelty we routinely inflict on animals, especially in farming, and more people are turning away from that cruelty."
Movement leaders acknowledge that part of the reason animal rights doctrine is becoming more accepted is that the focus now is on education. "We've shifted," says RaeLeann Smith, PETA's national organizer on circus issues. "We're putting a different face on what we do. Standing and handing out leaflets and talking to people is different from standing on a corner naked."
Ringling Bros. came to town last November. The night of its first show at the United Center, several dozen protesters gathered across from the main entrance to demand that elephant handlers stop using bullhooks, long training guides tipped with metal prods and hooks. PETA and others say bullhooks leave elephants with painful gashes. Ringling Bros. says its elephants are treated well and that the bullhook is an "extension of the handler's arm" that's no more harmful than a dog leash.
Bruce Read, vice president of animal stewardship for Feld Entertainment, the circus' parent, says the tool is necessary because handlers' arms aren't long enough to direct elephants that stand 8 feet tall. "If the tool is used inappropriately, the animal will stop responding," he argued. "You cannot have long-term repetitive behaviors with negative reinforcement."
On this night, the activists occupied much of the block. "THERE'S NO EXCUSE FOR ELEPHANT ABUSE!" a banner declared. Two people wearing elephant suits walked around on stilts, and Mike Brazell, a PETA activist, led the group in chanting: "BAN BULLHOOKS!"
"You're doing great!" Brazell told the demonstrators. "Now make it loud so the elephants can hear you. Let the elephants inside the arena know you are their voice." Some cars honked in support as they drove by. A couple of drivers gave them the finger.
A boy hurrying into the arena with his parents shouted: "You've got to quit that protest!" No one appeared to hear him.
To get people out, Smith sent mass e-mails to PETA supporters, including members of PETA Z, an outreach arm aimed at 13-to-24-year-olds. Now she was eying nearby police. Already, the group had been told to move away from the United Center entrance.
The demonstrators were a mix of veteran activists and first-timers. High school students who'd learned about the event on MySpace.com were there, as were a college professor and a manager of a financial services firm.
The group included Elaine Carlson, a desktop publisher for a Chicago merchandising firm who'd come with her daughters Sydney, 12, and Olivia, 10, because the older girl is a PETA member. Carlson said she hasn't always been comfortable with PETA's more theatrical demonstrations. "But I don't think torturing animals for entertainment is the way to go," she said.
A few feet away, Daniel Haugh was checking in with the people in his group, Mercy for Animals. Haugh, 30, quit a career in marketing last year to work full-time on research and outreach for Mercy, which is focused on ending "factory farming" and promoting veganism.
"We live in a society where we learn to dissociate our pets and ourselves from what we eat, but those animals suffer," he said. "The most compassionate way people can make a difference immediately is by taking on a vegetarian diet. Every vegetarian saves 95 to 100 lives a year."
Members of Humans Out Promoting Empathy, an animal rights group from Hinsdale Central High School, were trying to put fliers into the hands of families headed into the show. Often they ran to intercept people, which startled a few parents. But the students had a sense of humor about their mission. Blake Wilson, who was waving a replica of a bullhook, joked: "Sometimes I wish I could use it on some of these people. But that would still be cruelty to animals."
In the 18th Century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham applied his concept of utilitarianism--in which ethical behavior consists of doing the greatest good for the greatest number--to the animal kingdom, asking: "The question is not 'Can they reason?' nor 'Can they talk?' but 'Can they suffer?' " Bentham's answer was yes, meaning that humans needed to consider the good of animals they interact with.
Bentham provided the philosophical framework for the animal welfare movements in Britain and, later, the U.S. The American abolitionist movement established a social context, as the spirit of reform spread after the Civil War to issues beyond slavery. In 1866, former diplomat Henry Bergh formed the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City as a response to abuse he witnessed against horses, donkeys and livestock.
Bergh's leadership was seminal in other ways: He was known for attracting press coverage through public protest and theater, such as bringing traffic to a halt by getting freight and transport drivers to unhitch overworked horses.
Over subsequent decades, other activists--including Thomas Edison, Jack London and Albert Einstein--were concerned with a range of issues, including the plight of strays, the treatment of circus animals, fur production, animal experimentation and slaughterhouse conditions. Many were also vegetarians, notes historian Diane Beers, author of the book, "For the Prevention of Cruelty."
"Today's activists inherited a legacy of diverse activism from their predecessors going all the way back to the movement's start," Beers said in a recent e-mail. "A diverse agenda makes their cause more appealing to more of the public--a something-for-everyone kind of movement."
Like many of their successors, early animal advocates were mistakenly characterized as off-center. Female activists were even "diagnosed" with a mysterious mental illness known as zoophil-psychosis. "Actually humorous by today's standards, but it was a characterization that stuck," Beers noted.
Singer's 1975 book emphasized that animals, like humans, are "sentient," and vividly described laboratories and farms that subjected animals to gratuitous suffering. Referencing Bentham, Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Singer urged readers to stop practicing "speciesism," the view that one sentient species is "sacrosanct" and others subordinate to it.
Singer conceded that all sentient creatures do not have the same abilities or rights: "Concern for the well-being of children growing up in America would require that we teach them to read; concern for the well-being of pigs may require no more than that we leave them with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and room to run freely."
Inspired by Singer's work and the civil rights, women's and environmental movements, another wave of activists began organizing to highlight the plight of animals. PETA was one. Formed in Maryland in 1980, it now counts more than 1.6 million members worldwide.
In the U.S., at least, the movement has been predominantly white and middle- and upper-class--one reason critics object to comparing the animal rights cause to the civil rights movement.
"I don't say that speciesism and racism are exactly the same," responds Singer. But "in all these cases, a dominant group has developed an ideology that allows it to use those it considers inferior as a means to its ends."
Two days after the United Center protest, Smith and Brazell were back at the arena. The circus had a matinee performance aimed at schoolchildren, but the activists were there to hand out comic books, not to harangue them.
"An Elephant's Life" tells the story of Daisy the elephant, who has been captured and made to perform in a circus. Daisy's handlers keep her in chains, whip her and poke her with a sharp hook. But after the circus is fined for mistreating animals, Daisy is set free to live with her family again in the wild. "Speak up for elephants!" the comic book tells its readers. "Tell your family and friends why animal-free circuses are better!"
A school bus from Indiana pulled up, and Smith approached the first adult she saw. "You guys want comic books?" she said. She was instantly swarmed by kids; within minutes, she and Brazell, a former Navy SEAL, had given away their entire supply.
As they walked toward Brazell's car--he had driven from PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va., to help Smith--he gestured toward the sky. "Those clouds look menacing," he said.
"As long as it doesn't rain," Smith said. "This weather is bad for the elephants," she said, pointing to a tent just west of the arena where the elephants were housed.
The two stopped at Starbucks for hot drinks--Smith made sure her hot cider didn't include any dairy--and then drove to her Pilsen apartment, located in a former sausage factory. Smith and Brazell began
reviewing a video of elephants taken by PETA members who'd been following the circus around the country. "See these things on the side of their faces?" Smith said. "Those are pressure wounds from lying down on concrete."
Last summer, Smith traveled to Kenya to study the behavior of wild elephants, and now she spends hours each week documenting what she characterizes as abuse of circus animals. When necessary, she files complaints, often accompanied by videos, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Few complaints are sustained, though Smith was recently heartened when the department opened a new investigation into Ringling Bros.
"People don't want to believe it," Smith says. "They say the circus has been going on for years, but that's not a good excuse. We've had lots of hideous things happen in this country, like slavery and child labor." She adds: "Just because we grew up with it, just because it's a tradition, doesn't mean it's right."
Smith grew up in a small Kansas town, one of two daughters of a bowling alley manager and a cleaning woman. Her mother and her aunt, she says, were animal lovers who sent the girls on missions of rescuing stray cats and dogs. At one point, her family was taking care of six cats her mother had brought home.
Still, as a teenager, Smith wore leather and worked part-time at Burger King. "I used to love bacon cheeseburgers," she says. She moved to Chicago in 1990 to enroll at DePaul University, where she attended her first animal rights meeting. She showed up in a full-length leather coat. "And they asked me, 'Do you eat meat?' And I said, 'Of course. Doesn't everybody?' But within a week I stopped."
After graduating, Smith worked for a law firm, then an investment firm. Some people would wear furs to work, she said, and she had to refrain from challenging them. "Finally I decided I didn't want to keep my mouth shut anymore," she says. She quit and took a job with PETA, organizing highly publicized demonstrations against fur and leather in which women appeared on street corners nude.
"People don't want to sit down and talk about a USDA complaint," Smith says. "Sexy is what sells stories."
Both Smith and Brazell say the organization is more interested now in information and outreach than over-the-top demonstrations, but the old images still shape the way many people think about the animal rights movement. Smith realized this a couple of years ago, when she was interviewed for a magazine article. When a photographer got ready to take her picture, he asked her if she could look more like "an angry activist."
Leaving the apartment, Smith and Brazell headed for Macy's in the Loop, where Brazell strapped a 50-pound flat video screen onto his chest and showed clips of an elephant being beaten by a circus handler. People looked pained as they slowed to watch. Though a few wondered aloud if the incident was somehow taken out of context, they agreed that no living creature should be treated that way.
Surveys have found that few Americans are comfortable with the idea of animals being abused or neglected, yet they also struggle with the implications: Dogs should be walked regularly, so shouldn't cows be allowed to graze? Do tigers at the zoo really have enough room? Should shampoos be tested on animals before they're sold to people? Is it right to eat veal? Wear leather?
"When I first started here, I thought, 'It's a no-brainer, because people love Muffy the cat, and they wouldn't want Muffy tested on,'" says Clare Haggerty, director of communications and programs at the National Anti-Vivisection Society. Since 1929, the Chicago-based organization has waged educational and legislative campaigns against product testing and scientific experimentation that use animals. "But people don't want to know or think about animals in research."
And many have a hard time thinking about animals that end up as their dinner. "I think people are really defensive about their food," says Omnia Ibrahim, the Chicago-area events coordinator for Mercy for Animals. "I think it's hard to think something is wrong that you've done your whole life."
Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University, has studied animal rights activism for more than 20 years. He argues that the movement has a mixed record of achieving its goals. For example, he says, activists are partly responsible for Americans eating less red meat. But instead people are eating more chicken. Chickens, he said, don't provoke the same empathy as other animals, and when people buy chicken meat at the grocery store, they're less likely to connect it with a living bird. "Chicken has become a kind of vegetable," Herzog says.
Though he doesn't agree with some of their positions, Herzog says he respects the moral commitment of animal rights activists. Often, though, this sense of responsibility "comes at a personal cost," he says, because the movement can take over their lives and lead to burnout. "The healthiest animal rights activists are those who draw lines. They say, 'There are things I can do and things I can't.' "
Ibrahim, the Mercy for Animals coordinator, says the movement has, indeed, become the central focus of her life. But she also says she's pretty clear about what's right and wrong, and about what part she can play.
Now 25, Ibrahim was born in Egypt and moved to the Chicago suburbs when she was 4. Though her family ate meat, Ibrahim says she was never comfortable with it. At 17, she started researching animal agriculture. "Horrified" by what she saw, she says she became a vegetarian. After five years, she became a vegan, shunning all animal products.
Ibrahim started volunteering to distribute leaflets on college campuses. At an educational event, she met Haugh, Mercy's director of campaigns, and was drawn to the organization's focus on veganism. Soon she became Mercy's chief events organizer in Chicago. Despite a full-time job--she's in the information technology department at Harper College in Palatine--Ibrahim spends 20 hours a week scheduling outreach and demonstrations.
People often ask why she spends time on animal rights when so many other issues could use her attention. "There are a lot of horrible issues in the world, but to me they're all connected: It's about looking out for life," she says.
Most of her friends are also animal rights activists. Time she used to spend going out she now devotes to the movement. "Polls have found that 95 percent of people are against abuse of animals like cats and dogs," she says. "So to me, this is not about changing people's minds as much as making their actions consistent with the values they already have."
In February, Don Gordon, a candidate for alderman of the 49th Ward, held a "freedom of choice dinner" at Cyrano's Bistro in River North. The event was scheduled as a fundraiser for Gordon's race against Ald. Joe Moore, chief sponsor of an ordinance that banned the sale of foie gras, which is made from the fattened liver of force-fed geese and ducks. As Gordon and his supporters got ready for dinner inside, Ibrahim, Haugh and 30 other protesters marched outside with signs showing ducks with feeding tubes down their throats.
"If we were walking down the street and saw someone doing this--shoving a pipe down some creature's throat--we'd call the police," said Dani Nichols, holding a banner that said, "FOIE GRAS--HOW MUCH CRUELTY CAN YOU SWALLOW?"
"We're not standing in front of a Chinese restaurant protesting kung pao chicken," Nichols said. "My preference would be that people not eat meat, but I'm not asking that. I'm just saying that before you kill animals to eat, you treat them humanely."
Out of the doorway stepped Didier Durand, the bistro's chef and owner, wearing his tall white hat and matching apron. "Do you want some foie gras tonight?" he asked the protesters. No one laughed. A few minutes later, Durand brought out a tray of hot chocolate; none of the protesters took any.
One of the demonstrators, psychologist Jana Kohl, told Durand it was outrageous that he was serving food produced through cruelty to ducks and geese.
Durand shrugged. "They are not human," he said.
"You know, you'd be more successful and have a lot more customers if you did the right thing," Kohl said. "You're sad. You're pathetic."
"The horse is built to be ridden and the greyhound is built for racing," Durand said as he headed inside. "Humans are the top of the food chain--not to be confused with ducks."
In March, protesters stood outside the opera house door on nights that The Lyric Opera of Chicago had performances. They were handing out pamphlets on how animals are killed for fur coats.
"They can't ignore the issue when they're wearing fur," J. Johnson, an organizer for the Animal Defense League, said one night as another demonstrator held up a photo of a half-skinned mink.
Ibrahim tried to put a pamphlet in the hand of a woman in a short, dark fur coat. The woman refused, but slowed and looked at Ibrahim. "Sorry, but this is 40 years old," she said. "It was my mother's. Do you know what it's like to wear your mother's fur?"
Ibrahim shrugged. "It's still a dead animal," she said calmly.
"But it was shot 40 years ago!" the woman said irritably. She hurried inside.
"Stop the insanity!" the protesters began chanting. "No blood for vanity!"
Wayne Hsiung, a Northwestern University law professor, was directly addressing people as he tried to hand them leaflets. "You should read about fur before you wear it," he said to a woman with a thick, narrow fur over her shoulders.
"I love fur!" she sneered.
"Do you like to torture and abuse animals, ma'am?" he asked. She didn't answer.
The chants became more vivid: "How do animals die on fur farms today? Gassing, trapping or anal electrocution!"
An older woman in a long fur coat came around the corner and, seeing the demonstrators, blanched and cringed; a couple who appeared to be her daughter and son-in-law quickly formed a shield around her and escorted her toward the opera house.
Before they went inside, the mother spun around and gave the protesters the finger.
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