- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

NORFOLK Not far from the crisp lawns and flag-adorned homes of retired naval officers, nestled among the city's ever-present strip malls and steakhouses, there's a parking lot in this old seaport that seems … well … a little out of step.
"I'm animal friendly," boasts one license plate in the lot. "Keep dolphins free," urges another. Faded "Go Veg," and "Stop animal tests," bumper stickers decorate the rear-ends of other vehicles.
An ancient Volkswagen peace van, straight out of Haight-Ashbury, bedecked with counterculture decals, stands guard outside the building's main entrance.
This is the parking lot for the employees of the headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world's largest and most controversial animal-rights organization.
Since its founding 20 years ago in the suburbs of Washington, the nonprofit organization, now based in Norfolk, has grown from five activists to a worldwide membership of about 700,000.
With donations, membership dues and catalog sales of everything from T-shirts to humane mousetraps, PETA took in an estimated $17 million in 1999.
From its behind-the-enemy-lines headquarters in Norfolk located in the same congressional district as the offices of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition PETA's agents-provacateurs plot, plan and scheme.
These offices, tucked into a quiet, historic neighborhood along the Elizabeth River, are the front lines in a culture war aimed at persuading Americans and others to quit wearing leather shoes.
To stop taking children to circuses.
To swear off fur.
To, once and for all, forget about drinking milk and, for heaven's sake, put that cheeseburger down.
A holy war? PETA members say it's nothing less. But the media-savvy true-believers in Norfolk aren't above using a slick mix of sex and tacky humor to help the save-the-critters sermons go down.
And over the past year and a half, PETA has taken the don't-be-afraid-to-be-offensive offensive to new heights (or lows, depending on perspective):
Last year, the group thumbed its nose at the dairy industry and infuriated parents across the country with its cheeky "Got Beer?" campaign, which targeted college students with the straight-faced assertion that beer is healthier than milk.
In May, a PETA member was arrested and charged with assaulting a Cabinet official after tossing a pie (tofu cream) at Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman during a speech in Washington.
A Midwestern billboard campaign, featuring a nearly nude model and a string of sausages, angered cattle producers by purporting to link male impotence to beef consumption.

Serious silliness

PETA's public image may be one of irreverence spiced with sarcasm, sex and sophomoric hijinks, but most of the more than 100 employees who staff the offices at 501 Front St. are deadly serious about the cause.
They make the animal-rights case with the earnestness of a born-again Pentecostal preacher.
"It's about trying to reduce suffering on all levels."
"Cows are people, too, and drinking their milk is a denigration of their creaturehood."
"Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but 6 billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses."
Above the reception desk at the Norfolk headquarters is a Leonardo da Vinci quote, painted on the wall in letters 6 inches tall: "The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."
Everyone, it seems, from the spokespeople to the random person in the hall, is on a mission.
The receptionist herself recently stripped for one of the group's notable let's-get-naked-and-call-the-television-stations protests. This one, staged in front of the White House, was an anti-leather rally.
The activism that colors the corridors at PETA can be traced to one person: Ingrid Newkirk, 51, PETA's president and founder.
Born in England, Ms. Newkirk grew up in India, in a New Delhi home filled with ailing people and animals. Her mother volunteered at an orphanage, a home for unwed mothers and a leper colony. She grew fond of the stray animals her family took in.
A turning point came when, as a young person, she grabbed the sticks and whips from men beating cart-cattle in India.
When she eventually emigrated to Maryland, where she once worked as a Montgomery County deputy sheriff, Ms. Newkirk said she was shocked by the state of a Silver Spring, Md., animal shelter where she dropped off stray cats.
"I didn't think there was any cruelty in the West," she said.
PETA was cooked up in Ms. Newkirk's Takoma Park, Md., home in 1980, with a handful of friends planning protests around town.
The term "animal rights," she recalls, didn't even exist.
"Fur was everywhere. There was no issue with leather. There were probably about three or four or five shampoos you could buy, and you had to mail order them special, if you did not want shampoo tested in rabbits' eyes," she said.
Today, PETA is a favorite among celebrities such as Richard Gere, Alicia Silverstone and Pamela Anderson Lee, and Ms. Newkirk and her fellow activists chart the course for an organization with offices in London; Stuttgart, Germany; Rome and Bombay.

This isn't Kansas, Toto

PETA headquarters, on the surface, looks like a typical Friday-casual workplace, the hallways full of bright-eyed young people in khakis and sweaters. But, as the parking lot's bumper stickers attest, this is no typical office.
Visitors realize that when they meet the dogs and cats that roam the building.
Practicing what it preaches, PETA encourages employees to bring their animals (not "pets" that word denotes ownership and devalues the life of the animal, PETA says) to work, so as not to keep them cooped up alone all day.
Four cats live in the building, providing feline-petting stress relief as they lounge in the various offices.
The PETA dress code forbids clothing with fur or leather, something the activist staff probably wouldn't do anyway. Almost every employee, after all, has donned an outrageous costume at a rally, stripped off his or her clothes at a protest or been arrested for tossing a pie or a bucket of blood.
On a counter in the building's dining room, there's a model jail that doubles as a piggy bank. Employees make donations to help pay co-workers' fines.
The vending machine nearby is stocked with vegan foods such as peanuts, animal crackers and certain chocolate bars. There are no meat products or even milk chocolate, because PETA is against the use of dairy products.
The soda machine is stocked with RC Cola. Pepsi is unwelcome, staffers said, because Pepsi supports bullfighting in some parts of the world.
What the staff wears and eats outside of work is left to their own discretion. "We've never had a problem with it," said spokeswoman Lisa Lange. "It's not even an issue."
The building's microwave is often filled with Chic-ketts (imitation chicken), Tuno (imitation tuna) and vegetarian "beef" chunks. The freezer contains the fake shrimp that PETA folks eagerly hand out at festivals in the Norfolk area.
One floor below is a room where PETA stores brochures, handouts, donation forms and, most importantly, "The PETA Guide to Becoming an Activist." PETA provides everything the beginner needs to start his or her own animal-rights chapter.
One flier offers helpful hints for organizing a protest in the poultry aisle of the local grocery store: "Rent a chicken costume… . Send out a news release the day before… . Be aware of photographers make sure the chicken and sign will show clearly in a photo."

Get the word out

How important is the media to PETA?
The framed newspaper pages in the media office all of which carry stories about the animal rights organization are an indication. So are the thrice-weekly packets of news articles mentioning PETA that are distributed throughout the building.
Someone is even charged with recording every public mention of PETA, from David Letterman monologues to B-movie dialogue.
PETA's 1999 annual review notes that "our media department booked nearly 1,100 interviews" and "PETA was mentioned in print 7,500 times."
Where the mainstream media end, PETA's own publications Animal Times and Grrr, a magazine designed for young girls pick up.
The fall edition of Animal Times tells readers "why all cats should be indoor cats," provides vegan recipes and asks members to vote for the "sexiest vegetarian alive."
Under the headline "Gross School Lunch Facts" in the latest issue of Grrr, is a paragraph stating: "Government inspectors recently told reporters that students in 31 states were served chicken nuggets made from birds covered with pus, bruises, tumors or scabs. Want barbecue sauce with that?"

Covert operations

The twisted sense of humor that pervades much of the building stops at the door to the Research and Investigations Department.
Inside, beyond the security keypad, is where PETA Vice President Mary Beth Sweetland heads up the organization's most sensitive work, keeping track of a legion of undercover field workers.
These PETA members, armed with hidden cameras, infiltrate the work forces at slaughterhouses, farms and research facilities to document conditions. The undercover specialists don't make it into the office very often, and their identities are a carefully held secret, even from staffers here.
As a researcher, it is Peter Wood's job to back up the investigators by writing letters to the accused abusers, filing complaints with the appropriate government agencies and, if necessary, rallying activists and getting the media involved.
Sometimes he pressures a medical school into discontinuing its use of animal labs, as East Carolina University School of Medicine did a few years ago.
Other times Mr. Wood may succeed only in getting a little press in a college newspaper. Sometimes he is rebuffed in a very polite letter from a laboratory, a farm or a school.
"I never look at it as a loss," he said between viewings of videos depicting live dog dissections. "You're still getting people to see what happens behind closed doors."
Besides, he said, if a PETA target is slow to change initially, the organization just amps up the pressure.
"That's one of the things we're known for our tenacity."
PETA's targets no longer routinely dismiss the group. The Foundation for Biomedical Research, for example, released a statement this year warning parents that their children are lured to PETA by anti-fur and anti-meat campaigns, and become "vulnerable to criminal 'direct' action against researchers."
"PETA is extremely active in U.S. schools, aggressively promoting an agenda of misinformation regarding the need for animals in biomedical research," the statement said.
PETA's pressure tactics sometimes spill over into terrorism, according to critics, who cite examples such as the case of Rodney Coronado, an animal-rights advocate jailed for firebombing a Michigan State University lab. Coronado, a member of the radical Animal Liberation Front, received $45,200 from PETA in 1995.
Many PETA leaders believe, to paraphrase the late Barry Goldwater, that extremism in defense of animals' rights is no vice.
Arson, property destruction, burglary and theft are "acceptable crimes" when used for the animal cause, PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco was once quoted as saying.
While PETA's more radical elements lend the movement a revolutionary cachet with some, it is the group's adroit use of celebrities and media-savvy ad campaigns that have fueled PETA's rise.
When news organizations "underplayed," in the minds of PETA leaders, a story last year about a PETA investigation that led to cruelty charges against three North Carolina farm workers, PETA responded by recruiting a celebrity spokesman.
Actor James Cromwell, star of the movie "Babe," which features a talking pig, agreed to narrate a videotape, which is available to the public, that details the investigation and includes graphic footage of the workers beating pigs.
"I really believe that if people knew this was standard practice … they would think twice before buying pork chops," Ms. Sweetland said.
Famous faces, shocking images and provocative stunts: the formula that's taken PETA from irrelevance to a potent political and cultural force.

First, make 'em laugh

If Ms. Sweetland's research department is Sunday-school sober, the Campaigns Department is frat-boy funny.
Here, amid the full-size chicken and cow suits, the most creative minds at PETA dream up their cultural counteroffensives.
This is where PETA hatched the "Got Prostate Cancer?" campaign.
When a new medical study suggested a link between dairy products and prostate cancer, PETA worked up a plan to get the word out.
Ms. Newkirk's father suffered from prostate cancer, but employees decided a celebrity would be more effective. Someone came up with the idea to use with or without his consent New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had been recently diagnosed with the disease.
While even the mayor's most venomous critics expressed sympathy, PETA posted billboards depicting Mr. Giuliani with a milk mustache and the words, "Got Prostate Cancer?"
Bruce Friedrich, who worked on the campaign, said he sent pictures of the billboards to the mayor ahead of time, but received no response.
They targeted dairy country Wisconsin, parts of Pennsylvania and California and soon the media caught wind of an irresistible story.
"We certainly didn't expect it to cause as much controversy as it did," Mr. Friedrich said.
PETA pulled the campaign when companies refused to give them advertising space and the mayor threatened to sue. PETA eventually sent a letter of apology.
"It's tasteless and inappropriate to exploit my illness and also takes advantage of my position as the mayor for advertising purposes," the mayor said at the time.
The stunt, predictably, angered the dairy industry. Debra Wendorf Boyke, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, said studies have shown that "low-fat dairy products … reduce the risk of colon cancer." She accused PETA of "misleading the public for their own gain."
Meanwhile, the animal rights organization gave away thousands of "vegetarian starter kits" and scored another free-publicity coup.
"It's rare that we find ourselves on 'The Today Show' and 'CNN Talkback Live' for an hour," said Mr. Friedrich, who fielded many of the media calls.
"I think the end result didn't hurt Giuliani and helped people to know if they're drinking milk, they're doing their body a disservice," he said.
PETA's most impressive feat may have been bringing McDonald's to its knees.
When the British High Court found the fast-food giant guilty of animal abuse in 1997, PETA moved quickly, urging the company to make itself more animal-friendly. Frustrated by the burger giant's resistance to change, PETA lobbed a public relations stinkbomb that finally drove the company to the negotiating table.
Last May, PETA members started handing out "Unhappy Meals," a takeoff on the popular McDonald's "Happy Meals." PETA's mock version featured bloody plastic animals, gory stickers and the "Son of Ron," a cutout of Ronald McDonald wearing a bloodstained yellow suit and carrying a bloodstained knife.
"It generated a huge buzz," said Sean Gifford, a Wisconsin native who worked on the campaign.
PETA planned to hand out 10,000 to children at McDonald's playgrounds, but McDonald's relented after about 500 were distributed. The company agreed to tell suppliers to end the practice of cutting off chicken beaks and double the size of chicken cages, among other changes.
With McDonald's in retreat, PETA has a new target, training its sights now on Burger King (they're calling it "Murder King").
The PETA faithful know they've got a long way to go before they change the beliefs of their neighbors in Norfolk and the millions of other consumers around the world.
But they've had a taste of victory and they're serving notice to the cattle industry, to farmers, to fast-food restaurants and to anyone who eats a cheeseburger or wears a leather belt:
PETA intends to be in your face.
"Our job is to make sure no one forgets there's an issue," founder Ms. Newkirk said. "If we only talk about what people already care about, we won't move forward."

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