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Fighting Tooth & Claw : Ingrid Newkirk's Combative Style And Headline-grabbing Stunts Have Shaken Up The Animal-rights Movement

March 22, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic.

TOKYO--Two Americans protested the fur business today by stripping down to their underwear and marching through a crowded shopping district carrying a banner reading "We'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur." Ignoring the nippy winter chill, the two members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals walked for an hour outside Sunshine 60, Japan's tallest building.

Associated Press, Feb. 18, 1991

Organized efforts to change the way humans treat animals go back to the 18th Century. But in the past 10 years, PETA's innovative high-concept, high-charged, high-profile crusade has shaken up the relatively musty movement the way strutting Professor Harold Hill ooom-pahed the daylights out of River City.

Although strikingly underfinanced compared with its giant industrial foes, PETA is still a multimedia Madison-Avenue-on-the-Potomac, bankrolled in 1991 by nearly $10.5 million, with more than $9 million coming from contributions. Sales of PETA merchandise accounted for most of the rest. (Because of the recession, PETA's 1992 budget fell to $8.5 million.)

Protests spew from PETA. From its two-story headquarters behind a strip shopping center in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., it conducts aggressive publicity campaigns with such slogans as "Meat Stinks" and "Fur Is Dead." It mails out slick books, magazines, pamphlets, TV public-service announcements and videos with such titles as "Exporting Cruelty," "Getting Away With Murder" and "Cheap Tricks," a grisly behind-the-scenes glimpse at animal acts narrated by actor Alec Baldwin. The group has developed a "We Serve Vegetarian Meals" sticker for restaurants (the Hard Rock Cafe in Washington posts one) and lobbies food manufacturers to use substitutes for animal fats.

Also available is PETA's "cruelty-free living" catalogue. Inside a glossy cover adorned by puppy-hugging actress Rue McClanahan are 31 pages of products ranging from detergent, cosmetics and vegetarian cookbooks to PETA-logo watches, T-shirts and postcards bearing "memorable and moving quotations by famous people." The authors: George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and . . . Ingrid Newkirk. Her quote: "When it comes to feelings, like pain, hunger and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

PETA's most ambitious endeavors, though, are its investigations into alleged abuse of animals. "Our people take undercover jobs in industries and other facilities that use animals," Newkirk says. "They wear hidden cameras and Xerox documents. After nine or 11 months, they come out with meticulously documented evidence of wrongdoing that we show to our expert base--neurologists, forensic scientists and chemical engineers. Then we bring these cases to federal regulatory agencies or local law enforcement or the media or our members and tell them to get involved at the grass-roots level."

After being hounded by PETA, companies including Avon, Estee Lauder, Benetton and Tonka Toy Co. stopped testing products on rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals; a National Institutes of Health-funded clinic whose research involved crushing the skulls of baboons was closed; a Texas slaughterhouse was ordered shut, and the Pentagon halted wound tests in which pigs, goats and other animals were shot.

One of the strategies that has set PETA apart in the media-saturated '80s and '90s is its staggering array of publicity stunts. Newkirk doesn't apologize for these tactics, saying such mischief is necessary to capture the attention of a media captivated only by outrageousness. "Say something sensible without a gimmick, and it will be ignored," she says. "So you're reduced--and that's what it is--to doing something often absurd."

"We're living in the age of tabloid journalism," echoes Dan Mathews, PETA's revved-up special-projects director. "When we got this incredible footage from a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse last year, no one paid much attention. But when (country singer) k.d. lang did a 'Meat Stinks' ad for us, the media went crazy, and even Dan Rather did a story."

With those kinds of results, it's no wonder Newkirk, whose stunts have caused her to be arrested many times, rigidly stands by her oft-stated credo: "Any publicity is good publicity."

Such tabloid tactics have helped to render the animal-rights agenda more visible than ever. For instance, the Los Angeles-based Ark Trust's annual Genesis Awards, which honor media for discussing animal issues, drew 115 entries in 1991, compared with 20 in 1986. That year a radio host was given a Genesis Award "just for letting us talk about animals," says Ark Trust president Gretchen Wyler. Having celebrities on the bandwagon has helped. On the CBS hit comedy series "Murphy Brown," the continued display of a PETA mug by star Candice Bergen has so outraged some farm groups that they have demanded equal mug time.

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