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Monkey Business : People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals investigates, informs, inflames, terrorizes. And gets things done.

June 12, 1995|LORRAINE ADAMS | THE WASHINGTON POST

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The sun's shining today, but not here, deep inside the institution. The only sound is a big hum from old air shafts. The walls are cinder-block, the ceiling water-stained. The door to the lab is locked. They have to keep it locked now.

Someone, unseen, buzzes it open. No one is around, just steel sinks, banks of refrigerators, black countertops. The only thing moving is something called an orbit shaker, gently mixing a foil packet of runny brain tissue. It was once the gray matter of a cat. It is now grisly ordnance in the war on disease.

Way in the back, a young woman in blue jeans is saying hello, waving. The scientist will be with you shortly, she says. Have a seat.

The calls started last summer, she says. The caller sounds like a huffy man in his 50s. She hopes that all he knows about her is that she's the administrative assistant at a medical research laboratory. She's glad she wasn't mentioned in the ad in the paper.

That ad. It was placed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It named the scientist. Named the lab. Named the university with which the lab is affiliated. It showed a cat in a frame used for brain surgery. The copy says, "Great Moments in Science: See the device on the right? We use it to hold cats' heads still. Most animals don't like it when we push things into their brains. Strap them in the old stereotaxic restraint, though, and our needles and electrodes just slide right in!"

There are the little cat ears, soft triangles. There are the places the eyes should be, pierced with one long rod. Or so it seems. The picture is grainy, the perspective misleading. The needles, electrodes and restraining device are real, and unsettling enough. But, in fact, the animal's eyes are not gouged.

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Twenty years ago, there was no animal rights movement. Today, from an unquiet warehouse in Rockville, Md., for better or for worse, PETA conducts an international campaign to eradicate animal cruelty. It investigates, it informs, it inflames, it unabashedly terrorizes those it sees as enemies.

It is an organization with an acute historical consciousness. Its members believe they are our underground railroad, blessed with vision, ahead of their time, indomitably fighting an evil the rest of the nation will eventually recognize. They were vigilantes long before the modern militias were born. They are mostly white, mostly women, young, good-looking, smart, MTV-bred, enamored of ideas. They are vegans; compared with them, conventional vegetarians seem like cannibals. They are presumably lefty, but there are Republicans and antiabortion activists among them. They are dismissed as misanthropes, but wrongly.

There's a PETA line on almost everything.

Refer to pets as animal companions. Refer to animals as she and he , never it . Boycott cosmetic companies that do animal testing. Buy vegedog and vegecat food; if cats won't take to it, try adding avocado.

Buy humane rat traps. Once rat is captured, drive to rural area, release to a long happy life. Never use Roach Motels (they tear off roach legs). Don't buy musk oil, it comes from otter genitals.

Refrain from using animals in pejorative expressions, as in you jackass, weasel, swine, silly as a goose, stubborn as a mule, harebrained, dumb bunny.

No furs. No wool blankets. No soccer balls. No tortoise-shell jewelry or combs. No circus. No hunting. No fishing. Canvas running shoes are big for PETA men. Espadrilles for the women.

PETA people will go naked to make a point. But they are also skilled investigators; accomplished, nervy spies. They will go undercover for months at a time. They assume new identities, get jobs in labs or chicken farms, and do the acting job of their lives. Their activist demonstrations are close to performance art.

You could dismiss PETA and its people as loons, except for three things.

The first is that they are hardly benign. On behalf of animals, they hound people. They hurt people. They cannot be ignored.

The second is that PETA is inarguably effective. Its videos--some stolen from industry, some taken at personal risk by its amateur undercover investigators--have been formidable instruments for reform. One enormous room at PETA is devoted to videos. Many a public official--from Cabinet secretaries to university presidents--have seen PETA videos, experienced that sickened, stumbling feeling. Labs have closed. Rules and laws have changed. Medical protocols have been scrapped. Revlon, Avon and Benetton have given up animal testing.

The final reason PETA people cannot be dismissed is: They are committed.

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