People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals did a few things right when it opened its new West Coast headquarters in Echo Park last month.
First, PETA spent $7.4 million buying and renovating its 82-year-old building, equipping it with such eco-industrial flourishes as a restored Art Deco facade, exposed ducts, vintage glass casement windows and cork flooring. Next, the animal rights group brought in 60 jobs — mostly transfers from its main office in Norfolk, Va. — but some local hires as well.
PETA's decision to use Los Angeles as a base for such operations as youth outreach, online and social media marketing, audiovisual production and international pressure campaigns also enhances the city's position as a leading center of new media.
Tracy Reiman, PETA's bright-eyed executive vice president, took me on a tour this week of the serene offices, which are decorated in black, white and gray. Just past the Pamela Anderson Conference Room, slender young people sat in silent reverie at banks of laptops, while a few "companion animals" wandered the room, or curled up in dog beds at their feet.
"It's not just Hollywood; L.A. has the early adopters, the movers and shakers and cutting-edge thinking," Reiman said. "It's just a terrific place to take our message."
But even before the building opened, PETA pulled one of those gross-out stunts that continue to divide the larger animal welfare and rights communities.
With the building still swathed in plywood, PETA unfurled a rooftop billboard with a picture of a cat whose head appeared to be embedded with electrodes. The caption read, "If you call it 'medical research' you can get away with murder."
Echo Park, a pet haven and home to more three-legged, funny-looking or otherwise unwanted dog rescues than anywhere on Earth, collectively winced and averted its eyes.
"Sigh. Good 'ol PETA. 31 years of alienating those who would otherwise support their cause," one commenter wrote on the Curbed L.A. blog.
Reiman, in an email, said the sign was an example of the "eye-catching, headline-making, envelope-pushing, public-influencing, and just plain quirky and interesting actions" that put animal rights on the map. She also suggested that the group would show more sensitivity to the neighborhood in the future, but PETA clearly isn't walking away from its shock and awe tactics. A January demonstration at the Farmer John sausage plant in Vernon featured barely clad, cellophane-wrapped women lying in "meat" trays.
PETA's in-your-face publicity gambits have clearly moved once-radical notions including veganism and fur- and leather-free fashion closer to the mainstream. But I remain ambivalent about the group.
In college, I worked in a lab facility called the Rat Colony. My boss was a woman who dressed like she was going to a bridge party, and whom I would describe as a closet sadist.
Part of my job entailed branding the vermin so they could be tracked during experiments. This was done by slitting or perforating their ears with a hole-puncher. The more rats, the more holes were needed to distinguish one from the other until there was barely any ear left. The animals' screams when you hit a nerve were dismissed as a meaningless reflex.
As I transferred them to clean cages, the rats would climb up their own tails and try to bite me. When one of them succeeded, it had to be reported to higher-ups, which infuriated the director. She blew into the lab, grabbed the offending rat by the tail and smashed it against the wall.
As the bloody remains slid slowly to the floor, she barked, "Clean it up!" to her hulking, Igor-ish assistant and stalked out, high heels clicking and earrings jangling down the linoleum hallway.
So I am grateful to PETA for challenging the needless cruelty that prevailed in labs of that era, and which Reiman told me is still widespread today. But if a child's life can only be saved through animal experimentation, and it can be conducted humanely, I'm for it.
The cultural change that PETA helped bring about also attracts and repels me. Sunset Boulevard around the PETA outpost is being colonized by vegan restaurants. It's great to see alternatives to fast food, but could the vegans learn how to cook first? Or show some imagination? At times, it feels like my neighborhood is under siege by phalanxes of kale salad and quinoa.
The vegan, a.k.a. plastic, purse I bought keeps slipping off my shoulder. And don't get me started on the whole gluten-free thing, which I know is good for some people, but is also a front for incipient anorexics and senseless demonization of perfectly good food.
PETA and some local animal groups part ways on the issue of no-kill shelters. Through animal rescues, advocating an end to puppy mills and fostering spay and neuter campaigns, activists are trying to cut the number of unwanted animals that have to be euthanized to zero. PETA kills more than 90% of the animals it takes in at its Norfolk shelter.
Reiman said theirs is a shelter of last resort, with animals too sick or injured to save. PETA also argues that no-kill shelters turn away animals that end up being killed less humanely somewhere else.
But critics say PETA is quick to go to the needle for salvageable animals because of its ambivalence about the living conditions of animals used as pets or for entertainment. The group opposes aquariums and in a recent lawsuit tried to free five SeaWorld orcas whose captivity it claims violated the 13th amendment ban on slavery.
On its website, PETA documents an undercover investigation it conducted of what it said were horrific conditions at a no-kill cat sanctuary in Florida. I tried to check it out, but I literally couldn't look at the photos and videos of cats with gouged-out eyes and open wounds. What's the point of a message that can't reach those most likely to care?