July 12, 2005
Animal activists PETA raise corporate America’s ire
By Carey Gillam
NORFOLK, Va., (Reuters) - With a cat snoozing on her desk
and clad in a rumpled "Love Animals" T-shirt, Ingrid Newkirk
hardly looks like a woman who could make corporate titans
As the founder and the passionate force behind People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Newkirk says her organization
is made up simply of "kind people" who want only to end animal
abuse and exploitation.
But try telling that to the corporate retail and food
giants who have seen -- and felt -- PETA's claws.
Using tactics that sometime make even avid animal lovers
squirm, and backed by nearly $30 million yearly in private
contributions, PETA has become known worldwide as a radical but
formidable foe of big retailers and food companies.
At a May protest at a KFC restaurant, also known as
Kentucky Fried Chicken, PETA protesters dressed as Grim Reapers
and carried a coffin with a human-sized chicken in it while
decrying the fast food giant for "live scalding and painful
debeaking" of the chickens it serves.
PETA has also run "McCruelty," "MurderKing" and
"WickedWendy's" campaigns to assail fast food chains for the
way animals used in their products are treated. The group has
picketed the homes of executives, dispatched undercover
investigators to videotape animal mistreatment at laboratories
and on farms and run stomach-turning ad campaigns with bloody
images of abuse and slaughter.
"Sometimes sadly, you have to look quite scary and carry a
big stick," Newkirk says of the tactics.
Industry leaders say the campaigns are embarrassing but do
little to deter customers. But few deny PETA campaigns were the
catalysts behind a range of animal welfare reforms made in
recent years by McDonald's Corp.
King Corp. and Wendy's International Inc.
"They've got $29 million a year, you can do a lot of
massaging of public opinion with that kind of money," said Rick
Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom,
whose membership includes restaurant and food companies. "PETA
is very good at attacking."
HOW TO KILL A CHICKEN
This summer, as PETA celebrates 25 years of largely
successful campaigns, the group has set its sights on one of
its toughest challenges yet as it seeks sweeping change in the
$29 billion U.S. poultry industry.
PETA wants the estimated 9 billion chickens slaughtered
each year in the United States to first receive a mixture of
gas and oxygen to make them unconscious, a method used in
Europe, but one that would require costly overhauls of U.S.
Current U.S. systems shackle live chickens, hang them
upside down and run them through electrified baths to stun them
before their throats are slit and they are put into scalding
defeathering tanks. PETA cited USDA reports as evidence that
millions of chickens annually are conscious through most if not
all of the process.
"I don't understand how anyone with a conscience can learn
about the horrifically cruel conditions for chicken slaughter
and not want to do anything about it," said PETA campaign
director Bruce Friedrich.
Under pressure from PETA, McDonald's issued a report on
June 30 saying it was studying the matter. Restaurant operator
Applebee's International Inc.
issue, thanks to PETA.
National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said the
current slaughter system is both "effective and humane," and
PETA's latest reform requests are efforts to drive up costs and
put chicken companies out of business.
"They're just trying to come up with things that will be
costly for food companies as part of their overall desire to
move to a strictly vegan world," Lobb said.
Because of the issue, KFC, a subsidiary of YUM! Brands
largest fast-food purveyors of chickens, is emerging as one of
PETA's staunchest foes.
Having seen PETA protesters smear fake blood on its
restaurant walls and smear the company name with gory
undercover videos of alleged abuse at its suppliers, KFC
officials have dubbed PETA's actions "corporate terrorism" and
have cut off communications with PETA representatives.
KFC officials are loathe to discuss anything having to do
with PETA publicly. But the Center for Consumer Freedom is
backing KFC and its brethren and is running anti-PETA ads,
including a billboard in New York's Times Square.
"We are taking the fight to PETA," said Berman. "They've
hit a roadblock with the chicken industry." Critics accuse PETA
of lying and other misdeeds including a range of deceit and
misbehavior, including financially aiding acts of violence and
unfairly claiming tax-exempt status
PETA officials say they have no intention of letting up on
KFC, after staging 8,000 protests against the company so far.
Indeed, PETA's highly successful track record shows that
some campaigns run for years, the longest, which put an animal
trainer in Las Vegas out of business, lasted 16 years,
according to Newkirk.
Other notches in PETA's belt include persuading General
Abercrombie & Fitch
retailers to boycott Australian wool and pressuring Revlon
cosmetic companies to stop animal testing.
Over the 25 years since PETA was founded in Newkirk's
suburban Maryland home, the organization has grown to include
more than 800,000 members and about 200 employees with offices
in the United Kingdom, India, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Wealthy benefactors help fund sophisticated multi-faceted
marketing and secret investigations.
Stray animals are given homes in PETA's headquarters, and
cat-sized holes are cut into the bottoms of many office doors
so the animals can move about freely.
Newkirk says PETA's ultimate goal is a world where humans
don't eat, wear or exploit animals.
"We are the pit bulls of animal protection," Newkirk said
in a recent interview. "Don't mess with us. We will win."