Animal Rights Protests: Is Radical Chic Still In Style?

  • Category: Philosophy
  • Words: 2192
  • Grade: 100
Over the past fifteen years a powerfully charged drama has

unfolded in New York's Broadway venues and spread to the opera houses and

ballet productions of major cities across the country. Its characters

include angry college students, aging rock stars, flamboyant B-movie

queens, society matrons, and sophisticated fashion designers. You can't

buy tickets for this production, but you might catch a glimpse of it

while driving in Bethesda on particular Saturday afternoons. If you're

lucky, Compassion Over Killing (COK), an animal rights civil disobedience

group, will be picketing Miller's Furs, their enemy in the fight against

fur. These impassioned activists see the fur trade as nothing less than

wholesale, commercialized murder, and will go to great lengths to get

their point across. Such enthusiasm may do them in, as COK's often

divisive rhetoric and tacit endorsement of vandalism threaten to alienate

the very people it needs to reach in order to be successful.

The animal rights idealogy crystallized with the publication of

philosophy professor's exploration of the way humans use and abuse other

animals. Animal Liberation argued that animals have an intrinsic worth

in themselves and deserve to exist on their own terms, not just as means

to human ends. By 1985, ten years after Peter Singer's watershed

treatise was first published, dozens of animal rights groups had sprung

up and were starting to savor their first successes. In 1994 Paul

Shapiro, then a student at Georgetown Day School, didn't feel these

non-profits were agitating aggressively enough for the cause. He founded

Compassion Over Killing to mobilize animal rights activists in the

Washington metropolitan area and "throw animal exploiters out of

business." Since then, COK has expanded to over 300 members with

chapters across the country, including one at American University, which

formed in the fall of 1996. COK organizes protests as a primary activity

of the group, although some chapters may choose to expand into other

areas if they wish.

COK's focus on direct-action protests and demonstrations is just

one way that the animal rights movement has mobilized to end the fur

trade. The larger animal rights organizations have conducted attention

grabbing media blitzes with the help of stars like Paul McCartney,

Melissa Etheridge, Rikki Lake, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.

Lobbying efforts by animal advocacy groups have resulted in trapping

restrictions in numerous states and an end to federal fur industry

subsidies. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has

persuaded several fashion designers including Calvin Klein and Donna

Karan to stop using fur in their clothing lines. In addition, anti-fur

concerts, videos, compact discs, t-shirts, drag revues and award

ceremonies have been used by animal rights groups to advance their cause.

Each side of the conflict over fur coats has an entirely

different way of conceptualizing and talking about the issue. Animal

rights groups bluntly describe fur as "dead...animal parts" and emphasize

that animals are killed to produce a fur garment. Those involved in the

fur industry consistently use agricultural metaphors and talk of a yearly

"crop of fur" that must be "harvested." Manny Miller, the owner of

Miller's Furs, refused to describe his business in terms of the

individual animals; "I don't sell animals. I sell finished products. I

sell fur coats." These linguistic differences extend to the manner in

which both sides frame the debate over fur. COK refers to the industry

in criminal terms; fur is directly equated with murder and those involved

in the industry are labeled killers. Industry groups like the Fur

Information Council of America (FICA) always describes fur garments as

objects and clothing; it is "the ultimate cold weather fabric" that is

"your fashion choice."

On Saturday, April 12th, Compassion Over Killing demonstrated

outside the White House, protesting the Clinton administration's

opposition to a European Community ban on the importation of fur coats

made from animals caught in the wild. In addition, the demonstration

called for the release of several Animal Liberation Front (ALF) members

imprisoned for vandalizing property and liberating animals from research

labs and factory farms. Several dozen high school and college students

turned out for the event, but the protest attracted a handful of

thirtysomethings and an elderly woman as well. Most of the young people

there seemed to dress in a similar style; baggy pants, piercings and

t-shirts advertising obscure "hard-core" rock bands adorned most of the

activists. The organizers of the protest provided more than enough signs

for everyone to carry. Each sign had a slogan stenciled on the cardboard

in boxy black letters, including "Abolish the Fur Trade," "Fur is

Murder," "Stop Promoting Vanity and Death," and "Fur is Dead- Get It In

Your Head." Some of the signs displayed graphic photographs of skinned

animal carcasses. In contrast to the dramatic messages they carried,

most of the activists were subdued as they slowly trudged in a circle.

The inclement weather seemed to dampen their spirits a bit, as for most

of the three hour protest it alternated between drizzle and half-hearted

rain showers. The few passersby seemed intent on getting through the

rain, and quickly walked past while giving the protesters wide berth. In

periods when the precipitation was less intense, the majority of people

passed by with expressions of studied indifference or disgust and seemed

to have a visceral reaction to the bloody, explicit posters. It is not

necessarily bad to show people what you are against; no one in COK likes

to look at those photographs. At the same time, it's important to try to

reach people at a level where your message can resonate. Using words

like "murder" may attract attention, but it has just as much potential to

turn people off. The fur industry is trying its hardest to paint groups

like COK as a radical fringe; one FICA press release said, "the more

bizarre the activists look, the better we look -- and what they had

outside were freaks." COK's choice of words might just be playing right

into the other side's hands.

Environmentalists would appear to be natural allies of animal

rights groups; after all, they both profess concern for the Earth's

varied inhabitants and passionately organize to protect other-than-human

species. But while animal advocates generally call themselves

environmentalists, the reverse is not true. Jim Motavalli writes that

"environmentalists tend to see the animal movement as hysterical, shrill

and "˜one note.' They're often embarrassed by the lab raids, the

emotional picketing and the high-pitched hyperbole." If the rhetoric of

groups like COK alienates groups with a natural affinity for animal

issues, how can it change the mind of a 55 year old wealthy white woman

who's always loved the look and feel of a fur coat?

Although the White House simply stood silently in response to

COK's sidewalk activities, the scene was quite different when Compassion

Over Killing picketed Miller's Furs in early April. Slightly less people

turned out, but the makeup of the crowd was similar to the one at the

Pennsylvania Avenue protest; many of the faces were the same at both

events. However, a certain contrast was clear; this protest was

targeting a finite business operation, while the White House

demonstration seemed to address the entire United States legal system as

well as foreign policy. COK's call for the release of ALF members

convicted of various felonies had an air of futility about it, as the

activists claimed the right to break all sorts of U.S. laws in the name

of their cause. The Miller's Fur protest was more of an even fight.

This time the activists seemed more powerful, as if they were in reach of

their goal to close down the Bethesda fur salon. Their signs had a few

more incendiary phrases than those at the presidential protest; "Boycott

Murder- Don't Buy Fur" and "Stop the Killers Boycott Miller's" appeared

in addition to those used at the White House protest. The activists

excitedly talked about a recent ALF action; the underground group had

recently spray painted animal right slogans over Miller's windows and

canopy. As they circled the group broke into chants directed by COK

leaders, which seemed to add energy to the protester's message. Passing

cars beeped their horns as their drivers waved in support, in contrast to

the tepid response from the pedestrian traffic at the protest downtown.

However, with one or two exceptions those who passed by the fur protest

on foot in Bethesda seemed to be just as hostile as those in D.C. Some

speculate that the entire concept of a fur salon picket is faulty, that

COK just angers "people when [they] say, "˜don't buy fur!'and makes them

want to go and do it."

The women that dared to cross Miller's threshold attracted every

protester's attention, as they shouted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in unison.

As one customer left the store loud voices yelled out, "That's

Disgusting!", "Shame!", "How'd They Get The Blood Out Of Your Coat?" and

other slogans which were drowned out by others' hissing and boos. The

effect was very much like that of an angry mob; tension and vitriolic

energy filled the air. This atmosphere may release pent up emotion, and

discourage people from buying fur in the short term, although in the long

term it runs the risk of damaging the animal rights cause. A recent

survey revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans strongly

disapprove "of protesting fur coats in a harassing manner." Animal

advocates certainly don't need their tactics compared to radical pro-life

groups that make abortion clinics warzones.

As all the activity unfolded outside their door Miller's Furs

taped a small sign to their window that read "Medical Research Saves

Lives." This seemed off-topic at first glance, but after visiting the

FICA web site and reading other pro-fur literature, it was apparent that

the sign was part of a pattern. The fur industry initially ignored

criticism from animal rights groups and relied on their product's

glamorous image to state their case. As the column inches devoted to the

animal rights movement's allegations of cruelty began to accumulate and

sales began to drop; the industry's strategy shifted. Fur companies

began to try to draw attention away from themselves by pointing out the

most controversial parts of the animal rights agenda to the mainstream

society. Arguably the animal rights issue with the least amount of

public support is medical animal testing. Although this topic divides

the animal rights community, many of the movement's leaders favor total

abolition of any testing on animals. The fur industry is only too happy

to point this out to anyone who'll listen.

Compassion Over Killing and other animal rights groups are

actively trying to change the social "rules" that prevail in this

country. While in the short term they may not be advocating a ban on fur

coats, COK's protests are aimed at making it socially unacceptable to

wear fur. This effort has shown signs of succeeding, as fur sales have

fallen almost 50% below their peak volume in 1987. However, they have

begun to creep upwards again in recent quarters. As with every social

movement, animal advocacy groups need to pause and reevaluate their

public relations strategies. Perhaps it's time for organizations like

Compassion Over Killing to cut back on their use of emotionally charged

phrases and tacit endorsement of felonious acts a la ALF. Without

considering these issues, COK runs the risk of marginalizing the group

and losing its battle against fur.

Works Cited

Cowit, Steve. "Hollywood Hypocrites." Fur Age

 

04/06/97 11:35:32.

Feitelberg, Rosemary. "Surge in Luxe Business, Designer Participation

Bode Well for Fur Week." Women's Wear Daily 14 May 1996: 1+.

"Freak Show Protest Falls on Deaf Ears." Fur Age

04/06/97 11:41:16.

Fur Information Council of America. "Fur, Your Fashion Choice."

Motavalli, Jim. "Our Agony Over Animals." E Magazine Oct 1995: 28-37.

People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Annual Report." 1994.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "The PETA Guide to Animals

and the

Clothing Trade."

Responsive Management. "Americans' Attitudes Toward Animal Welfare,

Animal Rights and

Use of Animals."

Riechmann, Deb. "A Harvest of Fox Fur And Anger." Washington Post 5 Jan

1995: M2.

Shapiro, Paul. "An Interview With the Owner of Miller's Furs." The

Abolitionist

Summer 1996: 3-4.

Shapiro, Paul. Personal Communication. Bethesda, MD. 5 April 1997.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics For Our Treatment of

Animals New

York: Avon, 1975.

Stern, Jared Paul. "Are You Fur Real?" Fashion Reporter June/July 1996:

5-6.
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