A Pet Cause

Sex sells and sometimes it's needed to get attention where it counts.

Regardless of your take on animal rights, there’s no denying that Dan Matthews—the luscious Vice President of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—in Sponge Bob boxers is alluring. Last week, when a near-naked Matthews and five fellow near-naked protesters staged a pillow fight as part of PETA’s “rather go naked than wear fur” campaign, they attracted a horde of students, press and local residents to the Square. Yet in spite of the event’s popularity, the college community was quick to slam PETA for pushing an absurd “pet” cause and using extremist tactics.

Self-satisfied students immediately scorned the inane hippie agitators, who just didn’t get that eating chicken and wearing cow is the natural order. Sure, nobody favors animal abuse, but according to many students, theatrical stunts like the recent “love-in” won’t convince anyone to go cold turkey on meat. It’s certainly disappointing that so many Harvard students, who ostensibly favor justice and fairness, hastily dismissed a group promoting those exact ideals.

Though it’s hard to imagine a chickwich originating from anything organic—let alone a chicken—it did. But before the chicken reached your plate in its rubbery form, it was most likely confined to a small cage with seven other chickens. Inside this cell, the chicken was either “shocked” through starvation or disoriented by artificial lighting to overeat and, as a result, suffer obesity conditions like heart attacks. Ultimately, when the hen became huge, it was hung upside-down, had its legs snapped into metal shackles, its throat slit open, only to be immersed in scalding hot water for feather removal while staying conscious through the entire process.

The plight of other animals we eat and wear is no less horrifying. In speaking up on behalf of downtrodden creatures that feel pain but can’t communicate it, PETA is pursuing a just and noble cause.

While the rash dismissal of PETA’s cause is unwarranted, the common accusation that PETA undermines animal rights with its wild antics is downright ignorant. With over 800,000 members worldwide and an operating budget of $21 million—86 percent of which is earmarked directly to fighting animal exploitation—PETA is currently one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the world. Its anti-fur protests, animal cruelty investigations and “reality television” vans that travel around the country depicting abused animals get front-page coverage in various publications—including The Crimson last week—and force big-name animal abusers to clean up their acts. In 1993, PETA persuaded General Motors to stop using pigs and ferrets in crash tests; in 2000 and 2001, the organization forced McDonald’s and Burger King to set stricter regulations in its slaughterhouses.

Although PETA’s achievements are impressive, some of its means are troublesome. Getting naked in the Square and dressing Playboy models in lettuce bikinis in a campaign promoting vegetarianism is distasteful at best. But by selling its cause with sex, PETA isn’t recreating the wheel. Like Budweiser, Versace and U.S. dairy farmers—whose “Got Milk” ads feature scantily clad female celebrities—PETA is capitalizing on a culture numb to almost everything except sex. In defense of her participation in last week’s love-in, PETA campaign coordinator Brandi R. Valladolid explains, “I certainly don’t make the rules, and I certainly would be a fool to let animals suffer in silence because I refuse to play by them.”

With dedicated and compassionate PETA activists playing these rules to their advantage—and constantly making animals’ lives more tolerable—it seems that the only fools are those who belittle PETA’s cause and its successes.

Asya Troychansky ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.