Animal Rights Protests
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
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
ther-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
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
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.
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