Animal Rights Protests: Is Radical Chic Still In S

tyle?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
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<http://www.furs.com/FUR/FurAge9.html>
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
http://www.furs.com/FUR/FurAge76.html>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
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Animal Rights and
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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:
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Category: Miscellaneous