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 
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 
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.

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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