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On the Cutting Edge of Animal Rights Activism

Times Staff Writer

When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) learned that Avon Products Inc. was pouring deodorants and nail polish remover full strength into the eyes and onto the raw skin of rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals, it lobbied Avon’s door-to-door salespeople to quit their jobs and distributed 3 million door hangers that said “Avon Killing.” Avon has since announced that it will halt all animal testing next month, although the company says PETA’s campaign had nothing to do with its decision.

Last year PETA learned that clothing manufacturer Benetton was testing a new line of men’s and women’s fragrances by applying it to the shaved skin of rabbits, in some cases long enough to burn a hole through to the spinal cord. The animal rights group organized an international boycott of Benetton products. As a result, the company agreed to stop testing the fragrances on animals.

50 Protesters Arrested

Earlier this week, PETA blocked an entrance to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., the nation’s largest funder of animal research. Fifty people were arrested in the demonstration, part of “World Laboratory Animal Liberation Week.” Three hundred demonstrations at research facilities and university medical centers nationwide were planned by sympathetic groups.

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Hundreds of thousands of animals may owe their lives to PETA, a 9-year-old organization outside Washington that routinely crusades against animal experiments by giants of industry, education and government.

National Director Ingrid Newkirk says PETA, which claims the largest animal rights group membership in the nation (250,000), wants to stop new products from being ingested by animals, often in lethal doses. It also seeks to end experiments in which consumer products are dropped into animals’ eyes or smeared on their raw, shaved skin.

More Targets

“I believe it’s just prejudice that allows us to use animals in experiments,” she said in a telephone interview from her office in Rockville, Md.

PETA’s targets have also included Kenner Toys, which tested Play-Doh, Ghost Buster Ecto-Plazm and Dress ‘n Dazzle children’s cosmetics in rabbits’ eyes (Kenner announced April 12 that it will end its animal tests); a South Dakota veterinarian who was reportedly electrocuting unwanted dogs by attaching a car battery cable to the animals’ lips and flanks, and the Pentagon, which had planned to open a “wound laboratory,” shooting dogs to train military surgeons.

Alex Pacheco, PETA’s co-founder and chairman, alerted a Washington newspaper and sympathetic congressmen to stop the wound lab.

“When it comes to pain and suffering, animals and people are equal,” said Pacheco, 30. “Cruelty to animals is no more acceptable than cruelty to children.”

While pursuing its goals, PETA has gained supporters such as Reps. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo).

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The congressmen and other friends applaud PETA’s victories, but not everyone is convinced that the organization is pursuing proper goals.

Henry Spira, a leader of the Animal Rights Coalition in New York, said he thinks some PETA campaigns are counterproductive, including last March’s international boycott against Avon.

Don’t ‘Kick Them in the Head’

John Cox, an Avon spokesman in New York, said that Avon had cut its use of animals in tests from 14,550 in 1981 to 2,423 in 1988 when PETA launched its campaign against the cosmetics firm.

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“I feel that if a company is responsive, one encourages their responsiveness,” Spira said. “One doesn’t kick them in the head. It’s a disincentive for other companies to get involved.”

Newkirk disagrees, saying PETA has documents to prove that since Avon promised to reduce experimentation seven years ago, 52,000 animals died in its experiments.

“Henry Spira is responsible for making Avon move on this issue in 1981. He is the person who exposed these tests,” Newkirk said. “But things were not moving. Everyone had become cozy.

“Within hours of our announcing our international Avon boycott last March, Avon issued a statement saying that within three months it would stop all animal tests.

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“Avon is No. 1 in cosmetic sales in the U.S. and it’s important that they set the trend.”

Applied for a Job

Newkirk, 39, was studying to become a stockbroker two decades ago when she took some cats a neighbor had abandoned to a Maryland animal shelter.

The shelter was “very dirty, very small and badly run. The animals were scared. The sight of their faces touched me, so I applied for a job,” she said.

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She’s also worked as a sheriff, as head of the Washington pound and was head of animal disease control for the local commission of public health. Then she met Pacheco.

“Alex had just returned from England and he told me about animal rights in general,” she said. “I had been involved in animal protection but never heard about animal rights. That gave me a new way of thinking about animals. Not that we should just treat them kindly while we use them but perhaps we should respect them enough not to use them at all.

“I was already a vegetarian, so in my heart I understood that. He gave me a copy of Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ book. That summed up the whole philosophy of animal rights. I agreed completely.”

A short time later they formed PETA, soon moving into a converted warehouse in Rockville, Md.

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Severely Deprived

One of Pacheco’s first activities was to take a summer internship at a Silver Springs, Md., lab that experimented on monkeys.

“The animals were so severely deprived that they engaged in self-mutilation,” Pacheco said. “They were biting off their fingers and had bones sticking through their palms.”

Working as a spy in the lab, he took pictures of the conditions of the animals, brought in scientists who wrote affidavits about the monkeys’ plight and Xeroxed lab records. When he showed his evidence to police, they raided the lab and confiscated the animals. As a result, the lab lost its federal funding.

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Newkirk slept for several years in a sleeping bag on the office floor to save money and help the organization grow. Today, PETA relies on donated furniture and there are exposed wires hanging from the warehouse ceiling, but PETA boasts a staff of 59 and an annual budget of $5.2 million. And Newkirk has an apartment.

She proposed taking away “the cruelest experiments where there is a great deal of pain suffered for long periods of time, the military use of animals in radiation experiments, the cosmetics and household products tests and the psychology experiments which have no medical purpose.”

A New Goal

One of PETA’s new goals is a campaign to replace dissection of frogs and cats in schools with “life-respectful” lessons. Newkirk said there are now cloth frogs with removeable organs in exactly the right colors and computer programs in which children can take the frog apart and put it back together on the screen.

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“In school, the last thing we want our children to learn is insensitivity,” she said. “If they are taught that it is acceptable to harm and kill others just because others aren’t exactly like them or are inferior to them, in some ways that is going to have repercussions in their relationships with humans.”


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