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300 Activists Take Pens in Hand to Aid Animals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Animal rights crusader Ava Park recites the parable with the zeal of a missionary.

After supporters sent a few hundred letters in support of a Latin American political prisoner some years ago, the guards gave the man back his clothes. After the next few hundred letters, the prison warden came to see him. After 3,000 or so, he was finally set free.

The story seemed worth retelling Sunday as more than 300 animal rights activists turned out at a write-in organized by Park’s Orange County People for Animals to send some 9,000 letters around the country in opposition to what they regard as inhumane practices.

“One letter doesn’t seem like a big thing,” said Park, 38, “but if legislators and company presidents continue to be inundated, it slowly starts to alter the consciousness. . . . You start to force people to rethink their positions.”

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Bill Clinton will get some stacks of letters from Orange County. So will members of Congress and federal wildlife officials and corporate presidents.

Even the owner of the posh Antonello Ristorante in Santa Ana can expect a mailbox filled with letters in the next few days. OCPA members want the eatery to stop serving veal. Owner Antonio Cagnolo could not be reached Sunday for comment.

Participants at Sunday’s write-in at the Hyatt Regency Irvine added a few messages of their own. But for the most part, they simply scrawled their names at the bottom of 30 detailed and often angry letters on animal rights, prepared by OCPA leaders.

“I think a lot of the things going on in animal rights are outrageous,” said Vanessa Sprungl, 39, a financial analyst from Laguna Beach who attended the write-in with her husband. “And if these people get enough mail, maybe they’ll know how we feel.”

Among the targets of the letter writers are medical researchers and drug companies that experiment with live animals, a dog sled race in Alaska that OCPA members say has been “tainted with inhumane and brutal treatment” of animals, stores that sell furs and conservancies that use wire neck snares to trap game.

The letters address a wide range of other animal rights issues as well, but some areas--such as factory farming practices--were intentionally avoided because the group does not believe it has any immediate chance of lobbying success.

“The farm lobby is so tremendously powerful that we can only make progress in very small amounts,” Park conceded. “We can’t eliminate red-meat eating tomorrow.”

With 2,000 members, OCPA is the county’s biggest animal rights group.

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Since Park founded the group in 1988, it has established a niche as an often combative protector of animal rights, staging vigils and protests around Orange County. After disrupting two events at the Orange County Fair in 1992, the group won an agreement with the fair that allowed it to set up a table outside the rodeo event and offer uncensored literature on animal cruelty. In exchange, the group agreed not to demonstrate again outside the rodeo, and one public relations official with the fair even attended Sunday’s event.

But critics accuse the animal rights group of overly aggressive tactics.

Dr. Robert Phalen, a UC Irvine professor who sits on the school’s Animal Research Ethics Committee and acts as a spokesman on the issue, said Sunday that Park is “an extremely skilled manipulator . . . (who) misinforms other people and stirs them to action.”

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Among its mass mailings, OCPA is sending one to new UCI Chancellor Laurel Wilkening, asking her to review the university’s policies on animal testing and requesting that a medical researcher debate the group on the volatile issue. OCPA has held several protests on campus over the years, accusing researchers of inhumane practices involving cats, monkeys and other animals.

Park said it was this type of research that first sparked her interest in animal rights. She recalled going out on a date with a medical student who, while on the way to a movie, needed to stop by the laboratory to check on an experiment involving research on cats.

“He was so casual about the whole thing, and I was horrified,” she said. “We didn’t even end up going to the movie. I realized we had nothing to talk about after that.”

But UCI’s Phalen said critics fail to appreciate the stringent safeguards for establishing the essential need for any research, and for avoiding pain to any animals. As for the OCPA request for a public debate, Phalen said the issue has already been debated extensively and that Park appears to lack the scientific knowledge to add much to the discussion.

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Park was unimpressed by Park’s broadside.

“He’s not a real fan of ours,” she said of Phalen. “Of course he’d say that, because if we had our way, he’d be out of business. He wouldn’t have a job.”


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