Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Dan Mathews ARZone Interview
Dan Mathews began his career with PeTA as a receptionist and soon rose through the ranks by devising stunts to increase public awareness of issues regarding other animals. He is responsible for launching PETA’s legendary “Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign by walking down the streets of Tokyo wearing nothing more than a banner.
Dan has also managed some of PeTA’s other controversial and attention-getting campaigns, including ads involving celebrities such as Morrissey, Pam Anderson, Pink and Paul McCartney. Recruiting a parade of well known people to speak out for other animals, he was the first person to interview long time animal advocate Paul McCartney after the death of his wife, Linda.
Some of Dan’s achievements include convincing Calvin Klein to stop designing with fur after leading a raid of his office, pressuring GM to stop using other animals in crash tests by storming the auto company’s float in the Rose Parade, and lobbying Gillette to halt tests on other animals by wheeling a TV into the company’s cafeteria to show graphic undercover footage of the gruesome experiments.
Dan’s essays about his experiences have appeared in TV Guide, Out, Advocate, and Britain’s Guardian. His irreverent memoir, Committed, has been published in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and across Europe.
ARZone: Dan, do you have, and if so would you share, two or three pieces of advice you would give to someone who is acting locally for the cause of animal liberation?
Dan Mathews: Look for opportunities to build relationships with other local animal rights supporters based on common interests, such as vegetarians or spay/neuter advocates. Even by connecting with faith-based groups and local businesses, you will find people who are interested in speaking up for animals. Pick some campaigns you want to focus on, such as fundraising for spay/neuter programs, adding more vegetarian and vegan options at restaurants, helping chained dogs, or encouraging your town’s newspaper to cover animal rights stories.
Set clear goals for what you want to accomplish, develop a timeline for your actions, and stay focused. PETA offers a handbook on effective advocacy that anyone can download free from our website: http://www.peta.org/action/effective-advocacy.aspx People can also join our Action Team to receive e-mails about upcoming events and demonstrations in their area, as well as breaking news and urgent action alerts: http://www.peta.org/action/action-team/default.aspx
How are your organization’s euthanasia policies in line with the idea of animal rights?
Euthanasia is a sad reality caused by people who abandon animals, refuse to sterilize their animals, and patronize pet shops and breeders instead of adopting homeless animals. Every day in the U.S., tens of thousands of puppies and kittens are born, and there will never be enough homes for all these animals. Animal shelters and shelter workers are stuck with the heart-wrenching job of dealing with unwanted animals.
Some people wonder why “surplus” animals can’t simply live in animal shelters instead of being killed. Even if government-sponsored and private animal shelters had the resources to house the millions of homeless animals born in the U.S. each year (and they don’t), dogs, cats, and other animals need much more than food, water, and a cage or pen. They also need lots of loving care, regular and sustained companionship, and the opportunity to run and play. As difficult as it may be for us to accept, euthanasia (when carried out by veterinarians or trained animal shelter professionals with a painless intravenous injection of sodium pentobarbital) is often the most compassionate and dignified way for unwanted animals to leave a world that has no place for them.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding this year’s PETA Superbowl commercial, which was banned from airing. This commercial was a suggestive depiction of women performing oral sex, using vegetables such as cucumbers to represent a penis. Could you please explain how this type of eroticism is conducive to drawing attention to the oppression of other animals, and why PETA seem to believe that celebrating the exploitation of women is a helpful way to end the oppression and commodification of other animals?
As an organization staffed largely by feminist women, PETA would not do something that we felt exacerbated the very serious problems that women face. But we also believe that grownups should be free to use their bodies to make social statements, if they wish. While our “Veggie Love” Super Bowl ads are risqué, they’re no more provocative than the other ads promoting unhealthy products, like beer and fast-food burgers, that are shown on Super Bowl Sunday. PETA’s job is to draw attention to animal suffering, and we have found—and your question confirms—that people do pay more attention to our racier actions. The proof is in the numbers: In just one week, our “Veggie Love Casting Session” videos resulted in 15,299 views of undercover factory farm footage; 1,456 signups for our vegan pledge; and 834 orders of our free vegetarian/vegan starter kit. That’s more than 17,500 people who learned about factory farming and vegan living in one week alone.
What are some of the most important victories for animals that have come about due to PETA? How does your organization decide which issues to pursue? How is PETA working towards animal liberation?
Over the years, PETA has had many, many victories—it’s hard to narrow down the “most important” ones because anything that saves even one animal or reaches even one person is important. But, as you can see from our Web page on PETA’s history http://www.peta.org/about/learn-about-peta/history.aspx PETA has exposed animal abuse in numerous laboratories, leading to canceled funding, closed facilities, and cruelty charges; closed the largest horse-slaughtering operation in North America; successfully campaigned to end General Motors’ crash tests on animals; prompted the first anti-cruelty law in Taiwan; stopped the construction of a cruel dolphin tank in Virginia; convinced hundreds of companies not to test their products on animals; and prompted a number of popular retailers, including JC Penney, J. Crew, H&M, Ann Taylor, Express, Gap, Banana Republic, Boston Proper, Polo Ralph Lauren, American Eagle Outfitters, and Caché, to stop selling fur.
I’ve helped convince several top designers, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren, to stop selling fur, and I work closely with Tim Gunn—the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne and star of Project Runway—to promote stylish alternatives to fur, wool, and exotic skins.
PETA primarily focuses its attention on the food, clothing, entertainment, and experimentation industries. We work through public education, undercover investigations, animal rescue, special events, and celebrity involvement. We also work with policymakers at major corporations, including Burger King, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, to bring about positive changes for animals, and with prosecutors and sheriff’s offices to stop the abuse of domestic animals. PETA’s mobile spay-neuter clinic has sterilized thousands of animals living with low-income families.
For more detailed information about PETA’s victories, large and small, see http://www.peta.org/about/victories/default.aspx
In the age of the internet, and when the need is for grassroots campaigning, what justifies the existence of large and wealthy corporations like the one you work for? What can a centralised, isolated, organisation do that cannot be better done by animal advocates on the ground active in their own locality?
There’s no question that groups and individuals working on animal rights issues at the local level are vital. We constantly work with activists “on the ground,” as you put it, and support their efforts, providing leaflets, signs, video footage, media training, and other resources. When PETA was founded three decades ago, there really weren’t any other groups like us, so it’s been exciting to see animal rights activism really take off across the country and around the world.
However, it’s also important to have organizations working at the national and international levels, since many of the culprits responsible for animal abuse are huge multinational corporations. We use the web to work cooperatively with local activists, but many of our victories—from convincing hundreds of companies to stop testing products on animals to arranging rescues in response to emergency calls fielded from across the country—couldn’t have been achieved nearly as efficiently without a larger group coordinating the effort. PETA’s staff includes lawyers, scientists, former shelter directors, and media professionals, making it easier for us to work successfully with their counterparts in business and government, since we “speak the same language.” Plus, PETA has developed a well-known reputation as tireless and effective campaigners, so people are likely to take our calls, meaning that we can often resolve a problem quickly and directly, sparing grassroots activists the prolonged effort required to organize and implement a sustained campaign.
What are PETA’s current positions regarding TNR programs and breed-specific legislation, and have they changed at all in light of new information? For example, more “pit bull” bans have led to more and more dogs being killed in “shelters.” They’ve also led to friendly dogs being seized from loving homes and held in government kennels for protracted periods while their fate is determined. Is there any evidence at all that they’ve encouraged guardians to treat their dogs better, or that they’ve had any positive effects whatsoever? How do you expect to influence society not only in the United States, but throughout the world, when your homeless animal policies run counter to the values of all compassionate people?
PETA has serious concerns about Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs because, while altering feral cats prevents the suffering of future generations, it does little to improve the quality of life of the cats who are turned loose to fend for themselves. Feral cats do not die gently—they incur ghastly injuries and infections, contract deadly contagious diseases, are poisoned and shot by people who don’t want them on their yards, and are hit by cars, attacked by wildlife, and worse.
TNR advocates argue that feral cats are just as deserving as other felines, and we absolutely agree. It is precisely because we would never encourage people to turn their own cats loose to face the many dangers outdoors that we do not encourage the same for feral cats. The solution to the feral-cat crisis obviously lies in prevention, which is why PETA supports legislation that requires all cats—not just ferals—to be spayed and neutered.
Similarly, PETA supports legislation that bans breeding pit bulls—just as we advocate banning all dog- and cat-breeding, given the tragic animal overpopulation crisis that results in the abandonment and euthanasia of millions of unwanted animals every year in this country.
Pit bulls are perhaps the single most abused breed in dogdom, which is why we wholeheartedly support legislation that prevents them from falling into the hands of cruel people who plan to stick them outside on chains in all weather extremes to “toughen them up” and who will taunt, beat, and torture them into aggression. However, we only support legislation with grandfather clauses that allow pit bulls living in loving homes to remain there.
When Bruce Friedrich appeared on ARZone in 2010, he was asked this question: “Since PETA is not a rights-based organisation, would you use your position to stop it claiming to stand for animal rights?” to which he responded with one word - “no.”
What he meant, of course, was that PETA regards itself as an animal rights group in a rhetorical rather than philosophical sense: PETA does not sell the books of any animal rights philosopher while it does sell Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, falsely claiming it to be a work of animal rights theory: “Referred to as the animal rights ‘bible,’ this book includes in-depth examinations of factory farming, animal experimentation, vegetarianism, and animal rights philosophy. If you read only one animal rights book, it has to be this one.” http://www.petacatalog.com/products/Animal_Liberation_Book-64-18.html
Will you use your influence to sort out this mess please?
We could talk about philosophy all day, but that time is much better spent taking action to improve animals’ lives. A struggling bird caught in a glue trap or a rabbit having toxic chemicals smeared on her shaved flesh doesn’t care if you consider yourself a continental rationalist or a logical positivist, they just need you to help them. The only philosophy we really need is to know that it’s unethical to cause animals to suffer unnecessarily. If someone wants to debate abstract concepts, they can go to graduate school, but anyone who wants to help animals should just get active. Whether you join PETA, work with a local group, or strike out on your own, the important thing is to DO something to defy the institutionalized cruelty inflicted on animals.
What is your view on Alex Pacheco’s new project to get sterilization drugs on the market?
While the premise of oral animal birth control sounds promising, we have reservations. Unlike surgical sterilization—a safe and 100 percent effective one-time procedure—oral contraception must be administered consistently and repeatedly to female dogs, and it does nothing to prevent male dogs from impregnating still-fertile females. Also, when dealing with packs of stray dogs, aggressive dogs may chase others away from the bait stations, thereby preventing them from receiving the contraceptives.
We also worry about potentially harmful side effects, and about the experiments that will be conducted on animals in laboratories as part of the development of oral contraceptives. And we are concerned about limited funds being funneled toward experimental drug therapies, leaving vital spay/neuter programs that could be preventing births right now without funding.
How did you first become involved in PETA? Was it because of the choices you had already made in your life, or did you work for PETA first and then make changes in your life afterwards?
I got involved in the L.A. animal rights scene in the late 70s, when it was mostly radical old ladies and evolved hippies doing some lively protests but rarely getting press or any buzz. There were lots of groups focusing on a single issue, but then PETA came along in the early 80s and addressed all the issues, and in a very aggressive way. That’s why everyone joined at the start. It was also PETA’s undercover investigations that brought people in; no longer did we have to display some photo from the 60s about vivisection but something brand new and from around the corner, it made it all more real and urgent. I went to PETA’s first LA protest which was outside a psychologist meeting at Anaheim Convention Center to protest Edward Taub, the man behind the hideous Silver Spring monkey experiments. A white-coated effigy of Taub was burned; it was very exciting. When I moved to Italy in 1983 I volunteered for the Italian animal group translating PETA magazines for the Italian newsletter, then when I came back to the States for senior year at American University in DC, I started my own animal rights group on campus and got materials from PETA. As soon as I graduated in June of 1985 PETA hired me to answer the phones and the mail and explain the issues to whoever called or wrote us. There were just ten of us then working in a rented house just outside DC.
What happens to the animals that PETA rescues from vivisection horrors and all the other rescues?
When PETA rescues animals, they are given veterinary treatment and, whenever possible, rehabilitated and found loving homes. Many of the nearly 250 dogs who were rescued from Professional Laboratory and Research Services—the animal testing lab that shut down immediately following a PETA investigation—recovered from hookworms, tapeworms, infections, rotted teeth, or other conditions and went on to become happy, healthy family members.
Unfortunately, there are also times when the examining veterinarian concludes that a rescued animal has suffered far too much to make any happy recovery a possibility, and in those cases, the kindest and most respectful act we can do for these abused animals is to grant them a peaceful and painless death.
Does the money contributions given to PETA go directly to the media events, administers and undercover work and not to the animals directly?
PETA strives to use our funds in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, a commitment illustrated by the fact that 84.9 percent of our operating expenses went directly to our programs fighting animal exploitation. We expended only 13.67 percent on fundraising efforts that drive our operations and 1.43 percent on management and general operations.
While we do make extensive use of volunteers and have a thriving internship program, having full-time paid staff members allows us to be much more effective than we would be otherwise. Our full-time staff members are committed employees who spend all day, every day working on investigative cases, getting animal rights into the media, helping students, organizing attention-getting demonstrations, and building a powerful network of caring voices.
Without a full-time staff, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish nearly as much as we have. However, we pride ourselves on our low salaries: Twenty-six percent of PETA’s dedicated staff members earn yearly salaries of only $16,638 to $29,999, 48 percent earn $30,000 to $39,999, and only the remaining 26 percent earn more than $39,999. Our president, Ingrid E. Newkirk, earned $40,320 during the fiscal year ending July 31, 2010. As National Journal noted in a 2006 cover story about nonprofit executive pay, “[T]he median salary at a public-interest group was $184,881. At the bottom of our survey was Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose compensation was $35,664. Newkirk says she is satisfied with her salary: ‘Given how little animals [have] and [how much] many people have, one has to ask, ‘How much money does a person really need?’”
Please visit http://features.PETA.org/AnnualReview/ to view our most recent annual review and read more about our finances.
Could you please clarify the purpose of PETA’s “community animal project” if not to provide homes for animals who need them?
PETA’s Community Animal Project (CAP) staffers and volunteers work every day to improve the lives of abandoned, neglected, and abused animals in Virginia and North Carolina. They go into the poorest neighborhoods to deliver food, doghouses, and bedding to forgotten, chained-up “backyard dogs” who previously had only a plastic barrel—or nothing at all—to huddle under during snowstorms and driving rain. They transport animals who are riddled with worms and other parasites to veterinarians for treatments and vaccinations. They provide priceless moments of love and attention to animals who have known only abuse and suffering from human hands. And they prevent more animals from being born only to end up in these miserable situations by providing low-cost and free spay/neuter surgeries every week in our SNIP and ABC clinics.
CAP staffers counsel animal guardians on proper care and urge them to allow their animals to live indoors with their families. They help people make that transition whenever possible. And they don’t give up. Our fieldworkers return to check on the animals and replace old bedding, check the doghouses, and make sure that the animals have food and water. They continue to educate and urge reluctant humans to be real companions to their animals.
Does PETA actually have any building or holding facility for surrendered animals and if so, what procedures are followed to assess and treat the animals who are admitted? Are there medical or behavioural criteria for “euthanasia” decisions and if so, what are they? Under what circumstances are animals killed without being offered for adoption?
PETA has an animal holding facility, which is currently expanding, but we also rely on foster homes to take in the many homeless, abused, injured, and ill animals we rescue. We refer adoptable animals to our friends at the Virginia Beach SPCA. PETA is proud to be a “shelter of last resort” for animals who have been neglected and abused to the point of no return—those whom no-kill shelters often turn away—and when we can, we place animals in exceptional, lifelong homes. Please see these posts from our blog to learn more about this topic:
Some people are critical of what is usually called “insider status” for advocacy groups. What they mean is that when advocacy groups get a seat at the table with the industries and/or government agencies they are trying to change, their insider status compromises them somehow, making them less effective. What do you think about that?
Of course, in the long term, we’d like to see animal rights adopted universally. But we’re also pragmatic, and we realize that because billions of animals are suffering in the food, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment industries each year, we must take immediate action to try to alleviate at least some of their suffering.
That is why we campaign against companies like KFC and McDonald’s for improved animal welfare standards while also vigorously promoting a vegan diet as the best way to help animals. Likewise, we campaign for the Australian wool industry to stop mutilating live sheep while also campaigning to get people to stop wearing wool altogether.
By waging campaigns that focus on improving animal welfare, we will be able to bring about animal liberation at a more rapid pace. By pushing people to recognize that animals at least deserve better treatment, we’re awakening people to the idea that animals are not simply machines to be abused at will. More humane systems will be developed, and eventually, when people realize that “humane slaughter” is an oxymoron, animals will be liberated.
Do you find that people who agree with PETA’s goals disagree with some of their tactics because they would prefer that what they see as a moral or an ethical issue not be approached from a marketing or public relations standpoint? If that’s true, and if PETA does take a PR approach, would you explain why that is?
We wish we could just call reporters and simply explain that chickens are often scalded alive in slaughterhouses, and that circus trainers typically beat elephants to force them to perform, and ask them to routinely report on the issues, but it just doesn’t work that way. In order for PETA to compete for attention in a society that’s hungrier for entertainment than education, we use provocative campaigns that feature sex, celebrities, and humor—just like a Madison Avenue advertising agency. We’ve learned from experience that colorful, controversial campaigns often make the difference between keeping important yet depressing subjects invisible and having them widely seen. While our actions may not always win us popularity contests, they get our message across.
BrandChannel.com, for example, ran an article about PETA’s 2010 State of the Union Undress that stated, “The strategy does effectively garner attention for PETA. So well done. Even better, the sexy videos serve as a gateway platform to the many investigative videos of animal mistreatment—which are the real conversion tools for PETA’s brand. Lust comes and goes, but disgust is forever.”
PETA has given an award to a designer of slaughterhouses. Can you explain how doing so is consistent with PETA’s commitment to the idea that “Animals are not ours to eat”?
While PETA would prefer that no animals be killed for food, we won’t ignore the horrors of factory farms and slaughterhouses just because we wish that they didn’t exist. We named Dr. Temple Grandin—an animal-science professor at Colorado State University and a consultant to the American Meat Institute—“Visionary of the Year” in our annual Proggy Awards because of her outstanding efforts to minimize the pain and fear experienced by animals in slaughterhouses. In case after case, going back many years, Dr. Grandin has helped focus attention on the cruel treatment of animals at slaughter—and has secured improvements. She designed cattle-restraining systems now used by half the meat plants in North America that markedly decrease animals’ fear. She has published more than 300 articles in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design. In the fight for improved living and dying conditions, farmed animals have few better allies than Dr. Grandin.
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