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