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Some people talk about the choice to go vegan as if it’s a religious conversion. Christopher Merrow is not one of those people. Merrow went vegan to impress a girl, which maybe would have worked, except that she wasn’t actually vegan. The relationship didn’t go anywhere, but Merrow didn’t immediately drop veganism, and after doing a little research on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website, he committed himself to the lifestyle.
That decision eventually lead Merrow to apply for a job with PETA, which he got. In that job, he spent a great deal of time on the Warped Tour crisscrossing the country to man a PETA booth and tangentially made use of his degree in music entertainment. That was then parlayed into a gig at PETA’s Los Angeles office, where staffers are encouraged to take time outside of work to volunteer at “demos,” what they call the animal rights protests that have made PETA famous.
This is how Merrow ended up inside a giant, inflatable snow globe alongside another staffer, Heather Faraid, beating several fake skinned sheep for approximately one hour on ritzy Rodeo Drive in order to convince somebody — anybody — not to wear wool this winter.
“They are troopers,” a fresh PETA recruit named Cyrus observes cheerfully, holding a stack of pamphlets explaining why wool shearers are akin to murderers. Inside the globe, Merrow and Laird are wrapped in faux wool sweaters, gloves, hats, and scarves while kicking around in ankle deep “snow” and pummeling rubber animals. The backdrop in the globe reads “WOOL HURTS” and below: “Leave Cruelty Out of Your Winter Wonderland.”
Outside the globe, it’s 75 degrees and brilliantly sunny. Some PETA staffers hand out flyers, hold posters, shoot video, and discuss the atrocities of mass sheep shearing. All of this is unfolding in plain sight of Saint Laurent, Prada, Armani, Coach, and Tod’s. As people pass by, heads inevitably turn. Phones come out. Onlookers hang out of celebrity tour buses, enjoying the commotion. One couple shields their children’s eyes. A Moncler saleswoman pops out of the store to snap a photo, then disappears in a faint puff of air conditioning.
A Beverly Hills police officer on the scene tells Matt Bruce, PETA’s lead campaigner for this demo, that everything is cool so long as onlookers don’t clog the sidewalk. That never proves to be a problem. During the protest, there is no chanting, no bullhorns, no fists in the air. In fact, the whole affair is about as normal as watching two people fling around fake sheep in an inflatable snow globe can be. Passersby approach the globe, watch Merrow and Laird pull a few punches, take a flyer, maybe chat for a minute, then move along.
An informal survey of people walking by reveals that someone thinks it’s “AWESOME!”, another group thinks it’s inappropriate for children, one shopper doesn’t get it, another thinks that PETA should just focus on undercover investigations. One woman explains, “I’m supportive of some stuff — the part about not being cruel to animals.” But then she clarifies: “I’m not saying I’m not going to wear wool.”
This is not the screaming, chest-beating PETA you might expect, if you, like me, have been primed by a decade-old HBO documentary and/or a couple terrifying Google image searches. The closest I get to this vision of PETA is when a staffer gestures toward a fur-trimmed coat hanging in a store display and mutters about splattering blood on the window.
“Would they let you do that?” I gasp, clearly the product of a childhood spent following the rules and not hanging around activists.
He shrugs. “It’d be an accident.” (Spoiler alert: The windows do not get bloodied that day.) The only other incensed moment comes when a driver rolls by yelling “Fuck them!” (The sheep? The shearers? The people wearing wool? The people protesting it all?) out of his window.
As the last 15 minutes of the demonstration tick by, Bruce seems happy with the turnout. “I think it’s going very well,” he says confidently. “We’re getting a lot of reactions from people, and they are going to be talking about it when they go back to the office or go back to the shop they work at or if they’re on vacation. This is not something that people see normally, and that’s what we’re best at at PETA, this kind of paradoxical, really dynamic imagery on the sidewalks.”
At 1 p.m., Merrow and Faraid crawl out of the snow globe and shed their hats and scarves, wiped out but proud of their work. Merrow’s hands are stained red and pruned from the combination of heat and liquid used in the demo. Bits of fake snow fibers stick to his beard, and the rest of his face is streaked with fake blood.
“There is a lot of air circulation in there, so it’s not as bad as you think,” Merrow assures me. “But yeah, I mean it kind of makes you think about the animals too. We were like, ‘Oh okay, the animals have it way worse than this.’”
The animals have it way worse than this? It would feel insincere had he not looked so genuinely exhausted. Sheep, of course, have no idea two humans just climbed into a blow-up snow globe and roasted for an hour to protest wool farms.
PETA is an animal rights organization. This does not mean that PETA wants to give sheep a better life on the wool farm; that would be the goal of an animal welfare organization like the Humane Society. PETA wants for humans to never touch sheep without the sheep’s permission again. The endgame for animal rights activists isn’t stopping animal cruelty, although that often is the first step. Animal rights activists believe that animals deserve the exact same right to life and liberty as humans.
So when PETA protestors picket Prada or throw a dead raccoon on Anna Wintour’s plate, it isn’t simply to push for the Italian fashion house or Vogue to stop using fur. PETA’s overarching mission is much more audacious. The organization believes each act of — often public, often maligned — protest is the most effective way to inch us toward a completely vegan society.
As PETA would tell it, its supporters are numerous and exceedingly generous. Take this story, about PETA’s West Coast headquarters, located in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood: A couple of years ago, a wayward SUV took a bend in the road way too fast and slammed into PETA’s brand-new building. No one was hurt in the accident, but the impact shattered the frosted glass wall that separated PETA’s lobby from the sidewalk. A temporary wall of plywood was constructed to cover the gaping hole, and, lo and behold, a well-known local graffiti artist offered to paint an anti-SeaWorld mural across the blank canvas for free.
Inside the office, there’s a towering wall covered with names of PETA donors who have given money to the organization, gifts ranging from $500 to $100,000 apiece. The vast majority of PETA’s $42 million in revenue for fiscal year 2015 (financial data for 2016 is not yet available) came from individual donors, and this money is funneled into PETA’s wide-reaching array of programs and departments. There’s PETA Kids, which markets animal rights messages for kids 12 and under through videos and online games; peta2, a full-scale vegan mentorship program for new vegans; online shopping via the PETA Catalog — the organization truly does try to make the case for going vegan and supporting animal rights to anyone that it could possibly reach.
At PETA HQ, employees’ pets roam among the desks. On the second floor, a vending machine filled exclusively with vegan snacks is tucked into a corner of a spotless kitchen. Staffers can work from an expansive rooftop deck featuring a wall inscribed with a Victor Hugo quote: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”
Inside the Pamela Anderson conference room, over a spread of eggless egg sandwiches, coffee with coconut creamer, and vegan chocolate chip cookies, Tracy Reiman, PETA’s executive vice president, and Danielle Katz, PETA’s director of international grass-roots campaigns, are explaining how much progress PETA has made in the fashion industry, which is one of the LA office’s areas of expertise.
“It took us years to get the first company to stop selling fur,” Reiman says. “I remember telling staff back then, ‘We’ve just got to keep writing them and keep sending them letters, eventually it’ll happen.’ And then we got one: Calvin Klein.”
When Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco founded PETA in 1980, the fashion industry wasn’t their first target. Newkirk and Pacheco started the organization with the intent to shake up the essentially nonexistent animal rights movement in the US. They put themselves on the map right away with the case of the Silver Spring Monkeys, in which Pacheco went undercover at a lab in Maryland called the Institute for Behavior Research, where monkeys were being used to research ways to more effectively rehabilitate human stroke victims.
Edward Taub, the scientist running the lab, would cut a monkey’s sensory nerves connected to, say, an arm or a leg, and then force the monkey to regain use of the numb limb by subjecting it to electric shocks or otherwise immobilizing it so it had to use the affected body part. Pacheco started taking pictures of the lab conditions and smuggled in expert witnesses at night — other scientists, veterinarians — to corroborate his animal abuse findings. The resulting police raid and conviction marked the first time in American history that police raided a lab based on alleged cruelty to animals. (Newkirk is still PETA’s president today, working out of PETA’s global headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia; Pacheco left the organization in 2000.)
PETA became known for advocating on behalf of lab animals used for research experiments and cosmetics testing and for uncovering disturbing conditions at the “factory farms” that supply grocery stores with meat and dairy products on a massive scale, all areas in which it is still heavily involved. Within its first 10 years, PETA membership ballooned to 350,000 members; the nonprofit also had over 100 employees and an operating budget of $7 million, according to the Washington Post.
As PETA expanded the scope of its operations, it realized the fashion industry was an area that could attract a lot of media attention. The organization started by focusing on fur, which involved a lot of literal letter-writing in the days before email and protesters trying to land themselves in front of TV cameras. While a few retailers caved before Calvin Klein, the brand was the first marquee name to stop carrying it.
In the end, it wasn’t just the constant stream of letters that pushed Calvin Klein over the edge. A group of PETA staffers, including Reiman, raided Klein’s New York City offices in January 1994, spray-painting “Kills Animals” underneath a Calvin Klein logo mounted on the wall, tossing leaflets on desks, and slapping stickers on the walls before the New York Police Department dragged them away. Two weeks later, the company announced that it would no longer design with fur.
“It certainly helped in writing to other companies and saying, ‘Now Calvin Klein has made this decision, and you should follow suit,’” Reiman says of the result. “We were relentless in writing to companies.”
Twenty-two years later, they are still relentless. Take, for example, PETA’s campaign against wool. The process starts with investigations into the farms where the sheep are raised. In this case, PETA investigators spent months working as shearers at wool farms suspected to be engaging in acts of animal cruelty, documenting the repeated mishandling of sheep through videos, photos, recorded audio — anything that might better prove its case legally and with the public once it was ready to announce its findings.
Sometimes PETA is tipped off to poor treatment through a whistleblower, sometimes PETA’s investigators simply go in expecting to find cruelty and aren’t proven wrong. PETA operatives carried out six investigations into wool ranches in Australia, Argentina, and the US from 2014 to 2016. After the first investigation wrapped in Australia, PETA sent letters detailing the abuse to hundreds of retailers that sell wool products, either to the CEO or an established contact at the company or both in some cases. The process was repeated after each successive investigation.
Sometimes this is enough to galvanize action. Patagonia used to source wool from farms regulated by Ovis 21, an Argentinian organization that advertises sustainable wool farming. When PETA investigated Ovis 21 farms and found mistreatment of the sheep, the retailer dropped Ovis 21 as a supplier right away. (Patagonia declined to comment for this article but sent links to blog posts that the company published after the PETA investigation detailing how, even though it dropped Ovis 21 due to PETA’s work, it would not meet further demands from PETA that Patagonia stop producing wool products altogether.)
If the targeted retailers don’t take action quickly enough, PETA will apply more pressure. As Katz explains it, the organization boasts an activist network of more than a quarter of a million people who are signed up for “action alerts.” These alerts come in the form of email or text requests to volunteers, asking them to send emails to companies that have not yet shown any response to the issue.
A recent action alert targeting Rent the Runway and Revolve urged activists to protest the retailers for continuing to sell products made with rabbit fur. People were encouraged to fire off emails to Revolve’s COO at his work address (listed in the alert) and fill out a form to send prewritten messages to Rent the Runway. After those emails were sent, PETA sent a follow-up email thanking supporters and linking to Revolve and Rent the Runway’s Facebook pages, urging people to leave messages there as well. (Revolve and Rent the Runway did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The action alerts can be effective — Free People dropped angora after 67,000 people emailed the company — but if that still doesn’t produce the desired results, PETA will move to public protests. These are the real attention-grabbers: people standing outside Donna Karan’s offices with “Donna Karan: Bunny Butcher” posters and video recordings of rabbits screaming as their fur is ripped off. Volunteers sticking their heads in faux-ostrich bags filled with sand outside of Prada stores to mimic obliviousness to cruelty on ostrich farms. PETA members have stripped, painted their skin, and laid on white tables outside of Hermès stores with “blood” dripping down their bodies after the organization published an investigation into several crocodile and alligator farms that supply Hermès with exotic skins.
“We are not in this to win friends, we are in it to influence people, and unfortunately we have to use uncomfortable tactics sometimes,” Reiman says, laying out her defense with the practiced ease of someone who has had to explain PETA’s tactics for her entire career. “We have to push people outside of their comfort zone, but it’s our duty, our responsibility, to stop animal suffering in any way that we can. And it doesn’t really impact anyone’s life, when we are out there, doing a demonstration. In fact, it is improving their life because it is going to make the world a kinder place. It’s hard for them to sometimes see that, but it’s the truth.”
Sometimes the protests aren’t aimed at any company in particular but rather an industry as a whole. The snow globe demonstration was a plea for shoppers to not buy wool this winter. PETA regularly protests fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Anna Wintour has taken tofu pies to the face, as have Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, and Karl Lagerfeld (although one missed and accidentally hit Calvin Klein, who was by then on PETA’s good side).
Celebrities are an important component to PETA’s public message as well. Pink, Khloe Kardashian, Eva Mendes, and Jenna Dewan Tatum have all participated in PETA’s long-running “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign, where (mostly female) celebrities are photographed nude. Occasionally, though, the celebrity angle can backfire: Naomi Campbell has been seen wearing fur multiple times after posing for PETA.
Huge names in advertising have also sought out work with the group, looking to try something out of the ordinary and knowing that PETA would be receptive. Advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather worked with PETA on a pro bono ad released last year that depicted an accessories shop selling leather and exotic skins. When shoppers opened a bag or slipped on a glove, they found animal innards inside.
“People are bored with traditional means of being educated,” Reiman says. “It’s tricky to constantly think of new and different ways to get attention, but we’re committed to doing that all the time.”
The fashion ad campaigns are actually pretty mild compared with some of the concepts that PETA has run to promote veganism outside of fashion. Particularly shocking examples include a long-running campaign where PETA compared animals in slaughterhouses to victims of the Holocaust, a “Save the Whales” billboard campaign insinuating that women should go vegetarian to lose weight, and a campaign launched last year that bore down on a tenuous connection between eating chicken and bearing children with small penises.
Once ad campaign concepts are set, the arsenal of communication methods with which PETA can push out its message to the public has never been more robust than it is today. Reiman describes the internet as “the best thing that has ever happened for animals” and the advent of social media as an absolute gift for the organization.
“You put up a video of rabbits having their fur ripped from their skin and screaming, and it doesn’t take much for companies to say, ‘Okay, we won’t sell that anymore,’’’ says Reiman. “You put just one video like that on Facebook, and millions of people see it.” PETA hit 1.3 billion views across all video platforms in 2016 alone.
It’s a far cry from when the only way for the organization to disseminate information was to make it on the 6 o’clock news. Plus, the video footage was often too graphic for TV, and while volunteers would take to the streets and show videos to people walking by, that hardly had the same impact.
Reiman and Katz maintain that protests are just as important in the age of the internet, but it’s clear that racking up massive amounts of shares on PETA videos is a more effective tactic for the group. “It used to be that people liked the outlandish stuff we did,” Reiman says. “Now we put protest clips on Facebook, and people are like, ‘Whatever.’ But we put a video of rabbits that are having their fur ripped out, and everybody watches it.”
That, in turn, makes it a lot easier to pressure companies into bending to PETA’s will. And retailers know that if they bow to PETA once, the organization will keep pressuring them on other issues. Every time a new investigation is released and a supplier exposed, PETA demands change over and over. There is literally no limit to the amount of emails that the organization will dump on a CEO, nor the amount of times it will assemble volunteer armies to target the brands it has deemed enablers of animal cruelty.
Following this logic, it stands to reason that some retailers drop fur or wool or down not because of videos of screaming animals but because of the deluge of screaming people at their door. Reiman and Katz acknowledge that this happens but that it doesn’t matter. Corporate motives are beside the point.
“As long as they do the right thing, we don’t really care why they’ve done it,” Reiman says. “We like to think they’re doing it for the right reasons because that will help ensure that they will make other good decisions, but at the end of the day, as long as animals aren’t suffering, that’s our goal.”
While PETA has no problem condemning companies left and right, the organization also makes a point of celebrating designers that are championing vegan fashion.
PETA hosts vegan fashion shows, vegan design competitions, vegan pop-up shops, and panels with vegan designers. It develops vegan fashion look books. There’s a free “PETA-approved” logo that qualifying designers can use to market their products, and they can also get the full backing of PETA, which comes with free promotion on PETA’s website and social media accounts.
PETA is chasing after influencers, too: Louise Roe has collaborated on style videos with the nonprofit, and Miley Cyrus has Instagrammed herself wearing a PETA sweatshirt that reads “Be Loud for Animals.”
Christina Sewell, PETA’s senior fashion campaigner, says that her job has gotten easier since she started three years ago. More designers are open to hearing about vegan fashion now, even as PETA’s reputation doesn’t always work in her favor.
“Sometimes it can be very discouraging, because oftentimes people will hear our name and say, ‘Oh, PETA, they probably just want to throw blood on us or something,’ which is a common misconception,” Sewell says. “But really, what I’m so proud of with our organization is that we are doing our best to meet people at the table. We want to meet brands halfway.”
PETA eagerly supported Free People’s vegan leather line even as the company continued to sell wool products, and it’ll hand out the PETA-approved logo to not-totally-vegan designers who carry vegan items, so long as the product attached to the logo isn’t produced with any animal fibers.
Put a finger on a mall directory and it’s nearly impossible to hit a name with which PETA hasn’t crossed paths. That doesn’t mean that the groups on the other side of the table want to talk about it, though.
PETA began a crusade against the angora industry a few years back after publishing an investigation of rabbit farms across China. The organization maintains a running list of 200-plus retailers that have since pulled angora products from their shelves. Zara’s parent company Inditex even donated its pulled clothing — more than 30,000 pieces — to a charity supporting Syrian refugees.
I reached out to 50 of the retailers on that list, asking about their decision to ban angora and whether they support PETA; 49 either declined to comment or didn’t respond to the request.
The one retailer that responded, H&M, sent a statement that reads: “Animal welfare is important to us and we are committed to making positive contributions throughout our value chain. Our aim is not only to set high standards for ourselves, but for the entire industry. We believe that collaboration between brands and stakeholders such as PETA are important to deal with different challenges in the industry as these are often difficult to address as an individual company. In addition, in 2015 PETA awarded H&M its Libby Award as Most Animal-Friendly Clothing Company.” H&M continues to carry a variety of wool and leather products, and PETA has moved on to pressuring the retailer to only use vegan materials in its Conscious Collection.
It’s clear that PETA isn’t a desirable topic of discussion for most retailers, regardless of their relationship with the organization. So I expanded my search and dug around closer to PETA’s own tribe: vegan designers who have worked with the organization.
Here, I found a more receptive crowd. However, there are differences even within the vegan market about how to communicate beliefs to consumers. Taking a firm stance on an issue inherently means that you will not please everyone, and vegan brands are split on how active to be in their activism.
Angela Roi, a vegan handbag brand that markets itself to a mass audience, wants the quality of design to be its selling point, not the fact that it's vegan. “Although we are vegan, we are not promoting ourselves as a vegan brand or pushing vegan activism,” says Roi Lee, co-founder of the brand. “We approach it this way because we don’t believe in radical change in society. We cannot force other people to wear what they don’t like.”
Instead, Lee argues, market research has shown that handbag customers (vegan or not) care about design and quality of a product above all else, so that's the marketing message that Angela Roi promotes. Plus, he notes, veganism gets a bad rap thanks to more extreme activists. He'd rather a customer walk in, love the bags for how they look and feel, and then be pleasantly surprised to find out that they are made with vegan materials.
Angela Roi has participated in PETA’s various vegan fashion initiatives, and Lee only has positive things to say about his interactions with them. But when it comes to promoting animal-friendly charities through the brand, Angela Roi partners with less controversial places like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.
“We’re not against PETA, but who doesn’t like puppies and pets and supporting mistreated animals?” Lee says. “So our first small step is supporting mistreated animals rather than radical activism against killing animals.”
Morgan Bogle, the designer behind Freedom of Animals, chooses to display her vegan messaging more prominently, which she says hasn’t adversely affected the brand’s sales. Freedom of Animals has also publicly collaborated twice with PETA, once on a small collection of two bags and then again on the “Virkin,” a vegan Birkin-style bag that Bogle had to reproduce several times in order to meet demand.
When the collaborations went live, Bogle received a handful of angry emails from customers demanding to know why she would partner with an organization like PETA. But she dug in, responded to the complaints, and found that it was a good opportunity to open up a dialogue about how people perceive PETA vs. the reality of the organization.
“I’m not bothered by the shocking advertising of PETA,” Bogle says. “For me, that’s the only reason that I am where I am. I saw videos that I didn’t want to see that affected me, that made me not sleep at night, that made me wake up the next morning and decide to do something about it.”
Joshua Katcher, the founder of vegan menswear brand Brave Gentleman, who is also a design professor at Parsons and author of the forthcoming book Fashion & Animals, recognizes PETA’s significant role in creating a more sustainable fashion industry. If not for PETA’s obsessive work in forcing brands to come face to face with their supply chains, he says, it would be much easier for them to overlook animal cruelty in the industry.
“I think that word gets used — radical, extreme — when talking about something as simple as being kind,” he says, choosing his own words in a measured, deliberate way. “And I think that what is truly extreme and truly radical is when you look at these massive industrial systems that are designed with animals in them as simple units of production without any second thought to their condition or their perspective or their welfare.”
Katcher acknowledges that PETA’s methods are controversial, which he attributes to PETA’s desire to transmit its message as effectively as possible.
“I tell my students, you can use whatever materials you want, but you should be making an informed decision,” he says. “You should know where this is coming from. And if you can’t bear to watch PETA videos, then maybe you need to question whether or not you should be financially supporting this system.”
The quandary Katcher poses to his students might be an interesting measure of one’s moral standards, but if a student walks out of class, streams a video of a PETA investigation where sheep are punched in the face and stabbed in the throat and left to bleed out on wool ranches, then decides to pursue a career in knitwear, is that wrong?
No, at least from a legal standpoint.
Mariann Sullivan, a professor of animal law at Columbia University, founder of the nonprofit Our Hen House, and host of the Animal Law podcast, explains that farmed animals have “virtually no protection” under the law. Some animals, like captive wildlife, are subject to more protections because they are covered under a broader spectrum of laws, like the Endangered Species Act (which helps protect endangered animals and their ecosystems from extinction) and the Animal Welfare Act (which helps protect animals used in research and exhibition). But for commercial animals raised for food or clothing, there are only basic animal cruelty laws that are enforced at the state level.
“Each state has its own laws,” Sullivan says. “They are relatively similar, and they involve prohibiting causing an animal to suffer unnecessarily. So what does unnecessary mean? If you’re making money off of it, does that mean it’s necessary? There’s a lot of ambiguity in the laws, and then the laws are only enforced by prosecutors, not by animal protection organizations.”
Last year, PETA published an extensive investigation into Padenga, a corporation that farms crocodiles and alligators for both skin and meat. PETA linked Padenga to the fashion industry through Hermès, which sources skins from the company, and investigated crocodile and alligator farms in Harare, Zimbabwe and Winnie, Texas that are affiliated with Padenga.
The video exposé at the Lone Star Alligator Farm in Texas had all the hallmarks of a typical PETA investigation: animals squirming over one another in jammed concrete pits, workers hacking into animals’ necks with box cutters and punching rods into their skulls to scramble their brains. The general method of killing involved dislocating the animals’ cervical vertebrae, but the investigator taped the farm’s manager acknowledging that this doesn’t always kill the animal. PETA ran this alongside a quote from a reptile expert saying that attempting to dislocate any part of the spinal cord without anesthesia doesn’t guarantee immediate death and is intensely painful for the animal.
After the investigation was published, PETA filed a complaint with the local sheriff and urged him to prosecute the farm based on a number of violations to animal cruelty laws. In an interview with the Houston Press, the sheriff admitted that he’d never been asked to prosecute an animal cruelty case like this before. “We had to do a lot of research to determine what the standard is for what is legal and not legal,” he told the Houston Press. When he conducted his own investigation on the farm, he found “no real contradiction” to PETA’s complaints.
Ultimately, a grand jury determined that the farm was still operating within the boundaries of the law. Lone Star Alligator Farm was completely exonerated. Charles Reddell, the CEO of the farm, declined to comment other than to reiterate that the farm was completely exonerated of all charges.
But from PETA’s perspective, the fight was far from over. Over 100,000 people have sent messages to Hermès petitioning the company to stop using exotic skins. Nearly naked women with painted-on crocodile skins parked themselves in front of Hermès stores armed with signs that read “Hermès: Accessories to Murder.” PETA called on Jane Birkin to remove her name from the Birkin bag (which she publically considered but ultimately declined). The organization bought a share in Hermès in order to gain access to the annual shareholders’ meeting and protest there as well.
“You have to go to the sellers and say, ‘This is going to make you look bad, this is going to give you a black eye, so you have to stop this,’” Sullivan says. “That’s where all the progress has been made. It’s a sad commentary on the ineffectiveness of the law.”
PETA may not be able to liberate animals through the law, but taking the issue and putting it in front of millions of people through whatever means necessary can also prove successful.
“There’s different ways of effecting change,” says Joan Schaffner, an associate professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in animal law. “It’s not just through the law. Often, the law follows a change in public opinion and societal views, and so you need to get public opinion on board before you ultimately get a change in the law.”
Schaffner explains that historically, public opinion in general has been a great catalyst for legal change. And if PETA’s wild public displays and shocking billboard ads are what will get people thinking differently and ultimately bring greater protection for animals, then the movement is better off for it.
“In my mind, I don’t know that I would care in terms of whether what PETA was uncovering was legal or not,” Schaffner says. “If it was illegal, great, let’s prosecute them. If it’s not, that means we have to get the word out to make it illegal, to change our laws to forbid this kind of behavior.”
Consider PETA’s overarching goal of complete animal liberation. Imagine for a second what that would look like: the retail industry collectively ceasing to stock any shred of clothing that used an animal in its production, the food industry going completely meat- and dairy-free.
“Our society is so far away from a vegan society,” Schaffner says, chuckling at any semblance of feasibility. “We’re so far from that. It’s hardly foreseeable that we will ever achieve that goal.”
Yes, PETA got 200 retailers to drop angora. But pick any name on that list at random, and the company is surely stocking a litany of products made with other animal fibers or skins or byproducts. And plenty of luxury brands still use fur, wool, and exotic skins. There’s no way that the fashion industry will ever collectively walk away from animal products. Even with each incremental step tallied and congratulated, it’s so easy to look at the insurmountable odds of the bigger picture and wonder: Why bother?
Back in that conference room named after Pamela Anderson, Tracy Reiman tells me that she’s only ever worked at PETA. She started out taking phone orders from the PETA Catalog in college, worked full-time as a receptionist at PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia after she graduated, then became a campaigner, and worked her way up to executive vice president. She just celebrated her 25th work anniversary.
She smiles often throughout our talk, a wide, white, toothy smile. She describes herself as an optimist, but an involuntary one, because when she looks around, she says, she can’t help but be optimistic with all the progress going on around her: “Every day, I come in here so excited to change the world.”
I keep starting questions with “Aren’t you annoyed… ?” and “Isn’t it frustrating… ?” because I can’t imagine waking up every day and looking around and re-realizing the massive amount of mountains that must be moved in order to accomplish the unattainable goal of complete animal liberation when there are not even animal laws strong enough to successfully prosecute one alligator farm in Texas.
“Sure, it’s very frustrating,” she says. “But it drives us to keep working, that’s all that I can say. It will change eventually. People are changing. They are demanding change. Companies are starting to react. It’s not fast enough — definitely not fast enough for the animals who suffer every day. It’s hard. It’s personal. It’s important to us. But you know, you just gotta get up the next day and keep plugging away, right?”
Erika Adams is a Racked contributor.