Showing Cuddly Animals, Cuddling Animal Rights Activists

The liberal Times advocates law and order when it comesto corporate criminals, but when it comes to anti-corporate radicals, it softens up.

The front page of Wednesday's food section was dominated by Kim Severson's "Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate." The entire top half of the page was dominated by photos of cuddly farm animals.

Severson romanticized the property crimes of animal-rights activist Gene Baur, founder of Farm Santuary, the main focus of the piece.

"The first farm animal Gene Baur ever snatched from a stockyard was a lamb he named Hilda.

"That was 1986. She's now buried under a little tombstone near the center of Farm Sanctuary, 180 acres of vegan nirvana here in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

"Back then, Mr. Baur was living in a school bus near a tofu factory in Pennsylvania and selling vegetarian hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts to support his animal rescue operation.

"Now, more than a thousand animals once destined for the slaughterhouse live here and on another Farm Sanctuary property in California. Farm Sanctuary has a $5.7 million budget, fed in part by a donor club named after his beloved Hilda. Supporters can sign up for a Farm Sanctuary MasterCard. A $200-a-seat gala dinner in Los Angeles this fall will feature seitan Wellington and stars like Emily Deschanel and Forest Whitaker.

"As Farm Sanctuary has grown, so too has its influence. Soon, due in part to the organization's work, veal calves and pregnant pigs in Arizona won't be kept in cages so tight they can't turn around. Eggs from cage-free hens have become so popular that there is a national shortage. A law in Chicago bans the sale of foie gras."


"While some groups, like the Animal Welfare Institute, work with ranchers to codify the best methods of raising animals for meat and eggs, most, like Farm Sanctuary and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, ultimately want people to stop using even wool and honey because they believe the products exploit living creatures.

Severson patted PETA and other radical groups for becoming less radical in their rhetoric. One can't quite imagine the Times doing the same to an anti-abortion activist who, say, no longervandalized abortion clinics.

"But all of these believers have learned that with less stridency comes more respect and influence in food politics. So they no longer concentrate their energy on burning effigies of Colonel Sanders and stealing chickens. They don't demonize meat - with the exception of foie gras and veal - or the people who produce it. Instead, they use softer rhetoric, focusing on a campaign even committed carnivores can get behind: better conditions for farm animals."


"Certainly, concerns over health and food safety, and a growing interest in where food comes from among consumers and chefs, has made animal welfare an easier sell.

"Technology has helped savvy activists deliver their message, too - specifically mass e-mail, easily concealed cameras and the ability to quickly distribute images online, like footage of slaughterhouses and the 2004 spoof 'The Meatrix.'

"They have also learned to harness the power of celebrity in a tabloid culture, courting as spokespeople anyone famous who might have recently put down steak tartare in favor of vegetable carpaccio.

"'I think there is a shift in public consciousness,' said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of international grass-roots campaigns for PETA. 'When Cameron Diaz learns that pigs are smarter than 3-year-olds and she's like, "Oh my God, I'm eating my niece," that has an impact.'"

(Whether or not pigs are smarter than Cameron Diaz is left for readers to decide.)

"The image makeover has been so successful that a 2006 survey of 5,000 people ages 13 to 24 showed that PETA was the nonprofit organization most would like to volunteer for, according to the market research firm Label Networks. The American Red Cross was second."

Severson eagerly ran down how animal rights groups have gone mainstream, without any dissenting voices accusing the groups or local government of regulatory overreach: "Beyond image polishing, animal rights groups also learned how to marshal resources and set up a classic 'good-cop, bad-cop' dynamic to put farm animal welfare on legislative agendas. The Chicago foie gras ban was passed because the nation's largest animal rights groups coordinated their strategies, according to several who were involved. A Chicago alderman, Joe Moore, read an article about the fight over foie gras between the chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto and proposed a ban. Word spread quickly among local and national animal rights groups, some of whom Mr. Moore invited to play a leading role."

Severson did note PETA's radicalism, if only to make other groups look relatively more mainstream. "PETA uses more than half of its $30 million budget to poke the meat and fast-food industry in the eye with shock-based educational campaigns. PETA protesters have handed out Unhappy Meals filled with bloody, dismembered toy animals and miniature KFC buckets filled with packets of fake blood and bones.

"As factions in the animal rights movement continue to grow and splinter, sometimes using violence to make their point, the Humane Society, which is 30 years older than PETA, has emerged as the reasonable, wise big brother of the farm animal protection movement. The arrival of Wayne Pacelle as head of the Humane Society in 2004 both turbo-charged the farm animal welfare movement and gave it a sheen of respectability."