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The PETA Principle

Will the group's efforts to curb animal testing run afoul of Bay Area sensibilities?

12:00 AM, Jun 22, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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TO UNDERSTAND the San Francisco Bay area one needs to appreciate its assorted love-hate relationships. That would include Barry Bonds (love the swing, hate the attitude), the landmark bridges (love the vistas, hate the tolls), and Silicon Valley (love the technology, hate the MBAs' self-absorption).

Soon, there may be a new addition to that list: PETA, a.k.a. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA was in the news last week, with the arrest of two of its employees on charges of dumping the remains of some 30 dogs in a trash bin outside of a Piggly-Wiggly store in Ahoskie, North Carolina--an hour-and-half hour's drive south of PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va. As it turns out, up to 80 dead dogs have been illegally dumped in the area over the past month, presumably part of PETA's effort to give man's best friend what it deems to be a more dignified ending (PETA says it takes the dog from local animal shelters and lethally injects them--in its view, a more humane form of euthanasia).

Such logic may actually add up back in California, where Democrats in the state legislature recently failed to pass a physician-assisted suicide bill. Indeed, on the surface, PETA seems right at home in the Bay Area, which it once lauded as the most vegan-friendly corner of the country. Indeed, over the years PETA has been active in the area, butting heads with the San Francisco Zoo over elephant captivity (in life, as in politics, elephants aren't welcome in San Francisco) and taking on Safeway, a local corporate giant, alleging animal abuses by the grocery chain's suppliers.

And there are the antics of one Lisa Franzetta, a campaign coordinator for PETA who, in her spare time, dresses up as "Leopard Lady" and "Tiger Lady" and sits nearly naked in a cage to protest such atrocities as wearing fur, and the eating of animals. In fact, it was the same Ms. Franzetta who three winters ago skated nude around a downtown San Francisco ice rink carried a banner that read, "We'd Rather Bare Skin Than Bear Fur."

So how could PETA possibly run afoul of Bay Area sensibilities? Simple: the group stands accused of putting animals ahead of people in the greater scheme of life. And that doesn't sit well with some San Franciscans--AIDS and cancer patients in particular.

AT PRESENT, PETA FINDS ITSELF in a legal tussle with Covance, a contract medical research firm located in suburban Washington, D.C. A former Covance employee (a technician in Covance's primate toxicology department) and pro-PETA sympathizer snuck a camera inside Covance to film supposed mistreatment of test monkeys. The firm responded by filing a lawsuit against PETA and the ex-employee, charging the pair with a conspiracy to commit fraud and intentionally harm the company's business.

Ordinarily, one could write this off as just one more example of PETA' sometimes-offbeat, sometimes-out-of-bounds behavior. Remember, this is the same group that once ran a "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign that equated roasting chickens to Nazi genocide. PETA also went to court earlier this year in--you guessed it, San Francisco--to try to halt the California Milk Advisory Board's "Happy Cows" ad campaign (for years, PETA has been trying to fan the flames over what it contends is cow abuse and the detrimental effects of milk)

However, the Covance lawsuit puts PETA on weak ground, morally and politically, even in the safe haven of California. At the same time PETA comes up with creative ways to sway the public against animal-testing, a poll by the Foundation for Biomedical Research shows a majority of Americans in strong support of animal research for medical progress. Back in San Francisco, home to one of the nation's largest gay communities, it raises a question PETA may not care to answer--which matters more: lab animals, or AIDS victims who may benefit from medical advancements animals testing.

Let's suppose PETA, keeping in form, chooses monkey over man. The group will find itself having to argue with proponents like Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of HIV, who once remarked: "With animal research we may have a cure for AIDS in ten years."

And PETA will also discover trouble among one of its core California constituencies: show biz folks.