People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a very ideological and controversial group. Anyone who can compare chickens on our dinner tables to the Holocaust might not be welcome in everyone’s home. But if you read The Washington Post on Wednesday, you might think they’re just having fun with nudity. On the front of the Style section was a gushy profile by Monica Hesse headlined "PETA volunteers' body of work speaks for those who can't." Is this a news story or a commercial? Here’s how it began:
The PETA interns have beautiful skin and lovely teeth. They have shiny hair and the buzzy energy that comes, they'd say, from avoiding animal products and animal byproducts, and from the peaceful belief that through their work, you can be helped, too.
This self-assured knowledge is useful when the PETA interns are naked, which happens occasionally, like at a recent Friday demonstration when Kelsey Jaye stands with another "PETA Beauty" in a makeshift shower on Pennsylvania Avenue by the National Archives. They languidly wash each other with cruelty-free soap and ignore heckles from the gathering crowd.
Hesse and the Post don’t seem to care that naked women rubbing each other with soap on the street might be offensive to parents, or modest people in general. (Late in the piece, in paragraph 25, Hesse quoted a newspaper in Memphis that "claimed that PETA would never treat cows the way they treat interns." The paper offers specifics that Hesse avoided.)
They’re more offended when the naked women get the "skeezy" reaction that the PETA people are looking for to start pushing their extremist animals-are-equal-to-or-better-than-people message:
"Can I get in?" a guy wants to know. (A guy always wants to know.)
"Gotta be veee-gan!" one of the Beauties sings in a sparkly voice.
"Is the water cold?" another man asks. Jaye smiles beatifically, striking a glam pose inside the short, opaque curtain, which reads, Clean your conscience: 1 lb meat = 2,463 gallons of water.
He's so skeezy. All the men here are so skeezy, snapping pictures with their cellphones, pretending to read the literature given to them by Line Moeller, another PETA intern who is wearing a teeny terry cloth robe. "I'm just...interested... in what they're...saying," says the man who wants the water to be cold. He stares slack-jawed at Jaye and her shower mate, who are saying nothing. (Unknown to the men, the Beauties are wearing panties.)
Jaye is used to this. These things happen when you are a PETA intern.
But interns like Jaye are profiles in naked courage, at least to the Post:
She was also at a Times Square demo, which was another naked one. "There were 50 demonstrators in a big naked pile, with arrows sticking out everywhere" to protest bullfighting, she says. "It was totally empowering. It's great to be able to use your body as a tool."
Opposition to PETA (such as PETAKillsAnimals.com) never seems to emerge in Hesse's article. They charge:
PETA’s “Animal Record” report for 2008, filed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, shows that the animal rights group killed 95 percent of the dogs and cats in its care last year. During all of 2008, PETA found adoptive homes for just seven pets.
That might make their outraged "Is Your Cat Safe?" ads look a little ridiculous. Opposition only emerges in the Post as guilt-filled rage, as a foil for PETA intern idealism:
Think of the rabbits, skinned alive. Think of the chickens, and that horrible debeaking. Think of the bee and the way we ruthlessly steal its honey. Think of the spider, held in captivity as researchers study its silk. Think of the silkworm. Nobody ever thinks of the silkworm. PETA thinks of the silkworm.
Sometimes, when Jaye receives pushback at a demo -- when someone gets defensive, or attacks, or makes snide remarks -- she tells herself that she's hitting home, that the defensiveness is a sign that she's getting through. "People feel guilty about what they're doing, and then they attack the people who make them feel guilty."
In case any doubt remains that Hesse was about two steps shy of stripping and joining the PETA crusade, here's how the story ended:
The PETA interns are about hope, really. They are about that moment when all things seem possible, like a world where cats live indoors and cows live outdoors and everyone is healthier and shinier, with lovely teeth.
They have seen glimpses of that world, and they want to bring us, too, lead us all to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, except that when we get there it will flow with soy.