Environment

PETA's Agent 007: A James Bond for the Animal Rights Movement

From donning a Catholic priest's habit to wearing a rabbit costume, PETA veteran activist and party crasher Dan Mathews knows how to steal the headlines for the animal rights cause.
The following is an excerpt from chapter 9 of Committed: A Rabble Rouser's Memoir" by Dan Matthews (Atria Books, 2007). Matthews, a long-time activist for PETA, took to sneaking into media attended events and stealing the headlines with his animal rights message. This episode has Mathews telling the story of how he dressed up like a Catholic priest to sneak into a fashion show in Milan.

The Café Odeon is a bustling Art Nouveau hangout around the corner from where the narrow Limmat River flows into Lake Zurich, in the shadow of the Alps. It hasn't changed much since it opened in 1911. The curved wooden bar with brass coat hooks underneath is surrounded by a few tightly arranged rows of polished marble tables around which the efficient servers twist and bend while holding aloft trays of drinks that never seem to spill.

Like most structures in Switzerland, there's a lot going on within a very small space. Lenin, Trotsky and Mussolini drank within these ornate walls, as did Mata Hari, the stripper who made exotic dancing socially acceptable in Paris before she was put on trial for espionage during World War I. "Harlot, yes, but traitor, never," she said before being riddled with bullets by the firing squad. During World War II, all sorts of spies met in neutral Switzerland at the famed Odeon to exchange information. Loving a theme, this is where I arranged my Sunday morning rendezvous with the prolific undercover agent behind many of PETA's intercontinental exposés.

For example, when world leaders convened in Rio de Janeiro for the environmental Earth Summit, they locked out any discussion of the meat trade's central role in deforestation, drought and the contamination of rivers and bays. To draw attention to this, my friend Julia and I -- she dressed as a cow and I as a blood-spattered butcher -- burst out of the Summit's bathrooms and into the dining area where I "slaughtered" her with a giant steel meat cleaver bearing the message, "Earth Summit Solution: Vegetarianism." The officials upon whose table we leapt weren't pleased, but the previously bored reporters were; they interviewed us at length about the issue, even having us repeat the message on TV in their various languages. The image even made the front page of the Washington Post style section the next morning. Smuggling the simple costumes inside was easy, and to get the massive metal blade past the Summit's rifle-toting soldiers, we merely wrapped it in cardboard, plastered it with "Delegate" stickers snagged from an official reception, and said it was a pie-chart.

A more subtle masquerade worked at Gillette's world headquarters in Boston's enormous Prudential Tower. In order to breach security here, my colleague Peter and I dressed as janitors and wheeled a large television right past the guard desk and into an elevator going up to the cafeteria. We plugged it in by the cash register in front of a line of dismayed executives and held an impromptu screening of PETA's fresh undercover tape showing how the company blinded and poisoned rabbits and rats to test everything from shaving cream to Liquid Paper. We ended up in jail, but Gillette soon stopped using animals.

Sitting and waiting at the little table at the Odeon, I sipped my second coffee and pondered the most recent caper. I had arrived in Zurich, the distinguished Capitol of banking, from Milan, the hedonistic capitol of fashion. There, dressed as a Catholic priest, I had gained entry into fur designer Gianfranco Ferré's packed runway show.

With my rusty Italian, a serene smile, and wearing pretend reading glasses, I explained at both check-in desks that I wasn't on a list, but that "Mr. Ferré is a patron of our parish and invited me at the last minute for good luck." It worked. I limped in among the 800 air-kissing guests with a banner rolled up in my rigid black pant leg which read, "Thou Shalt Not Kill: Don't Wear Fur." When the show started, I calmly unfurled the sign and overtook the catwalk, in a blizzard of flashbulbs, sending a pro-animal message around the world via the paparazzi jammed by the dozens on the three-tiered platform directly in front of me.

Ad campaigns are prohibitively expensive for a charity, especially one targeting so many powerful industries; hijacking an adversary's media event to reach the public usually only costs a few bruised limbs -- and a few bruised egos.

The confused models clogged up behind me, and the blaring music stopped cold, replaced by the clamor of buyers and editors scampering from their carefully selected seats throughout the grand salon for a better look at what was causing the ruckus. I didn't chant any slogans or scream any epithets, but rather kept in clergy-like character and gave a stern Father Knows Best scowl at the gathering throngs like they were pitiable sinners for promoting the ungodly fur trade. If only they knew I wore this get-up for Halloween, I thought. The perplexed security men tried to snatch my banner and prod me off the runway, but I wouldn't budge.

They huddled, eyeing me like I was a mad gorilla who had escaped from the zoo, then finally charged and tackled me onto my back. If you relax and go limp at just the right moment, you don't really get hurt. Shocked at this use of force against a "man of the cloth," a small group of distraught Italian ladies sprang from the first row clutching the crosses on their dainty necklaces and swatted the guards with their programs, screaming "Leave the priest alone!"

The most difficult part of the endeavor was containing my laughter at this point. With a different guard yanking each limb, I was dragged down three flights of stairs and tossed onto the dusty street, where the kind carabinieri who had been summoned refused to arrest me. In fact, they protected me when Ferré's furious organizer yelled that I had ruined the show, and tried to punch me.

"My son," I said to the livid fashionista even though he was older than me, "how would you have explained to your mother that you hit a priest with glasses?" With a more authentic limp and an even more serene smile, I disappeared into the subway, went back to my hotel, and packed for Zurich.

It was as toasty inside the Odeon as it was frosty outside, which made the café's grand windows steam up a bit and obscure the well-dressed passersby heading around the corner and uphill to the cathedral. I had awoken in my room on that cold Sunday morning to the pealing of Zurich's gothic church bells. After channel-surfing between the solemn church services and grainy re-runs of CHiPS and Charlie's Angels, dubbed in German, I bundled up in my flannel-lined jeans and black rubber jacket and went for a stroll through the city's drizzly story book streets before my meeting with the investigator, Mark Rissi. I can use his real name because he is already known in European media circles and uses a variety of aliases when conducting investigations. I had spent the previous day in Mark's claustrophobic editing suite screening hours of the latest unsettling footage he'd obtained in his travels. Today, we had to strategize how to turn these undercover cases into public campaigns.

"You always make me meet you here, where parking is impossible," Mark said with a grin as he approached my table at the Odeon and took off his coat. "Couldn't we get together where you are staying?"

"The room I rented is directly above a fondue restaurant, and the minute they start boiling the cheese the whole place smells like dirty socks," I said with a nauseated look. "Fortunately, my airplane ear plugs fit up my nose."

Mark has thick graying brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache which perfectly fits his academic demeanor. He lives with his girlfriend in the hills just outside of Zurich. His background is producing films for Swiss television, and in 1974 he did a caustic short called "The Coat," in which a woman decides to abandon her fur in the coat room after her rugged dinner date shares his experiences on the Canadian trap lines, complete with graphic flashbacks. The issue of whether animals should be killed for the sake of fashion was almost unheard of at the time, and the fur trade wanted to keep it that way. They filed a lawsuit which delayed the film's broadcast by a year--prompting Mark to probe even more deeply into the skittish industry. They claimed that most fur coats came not from trapped animals but from those farm-raised in northern Europe, especially Finland. Mark instantly booked a ticket to Helsinki. With the help of a lovely blonde biologist who acted as his cover and translator, he documented how foxes and minks, who roam miles in the wild each day, go nuts in their cages on fur farms and pace neurotically before being slaughtered just as their first winter's coat thickens. The biologist also pointed out that, like dogs and cats, these animals have a very powerful sense of smell and would never eat or sleep where they crap, and thus confinement to these tiny reeking wire boxes causes many of the frustrated animals to mutilate themselves.

It was the world's first peek at the ugly underbelly of the global industry that had for more than a century simply passed off fur coats as the ultimate status symbol. With no sensible defense, the Finnish fur trade attempted a smear campaign, charging that Mark and his lady accomplice must have been taking money from the companies that produce fake fur in an underhanded ruse to cut into their sales. They couldn't seem to fathom that one could be motivated by human decency, or even journalistic curiosity. Mark shared his findings with animal protection groups, and after his more sweeping exposés aired, fur sales fell by 70% in Switzerland and were also impacted elsewhere in Europe. Within a few years fur farms closed throughout much of Finland, where the sweet young biologist was publicly branded a traitor and spat upon in the street.
Dan Mathews is the director of PETA's international campaigns and author of Committed: A Rabble Rouser's Memoir" (Atria Books, 2007).
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