Defending the rights of animals is serious, in-your-face business for PETA's Mary Beth Sweetland, who approaches her job with unwavering passion -- and a very thick skin.

WOOLLY BULLY

October 26, 1997|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

NORFOLK, Va. -- Baby, it's cold outside, that time of year when the outlawed F-word appears. Not fall. Fur. Meaning that here, in the offices of PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- it's prime time. Yes, it's PETA -- the acronym you've come to love or loathe. So what better time for a pop quiz on the animal-rights group. Take out a No. 2 pencil and begin:

True or false? PETA believes your cat should be a vegetarian. True.

True or false? PETA employees spend weekends feeding the homeless veggie burgers. True.

True or false? PETA bigwig Mary Beth Sweetland sneaks across state lines to eat Maryland crab cakes.

False.

"But God, I loved them," confesses Sweetland, an adopted Marylander and devout vegan.

A 9-year veteran of the animal-rights force, Sweetland directs PETA's Research, Investigations and Rescue department at its headquarters in downtown Norfolk. Her department is the blood and guts of the operation; she has the videos and posters to prove it. If you're a whistle-blower, press 0, then star... says her phone message.

Depending on your position, PETA is either saint or sinner, liberator or terrorist, friend or enemy. There is no middle ground. Think about it: If PETA doctrine were adopted in Maryland tomorrow, the Baltimore Zoo and the National Aquarium would close. Horse racing, hunting and fishing would end. No more petting zoos, circuses, or horse carriage rides.

Children wouldn't drink cow's milk. No goldfish. No pet canaries. No honey on our cereal. Glue traps for rodents would be outlawed. If humanely possible, all attempts would be made to protect Baltimore's pigeon population.

And God help you if you owned fur.

The fur debate is again scratching at our doorstep. Naomi Campbell, once an unpaid poster model for PETA, is back modeling fur. ("Consider yourself fired," PETA spokesman Dan Mathews wrote Campbell.) Mink and sheared beaver, the fashion industry claims, are fashionable again.

"Things are looking good for fur," says Stephanie Kenyon at the Fur Information Council of America, located outside Washington. Sales are up 5 percent. "People are tired of being told what to do," she says.

PETA dutifully reports the opposite.

"Fur is not coming back," Sweetland says firmly. Just more hype from the fur industry, she says.

Among other tenets, PETA believes that no animal should be used to dress up humans. The organization has a vault of videos taken by "investigators" working undercover at fur farms and elsewhere. It's been Sweetland's sworn duty to hire and track these investigators -- usually young men who earn maybe $20,000 a year as undercover cameramen. Yes, Sweetland says, her investigators "cook their resumes" to get jobs in laboratories or fur farms. But getting the picture is the point.

"Pictures are worth more than a thousand words," Sweetland says. "Do you want to see something?"

The video she's chosen shows foxes, housed in the same small cage at an undisclosed fur farm in the Midwest, cannibalizing each other. Employees are seen anally electrocuting other foxes, as B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling" plays in the background. One Arctic fox was videotaped with its leg bone broken and exposed; the fox stands, holding up its raw leg, and looks you dead in the eyes.

The fur farmer was eventually charged this year with animal cruelty, Sweetland says.

"This is what we do -- we go into these horrible places," she says. "And the fur industry says everything is fine."

"I have seen those videos," Kenyon says. "They are old, and some look staged. But if PETA finds any abuses, please let us know."

Be thankful that both sides usually meet in print and not in person. Someone could get doused with blood-red paint. Someone could get a pie in the face. Remember in 1992, when chicken mogul Frank Perdue got a pie in the face at the University of Maryland? PETA's Jennifer Woods, dressed as a chicken, was eventually arrested for assault. Sweetland was driving the getaway car. A Geo, no less.

Off Colley Street in Norfolk, PETA's glassy headquarters overlook the Elizabeth River, "where porpoises frolic in the polluted waters," a staffer jokes.

In 1980, two animal activists started PETA, which has been called "the Number One hip cause on the planet." It's become a celebrity magnet (Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin, Paul McCartney) and an international organization with an $11.2 million annual budget. Visitors to the PETA offices must wear name tags. No meat eating or leather wearing is allowed in the building. A security system unlocks each entrance to this very public private organization.

"We've had death threats, a bomb threat," says Sweetland.

A dead deer was left on the office doorstep one morning. Doubtful it made the PETA people flinch, given all the photographs of caged, miserable-looking creatures displayed in these offices. In Sweetland's corner office alone, posters of "rescued" chimps and monkeys strung up for experimentation are the wallpaper.

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