Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Spirit's Willing But The Flesh Is Cold

originally published in the Hartford Advocate April 26, 2007

The Spirit’s Willing But The Flesh Is Cold

Nature doesn’t play along when PETA tries to save her creatures

By Jennifer Abel

If you like to anthropomorphize Mother Nature it was either very mean or extremely funny, what she did to the two young ladies from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals during their little demonstration in Bushnell Park last week.

Behold Nature in all her glory: PETA says it’s wrong to wear clothes or accessories with animal origins. But convincing Americans to abandon fur, leather and wool is a pretty tough sell, so PETA devised a flashy marketing campaign: have a pair of attractive women (one blonde, one brunette) dress in skimpy little policewoman costumes that look like black leather but are actually made of critter-friendly oil-based synthetics.

Such outfits aim to garner male attention. The time and place to acquire it, according to PETA’s game plan, was Bushnell Park at noon on an April day, with plenty of workers out enjoying their lunch hours and buying carnivorous meals from the vendors’ wagons around the park’s periphery.

The blonde’s name was Lina Barbieri. She’s up from Brazil visiting friends in the area, but took time out of her vacation to demonstrate on PETA’s behalf. The brunette is Ilze Jece from Latvia, here in America for a PETA internship. Did she feel a little shy about wearing such skimpy apparel in public?

No. "I’ll gladly bare some of my skin if it will help save animals’ skins," Jece replied in a press release.

Well said. Many men who don’t care a whit about animals will nonetheless stand behind such a statement and she who utters it, too. At least, that was the idea.

The plan called for Barbieri and Jece to stroll through the park on April 17 handing out violation notices from the "Department of Public Decency" to anyone committing the "fashion felony" of wearing anything once attached to an animal.

Here’s where Nature started acting impishly: "noon on an April day" implies gentle sun-kissed weather, but on demonstration day the remnants of a vicious wintry nor’easter blew cold, gray and rainy all over Connecticut, including Hartford and Bushnell Park.

Few people ventured to the park for lunch. Those who did mostly huddled in warm and waterproof coats, many of leather or wool. It might’ve been possible to convince the park-goers to exchange their coats and boots for PETA-approved alternatives, but two shivering and goose-pimpled young ladies wearing barely more than a bikini maybe weren’t the best salespeople to make the pitch.

PETA’s campaign coordinator, Matt Rice, scheduled the event long before anyone could have foreseen the misery of the weather.

A few minutes before noon, a small white car with the PETA logo stenciled on the door pulled into a space at the edge of the park. The windows started fogging as soon as the engine cut off, and soon went opaque.

Rice sat in the front seat while Jece and Barbieri, wearing warm animal-friendly coats over their costumes, sat in the back. All three exited the car when an Advocate reporter in a full-length leather coat approached with press pass in hand.

PETA has a bad reputation in some circles for infamous demonstrations such as throwing paint on fur coats. But the three in Bushnell Park were friendly and (despite their outfits) low-key people who didn’t endorse the destruction of property, speak rudely to those dressed in leather or try to push tickets on those who didn’t want them.

Jece and Barbieri held stacks of "decency tickets" explaining why plant- or synthetic-based clothing was preferable to animal derivatives. Rice, for his part, tried distributing glossy pamphlets printed with graphic pictures showing just how unpleasant a slaughterhouse can be. The combination, it was hoped, would convince park-goers to immediately renounce all things animal, at least where their wardrobes were concerned.

And it might have worked on a warm, sunny day. But on April 17, anyone compassionate enough to consider wardrobe modifications for an animal’s sake would also look at the two shivering women and think, "I wish I had a warm wool blanket, possibly stuffed with swan’s down, to wrap around these poor shivering lovelies." That wasn’t the message PETA hoped to convey.

One might guess that environmentalist groups dedicated to the salvation of cute furry things have overwhelmingly female memberships. Maybe there’s some truth to the stereotype that women who see something small and cuddly feel a biological imperative to protect it.

But on Tuesday, the few people who were willing to accept PETA’s message were overwhelmingly male. Does this shatter the stereotype that men don’t care about certain cute things, or reinforce the stereotype that men care only about certain other cute things?

Hard to say. But men willing to chat with the two fetching ladies were in the minority last week. A couple seemed happy to accept a decency-violation ticket from Barbieri or Jece, but most wanted only to finish whatever business brought them to the park, so they could go back inside.

Jece and Barbieri approached state employee Wesley Moore as he waited in line to buy a sandwich from a vendor. His leather work boots caught their attention, but Moore, explaining that he needed his boots for work, declined to accept a ticket.

"See, that just doesn’t work for me," he said as the two PETA girls walked away. He made a vague gesture toward the two backsides almost but not quite covered by faux-leather shorts. "Is it the message, or the messenger?"

Not sure, but neither one seemed to make much of an impression as he stood outside in a cold storm wind. He paid for his meat sandwich at the vendor’s wagon and hurried back out of the weather.