Animal rights group is taking its message to the ballet

Some of the mothers and children attending "The Nutcracker" ballet Monday night at the Lincoln Center may get more than just the Sugar-Plum Fairy, Mouse King, and an army of toy soldiers.

They might get a protest.

People for the Equitable Treatment of Animals (PETA) is deploying its activists to distribute a controversial new flier in front of the New York State Theater before the show. This latest campaign is part of an effort that targets balletgoers across the country.

The graphic leaflet, which promotes an antifur message, looks like a comic book and features an illustration of a knife-wielding woman stabbing a horrified rabbit. At the top, a message reads, "Your mommy kills animals!"

PETA, a 20-year-old nonprofit organization with more than 750,000 members, is notorious for its theatrical and controversial tactics. Its posters often contain gruesome images of animal carcasses and shocking messages. The group's methods have led to arrests and charges that include trespassing and vandalism.

"We're more high-profile than other groups," says Lisa Franzetta, PETA campaign coordinator, "because we do our campaigns in a colorful and more provocative way."

Earlier this year, PETA posted a Thanksgiving-related message on billboards in San Diego, comparing sequestered turkeys to emaciated inmates of a Nazi concentration camp. Last year, the organization claimed that feeding children meat, milk, and eggs constituted "child abuse."

The fliers distributed outside "Nutcracker" performances are not given to small children, says Ms. Franzetta, but to young teens who are exposed to video-game images that are even more graphic.

"The primary target is the mother," she says. "If she is confronted by the violent reality of animal abuse in the presence of her children, she might be ashamed of her behavior."

PETA does attempt to reach children through a website for kids and a magazine called "Grrr!"

"We agree that parents should be concerned about what their kids are exposed to," says Franzetta. "Many people at PETA are, of course, parents themselves." And some of these parents helped design the new campaign material, she says.

The "Nutcracker" protest is not the first time PETA has targeted children, says James Bowers, managing director of The Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., largely funded by the restaurant and food industry. Mr. Bowers accuses PETA of practicing extremism, and his organization is waging an all-out assault on the animal rights group.

For more than three years, Bowers and his associates have been scrutinizing PETA and its tactics, accusing the organization of funding the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an organization the FBI's counterterrorism division has been tracking.

"There's an implicit threat to this kind of activism," says Bowers. "It goes beyond just flier distribution when money is given to terrorists."

PETA has also targeted churches attended by food industry executives, as well as schools, says Bowers. "We find this to be borderline harassment. These things are crossing the line into indoctrination and propaganda."

Franzetta dismisses the center's efforts. "They are really not much more than a front for the restaurant industry," she says. "We are telling people what the restaurant industry will never tell them."

She insists that PETA maintains no affiliation with ALF or its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). But she did not deny that in 2000, her organization gave $1,500 to ELF.

In addition, Rodney Coronado, an ELF activist who was convicted of burning down an animal-research lab at Michigan State University eight years ago, received $42,200 from PETA for his legal defense.

No one disputes that PETA succeeds in attracting attention. "They have done a tremendous job of marketing themselves," says Bowers. "And they have attracted Hollywood." Comedian Bill Maher and actresses Pamela Anderson and Kim Basinger count themselves among PETA's supporters.

Although its advocacy efforts are admired by some, others are not persuaded. "I think it's nonsense," says Yola Sigerson, a New York resident and an unapologetic fur wearer. "You have to face the fact that we are what we are," she says, referring to the fact that most humans eat meat. "Pretty soon, they're going to find out there are little organisms growing on vegetables, so you can't eat them either."

Others question whether animal rights should be among society's largest concerns. Kay Seok, communications director for Human Rights Watch in New York, finds it ironic that people fight so hard on behalf of animals rather than on behalf of fellow human beings.

"There are people suffering all over the world, especially in Africa," says Ms. Seok. "The amount of attention they get is really minimal."

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