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February 1998
Fur and the Homeless
By Carol Adams


On Fur Free Friday--the Friday after Thanksgiving--I was returning from the anti-fur protest in front of Neiman Marcus to the Stewpot, a homeless soup kitchen and day shelter in downtown Dallas. I found myself musing about the gulfs that divide so much of our culture: the wealth and riches that Neiman Marcus represents; the poverty and disenfranchisement that the Stewpot represents. With my "fur is not a fabric" t-shirt on, I stopped in at the Stewpot to see how their Thanksgiving dinner was going.

My interest wasn't only humanitarian; I wanted to see how my partner, Bruce, who runs the Stewpot, was doing. With 525 or so meals to serve and countless eager volunteers, it is a stressful day for him. In our relationship, incongruities are rife. As a minister with the homeless, he notes the number of turkeys they are given each November; as an animal advocate, I think of the number of turkeys killed. But if you asked either of us if one way to overcome the contradictions of wealth and poverty and those of animal advocacy and homeless service provision was to give away fur coats at the Stewpot we would have both laughed at the ludicrous idea.

On New Year's Eve, however, the ludicrous became tabloid fodder. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gave some 40 fur coats to a select group of homeless in Atlantic City. The "fur soup kitchen" garnered media attention. While the media have moved on, many animal advocates are still reeling from this faux humanitarian act. Now even PETA traffics in animals. What's next: animal rights action figurines in McDonald's Happy Meals?

In Your Face

If the PETA of the 1980s was brazen, "in your face," unabashed, the PETA of the 1990s is cynical, "whatever it takes because people can't be trusted to think about these ethical issues." In the 1980s, we were heartened by PETA's insolence, temerity, and most importantly, its activism. PETA's successes were our successes, and we were often grateful for the way PETA inserted the issue of animal exploitation into public consciousness. We followed its activities like proud relatives--and we were related, because we shared the same commitments.

It was inevitable, therefore, that PETA's failures in judgment felt like our failures. We took its campaign choices personally. Some of us stopped being PETA's cheerleaders when they sidled up to pornographers (specifically Playboy and Penthouse), and complimented them by imitating them in their "I'd Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur" campaign. Others demurred in the face of their recent "I wouldn't be caught dead in fur" campaign that used images of a woman in a morgue. But PETA's "fur soup kitchen" distresses many more activists.

Some of the most intractable forms of animal exploitation are those that use dead animals' bodies. By the time consumers of fur, meat, or leather consider that their products exist because of the death of animals, the animals in question are already dead. What to do? Nothing can bring back those specific animals. This fact leads to a convenient rationalization: "Since I can't do anything about this specific animal's death, I might as well as enjoy it." On New Year's Eve, PETA offered the same hackneyed excuse that every animal defender in this country has heard from exploiters: "We can't bring the animals back," said Debbie Chiswell of PETA to explain why the beavers, minks and foxes should be used as clothing for the homeless. Neither can homeless shelters and battered women's shelters bring back the dead animals who are offered to them by "Hunters for the Homeless"--but some are wise enough to say no anyway.

The Indian text The Laws of Manu really captures this dynamic: "He who permits the slaughter of an animal, she who kills it, he who cuts it up, she who buys or sells meat, he who cooks it, she who serves it up, and he who eats it, are all slayers." (I have tried to equalize the pronouns.) So too with fur: the slaughterer, the manufacturer, the retailer, the buyer, the group that donates fur to the homeless, the wearer--are all implicated in the slaughter.

Not Just the Animals

The beavers, foxes and minks aren't the only victims of PETA's endless search for media attention; so too are the homeless. PETA explained that homeless people are the "only people left with a real excuse for still wearing furs." My partner Bruce was shocked to hear such patronizing statements. "The homeless, like everyone else," he said, "benefit from moral examples. Why do they think the homeless are exempt from ethical standards? The government holds them accountable for taxes and for maintaining the law. The homeless are not above the law, nor beneath ethics. In fact, many of them are very ethical."

The homeless had become the new vehicles for PETA's message, sandwich-board wearers to deglamorize an object because they were wearing it. What are we activists supposed to do? Should I pencil in an addendum to my t-shirt that fur is not a fabric "except for the homeless?" Before someone is heckled for wearing fur, should they be stopped and asked, "Are you homeless?" If, on the one hand, the message is, "I wouldn't be caught dead in fur," and on the other, "the homeless are the only ones who can wear fur," does that mean that homelessness is worse than death?

PETA defended its giveaway by calling it a way to challenge the fur industry's claim that "fur is back." "How can fur be back," PETA retorted, "when countless individuals are giving us their fur coats?" But many of the news stories covering the giveaway failed to mention this argument. And what about those individuals who gave PETA the fur coats in the first place? They may not be too happy with the resurrection into clothing of what they had disowned as apparel, and the use of the homeless to stigmatize fur.

Ironically, some people thought that the "fur soup kitchen" demonstrated that animal advocates do care about people, as if we had to accept the standards of the dominant culture to undo the suspicion that we are misanthropes. This notion that animal advocates are hostile to people has little to do with whether our energies are protecting animals or helping humans--numerous groups do both in creative and compassionate ways. More specifically, our activism discomforts people; they do not like it when we make them aware of disconcerting facts and prompt emotions they have difficulty integrating into an exploitative lifestyle. Of course, they will be relieved if they find that wearing a fur coat can at times be acceptable.

If fur is not apparel, it's true for every one of us, regardless of whether we shop at Neiman Marcus or eat at the Stewpot. Funny, PETA's view of the homeless is reminiscent of many animal exploiters' view of animals--that they aren't ends in themselves, but only means to our end, and they aren't in any way organized into a culture of accountability or responsibility. With this giveaway, PETA proves that tabloid frenzy is not an ethic.

Carol Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (published by Continuum).


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