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Talking for the animals
By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2001
The elephant in the gray felt suit passed out leaflets about circus animal abuse. Angry mothers stuffed them in trash cans.
The woman in the ringmaster's red cutaway tails kept smiling, but she was privately disappointed at her meager lineup: Where was the cage for the lion?
Saturday afternoon, the scene outside the Ice Palace in Tampa, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was performing, was a vivid illustration of life in one of the least popular causes in American discourse: animal rights. Thirteen activists waved signs like "The Circus Is No Fun for Animals," and several thousand people walked by as if they weren't there.
For that matter, Americans seem awfully slow to get the message about chicken or hunting or greyhound racing. And plastic shoes are hardly a fashion rage.
The Sisyphean nature of the animal rights campaign becomes abundantly clear if you spend time with Gael R. Murphy, the ringmaster of Saturday's protest, as she runs errands for Florida Voices for Animals Inc., for which she is the educational coordinator and only paid employee.
Drive by a KFC, and Murphy will deliver a graphic account of how chickens are factory-raised in tiny crates. "They burn their beaks off to keep them from pecking each other," she says. If more people found heads in their boxes of fried chicken -- which actually happened recently at a McDonald's -- they'd be reminded of what the animal looked like before it became an "8-piece dinner."
A billboard for the Florida Aquarium prompts a polite lecture on captive animals: "If the purpose is to make money, they're not going to be treated well. And we'd like them to be seen as fellow beings with whom we share the Earth."
The "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" bumper sticker occasions a semantics lesson. "It's not beef. They are cows," she says. "They're not farm animals. They're farmed animals. It's not veal. They're calves."
Murphy pronounces the last word with the broad "ahh" of her native Cambridge, Mass. She has a handsome head of pale blond hair. Her taste in clothes is sensible and ethically devoid of wool or leather: cotton turtleneck, synthetic fiber gray vest and sandals. She won't say how old she is, but she has the ruddy look of youthful middle age.
She has been a vegan, a strict form of vegetarianism, for as long as she has been in charge of her own diet. She eats nothing that comes from animals. That means no milk, no eggs, no cheese.
"When I found out what meat was I wouldn't eat it anymore, but as a child I was forced to," she says. "We weren't allowed to waste food."
She experienced no epiphany, Murphy says. She has always had a different attitude toward animals than most. When she was 5 years old, she would collect frogs that had wandered onto the road after a rainstorm and bring them back home in her red wagon. The next day she'd haul them back and deposit them safely off the road.
Two days before the Ice Palace protest, Murphy was scrambling to mail the quarterly newsletter, activate the automated phone tree and secure appropriate costumes for the protest. She is as precise about her tastes in protest costumes as she is in her diction.
"I don't want cartoonish-looking animals," she tells the employees at M&P Costumes and Novelties in north Tampa. At minimum, she wants an elephant, a lion and a ringmaster, but she's open to other suggestions.
"How about a leopard?" says Anthony Natale, the manager.
"They really don't have leopards. A lion or tiger would be better," Murphy says.
Mike Matteo, the owner and an animal rights sympathizer, suggests a horse costume: "They beat the heck out of those horses."
Murphy holds out for a lion costume. She wants the lion to sit in a large cage from the Humane Society. But when she tries the mask, she doesn't like the way it squishes her nose. As the men go in search of a replacement, she points at the display of feather boas hanging over the front counter.
"Every time I come in, I try to discourage them from buying those things," she says. "Can you imagine the hundreds of birds that had to die for those?"
On the way out, the smell of hot oil wafts from a nearby Chinese restaurant. It doesn't disgust her the way one would expect.
"My favorite restaurant is a Chinese restaurant on Florida (Avenue)," she says. "The owner makes a delicious moo shu vegetable. I ask her to take the egg out. It makes a lovely meal with a Tsing Tao beer.
"I'm not opposed to enjoying myself," she says, answering an unstated criticism that animal rights activists are cheerless nags, "as long as it doesn't involve an animal dying."
Saturday's protest is set for 2 p.m., but people have been streaming toward the arena steadily for nearly 30 minutes before the first leaflet is handed out. Marching band music blares from a portable sound system as children pull their parents toward the red and white tents where they catch dim glimpses of animals inside.
Ira Hankin, a 39-year-old board operator for a San Francisco sports radio station, agrees to wear the monkey costume, although he isn't sure whether the zipper goes in the front or the back. Jeff Kaplan, a 20-year-old philosophy major at the University of South Florida, climbs into the elephant suit. With about 10 other people in plastic animal masks, only one of whom is chanting anything, they form a rather tame gantlet.
Most people pass them by without blinking. Occasionally a mother looks down to see her daughter holding a leaflet with a picture of a chained elephant foot that says, "The Slave Trade Is Alive and Kicking" and snatches it away.
One woman shouts: "You don't talk to people's children unless they give you permission!"
As a protester chants, "Animal abuse for you at the Ice Palace today," one man walks by and says sarcastically, "Where do I line up for that?"
"These animals have a better life than people living on the street," says Bob Loenichen, 40, of Wimauma. "If they want to get fired up, get fired up about people."
Murphy has done enough of these protests not to be surprised at the vehemence of the people who sometimes spit at them or shout them down. "People don't like to be told they're doing something mean," she says.
And she knows, too, she isn't going to turn anyone around. "They have their tickets," she says. "But they might not come back next year."
Murphy is still wearing her costume when she gets a late lunch at Nature's Harvest, a health food store in West Tampa, after the protest. She orders the stuffed green pepper.
"No cheese?" she asks.
She is joined by four fellow protesters bearing trays of rice and beans and Thai noodle salad. They agree that the turnout should have been double what it was.
They talk about manatees that are dying because of the cold weather, a voter initiative in Washington state to ban leg traps, a rodeo that is coming to town soon and the persistence it takes to achieve the smallest victories.
"People get very enthusiastic about the cause," says Elvia Vera, a 47-year-old librarian. "Then they don't see any change and they drop out."
But each year, Murphy says, the circus does fewer shows. This is a hard statistic to pin down; Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., is a privately held company and does not release attendance for its specific shows. There are 25 percent more traditional circuses now -- about 100 total -- than there were 20 years ago. But some circus observers say there are fewer animal acts in these shows. Moreover, circuses without animal acts, such as Cirque du Soleil, which has an annual attendance of 5-million, are more popular than ever before.
Chicken consumption in the United States has risen from just under 33 pounds per person a year in 1980 to nearly 51 pounds in 1997, but the amount of red meat being eaten has dropped almost 14 percent over the same period.
Vegetarians account for about 2.5 percent of the American public, according to a Zogby poll last year, but that's up from 1 percent in 1994. New steakhouses open all the time, but business must be good at Nature's Harvest, too. It just expanded.
Murphy likens her movement to "layers of paint."
"You're not going to leave here and buy plastic shoes," she says. "But you might decide to make some changes in your life."
Back at Murphy's office in north Tampa, there is a letter on her desk from an eighth-grader in Colfax, N.D., named Amber Doran. "We are studying animal welfare," the letter says. "I was wondering if you have anything you can give me so I can have some information on animal welfare."
Amber, the "Meet Your Meat" leaflet should be arriving within the week.
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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