Dan Mathews is the Senior Vice President of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. His memoir, Committed: The Adventures of PETA’s Rebel Campaigner, is most likely the funniest book to have been written on the subject of animal rights activism. He is the force behind PETA’s often controversial and always impactive campaign strategy.
What led you to write the memoir Committed?
I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been an animal rights activist, and I’ve always had a different take on things. I wrote an article for Details magazine called “The Connoisseurs Guide to the World’s Jails,” where I rated jail food, accommodations, etc. It led to more articles in other magazines, and then the book sprung up from there.
Committed is surprisingly funny considering that it is about your work to expose and prevent cruelty to animals. How did you balance the serious objectives with the humour when writing it?
Having a light touch was important in writing this book, because my point isn’t to make villains out of my adversaries. I want to bring people over to my outlook, rather than try to convince people that my view is the only correct one. And I think it’s important to show how much fun it can be to work for a cause. Just because you’re an activist doesn’t mean you have to be a total bore.
Has writing and publicising the book changed your work in any way?
The book has given me an opportunity to reach people beyond just folks who like animals or PETA. I’ve gotten great responses from people who never thought about animal rights issues before, but read my book because they saw a good review or heard about it from a friend. My book signing audiences were a wonderful mix of kids, bikers, gays, and grandmothers.
You deal with your sexuality in a relatively matter of fact way in Committed. The message seems to be that whilst it is relevant there are other more important concerns. Would you say that was right?
As a kid, even though I was getting gay bashed, I was learning about the horrific things that happen to animals in slaughterhouses and on fur farms, and the sheer volume of animals used—to me it just seemed like more of an emergency situation than even the peril in which I found myself.
Do you find it harder to encourage activism in the younger generation in the quick-fire low-attention-span era of Facebook and instant messaging?
Actually, we find the younger generation to be the most active yet – the activism has just moved online, where it’s even easier and faster to reach a worldwide audience with our campaigns. Our youth outreach arm, Peta2, has over 150,000 street teamers, and young folks count for the bulk of our 450,000 Facebook friends and 65,000 Twitter followers.
How important is the internet to PETA’s campaigning strategy?
One of the great things about the Internet, for us, is that we now have people all over the world who, at the click of a button, can look at our undercover videos and see what happens inside slaughterhouses, laboratories, fur farms, and puppy mills and what goes on behind the scenes at circuses. PETA recently became the fourth most subscribed advocacy group on YouTube, where we’ve exceeded over 5 million views of our videos, and our blog ranks in the top 1000 of all the world’s blogs. The internet has also changed activism completely; we can send out an action alert or a Tweet and prompt thousands of people to contact a company—like Zappos, an online retailer that went fur-free after our Facebook and Twitter campaign.
What is the idea behind PETA 2?
Peta2 started in 2002 as a team of staff and volunteers manning info stalls along the Warped Tour and soon grew into the largest youth animal rights group in the world. Peta2 uses street team missions, online activism, event outreach, and celebrity and music campaigns to spread awareness of animal rights to a whole new generation.
PETA campaigns are invariably controversial. What are the primary reasons for that?
In a world where a celebrity’s arrest or stint in rehab gets more coverage than the war in Iraq, you have to compete for people’s attention. I think anything that provokes debate is good, even if it’s something that’s silly or shocking. Some of what we do might be obnoxious, but in this day and age, that’s what it takes to get media attention and get our message heard. It would be great if it could just be about the cruelty, but that just doesn’t happen, so we’ve got to come up with ways to attract people’s attention and keep them interested.
The recent PETA ad in which a young girl explains exactly what happens to a factory farmed turkey was deemed too controversial and banned by the mainstream networks. Did you expect such a widespread ban?
We wanted the PSA to air during NBC’s broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and were hopeful it would run, since NBC asked us to give more information about the cruelty behind turkey slaughter to back up the statements made in the ad. But even after we sent the network our videos and a New York Times article chronicling the grisly facts about turkey factory farming, NBC claimed the ad didn’t meet their standards.
Can a ban be as effective in highlighting an issue, or is it just typical television network hypocrisy?
Sometimes a ban can be just as effective, as people who hear about the ban flock to our web site and our youtube channel to see what all the fuss is about, so you can end up reaching even more people.
Are celebrities as important as controversy to PETA’s campaigns.
Most people don’t want to see footage of animals in leghold traps or suffering on factory farms, so we enlist celebrities to host these videos for us online. People Googling for a Pamela Anderson video will likely find a PETA one before they’ll find her porno tape.
This week PETA launched a campaign on London buses to persuade the MoD to stop using the pelts of the Canadian black bear in the hats of the Queen’s Guard.