Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Hampton Couser stood pensively before graphic pictures of tortured animals. He was having an ethical crisis.
His grandmother slaughtered pigs for a living in South Carolina — a job she had to take to keep food on the table. Vegetables have always been part of his diet, but an ear of corn doesn’t replace a good steak. Still, he couldn’t turn a blind eye to the brutal images before him: cows being strung up and seals being beaten.
“It’s got me kind of stiff, trying to weigh now whether I should eat meat,” the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native said.
It was exactly the reaction People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) hoped for as they kicked off a national college tour of “Animal Liberation,” a display juxtaposing life-size pictures of American slavery, racist violence and other human oppression with pictures of animals being beaten and burned.
The visit marks the first stop on a 28-campus tour targeting youths, said Sangeeta Kumar, education coordinator with the Norfolk group. The message is that animal mistreatment mirrors other civil rights injustices.
“Racism and sexism (are) as deplorable as discrimination against animals,” she said. “School is where everybody learns, so certainly, hopefully, they may learn a good lesson from this exhibit.”
One panel, titled “Burned Alive,” shows a chicken set ablaze next to a photo of a white mob surrounding a charred Black man.
In “Beaten,” a hunter clubs a seal next to images of a White man stomping a Black man’s head into asphalt.
PETA officials suspended a similar national tour after viewers in New Haven, Conn., called the panels racist. That tour resumed in Portland, Ore., last week.
This display met with a mixed bag of reactions at VCU. Most students called it tasteless, while others were unmoved.
Many stopped just long enough to take a PETA flier before zooming to class. Others paused and grinned, one girl quipping, “I’m going to go eat a chicken!”
Alisha Ward, a Black junior from Norfolk, said she was disturbed by images she felt improperly linked systematic discrimination to abuses of common farm animals.
“They went for shock value, let’s be real,” she said. “They’re exploiting us.”
A few feet away, Professor Peter McCourt’s global ethics class gathered to hear Kumar discuss animal rights.
“Why do we consider animals commodities,” Kumar asked about 50 students. “Because they are,” one man yelled.
McCourt said he rearranged the class syllabus to cover animal rights issues this week, rather than at the end of the semester. Students had to write a short reaction paper on the display and could earn extra credit by attending a PETA-led forum that evening.
“I think it’s horrifying and disgusting,” said Alexandria junior Emily Baden, a student in the class. “I do care about animal rights, but when I see things like this, it makes me really mad.”
But some students agreed with the in-your-face tactics.
“You’ve gotta show stuff like this,” said Benjamin Braman, a Fredericksburg freshman who considered himself a semi-vegetarian. “Happy, smiley cartoon characters — it’s not going to have the same effect.”
Standing near a drawing of a Black woman being branded next to a similar image involving a cow, senior Kariss Rogers shouted down PETA organizer Pulin Modi.
“Chicken is food,” the Caribbean native yelled, throwing her hands in the air. “This organization is wrong for even trying to make the comparison.”
— Associated Press
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