PETA, Playboy Bunnies, and the curious power of a chicken suit
MATT PRESCOTT, 26, is one of the pioneers of a new kind of corporate-savvy activism: One minute he might parade around with a bucket of fake blood and a sign that charges torture, and the next he's dressed in a tie and jacket, addressing the CEO at a stockholders' meeting. In the past year, this wunderkind has forged agreements with Carl's Jr., Hardee's, and Burger King, all of which have changed their menus to include eggs from cage-free hens. The deal has improved living conditions for more than 100,000 chickens. In addition, the fast-food behemoths have vowed to seek out suppliers that use humane methods of farming.
That's good news for those of us at the top of the food chain, too; the reforms in animal welfare mean cleaner meat and eggs. Who wants to eat from a farm that resembles the set of "Saw II"?
A campaigner for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Prescott accomplishes his wins by playing to both the fears and desires of corporate executives. First he tries to sweet-talk corporations into adopting ethical standards, tempting them with incentives - once, for instance, he and his confreres offered a fast-food company a million-dollar piece of real estate in exchange for reforms. But when his nice-guy approach fails (as it did with KFC), he turns punk. Prescott has built a gravestone to chickens in the plot next to Colonel Sanders's burial site, scandalizing some citizens of Louisville, Ky. In a Toronto stadium, he paid to place a "marriage proposal" on the Jumbotron - the screen flashed "KFC Cripples Chickens" above the heads of thousands of fans.
A native of New Hampshire, Prescott started the state's first vegetarian soup kitchen while he was in high school. Now, with his good cop-bad cop approach to corporate activism, he may forever change the way America farms.
IDEAS: When it comes to pressuring companies, what works best?
PRESCOTT: We've been surprised by the effectiveness of shareholder activism. We purchase small amounts of stock and begin to attend their annual meetings. When we come up with a shareholder resolution, the company has to print up our message and send it to every investor. So everybody reads what we've written - usually a statement about the graphic ways that the company is abusing animals.
IDEAS: You use the corporations' own printed materials against them?
PRESCOTT: Exactly. That's why companies will negotiate with us to drop a resolution.
IDEAS: What's it like to be protesting in front of a company in a chicken suit one minute, and then to be at a board meeting the next? There must be a strange moment when you take off your costume and morph into one of the shareholders.
PRESCOTT: We like those strange moments because the companies know they have to stay on their toes. We'll be their best friends, but if they fall behind the industry on animal welfare, we'll be the first out there in a chicken suit.
IDEAS: Did you use shareholder activism to accomplish your recent wins with the fast-food corporations?
PRESCOTT: Yes, our negotiations with Carl's Jr. and Hardee's came about after we purchased stock in them and planned to read a graphic statement at their annual shareholder meeting. They contacted us a few months prior to the shareholder meeting to say that they wanted to make some progress in exchange for getting PETA not to speak to their investors, executives, and the media at their meeting.
IDEAS: But companies don't adopt new policies just because they're scared of PETA. They must have decided they can make a profit this way.
PRESCOTT: And they do. After Burger King made their changes in 2007 to increase cage-free eggs and pig meat from non-crated pigs, they told us they had received more positive comments about those changes than any other announcement, ever. Companies are changing because people want them to.
IDEAS: What has been your oddest on-the-job moment so far?
PRESCOTT: Well, I traveled to Alaska with a Playboy Bunny so she could stage a chilly October protest against KFC in only a yellow bikini and earmuffs. I also rode a boat through Sydney Harbor with rock icon Chrissie Hynde and someone dressed as a giant sheep to launch PETA's boycott of Australian wool. Oh, and I handed out free Burger King veggie burgers in front of the Michael Jackson trial to throngs of spectators.
IDEAS: So, wait, let's get back to the Playboy Bunny. You mean you worked with an actual Hefner-approved Bunny? Or was she merely an activist dressed up as a bunny?
PRESCOTT: She was real. Her name is Lauren Anderson. Lauren and other Playboy Bunnies are longtime friends of PETA and take part in eye-catching demonstrations.
IDEAS: So how many Playboy Bunnies do you have on your side?
PRESCOTT: I can think of five off the top of my head who regularly help us out.
IDEAS: That is a formidable number of Playboy Bunnies. Meanwhile, you also have another campaign in the works right now, beyond improving the lives of animals. You want to improve their deaths.
PRESCOTT: The way animals are slaughtered now is painful to think about. Almost every one of the 9 billion chickens killed in America this year will have her throat cut open while she's conscious. Millions are scalded to death in tanks of hot water.
IDEAS: And PETA advocates killing animals by putting them in chambers with certain gases. That doesn't necessarily sound humane.
PRESCOTT: The gases we recommend are nonpoisonous and make up about 80 percent of the air we breathe. It's not suffocation. Our recommendations come from scientific experts who study the physiology and welfare of chickens, fish, pigs, and other farmed animals, and work toward creating better systems of housing and slaughter for them.
IDEAS: Have you managed to convince the companies to change the way they slaughter?
PRESCOTT: Four years ago when we started pushing for controlled-atmosphere killing in the United States there was not one facility using it. Now there are five. And now it's a regular subject of debate in the poultry industry. We've changed the conversation.
Pagan Kennedy is the author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man." She can be reached through her website, pagankennedy.net.