Good Reading : December January 2008
14 goodreading ı DECEMBER 2007/JANUARY 2008 word of mouth up close Everything about books www.goodreadingmagazine.com ONLINE the uncaped crusader He’s the tall handsome guy in the rabbit suit, carrot costume or mock priest’s outfit, socking it to them fearlessly on behalf of the voiceless. He’s DAN MATHEWS, the charismatic front man for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and he talks about his autobiography Committed to ALISON PRESSLEY. I’ll come right up front and say it: Dan Mathews is my hero. He’s a fearless, tireless campaigner on behalf of the world’s down- trodden animals. He dons silly outfits, gets his gear off, has been arrested more than 20 times, was once committed to a psychiatric ward, and has experienced more wild esca- pades than most of us have had hot dinners, vegan or otherwise. He’s just great! Dan wasn’t always a vegan. In fact he was a meat-eater, but somewhere around the ninth grade he empathised with a flounder he caught while fishing: lying there on the ground, it was having the same experience he’d just had at school, attacked for being gay and looking up to see chuckling faces as he lay gasping for breath. He gave up meat – including fish. He took in stray cats. One thing led to another, and he’s now world famous as the lead campaigner, outspoken, out there and in your face, of the biggest animal rights group in the world, PETA. Mathews is very tall, very fit, possesses boundless energy, looks far younger than his 43 years and is a living, breathing testament to his mantra: ‘You don’t have to kill to live well.’ He is also relentlessly upbeat. He sees some ter rible things in the course of his work and fights cruelty on a daily basis. Doesn’t he ever suffer dark nights of the soul? He laughs cheerfully. ‘I rely on my gallows humour, honed during my childhood brought up as white trash. Even when I’m sharing a jail cell with four guys who have vomit all over them, after I was arrested in a fur protest, I just think, Well, you don’t have a night like this too often! You can get upset, or you can just laugh. If you take it all to heart too much you’ll become one of these morose people that nobody wants to hang out with – not even yourself! My schtick is trying to tur n something miserable into something that is energising.’ Committed is, despite the serious animal rights back- ground running through the book, a great, fun read. It’s full of marvellous adventure stories about daring PETA campaigns that read like spy stories, and collaborations with celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Chrissie Hynde and Pink, all great supporters of PETA. But the antics of PETA are not to the taste of all animal rights organisations. ‘A lot of groups like to work from the inside, with gover nments, and not do anything that might offend people,’ says Dan. ‘Other groups, like us, target corporations, where your cur rency is being obnoxious and bringing unwanted attention to them. A lot of the stuff PETA does mortifies other animal groups, which is fair enough! But even some groups that do things more conservatively than we do love that we are around, because we bring the debate forward.’ The famous PETA anti-fur campaign starred top models who declared proudly ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur!’ Then later, some were seen in ads for fur gar ments again. I ask if he was disappointed. ‘I learnt that a lot of the things they say about models are true: nice house, but nobody’s home,’ he laughs. ‘PETA was such a sensational group when we first came on the scene that models wanted to be a part of what we were doing, but as soon as their careers started fading and they were offered a lot of money to do these fur ads they went back on their word. I found it incredibly disappointing, but you’ve just gotta move on.’ One of PETA’s successful campaigns is against the practice, begun in Australia in the 1930s, of mulesing Merino sheep to prevent flystrike. ‘Australia is the only place where they still do it,’ he says. ‘They’ve banned it in New Zealand because they’ve developed a breed that is bare in the back; in England they’ve made it illegal. I think it was a big mistake to have an industry where these Spanish sheep are bred to have so much skin in a country where it gets so hot and humid. But the damage is done, and now it’s a matter of undoing it by reversing the breeding process and developing the bare breech.There’s no excuse to mules. It was only after Australian animal rights groups asked PETA to target the companies in the US and Europe using Australian wool that the change happened [Australia is now committed to ending mulesing by 2010].We’re very, very excited about that.’ Despite that success, and his delightfully upbeat nature, Dan Mathews does sometimes despair. ‘It seems,’ he writes in the book, ‘that we are the misfit species, insatiable aliens exhausting the planet of its resources and enslaving its inhabitants for profit and pleasure.’ So is there, I ask him, any hope? ‘I don’t know that there is,’ he responds. ‘I really think that we probably are on the way down, for a lot of reasons, but, hey, you can have fun on the way down! I mean, honestly, it’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – but you can have music and go down singing!’ Committed is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $29.95. If you want to read more about the way animal products are brought to our tables, the paperback edition of The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason has just been published by Text, rrp $24.95.