Nat Turner in a Carrot Suit 

PETA’s outrageous propaganda chief explains himself

The activists of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have gained worldwide fame for their flamboyant protests, including a “Got beer?” ad campaign to discourage milk consumption, and “Unhappy Meals” that show young McDonald’s diners where their burgers really come from.
The activists of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have gained worldwide fame for their flamboyant protests, including a “Got beer?” ad campaign to discourage milk consumption, and “Unhappy Meals” that show young McDonald’s diners where their burgers really come from. You might assume that the brain behind these stunts must belong to an attention-seeking, self-righteous misfit with a lively but slightly skewed sense of humor—and you’d be right, as PETA vice president Dan Mathews reveals in his witty autobiography, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir.

Mathews started out as a receptionist at PETA in 1985, shortly after finishing college, but thanks to a gift for luring media attention, he was soon in charge of creating PETA’s public awareness campaigns. His devotion to animal rights began in childhood. He grew up gay, awkward and fat in status-conscious Southern California, and the brutal bullying he endured fostered a deep sympathy for abused animals—along with a potent rage against their abusers. Horrified by the casual cruelty meted out to neighborhood pets, he rescued a large tribe of stray cats. His vegetarian epiphany occurred during a family fishing trip, when he found himself identifying with a just-hooked fish as it gasped and struggled: “In that instant, the flounder was the only creature on board I could relate to. I felt sick. I had become one of the bullies I dreaded so much at school.”

Mathews freely admits that it took him a long time to go veggie, since he “relished the flesh-ripping sensation of biting into a New York strip steak,” and such frankness is one of the things that makes this book a pleasure to read. It’s not at all the reformer’s screed or victim’s lament you might expect from a leading member of PETA, which is surely one of the most passionately smug groups on the planet. Mathews describes himself as “at heart, a very silly person,” and while he does sprinkle his story with plenty of gruesome facts about the fur industry, factory farming and animal testing, he’s mainly interested in chattering about how much fun he’s having as he tries to change the world.

Mathews begins the book with a hilarious account of his tour through the Midwest in a carrot costume (“Chris P. Carrot”), preaching vegetarianism to the children of cattle ranchers and meatpackers. He was greeted with shock, suspicion and hurled luncheon meat. “I wish they had thrown something we could eat—I’m starving,” was his wry response at the time, and he brings that flip, irreverent attitude to all his tales of activist capers. A nude anti-fur love-in at Harvard Square and a raid on Calvin Klein’s New York offices are among the many episodes he recounts. A bizarre assault on a Paris KFC restaurant in the company of the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde got Mathews briefly locked into a psychiatric hospital (yes, Committed is a deliberate pun), and that story alone is almost worth the price of the book.

Mathews’ tales of his personal life are also funny, though less antic than the PETA exploits. He had a loving, if unorthodox, family, and his reminiscences of his eccentric, indulgent mother are especially touching. His reflections on gay life tend to focus on the outrageous—such as his brief stint as a prostitute while a student in Rome—but he gives the impression of being completely comfortable in his gay identity. There’s something profoundly positive and hopeful about the way Mathews engages with his job, and with the world. He says, “When I wake up in the morning, my first thought isn’t I want to help animals, but I want to have fun.” It’s impossible not to like this guy.

Mathews is interested in winning converts, not engaging in dialogue. And for all Committed’s humor and charm, it’s troubling that he can’t resist snide insults against his enemies: Iowa pork farmers are “elephantine,” and designer Michael Kors has “a bulbous red face.” And it’s disturbing when, at the close of the book, he compares himself to slave rebel Nat Turner, a man who shed a lot of blood in his own righteous cause. Without doubt, Mathews is a deeply angry man. Yet he’s found a way to vent his rage without hurting anybody, and for that he deserves admiration, even from the carnivores.

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