Once Bitten

For an animal rights activist who once mounted the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, Nicolas Atwood is feeling awfully shy these days.

A decade ago, a Miami-Dade police officer had to escort a screaming Atwood off the giant hot dog by sliding him down the fiberglass frank. "Meat is murder!" said Atwood, then 24 and wearing a pink pig mask.

Maybe he's so bashful now because he can't control his most recent media exposure: The New York Stock Exchange is suing Atwood.

As part of a years-long campaign to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences Inc., an international animal-testing contract company, animal rights activists have been targeting its clients, employees, and financial backers. The NYSE is on their list because Huntingdon shares are bought and sold on its online trading board, NYSE Arca. Exchange spokesman Rich Adamonis declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Huntingdon's U.S. representative.

"This isn't about me," Atwood says. "It's about the movement."

Atwood runs a print and online magazine, Bite Back, that chronicles nearly everything activists are doing worldwide to fight for the rights of animals. Anytime someone spray-paints the windows of a Paris shop that sells foie gras or sets fire to a meat factory in Germany or rescues a guinea pig in Russia, Atwood posts it at www.directaction.info. In accompanying pictures, ALF is almost always seen spray-painted on a window or the street — that's short for the Animal Liberation Front, which aims to shut down businesses that harm animals. ALF says it's a nonviolent organization, although it endorses property destruction as well as breaking into facilities to rescue monkeys, mice, cats, dogs, or any other living creatures. Its ongoing "Operation Bite Back" was begun to combat fur research facilities and animal feed suppliers.

The stock exchange's lawsuit, filed May 16, also names ALF as a defendant. In the complaint, NYSE lawyer Paul M. Renner says Atwood's website is "encouraging or inciting... extremist and illegal activities." Renner is asking a federal judge to shut down Bite Back and order Atwood and ALF to pay unspecified damages. (A judge on Friday denied the exchange's motion for a temporary restraining order — lawyers are still seeking a permanent injunction.)

In a sworn statement attached to the suit, Brian F. Gimlett, NYSE director of security and a former agent for the U.S. Secret Service, described attacks made on NYSE employees around the world. Among the attacks linked to Atwood's website, according to Gimlett: The tires on the cars of two employees in Amsterdam were burned by acid, and one of their names was spray-painted on a car, as was the word murderer. Both the employees' home addresses were posted on Atwood's website. The same information for two other employees was also posted, as was a credit card number for another individual.

He's just a member of the media, Atwood says as he sits down at a rusting metal table in the backyard of the downtown West Palm Beach house he shares with his wife and dog, at 726 Palm St. He deserves the same protection as the mainstream media, he says, which routinely publishes personal information, including home addresses, about news subjects. Atwood has an unlisted phone number, because, he says, he wants to maintain his privacy. His address, however, is a matter of public record with the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.

Atwood, now 34, even speaks animal, letting loose this metaphor about his current status as a defendant: "They're an 800-pound gorilla, and I'm just a little mouse."

The afternoon sun is blazing on the silver table, making it almost too hot to touch. The freckled arms of Atwood, a Minnesota native, begin reddening almost as soon as he sits down and reluctantly agrees to talk.

Like any dedicated activist, Atwood has been arrested before — once in 1998 in Fort Lauderdale after he and a member of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals defaced a brass fish outside Outdoor World, just off Griffin Road near Interstate 95. Officers charged him with trespassing in connection with his summit to the top of the Wienermobile in 1997.

Syndicated columnist and humorist Dave Barry might have been called as a witness in the Wienermobile case if the state attorney's office hadn't dropped the misdemeanor charge against Atwood. In a 1997 column titled "A Frank Exchange," Barry chronicled Atwood's arrest. Oscar Meyer was running a national search for a child to appear in its next commercial and had dispatched a Wienermobile from its Wisconsin-based fleet to the parking lot of a Miami Publix grocery store. Atwood was there along with other members of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF). Wearing his pig mask, Atwood held a sign saying "Please Don't Eat Me."

Metro-Dade Police Officer Guy Duncan popped his head through the Wienermobile's sunroof to give Atwood a trespass citation. "Then, in a quick motion that made it appear as though he had been removing trespassers from the Wienermobiles all of his life, Duncan grabbed the man, spun him sideways and slid him off the roof, down onto the parking lot," Barry wrote. The crowd cheered as Atwood righted himself, back safely on solid ground. And all the while, the auditioning children were singing "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Meyer wiener..."

"Yeah, I climbed the Wienermobile," he says, grinning so widely that you can see a few of his molars. "Sure did."

Just a few years before he trekked to the top of the hot dog, while a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Atwood became a vegan. Still, he says, he didn't leap into activism.

"Some people have the light-bulb moments. I just kind of had a growing awareness. I always had a sensitivity to animal issues. It just spoke to me emotionally."

He went on to New York University, where he earned a master's degree in public administration with a concentration in managing nonprofits. He's worked as a communications director for ARFF and, more recently, the Palm Beach County Cultural Council. Now, he works full-time on Bite Back as well as a home-based website consulting business.

Last year, the Sunday Times in London branded Atwood the "mastermind" behind planned violent action against Oxford University staff and students. According to the Times, Atwood posted the names and, in some cases, the home addresses of 40 people who were participating in medical research, calling them "legitimate targets" and urging other activists to set fires, commit burglary, or vandalize the targets' cars.

Atwood says now that there are no masterminds in the animal rights movement. ALF says its members operate autonomously.

"I don't feel like we're inciting any criminal activity," Atwood says. "I don't have a problem with spray-painting. Our website focuses on those who are breaking the law. Sometimes, laws are broken. It's part of an ongoing effort to eliminate animal suffering. I draw the line at physical violence... I hope it remains a nonviolent movement."

As he's saying this, a mango drops from the tree onto the roof of his yellow stucco house with a bang. Atwood flinches, then looks over his shoulder as another mango falls. Ah, just fruit.

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Kelly Cramer