"We'd love it if the world turned vegan tomorrow," Dan Mathews says breathlessly. Mathews is senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the controversial animal rights group founded by Ingrid Newkirk in 1980. When I spoke to Mathews by phone Friday, he had to raise his voice above the honking of New York cabs and the belch of passing trucks. But the background mayhem couldn't faze a guy who thinks nothing of dressing up as a priest to crash a fashion show in Milan. Or posing in a rabbit suit for the cover of his new book, Committed: A Rabble Rouser's Memoir.
It takes more than a little ambient noise to shush Mathews or divert this theatrical pontificator from a spiel he's taken a quarter-century to perfect.
Mathews is in Fort Lauderdale today to give a talk and sign books at
Sublime Restaurant. His new book and tour are aimed at reengaging people in street activism. And his preferred mode is dressing up in costumes and acting silly. Rabble-rousing can be fun!
Mathews started out at a desk job with PETA in his early 20s. Growing up as a fat gay kid, he says, not only helped him identify with the oppressed but gave him a thick skin: He's impervious to ridicule. Mathews eventually designed some of the organization's most memorable campaigns (the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" ads were among his first). In three decades, PETA has grown into a powerhouse nonprofit with 2 million members and a $30 million budget, funded entirely by donations. But he says that even now, his street activism, being on "the front lines," is the part of the job that really drives him.
"My goal is to get people to lighten up a little bit," he says. "We get so overwhelmed by the intensity of these issues. But we live in an escapist society, and I like to frame [animal rights] in a way that is upbeat and exciting."
Lately, Mathews has been trying to move beyond the fur debate to reach a global audience on issues related to wearing animal products -- leather, snakeskin, wool. He helped design the "Cruelty Doesn't Fly" ad in which Pamela Anderson, as a busty, booted security guard, violently strips passengers going through an airport security check of all the animal products they're wearing -- belt, shoes, fur coats, leather jackets. The ad has no dialogue, so theoretically it could be shown worldwide. Only -- like other PETA ads -- it's maybe too racy for a general audience. CNN Airport Network was the first to ban it.
"We were looking for an offbeat way of getting our message across," Mathews says, "a stylish way to capture people's attention. Amusing rather than alarming. We want to draw people into the dialogue who might not already be PETA supporters."
It's all part of PETA's two-prong approach, Mathews says. In an ideal world, animals would be killed only in self-defense. And that day, he thinks, may come. But for now: "We look at the worst cruelties and act to pressure companies to adopt more humane practices. There's always a kinder way to do things."
Mathews' talk tonight is by invitation only. But there may be tickets left, at $25 each. If you'd like to attend, call Meghan Manning at 757-962-8282.