By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009 11:36 PM
The PETA interns have beautiful skin and lovely teeth. They have shiny hair and the buzzy energy that comes, they'd say, from avoiding animal products and animal byproducts, and from the peaceful belief that through their work, you can be helped, too.
This self-assured knowledge is useful when the PETA interns are naked, which happens occasionally, like at a recent Friday demonstration when Kelsey Jaye stands with another "PETA Beauty" in a makeshift shower on Pennsylvania Avenue by the National Archives. They languidly wash each other with cruelty-free soap and ignore heckles from the gathering crowd.
"Can I get in?" a guy wants to know. (A guy always wants to know.)
"Gotta be veee-gan!" one of the Beauties sings in a sparkly voice.
"Is the water cold?" another man asks. Jaye smiles beatifically, striking a glam pose inside the short, opaque curtain, which reads, Clean your conscience: 1 lb meat = 2,463 gallons of water.
He's so skeezy. All the men here are so skeezy, snapping pictures with their cellphones, pretending to read the literature given to them by Line Moeller, another PETA intern who is wearing a teeny terry cloth robe. "I'm just . . . interested . . . in what they're . . . saying," says the man who wants the water to be cold. He stares slack-jawed at Jaye and her shower mate, who are saying nothing. (Unknown to the men, the Beauties are wearing panties.)
Jaye is used to this. These things happen when you are a PETA intern.
Other passersby decline the fliers, which outline the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. Or take the fliers but rush past, as if they're afraid of catching something. A woman in a business suit waits on the corner for the light to change, holding the hand of her toddler son. "Mommy?" he asks, confused.
"These people are crazy," she says. "It's just those crazy PETA people."Using 'your body as a tool'
The PETA interns, current Washington division, are Jaye, Ryan Moore and Brittany Wortham.
They're new in town. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was founded in Rockville in 1980, but relocated to Norfolk in the mid-'90s. In April, the organization reopened a local office, and began hosting interns in June. Some, like Jaye, Moore and Wortham, are stationed here for weeks at a time. Others, like Moeller, come up from Norfolk occasionally, for a particular event. All go through an extensive application process.
The ones in Washington stay in a sleek, donated U Street rowhouse with dorm-style beds. There is a corresponding house in Norfolk. The interns spend their days doing the things that most interns in Washington spend their days doing -- envelope stuffing, office work -- as well as the things that most interns in Washington don't, like dressing up as bloody seals and writhing on the street in front of the Canadian Embassy.
Jaye, 18, was at that particular protest in September, one of three arrested as she belly-crawled across a crosswalk. She was also at a Times Square demo, which was another naked one. "There were 50 demonstrators in a big naked pile, with arrows sticking out everywhere" to protest bullfighting, she says. "It was totally empowering. It's great to be able to use your body as a tool."
The earnest passion of the PETA intern. They were all called to this higher purpose. They were all called to wear the costumes trucked up from the warehouse in Norfolk, which is filled with things that PETA might need for a demonstration. Props have included sheep suits, pig suits, people-size cages, giant glue traps, butcher blocks, lettuce-leaf bikinis and red paint. The red paint can either be a prop or an entire costume, depending on the nakedness level of the protest.
The passion of the PETA interns can make them uproot their entire lives, which is what Moore did. At 43, he's the oldest intern. Until a few months ago, he lived in North Dakota, where he managed a fitness business, selling high-end exercise equipment. It was lucrative, he says, but he didn't feel fulfilled. He'd already stopped eating meat for his vegetarian wife, Amber, then he convinced her that they should also let go of eggs and milk, go completely vegan.
Still, it didn't seem like enough. They quit their jobs and moved to Norfolk to become PETA interns.
Now Amber is down at the Norfolk house while Ryan has been brought to Washington. He finds himself still passing out fliers in his free time. "It's muscle memory," he says.
Wortham, 21, knows how he feels. If you don't talk to people, you can't change their minds. If they don't have all the information, they can't make the right decisions. "What if I tell this person something they've never heard of, and that's the thing that makes a difference?" says Wortham, who has already converted her parents and siblings to vegetarianism and is working on her grandmother.
Think of the rabbits, skinned alive. Think of the chickens, and that horrible debeaking. Think of the bee and the way we ruthlessly steal its honey. Think of the spider, held in captivity as researchers study its silk. Think of the silkworm. Nobody ever thinks of the silkworm. PETA thinks of the silkworm.
Sometimes, when Jaye receives pushback at a demo -- when someone gets defensive, or attacks, or makes snide remarks -- she tells herself that she's hitting home, that the defensiveness is a sign that she's getting through. "People feel guilty about what they're doing, and then they attack the people who make them feel guilty."
"I used to justify meat consumption" before becoming a vegetarian, Moore says. "I would talk about the whole food chain, I would jokingly say, 'What about plants' feelings?' " -- but he felt, deep down, that eating meat was wrong.'Super-faithful true believers'
The PETA interns might be eccentric.
They are working for an organization that tried to use veggie burgers to bribe a town called Hamburg into changing its name, that last fall re-branded fish as "sea kittens" to make children averse to eating them, that launched a "Got Beer" campaign to argue that booze was a better choice than milk.
They are not being paid.
Not for any of it, not for the naked parts, not for when they're smeared in fake blood and wrapped in cellophane like packaged poultry. (A newspaper in Memphis ran a little commentary on that demo; claimed that PETA would never treat cows the way they treat interns.)
This devotion makes some people believe that the interns are crazy.
For instance, Lydia Netzer lives next door to the PETA intern house down in Norfolk. Netzer used to have an indoor-outdoor cat. PETA has concerns about outdoor cats.
"It seemed like every time a new intern moved in, they would come over and say they needed to talk to me about the dangers of cats living outside. I would have this parade of pierced, tattooed vegans at my door. In a way it's like, 'Oh, they're so cute. They're all 20 years old and super-faithful true believers.' "
For six months, Netzer tried to keep Hoity inside, but he began clawing the furniture, "pooping all over things," and going, as far as Netzer could tell, completely insane. When she would put him out again, some or another intern would stop by again, implying, she says, that Hoity might be happier and safer in a shelter. Afraid that the PETA interns would take her cat, she eventually had him put to sleep.
A PETA spokesman says that the interns had seen the cat "have close calls" with cars in the neighborhood.
Now, months after the incident, Netzer says she can sympathize with the PETA interns. Sort of. "It's an emotional thing for them," she says. "They're constantly looking at images of animals being tortured."
The PETA interns have a way of making you feel bad, not like they're doing it on purpose. But like in talking to them you suddenly remember everything you've ever read on factory farming and on how pigs are supposed to be very affectionate, like dogs. In a time when going green is not just trendy but mainstream, the PETA interns make you want to explain that your shoes might look like leather but they're totally fake.Making 'that difference'
Another day, another demo. Today Jaye is dressed as a chicken and Wortham is dressed as a big, blobby chicken nugget, but the costume looks like a goldfish and people keep getting confused. Moore carries a tray of free vegan drumsticks as they walk through Farragut Square. "Tastes just like chicken."
A dude walks past and yells, "We like meat. We're going to Morton's."
But most people are excited about the drumsticks. Moore gets into a discussion with one guy who seems really interested in the health benefits of being a vegetarian.
"I know I'm going to make that difference with someone," Moore says in another conversation. "They won't know my name or how to get in touch with me." But he will have reached them.
The PETA interns are about hope, really. They are about that moment when all things seem possible, like a world where cats live indoors and cows live outdoors and everyone is healthier and shinier, with lovely teeth.
They have seen glimpses of that world, and they want to bring us, too, lead us all to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, except that when we get there it will flow with soy.