When Ashley Fruno was seven she found a vein in her chicken nugget whilst eating at McDonald’s. Up until that point, she had no idea that the food on her plate was in any way related to the animals raised in her neighbour’s farm which had fascinated her so much. She began to cut out meat from her diet and became a vegetarian by the age of 13, later on when she learnt more about the diary and egg industries she became a vegan. “It was an easy choice for me to get involved with PETA,” Fruno tells me, “I knew from an early age that animal rights would be a big part of my life.”
Since then, Fruno has worked to promote PETA in the Middle East and was even arrested in Jordan for organizing a ‘lettuce lady’ protest. “We were there to promote vegetarianism, not hurt anyone or break the law but they made us feel like criminals,” she says. Although PETA doesn’t have a Middle East affiliate they work with local groups in the region and have held protests and demonstrations in the region- most recently in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut, Damascus, and Amman. In the following Q&A, I quized Fruno on everything from the role religion plays in their campaigns in the Middle East, how the internet is changing people’s attitudes to why PETA activists were attacked by a mob of KFC workers in Cairo.
What are the biggest issues you face in the Middle East?
I guess first and foremost, there is a language barrier in the region. People don’t know who we are or what we’re promoting, which is why we’re so fortunate to have the help of wonderful activists throughout the region who assist with our campaigns and public education events. We work and co-operate with many animal rights groups in the region, ranging from animal shelters to vegetarian groups. Basically, anyone who shares our message of global compassion and better treatment for animals is alright with us.
Another problem we face is cultural. The vast majority of us were raised to think that eating meat and drinking milk was healthy, when nothing could be further from the truth. Meat and livestock industries have billions of dollars to come up with slick advertisements with a celebrity spokesperson that either glosses over important details or lies blatantly. They don’t care about our health, only their profit margins.
Have religious traditions posed any barriers to PETA’s campaigns?
Funnily enough, religion is usually on our side, particularly in regard to Christianity and Islam. For instance, the beautiful religion of Islam has always viewed animals as a special part of God’s creation. The Qur’an, the Hadith, and the history of Islamic civilization offer many examples of kindness, mercy, and compassion for animals.
The same can be said for Christianity, for example, the Bible relates that God gave humanity “dominion” over creation (Genesis 1:26), and we see this as a sacred responsibility, not a license to ruin the environment and torment God’s creatures. Indeed, many of the world’s problems are due to human heartlessness and self-indulgence. Moving toward a plant-based diet is a responsible, effective, and faithful way to serve God and to protect God’s Creation.
Do you have a sense that there changing attitudes to animal rights and veganism?
Due to the internet, most people have access to an abundance of information, something that just wasn’t possible twenty years ago. In this day and age, people can look up the nutritional value of a t-bone steak, rather than have a meat industry spokesperson spill his/her propaganda. Cosmetic chains are halting animal tests, fast-food chains are offering vegetarian options, and designers are dropping fur and exotic skins from their lines. Change is happening, and it’s change for the better!
Could you tell us about some of the campaigns that you have worked on in the Middle East over the last couple of years?
Last year we had a pro-vegetarian lettuce lady demonstration in Jordan, before police broke up our peaceful protest and carted us to jail. The intent of our peaceful protest was simply to raise awareness that going vegetarian is the best thing you can do for your health, the environment, and the animals. We also had a KFC protest in downtown Cairo to urge the fast food chain to implement minimal animal welfare standards, where our PETA Asia director Jason Baker was attacked by a mob of KFC staff members and was arrested. We also protested Dubai Zoo for the abhorrent conditions in which their animals are kept – the police closed us down early too.
Are there any exciting plans for PETA campaigns currently in the pipeline?
We’ve always got exciting plans in the pipeline! Over the years we’ve draped ourselves in lettuce gowns to encourage vegetarianism, dressed up as babies (complete with a diaper) to protest animal testing or dawned prison suits and monkey masks to speak out for animals in zoos! We’ve always got something exciting cooking up, you’ll just have to wait and see what it is.
For more on animal rights issues in the Middle East see:
Vegetarianism hits the streets of Jordan Wearing Lettuce
This Is What A Muslim Vegetarian Looks Like
Book Review: Animals In Islam and Muslim Culture
How Vegetarians Can Solve The Middle East Water Crisis