How PETA Started the Animal Rights Movement in Silver Spring

Social revolutions break out in the most unlikely places, but perhaps no more unlikely than this.

On the morning of September 11, 1981, Montgomery County police raided a nondescript warehouse on Brookville Road in Silver Spring, confiscating 17 rhesus macaque monkeys after receiving a tip from Takoma Park resident and activist Alex Pacheco. animal welfare.

Pacheco, then 23, had orchestrated the raid. Posing as a volunteer, he had spent four months documenting conditions in the federally funded research lab at the warehouse. He photographed monkeys with open wounds confined to restraints that looked like electric chairs. At night, he recalls, he brought in experts to attest to the mistreatment of the monkeys.

Researchers working at the warehouse had altruistic goals — they were looking for ways to restore limb function to victims of strokes and other trauma, according to Edward Taub, director of the lab. But the gruesome photographs were too hard for even the most hardened cops to ignore. They bit and attacked the Institute for Behavioral Research (IBR). The next day, Pacheco’s small organization — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA — was on its way to fame, known for its daring capers and outlandish stunts.

Pacheco, who now lives in Florida, says he became “radicalized” while living in England, fascinated by the animal rights movement there. Returning to the United States, he met soul mate Ingrid Newkirk, and they formed PETA in 1980, operating it out of a basement apartment in Takoma Park that they shared with a pet pig.

It turned out that suburban Washington, DC was the perfect place to start a revolution. It was near Capitol Hill; housed the National Institutes of Health, which funded the IBR and dozens of other labs; and was a major media center. And there were celebrities.

It is true that the animal welfare movement was alive and well before the big raid. But animal lovers have long focused on stray cats and abused dogs. They spoke the language of love and companionship. When Pacheco addressed reporters, he used the language of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Thomas Paine and Voltaire – not talking about animal welfare, but about animal rights. Forget Paine’s Human rights, he said. Fight for rat rights.

The Silver Spring monkey case has supercharged the animal movement. In 1986, activist Wim DeKok obtained a list of animal groups in the United States from the Farm Animal Reform Movement. There were 80. Today, DeKok’s list, maintained by World Animal Network and considered the most comprehensive, contains 9,000 US groups and 16,000 worldwide. The actual numbers are likely double that, he says.

There’s a band for every flavor of animal lover, from carnivore to abolitionist. “Some [groups] organize a barbecue for their fundraiser,” says DeKok. “They eat one animal to feed another.” Other groups are so zealous that they oppose the use of guide dogs for the blind.

In the end, both sides in the IBR case declared victory – PETA for winning a lab’s first animal cruelty conviction, IBR for overturning it. In the years that followed, PETA moved to Norfolk, Virginia. Newkirk remains its chairman. Taub went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where at 91 he is still listed as a professor. The last of the Silver Spring monkeys died at a primate center in Louisiana in 1998, according to a spokesperson for the National Center for Primate Research at Tulane University. Pacheco, 63, says he now runs a charity researching ways to neuter and neuter stray dogs with a single pill.

He also advises groups on how to trigger social revolutions. He says people need several things to create the perfect storm, including Congress, media, celebrities and photographs.

“You need them all,” he said. “But it all starts with the photographs. No one will get involved if you don’t have the photos.

This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue from Bethesda magazine.

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