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Hell on Wheels

How the PETA propaganda van turned heads--and stomachs.

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Burghers and bohemians were crying, together, right there on the corner of Damen and Milwaukee. Or at least a few of them were crying. More were merely cringing at the sights and sounds emanating from the truck parked there--a clean white vehicle not unlike an ice cream truck, but with TV screens and posters for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals mounted on either side.

The drivers of PETA's "Reality TV" truck, William Rivas-Rivas and Karin Robertson, had a selection of videos on hand--including the group's famous slaughterhouse expose Meet Your Meat, which can make a vegetarian out of anybody for at least ten minutes--but today, in protest of the Chicago stop of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, they were running a continuous six-minute loop of elephant footage. Passersby collected around the truck to see--and hear--elephants being gouged with bull hooks, elephants being zapped with electric prods, elephants swaying madly in their chains, elephants having their hair burned off with blowtorches. The showstopper was the destruction of Tyke, who in 1994 trampled her trainer midcircus and escaped into the streets of Honolulu. As car alarms wail and bystanders scream, loud rifle shots ring out and blood spurts from the elephant's head. It takes about 15 shots to bring Tyke to the ground.

Rivas-Rivas, 30, and Robertson, 22, were nearing the end of a tour that had taken them from PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, to Chicago, where their aim was to drive around the United Center on the circus's opening night, November 19. But the night before they found themselves with time to kill, and set up this preview in Wicker Park. Rivas-Rivas, an incongruously cheerful ex-navy officer, said PETA has two elephant tapes--and that the one he was showing was the easier one to watch. He prefers it when he's trying to get people to stop so he can talk to them. "With the other video, I tend to lose them," he said. "Even with this subtler one--did you see that lady who just left? She was crying."

While the tape rolled, Rivas-Rivas and Robertson answered questions and repeatedly explained the point of the demonstration: to discourage people from supporting circuses that use elephants and other animals for entertainment. They told spectators that many of the disturbing practices on the tape are commonplace at Ringling Bros. and other circuses.

Some of the footage was clearly shot at Ringling Bros., though most of it appeared to be at least several years old. John Kirtland, executive director of animal stewardship for the circus, says Ringling Bros. forbids trainers to use electric prods or blowtorches. But chains and bull hooks, he claims, are necessary and accepted elephant-handling tools. He compares them to a leash on a dog or a bit in a horse's mouth. Does it hurt when the trainers whack the animals with the hooks? "It's annoying or irritating to the elephant," Kirtland says, but if done properly, it's not actually painful. Some elephant trainers do abuse the hooks--but not, he insists, at Ringling Bros.

Life on the road may be tough for elephants, but it's not easy on people either. As PETA's campaign coordinator and Hispanic outreach coordinator, Rivas-Rivas is away from home at least half the year. He and Robertson had spent five of the last six weeks in the truck, covering 4,000 miles and stopping in 15 cities. In Chicago they'd managed to get a good deal on a room at the Marriott near O'Hare, but the night before they'd crashed in a cheap motel in a gritty part of Saint Louis after a plan to stay with some local animal rights activists fell through.

PETA workers also have to tolerate the derision of skeptics who think of the group as a gang of paint-throwing fanatics. In fact, Rivas-Rivas claimed, the organization is deeply misunderstood; its reputation is sullied not by employees but by members who've pulled irresponsible stunts in PETA's name without its knowledge or support. Not wanting to alienate members, PETA officials rarely decry the stunts, instead choosing to suffer the public relations hits quietly. (Kirtland referred to them as "People Endorsing Terrorism in America.") At Damen and Milwaukee the occasional heckler (like the guy who yelled, "Hey, I want to get rid of my cats! Will you guys take my cats?") was pointedly but politely ignored.

Robertson, a wholesome-looking young woman despite the small ring she wears through her lower lip, is an Indianapolis native who came to PETA straight out of Bucknell University, where she majored in animal behavior. She's been a vegan since she was a teen, when in a search for information on animal testing of cosmetics she ran across an article on factory farming.

Rivas-Rivas grew up in Houston. He was still in the navy until a couple years ago, serving as an engineer on an aircraft carrier in Japan. He said he was driven to PETA partly by the badgering he took as a vegan in the military: having to constantly defend his diet to other sailors, he became something of a spokesman for the lifestyle. He's been with PETA for 15 months, and his only complaint so far is that he misses his cat when he's on the road.

On the 19th, the plan was to drive down the Magnificent Mile at rush hour, then head west on Madison, arriving at the United Center in time to greet circusgoers. As the truck sat at stoplights, commuters and pedestrians alike turned toward the TV screens. At the corner of Chicago and Michigan a man in a pickup truck mouthed "Damn, damn, damn" in rhythm with the beating an elephant was taking onscreen.

By the time the truck arrived at the United Center, a couple dozen local animal-rights activists were on hand bearing picket signs. Some were shouting at the circusgoers; others just handed out flyers. But in the middle of the truck's second lap around the block, the battery powering the video system died--apparently a quick charge at a gas station that afternoon hadn't provided enough juice. The TVs went black and silent.

Though this was for all intents and purposes the end of the tour, and they had yet more driving ahead--they planned to crash at Robertson's parents' house in Indy that night, and then Rivas-Rivas would continue on to his home in Norfolk--the two parked and hopped out to join the protesters passing out PETA literature.

First, though, they had to secure the truck. As Rivas-Rivas wrestled with the hatches that cover the TV screens, a policeman on an ATV pulled up and asked what he was doing. Rivas-Rivas stopped his work and cheerfully told the officer all about the elephants and the bull hooks and the blowtorches and the chains. The cop listened patiently to the whole spiel--but he didn't cry.

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