"Oh, hey did you come for the protest?" the nice girl who had been packing up her car with the "Stop the McCruelty" signs asked, leaning in through our car window.
"Yes. Well, she wanted to come," I said, nodding to Lilly in the passenger seat.
We were parked along a secluded country road in Oak Brook, outside a gated community.
"Well, we're all done, I'm sorry, but we're about to go out for lunch. Can you join us?" she said with a big smile. I looked to Lilly for an answer. She was wearing her "Hell yes!" face so I turned back and said sure.
Which is how I came to have lunch with four PETA protesters, complete strangers until that moment, a few Saturdays ago.
The girl in charge who had introduced herself as Kate, closed her hatchback and went over to thank the police who had been assigned to keep the protest peaceful. They seemed like friendly guys and she obviously had dealt with them before. I suppose it's no surprise that when the CEO of McDonalds lives on your beat you would get to know the animal rights activists by name.
We followed Kate and two other cars to the mall and trooped up to a store directory board. "If we find a vegan certified restaurant I can expense it," Kate, the only employee of PETA present (the rest were volunteers) explained. As that would eliminate any restaurant that sold meat, eggs or cheese I decided to intervene. I eyed up the four of them, pegged them all as vegetarians, possibly vegans (how much could they eat?) and made a quick decision.
"How about we just go to Cheesecake Factory and I'll pick up the tab."
They were young. They were grateful so we soon found ourselves looking at the world's largest menu. I was right, there were three vegans, a vegetarian, Lilly (also a vegetarian) and me the carnivore. Watching them study the menu was kind of comical. To make it even more challenging, Kate is a vegan allergic to wheat and peanuts--that leaves umm, not much. At last the vegans ordered veggie burgers--hold the mayo hold the cheese.
We sat and chatted amiably. They were possibly the most earnest, sincere, kind, young people I've had the good fortune to spend time with in a long time. Kate, just a year out of college, has worked for PETA (her dream job) for just a few months. When she talks about Ingrid Newkirk she gets breathless (Lilly had been hoping she'd be at the protest, but no luck). It's Kate's job to organize protests. She explained what it was she wants McDonalds to do--simply use a more humane method of killing their chickens. The method, she explained, has even been recommended by an internal McDonalds committee but no change has been made. We all agreed that the CEO, Jim Skinner, had an unfortunate last name given he was being accused of scalding and butchering animals alive.
The others, two women, and a man were equally passionate about animal rights. Carmen (it was her first PETA protest but she had agreed to wear the chicken costume despite the 90 degree temps) described the poor swans at her workplace who adorn the corporate pond. "They clip their wings so they can't fly away," she said.
"Horrific!" Kate said looking a little like she might cry.
Lilly didn't say much, though her kindred spirits kindly tried to draw her out. Mostly she sat absorbing every word of the conversation with that contented look she gets when she is among other people who are as crazy for animals as she is. I've seen the same look on her face whenever she is at the bunny shelter where she is a volunteer. She loves crazy animal-lovers as much as she loves animals and I have to say her affection is not misplaced.
I paid the check and hoped that somehow this counted as doing something good. Later Lilly thanked me. "We're changing the world, Mom." And I hope she's right because I have come to believe that though there is nothing immoral about eating another creature, it is most certainly immoral to torture it before you do.