My Family’s War with Animal Activists
I belong to a doggy dynasty. My grandfather showed dogs at Westminster, my brother’s life partner runs a puppy spa, and my mother owns one of the biggest privately-owned puppy stores in America. We’re pretty much the Kennedys of the pet industry—except instead of conservatives hating us for our good looks, animal activists on the wacko left despise us for selling and exploiting “non-human animals.”
Every few years, obese vegans living off welfare picket our flagship store in Hollywood, Florida, because they read articles online claiming we buy from puppy mills and execute the dogs that don’t sell—which is bizarre considering, as Mom likes to say, “Cute puppies are monaaay! Why would we kill something we could sell?”
I never paid attention to the animal activists. The activists tended, like most liberals, to give up on their causes after a few rounds of sign waving. And, truthfully I hated the pet stores that were my inheritance. My father worked 60 hours a week managing my mother’s puppy store in Hollywood, Florida, leaving me home with housekeepers, the pile of tabloids in our kitchen, and the crack-addicted groomers that washed dogs for $8.50 an hour and occasionally doubled as babysitters. My mother, meanwhile, followed one of our few family traditions: Like my great-aunt who left my uncle for a lesbian who bred bulldogs, she divorced my father for a millionaire dog breeder from Iowa in 2001. My father continued to manage her store, because he lacks a college education and picking up dog shit is the only thing on his resume; my mother later divorced the breeder and moved to Jacksonville, seven hours away from where I lived, to open a pet store with my brother.
When I won a scholarship to attend college in New York, I was happy to leave the literal and metaphorical dog shit behind till my mother died and I inherited the puppy store’s land, which I could sell for cash—but that changed during my senior year of high school, when a militant breed of vegetarians rolled into town.
In February 2001, an ex-vegan, who had recently switched to our side and was feeding us inside information, intercepted a PETA newsletter advertising a protest at our store hosted by a woman named Ghazal Tajalli. My Mom forwarded my Dad the email and told him to take care of it. Dad asked me to research this Ghazal person—he was nervous about the bad publicity, and so computer illiterate he was incapable of googling her himself. A tabloid junkie, I was glad to research the life of what I presumed was a lonely basket case.
According to Ghazal’s MySpace page, she was an Iranian immigrant and single mother who had recently become a vegan and devout animal activist. She decided to protest our store because it was a freestanding building, but didn’t know—greenhorn rabble-rouser that she was—this meant she needed a permit to protest. “She’s an amateur,” Dad said. “Nothing to worry about. We’ll be done with this bitch in a week.” To be safe, Dad asked me to find friends willing to counter-protest PETA for cash and I was able to find about ten teens who would wave signs for drug money—college education or not, my father knew how to astroturf political movements.
The day of the protest my family and friends set up a barbeque in the parking lot next to the store, where we watched the people who wanted to put us out of business and ruin our lives assemble. Ghazal stood in front of our store with another overweight vegan and a man who called himself John Brown, in honor of the militant abolitionist who died for the anti-slavery cause (this John Brown wore a fedora in the style of a self-proclaimed anarchist middle schooler). In person, Ghazal looked and sounded like a Persian Ethel Merman. She wore a peach dress too small for her big frame, had a visible lady-stache, and screamed, “Blood money! You have blood money! Puppy blood is on your hands!”
After the people-watching got boring, Dad called the police to report the picketers for protesting without a permit. Shortly, three cops came and surrounded the PETA protestors, who were none too pleased. “This isn’t over!” Ghazal screamed.
“Actually, it is over. You don’t have a permit,” my father pointed out.
“How did the owner get on the PETA mailing list? Where’s the owner? Where’s that bitch?” Ghazel raged. One of my 17-year-old friends laughed; my Mom was inside the store watching from a window and counting her blood money. Ghazal pointed at the teenage girl’s face. “You own this store! You’re the bitch on the mailing list!”
We laughed and then returned to our barbeque, as the cops hauled Ghazal away. If she didn’t bother to research Florida’s protesting laws, how could she shut our store down? But it turned out the war was just beginning. A few days later, an old woman ran into the store and unlocked all the dog cages. She told an employee she was “freeing prisoners.” The woman fled before the cops arrived. Later that week our PETA spy told us over 30 people had RSVP’d to the Facebook event for the upcoming protest; Ghazal was dumb, but she was also passionate—she wasn’t giving up anytime soon.
As my father called lawyers for my mother, who was communicating with us from Jacksonville, I posted Facebook statuses asking friends to counter-protest for money and tried to learn more about Ghazal. I designed a fake Facebook account, wrote a status about how much I loved cats, and then added Ghazal. My brilliant ruse worked and she accepted my request in minutes and sent me a message asking me to join her friends at the protest. Ghazal, John Brown, and other activists used Ghazal’s wall as a forum to discuss their activist group of choice, Negotiation Is Over—a radical animal rights organization that supports the Animal Liberation Front, a terrorist group best known for blowing up farms and research labs. In the days leading up to the protests I obsessively watched as they praised the “heroes” of NIO’s section dedicated to “Justifiable Homicide”—the assassination of poachers—and asked non-vegans to leave Ghazal’s Facebook page.
The activists acted like a family on Facebook. This fascinated me, but it didn’t worry me the day of the protest—we had money. My father’s attorney stood behind the front window, waiting for protesters to break the law. Dad hung a “WELCOME PETA” banner above the front door. In the parking lot, he hosted a petting zoo and barbeque. He had paid a leather-wearing stripper and fur-wearing drag queen to protest, but they lived up to all of those stereotypes about creatures of the night being flaky and failed to show up. That was OK—we had so many customers and paid family friends counter-protesting, the cops had to draw a line on the sidewalk—if anyone crossed the line they would lose their right to protest.
“How many puppies did the store kill this week?” Ghazal asked.
We stayed quiet. A customer walked out of the store. “Don’t support murder,” an obese vegan said. “They kill puppies.” The protester handed the customer a pamphlet. I forced myself to stay calm—that’s what the lawyer recommended we do; let the activists freak out on camera so the cops could ban the NIO from receiving protest permits. That plan got scrapped when Ghazal asked us why we loved abusing dogs and eating meat.
“Actually, I’m a vegetarian,” said the one vegetarian counter-protester who proved the old joke correct: How do you know someone’s a vegetarian? They’ll tell you.
“That’s not true,” Ghazal said. “You can’t be a vegetarian. You have to have a soul to be a vegetarian. You’re too young to have a soul.”
“What does that even mean? You know what, I’m not even going to argue about that. You’re a moron.”
“I’m the moron? You’re the one hanging out with puppy killers!”
That was it. I had dealt with too much as a puppy store heir to hear someone demean the family business that screwed up our family. “Nobody would murder a puppy they could sell,” I said. “Don’t you know anything about business?
“They kill puppies,” Ghazal said. “I read it online. You can’t hide from the truth.”
“My. Parents. Don’t. Kill. Puppies.”
“Oh, so you’re the killers’ spawn?” Ghazal asked.
“Yes, I am. I’m Mitchell, son of a puppy killer.”
“Your parents lie to you.”
“They’re just trying to support a family.”
Out of nowhere a woman wearing a dog costume walked past us and lay down on the ground. “I’m a dog the Sunderland family killed,” she said. The protesters cheered; the cops told her to get out of the street. She moved to the sidewalk. By this time, faced with something as irrational as this scene, I became irrational myself: I grabbed the vegetarian that was on my parent’s side, ran to the back of the store, grabbed two hot dogs from the grill, handed one to the vegetarian, and then walked up to the dead dog lady.
“Would you like some lunch?” I asked. “I’ve got a dead pig in a bun.”
She ripped off her dog mask and removed pepper spray from her pocket. “I have pepper spray, and I have the right to spray you,” she said.
“You are crazy!” the vegetarian on our side shouted.
“I’m just offering you a hot dog.”
“That’s physical harassment. I have the right to spray your ass, and I am not afraid to do it, puppy killer!”
Two cops drove up to the dead dog, jumped out of the car, and ordered her to put her pepper spray away and move away from me. She flipped me off and walked off. I thought the craziness had ended, but then John Brown, the grown up teenage anarchist, started a chant: “MITCHELL, LEAVE TOWN! PUPPY KILLERS, LEAVE TOWN! MITCHELL, LEAVE TOWN!” “You’re too young to have a soul!” Ghazal shouted again. The good vegetarian threw her picket sign on the ground and walked up to John Brown. “WILL YOU JUST SHUT UP?” she asked. Ghazal motioned to the crowd and then started a new chant: “YOU’RE SOULESS! SOULLESS! SOULLESS!” The other counter-protesters walked up to the red line and screamed at NIO with the vegetarian and me. We lacked a chant, but we had become a group, and for a brief moment, screaming with the counter-protesters, I felt like I belonged to a group held together my something more than the dog shit in my blood.
That week, I stayed up every night stalking Ghazal’s Facebook. She posted a photo album of the protest, including a shot of the 30-plus activists standing together. Her friend commented, “Thanks for putting this together!” and then close to 40 people RSVP’d to her next protest. I fantasized about standing with the counter-protesters screaming at Ghazal about a business I didn’t actually care about, but when I asked the good vegetarian and other counter-protesters to return, they said maybe. We didn’t have a shared core belief like Ghazal’s group, no unifying chants. I was there because it was my familial duty, and my counter-protesters had come for the money.
Over the next year and a half I had to help my father find a new group of counter-protesters and engage in an ever-escalating PR war as she protested in front of the store twice a month and he planned crazy stunts in response. Ghazal told reporters she never belonged to PETA; we found a photo of her six-year-old daughter holding a PETA sign and then pasted the picture on a picket sign that said, “GHAZAL’S NOT IN PETA, BUT HER DAUGHTER IS.” Ghazal posted a Facebook status calling my father a pedophile; Dad hired an obese teenager with facial hair to dress in drag as Ghazal. After each protest I hoped the same counter protesters would return, but each time it was a new batch of teenagers needing money for booze. The protests had become crazier but less rewarding.
Eventually my friends and I left for college. My father experimented with having ex-felons recruited off Craigslist protest, but few people responded, and the activists’ numbers grew. (NIO’s founder Camille Marino even drove down from northern Florida to sleep at Ghazal’s house and scream at my father.) From her office in Jacksonville, Mom told Dad to cut down on protest costs and yield better results. Dad gave up fighting crazy with crazy and installed security cameras instead. Last spring the cameras caught the NIO crossing the line the cops told them never to cross and the sheriff banned them from applying for future permits. NIO’s founder went to jail for stalking a researcher, and then Ghazal and her friends founded a new activist organization, SMASH HLS, which targets primate merchants. My family has gone back to what we do best: selling puppies and counting our blood money.
Every now and then, I stalk Ghazal’s Facebook profile, just like old times. Reading her timeline this weekend, I found out that she was in an abusive relationship until five years ago, is estranged from her Iranian family, and created her Facebook in 2009, right after she dumped her abusive boyfriend and less than six months before she began protesting my family’s pet store. Prior to picketing my family’s store, she rarely wrote about activism or to the activists that attacked my family. Last month she referred to her protester crew (who she most likely met while protesting my family) as her best friends. For a brief second I envied the family Ghazal gained from trying to destroy mine. Then I remembered that her new family is based on nothing but a mutual hatred for my family. I’ll keep the blood money.
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