Animals vs. men

SOME PEOPLE might call it ironic, but it was because of AIDS that I first became involved with animal rights. When my dearest friend, Robert Redding -- who helped me develop the Elvira "Mistress of the Dark," character -- found out he had AIDS, I was determined to keep him going until a cure was found. I was always looking for anything that would make him feel better, and one of the things I heard about was a macrobiotic diet. But the only way I could talk Robert into it was to do it with him. After a while we lapsed from the macrobiotic diet, but Robert and I both stayed vegetarians, and I began reading more about vegetarianism. That's how I got pulled into the animal rights movement. I joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and started educating myself about the issues.

One issue was the use of animals in medical research; this is an important one for me because so many of my closest friends had AIDS. At first I felt tremendous conflict and guilt because PETA opposes any animal testing. My best friends are dying, I thought, and I'm saying "Don't harm these animals." But the more I learned about it, the more I became convinced that animal research is doing more harm than good -- and that the forces behind it are motivated by profit, not compassion.


I was shocked when I found out, for instance, that the federal government refused to fund basic clinical studies with humans when the disease was just being diagnosed in the early '80s. Instead, the government chose to spend taxpayers' money to overdose rats on "popperes," an over-the-counter drug believed to be popular in the gay disco community.

Everything of importance that we have learned about AIDS has come from human clinical and epidemiological studies, not from tests done on animals. This includes our knowledge of how the disease is transmitted, how it progresses and how it can be prevented.


Vivisection trade groups are now panicking because many artists who fight AIDS, such as k.d. lang, Todd Oldham, the B-52s, Melissa Etheridge and I, also support PETA's fight to defend animals. One trade group, backed by a company that staples dogs' stomachs in surgical "show and tell" and then kills them, has tried to climb under the AIDS tent and has even stooped so low as to run attack ads against PETA's openly gay campaign director.

I have come to believe, however, that empty promises from those who get rich promoting animal experiments distract us from our best defense against AIDS -- prevention, and our most promising pathway to a cure -- human clinical studies. Yet only a small fraction of the billions spent trying to infect and kill animals is used to educate and save people.

Many of the same good old boys responsible for our government's well-publicized "War On Cancer" failure over the past generation, are once again at the helm in the war on AIDS. No matter how often they inject cancers into the animal kingdom, human cancer rates continued to skyrocket. Only recently have they begun to educate people that our risk of cancer has more to do with our eating and smoking habits than with a rat's response to Sweet & Low.

Some people, like my friend Robert, didn't get the AIDS prevention message in time. For them, we must offer care and support -- and a vigorous fight not to let opportunistic career experimenters pour precious funds down the drain of fruitless and cruel animal experiments. Hope in AIDS research lies in more studies of long-term survivors, HIV inhibitors in human saliva and cell and tissue cultures, and in ethnobotany studies. These may not put money into the pockets of animal breeders, dealers and the medical companies that profit from repetitious animal experiments, but they hold a far brighter promise of results.

Television actress Cassandra Peterson plays the character Elvira.