HOW far are you willing to go for something you believe in? What would you risk?
Just about anything, if you’re Rochelle R. Regodon, the otherwise shy 30-year-old Campaigns Manager of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia-Pacific.
Regodon was once detained in Singapore for interrupting a speech by Australian Prime Minister John Howard and for dressing up as Santa Claus with a placard declaring “Peace on Earth for all Animals. Boycott KFC!” outside the chicken fast food outlet.
Held for over six hours after the Howard incident, she admits not knowing what would happen to her next. “But at least we got the message across,” she adds. The message urged consumers to boycot Australian wool because of mulesing, the process of removing folds of skin from the tail area of sheep to prevent infestation by fly maggots, a practice that PETA activists claim is harmful to the animals. Regodon would eventually be released both times, with no charges filed.
That seems to be par for the course in the life of this woman who thinks nothing of dressing up as animals to get PETA’s point across. The group has recently set up a seven-staff Asia-Pacific office in Makati. The posting is some sort of homecoming for Regodon.
When she was eight months When she was eight months old, Regodon’s parents Manuel and Josephine moved to Hong Kong where they run a teaching center. This middle child among three kids took her BA at the City University of Hong Kong and went on to Macquarie University in Australia for her Masters in International Communication.
It was in Sydney as a volunteer at an animal shelter that Regodon, already an animal lover by then, educated herself on the concept of animal rights. “It wasn’t just about caring for companion animals at home, but extending that compassion to other animals, period. That includes farm animals and those used in science. I figured I wanted to do more for them,” she explains.
Regodon returned to Hong Kong to take up her rather ho-hum existence as editor in a financial firm, but not before hooking up with PETA Asia-Pacific director Jason Baker. That was in 2002. Starting out as a part-time volunteer, she eventually became a full-time volunteer and currently, Campaigns Manager.
The Hong Kong permanent resident who spoke Cantonese found that she had to learn to speak Filipino, starting with what she calls “Barok Tagalog.” Being a vegan in the Philippines turned out to be less of a challenge, she realized. The country is much more vegan-friendly than she expected, says Regodon. “I’ve even started to cook. I was just so surprised that I could cook vegan dishes on my own with all the options available in local supermarkets.”
PETA Asia-Pacific handles campaigns throughout Asia, including Australia and New Zealand, but excluding India, which has its own PETA office. Though PETA’s Makati office was only established early this year, animal rights activists have been active here for several years now. And they’ve certainly kept busy.
Animal welfare standards
The group once had protesters crammed into cages in Harrison Plaza to protest KFC’s way of handling chickens. They also put up a 50-foot billboard beside a KFC outlet along Edsa that depicted KFC founder Col. Sanders stabbing a chicken. The billboard was taken down within the day. PETA’s beef with KFC, Regodon says, lies in the chain’s refusal to institute animal welfare standards, unlike other chains like McDonald’s and Burger King.
The group’s stand extends beyond the use of animals as food. On Tuesday this week, PETA led a protest action right outside the Manila Zoo to stress the organization’s stand about animals being kept in captivity. “What we do is bring the message out there for the public to talk about. We are a PR firm for animals,” says Regodon. “We want all animals to be left alone. People can do things like not go to zoos or become vegetarian, which is the best way because then you save 70 animals a year.”
Going vegetarian is at the heart of PETA’s push in the Philippines. “We’re not a particularly meat-eating society,” observes Regodon. “Like other countries in Asia, we’re just accustomed to the idea that meat is a staple. It doesn’t have to be. People weren’t meant to eat meat in the first place.”
Regodon is part of a vanguard that disseminates PETA’s ideas through media, be it printed leaflets, websites and, yes, the unique protests that PETA is famous—or notorious—for. This is, after all, the organization known for splashing paint at people wearing fur in other countries. In the group’s long-running feud with Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, PETA members once threw a tofu pie in this fashion editor’s face in Paris and dunked a dead raccoon into her lunch in New York. PETA takes umbrage at Wintour’s continued use of fur in her magazine’s fashion spreads.
Some might call them crazy or over-the-top, but Regodon says that their antics are all part of waging a battle for minds in the current climate. “We think out of the box. We’re creative and use different strategies. We need to get people to sit up and take notice. If we do generic things, people aren’t likely to talk about the issue,” she says. “This is the MTV generation and we sometimes need to use shock tactics.”
The group’s campaign for vegetarianism has also spawned very slick ads that feature celebrities shedding their clothes to promote the idea of going without meat. In the Philippines, the best-known example is the eye-catching print ad featuring model Isabel Roces on a bed of red chili peppers. “She’s so fantastic to work with,” says Regodon.
The Philippines, she notes, makes for an excellent nerve center for PETA despite the lack of Internet connectivity in the country’s rural areas that prevent more people from accessing PETA’s materials online. “Here in Asia, this is where we need to be,” says Regodon. “We need to reach a larger audience. There’s a lot to do in Asia and that’s why we’re here. Very few groups focus on animal rights though there are a lot of animal welfare groups,” she says.
She notes that while people in the Philippines are quite aware of the need to be kind to their “companion animals” (their preferred term for “pets,” which they say denotes some kind of ownership), many Filipinos don’t see farmed animals the same way. “Unfortunately, people still see farmed animals as food. People need to go beyond that and look at the bigger picture.”
It also hasn’t escaped their notice that PETA shares the same acronym with the pioneering Philippine Educational Theater Association. “People who want to contact us get to them by chance, and vice-versa,” says Regodon. The staff of both organizations ends up amicably fielding each other’s calls.
Constantly in search of volunteers, PETA Asia-Pacific intends to work with other animal rights’ groups such as the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) on its more localized campaigns. It also intends to set up a permanent Hong Kong office.
In the meantime, PETA Asia-Pacific is raring to get out there and spread its wings. It’s ready to make a racket, whether the Philippines is ready or not. And Rochelle Regodon isn’t about to chicken out. “People think it’s ridiculous (that we dress up as animals), but we’re really making a statement that people need to be aware of. And for that, we’re willing to do what it takes.”
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Philippine Daily Inquirer