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Got Milk Protesters?

Forget fur shoppers. PETA activists have discovered an even greater threat: milk-guzzling school kids.

Thirteen-year-old Alexis seems surprisingly unfazed, given that there’s a cow standing in front of Hardy Middle School on a Monday afternoon.

It’s not a real cow, of course, only Noah Hannibal, an intern for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), dressed in a big, furry costume. It’s white with big black spots—like the classic Holstein dairy cow. Hannibal’s here with a handful of PETA activists to urge kids like Alexis to stop drinking milk. In addition to the cow costume he’s wearing, Hannibal holds a sign that reads, “DON’T BE A MILK SUCKER! DUMP DAIRY.”

Alexis has seen this sort of thing before. He says that not long ago, a group of protesters staked out the area near his Georgetown school, at 35th and T Streets NW, to bemoan the cruelty of the fur industry. So when he came out of his school today, about 3:20 p.m., he greeted the group gathered with only mild interest. “I just turned around, and I saw the cow, and I read the sign, and I came to see,” explains Alexis.

That’s a start, says Sean Gifford, vegan-campaign coordinator for PETA, who organized the Dump Dairy campaign, of which today’s protest is just part. The campaign will eventually take him and other protesters to big-city middle schools all over the country. Today, he’s hoping that he and his fellow activists will be able to inform Hardy students about the dairy industry’s callous treatment of cows and the health hazards of milk consumption.

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Gifford also knows that preteens and young teenagers aren’t drawn to activists by standard sign-waving, pamphlet-distributing protest activities. So he’s brought along the cow costume and stacks of “Milk Suckers” trading cards. Modeled after the Garbage Pail Kids cards of the ’80s—themselves a parody of the must-have toy of that decade, Cabbage Patch Kids—the cards feature round-faced child characters plagued with all sorts of gross ailments Gifford attributes to dairy consumption. Gas, pimples, and a throat full of phlegm—it’s all laid out in catchy color in a style Gifford calls “innocently disgusting in a way that’s appealing to kids.”

But Alexis is a shrewd observer, not so easily swayed by gross sensationalism. “I don’t believe the thing about pimples,” he says. “I drink milk, and I don’t have pimples.”

His skin, in fact, is clear and smooth. He’s also tall and stocky for his age, as well as soft-spoken and thoughtful. In his hand, he fingers one of the trading cards. On it is a picture of a fat kid reclining on a green armchair, emptying a milk carton into his mouth. His bloated stomach stretches below a too-small shirt, and streams of milk spew out of his ears, eyes, nose, and bellybutton. He is, in case it’s not obvious, “Chubby Charlie,” as it says at the bottom of the card. Alexis glances at the card in his hand and pauses, rethinking his initial doubt. “My sister drinks a lot of milk, and she’s pretty chubby,” he says finally. “So maybe they’re right.”

Like most PETA activists, the 26-year-old Gifford has pulled stunts like this before. In November 1999, he was the one wearing a pig costume and standing in the middle of the street in Louisville, Ky., attempting to hold up a parade of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles, for which he was later arrested. Last summer, he led an effort to distribute “Unhappy Meals” outside McDonald’s restaurants across the country. The illustrated boxes featured pictures of bloody pigs and severed cows’ heads.

Today’s event at Hardy is mild in comparison. Still, Gifford says that reaching out to kids is one of the most critical missions of PETA. The Norfolk, Va.-based group operates a Web site specifically for kids and distributes a magazine, GRRR!, to its 10,000 under-18 members three times a year. The latest issue features articles like “Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian. Will Leonardo DiCaprio follow in his namesake’s footsteps?”

The Dump Dairy campaign, in particular, relies heavily on protests targeted at youngsters, because they make up the majority of people drinking milk. Gifford—a tall, thin guy with a neatly trimmed goatee and small, hip glasses—could easily pass for a Northern Virginia dot-commer, if he weren’t out fighting for animal justice.

Gifford adds that kids such as those at Hardy are at the perfect age for activists to target. “They’re young enough to be open-minded and old enough to make decisions,” he says.

Gifford should know. He gave up meat when he was just 14, after a janitor at his junior high school in Stevens Point, Wis., lent him a book about animal cruelty. When he was 20, he did some research on the milk industry and decided to give up dairy products and eggs, too—becoming a vegan. It was a shock to his relatives back home in Wisconsin, the state known as “America’s Dairyland,” but Gifford assured them that he’d get plenty of calcium from soy milk, broccoli, and green leafy vegetables.

It’s the same spiel he tries to give to the kids streaming out of Hardy, but Gifford doesn’t get very far. Some of the kids are drawn to the trading cards and, bewildered, ask a few questions. But most are more interested in taunting the cow-suited man or posing for the news camera that shows up on the scene. The kids shout, “Milk: It does a body good” and “My mom says milk is good for you.”

Some adults aren’t happy to see the PETA-related ruckus, either. Isabel Maples, communications specialist for the Middle Atlantic chapter of the American Dairy Association/Dairy Council, calls the PETA campaign “irresponsible.” She showed up at the school after a reporter tipped her off to the event. She’s joined by Natalie Webb, a Rockville-based dietitian, who learned of the protest on the Internet. The two stand and watch silently, with disapproving looks. Later, they refute the talk of milk’s health risks.

“At a time when we’re supposed to be providing them with health and good-eating tips, we’re providing them with misinformation,” says Webb, who adds that the students would have to eat 2.5 cups of broccoli or 8 cups of spinach to get the same amount of calcium as is in one cup of milk. “I can’t imagine these kids are going to be out eating any of that,” says Webb.

Eleven-year-old Chris is equally confused about what to do if milk’s not the healthy beverage he’s been told it is. “What do we drink instead of milk?” he asks, sucking on a can of Coca-Cola.

The two kids standing next to him in front of the school are less concerned. “I don’t drink milk anyway,” says 12-year-old Stevron.

“He’s lactose,” explains 11-year-old Logan. Stevron gives a knowing nod.

Logan adds that he’s worried about what he’d eat with his cereal, but otherwise, he’s not a big fan of milk. “I don’t really drink milk, except with my brownies,” he explains in between gulps from his own Coke can. “I hope they take away milk from this school….It’s nasty here.”

By 3:50, after most of the students have left, Gifford and the other protesters have passed out most of the cards and pamphlets and done their fair share of educating, they reason. “Kids are great. They understand animal cruelty,” says PETA protester Bruce Friedrich. “Once you explain what happens to cows, kids don’t want to drink [milk].”

As he talks, a large kid with multicolored hair and his smaller friend, who left only moments before, return with open milk cartons. They tip their heads back and theatrically take big gulps, then hold the cartons in the air. “I love milk,” yells one, shaking with laughter. “Milk is good for you,” yells the other.

Friedrich only smiles. “OK, I think that’s a wrap,” says another protester. CP