The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals arrived on the Northwest Missouri State University campus Wednesday morning, setting up shop in a large tent designed to look like a barn and erecting signs bearing photographs of cute farm animals and slogans like "Pigs are smarter than young children."
Staffed by a cadre of stylishly slender, healthy looking 20-somethings, the day-long display was intended to spread the word about the social, moral and physical benefits of adopting a meatless and dairy-free lifestyle.
The exhibit was brought to campus by a local student organization, Northwest Advocates for Animal Awareness.
Still, it was an odd message to encounter at a college situated in the heart of cattle country whose R.T. Wright Laboratory Farm prides itself on a prize-winning beef herd, top-of-the-line market lambs and a farrow-to-finish swine operation.
PETA's Stephanie Maddox, however, refused to offer up any controversial stances with regard to an organization that farmers and stock producers usually regard, at best, with distrust and, at worst, open scorn.
Maddox, who at age 23 has been a vegetarian for ten years, sidestepped all questions smelling of politics with a request that such matters be referred to PETA's pubic affairs office.
She was more than happy, however, to share information about how people can eliminate meat from their diet, even in a town like Maryville that savors its beef.
Stores like Hy-Vee and Walmart, she said, are offering a wider variety of meatless products these days, everything from soy-based "chicken" patties and hot dogs to protein staples like lentils and black beans.
Still, in a meat-loving culture she admits that going vegetarian — let alone vegan, the word for people who eschew all animal-based foods, including fish, milk and eggs — is a challenge.
"It can be difficult if you don't know where to look," she said.
Which was one of the main purposes of the the PETA display, where passerby got to choose from a selection of freebies that included cookbooks, pamphlets, protein charts, DVDs and stickers, most offering tips on how to avoid the consumption of beef, swine fish and fowl.
Food samples included animal product-free cookies and meatless "jerky" soaked in soy sauce.
But if Maddox and her crew had instructions from PETA headquarters to steer clear of controversy, displays inside the tent made the message clear. Killing animals for food is inhumane and quite possibly immoral.
To anyone who has spent time on a farm, or even at a county fair, the exhibits looked harmless enough, even a little hokey.
But dim lighting, dire words, and elegiac music from a documentary produced by ex-Beatle and vegetarian Paul McCartney appeared designed to make a swine gestation crate — a contraption that keeps a sow from killing her young — appear ominous.
Page 2 of 2 - Northwest students were invited to lay down inside the crate so they could experience the discomfort and fear, according to PETA, that such devices cause.
Another display consisted of a two-foot-square wire cage stuffed with a half-dozen fake chickens.
Some of the college kids wandering through the tent had the look of true believers, or at least wannabees. Others most definitely did not.
Clint Bornemeier, an agronomy major from Elmwood, Neb., and Joe Hegeman, an animal science major from Savannah, both grew up on family farms. The two young men — Bornemeier proudly wearing an FFA T-shirt — were clearly skeptical about both the displays and PETA's claims regarding the inherent cruelty of commercial livestock operations.
"It's frustrating," Hegeman said. "I think it's just that some people aren't informed about agriculture. As an industry, we need to do more to project our image and tell our side of the story."
Hegeman admitted there is a debate within the ag community itself with regard to the merits of "factory farming" and large-scale confined animal operations. But he said accusing farmers of cruelty simply because they produce meat for human consumption is misguided.
"Our goal is for the animals to be as healthy and productive as possible," he said. "not to harm or mistreat them."