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Animal-Rights Group Picks Richmond for Protest

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"It's the first time that we in Richmond have had something this overt, at least in the six years I've been here," says Sara Long, director of program services for the local chapter of the March of Dimes. The nonprofit organization funds research related to infant health, including birth defects and complications from premature delivery.

The Richmond billboard is one of 20 put up around the country in the two years since PETA's campaign against the March of Dimes began, says Brandi Valladolid, an employee of the Norfolk-based animal-rights organization. This year, she says, the campaign is focused on the 10 states with the highest rate of birth defects, a list that includes Virginia.

PETA claims research funded by the March of Dimes has included unnecessary and cruel animal testing, such as sewing kittens' eyes shut and giving pregnant rats substances already known to be harmful, such as cocaine and alcohol. "Prevention is really the key here. Education is the key. Not more research," Valladolid says.

The March of Dimes disagrees. Its position is that many research questions related to infant health can only be answered by the use of animals. Also, the organization says researchers receiving its grants must comply with high ethical standards set by the government.

Most people donate to charities that fund animal research "out of ignorance," Valladolid says, "not out of a lack of capacity to feel compassion." She says PETA's Web site typically sees a flood of hits shortly after a billboard goes up.

Long says the local March of Dimes has received only a few calls about the billboard, most from volunteers. Unexpectedly, some saw the photograph and thought the billboard was a sign of support for the March of Dimes. "I think it was misdesigned," says Long.

Valladolid says in addition to arranging the installation of billboards, she will oversee 200 WalkAmerica protests across the country on April 26. Local WalkAmerica organizers say they're prepared for a possible demonstration here. "We never know. … different years they target different areas, different chapters," Long says. Security guards will be present the day of the march, she says, just in case. —

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