The reaction was predictable. The subject of mad cow disease in the Yakima Valley is a very touchy one, and three representatives from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) touched a nerve when they arrived in Sunnyside just in time for the noon rush Thursday.
Carrying signs reading, "It's Mad to Eat Meat, Go Veg," and "Washington, the Mad Cow Capitol of the United States," PETA special projects coordinator Bob Chorush and volunteers Claudine Erlandson and Nancy Pennington, all from the Seattle area, waved to motorists from their post on Sixth Street in front of Safeway. The trio, including Chorush dressed in a cow costume, held up signs and passed out literature on vegetarianism to anyone who showed any interest.
Many drivers slowed to pass the three demonstrators, however most of them did not offer any support. Instead, several motorists pulled into the grocery store parking lot and loudly announced they were going to go in specifically to buy cuts of meat, particularly beef.
Chorush said he knew coming to the area where the first case of mad cow disease was discovered less than a month ago the group was not likely to receive a warm welcome.
"It's a bit friendlier than we thought," Chorush said.
He said the group's objective in coming to the Lower Yakima Valley was not necessarily to change people's attitude toward eating meat, but instead to make people think about the current situation.
"People want everything to go back to normal, but it's not going to happen," Chorush said.
Erlandson said the group braved snowy winter passes to come to the Valley from the Seattle area Wednesday, going over Stevens Pass due to the closure of Snoqualmie Pass. She said the trip took the trio about 10 hours.
According to Erlandson and Chorush, before coming to Sunnyside Thursday afternoon they had gone to Mabton to take a look at the cows in the area and planned on returning to Mabton before heading back over the mountains.
Erlandson said for the past 10 years PETA has had a campaign to ban downer animals from the human food supply. However, it wasn't until the first case of mad cow disease was discovered that the ban was put into place, she said, pointing to the recent announcement made by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
"It passed very quickly then," Erlandson said of the ban on downer animals.
She explained that many people don't understand the disease and the danger that eating meat can pose, which is why PETA has been staging similar demonstrations at grocery stores and restaurants across the United States.
Erlandson, a 15-year member of PETA, said while in Sunnyside promoting vegetarianism a lot of people walking or driving by were docile and unresponsive.
"But this is where it all happened," she said.
For Sunnyside resident Greg Uberuaga, having PETA show up in his community promoting vegetarianism was like a slap in the face.
"These folks...are insulting us as a community, our families, our friends," Uberuaga said.
It was this feeling that led Uberuaga to react to the demonstration in front of the local grocery store. He said when he first noticed the group and its signs he didn't feel good about it. Uberuaga said he found that when he got back to his house he simply got angrier and then decided he was going to do something about it.
Uberuaga pulled into the Safeway parking lot, pulled out a bag of hamburgers and proceeded to stand in the bed of a truck while he chomped away at the burgers in front of the PETA demonstrators.
"[It's a] show of support for our community," Uberuaga said, who gave hamburgers to six other supporters. "It's one thing to promote vegetarianism, it's another to come in and say hurtful things about the community," he added.
Dorene Perez, who came out to show her support for Uberuaga, said she shares his feelings on the PETA demonstration.
"Our community is a victim," she said.
The PETA representatives demonstrated in front of Safeway for a little over an hour Thursday afternoon.
. Elena Olmstead can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org