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Animal Fuss

Mary Nissenson kept walking out of the editing room at CBS. “I can’t watch this anymore,” she’d say, then disappear, then return to check on us.

We were watching Unnecessary Fuss, a videotape that shows lab technicians abusing monkeys at the Experimental Head Injury Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. The lab workers had videotaped themselves on the job. Three years ago, those tapes were stolen by the Animal Liberation Front.

Nissenson showed excerpts on the ten o’clock news May 26, during a series of five reports on research versus animal rights. It was compelling television. A monkey whose head was cemented in a hydraulic jack was jolted repeatedly to study head injuries. That was ugly enough; Channel Two edited out the grisliest moments–a worker chipping off the cement helmet with a hammer and screwdriver, lopping off part of the monkey’s ear. Another worker spilling acid on a monkey. A worker taunting a monkey, “You sucker!”

Nissenson received more than 200 letters and calls, more than she’d, ever had on a story. Only two people objected. “My goal is to make them see what happens in these labs and think for themselves,” said Nissenson.

“For many years the animal rights people were really considered crazies by the media. When we got their calls in the newsroom, the attitude was always ‘oh, it’s them.'”

“A little newspaper article” about the Pennsylvania break-in caught her eye three years ago, when she was an NBC network reporter. Nissenson says her “sixth sense” made her follow the story. She kept after it. In March, when she came to Channel Two, one of her first proposals was a series on animal rights. There are more stories to come, she promised.

Unnecessary Fuss isn’t new–it’s for sale or rent by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington, D. C.–but it had never been shown on Chicago’s local news, said Nissenson. The Pennsylvania lab has since been shut down by the federal government. Nissenson used the tape to illustrate the ancient debate between vivisectionists and their critics, who’ve included Pythagoras, Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw. PETA cofounder Alex Pacheco added Doris Day and Bob Barker to the list.

Since ALF kidnaps–or rescues–animals, we asked Pacheco where they went. “There are a lot of wealthy people in this country who have their own collections of animals. They have hundreds and thousands of acres,” he told us.

Nissenson pulled together fresher news for her series. In April, ALF took credit for burning down a $3.5 million laboratory at the University of California at Davis. On May 28, the university announced a fund established to find alternatives to animal research.

“I come from a proscience background. I’m also a lawyer, so there’s no way I can support break-ins and raids,” said. Nissenson, who met with a masked female member of another group, True Friends, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

“True Friends doesn’t believe in vandalism. They take the animals, period,” said Nissenson. “What was fascinating was how . . . average . . . she seemed. Mild mannered, gentle, reasoned. Extremely articulate and intelligent. Not at all caustic or pedantic. They’re very sincere. They believe history will vindicate them, that our grandchildren will look in horror that we treated our fellow creatures in such a way. And maybe the last survivors of AIDS on this earth will look back and laugh that we cared about monkeys. It’s something to think about.”

A Fair to Consider

When the World’s Fair went bust in Chicago we had our own theory why: no one could imagine themselves in 1992 working up an ounce of enthusiasm over the car of tomorrow or the state of the art of pizza-by-the-slice. It has been a long, difficult century. What our world covets is the stillness to digest it.

But John Wilson has got us interested. Wilson, father of Art Expo, has been quietly making the rounds these last several weeks, talking up a fair that strikes us as less stripped down than honed to a point. Wilson proposes a strictly cultural exposition. Commerce and technology can take a hike off Navy Pier. Summon the muses to gather here–to meditate, as we fancy it, on the vanishing millennium.

In 1913, the Armory Show in New York City changed the face of American art. “This could do the same thing for the whole cultural society,” Wilson exclaimed. “We’re a nation now looking for the finer things in life.”

He wants to rebuild Navy Pier and create a Documenta–which is the world’s most important art fair, a curated show held about every five years in Kassel, West Germany–in Chicago. “We could use this show as a nucleus,” he told us. Simultaneously offer an international theater festival. Parade the finest symphony orchestras, opera companies, and dance troupes through town. Tie in the museums. Tie in the neighborhoods. Build only where Chicago needs to build. Wilson has spoken to the mayor’s man, to Senator Paul Simon’s man, to Alderman David Orr’s man. He reports enthusiasm at every turn, although our own soundings have detected slightly more skepticism than he may choose to hear.

Wilson had lunch with Howard McKee, the man Skidmore, Owings & Merrill brought into town to head up the design team back when Chicago’s reigning fathers believed they could make of the fair what they pleased. “Howard McKee has these beautiful concepts of how we can do this with residuals happening, things that would be left over,” Wilson said. “Hopefully, a contemporary museum that would replace the [Streeterville] armory [an idea that has been kicking around for years]. We could make more use of the Auditorium Theatre . . . existing things, here, now–giving us reason to spruce them up.”

McKee, one of the more sensible men we know, to us how Wilson’s idea might come to something. He thinks corporate sponsors are essential, “and someone has to get aboard to put the financial package together.” Most importantly, McKee said, some clear signal of interest has to come out of City Hall, where Mayor Washington’s indifference to an international exposition has been lasting and profound.

Left for dead two years ago, the fair continues to survive in root form as the Fair Corporation, the American entity licensed by the Bureau of International Expositions and U.S. Department of Commerce to mount America’s 500th anniversary commemoration of Columbus’s first voyage to the new world.

The corporation’s officials lay low wondering if Washington would vanish from the picture in 1987. He was reelected. Nevertheless, when Seville, Spain, the other World’s’ Fair host in 1992, asked the BIE last month to revoke Chicago’s charter, the corporation requested and got a 90-day extension–time for one last crack at coming up with new ideas.

“The reason we sought the extension was not to continue to promote a world’s fair in the same shape, form, or style of what was proposed before. We have no pride of authorship,” Donald Petkus, a board member of the Fair Corporation, explained to us. “We just didn’t want to have the world or Chicago wake up one day and realize we have lost an opportunity.”

The less proprietary Petkus’s colleagues feel about the quincentennial, the better. Howard McKee–who came here to build a fair and instead watched with bewilderment as it disintegrated–believes these were well-intentioned people who “got caught in a shift in the way government was conducted here.” He thinks the atmosphere got so poisoned that today no one from the corporation, no one identified with the “old guard,” will ever be able to resurrect the fair.

“Maybe it has to properly die,” he mused. “If they say ‘we’ve given up. City, mayor–we’re transferring the license to you.’ Unless they truly clear out, it’s going to be sour. That’s not being critical, it’s just true.”

Enter John Wilson. The new guard. Promising Athens on the lake. We think he might be a little bit of a pipe-dreamer. But he is describing a 1992 that sounds like a very nice summer to stay in the city.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.