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PETA’s billboard urging Baltimore locals to go vegan is culturally insensitive, believe it or not

PETA recently posted a pro-vegan billboard in Baltimore urging locals not to eat crabs, a tone-deaf stance in a state all about eating crabs.

For my entire life, I’ve identified as a pescetarian that mostly eats vegetarian. I value this lifestyle because I believe in advocating for animal rights and environmental issues. Since moving to Baltimore, Maryland four years ago, despite my reservations, I enjoy the local seafood (mostly) guilt-free because I know that crustaceans, like oysters, have positive effects on local waters. As a local, I understand the importance crabs play in the city’s culture. Nothing says summer for Baltimoreans like a crab feast with plenty of newspapers, mallets, and of course the quintessential spice – Old Bay. Furthermore, many Baltimore natives come from a long line of crabbers, who make their money through crabs.

A billboard with a crab that reads I’m ME, not MEat. See the individual. Go vegan
[Image Description: A billboard with a crab that reads I’m ME, not MEat. See the individual. Go vegan] Photo by Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun
This past August, PETA put up a billboard downtown, right before the Baltimore Seafood Festival featuring a picture of a crab next to the words, “I’m ME, not MEat. See the individual. Go vegan.” Naturally, the billboard caused a huge backlash. Well-known tourist destination, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, even put up its own billboard with a picture of a cooked crab that said “Steamed crabs. Here to stay. Get Famous.” Following this, both PETA and Jimmy’s Famous Seafood had words over Twitter. Jimmy’s got pretty salty, clapping back at the animal rights’ organization’s controversial history of euthanizing animals. In response to the billboard, PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said, “PETA’s billboard aims to give Charm City residents some food for thought about sparing sensitive marine animals the agony of being boiled alive or crushed to death in fishing nets simply by going vegan.” 

Jimmy's got pretty salty, clapping back at the animal rights’ organization’s controversial history of euthanizing animals. Click To Tweet

Festival-goers remained undeterred, despite the negative ad. “I’m not boycotting, in fact I’m inclined to give Jimmy’s more business for what they did. It is the state food,” said Linda Scharf while waiting in line at the Festival.

Though I strongly believe the practice of cooking crabs is cruel, ultimately, I think PETA’s method was tone deaf. By attacking the culture of crabs, PETA is attacking a long history of crabbers and an integral part of Baltimore’s identity. On the other hand, it did start a discussion – if they hadn’t posted the billboard, I wouldn’t be discussing it in the first place. 

By attacking the culture of crabs, PETA is attacking a long history of crabbers and an integral part of Baltimore’s identity. Click To Tweet

For a little more insight, I turned to my boyfriend’s mother, Robyn Haleski, born in Dundalk, Maryland. Robyn told me that when she thought of crabs, it reminded her of many important milestones in her life from celebrating family birthdays to watching the Baltimore Orioles win the World Series. “I think Baltimoreans believe eating crabs are part of our culture and our basic fabric. It is part of our basic identity.  We put crabs in everything from stuffed shrimp to eggs.” she explained. When I asked her what she would say to the person who created that ad, she said, “ I believe everyone has a right to their perspective and the right to express it, even when I don’t agree with it. I think I’d tell the person that I believe the ad is asking Baltimoreans to lose their identity and be something we are not.”

Another Marylander, Park Naturalist Mel Tillery, told me that even to people living far from the water, it’s clear crabs are an integral part of the state and the Chesapeake Bay. Mel has been a vegetarian for a long time and appreciates the billboard’s stance that crabs are capable of learning and feeling pain. As a nature educator, they believe that managing crab harvest is important to a sustainable crab population, as blue crab populations have been in decline for years. They explained to me that there are genuine environmental benefits to decreasing the number of crabs we harvest each year, such as allowing them to increase their numbers to make a dent in the marsh periwinkle snail population, which would allow for the growth of important marsh grasses that snails overfeed on. However, Mel also admits that crabbing is one of Maryland’s major industries and the Bay’s most valuable fishery. “…even from an economic standpoint, it’s necessary to ensure responsible fishing that doesn’t over-harvest and preserves the health of the entire bay habitat and therefore the continued existence of crabs themselves. Right now the ability to fish and eat crabs is a key motivator for many people to value the Chesapeake, and I think it is absurd of PETA not to recognize that.” Mel also finds PETA as an organization to be embarrassing, misinformed, and directly harmful to its own purported cause of animal welfare. 

even from an economic standpoint, it's necessary to ensure responsible fishing that doesn't over-harvest and preserves the health of the entire bay habitat and therefore the continued existence of crabs themselves Click To Tweet

It’s clear this is a complicated issue that ties into a city’s cultural identity and our evolved understanding of how the food we eat has its own consciousness. Personally, I like to avoid eating shellfish like crabs because the common practice of preparing them means boiling them alive, which is incredibly inhumane. However, I can also respect the historical and environmental factors that come into play when we consider this issue. I believe if PETA had taken a different approach and tried to work with Baltimore instead of against it, they might have been more warmly welcomed.