It began, PETA says, as a playful attempt to draw attention to animal cruelty in the wool industry: The animal rights group sent a letter asking the English village of Wool to change its name to Vegan Wool.
But the letter from the British branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, received Wednesday by village officials, attracted scorn and ridicule from residents of Wool after it was posted on Facebook by the local parish council clerk, according to news reports.
“With a simple name change, your village can take a stand against this cruelty,” Elisa Allen, director of PETA’s London office, wrote, pointing to evidence of mistreatment of sheep on farms around the world.
In exchange for the name change, Allen said, “we’d be happy to provide every Vegan Wool household that would like one with a cozy, cruelty-free blanket.”
PETA recently published graphic videos showing workers on British farms punching animals while they sheared the wool. The group wanted to draw attention to the footage by sending the letter, Allen said in a phone interview Friday.
“It’s not a benign industry — it’s not a haircut as people often assume it is,” she said.
The parish council of Wool, in the county of Dorset, 120 miles southwest of London, said in an email Friday that PETA’s “request has not been received very well.”
Headlines in traditionally conservative tabloids cried foul, saying that PETA believed the name Wool promoted animal cruelty when it was actually linked to water, and quoting residents who ridiculed the suggested name change.
“We would be the laughingstock of Dorset if we agreed,” Alan Brown, 81, who hails from a family that has made hurdles to pen sheep for generations, was quoted as saying in The Times of London.
For one thing, this ancient village of 5,000 people in the verdant countryside of England was not named after the wool from sheep. True, in the 19th century it was known for sheep of the Dorset Down breed, but most farms have turned to dairy production, the paper said.
The name Wool, which is more than 1,000 years old, derives from Wyllon or Well, which means spring, the council said. Allen said PETA knew that, and wanted only to draw attention to its campaign in a “fun way.”
“We’re not afraid to look a little bit silly provided that we can bring these issues into the public domain,” she said.
But PETA’s letter touched a nerve with some vegans and animal rights activists.
“I know it gets people talking, but for all the wrong reasons,” Sean Ryan Fox, a software designer, said on Twitter. He said such actions “contribute negatively to the reputation of veganism.”
An activist for Brooke, a group that campaigns for the protection of working horses, also wrote on Twitter, “I understand why they do it, but by doing absurd campaigns like this, I think PETA are ignoring the damage that they’re doing to the reputation of vegans.”
The suggestion that vegan-friendly names can be good publicity is not unfamiliar in Britain, where veganism is increasingly popular. Just this past week, a pub in the city of York changed its name from the Shoulder of Mutton to the Heworth Inn as it began offering a vegan and vegetarian menu.
This month, the editor of a food magazine resigned after provoking outrage with his response to a pitch from a vegan writer: “How about a series on killing vegans one by one.”
It’s not the first time that PETA has caused a stir by targeting a place’s name. In 1996, the group suggested changing the name of Fishkill, New York, to Fishsave.
In Britain, Allen said, the group had unsuccessfully proposed that the English city of Nottingham call itself Not-eating-ham.
As for Wool, the parish clerk said in the email that because PETA had made its request in writing, officials would consider the letter at a meeting next month.