By A.J. O’CONNELL of The Stamford Times

STAMFORD – 1974 represented a turning point in the life of Priscilla Feral. The Westport native had just reported her former employer to the Department of Commerce for illegally stockpiling whale spermaceti for use in cosmetics and was looking for another job.

“I always was a social justice person,” said Feral, now in her 50s. She protested the Vietnam War and founded the first chapter of the National Organization for Women [NOW] in Westport. Increasingly disgusted with the way women were treated in the workplace at the time, Feral wanted to do something meaningful with her career. One of the women in her NOW career counseling group suggested she call Friends of Animals, a non-profit animal advocacy group run out of New York City by a woman named Alice Herrington. Feral was hired after a single interview. She stopped eating meat, and going through a divorce at the time, changed her name to Feral; a declaration of her newfound personal and professional freedom. She never looked back.

Now, 33 years later, she is Friends of Animals’ executive director, running a group with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Canada and headquarters in Darien.

Her organization works on several fronts. Friends of Animal promotes vegetarianism, runs ad campaign discouraging the use of fur in clothing, runs a 50-year-old spay and neuter program for cats and dogs, opposes hunting, rescues animals from oppressive conditions, supports environmental and peace efforts and attempts to carve out rights for animals wherever possible.

“There aren’t animal rights that can be extended to a captive animal,” said Feral. For that matter, she added, there aren’t true rights for any animals, although there are statutes which protect some of them. She feels that wild animals should have the right to be left alone.

“We are one species,” she said. “We are a highly populated one. That’s a problem – we get into these situations where we feel intruded upon, we are fearful of nature, out of sync with it and mistrustful of it.”

That fear, she said, can lead humans to kill wild predators -one of the battles her group has been involved with since 1992 is the fight to keep Alaskan hunters from aerially shooting wolves. According to Feral, some Alaskan hunters use aircraft to run packs of wolves to exhaustion and then shoot the entire group. To combat this, Friends of Animals has taken the state of Alaska to court, sponsored boycotts of Alaska among tourists and spread information about the hunts.

Friends of Animals was founded in 1957. The group is celebrating its 50th anniversary by merging with two other animal rights groups this year – Texas-based Primarily Primates, an embattled wildlife sanctuary for elderly lab animals and California-based Marine Animal Rescue.

Stephen Rene Tello is the executive director of Primarily Primates. He met Feral in 1986 when both organizations worked together to rescue several monkeys from a small defunct zoo in New Orleans, La. He is pleased that his preserve is being taken over by Friends of Animals.

“Our expertise has always been taking care of animals,” he said. “They’re basically going to free us of all administrative duties.”

It’s hardly been an easy transition; last year People for the ethical Treatment of Animals [PeTA] filed suit against Primarily Primates, alleging abuse, neglect and squalid conditions. The Texas Attorney General ordered PeTA out of the sanctuary this spring, approving the merger of Primarily Primates with Friends of Animals and vowing to use his office to retrieve several animals that were sent to other facilities by PeTA.

Tello says he is pleased that Friends of Animals is the organization that will be taking over.

“They practice what they preach,” he said.

Editor’s note: Activism is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action… in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring the stories of Lower Fairfield County’s activists. They are the representatives of their respective issues – often their voices and faces are they only reason the public is aware of an issue; be it child advocacy, environmentalism, immigration or animal rights. This series will explore our activists, our issues and the connections between the two.