Brien Comerford can be counted on to take the bait. All kinds of bait. Whenever animals, the environment, or vegetarianism come up in a publication, he's sure to fire off a letter. Over the last dozen years he's written 15 to 30 missives a week lashing out at what he considers the mistreatment of animals. "I love to write, so I just decided I'm going to respond to whatever I read. It's like a stimulus/response," he says. "I feel my blood pressure go up, and I just have to respond."
Despite often feeling powerless about animal abuse, Comerford believes that "the letters can do some good, if they're read. I don't think I'm writing in vain." His scrapbook contains some 300 published samples--all the ones he could find. He almost never knows if messages sent to British periodicals, for instance, make it into print.
Comerford says his tactic for getting published is going for emotional appeal over "intellectual brilliance." So he sputters like Jeremiah racking his brain for just the right invective. The world's resources are threatened by the "tyrannical domination of sausage czars and poultry promulgators," he declared in a 2001 letter to the Reader, adding a la Jesse Jackson that such practices are a "further indication of a mental aberration delighting in its abominations." He's railed against "meat moguls and poultry profiteers butchering beasts," and in regard to cockfighting he's written that "anthropocentric proponents of the atrocity exhibition are emblematic of impoverished mentalities." That last bit prompted a response in the Reader's letters from a Brian Cox, who argued that this was the "finest evidence I've seen yet that access to a thesaurus should be regulated." But maybe Cox missed the point. Maybe such indignant diction deserves its own brand of bemused approbation.
The son of Harry G. Comerford, chief judge of the circuit court of Cook County from 1978 to 1994, Comerford grew up on the northwest side with his parents and two sisters. As far back as he can remember he had an aversion to meat--except burnt hamburger. He says he realized it came from cows only in his teens, and since 18 he's been a strict vegetarian. Now 45 and working in personnel at the Cook County highway department, he began his campaign in 1994 when he responded to a Sun-Times reporter's poll on whether people should feed pigeons. ("We should," he said.) A few days later, in the newspaper, he saw his letter juxtaposed with assertions that pigeons are "flying rats and should be basically killed, and I said, 'Oh, they're sentient beings and creatures of God.'" God comes up a lot with Comerford. A self-described messed-up nonpracticing Catholic, he nonetheless anchors his animal-rights activism in the belief that mammals, reptiles, and fish are all creatures of God. "The thing that really frustrates me," he says, "is how organized religions, especially Christianity, have completely abdicated their responsibility to ever speak out against any type of cruelty to animals."
An inveterate name-dropper in support of the cause, Comerford can rattle off lists of prominent Christian vegetarians, among them John Wesley, Salvation Army founder William Booth, 17th-century Dominican saint Martin de Porres, and Seventh-day Adventist Church founder Ellen G. White. He also finds inspiration in the work and lives of vegetarian musicians, prowling the Web to determine who's keeping the faith: R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe dropped the ball when he succumbed to a craving for chicken, and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush also let him down. Though Comerford likes their music, he's stopped listening to it because of their meat eating. Applying this standard to the best of his ability, he estimates that two-thirds of the 4,000 recordings in his "little discontented world" are gathering dust.
Comerford's no health nut: he's not against smoking, he drinks occasionally, and he says his taste for junk food keeps him from being a "lean, healthy machismo machine." (In a 2000 letter to the Reader about organic farming, he asserted that "a diet of Jack Daniels and chips is more peaceful than organically cultivated 'livestock' served irreverently on a platter.") And even a hard-liner has his limits. Though Comerford says it makes him feel guilty, he feeds his cat meat because it doesn't share his reverence for all living things, which is also why the cat is never allowed outside. And while he admires People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he says its comparison of animal abuse to the Holocaust crosses a line.
The last time Comerford attended a local animal-rights meeting he got serious grief for consuming a carton of skim milk. It comes from a cow, people cried, but Comerford stood his ground, pointing out that the cow didn't die while being milked. He also asked who present opposed abortion. "I was the only prolife person there," he says. "And I said, 'How can you condemn people for eating fish or drinking milk and then say it's OK to have a partial-birth abortion, which is basically infanticide, or abortion, which I don't know for a fact, but it may be the killing of a living human being?' I think it's very inconsistent to condemn people who are mean to mice and then say it's OK to have an abortion.
"But then the prolife lobby is all these right-wing Republicans who don't care about the environment and want everybody to have a gun and go out and hunt. The whole thing is screwed up."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.