“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” says U.S. News & World Report, “is putting KFC in the fryer.” PETA already has a history of cowing other fast-food restaurant chains into submission. Now it will apparently devote considerable resources to promoting a boycott of what it calls “Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” in the hopes that the Colonel will also cave to its demands.

PETA claims that their latest maneuver is all about animal welfare, but we know better. The group is far more interested in raising money (by attracting media attention), hurting meat companies, and forcing veganism on people, than in actually improving the life of a future 2-piece dinner.

What exactly does PETA want this time? It depends on whom you ask. Officially, PETA is demanding that KFC replace its existing slaughter practices with a supposedly more “humane” gas method.

But as Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council said yesterday on CNN’s Connie Chung Tonight, PETA won’t be satisfied until nobody is eating chicken at all. “In two years,” Lobb mused, “PETA would be coming back at us claiming that we are using gas chambers for chickens and they would be demanding we stop that.”

CNN’s Bob Novak made this slippery-slope point last night on Crossfire, while actually eating from a fresh bucket of KFC chicken. Novak asked PETA’s Bruce Friedrich if he was only interested in “eliminating all eating of meat, of chicken of anything like that? Isn’t that what your real goal is? Not to worry about the poor chickens?”

Oddly, Friedrich’s satellite feed failed just as Novak was about to wrestle an answer out of him. But Dawn Carr, director of PETA Europe, was much more blunt in today’s issue of The Independent (UK). Carr told the paper’s environment editor: “Our ultimate aim is for people to go vegetarian.”

The New York Times aired perhaps the most telling piece of the puzzle on Sunday, pointing out the chicken industry’s concern that PETA’s demands “would increase the cost of raising those animals.” Ordinary people who eat, of course, would wind up paying for PETA’s publicity, as these added costs are passed on to consumers.

This is a strategy that the animal rights movement has been pursuing for many years. Farm Animal Reform Movement program director Pattrice Jones provided a clear illustration of this during her speech at the Animal Rights 2002 convention:

We’ve been doing a lot of work in this country for a long time, and what we’ve done is sort of apply a squeeze maneuver to the livestock industries… and what we’ve been doing is that, on the one hand, by introducing animal welfare legislation, by introducing environmental legislation, by introducing labor laws, we’ve increased their cost of doing business. At the very same time, all of our… vegan education campaigns have been cutting into their market and decreasing their profits.

Apparently, the zealots in charge of PETA think they have found a way to hurt the restaurant industry, increase the price of eating chicken, and create a lucrative fund-raising issue at the same time. But the entire strategy hinges on their ability to scare KFC into believing its customers will prefer PETA’s shrill rhetoric and violent history to the famous 11 herbs and spices.

It’s hard to imagine any business caving in response to such long odds, especially considering that PETA’s potential “boycotters” are generally vegetarians who don’t eat at KFC in the first place. But PETA has pulled it off before.

While the rest of the world adopts the requisite “wait and see” attitude, we’ll be celebrating the New Year by exercising our consumer freedom. The only remaining question is: original or extra crispy?