The little protest Tuesday at the University of Montana didn't look like it would get off the ground at first.

It was a speck of an event on campus, a whisper compared to the women's marches across the country over the weekend, 10,000 in Helena, a Metro-clogging crush in Washington, D.C.

At the grizzly bear statue, fewer than 10 people turned out to oppose the pig research facility under consideration at UM. A handful of them held PETA signs – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Animal Tests are Cruel."

"Stop Testing on Animals."

Ellen Taylor, a student getting a double major in theater and ecology, stopped by to sign her name to a petition calling for UM to halt plans for a porcine research lab. The petition calls for UM to move away from animal testing and toward digital dissection and simulators.

Taylor didn't see any document to sign, though, and Sarah Coffey, a spokeswoman for the group, told her to add her signature online. Taylor asked for the website.

"I think people forget that, I guess, animals are really more than a food source," Taylor said.

They may not experience human emotions, she said, but they have thoughts, and she does her best to treat living beings with respect. Take worms, Taylor said: Worms are blind, so she doesn't pick them up because doing so would disorient them.

Just before noon, Coffey figured it would be a good time to get warm and deliver evidence to the UM president's office that more than 2,600 people had put their names to the online petition.

People from around the world signed in support, from France, Turkey, and Japan, along with Washington and Montana and elsewhere. As Coffey saw it, the petition wasn't diminished by far-flung supporters, since some were alumni, and some potential students, ones interested in the ethics at UM.

"They don't want to attend a place that has cruel animal experiments," Coffey said.

In November, UM officials confirmed a proposal to hire a porcine researcher was under consideration, although the recruitment was not a done deal. Still on the table, the proposal includes the possibility UM will open a research facility that would conduct spinal cord testing on pigs.

The idea has been received with some push-back, including the demonstration Tuesday.

The group first tried to track down the president in the Lommasson Center before getting directed across the Oval. At Main Hall, a staff member said President Sheila Stearns was out until maybe 1 p.m. The staffer offered coffee and said she would try to reach the president.

The activists opted to wait at the University Center, and shortly after noon, Coffey got word that an audience with the president was indeed possible. Stearns could meet at 12:30 p.m.

Keaton Alexander, a community member and opponent of animal testing as unreliable, unethical and repulsive, said he believes universities should be centers of ethics and models for society. Even a small group merited the attention of the president, he said, especially one willing to gather in the winter chill.

"Even one individual's concern should be enough for any leader of a university," Alexander said.

Back in the president's lobby, the staffer ushered four protesters to a conference room, and just before 12:30 p.m., Stearns poked her head into the room.

"Hi, guys. I'll be with you in a minute. Just back from lunch," she said.

Soon she returned, commenting that the guests had sat down on one side of the conference table, and she'd sit on the same side. First, Stearns presented the group copies of a memo noting her firm stance in favor of civil discourse.

"This is a new year, a new moment for our University and, frankly, a crossroads for our nation," reads the memo. "We have to make the choice whether or not to embrace communication, education and awareness of our differences and of our similarities."

To a certain extent, Stearns said, she felt like she'd invited the conversation, and the group was taking her up on it.

"So. What's up?"

Coffey made her case, asking UM to refrain from doing experiments on pigs, and sharing the number of people to sign the online petition, nearly 3,000. She said the list included former and possibly future students.

"There's quite a bit of people that feel it's inhumane and cruel," she said.

Coffey asked for a debate on the topic, and Stearns said she supported educational discourse. At the same time, the president made it clear she herself would bow out of being a debater.

A couple of other activists, including a child, entered the conference room, and after the brief presentation, Stearns asked members of the group to introduce themselves.

When Alexander admitted he wasn't a student at UM, at least just yet, but liked being involved, Stearns wondered if he might enroll in the future.

"Do we need to recruit you?"

After they'd gone around the room, Stearns promised to review their materials to better understand their perspectives. The president isn't involved in every faculty hire, but she suspected this proposal would reach her desk.

"I know this is an issue of community interest, and I will take your statement into account," Stearns said.

At that, Coffey and the others, a tiny group that had started the day with no physical petitions to sign, no appointment with the president, and a questionable quorum for a demonstration, walked out of Stearns' office, a long ways away from Washington, D.C.

Outbrain