Interview Ingrid Newkirk, Founder of PETA
Hear the word PETA and what comes to mind? If it’s red paint thrown over bemused models walking down the runway or swarms of naked bodies lining the streets campaigning to wear their birthday suits and not fur then you’re on the money. In a nutshell, that is what PETA does. However, behind the sensationalised stunts is a formidable woman who may be slight in frame but is mighty in clout. Ingrid Newkirk has built PETA from a tiny idea in Washington DC in 1980 to a worldwide recognized animal rights organisation with over two million members and counting.
What makes PETA so powerful is that Ingrid Newkirk is the embodiment of everything she stands for. This isn’t a faceless company promising the earth while hidden away behind elusive email addresses and telephone numbers; this is a proactive enterprise with its founder still acting on behalf of animals every single day. Ingrid is often at the very centre of PETA’s stunts, raiding Jean Paul Gaultier’s store in Paris to show the press that despite continual efforts to reach out to him, Gaultier was still using fur in his designs, as well as personally delivering a racoon to Anna Wintour in the Four Seasons in 1996. Wintour merely covered up the racoon and ordered coffee. Ingrid is an animal lover through and through and is a strict vegan. When I talk to Ingrid, this is the first subject on the menu. It seems that her main aim, above all else, is to get people to stop eating meat. Of course stopping the trading of fur and ivory is of huge importance, but preventing the habitual meat eating that goes on daily across the globe is her priority.
“I grew up as a big meat-eater. I liked steak tartar and oyster, calf’s liver and all that stuff. I didn’t stop eating them because I didn’t like the taste of meat but I had an experience when I was about 20 when I went to a farm on a cruelty case and the people had moved out. They had abandoned all the animals, many of them dead, but there was one pig still alive and he was very thin and dehydrated and I carried him out to the water pump. He made these grunting sounds of gratitude and relief and I sent him to the vet. I was driving home at night and was thinking about what I would have for dinner and remembered the pork chops I’d defrosted and suddenly I thought here I am, a law enforcement officer, going to charge these people with cruelty towards animals, towards the pig, and what a hypocrite I was. I was about to eat a pig that I was sure had had a terrible life too. We breed billions of animals a year because we like the taste of them and what a terrible thing it is to bring babies into the world and as they grow up treat them so abominably just because we like a chicken salad sandwich.”
Ingrid Newkirk has been called “the worst person in the world”, and regularly receices bad press. I ask her why she thinks this is, when surely she is doing so much good for the world and nature as a whole. She tells me the answer is simple. “We challenge the status quo. If you say that the Japanese shouldn’t kill whales everybody will agree with you because you don’t have a whale on your back or your plate and you’re not going out whaling. But being aware of how we discriminate and abuse others in society today means that we have to see how we are treating others.” It’s a case of ignorance and we’ve all done it. Being totally sickened by the documentaries we see on the making of shark fin soup but being blind to what goes on in order for us to eat a Chicken Caesar salad. As Paul McCartney said, if slaughterhouses had glass walls no one would eat that stuff. “The big meat industries, dairy industries, experimentation industries, all these people create bad press for PETA. They create a big hole and want us to jump in it. All human beings resist change. It is just part of us. I resisted it and I’m so glad somebody persuaded me otherwise. One day it will become like second nature. You look at how far women have come or people with disabilities. Someone had to say ‘hey, you can’t tell that joke or you can’t treat me as if I’m a moron, I’m a human being like you’. People didn’t want to go along with it but sooner or later they had to go along with it and sooner or later it becomes second nature and certain things aren’t done anymore.”
While it would be difficult to persuade a lot of people to become vegetarians, despite the horrific reality of slaughterhouses, the answer to whether animal testing needs to be stopped is obvious. Despite all the progress PETA has made, animal testing is still rife across the world, sadly a lot of which is going on in the UK. This month, the brilliant news was released that the EU has banned all new cosmetics and their ingredients sold regardless of where in the world testing on animals was carried out. Ingrid explained that this took a lot of petitioning and a lot of people to weigh in, and the battle is far from over. “At the moment we are critical of the British military because it is conducting soldier training on animals, which is illegal in the UK, but they’re getting around that by sending soldiers over to Denmark to train. How can you do that? The British public has said they don’t want that and there are these fantastic simulators, which are classified bodies, that can vomit, breathe, bleed. You can kill them and so they’re like a human being and if you kill them you can reprogram them and start again, whereas if you cut the legs off a goat and the goat dies then that’s you finished for the day as well as the goat. And it’s an animal; it’s not a soldier on a battlefield.”
If you have a question, Ingrid has the answer. Search online and you will find hundreds of websites and forums venting hatred towards Ingrid, PETA and the ways in which she is preventing medical progress and allegedly killing healthy animals herself. In terms of slowing medical progress by getting laboratories that test on animals shut down, this simply isn’t true. As with the simulators that can be used for soldier training, the same can be used to test new drugs. “We’re not back in Roman times, we have high speed computer programmes that you can actually programme with human data, not mouse data, and test new drugs. We’ve seen that with HIV drugs. The old chimpanzee, rat and monkey tests took years and didn’t result in any good drugs but now we have drugs for HIV and they come from human data analysing their effect on the human experience. We also have epidemiological studies which are very underfunded and that’s where people, said ‘please study what’s happening to me’. Our government has a system where first we test on mice, then on dogs, then on non-human primates and then on a human being. If you have vulnerable human populations who are literally dying to try a drug that’s promising then you are letting them die while you are in a laboratory testing over and over on animals. We are so high-tech these days that the testing of drugs on animals is just old-fashioned. But unfortunately human simulators cost money and that, as well as habit, is what is preventing the use of them. What PETA has been doing all over the world, in nursing schools and medical training centres is help fund a switch over to the more sophisticated training tools.”
So that answers the false claim that PETA prevents medical progress, but what about these harrowing accusations and photographs that suggest Ingrid Newkirk has been involved in the killing of healthy animals? The website Jezbel.com discusses this issue in their article ‘Ingrid Newkirk Is The Worst Person In The World’ and without speaking to the woman in question, it would be easy to believe their claim that in 2005 PETA were caught euthanizing animals that would otherwise have been eligible for adoption. Ingrid informs me that that was PETA US, not PETA Europe. “The sites that run that story are run by a front group exposed by USA Today to be paid by the meat and fur industries, and so they don’t tell the whole or correct story. The jurisdiction where this occurred is a hunting area in the South of the US that hates PETA’s attempts to stop the abuse of hunting dogs who are in pens, and the suffering of deer shot with crossbows. There was a dog pound – a shack – that was killing the animals in awful ways and there had been an outbreak of Parvo virus, which dooms most dogs to a bad death. We were asked to help euthanize humanely, which we did. No one ever promised to find homes; that is a libel and should not be repeated. But it was a hot summer, with temperatures up to 100 degrees, and dead bodies smell very quickly. The driver made the decision to put the bodies in a local dumpster rather than drive around with them, something that violated our policies. The court found the driver and her assistant not guilty.”
With that cleared up and the truth revealed, we discuss what is currently on PETA’s agenda. “It is illegal to produce foie gras in the UK, however Fortnum & Mason have dug their heels in and even though we caught them red handed buying from a farm where the ducks were being killed without being stunned and where a man set his dog on the caged birds, they’re still selling it and they need to stop. Wimbledon stopped it, the House of Lords stopped it, and Prince Charles won’t have it served. Most places have stopped serving it and people have stopped buying it. Fortnum & Mason is supposed to be a very British store and in Britain it’s illegal, so they need to stop it.”
As the interview with Ingrid draws to a close, I reflect on my conversation with an eloquent woman whose whole life is dedicated to helping animals. She isn’t crazy, she is passionate and her proudest achievements seem small but prove that change is in the air. “I am happy about any reduction in suffering that we can achieve and really happy to see young people embracing animal rights. I see veggie and vegan lines coming up in cafeterias here and at the Oscars Anne Hathaway was wearing beautiful vegan shoes and it makes me happy to see that happening. Closing labs, seeing new choices, getting young people involved, seeing dissection getting kicked out of schools over here, all of it is good but everybody is needed. Just start, do one thing, do another thing, kind choices are what we need.”
What can we, as university students do to help the cause? “University students are the life-changers and society-changers. You are now away from what you’ve been told to do and are able to make your own decisions about important things, politically, economically and morally. I think the nicest thing you can be and the best thing you can be in the world is to be kind. You can choose to be cruel or choose to be kind. First you can choose to buy this shampoo or this floor cleaner or this coat or this cheap meal – was cruelty involved or is it a kind choice? Be aware and look at labels. If your values are not to be a bully or overtly aggressive against those who have no power and just to be a decent human being then these are important choices. It may require discipline in the beginning, may require effort because people who sell us things never tell us the whole truth. There are countless choices: what you wear, what you eat, how you entertain yourself. It’s a new world that opens up in front of you. You have options. Don’t purchase fur-lined gloves and leather shoes. You just have to get over the hump of, ‘Oh, I’ve always done it that way or, my family has always done it that way’. You have to be your own boss.”