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January 2001
In the Hot Seat, Part II: Activism and Controversy
The Satya Interview With Ingrid Newkirk

 


Read Part One of the Satya Interview with Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid Newkirk is co-founder and president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the world’s most prominent animal rights organization. PETA has been a major force in bringing animal rights and vegetarianism into the consciousness of mainstream America. Much of PETA’s success in exposing the public to the ubiquity of animal exploitation has been through its eye-catching and controversial—at times notorious—protests and advertising campaigns.

Last year PETA launched its anti-dairy campaign, with spoofs on the industry’s famous “Got Milk?” ads. Two particular ads sparked heated controversy. The first, “Got Beer?”—aimed primarily at college-age people—claimed that even a glass of beer has more nutritional value than a glass of milk. Free bottle-openers emblazoned with the “Got Beer?” slogan were a hot item and demand for them exhausted their supply. This campaign outraged members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization that raises awareness of drunk driving, especially among teenagers. In apparent solidarity with MADD, it also provoked radio talkshow host Mike Gallagher to purchase a cow and have him slaughtered on air (see Satya April 2000). Then there was “Got Prostate Cancer?” which claimed that dairy consumption is linked to cancer and featured New York City’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani sporting a milk mustache (Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year). Talkshows and newspapers condemned PETA’s apparent insensitivity and lack of respect, and Newkirk appeared on CNN’s show “Crossfire” in which she defended PETA’s position. Not one to shy away from controversy himself, Giuliani held a press conference where he voiced his outrage at the use of his image and condition, then downed a glass of milk in front of cameras.

PETA’s on-going anti-fur advertisements have included images of famous models who would “rather go naked than wear fur.” Last year, PETA released a more provocative ad to protest the widespread use of fur trim. “Fur Trim: Unattractive” features a close-up of a woman’s crotch with exaggeratedly bushy pubic hair fanning out from the panty line. Galen Sherwin, President of the National Organization for Women-NYC, wrote a letter in which she expressed her outrage at this apparently sexist ad, arguing that it objectifies and degrades women. Her letter and Newkirk’s response were featured in Ms. Magazine (“Is This ad Sexist?” April/May 2000).

The following is the second part of a two-part interview (see Part 1, “PETA at 20 Years,” in November/December’s issue). The conversation continues in which Newkirk explains to Catherine Clyne some of PETA’s more controversial campaigns, and talks about what it’s like to represent such ideas.

On the show “Crossfire” [9/29/00] you were quoted as saying—in reference to PETA’s “Got Prostate Cancer?” campaign featuring Mayor Rudy Giuliani—“We are desperate. We don’t have the advertising budget of the milk people.” Many of our readers can understand that justification. But one thing you said in the first part of this interview about PETA’s campaigns is that some people find it’s not their “cup of tea.” Since PETA is the largest animal rights group, what’s your response to animal activists who feel that some of PETA’s campaigns are counter-productive or misrepresent animal advocates or even the truth?
Well, I don’t know how the ad campaigns can misrepresent the truth—especially if you look at something like the Giuliani one. If anyone bothered to look at PETA’s website, for example, which showed I think 11 studies—but it’s something like 20 now—that all link milk consumption, like meat consumption, to prostate cancer. Sadly there’s too much cruelty for us to ever need to invent anything. The facts are probably far worse and numerous than the ones we put out, because we do have to temper how appalling things are. There’s stuff that we can’t show the public, or they’ll turn away.

The thing is, we make them gawk, maybe like a traffic accident that you have to look at. I think we do embarrass people in our movement and I’m sorry for that, but there’s a bigger picture. There are other people who believe in animal rights but don’t have our style. To them, it’s not comfortable to find that we’ve been successful in making people stop and pay attention. So people will then criticize something like the Giuliani ad, and all the other animal advocates then find themselves having to defend it. To them I say please don’t bother to defend it. We don’t mind; you don’t have to defend it. You can simply say ‘look, there are lots of different people—we would never do that—but let’s talk about what’s wrong with milk and where veal comes from,’ and put your own spin on it.

There’s the lovely feeling that people have that they have to defend us, when they don’t; they simply have to attack the issue in their own way. No one has to stand behind us; we’ve never asked anyone to defend the way we get attention. The fact is we are the biggest group because we succeed in getting attention. If anyone has a better idea of how to get attention, please do it, because it embarrasses us sometimes [laughs], but we haven’t found a more successful way. The fact is we may be doing all sorts of things on a campaign but the one thing that gets attention is the outrageous thing. It simply goes to prove to us each time, that that is the thing that’s going to work; and so we won’t shirk from doing that facet—in addition to all the other things we do that you never hear about because no one cares.

There is a little bit of hypocrisy in some of the comments—especially those of non-movement members—about “poor Giuliani.” To me it’s sort of like in England, where a lot of people are not in favor of the monarchy anymore, but if you come from Lithuania or NYC and you attack the queen, we’ll all come out fighting. [laughs] Everyone in England will rise up and say “how dare you?” And I think there’s a bit of that with Giuliani. New Yorkers—even though they’ve made terrible fun of him and didn’t have any room for him—suddenly thought ‘Oh look, people are attacking our mayor’ and so they got defensive. That’s understandable, but you know, the fact is Giuliani has taken money from the dairy industry; he also took money to promote the circus not too long ago.

Giuliani hasn’t listened to any of our polite letters asking to meet with him or showing him scientific studies making the connection; and then he goes on television guzzling milk and saying, ‘oh, they’re just talking about a few rats—they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ I think it probably got him more sympathy than anything he’s ever done in his political career. So he probably should thank us for it.

Why did you apologize for the Giuliani ad?
I apologized because so many of our members thought he was hurt, and at the time I said ‘I don’t believe he is hurt, but I don’t want to hurt you, and if you think he’s hurt, I’ll apologize. However, we’re apologizing if we hurt him; we’re not apologizing for the campaign.’ I think the campaign was a huge success: more hits in three days than we’ve ever had on our website, and more requests for vegetarian starter kits than we’ve ever had. But I said to him ‘if we hurt you, then I am sorry,’ but I didn’t believe that we actually did.

What about the more “inadvertent” controversies with groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and their negative reaction to the “Got Beer?” ad, and feminists who feel the fur campaigns, particularly the “Fur Trim: Unattractive” ad, are exploiting women? In other words, some people criticize these ads as unnecessarily alienating groups—even those with whom animal advocates might share common ground.
I don’t think anyone honestly goes out and has another burger or buys a fur coat because they don’t like our style. It’s very hard—we certainly were quite amazed at how upset MADD got. It was clear that they hadn’t read the campaign materials which didn’t ask children to drink and didn’t suggest drunk driving. We have a lot of respect for MADD; but it’s rather odd in a way that every spring break and every college football game are sponsored by beer people. And yet when we said ‘hey, there’s more nutrition in a glass of beer than there is in a glass of milk,’ we got slammed. I think that they thought, ‘PETA’s a social advocacy group; they really don’t have any right to use the word beer or to suggest—as we were—that people of drinking age could drink beer.’

In the end, we collected money from our staff and gave it to MADD, but they returned the check, which I don’t think is in their interest. And we invited them to talk about it and they weren’t interested, which wasn’t in the interest of anybody. So, one does what one can do, to say ‘you’ve got your job to do, we’ve got ours.’

The panties thing—I just think it’s a hoot; I think it’s amusing in its own way. And I don’t think it’s exploitative; it could be anybody’s crotch. And most people would think ‘Oh lord, I don’t want that showing.’ Since our exchange, Galen Sherwin [NOW-NYC’s President] and I have agreed to disagree, we patched that up.

In raising the awareness of people to the various issues of animal suffering, via activism, educational campaigns and other methods, would you say the ends justify the means?
I think that’s too broad a statement because some ends do and some ends don’t. If it’s anything that’s going to result in suffering to animals or people, then I don’t think it justifies the means.

You mean violence?
Yeah; but then again if you could hurt ten people to save 100 people and there was no option, what would you do? I can’t really address that.

How do you feel being constantly in a hot seat as the spokesperson with the message that people love to ridicule or misrepresent?
I feel honored in a way. I’ve passed the point long ago where I felt frustrated at people or personally upset that people had the need to do that. It isn’t a personal matter. I’m a human being. Human beings are slow learners; I’ve certainly been a slow learner and I’m sure I’m still learning. I have the opportunity to allow people to ridicule what we do, and me personally, if that’s what they need to do along the road to embracing a concept. Though in saying that, I recognize that not everyone will. You know, there are still people who would [use racial slurs] if they could get away with it; it’s just that the behavior has become unacceptable. It is an honor to be able to bear the brunt of that work in progress.

But I do get deeply depressed when people send things in the mail saying they’re going to hurt animals; people have sent us animal organs or have left injured animals on the steps. To me, this is the saddest part—they would’ve probably hurt the animals anyway because that’s what they’re like. The saddest thing is the realization that a fellow human being is so inured to suffering that they would try to hurt another fellow human in that way, by taking it out on the defenseless.

Are you referring to the situation when radio talkshow host Mike Gallagher bought a cow and had him slaughtered in response to the “Got Beer?” ad?
No, I actually think that was pretty good, because the cow was going to be killed anyway without people realizing it. That cow was doomed. No death was added as a result of that. However, it did turn a lot of people away from eating meat that day and that week, and in some cases forever, because it gave us a platform to argue with Gallagher; we did countless radio shows and newspaper interviews. And as a result—again—lots of people asked for the veggie starter kit or about factory farming for the first time.

But I think he may have learned something. I’m not sure if it’s true, but he said that in the end, he couldn’t look [as the cow was being shot]. It may be that he had to confront what happens to animals every day as a result of his diet.

It’s one thing to brazenly talk about something and it’s a completely different thing to witness and be a part of it yourself.
Yeah. We had a case where townspeople called us to support them because they didn’t want a slaughterhouse to be constructed in their town. They wanted it out of town because otherwise the children would see it. And we said no. We wrote immediately to the council asking that they please construct it in the center of town; get it out in the open, please, where everyone smells it, everyone sees it, the children know what it is.

What other interests or means of relaxation do you have to help you cope with the intensity of defending animal rights? How do you keep your sense of humor?
[Laughing] Well, I have to think of the positive; that’s how I cope. But I like a good London Times crossword and a cup of tea—that makes me happy. And I love walking someone else’s dog. I don’t have the luxury of having a dog myself because I travel too much, but I love walking and cuddling somebody else’s dog. I just came back from the shelter today and they let me walk three dogs at lunchtime. It was great.

To view PETA’s anti-fur ads, visit www.furisdead.com and www.milk sucks.com to see the anti-dairy ads. To learn more about PETA, visit www.peta-online.org or call 757-622-PETA.

 


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