On: The Satya Interview With Ingrid Newkirk
PETA at 20 Years
Ingrid Newkirk is co-founder and president of
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the worlds
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 PETAs success in exposing the public
to the ubiquity of animal exploitation has been through its eye-catching
and controversialat times notoriousprotests and advertising
campaigns. PETA advertisements have included provocative images of famous
models who would rather go naked than wear fur and the more
recent spoof on the dairy industrys Got Milk? ads,
featuring NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani sporting a milk mustache with the
caption Got prostate cancer? Whether you agree or disagree
with their tactics, most everyone has a strong opinion about PETA.
Ingrid Newkirk has authored several books, including the recently re-released
Free the Animals, a fictionalized biography of Valerie,
an activist with the underground Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In the
first part of this extended interview (see Part 2 in next months
issue) honoring PETAs 20th anniversary, Newkirk tells Catherine
Clyne about how she got involved with animal rights and how activism
has changed over the past 20 years; about the success of PETA campaigns,
and what lies ahead.
What started you on the animal rights path, and how did it lead to
the founding of PETA?
I think I was always an animal rights advocate, I just didnt
know it. I hear of a thin person yelling to get out of a fat persons
body, and I had an animal rights person inside my animal welfare body.
I grew up attracted to animals; they were always more interesting to
me than other things going on. As a resultespecially being an
only childI was surrounded by animals all my life. I really came
to understand them and be able to communicate with them. But still,
it was all within the context of seeing animals as food and clothing,
while seeing others as pets and wildlife.
Were you always vegetarian? If not, when and how did you make connections
between the animals we eat and those we dont?
I was definitely the furthest thing from a vegetarian. In fact,
my last favorite meal as a meat-eater was steak tartar; I used to get
the triple ground choice and mix it in my hands. I always liked organ
meats and kidney pie and all sorts of things that even meat-eaters find
revolting. So it was a big step to become vegetarian.
I didnt stop eating animals because of health reasons or because
I suddenly found it revolting or because I lost the taste. It was because
of a series of experiences with animalsmy first with lobsters,
strangely enough. I had been treated to a birthday dinner at a famous
lobster restaurant; I picked out my lobster and chose the manner in
which he would be killed. I had chosen that he be grilled. Then, for
some reason that I will never understand, when I took the first bite,
after years of eating lobsters, I suddenly felt that warm flesh in my
mouth and made the connection, even though lobsterswhen theyre
not cookedare not warm. I burst into tears and from that moment
on I couldnt eat, wouldnt eat, lobsters or crabs.
After that it was snails. I bought live snails in an Italian market
and was driving home with them in a brown paper bag when I suddenly
got the feeling I was being watched! I looked over and they had pushed
the bag open and were sitting on the edge of the bag, looking over
those little horns they have, figuring out how to get down. And I thought, Oh, good lord, and
released them in my garden.
But, like most peoplemaybe I was worse than mostI was a
terribly slow learner. So I carried on eating all the other animals
until, as a cruelty investigator, I had occasion to investigate a case
involving an abandoned pig. I rescued this poor pig (all the other animals
on the farm had starved to death), held this pig in my arms, got the
pig taken to the vet, and listened to the pigs little grunts of
pleasure from finally having some water. On my way home that night,
I was trying to think of what I had in my freezer for dinner, and I
thought, Oh good, Ive got pork chops, and then the
light came on. I thought, well, Im sure that the way in
which pigs in the slaughterhouse are treated is no better or worse than
how this poor pig was treated, and decided I really couldnt
subsidize it anymore. So that was really it.
So, Lobster - snail - pig?
Thats interesting, a lot of people go in the other direction.
They begin with cows and wean themselves down to
You know, I think we do it backwards anyway, that it should first
be eggs and milk. People think its harmless, but those animals
are never retired. So you subject them to all the privations: a million
hens in 22 hours of darkness for the single egg, a lifetimewhich
for them may be 18 monthsof misery, unable to stretch a wing.
And finally, the slaughterhouse.
Its the same with the veal calf: 14 weeks in the dark with swollen
legsmiseryand then the slaughter. So I think milk and eggs
should go first. And then fish, because they are smaller; if you eat
a fish meal, you eat more animals. And then chickens. If were
going to eat meat, I think we should end up eating whales. You can get
thousands and thousands of meals out of a whale, so you wouldnt
be killing and torturing so many of them.
Seriously, I think everybody needs to be more disciplined; nobody needs
any meat. But from a perspective of how many animals suffer, its
probably better to kill and eat one whale than it is to eat fish, chickens,
cows, lambs and eggs.
Along those lines, you were interviewed by John Stossel for a segment
about PETA and animal rights (Give me a Break aired on ABCs
20/20 on 10/6/00). Whats your response when your message
is precisely that eggs and milk involve such cruelty, yet after you
make this point to Stossel, the camera cuts to images of cute little
farm chickens frolicking outside in daylightcompletely misrepresenting
what you were talking about?
I think the first time people hear a message theyre resistant.
And of course their old habits die hard. It takes a very strong and
open-minded person to change a lifetimes thought with a single
suggestion that they do so. So, Im pretty used to that. I think
our jobjust as it is with advertisersis to keep repeating
the message until it breaks through the resistance. Im not despondent
about the 20/20 piece. It is damaging to show something
like that, but for some people, they will hear the words. So its
better to have that than to have nothing; and gradually, youll
reach more and more people.
I actually think John Stossel seemed like a kind person when he interviewed
me. I do believe that he started out thinking who are these wackos?;
and in the end he thought well, they have a point here and they
have a point there, but he couldnt come to grips with it
all. He emerged feeling that we had some points to make, and I dont
think he went into the interview thinking that.
When you began PETA, what was the original purpose, and has that
vision changed over 20 years?
At its roots, no, it hasnt changed. I didnt set out
to start a huge group any more than I would sit down today and say,
All right, in ten years I feel we can grow to x. My style
is that you look at whats in front of you and what you can do
The goal, then, was simply to affect as many people as we could reach.
And 20 years ago that was a relatively small community within metropolitan
Washington, DC, and among friends, family, co-workers, and students.
Just to reach out and plant seeds. That is still whats happening
today, its just that the community is far larger. We have audiences
we didnt have before who are quite resistant, yet we have a chance
to start wearing them down a bit.
Have you seen any changes over the last 20 years, in the animal rights
community and also in activism itself?
Well, I think there are just more people in the animal rights community.
And people bring with them people-y things, by which I mean you have
more people who will cooperate with each other and more who will fight
with each other. So it all grows exponentially, and you have more people
with strong opinions about the priority being A, and more
with a strong opinion that the priority should be M, and
everything in between. So on the one hand, there are more people to
rally, and on the other hand, there are more people who believe something
else is what we should be rallying for. But its marvelous to see
it growthats all thats important.
Activism has been a bit of a roller coaster. Society has changed and
activism has changed with it. When you can bring out a million people
for the Million Man March you dont necessarily just
want to follow and just be an organization or a movement that marches.
So animal activism has taken on all sorts of different approaches: litigation;
law classes about animal rights; and physicians who are revolutionizing
the medical schools, getting rid of the dog and pig labs. It used to
be unusual for someone to refuse to dissect, and now its very
normal. Humane education always existed but was more about dog and cat
caregrooming and so onand now its talking about our
role vis a vis the other animal nations. There are more books and more
films. The opportunities for activism are all there and I believe every
single part is vital, because all the spokes in the wheel are needed
in order for the wheel to go around. You cant work with just
Lets shift to PETAs advertisement campaigns. What do
you consider to be PETAs most successful campaigns? What did
you set out to achieve with them and in what way do you feel they succeeded?
Lord! [Laughs] The most successful campaigns... Im
not sure I can competently answer that. Because, again, I do believe
in a scatter-shot approach; there are so many different people with
so many different tastes and opinions, you just need to try them all.
Take the Id rather go naked than wear fur campaign.
Its been hugely successful, but its not everyones
cup of tea. But what is success? Success means that people
have to look, and when they look they get some sort of message, and
they remember the animals; they remember that the animals are part of
the equation. Whether its clothing, food, experimentation, entertainment,
they suddenly realize, Ohtheres an animal component
to this and somebody thinks theres something wrong with it.
That may be as far as you get, but thats better than not getting
In todays world of tabloid press and with so much competing for
peoples attention, its a miracle to get their attention
at all. And of course having to compete with the advertising budget
of even one of our adversaries is impossible. If the whole movement
pooled its resources and went after simply one thing, like the veal
industry, we wouldnt make a dent, advertising dollar for advertising
To me the greatest success is in catching the attention of the public
and reminding them that theres an animal involved, and that that
animal is believed not to have been treated properly by a segment of
Have you learned anything along the way that you may have done differently
and what advice would you give to new activists?
[Laughs] I learned that you cannot concentrate on what people wont
do. You have to guard against becoming agitated by what people wont
do; and instead be inspired, encouraged and motivated by what people
might do, or what you can get them to do. That agitation could include
everything from being disappointed that you cant get enough volunteers
to not being able to change a family members mind. Dont
concentrate on that; that is a drain, psychologically and physically;
it is not productive time.
I believe that we need to not dwell on the enormity of the cruelties
because they will bowl you over, send you to an early grave (if not
to an immediate one). Instead, look back to see whats changed
and use history as fuel to push you forward. You can look at anything,
just the number of vegetarian selections on a menu, and think, Good
lord! How did that happen? It happened because enough people spoke
up. You dont have to think that you are going to achieve all your
goals, because youre not. But do not dwell on the things that
are upsetting and depressing; simply look at the opportunities and
Speaking of the road ahead, what campaigns are on the horizon?
Well, more of the same, but we always have to find creative ways
to present the issues because the public gets bored; and the sad fact
is that people arent interested. We started out saying that we
would try to champion campaigns in the areas where the most animals
are treated the worst; and the greatest numbers are, of course, in food
production, experimentation, clothing, entertainment and pest control,
although we continually find ourselves seduced by other things as well.
But we cant stand being told, well these animals are suffering
and no ones doing anything about it, wont you help? So
we do find that we have a hand in other areas. For example, we found
ourselves working with a shelter where the roof had blown off in Puerto
Rico; things like that.
What about accusations of misanthropy, being criticized for helping
animals while human beings are suffering?
I think thats a very sour grapes attitude. I have yet to find
many people who say such a thing, who are honestly doing a lot themselves
for human beings. Because anyone who is genuinely working in a compassionate
capacity empathizes all around. They simply have a particular talent
in one area. Not everyone can look after homeless children or clean
streams or take in stray dogs. You do what youre best at. But
its one world, one sea of suffering and you can wade in and grab
somebody and pull em out; it really doesnt matter what color
their skin is or whether they have fur, it really is inconsequential.
I think things like vegetarianism and moving people toward modern research
methodologies helps humanity as much as it helps the animals in the
end. But it wouldnt matter if it didnt, you know, if you
look at the suffering of all those animals, who in their right mind
Is there an end goal to the work that you and PETA are
Well, the ultimate end goal would be to put animal exploiters out
of business, which would be fabulous. Then I would go to the beach
get a pina colada. [Laughs] Actually, if PETA won or animals rights
won, then I think I would go into prison reform; that interests me
But, sadly, animal rights wont win any more than there will be
world peace. Our species isnt capable of behaving itself perfectly,
so there will always be cruelty and war, and people will always cut
each other off in traffic; and as long as that goes on, were
here, just soldiering on.
To be continued in next months issue. To learn more about PETA,
or call 757-622-PETA.