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November/December 2000
Soldiering On: The Satya Interview With Ingrid Newkirk

Part I: PETA at 20 Years



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. 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 industry’s “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 month’s issue) honoring PETA’s 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 didn’t know it. I hear of a thin person yelling to get out of a fat person’s 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 result—especially being an only child—I 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 don’t?
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 didn’t 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 animals—my 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 lobsters—when they’re not cooked—are not warm. I burst into tears and from that moment on I couldn’t eat, wouldn’t 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 with 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 people—maybe I was worse than most—I 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 pig’s 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, I’ve got pork chops,” and then the light came on. I thought, “well, I’m 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 couldn’t subsidize it anymore. So that was really it.

So, ‘Lobster - snail - pig’?
Yeah. [Laughs]

That’s interesting, a lot of people go in the other direction. They “begin” with cows and wean themselves “down” to fish.
You know, I think we do it backwards anyway, that it should first be eggs and milk. People think it’s 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 lifetime—which for them may be 18 months—of misery, unable to stretch a wing. And finally, the slaughterhouse.

It’s the same with the veal calf: 14 weeks in the dark with swollen legs—misery—and 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 we’re 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 wouldn’t 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, it’s 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 ABC’s “20/20” on 10/6/00). What’s 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 daylight—completely misrepresenting what you were talking about?
I think the first time people hear a message they’re resistant. And of course their old habits die hard. It takes a very strong and open-minded person to change a lifetime’s thought with a single suggestion that they do so. So, I’m pretty used to that. I think our job—just as it is with advertisers—is to keep repeating the message until it breaks through the resistance. I’m 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 it’s better to have that than to have nothing; and gradually, you’ll 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 couldn’t come to grips with it all. He emerged feeling that we had some points to make, and I don’t 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 hasn’t changed. I didn’t 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 what’s in front of you and what you can do about it.

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 what’s happening today, it’s just that the community is far larger. We have audiences we didn’t 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 it’s marvelous to see it grow—that’s all that’s 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 don’t 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 it’s very normal. Humane education always existed but was more about dog and cat care—grooming and so on—and now it’s 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 can’t work with just one spoke.

Let’s shift to PETA’s advertisement campaigns. What do you consider to be PETA’s 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...” I’m 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 “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. It’s been hugely successful, but it’s not everyone’s 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 it’s clothing, food, experimentation, entertainment, they suddenly realize, “Oh—there’s an animal component to this and somebody thinks there’s something wrong with it.” That may be as far as you get, but that’s better than not getting their attention.

In today’s world of tabloid press and with so much competing for people’s attention, it’s 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 wouldn’t make a dent, advertising dollar for advertising dollar.

To me the greatest success is in catching the attention of the public and reminding them that there’s an animal involved, and that that animal is believed not to have been treated properly by a segment of the population.

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 won’t do. You have to guard against becoming agitated by what people won’t 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 can’t get enough volunteers to not being able to change a family member’s mind. Don’t 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 what’s 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 don’t have to think that you are going to achieve all your goals, because you’re not. But do not dwell on the things that are upsetting and depressing; simply look at the opportunities and the road ahead.

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 aren’t 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 can’t stand being told, “well these animals are suffering and no one’s doing anything about it, won’t 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 that’s 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 you’re best at. But it’s one world, one sea of suffering and you can wade in and grab somebody and pull ‘em out; it really doesn’t 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 wouldn’t matter if it didn’t, you know, if you look at the suffering of all those animals, who in their right mind can criticize?

Is there an “end goal” to the work that you and PETA are doing?
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 and 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 greatly. But, sadly, animal rights won’t win any more than there will be world peace. Our species isn’t 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, we’re here, just soldiering on.

To be continued in next month’s issue. To learn more about PETA, visit or call 757-622-PETA.


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