October 4, 2010

Ingrid Newkirk: Reflecting on 30 Years as Head of PETA

PETA, the largest animal rights organization worldwide, has more than 2 million U.S. members and supporters. PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry. PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement and protest campaigns. Other sites include peta2.com for high school/college students, prime.peta.org for baby boomers and seniors, GoVeg.com, VegCooking.com, and many issue-specific sites.

Ingrid E. Newkirk founded PETA in 1980, and still serves as its president. In this time she has become the most visible animal advocate in the U.S., if not the world, appearing in public, in print, on the small screen, and on the big screen in documentary films. She is the author of almost a dozen books including 50 Awesome Ways Kids Can Help Animals, Making Kind Choices, Free the Animals: The Story of the Animal Liberation Front, and most recently The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights. She is the subject of a BBC special and the HBO documentary “I Am an Animal,” available on DVD on demand.

The following interview took place on the occasion of PETA’s 30th Anniversary

Please share how you came to being a vegan and how long you have been so.

I was a vegetarian first as a result of encounters with live snails who narrowly avoided becoming escargot, a live lobster I did pick for the grill and regret (not as much as the lobster, no doubt), and a pig who survived abandonment on a farm and made the pig–pork chop connection for me.

A vegan made fun of me for putting condensed milk in my tea, saying, “But you stopped eating veal when you were 7 years old?” and I responded, “But you don’t kill the calf,” only to feel like a complete idiot when it was pointed out that the only reason there is a veal industry at all is because we steal the milk and then have to do something with the baby it was meant for. Since then, I learned of other horrors of the veal industry and dairy farming that you can see at PETA.org and that make any compassionate person run screaming from cheese and so on. Make mine soy, rice, or almond milk, thank you. I have been a vegan for just over 30 years.

What would you say are PETA’s greatest accomplishments? Please name a few victories, especially any that have surprised you the most.

When you see mannequins in car commercials, you can thank PETA, because we stopped all car-crash tests on animals worldwide. We also have lots of firsts: the first search warrant on a laboratory to get animals out, the first conviction of an animal experimenter, the first cancellation of NIH grant money, the first conviction of factory farmers for cruelty, the first felony convictions for cruelty to birds and pigs, the largest seizure of exotic animals in the world (and subsequent closure of the facility that housed them), etc. It surprises me when we have good evidence and don’t get a conviction, but that sometimes happens, as with a Pennsylvania dairy farm recently where the suffering calves were left to die in their own muck.

Can you share any failures or campaigns that, looking back, you would have done differently?

That would be telling! But we do take apart everything and try to keep improving.

What animal issue is the most dire or dreadful right now, in your opinion? What’s keeping you awake at night?

All cruelty upsets me, and it is hard to rank it in a movement that fights to prevent so many types of suffering. The most all-encompassing issues are probably “pest” control and food―grossly cruel slaughter of those we despise or find inconvenient, and those killed for sandwich fillings and nuggets.

But the lifetime suffering of elephant babies and mothers in the Ringling and other circuses, where they end up covered with scars from being jabbed with the steel-tipped bullhook and are kept in chains for life instead of ever being able to walk freely, make their own decisions, love, or lie down (and many have crippling foot injures that make even a single step painful)―that must all end soon. Also, seeing dogs on chains, kept like bicycles, drives me insane.

How have you seen the animal rights movement change in the past 30 years? Where do you see it heading?

Thirty years ago, there wasn’t an animal rights movement; no one knew what “animal rights” meant. Vegan food was homemade. Now look at soy milk and vegan buffalo wings and soy cheese pizzas in ball parks and grocery stores; shampoo that isn’t tested in rabbits’ eyes on drugstore shelves; pleather and synthetic fur and wool; Mercedes offering faux leather seats in its cars; Cirque du Soleil―you name it. We’re headed in the right direction if we all keep insisting that that’s what we want. I wrote Making Kind Choices to show that there’s always a compassionate choice to make in everything.

Have you found the media to be more receptive to PETA and animal rights messages now than, say, 20 or 30 years ago? What’s changed in that regard?

We are a celebrity culture now, and people no longer seriously discuss things in the media. It’s all sound bites, sex, and controversy. We have to go with the flow, as silence is a cause’s worst enemy.

There are many women in the movement but very few in positions of leadership. As a woman who heads the largest animal rights organization in the world, why do you think this is?

There are lots of women in our own organization, and each could be seen as heading a mini-organization within PETA: Tracy Reiman, Lisa Lange, Kathy Guillermo, Daphna Nachminovitch, Jessica Sandler―each a specialist with enormous responsibility. I don’t see any shortage. Women can do whatever they want and push forward!

PETA is constantly criticized for exploiting women to advance animal rights issues. I understand the pursuit of headlines, but are you finding that nudity is still effective and relevant as times change? In other words, can we look forward to an end to this tactic anytime soon?

As long as the media covers it, it ain’t broke and don’t need fixin’. It’s annoying to some, but it isn’t exploitation when a woman wishes to strip for a cause or for any reason. It is up to her. It’s patronizing for any man or woman to tell a woman to “behave” and cover herself up―that’s what my generation of feminists fought to stop. Women can do whatever they want, including showing their naughty bits.

PETA has an enemy in the Center for Consumer Freedom, an obnoxious front group for animal exploiters. The CCF, along with strange bedfellows within the animal protection community, attacks PETA for performing euthanasia. You have written, “We will never turn our backs on neglected, unloved, and homeless animals―even if the best we can offer them is a painless release from a world that doesn’t have enough heart or homes with room for them.” Can you explain PETA’s position a little more fully?

Please go to HelpingAnimals.com or look at blog entries on PETA.org to see the condition of the animals we do not turn our backs on, even if it means euthanasia (merciful release): Most are extremely aggressive from a lifetime on a chain or physically debilitated from traffic accidents, shootings, gross negligence, age, etc. If you want to open your home to any animal, please adopt.

God knows we push adoptions, but it is funny to have a group like CCF, whose leaders kill billions of animals for nothing more than a bite of food and kill them in terrible ways, suckering people into criticizing PETA for refusing to turn its back on reality. If there were anywhere to put all these animals who have no homes to go to, other than in crates in some hoarder’s basement, who wouldn’t choose that?

Spaying and neutering and education are the keys. I think PETA has saved more dogs and cats than any other group through that type of work: We’ve sterilized 65,000 dogs and cats in just our mobile clinics alone!

In the McCruelty campaign targeting McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Cruelty, too, PETA advocates for chickens being asphyxiated by controlled-atmosphere killing as a “less cruel” form of slaughter. PETA has worked with Burger King in the past on similar standards. Yet for the most part, PETA encourages a vegan or at least a vegetarian diet. You can see how this strikes people as inconsistent or confusing at best. Are these resources better directed into vegan advocacy instead of kinder consumption?

Some people think so, but I definitely don’t. We put tons of money into promoting veganism―more than any other group―with Paul McCartney’s “Glass Walls” video and our vegan starter kit stands, vegan food giveaways, ads, etc., but even if we put our whole budget into vegan outreach, the whole world still wouldn’t go vegan overnight. So, meanwhile, how great to reduce the horrific pain and suffering of millions of animals! If you or I were a chicken right now and the choice were either die with broken wings and legs from being shackled or be knocked unconscious, guess which we would choose?

Recently, the Department of Justice determined that the FBI improperly targeted PETA and other activist groups for domestic terrorism. Is this cold comfort, in light of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and other efforts to portray the animal rights movement as terrorist since 9/11? Has the work of PETA been impacted by these investigations or by AETA?

We were inconvenienced and harassed, but it didn’t stop our work―we just learned to live with missing flights caused by searches, having our pictures taken, being followed to demonstrations, and getting our phones tapped. We knew all along and just had to deal with it.

You’re a hero to many people, but who are your heroes? You’ve credited Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in the past. Who else’s work should we know about?

My heroes are people like Rachel Rosenthal, whom I profiled in my book One Can Make a Difference because when a cat fell through a hole and no one would help her, she decided to do whatever it took (and that was a lot) to get that cat out. I love anyone who puts themselves in the place of the animal and does not take “No” for an answer. That’s how change comes about.

Can you recommend any other books or films for someone new to the issues?

Paul McCartney’s “Glass Walls,” Joaquin Phoenix’s exotic-skins video, any of the videos that are free to download at PETA.org―they are all powerful. Earthlings, of course. The reissued The Animals Film. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is a must. Read all my books! Particularly The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights. But there is a now a wealth of great books out. Alicia Silverstone’s and Tal Ronnen’s cookbooks make a person drool and are fabulous gifts.

If someone is looking to be more active for animals, what would you suggest as a starting place?

Read everything on PETA.org, come intern with us, start taking action in some area where you want to make a difference by teaming up with others who want to do the same. It’s easy, and animals need you very much.

You have seen the worst of the worst when it comes to animal cruelty. How do you keep sane? What do you do to remain hopeful and balanced or to avoid burnout?

I have coping mechanisms: Think and do, don’t agonize and fret. Concentrate on achieving success, not on the prospect of potential failure: There is no failure―every effort moves things forward. Relax and watch funny films to take your mind off the horrors. Try to rest rather than think of the dogs out in the cold or the animals in steel lab cages because what good can you do for them tomorrow if you pointlessly go without sleep?

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