Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

Ingrid Newkirk � taking on the critics

The name Ingrid Newkirk and the organisation that she cofounded 21 years ago will go down in the annuls of animal rights history as the one that revolutionised the way in which we all look at animals and what animal rights are all about. Not only that but People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) has trained up a multitude of people as activists over the years (as they still do today) to fight for these rights.

Marketing "animal rights" under the banner of colourful, eye-catching campaigns has been their fort� as has their use of "shock tactics" to shake people out of their complacency over their relationship and attitudes towards the animal kingdom.

Newkirk has developed her belief that "animals have a worth in and of themselves, that they are not inferior to human beings but rather just different from us and they really don't exist for us nor do they belong to us."

PeTA is viewed around the world as the most visible animal rights organisation operating out of the United States with an approximate membership reaching over 300,000. Over time however PeTA has not been without their critics. We approached Newkirk to counter some of these criticisms that have been hurled against them. Without hesitation Newkirk � like the trooper she is � unreservedly agreed to answer all those sticky questions. Here are the results from that interview.

Interviewed originally for Vegan Voice.

Q. Alex Pacheco has left PeTA now. He said for various reasons he left but he said he mainly wanted PeTA to branch out in a different direction that encompassed business ventures and you were against this. Why? Did you think it would have compromised PeTA's original integrity?

A. When people leave they say many different things because parting is such sweet sorrow, but Alex had reached that time in his life when he wanted to explore business interests. We analysed his options and didn't feel it was PeTA's mission. Time will tell if he succeeds, and we wish him every success. He certainly did some marvellous investigations, particularly in the early days, for PeTA, and we miss him. We hope one day he stops pursuing his career rainbow and returns to grassroots work.

Q. PeTA has been criticised for being too "celebrity-based" � too short term with their campaigns and not enough substance. How do you respond to that Ingrid?

A. Actually, we are probably about as tenacious as they come. We are known to set a goal and stick doggedly to it. For example, we are still fighting for the orangutans used by the Las Vegas showman, Bobby Berosini, who was caught beating them with a metal bar before each show. We have been in various kinds of litigation with him, trying to achieve custody of the orangutans, making sure every single future prospective employer sees the videotape of the beatings, and so on for twelve years. We campaigned against Gillette until it stopped animal tests. That took 10 years.

We do our campaigns "every way except underwater" until we win, as with NASA's use of monkeys in space; General Motors crash tests on pigs and baboons, the EPA. What people who are only peripherally involved (or who dislike or are jealous of us, and there are certainly some of them!) see or want to see, are our public "hits" in the press. The fact is that when we did a news conference about the now well-established connection between hunting and other forms of violence towards animals, and the school shootings (each shooter has a history of animal torture of one sort or another), no one showed up! When we put a celebrity into a PSA, all the press covered it.

So, society is celebrity-based and we are determined to use their voices to make sure no one forgets there are issues over the use of animals. Celebrities can be great for our cause and can really make people sit up and think for the first time about animal abuse. Charlize Theron has narrated a TV spot for us about puppy mills and Pam Anderson, who has a heart as big as the great outdoors inside that chest, has helped us fight abuses in the leather trade. Chrissie Hynde put our GAP campaign on the media map when she was arrested with me in New York, tearing up leather coats. If it had just been me, we probably would not have been successful. The celebrity stuff is what people hear about, the solid work continues but the press find it too boring to bother covering!

Q. Carol Adams proposed in "The Sexual Politics of Meat" that there exists a cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption that links the butchering of animals with sexual violence of women. Would you tend to agree or disagree with those connections?

A. Oh, who knows. She could be right, testosterone is a pretty powerful drug that makes people (women have it, too, of course, some more than others, although nothing like to the degree men have it) want to conquer and bully and use. All I really know is that after all the analysis, every one of us is trying to deal with the reality of how to combat its effects.

Q. I have criticised PeTA for the use of sexism in your ads and I'll tell you why. Voices like Mary Daly and Rape of the Wild's Andree Collard have spoken out about man's violence against animals, women and the earth, and those voices shine. My argument is: If you play the game from within the system, there is no choice but to eventually become that system � and all other voices, like the two I've just mentioned get marginalised and trivialised in the process. In fact, never has history shown a revolution having taken place from within the system. Can you comment on that please?

A. Sure. We do play the game from within the system. That is what we have chosen to do. However, nudity per se isn't offensive to us. I have a picture of a naked woman celebrating her mastectomy on my desk. She's beautiful with one breast. Beauty doesn't require nudity or Society's (biological) idea of perfection, but there's also nothing wrong, in my book, with the "perfect" human body being used to sell an idea. I resent the idea of some women assuming the role of father, brother, boyfriend, and telling me and other women to put our clothes back on, cover up and behave. If I want to strip for fun, to use my body as a political tool, whatever, it is my business. Some people are very threatened by Pam Anderson, for example, with or without her clothes. I hear people who don't know her, deride her, and it's simply because she's built like a sex bombshell. I know her and she is a super-kind, sensitive person who we should thank every day for using her fabulous body for the animals. I also think she's a bigger feminist than a lot of whining ones, because she's built her own body and face for business reasons and she won. All the women and men in our "Naked" ads are volunteers, no one makes them do what they do, and if it competes with selling fur coats and makes people think you can be sexy, which, face it, is the goal of many consumers, great.

Q. I read your essay "Animal Rights and the Feminist Connection" and I enjoyed it very much but what kind of double standard does it send to feminists when on one hand you implore feminists not to become "human chauvinists" in their outlook on nature and other lives, but on the other hand you allow sexism in your ads to dominate?

A. We don't allow sexism. We use sex. Not sexism. Nudity is not synonymous with sexism. That's an Islamic idea, a prudish idea, a sour idea.

Q. Gary Francione recently said that PeTA was once a radical abolitionist organisation but now you've become a reactionary welfarist group. In short, you've become too large and too rich for your own good. What do you say to that?

A. Oh, Gary has a great brain, a super sense of humour and writes marvellously, but I wish he didn't always have an axe to grind! We suggest people try to get negative people to stop being negative and use their wonderful talents to help animals, not to try and tear down others in the movement. No one has to go along with every group or individual's ideas. Just do what you think is right, as it wastes precious time and energy in-fighting. We have a policy against it. That said, PeTA is an abolitionist group with our motto, "Animals are not ours". We believe that to get from Z to A, you always advocate Z but you do what you can do to move people to B, C, D and so on all the while so the leap isn't going to be as great for them when they finally figure out that you are right!

For example, while fiercely promoting veganism, giving out vegan food, running vegan ads, we campaigned to stop some of the immense suffering for millions upon millions of animals we knew people would eat this year, no matter what we said. We protested McDonalds and Burger King and Wendy's until they agreed to give a little more space, to stop forced molting, to phase out pig battery cages, to go to the slaughterhouses for the first time ever to make sure animals are not being skinned alive, all awhile we continue to promote a vegan diet. If I were one of those animals, just being able to scratch my leg in a lifetime or not having my legs cut off while I was still alive would mean everything in the world. Gary and other naysayers said it would set the movement back, but Burger King just announced that it is also doing something else we've been asking them to do, introduce a vegan burger all over the country, so it obviously didn't hold back the abolition, while achieving the reform that helps reduce the pain of millions of birds. Years ago, cattlemen were trying to make it legal to deny cows any water at all for the last 48 hours or more of their stay in the stockyards to save money! We circulated a petition immediately to stop this regulation from passing. I remember a veggie commune sent back our petitions, marked, "We haven't signed because we don't believe the cattle should be there in the first place." Obviously we didn't think they should be there either, but wanted to scream, "But they ARE! But they ARE!

So, won't you help them!" As for being "too rich", we have a tiny percentage of the advertising budget of just one of the many adversaries we're fighting and this movement needs much more money, we can't go head to head with them � these exploitative industries � with our budget, so I hate this idea that being dirt poor is being more pure. No, we need funds. Every group that lifts a finger for animals needs funds to fight the evil that is done to animals. We watch our money, get air flight coupons donated, I take an annual salary of $25,000 and, except when we have to pay premiums for an outside lawyer or a computer expert so we can shake the outside world, our salaries are modest and we take our responsibilities to do all we can do for animals very seriously.

Q. What do you say to your critics who say you've sold the animals down the river by siding with McDonalds?

A. I'd like to know what all these smarty pants think they could have done which would have put the animals in a better position, and if so why didn't they? No one has interfered with anything anyone else is doing. I just don't see the critics doing anything except complain. Sad really.

Q. In Rain Without Thunder (Chapter 6) you are quoted as dismissing the "All or Nothing" approach. Why? Do you think it unrealistic? I mean the atrocities against animals seem to cry out for such an abolitionist approach.

A. We have an abolitionist approach, but I always say that while our heads are in the clouds and we fight for total liberation, our feet are firmly planted on the ground. For example, I don't think people should ride horses (which has been too radical for even an animal rights feminist publication to print in the U.S., believe it or not), but if I see someone beating a horse I'm going to try and stop them even if I can't take their horse away from them. I must say, the press doesn't share this idea that we are namby pamby: They know that if there's a rat or cockroach involved, PeTA is the group here that will stick up for that poor blighted animal publicly (we are currently defending sharks due to the hysteria over the recent attacks!) and we will always stick up for the A.L.F., so they call us and we do.

Q. Do you think that we will accomplish animal liberation in our lifetime?

A. I work for today, maybe a meteorite will hit tomorrow.

Q. What do you see as your role in the struggle Ingrid?

A. I've formed a group. I go to work every day to try and make things happen for the animals. I think about what strategies to pursue to reach our goals. I look for peoples' ideas that might work, so please, anyone reading this, send them!

Q. How educated is mainstream America on the issues of animal rights?

A. Not very. It's hard to penetrate a Society obsessed with sex (hence our sexy ads!) and confrontation (hence our confrontational displays, manure dumps, disruptions at fashion shows, take-overs of stores, etc), but we struggle on. We publish tracts, books, give lectures, we're on college campuses, we have radio and TV ads, we do news releases, investigations, run provocative billboards showing rodeo cruelty and how you can lose weight by going vegan. We make our films available free of charge to anyone who'll show them. We bring criminal charges against abusers (we just got the second and again, only, felony charges, against pig farmers in the U.S., after filming them undercover beating pigs with iron gateposts and hammers), lobby, negotiate, you name it. We reach more people every year, but it's a huge country with lots of vested interests and old habits, so hard work is what it will take. That's why every single person who does even one kind thing is vital to the animals.

Q. What kind of impact do you think PeTA has had?

A. From the mail we get, there is comfort in hearing people say "I had no idea until I picked up a PeTA pamphlet", or "Thank you for making my teacher give me an alternative to dissection", or "Thank you for making my family vegetarians" or "I have given up fishing". We have certainly not allowed anyone to forget that there are people out here who object to cruelty to animals in any form.

Q. What direction do you want PeTA in in the future?

A. We turned 21 this year and we are still absolutely true to our mission and still doing, in one form or another, exactly what we started out to do. Our tactics change with Society's changes, though. Who could predict, for example, the September 11th events? Since then we cannot run our "bloody butcher" ads and such things as the public would turn away completely, so we are trying new approaches to reach a stunned, shell-shocked nation that now feels partly powerless, very patriotic about things, and perhaps will truly, at least for a while, reach out to each other. We were in New York, reuniting people with animals locked inside vacated buildings in the hot zone and, while a few people said, "Why do you care about animals when people are dead?" most people helped, firemen went into buildings for us, people brought dog food out onto the street, the feeling did extend to the animals. Now, for example, we are saying, "If you give to charity (as lots of people are doing now), please give to ones that do not add to the sum total of suffering by using animals in experiments." President Bush has asked people to boost the economy by shopping. We are outside the big department stores, saying "Shop, but Shop Cruelty-Free!" We'll see.

Q. Any last words Ingrid?

A. Yes. I would like to ask that anyone reading this not waste time disagreeing or agreeing with me, just choose something you think is important to do for the animals and go out and do it! Don't be shy, pluck up the courage and speak for them, please, because the animals need desperately every single one of us. Every tiny thing we do is needed, no matter what it is. Cooking a vegan meal for people at work, spaying a neighbour's dog, donating money to a wildlife care centre, putting an animal rights book into a school library, please, do something, anything, as much as possible. Our lives are busy and full, we have so much. The animals who suffer so pitifully are out of sight. We must make them visible and liberate them through our words and deeds. Best wishes to everyone.

Check out PeTA's excellent website:

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