February 1, 2005
In 1981, Ingrid Newkirk co-founded PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the largest animal rights organization in the world. Today, she remains president of the organization -- now 800,000 members strong, including a slew of celebrities from Pamela Anderson, who posed nude for their ads, and Chrissie Hynde who was arrested while protesting.
Recently, Newkirk (who allegedly has been arrested 40 or 50 times) published her sixth book, called "Making Kind Choices," which demonstrates how the simple choices we make every day can have a life-saving impact on animals and the environment.
Newkirk will read from her book and discuss related issues on Wednesday, Feb. 2 at Schwartz Bookshop, 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 7 p.m. The event is free.
Before founding PeTA, Newkirk served as a deputy sheriff, a Maryland state law enforcement officer, director of cruelty investigations for the second oldest humane society in the United States and chief of Animal Disease Control for the Commission on Public Health in the District of Columbia.
Since its founding, PeTA has exposed animal laboratories with inhumane practices, helped shut down the largest horse-slaughtering operation in North America, convinced dozens of designers to stop using fur, cleaned up substandard animal shelters, helped schools find alternatives to dissection and provided information on vegetarianism, companion animal care and countless other issues to millions of people.
The Norfolk-based organization is often criticized for its subversive, unconventional tactics to gain media attention. Previous stunts include people parading in the buff to protest fur coats and naked-but-heavily-bodypainted women in cages protesting the inhumanity of zoos and circuses.
According to Newkirk, this is the only way her non-profit is able to get its message to the masses. "Silence is the environment's and the animals' enemy," says the England native.
Newkirk and PeTA are controversial, but whether you find her compassionate or kooky, she's always a good interview.
OMC: So, are you really planning to donate parts of your body to different organizations as a final commitment to animal rights?
Ingrid Newkirk: Yes. I plan to send my liver somewhere in France to protest foie gras (liver pate). California recently banned this food and England and Germany banned it as well. I really think France needs to ban it.
OMC: What else?
IN: I am going to donate my pointer finger to Ringling Brothers. Not the (swear) finger, I'm not that rude, but the pointer finger as a way to say "shame on you." They have mistreated so many animals over the years, and recently killed three baby elephants that were too young to be weaned from their mother.
I plan to have handbags made from my skin ... and an umbrella stand made from my seat. I grew up in India and it's common for an elephant's foot to be cut off and made into an umbrella stand. My feet are too small to make a proper umbrella stand, but my seat...
OMC: Last year PeTA was denied a commercial spot during the Super Bowl. Why?
IN: It's funny, our ad was very mild compared to some of our others, and it was certainly not as provocative as Janet Jackson's breast.
OMC: So, is any press considered good press for PeTA?
IN: It's really a Catch-22. The media has no interest in the theory behind our work. If it's titillating and controversial, then the media pays attention. So we give them what they want. After all is said and done, the media has fun with us and our message gets out there. It's all we can get, and we take it.
OMC: Why do you use shock tactics in your ads?
IN: Everyone and everything is competing for attention. We have to turn heads and catch eyes if we want change. Silence is the environment's and the animals' worst enemy. We are compelled to have funny or sexy or gimmicky ads just to get a moment of attention.
OMC: Is it true you said you want to dance on Col. Sanders' grave?
IN: (Laughing) No, that I never said. But KFC, unlike McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, refuses to make any reforms in their treatment of chickens. I ask people not to stop the car for KFC. Our Col. Sanders bobble heads are going like hotcakes on our Web site (peta.org) as are our "We Do Chickens Wrong" T-shirts.
OMC: What are PeTA's main issues these days?
IN: More of the same: We're trying to convert a few people at a time. We're also trying to get KFC to use "controlled atmosphere killing," meaning they show some kindness to the birds and knock them unconscious before they plunge them into boiling water to de-feather them or put them on a conveyer belt still alive only to have their legs broken (and other internal injuries) before they finally die. We are also focusing on Iams (pet food) and the wool industry.
OMC: There's a lot of great suggestions in "Making Kind Choices," but come on, do you really practice everything in this book?
IN: Of course not. I travel so much that it's difficult and I'm human, I slip up now and again. But I do my best. I'm not saying people should do everything (in the book). No matter how small of a step someone takes, to me, it's one grand step.
OMC: What's the most important thing people can do to protect animals?
IN: If people who eat animals and animal products could once a week -- or twice a week -- try a vegetarian or vegan recipe that would be wonderful. Even if someone says "I am going to use a faux meat in my lasagna tonight" it's something ... There is such a fabulous array of (meat) taste-a-likes now.
OMC: Do you have pets?
IN: No. I travel too much. But we have four cats in our office.
OMC: Does PeTA commit crimes?
IN: No. Everything we do is legal. We have been arrested before in demonstrations, but it's usually because of an overreaction from the police.
OMC: Are you as outspoken about animal rights in your personal life as you are in your career?
IN: If someone I know is dong something unknowingly I might drop them a kind note. I would never embarrass someone, unless they are wearing fur. I always say something -- even to strangers -- when it comes to wearing fur. Everyone knows better.
OMC: So what do you say?
IN: I usually say something like "You're so pretty, why ruin your look with that coat?" I almost missed a plane once because I had to say something to a woman wearing a fur. It's a calling.
OMC: I read that you think having a baby is like adopting a pure-bred animal -- totally selfish.
IN: Yes, that's true. I wish more people would adopt children. If I had more time, I would. There are so many beautiful children in Eastern Europe -- all over the world -- that need to get out of orphanages and into families.
OMC: So how long have you been a vegetarian?
IN: Since I was 21. I'm 55 now.
OMC: What made you leave law enforcement and start your own non-profit?
IN: When I was a cruelty investigator in Maryland I invested a cruelty case on a farm where the family had moved, but left their pigs behind to starve and die slowly. There was only one little pig alive by the time I got there and I took the little fellow and let him drink water from my hand and he made the most grateful little grunting noises. When I got home that night, I realized I had defrosted pork chops for dinner and I said to myself, "What are you doing?"