Cast: Ingrid Newkirk, Priscilla Feral, Alex Pacheco, Wayne Pacelle
US release date: 19 November 2007
by Cynthia Fuchs
I think your body is a political instrument and you should use it if you want to.
"My mother," says Ingrid Newkirk, "was an English mother, which means she didn�t dote and fawn on me." Newkirk, cofounder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has absorbed some of that reserve, at least toward herself and other people. She is, however, passionate about animals. To this end, she describes an early instance when she felt in herself her father�s "fierce temper." It was her first visit to India, she recalls, and she spotted a man beating his bull in the street near a shop where she was drinking tea. When he put his stick up the animal�s rectum, causing it to scream and collapse, she jumped up from her chair and ran outside. "I was filled with so much anger and panic to stop this man," Newkirk says. She was eight years old.
Since then, Newkirk asserts in Matthew Galkin�s I Am An Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA, she�s found a more organized outlet for her rage. She sees PETA as a way to challenge the "undeclared war on animals since the beginning of time, because they�re vulnerable." Though her tactics have garnered criticism�from outright opponents as well as other animal rights activists�she remains dedicated to easing animals� pain and fighting their exploitation. And the documentary offers an intriguingly multifaceted look at the trouble Newkirk makes. It opens with her reading from a selection of hate mail ("May I suggest that you have [your anus] stretched and used for the threshold for your front door at PETA," "I wish you all meeting up with a Jeffrey Dahmer so he can rid the world of scumbags like you"), then cuts to a montage of media scoldings (including John Stossel�s query: "How far out to lunch are you people?"). Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral accuses PETA of "trivializing" animal rights ("They sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain") and calls Newkirk a "media slut."
Certainly, the media-ready events staged by PETA are eye-catching, whether tossing fake blood on women wearing furs or breaking into Jean Paul Gaultier�s Paris boutique in order to write red-paint protests on its windows ("Fur is Death," "Death for Sale"). Such tactical aggression can have positive effects: in 1994, Calvin Klein wouldn�t meet with PETA until after they took over his office; "that same season," the story goes, "he banned fur from his collection." The action against Gaultier ("a real fur pimp") begins with Newkirk engaging an unsuspecting clerk in conversation about "an obscene skirt (when her team worries about timing, she sighs, "Boys, you know, before you were born, I was doing animal rights protest") and bringing along a squad of paparazzi-style photographers (in addition to the documentary camera crew) to ensure evening news coverage. "The image is the power that we have," Newkirk explains.
The other images that grant PETA "power" are less staged, but infinitely more grueling. These are the video and photo documentations gathered during undercover investigations. In I Am an Animal, the primary investigation concerns ConAgra, the company that provides turkeys to Butterball. The kid who gets a job on the killing floor reports numerous abuses in his log book (including a worker who sexually abuses a turkey before he kills it), but can�t seem to make the video equipment work. This draws Newkirk�s ire. She�s done undercover work, and understands the toll ("It�s not a superhuman task," she says, "it�s just a damn difficult task� and it is soul-racking if you care"), but she won�t tolerate failure. "The boy either does the job or he gets out," she asserts. "We can�t have somebody in there who�s just mucking about� If he screws us over, he�s screwing the birds over."
For Newkirk, the crucial stake is always the animals�endangered and voiceless. The film shows her cruising in the PETA van, seeking out creatures to be rescued: in mid-sentence, she stops to move a dove, "already dead," to the side of the road, then hops back into the driver�s seat, addressing her interviewer: "Where were we?" When she finds a dog, starving and chained to a tire, she questions the owner, who stands with a bottle in a paper bag, his face downcast as he appears to be wondering what sort of whirlwind has descended on him. For her part, Newkirk won�t own any pets, long ago gave up on her "lovely marriage" ("I just honest to god didn�t have time for it"), and had herself sterilized at the age of 22, as she determined then that "there was something wrong with wanting your own child," coming up with a mirror of yourself when there were plenty of children who needed homes. An atheist, she reasons that "the horrors in this world could never have been created by a loving god."
There�s no question that Newkirk is committed. Just as surely, she has enraged many people, for different reasons. Where the John Stossels reject her contention that each chicken and calf and monkey is as deserving of human empathy as a child, others who share that belief reject her campaign tactics. The film grants time to all these positions, even providing visual support at key points; when PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco describes Newkirk�s notion that "There�s no such thing as bad press," you see an action that drew dicey press, at least (naked women running in Pamplona, like bulls).
And when Wayne Pacelle, Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society, insinuates connections between PETA and the violent, illicit actions of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), the film shows video by the ALF as they break and enter, then destroy property. "We�re demanding ethical consistency in the way people live their lives," Pacelle says. "Once you move into the domain of intimidation or illegal conduct beyond civil disobedience, you�re moving into a dangerous pile of quicksand." For her part, Newkirk says she won�t condemn ALF or confess any affiliation with ALF. She focuses instead on her own work, finding and confronting all kinds of animal abuse, a "far greater crime than any crime the ALF commit." If the film doesn�t precisely support Newkirk�s absolutist moral and emotional case, it does suggest that her work�however righteous, extreme, or exasperating it appears�will never be done.
Date: November 20, 2007
Subject: DawnWatch: Comments on "I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid
Newkirk and PETA" -- November 2007
available on HBO "on demand." It can also be reserved at http://Netflix.com .
Canadians can watch it on The Movie Network on Wednesday, November 21.
And it will air many more times on HBO over the next few weeks. Go to http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/iamananimal/index.html and click on "schedule" to find out when. I urge you not to wait for it on Netflix. If you don't have HBO, find a neighbor who does, offer to bring over a fabulous desert or lovely bottle of wine, and ask if you can please watch the documentary with them.
Since it is a prime-time HBO documentary, it isn't like asking your neighbor to watch Meet Your Meat or any other video they might see as animal rights propaganda. The documentary is engaging and enjoyable to watch, while sharing extraordinary information about society's treatment of animals, which you will be happy your neighbors got a chance to see.
Embedded in an engrossing documentary about a woman who some people will love, some will judge as crazy, but whom everybody will find fascinating, are brief flashes of some of the most horrifying animal cruelty footage I have ever seen. It includes animals being skinned alive for fur coats and cows struggling on the floor drenched in their own blood. Most surprising and gratifying is the turkey slaughter footage, airing across America during Thanksgiving week.
I think most people have little sympathy for turkeys compared with concern for other animals -- believing turkeys to be less intelligent or sentient. But I think all viewers will have sympathy for the live turkey at the Butterball slaughterhouse, pinned beneath a 200lb man who is amusing himself by sitting on her as if she is a footstool, and slowly squashing her as she pathetically kicks her legs.
Please, please thank HBO for airing this documentary. HBO takes comments about its documentaries at http://tinyurl.com/d6og4 The documentary, particularly the second half, includes criticism of PETA tactics made by other activists who feel that PETA tactics trivialize the animal rights cause. (Make sure you watch the film from the beginning so you get the whole picture.) Those activists make good points, and come across as saner and more realistic than the PETA activists. And of course it is better for the animals if animal advocates seem grounded and likeable.
But the irony is that the other activists interviewed are only getting a chance to represent themselves so beautifully on HBO because of PETA, and PETA's willingness to look foolish or wild. The other groups, who refuse to engage in stunts, are not attracting HBO documentaries. And while the focus of the documentary is on the activists, nobody could watch the whole of this documentary and suggest that it was not overall helpful to the animals -- particularly with the Butterball turkey scenes airing during Thanksgiving week.
PETA also gets much flak from within the animal protection movement for its euthanization of dogs and cats. I personally do not support the practice, believing that animal protection groups should not kill animals, even animals destined to die. I will not argue the case here, but do so in my upcoming book. (Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way we Treat Animals -- Harper Collins 2008.) But I was glad the topic was addressed in the documentary as I think it shows that the extent of negative emotion towards PETA surrounding this issue is at least somewhat misplaced. Whether or not one supports the act, the scene makes it clear that the intent behind PETA's actions is compassionate. Again, please thank HBO for this fascinating and groundbreaking documentary. Go to http://tinyurl.com/d6og4 . And please watch it with your friends who know little about the cause. They will enjoy it, and learn much.
Yours and the animals', Karen Dawn (DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at http://www.DawnWatch.com .
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