Ingrid Newkirk is the cofounder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organization. Newkirk began PETA in 1980 to provide information on vegetarianism and consumer products produced without harm to animals and has remained committed to its work.
PETA’s campaigns to save animals are legendary and in some cases quite controversial. Aside from ongoing activities like providing vegetarian starter kits, producing programs that give students alternatives to animal dissection, and lobbying government agencies in support of animal-friendly policies, PETA has also run dramatic advertising campaigns including one in which famous actresses appeared clad only in vegetables as part of the “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign, and another in an anti-dairy campaign where former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had prostate cancer, was pictured on a billboard with a milk moustache, under the headline, “Got Prostate Cancer?”
Newkirk is someone with revolutionary ideas who recognizes that small changes are better than none, and that these small changes gradually accumulate. Her new book, Making Kind Choices: Everyday Ways to Enhance Your Life Through Earth- and Animal-Friendly Living, consists of several dozen short chapters, each of which highlights a particular animal-related issue (such as how to recognize animal ingredients in packaged foods, how to find cosmetics not tested on animals, how to travel safely with animals, how to bake a vegan cake, and why some people choose not to wear wool or silk). Each chapter offers resources (books, websites, and more) for those who wish to further educate themselves.
In this interview with Daniel Redwood, Newkirk tells how she went from being a meat eater to a vegan who neither eats nor wears any animal products. It’s a fascinating story of a woman with a mission, one who does not shy away from controversy or confrontation and who has been able to reach millions with her message. The number of animals whose lives have been saved or improved through her efforts is incalculable.
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DANIEL REDWOOD: Your new book, Making Kind Choices, is at its heart a book about consciousness, about being aware of what we are doing rather than living unconsciously. It’s clear that the awareness of how our actions affect animals is of the utmost importance to you. What core beliefs led you to dedicate your life to protecting animals?
INGRID NEWKIRK: I was always drawn to animals in trouble, partially because I grew up in India where the suffering of animals is very apparent. There are starving dogs on the street, and there are overloaded beasts of burden everywhere you look. And there are animals being pulled out of baskets who are emaciated and who are made to perform so that people can earn a few rupees. So it was in front of me. A second part is probably because my mother had always worked for human charities as a volunteer, and so our home was always full of people in need and she always opened our house, too, to animals in need. She used to say it doesn’t matter who suffers, but how. So I grew up in that kind of atmosphere, of worrying about those who had little or nothing. It was just part of her world. So we were always packing pills for the lepers and rolling bandages for them, stuffing toys for orphans, and feeding strays.
REDWOOD: When and why did you decide to become a vegan?
NEWKIRK: It was a very slow process. I was a slow learner. I grew up eating meat, had my first fur coat when I was 19. I’m 56 now, and there were no animal rights activists then to hand me a card, admonish me in some way, and say, “What are you thinking? If you care about animals, why are you wearing them and eating them?” But I had a few events in my life which opened my eyes gradually to the difference you can make if you think of all animals, not just dogs and cats and horses and certain birds, as being important. But [to think of] all of them as having feelings.
I was a law enforcement officer in Maryland and I went on a case of abandonment of animals on a farm. The people had moved away and left all the animals. And they had all starved to death except one little pig. And I found this little pig in very bad shape, pulled him out of the barn, and took him outside. He was so weak that I actually had to hold his head up and help him drink some water. My job was to prosecute those people for leaving the animals to starve, and I was to find them. Driving home that evening, I was wondering what I could have for dinner, and I remembered that I had defrosted some pork chops. And suddenly, I realized that even though I had never been inside a slaughterhouse (I can’t say that now), that of course they are not very pleasant places and must be very frightening for the animals. And I realized I was prosecuting somebody for being cruel to one pig while I was paying someone I didn’t know to be cruel to another pig. There were lots of little incidents like that where I thought, “Oh dear, I shouldn’t do that. I need to find something different to eat or wear.”
REDWOOD: Could you tell us about the beginnings of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?
NEWKIRK: I worked for the Department of Human Resources in Washington, and one of my jobs was oversight of the animal shelter and inspection of all animal facilities in the District of Columbia. One day, this young man walked into my office to volunteer for the city and he told me about certain things I had no idea about. I knew about laboratories because I had inspected them, but he knew about dairy farming, and he made fun of me for caring about animals and still using milk in my tea. I had never thought about it before.
REDWOOD: What did he tell you about dairy farms? And what do you know now about them?
NEWKIRK: I had stopped eating veal when I was seven because my mother refused to serve it in the house when she found out how veal calves are kept, in these little crates. He said to me, “Well, you realize that the reason the veal calves are taken away from the mother is so that the milk can be marketed for us. And there’s no reason that, as a grown adult, you should be drinking milk anyway. And there’s no reason you should drink the milk meant for a baby calf. So why support the veal industry?” And I thought, well, I’ve never connected those dots before. He also taught me about whaling. He had come off a whaling ship in the Atlantic, and he told me the horrors of whaling and what is done to dolphins caught in tuna nets.
REDWOOD: What is done to them?
NEWKIRK: They drown because they can’t back up, so they get tangled in these massive, football-field sized nets that are cast for tuna. The dolphins follow the tuna fishes. And then they are ground up on board or they just drown and die in the nets. So he was filling in some gaps for me. I thought, it’s funny, I’ve cared about animals my whole life and I didn’t know that. So I thought maybe I could start a little group, and if people who care about animals want to know where they could get an alternative to a shampoo tested in rabbits’ eyes, I could say, here are the (at that point) three companies you can buy from. And maybe I could open their eyes to some things, too. But it hit a nerve and it grew very quickly.
REDWOOD: What do you think have been PETA’s greatest successes?
NEWKIRK: Changing hearts and minds, truly. Not very tangible or sexy. Well, it is tangible in that you can see how many people order the vegetarian starter kits from us, how many call and ask if there is an alternative to this, because I don’t want to hurt the animals. For example, pests in the home or dissection in the school. But tangible victories? Of course, one of my favorites is that we got all the car companies (the last one being General Motors) to stop using pigs and baboons in crash tests; they now all use mannequins.
REDWOOD: How did you go about organizing that?
NEWKIRK: We always start the same way. We write politely, we research the alternatives, we showed that Mercedes and some foreign car companies were no longer using animals in these tests, that there were superior methods at their disposal. We try to meet with the executives of the company that we wish to reform. And when the door is slammed, and sometimes it is slammed (often it works that way, especially if the company is big), then we start enlisting public support, asking consumers to write in, and it escalates from there. In the end, when GM acquiesced, we had reached a stage where we were protesting every auto show, and people had donated old GM cars to us, which we were breaking up in front of the auto shows to make a point about crash tests on animals. And they finally agreed to stop. And now no car company uses animals in crash tests.
REDWOOD: PETA is widely known for some of its most dramatic tactics, particularly on advertising campaigns. Could you mention a couple of the more controversial tactics that PETA has used and also mention some of the more quiet, ongoing approaches pursued by the organization?
NEWKIRK: Most of our work is work you won’t read about in the press because it’s not flamboyant or provocative, it’s just solid work, a lot of it behind the scenes with corporations, seeking reforms step-by-step. But we have such a serious message, and society these days makes you jump through a lot of hoops to get attention for a serious issue. You can’t blame people, in a way, or the press, because there’s the war, there was the tsunami, there’s violence in the streets, and there are all sorts of extraordinary things happening every day. And people are busy, so competing for their attention is a little difficult. So one of the ways that we get people’s attention, even if it means that they’re going to argue with us or dislike us for it, is to be provocative.
One of the most provocative billboards we ever ran was a picture of Rudolph Giuliani with a milk moustache, that said, “Got prostate cancer?” and gave a website, because he had come out to say that he had prostate cancer, he was battling it. We had written to him because he was constantly drinking milk at his news conferences—there was some promotion he was involved in—and explaining to him that milk is actually linked to prostate cancer. I had just lost my father to a number of things, one of which was prostate cancer. His heart and his prostate were battling as to who was going to take him first, and I initially thought I would run a picture of my father. But I thought no, nobody will know who that is or care, so I had written to Rudy Giuliani and said that we’re thinking of running a billboard with your image on it, and please will you think about this issue and stop promoting milk. He didn’t respond, so we ran it. And immediately we got tons of press, most people shouting at us, but thousands upon thousands of people actually going to the website and learning of the link between prostate cancer and dairy, which was our goal.
REDWOOD: So from your point of view, the goal was not to attack Giuliani but to help those who, by being informed, might not get the disease?
NEWKIRK: Exactly. If I had found some clever way to reach my father about his diet years earlier, I would have been grateful.
REDWOOD: What else can you say about the health aspects of a vegetarian or vegan diet?
NEWKIRK: I have a cold now, because I travel so much and the air circulation on the plane was appalling, but I used to have chronic bronchitis and haven’t had bronchitis in 30 years, which is when I gave up drinking milk. I drink soy and other nog now, like Silk. But it clearly was messing up my bronchial tubes. And for babies, for kids, their own mother’s milk is clearly what nature intended for them. Putting them on cow’s milk when they’re young can lead to juvenile onset diabetes. It can give them gastrointestinal problems because many kids’ digestive systems are just not geared to digest cow’s milk.
REDWOOD: I was one of those kids myself, quite allergic to milk. However, this is a controversial point of view. Where would you encourage people to go to inform themselves more fully about whatever research exists on this topic.
NEWKIRK: It’s becoming a lot less controversial because the dairy industry is coming under a lot of fire for its claims over the years. One site is Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine at pcrm.org. They have a lot about milk. John MacDougall, the physician, has a website with a lot about the deleterious effects of milk. And of course, unless you’ve lived in a cave, everyone knows about hardening of the arteries, with both meat and dairy. So I don’t think it’s hard to find information about the good health effects of a vegan diet or the deleterious effects of meat and dairy, unless you’re just on the industry websites for those products.
REDWOOD: Why aren’t more people aware of where their food comes from, and how it’s grown or manufactured?
NEWKIRK: Because you have to stop and think, and we’re busy. I believe that everything is geared to stop you from thinking. It’s all about pretty recipes. There’s a tremendous amount of money from all these industries that goes into making meat and dairy look attractive, easy to cook and good for you. And the meat and dairy industries sponsor so much on television that you cannot run opposing ads. For example, at Thanksgiving, we have wonderful ads with celebrities, that are very positive, upbeat ads suggesting Tofurkey or Unturkey instead of the bird. We can’t run them for any amount of money on any network, because the networks receive so much money from Butterball [a brand of turkey], and they’ll admit it. And all the other purveyors of flesh foods. It’s simply politics. It’s not good for their business, and they know that we can’t compete in the end.
REDWOOD: So you’ve literally attempted to buy ads, put up the money, and been refused?
NEWKIRK: Oh, yes. Over and over again. And I used to think that there must be something you could do with the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] about this, and there isn’t. Our lawyers have looked at it very carefully. You cannot. It’s up to them.
REDWOOD: Why do you think compassion is not more widespread in our culture?
NEWKIRK: We say the right things, we say that kindness is a virtue. We say apply the Golden Rule. We say that we’re kind to animals. But I think what you just said, too, is telling. Most people have never been inside a factory farm. And if they had, and they saw pigs castrated without anesthesia, chickens living in such filth that you have to actually wear a facemask to enter the barn because the stench will overpower you, animals dehorned and debeaked, having their legs and their wings crushed when they’re shackled on the slaughter lines. People would lose their lunch!
But it’s not in front of them. What is in front of them is a pretty ad. And it’s very, very hard to break through the veneer of advertising for bad products—especially if you have acquired the taste for them over many years—and say, hang on a minute, I need to take you behind the scenes and now show you a more compassionate way to behave. So, it’s like with any cause, you have to jar people’s idea of reality and show them that it’s a façade, that they’re not being kind when they buy these products, to themselves or to the Earth either.
REDWOOD: What are your thoughts on animal research?
NEWKIRK: I think it’s a hideous business. Every day without fail, we have complaints from laboratories here. Every single day. Sometimes we deal with veterinarians, technicians, janitors, guards, that indicate that the animals are treated like widgets. They are not even counting the kind of experiments they’re used for, which is another matter. That they are left in metal cages as if they have no behavioral or social needs, as if they’re not intelligent, and yet studies come out all the time showing that even the little rat in the laboratory, his heart rate soars, his adrenalin level goes up, his pulse rate increases when someone simply opens the lab door. They don’t even have to put a hand on him. So these animals, before they’re even touched, are living in fear and in completely unnatural and uncomfortable conditions. As for the science, I think we’ve learned by now that sometimes old habits die hard and that when there isn’t enough oversight of what is done for animals in labs, that someone can actually continue to use animals in a particular experiment, say executive stress experiments, where they actually swim animals to their deaths. There was a case in which this experiment was done every year for 14 years, by one experimenter alone. And no one says, “Hey, John, this really needs to stop,” or “You’re not doing this in the most intelligent way, there are other ways to study executive stress.”
REDWOOD: Are you convinced that eliminating all animal research would have no adverse effect on finding cures for human illnesses? For many people, that’s a key issue.
NEWKIRK: I think most people just believe that blindly, just as when you get into the elevator, you don’t believe it’s going to crash. I mean, you just trust that it must be the case or they wouldn’t use them. But when you show most people, look at AIDS or cancer, for example, and animal experiments haven’t done anything for us. In fact, all they’ve done is waste money and waste time. In fact, the state of cancer research is so much more sophisticated than it ever was. Because of microscopy, we are able to see precancerous tumors. Not because of animal experiments. And the way we test drugs these days. While the law still says that we have to go through these batteries and batteries of animal tests, from mice to monkeys, wasting time, we have high-speed computers now that we can program with human data. We can break down the properties of chemical components, see how they interact with each other. You know, we’ve got cloned human skin now. We’ve got whole human DNA on the web. Everything we’ve learned about AIDS has come from human epidemiology and studying the mutation of the virus in human blood and human beings. But we’ve still got chimpanzees infected with HIV banging their heads against the side of their steel cages and being there for two decades now.
REDWOOD: Could you share your thoughts about the euthanasia of animals in pet shelters? I was surprised by the complexity of this issue when there was a recent controversy here in Virginia, where PETA is headquartered, about shelters that “put animals to sleep” and those that do not.
NEWKIRK: Yes. I think it’s unfair to blame the shelters, because we see this ourselves. I mean, we will take in and euthanize animals that have no other chance. We won’t take in so-called “adoptable,” fluffy animals, we’ll only take in the dregs, which means those that aren’t housebroken, who’ve been on a chain their whole lives, who are diseased, pregnant, elderly, sick. There are so many people who take in animals frivolously and then throw them away. I mean, tens of thousands of dogs and cats, all wonderful, are thrown away in Hampton Roads every year. There simply aren’t enough good homes to put them in. It would be marvelous if there were. It would be marvelous if you could save a quarter of that number, but you cannot. People are not spaying and neutering, so there’s this constant flow of new animals coming into the population. People move away and abandon their animals. They dump them on the shelters as if they are turning them in to a recycling plant.
People should not buy from pet stores. That would help. If they’re going to take an animal, only take them from a shelter, because the shelters are desperate to find good homes. And people should not breed their animals as long as there are so many dogs and cats that are already born, waiting for homes, and have no homes to go to. And we really need higher license fees so people have to think twice before they casually acquire an animal, because that may stop many people from getting one and then tossing them out later. But I can’t condemn anyone who loves animals, cares for them, and performs the heartbreaking job of euthanasia, because it’s simply saying that, “There isn’t a place for you, my love, you need to go to sleep forever.”
REDWOOD: What about circuses?
NEWKIRK: [Laughter]. It’s all so cheery, isn’t it? Well, the animal circuses’ days are numbered. The Detroit Zoo, for example, just closed its elephant exhibit, for ethical reasons. The director of the Detroit Zoo made the decision that elephants do not belong on exhibit. And we now are seeing more non-animal circuses, like the magnificent Cirque d’Soleil, cropping up, where all the performers are paid, all the performers are there willingly, and all of the performers get to go home at night. Ringling, unfortunately, has a massive advertising budget but a terrible reputation, and three baby elephants have died of negligence in the past several years. One drowned, one fell off a training pedestal, and one was ill yet forced to go back three times into the ring and died without veterinary care. They’ve been fined by the government, they’ve been in terrible trouble over the deaths of lions, of horses, the shooting death of two tigers, you name it. The manner in which the animals are trained is by brute force. You cannot make an elephant perform what to them is a repetitious, unnatural trick, for a cookie. And chaining them up, separating the babies from the mothers when they would live their whole lives together in nature, is just plain barbaric. I am hopeful that more people will turn their backs on the circus.
REDWOOD: If a person is considering giving up some animal-based product like meat, dairy, leather or wool, where would you advise them to start? What are some resources that a person thinking about this could consult?
NEWKIRK: It’s a very exciting world. It doesn’t restrict you, really, it just opens up a new world of options. We have a website called petaeats.com, which is chock full of recipes which are all downloadable. And on peta.org there is a free vegetarian starter kit that you can have, or you can just call us up (757-622-PETA), and we’ll send you one. It has tips, resources and recipes. Questions about what to do if you’re pregnant, what your nutritional needs are if you’re an athlete, all written by people with expertise in those fields, and references to other books, pamphlets, and websites. I hope my book is a good resource. It should be in the library, too.
For anything that you’re worried about, there is invariably a compassionate alternative. So if there are children in school who don’t want to take a scalpel to that frog or that cat, we have resources on our educational website, teachkind.com, for example, of fabulous, modern, sophisticated alternatives, like computer program software.
REDWOOD: My daughter used one of those when she was in high school.
NEWKIRK: Oh, good.
REDWOOD: Is there anything else that you would want our readers to know?
NEWKIRK: This may be too general, but I always think people shouldn’t be overwhelmed. They don’t have to agree with everything initially, or ever, to know that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is wasted. That if they really believe that kindness is important, it’s simply a matter of learning as much as you can and then trying to use your consumer power. Because we really are important as consumers, we really do move the marketplace, and our voices do count. And what we buy, and how we entertain ourselves, really counts for something. And not to think that we have to be robotic consumers, but to seize control and to live our lives according to our principles. If enough people do that, it makes a huge difference. But if one person does it, it’s still terrific.
Daniel Redwood, a writer for the past 25 years, practices chiropractic and acupuncture in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dr. Redwood is the author of the textbook, Fundamentals of Chiropractic (Mosby, 2003), and Associate Editor of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. A collection of his writing is available at www.drredwood.com. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
©2005 Daniel Redwood