An Encounter with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk

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An Encounter with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk
PETA President Ingrid Newkirk

Photo credit: David Shankbone

Ingrid Newkirk’s breadth of knowledge of animal issues is humbling. She has lived (and is living), a rich, intrepid, albeit controversial life. Currently on a global tour called The Naked Truth: An Animal Rights Radical at Large, Newkirk is endeavouring to light a spark and galvanize the animal rights movement. I caught up with her after her Toronto stop, marked by the day that amazon.com announced it would discontinue the sale of foie gras on its UK website (an issue PETA campaigned for). She exudes experience and perspective, and it is clear why PETA has grown to be the largest animal advocacy organization on the globe and has earned a permanent spot on the public’s radar, and more importantly, industries’ radars; if your company uses animals in any capacity, you never know when a PETA undercover investigator is present. You might call this ‘The PETA Threat’.

At the very core of PETA’s work is challenging the status quo, and that is a project that has never evaded antagonism. The most contentious question PETA faces (and there is endless speculation about this) is whether or not its tactics serve to undermine its efforts. Indeed, much of the media attention PETA receives is about its often brazen campaign tactics, rather than the issues themselves. Newkirk doesn’t seem too concerned with this, and is acutely focused on plugging away at the issues. One would expect her to be drained after 30 years, especially considering all the violence she has been exposed to through PETA’s undercover investigations (the most recent being a video of lobsters being dismembered and disemboweled while alive). To the contrary, she is industrious and optimistic.

PETA operates on the axiom that any publicity is good publicity, and every media hailstorm PETA finds itself at the centre of is seized as an opportunity to raise awareness about an issue. After 30 years of trial and error, Newkirk speaks confidently about PETA’s campaign tactics and can defend them with concrete results and achievements, such as this year’s “banned” superbowl commercial, which brought upwards of one million hits to PETA’s website. “Sex sells”, she says, and though some chide PETA for using sexually provocative imagery to make a point, it is clear that Newkirk sees this as the lesser of two evils. The tactics may not be all that sophisticated, and PETA’s popularity may be a result of its appeals to the lowest common denominator (read: sex).

But it’s not all celebrity endorsements and scantily clad women. There is a grassroots streak to PETA.

Understanding the importance of word of mouth and public opinion, Newkirk is using this tour to disseminate what she believes is the key to creating real change for animals; “the key is to change yourself, then to move on to educate and change others”, to “Never be Silent!”. At face value, this strategy seems supercilious, even to an activist. We live in surprisingly polite times, and one of the aphorisms that circulate around controversial issues is “I respect your choices, therefore you should respect mine”. When things like consumer habits are whittled down to issues of ‘personal choice’, mutual respect seems like a virtuous and diplomatic way to avoid confrontation. However, this has arguably become a dodge for both sides of the animal rights debate. Disagreement can be socially uncomfortable, and for trivial differences in taste, the “let’s agree to disagree” adage might have some merit. However, animal rights issues are justice issues involving extreme abuse and cruelty, so someone’s ‘personal choice’ to eat a cheeseburger, for example, is replete with ramifications for other sentient beings; this is the flaw in the ‘personal choice’ premise. When we choose to eat that burger, wear leather, use an animal-tested shampoo, etc, we are making a choice for an animal, that he or she will be a commodity. Given this fact, Newkirk’s injunction to “Never Be Silent!” is deserving of some serious consideration, especially for vegans and environmentalists who are content to live their ethically enlightened lives quietly minding their own business.

Of course, Newkirk herself has developed the thick skin and vociferous disposition that make this seem easy, but not everyone has, and human interactions occur with unpredictable nuance, body language, and chemistry. It may not be as simple as “Never Be Silent!”, and unless you are an adept psychologist and interlocutor, one misstep can repel the person you are aiming to educate. So this strategy is simplistic and wanting in some elaboration. But Newkirk, making a refreshingly realistic amendment to her premise, noted that “you will change some people, some of the time”.

Narrowing in on a specific issue, we discussed the crisis of animal homelessness in the United States. PETA’s harshest criticism has come from the claim that it is grossly hypocritical for its euthanasia of thousands of dogs and cats each year. Newkirk explained the situation to me, arguing that “No Kill” shelters cap the number of animals they will admit and turn many away, making it easier for them to have high adoption rates. Many of them also have “Any home is better than none” policies, which Newkirk dismisses as manifestly wrong, in part because many of the animals end up right back in abusive or negligent situations. (To see PETA’s defense of this particular burden it bears, visit PETASAVES).

I asked Newkirk which outstanding goals she is determined to achieve. Before she “croaks”, she said, “elephants will be out of every circus and there will be no more animal testing”. These are ambitious goals, but with Ingrid Newkirk at the helm, the odds of achieving them are greater.


Chris Michael Burns is a screenwriter and journalist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @toemichaelburns

  • Lucy_P

    I couldn’t agree more with the writer on this point: “When we choose to eat that
    burger, wear leather, use an animal-tested shampoo, etc, we are making a choice
    for an animal, that he or she will be a commodity.” The choices we make every
    day have a huge impact on animals, and, as Ms. Newkirk reminds us, it is so simple to choose foods, clothes, cosmetics, and forms of entertainment that cause other living beings no harm. Thank you, Ingrid, for showing us how easy it is to live with compassion, and for never being silent on issues that really matter.

  • Sledgemeister

    If peta followers are so against animal testing them let them prove it. All the ones with type one diabetes who takes insulin resulting from testing on animals should boycott any future insulin injections, all those with lymphoma, cancer etc whose drugs where trialed on animals should give it up on principal. Newkirk and her cult followers are nothing more than domestic terrorists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Suzanne-Carlson/1500425395 Suzanne Carlson

    I so admire and respect Ms. Newkirk. Decades into this fight, she’s still out there, everyday, making a difference. She exemplifies what one person can do to make a very real difference. I went veg after reading 101 To Save The Animals more than 20 years ago and my life has been better for it. And going to PETA.org to check out what’s going on, she only brings home about $30k a year!! She’s doing what she does to help animals, not for any glory, thanks or certainly not riches! Bravo, Ms. Newkirk, Bravo, and thank you.

  • Heather Moore

    Ingrid Newkirk has long been my inspiration. How can anyone argue that it’s acceptable to be cruel to animals when we have the option to be kind? It wasn’t until I read PETA’s literature and heard Ingrid speak that I even realized that some of my choices were hurting animals. She strives to open people’s eyes and inspire them to make more compassionate choices. That’s something we should all get behind.

  • ShakingMyHead

    Sledgemeister, I’m vegan and take medications tested on animals because those are the only medications available. The law dictates that each pharmaceutical be tested on animals even though animals are vastly different than humans. That’s why there are so many reactions to medications when they’re first introduced to–and subsequently withdrawn–from the marketplace. PETA has always said that people who are sick have to live within the system but work hard to change the system while they’re at it which is what I am doing and will continue to do.

  • EthanCooper

    Whether people agree or disagree with PETA’s attention-getting tactics or not, they have to admit that they work. And that’s what it’s all about: getting attention for the important animal issues that people need to hear about. If PETA simply posted articles on its website talking about how animals are abused, no one would read them, and thus nothing would change. PETA is to be commended for making people aware and making them care.

  • Wfcoaker

    PETA, like other animal rights companies, uses misinformation, outright lies, and even faked “evidence” (cf PETA Germany’s recent conviction for faking animal cruelty footage) to create false and offensive images of innocent farmers, fur producers, and pet breeders that it can then exploit for profit. This unjust demonization and exploitation of innocent people is indeed a social justice issue, and anyone concerned with issues ofsocial justice will oppose it.

  • ericmills

    Well done, Mr. Burns. Ingrid Newkirk is a national treasure, and there’s no one in the movement (or anywhere else, for that matter) that I respect more, or who has done more for animals. She’s smart, articulate, effective, and consistently lives/practices what she preaches. How many of us can say that about ourselves?

    Sincerely,
    Eric Mills, coordinator
    ACTION FOR ANIMALS
    Oakland