Column: PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk on doing whatever it takes to protect animals, both ugly and cute


On a new billboard at a Hollywood intersection is a trio of cute creatures posed with the recumbent Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She just turned 70, and PETA will soon turn 40 – a respectable age for an organization known for being disreputable and shocking in its acts to stop institutionalized animal cruelty.

Newkirk was once called the Mother Teresa of rabbits, for the rabbit is PETA’s logo: a creature used for entertainment, killed for fur and meat, and subjected to medical, chemical and cosmetic tests. Whatever PETA’s repertoire of tactics — like spraying fur coats with blood-red paint or shooting hidden-camera video of the mistreatment of lab and farm animals — millions more Americans are now eating more vegan foods, buying cosmetics that aren’t tested on animals, and keeping their distance from live-animal entertainments. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, wants to shut down the Santa Anita racetrack until experts figure out why 29 horses have died there. The new billboard’s slogan is “sisters under the skin,” and there’s Newkirk wearing a “skinned suit” that seems to flay her epidermis to show that, bone and flesh and muscle, all creatures great and small are alike.

What was your to-do checklist, and how has it changed? What have you ticked off, and what is still to do?

Oh, well, you know the suffering of animals is enormous. The manner in which they are abused is gigantic. You'll never be through with this work, any more than you would if you were seeking world peace.

But there have been huge victories along the way. People can remember things like Ringling Bros., the largest circus in the world, closing down, which took decades of work. Recently we had Gucci and Galliano and Diane von Furstenberg and Donatella Versace saying “no” to fur, which they had, all of them, said they would never give up. And it's gone gone gone.

There are only about 12 circuses left in the entire country. And we are after them, hammer and tongs. And the public mood has changed. People's eyes have opened. They see how it's wrong to take a magnificent, intelligent elephant away from her mother and tie her up in chains and beat her to make her perform tricks she can never understand. Tigers pacing in cages — people now see them for who they are, not the little amusements that they used to think they were.

We talk about modern entertainment, how primitive it is to go to an animal circus when you've got virtual reality. Entertainment has come so far. Computer-generated imagery — you don’t need to see the beast wagons roll into town and have the children run out and see the poor pacing bear in a cage. Last month, a German circus decided to switch from elephants and other animals to 100% holograms.

How much of that is PETA responsible for? There are a lot of animal organizations out there.

The more the merrier, now. But of course, when we began in 1980, there were a few SCPAs looking after dog and cat issues. We had the very first protest ever against chicken slaughterhouses, and the Washington Post reported it as much as if to say Martians had landed.

We got the first search and seizure warrant and the first confiscation of animals from a laboratory. So we started all these firsts and we woke people up. And gradually, over the years, because we have been relentless — we say we don't really care what anybody thinks; we're going to be out there talking about it, leafleting about it, showing the videos of what really goes on, so that consumers can make choices, and that is key.

And that has always been our role. We were the innovators, the originators, and we are still going strong.

How has PETA changed its tactics?

We have always been educational and we've demonstrated, we've educated, we have litigated. We have been involved in legislation. We do corporate behind-the-scenes work.

But that's not what people hear about. What people hear about and always have is the splashy things, because they're eye-catching and because a celebrity might be attached to them, or because they're making people turn their heads.

So we still do those things, but today we are bigger. What has changed is that we now have the vehicle of social media, and we are No. 1 in advocacy groups of any kind on social media.

Is PETA an animal welfare group or an animal rights group? There are animal rights groups that have gone to court to argue for the animal equivalent of personhood, a legal status.

We are animal rights, and we did that with the orcas. We brought a 13th Amendment case to say the orcas are persons. … The Constitution … doesn't tell you that you can only not enslave human beings.

And we said what, if anything, is an orca, if not a slave kept in a barren concrete tank, deprived of being able to swim, wearing her teeth down on the metal grid, swimming in her own urine and chemicals and unable to even use echolocation and forced to perform tricks?

We also brought a lawsuit about the so-called monkey selfie. Naruto, the [crested macaque] monkey in Indonesia, who took his own photograph. We said, look, instead of thinking of him as property, why can't he own property? Because the copyright law says that he who took the photograph owns the photograph, not he who owns the camera.

It's been talked about and still is in law schools across the country, as has the orca case. And in the end, we didn't win either of them.

The photographer in the monkey selfie case has pledged 25% of his proceeds going forward to benefit the wildlife he photographed.

One of the fights that PETA has waged is about animals who are killed in slaughterhouses for meat. You posed a couple of years ago, hanging right next to the bodies of pigs. That was shock value. That was attention-getting.

My father was in Borneo when I was a child, and he used to tell me that cannibals had always called human beings the “long pigs,” because apparently we taste like pig, and we look like pig when we’re on the spit. And that’s always stuck in my mind.

I wanted [the photo] to make that point that, look, I have a heart, I have legs, I have arms, I have flesh, and I'm flesh and blood, and so were they, before they were killed for nothing more than a fleeting taste.

There are now laws and efforts at laws against undercover video in slaughterhouses, because meat companies don’t want people to see what goes into putting meat on people’s plates.

We have fought and won in all but two of those cases, the so-called ag gag laws. The American public should be allowed to see how animals are turned into hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken nuggets. Why is it a secret?

[PETA] got the very first felony convictions of workers for smashing turkeys against the side of the wall, kicking chickens as if they were balls, and smashing pigs in the face with cinderblocks and spray-painting their eyes for fun or because the workers had lost their tempers.

And now nobody in the meat industry wants anyone to see that because they might stop eating the products of their cruelty.

Several states, including California, have passed humane laws about the treatment of livestock animals like chickens, pigs and veal calves.

They're really inconsequential. I hate saying that, but they're totally pathetic — even if they were enforced, which they’re not. They’re absolutely not humane laws, [about] things that should make us ashamed to have ever thought of eating flesh or eating eggs or milk, which is even worse.

Many of your successes have been in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe. Yet you have whole nations where people want to eat like Westerners; they want to eat like Americans. They want burgers. This is a status symbol, a sign of a growing economy in that nation.

That's true. We also of course have PETA India, which sees that very thing, of young Indians wanting to reject the vegetarianism of their parents and grandparents and westernize by eating meat, even beef. But in the West, it's going the other way.

So we are approaching youth in India, for example, to say, look it's not cool to abandon these things. You can abandon them because you no longer believe in those religious values, but ethically this is not a good thing. Healthwise, it's not a good thing. And environmentally, it's not a good thing.

Saudi Arabia has had a very meat-intense diet, but now we're seeing vegan restaurants open up even there, and a new movement beginning because people are thinking, if not about animals, they're thinking about their health. They're thinking about the oceans. They're thinking about deforestation. And we’re seeing that happening worldwide. It’s just a slow process because there are so many human beings in the world, an ever-growing population.

The PETA shelter in Virginia was criticized for having euthanized about two-thirds of the animals who were brought in. To many people, this seems contrary to the PETA mission.

We run what we call a shelter of last resort. We are surrounded by so-called no-kill shelters, which of course fill up immediately. People who are being evicted, perhaps, people who have an old animal who's wracked with cancer, people who have an animal who is deathly ill can't afford vet care — they can't get into those shelters for this final act. And so we provide free euthanasia services for anyone who can't afford them.

It's tough, but yes, absolutely, a humane death is something that is undervalued by people who don't understand what we're facing. We never euthanize a healthy place-able animal, ever. We're there 24 hours a day.

Do you think too much emphasis is put nowadays on cute species and on dogs and cats, rather than some of the unlovelier species that you also embrace?

It always has been. It absolutely always has been.

We've done investigations in Zimbabwe and in Texas into crocodile and alligator slaughterhouses, where no one cares at all about desensitizing the animals before they have their throats cut. Alligators and crocodiles actually have a metal rod stuck down their backs while they're still fully conscious in order to kill them.

We went to [luxury handbag brands] Hermes and Prada to show them, look, ostriches are being killed this way. Snakes are being killed this way for exotic leather.

And we take that to the public and say, you may not like them. You may not understand them. They may not have big eyes or be fluffy, but they have a nervous system. And if you cause them pain, they feel it, just the same as a puppy a kitten, your baby or you.

I won’t get your remark correct, that “a rat is a pig is a boy,” but a statement like that, and the opposition to animal experiments — people say you are equating me or my children to rodents; you are dooming humans to suffer and die because you’re not willing to experiment on animals.

The whole phrase, which was taken out of context, was, “When it comes to feelings like hunger, pain, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

I will say, to a rat, her children are important to her, and to a human being, a person's children are important to them.

And there was a time when people said, oh, you can use Gypsy children and you can use GIs because they're all expendable. And GIs were used in LSD experiments and poison gas experiments. Migrant Irish women were used in gynecological experiments because they didn't have any money, they weren't important.

We use blacks in syphilis experiments in the South not that long ago; you didn't tell them and let them die of syphilis. So there’s always like, who cares about that group?

I think we should care about all living beings. Just because we can't exactly relate to them doesn't mean you can torture them and harm them.

We have high-speed computers that you can program with human data, not rat data. All these things have moved on so far from [animal experiments like] “give the poison to the dog and put him in a cage and see how long it takes him to convulse.” We need to wake up and say, this money needs to go into things that are promising, like epidemiological research, clinical trials.

If all of these things were to come true, to come to pass, what would the world look like? I would think we might not have cows in the world, because we've cultivated them for human food purposes.

We wouldn't have slaughterhouses. We wouldn't have feedlots that stink up the entire Midwest. We wouldn't have to lie to our children about where what's on their plate comes from. We wouldn't have to pretend we don't know that animals suffer for all these frivolities and habits, dirty old habits.

It would be a much better world.

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