Vegan Life speaks with straight-talking PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk about approaching activism in different ways
Ingrid was born in Kingston on Thames and was inducted into compassionate living at a young age, helping her mother to roll bandages for lepers and stuff toys for orphans. Ingrid didn’t go vegan until she was in her early 20s but she soon realised that it was hard for people to access information about the cruelty that animals were suffering around the world and so she started the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with five of her closest friends. PETA is now a worldwide organisation and has enormous influence to ensure change for animals. However, PETA has also had significant criticism over the years.
We spoke to Ingrid at the PETA offices in London about her relationship with animals, PETA worldwide activism and her views on euthanisation.
Is there an animal which you feel particularly affiliated with?
Yes, although I loathe to admit it. I feel particularly moved by the plight of chickens. In the US, one million chickens are eaten every hour. Each one is an individual. If that was a million dogs an hour… and that’s just in one country. Yes, it’s a big country but its eating habits are repeated around the world. In India, which people think of as respectful towards animals, we have PETA India. Billions of chickens are eaten in India and on every city street, you see the crates of chickens out in the sun and the dirt. They are so scrawny and straggly; they’re just miserable.
The chicken is one of the most beleaguered, oppressed, and brutalised animals. They are treated barbarically. I am also drawn by the plight of rats as so few people see them as the little mammals which they are. They have exactly the same feelings as you or a dog and the manner in which they are exterminated with cruel poisons and gasses is outrageous.
Do you approach activism differently in different countries?
Yes! For example, in India everyone has to cover up. Although Bollywood is changing and boys and girls can hold hands now in the films (they still can’t kiss), you have to have a different cultural sensitivity. We have to be very careful when we are in a Muslim country, or in India, which is basically a Hindu country. In Indonesia, where we do a lot of work, there is so much sensitivity that one of our Muslim activists, a woman, was beaten up.
Our demonstration, which was not antagonistic but was simply giving out vegan foods for Eid, was mobbed and we had to be protected by the police and one of our people suffered injuries. There is such a tendency, especially in religious factions, for people to take offence, not for any valid reason.
In China, we have to be careful because the government doesn’t like outside intervention and we have a presence there. So our message has to be gentle and even Chinese celebrities who help us have to be cautious about how they impart the message — there mustn’t be any criticism of the government or its policies and practices. It just really depends on where you are. Israel is very progressive when it comes to vegan foods but religious ceremonies use fur in hats and kapparot is a ceremony where live chickens are swung around the rabbi’s heads in religious ceremonies. We’ve rescued many kapparot chickens. There are some super orthodox Jews who don’t believe in eating any animal products and some think that God, after the flood, gave permission, even a directive to do so. So, you have to be careful.
There are differences [between the UK and US]. America is a very prudish country, even though it is very lascivious. That can work to our advantage. If we do something that’s supposedly, in quotes, naked, then there is a huge uproar but that makes more eyes on the page too.
PETA has been criticised in the past for provoking people. Is that part of your mission?
We always try nice first; the polite letter, the request for a meeting, the sharing of experts. There is always the nice, sensible, hardworking approach. If you get the cold shoulder and don’t get anywhere, the animals are too important for you to just turn and walk away so then yes, we’ll agitate, we’ll provoke, we’ll annoy and say, you cannot ignore this. We’re doing that with Thomas Cook at the moment. We’ve been very gentle.
We’ve written. We’ve met with them to show them the videos of the orcas in SeaWorld with the collapsed dorsal fins and the rake marks and [Thomas Cook] are supposed to be an ethical company and they haven’t budged. This Saturday we will be out there demonstrating against them. I can’t understand why a corporation would be so foolish as to resist a very obvious change they need to make. If they don’t, we have 5.6 million members and supporters — all we have to do is say, would you like to let Thomas Cook how you feel? Hopefully it won’t come to that.
We don’t go away. We are the pit bulls and we really won’t go away. We decided that from the start. If we declare a campaign, we are going to see it through. You just have to hang on for dear life and they have to know that you have a reputation for not giving up and not going away.
You can read our interview with Ingrid Newkirk in full in the December issue of Vegan Life.