Vegan Life speaks with straight-talking PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk about the different approaches to activism
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. PETA has been criticised for using women’s bodies in the past, what would you say about this? They are their own bodies and how they choose to use them is their business, not anybody else’s. Traditionally, men and women have told other women, their daughters, sisters, wives, children, to cover up. Not to show their knees, their ankles or any naughty bits. That shouldn’t be and it shouldn’t be the other way either. It’s your body and you can use it for political reasons or for sexual reasons. It’s yours and everybody else should go take a hike.
Some people feel very strongly that euthanisation of dogs in your shelters is wrong. What would you say to these people?
I hope people go to the website. If people have any questions I want them to think, would it make any sense? That a group that is trying to stop suffering and killing would enjoy or want to do it? If the answer is “No it wouldn’t make any sense,” you’re halfway there.
Look at the videos of what we actually do. See our fieldworkers, wonderful men and women working in deeply impoverished areas.
There is a very strong no kill movement in the United States and that would be fine in Germany or the UK where there is a relatively, not totally, but relatively sophisticated approach to having dogs and cats and getting them de-sexed. I know that that’s not totally true in the UK because of dog fighting and so on and rotten people who have dogs for the wrong reason but in the US it’s totally out of hand. We have millions upon millions upon millions of animals who have nowhere to go. People get animals at the drop of a hat and then don’t want them. The no kill movement has become very strong and the refuges and shelters are afraid to euthanise so instead of having another answer, they shut their doors. They simply say we’re full.
People say that they can’t keep their dog and they’ll throw it out the car window or dump it in the woods but the shelters just say I’m sorry we’re full.
We have a lot of people without jobs and homeless people. We have one shelter in a poverty pocket of North Carolina and lower Virginia and these are people who live in caravans and a lot of them don’t even have plumbing but everybody has at least one pit bull tied out on a chain all weather behind the house. We provide free veterinary care. We have done more to help the homeless and their reproduction of animals than all of the other groups in the state; we have four massive mobile clinics which sterilise all pit bulls free of charge and all animals at very low cost. We spend more than a million dollars a year on those free services alone to stop people from turning animals into a shelter.
But what we also do is never close our doors. So the other shelters will say call PETA. They want to let us do the dirty work. We take in aged, sick, aggressive dogs. We take in those which are riddled with cancer or have been hit by cars and euthanize them free of charge. The family can be there with them because a lot of people who don’t have jobs can’t find the money for euthanasia. It will cost £80 to put your dog down and we will take a dog in its last days and give it a merciful relief. Everybody is very grateful apart from the no kill people.
[Talking about Hurricane Harvey] We heard crying in a garage and our girls went in and there was a kitten on top of an umbrella on a shelf, just clinging in the water. We went through a window and there was a Chihuahua inside an entertainment console box and another one on a floating mattress, chest deep water in pitch dark. These trolls on the internet are saying here come the killers, I bet they are going to kill them now and you think we’re reuniting animals with their companions and turning them into the shelters. Where the hell are you? Just think for a minute, why would you want to stop this work? They would really like to see us close down. And then what? Would you turn your back and walk away when someone has this dog in their arms and nowhere to go and no money? No, you’re not going to do it. You can criticise us all day long but we are the ones who are still going to be there for the animals.
Will you ever retire?
I hope not. You can’t ever forget, once you’ve seen it. If you decide to go to the beach and drink daiquiris for the rest of your life it’s not as if you can wipe out the images. At least, I can’t image that. I will take a holiday because I think you should take your brain out and swill it in cold water and have new thoughts but I can’t imagine retiring. But I have my will so I can still be active after I’m dead.
Any final words?
I think activism is the most important thing on earth. When you’re young you think you’ll live for ever and then you pass over that middle stage and you know you’re on the way out and suddenly you think I’ve got to do as much as I can. If I could do anything again it would be to have that realisation earlier in life. Before my father died he said to me: “You know I’m the same person I ever was, I just look old now.” I now understand what he means.
I wish I had seized all of those opportunities to talk to people and not feel embarrassed about broaching a subject. To remember how important it would be if I could educate or influence someone or just take them out for a meal, or cook for them, give them a cruelty-free gift or ask them to go vegan for two weeks for my birthday.
I remember being so scared, or feeling shy about approaching someone but you need to develop a way of telling yourself that it’s important what you are doing — much more important than you feeling shy. What is the worst that can happen?