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 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.