LONDON – My favorite story about Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and head of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the animal-rights organization, involves her storming the dining room of the Four Seasons hotel in New York, depositing a dead raccoon on Anna Wintour’s dinner plate and calling the veteran editor of American Vogue a “fur hag.” Wintour, a long-time PETA hate figure for her support of the fur industry, calmly covered it with a napkin and then ordered coffee.
There are no raccoons — living or dead — when I meet Newkirk in her office in Washington, though her evangelical zeal doesn’t seem to have dimmed. At times it feels less like interviewing the CEO of a $30 million-a-year-foundation, one which boasts 360 employees and thousands of volunteers, than arguing the toss in the school common room.
It’s all so personal to her. Newkirk has been interviewed dozens of times over a 40-year-plus career. She’s the head of the largest animal rights organization in the world. And yet there’s a quaver in her voice that on several occasions threatens to bring tears. There are accusations. There’s more than a touch of suspicion. And, at times, outright hostility. This in response to asking what we in the journalistic trade call “questions.” “Ingrid,” I say at one point, “can we just leave the emotion out of it for a moment, and concentrate on the figures?”
“We can,” she says. “But it’s so hard! It’s hard if you care about animals.” She might be one of the most infuriating subjects I’ve ever interviewed, but no one could ever say of Newkirk that she doesn’t care. She’s devoted almost her entire adult life to defending the rights of animals and even though she’s now 63, when I ask her if she has any plans to retire it’s as if I’d asked if she fancied a nice veal cutlet. “No! Never. PETA is my life. It’s everything to me.”
She’s up before dawn, answering many of the 800 to 1,000 emails she gets a day personally, and although the encounter with Wintour was 20 years ago, it seems emblematic: They’re both formidable Englishwomen of a certain age. They’ve both imprinted their personalities on the American institutions they’ve led. And they both acutely understand the power of the visual image.
Newkirk, however, is by far the less well known. Yet there’s no denying the impact she’s had on the world of animal rights, animal testing, factory farming and fur wearing, not to mention celebrity endorsements, and what can only be described as the use of shock and awe in advertisements.
It’s because of PETA that we’re faced with an almost daily onslaught of celebrities taking their clothes off for some cause or another. PETA started the craze way back in 1994 when it photographed five supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, minus their clothes, with the caption: “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Campbell, of course, being the principled idealist that she is, went on to wear fur about two seconds later. “I had to sack her,” says Newkirk. “We let it go the first two times because she said it was a mistake, but the third time I got the call I said: ‘Just sack her.’ ” Still, the campaign has run and run.
“And everyone has followed our example. That movie “Calendar Girls” would never have been made if we hadn’t done what we’d done. Everyone does it now, but at the time it was just a silly gimmick we came up with.”
A silly gimmick that propelled PETA on to the pages of every broadsheet, tabloid and celebrity magazine in the world, and which it has never left. It was one of the first nonprofits to really “get” celebrity, and that is still a major plank of its strategy. Its latest film shows Joaquin Phoenix drowning, an image designed to draw attention to the plight suffered by fish. PETA tried to buy airtime during the ad breaks in the Oscars to show the film, but the network banned it.
The film represents PETA’s signature cocktail of graphic imagery, celebrity firepower and sniff of controversy — though it is pretty mild stuff by its past standards, which include poster campaigns comparing people who eat chickens to Nazis, factory farming to the Holocaust, the Westminster Dog Show to the Ku Klux Klan, and dog breeders to slave traders. Subtle it is not.
Is it PETA’s strategy to upset everyone, I ask Newkirk. “No,” she says. “Our mission is to provoke thought. People have been taught to disregard what happens to pigs or chickens, to not think about the suffering they go through. Our job is to make them think. We’re not out to be popular.”
Still, there’s something impressive about the scope of the targets — pretty much everyone. I tell Newkirk I was amused by the game J-Lo Fur Bully on the Block in which players had to help animals escape from Jennifer Lopez before they’re turned into a coat or a pair of shoes.
“Oh yes. We have lots of things like that. Have you seen Cooking Mama? That’s bigger than all the others combined.”
Is that the one where Mommy is a murderer, I ask her. It’s a parody of a Nintendo game which shows a mother beheading animals to give to her children for dinner.
Do mommies not get a bit cross about that?
“Of course they do. So they should stop being murderers.”
And then there are rather gleeful ad campaigns, including one that claimed a link between autism and milk. But it’s based on such a tiny number of studies, I suggest.
“Yes, there are only a small number of studies,” says Newkirk. “But that doesn’t discount it.”
It’s hardly a scientific consensus.
“I’m not looking for a consensus. I’m looking for thought provoking.”
Isn’t that just bad science?
“It’s not bad science. There’s a link. Read the studies. Decide yourself. But every day people are told to drink milk, how it builds strong bones and so on. We don’t have millions and millions of pounds to brainwash people so we have our gimmicky thing. Hello! Milk has been linked to autism.”
And then there’s her claim that “it’s incontrovertible that not eating meat or dairy prolongs your life.”
Is it incontrovertible, I ask? You can be a pretty unhealthy vegetarian.
“There’s study after study!”
“But are they comparing like with like? Is a heart-healthy, low-fat diet which also contains a small component of meat really going to kill you first?”
“Fine. Then do it for ethical reasons. Do it for environmental reasons. We’re not a health organization.”
There’s something maddening about arguing with Ingrid Newkirk, but then she’s a provocateur. It’s what she does. And it’s what PETA, built in her image, does. It’s why battery chickens are depicted in concentration camps and why last year she launched a legal case that named five orcas as plaintiffs and sued SeaWorld for enslavement. (It failed, but she’s surprisingly upbeat about it. The judge, she says, didn’t simply throw it out, as he could have done. He was “respectful” and heard the lawyers out. “It failed, but all the slavery cases fail when they’re first brought.”)
Newkirk’s argument is that if you’re against slavery, it doesn’t matter who is being enslaved. She is completely confident that one day we will look back on this as the dark ages. And, when she gets in full spate, describing the way that chickens are crushed en route to slaughter, their wings broken, the pain and inhumane conditions that they suffer, I find it hard to deny that she has a point.
What have you made of the horsemeat scandal, I ask her, and her eyes light up. “There’s this sentimental view that we don’t want to eat horse. I’ve been in horse slaughterhouses, chicken, cow slaughterhouses, a dog slaughterhouse in Taiwan and none them wants to go down the ramp. They all kick. They all struggle. They’re all petrified. It’s purely sentimental.”
Would it have been better if we’d found puppy dogs in our burgers?
“Oh God, yes. That would have been wonderful!”
Newkirk was born in England but spent the early years of her life being shifted from one school to another: Hertfordshire, the Orkney Islands, France, and finally India and a convent school in the Himalayas which was all cold showers and abusive nuns.
In the holidays, however, she’d help her mother in her work with the lepers, or the unmarried mothers, or the orphans. “She would literally have given you the shirt off her back. And she’s always said it’s not who suffers, it’s how they suffer. And I’ve carried that with me my whole life.”
She has. Newkirk’s most oft-quoted statement and the encapsulation of her world view is that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Although initially her plan, after moving with the family to the States, was to become a stockbroker. And then she had the encounter that would change her life. It’s one of PETA’s founding myths. She discovered a litter of abandoned kittens and took them to the animal pound where a worker told her that she’d “take care of them.”
“I asked if I could see the kennels and they said, go on back. And I got to the end and there were the kittens that I’d brought in: all killed. It was all just so callous.
“The place was filthy. And the way they’d been killed was so awful. So I went to England and said, if you have to destroy animals how do you do it? I decided that if it had to be done, it has to be done without pain and suffering.”
At first, Newkirk worked within the system. She became an animal-protection officer, then (after moving to America) Washington’s first female poundmaster and finally the head of the animal-disease-control division of the District of Columbia Commission on Public Health.
It’s still a long step from there to stripping off naked in Times Square, as Newkirk once did, and writing a will which states her desire, after her death, that her flesh is barbecued and her skin turned into wallets. That step came when she met Alex Pacheco in 1980. She was 31. He was a student and it was he who introduced her to the work of the philosopher Peter Singer, considered by many to be the father of the animal rights movement.
“I’d been voted one of the Washingtonians of the year and I wrote a little speech and I said it’s not just dogs and cats and horses. It’s all animals. They have communication, they have feelings, they can feel joy, love and pain and all the senses and experiences — and yet what we are taught as children is to be kind to the dog and eat the pig, and that makes no sense biologically or in any way. It’s not a rational concept.
“People aren’t doing it out of malice. I had my first fur coat at 19. My favorite meat was liver!” says Newkirk.
Nobody’s favorite meal is liver, I say.
“I love liver! Liver and onions!”
We don’t have liver and onions for our lunch, funnily enough. Instead a fresh-faced young minion brings us a healthy vegan lunch, though we’re too busy spatting back and forth to get round to eating it.
Ingrid Newkirk and Pacheco’s first coup was to infiltrate and secretly film an animal-testing lab. The footage showed monkeys being horribly abused, and it went around the world. PETA was born. It now has more than 2 million members and a string of major successes including a ban on animals being used in crash tests worldwide, persuading major U.S. cosmetics firms not to test beauty products on animals, and persuading McDonald’s and, later, Burger King to introduce animal-welfare regulations.
It’s been highly successful but, like its founder, it has certain idiosyncrasies, one of which is that it operates an animal shelter in Virginia and last year put down 87 percent of the animals that came into its care. Look on the Internet and you’ll find outraged animal rights activists accusing PETA of being murderers.
Why? “Because they are unwanted. Because they are sick. The question ought to be why does anyone think an animal rights group would put animals down?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think it befuddles people. They don’t understand it.”
“Look at the website! Look at the photos of these creatures! Read the case studies! They’re poor, suffering animals. It’s the only humane thing to do.”
But that’s only a small sample. What about the others?
“Well, of course there’s just a sample — there’s not space for them all.”
So of the 1,800 which came in last year. They were all sick and poorly?
“Yes, if they’re adoptable we don’t take them in by and large. We send them to another shelter. We work in lower Virginia and upper North Carolina in total poverty pockets in what look like shanty towns in South Africa. We do the dregs work; we do the work no one else wants to do. It takes some gall to criticize us for that!”
Yet the number you put down, in one small area of the United States, is one-third of the number that animal organizations put down in the entire U.K. last year.
“You can’t compare it! No one should dare to take a shot at us for what we do! They should come down and see our clinics and see what we have to deal with! The heartbreak of it. These are websites set up by the meat and dairy industry.”
Not all of them.
“Not all of them. But what should we do? Turn our backs? In our own backyard? I won’t do it. I can’t.”
She is glaring at me from the other side of her desk. “Ingrid,” I say. “Can you not understand that there is a difficulty for people conceptually with what you are doing. You are out to save the animals. And here you are killing them?”
“There are no homes!” she replies. “There aren’t enough homes for the adoptable dogs let alone these ones. God you’re so naive — it’s disturbing.”
Oh well, maybe. And she’s genuinely outraged at the idea that anyone would think they weren’t doing their best for the animals. When things have calmed down a bit she admits that even within the organization not everyone agrees with her.
But there’s no doubting her sincerity. She reminds me of the character at the end of J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace,” who finds a sort of redemption in giving unwanted animals a peaceful death. It’s so key to who she is and what she does. She’s not religious, but it almost seems to be a sort of grace that she finds in alleviating suffering — by whatever means.
When it’s time to go, she insists I take my vegan bacon sandwich with me. It’s my first encounter with a fake meat substitute, but what can I say? It’s actually quite delicious. Ingrid Newkirk — saving the animals, one rasher of bacon at a time.