Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of PETA, talks about the animal rights organisation's journey, its campaigns and challenges.
Ingrid Newkirk is president and co-founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the largest animal rights organisation in the world, with over two million supporters.
Born in Surrey, England, she moved to Delhi with her parents when she was seven, where her father worked as a navigational engineer for ten years. Influential, controversial and outspoken, Ingrid is PETA's most effective weapon. Harnessing the power of the press and a slew of celebrities, she's spent the last 30 years exposing animal abuse.
Excerpts from an interview:
Does PETA have a lot of challenges here, despite India's belief in vegetarianism and karma?
In the West, cruelty happens behind closed doors. In India you see it on the street. Then you separate the people who are kind from the people who are unkind. Yesterday, a young man jumped on top of a bullock cart and pulled the bullock's nose rope really hard. I got out of the car and spoke to the old man driving the cart. He shouted at the teenager, who left with head hung in shame.
People are more thoughtful here. The pace is a little slower, so a crowd will stop on the street and engage you in a conversation.
Your conversion didn't come easy — or instantly. You turned vegetarian well after you began working on animal protection. Does that make it easier to empathise with people who are reluctant to give up animal products?
Absolutely. I was a slow learner. I had my first fur coat when I was 19. At that time nobody said anything to me. I wish they had. I grew up eating animals, yet I believed I was a kind person.
I understand that people get addicted to meat and milk. They don't think when they buy a leather hand bag or belt. Our job is to ensure that they do think about it. It's public service to tell people about the cruelty. It's easy to be sympathetic to those you consider your own kind. But the other individual is just the same, even if he / she comes in another package.
PETA's first triumph (the amendment of the Animal Welfare Act in reaction to the macaque monkeys experimented on at the Institute of Behavioural Research in Silver Spring, Mary Land) involved a 10-year struggle. Does the fight get daunting?
It's a hard slog... Changing laws takes a long time — even on the most basic issue. We just have to soldier on — and take hope from our small victories.
Influencing people is more complex. On one hand, you want to think of yourself as a kind individual. A decent person. So, you conveniently do not look at what you're contributing to. You have to want to be the kind of person you tell your children you are. To be able to look back with no regrets. It's much easier than you think.
Just choose alternatives. Every step is a good step. The important thing is to keep taking steps. Stop eating meat, and try to stick to soya. If you don't use fur, remember leather is just fur without hair. If you won't eat this cow, why make a handbag out of this poor animal's skin? If you buy shampoo, don't buy one tested in a rabbit's eyes. The message here is you don't have to be a celebrity to have power. If you're spending money on anything, you have power. Please make sure you aren't hurting someone with your purchase.
PETA's got a reputation for publicity stunts. Do you worry that this could backfire, since people tend to be wary about overly-aggressive campaigns?
When we started, it was easier to make news. In the press world today, it's all about conflict, celebrity, sex. We can't have the animal story be silent. So, we have to turn up the ante. Our campaigns are not aggressive. If you look at what's happening to animals, that's aggressive. It's bloody, violent, indecent, disgusting. If you do something edgy, that's not much compared to what you're trying to stop.
Do you find yourself getting less fiery with time?
I've always tried to relate because I feel that I needed so much help changing myself. But, I know exactly what you mean: young activists become so gung ho they tend to react vigorously.
When I see someone carrying leather I go up to her and say: ‘You are so beautiful. Why would you want to ruin it by wearing a dead calf?' I'm not being offensive. I just want people to know — so they can make a decision. But yes, if sitting in front of a store to stop people from being cruel is necessary, I'll do that too.
Greenpeace uses creative confrontation; the Animal Liberation Front is infamous for militant activism and PETA's favours flamboyant campaigns. Do you need all these types of outfits and approaches working together to make an impact?
Absolutely. That's true in every social movement. People who break the law to get freedom for human slavery. People who petition on the street. People who lobby with government. Who knows what works in the end? Perhaps, they all do.
We do what we do because we want to reach the maximum number of people possible, and that means we have to get in the press. The press is our ally. They can carry our message. We get the facts, make the investigative video and show it to people.
We give people their options and choices. Then we hope they open their eyes, and open their hearts.
What would you consider PETA's greatest victory? And what is yours?
Well (laughs). I am PETA. PETA is me. It's my greatest accomplishment.
We've stopped so many experiments, one of which was responsible for killing over four million animals. We've stopped car crash tests on animals. They used to be done with baboons and pigs. We're working on stopping dissection in schools.
In India, we want a law to ban companies from doing cosmetic testing on animals. In Europe, it's against the law.
I'm here this time to visit our bullock treatment stations in Solapur and Sangli. The sugar cane district can be very cruel to the bullocks. They're almost dead by the time the season ends.