Later on tonight, you might be brushing your teeth and instead of that familiar googly-eyed likeness staring back at you (everyone has that problem, right?) you’ll see nothing less than an animal abuser, or perhaps even a slave owner if you choose to be really honest with yourself. Your French bulldog Greg will suddenly seem like a sullen prisoner in that skin-tight raincoat you force him to wear on the reg, even when it’s a cloudless, sweltering 90-degree July day and he’s emitting piercing, parrot-like screams as he struggles to escape. And those Bob Evans sausage griddles you chased with a tall glass of heavy whipping cream for dinner? Well, your Wienerwurst Wednesday tradition might seem, suddenly, very disgusting.
Of course, that’s only if you really listen to whats Ingrid Newkirk says when the PETA founder and tireless animal rights activist does a Q+A tonight following a screening of the 2012 documentary, I am an Animal. It’s all happening as part of No Filter, an ongoing series spotlighting some of the more controversial abolitionists, advocates, and political influencers of our time, all of whom also happen to be incredibly effective leaders and change-makers. B+B had a chance to speak with the 66-year-old crusader for all living beings great and small ahead of tonight’s event.
[Chuckles] Well, I suppose anyone who has a documentary done about themselves, unless they’re dead and the whole thing is fawning, think that there are key things left out and key things they wish could have been left out. But I think Matthew Galkin and his crew did a phenomenal job and I really put them through the gristmill trailing around behind me. From my perspective, I’d rather have had more philosophy included in it. But that’s not how things work, and they had to have a lot of variety instead.
Do you think there were things that they didn’t anticipate about your life, and had to readjust?
They knew that I had very strong views, that animals are individuals like us. And they knew, hence the title, that I can’t stand these narrow categories of ourselves, like I’m a woman, I’m tall, I’m white. The more narrowly you define yourself, the more you exclude others. And if I didn’t have a passport that said “human being” or “English” or “American,” or occupation, I would be happier. I think they knew that philosophy coming into it— that I want respect for all living beings. But I think they were surprised by certain things, and that is I have a sense of humor, that I like adventure, and I’ll basically do any fool thing I ask my staff to do.
It sounds like you had fun making this, to some degree?
Well, I have fun generally because our work is so damn sad, you would jump from the top of a building if you didn’t have jokes and humor and friendship and other things that are positive in your life. It’s like pulling back the curtain on child abuse if you’re a child abuse worker, and suddenly realizing how bad that really is, and ubiquitous.
Working in disaster relief, which is what I consider animal rights work, is tough and so you do have to have a lot of light moments. But yes, I enjoyed the crew, I enjoyed Matthew Galkin’s company and I hope I gave him enough.
Did it take some convincing to get you to do the film and how did the director go about doing that?
I don’t remember, truthfully. I had just had a documentary done about me by an English television channel and I didn’t mind anyone trailing around and seeing what I do, and I was anxious to get a message out, because that’s the whole name of the game, is talking about how easy it is not to hurt animals, not to contribute to animal suffering, not to steal from them for a fleeting taste or a coat collar or cosmetics. So that was all very exciting.
Obviously, I didn’t relish having a long-haul experience with a film crew, including in my home [laughs] which I did fight him on. Eventually he wore more down. Because I wanted it to be about my work, not my personal life.
I was thinking in terms of a camera being in your personal space, and as a woman and a woman-activist– even though you talk about how categories hold us back in these ways, separate us, and make us think about things in ways maybe we shouldn’t– do you think the examination of you as a woman-activist was a good one?
I’m not sure. I’m used to just being a person. Frankly, it may be irritating to some people– but being a woman I’ve never found has held me back, except in the Middle East. And I don’t take any guff. I’ve had a deputy sheriff call on me where there have been dogs in the house during a drug raid, because they didn’t know how to handle them. I’m not physically as strong as many men, but there are some physically strong women out there, as we’ve seen this year with the military— although I’m not sure why anyone would want to be in the military. But I really have just never been a shrinking violent, and I’ve never allowed anyone to roll over top of me— that’s going to sound a little weird [laughs].
I do talk about women’s empowerment to PETA youth and to girls who are coming up, as to never let anything bother you, and never let the fact that you’re a woman stop you from doing anything except urinating standing up, maybe, but even that you can overcome.
Do you feel the documentary did anything to combat misconceptions about you and about PETA?
We’re not here to make friends. We’re here to get attention to a very serious issue and sometimes we have to do that in weird and wonderful ways, and sometimes we upset people, because we jolt their comfort zone by pointing out sad facts and gory details. So we have our detractors, and a lot of our detractors are people who make money from captive animals, like the zoos, the circuses, the Sea Worlds, and the butchers, and the experimenters who are still stuck in an old-fashioned way of testing on animals instead of using modern methods. And the fur industry can’t stand the ground we walk on.
Our detractors are very busy trying to get ordinary people to fear us whereas our belief is: animal liberation is human liberation. Not eating them means you’re better off, your arteries are better off, and the Earth is better off. But we have to make sure people understand why all those things are there, and maybe it gives a little bit of a chance to get people to understand why we do the things we do and perhaps engender a better understanding of how extremely hard it is– in a world that’s obsessed with sex, and conflict, and war, and politics– to grab the public’s attention and see what’s happening with all the abuse of all the other living beings around them, that no company who abuses them will point out. And we don’t have the budget of the companies that abuse them.
I think that when it comes to activism in the U.S., there’s a lower tolerance here for more intense and extreme demonstrations, and people get caught up in disapproving of that, instead of thinking about the actual message. Do you feel there’s a lower tolerance for that here?
Yes, because “comfort” is the watchword of U.S. society, and people do not like to be discomforted. What we show is pretty discomforting and no decent person, once they see it, would want to even unwittingly support the abuse that we reveal. For example, our Super Bowl commercials are rejected every year because they may offend people who sell turkeys, for example, like Butterball. And Butterball’s money is bigger than ours, and more routine and reliable in terms of income.
In European countries, yes, and Australia, and a host of other countries, you can take your clothes off, you can barricade yourself in from of an exploitative venue, you can get on television and debate your opponents. You don’t have to resort to trying to sugarcoat things, which unfortunately is often the case here.
Since this documentary was released in 2012, so much in the world has happened since then, but what do you think has happened to PETA specifically, and the evolution of the message?
The message has never changed. From our inception, it’s been about recognizing animals as just like you in all the important ways. And the motto has never changed: animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way. And our goal has always been to facilitate change, to provide the recipes, the alternatives to wool and leather and fur, the non-animal methods which we fund, to facilitate that change, so respect for other lives comes along.
What we’ve seen is a lot of change, even in the last 12 months. Ringling [Bros. and Barnum & Bailey] has taken the elephants off the road— that took us 30 years to get there. You can go to the grocery store and buy almost anything that is a taste-alike of something that used to come from animals’ bodies. We’ve seen angora wool just leave the retail world because of our exposé. We’ve seen dog leather become an issue coming in from China— we’ve met with Customs in the U.S. about that. We’ve seen Sea World decide not to breed orcas again, due to a big fight with us that’s been going on for years. But we want more. Many schools have decided to get rid of dissection. Lots and lots have things have happened since the documentary came out, there has been a lot of change, but the mountain is high.
Do you think millennials are more receptive to this message of fighting anti-cruelty?
Yes, for sure. It’s true. Millennials are seeking out vegan clothing, we see a huge market of vegan clothing for them. Many millennials are really fashion-conscious and they’re socially aware, and they want to look great and they want to do what’s right, and that’s caused this huge upsurge in vegan clothing, in all materials you can imagine. And they don’t want things taken from animals. But vegan cupcakes too are very millennial.
It’s become the norm, honestly.
And since that documentary came out, the whole of Europe has banned any cosmetics testing on animals. So you can’t find, if for some perverse reason, and eyeshadow that’s been shoved down a rabbit’s throat, you couldn’t do it. The same is true in India, PETA India has managed to ban cosmetic and household product testing on animals on the continent. Things are happening.
You’ve done some amazing activist stunts that are very daring. What have been your favorite ones over the years?
Oh… Well, I think my favorite, but my most-recent favorite, was about a year ago I hung from a meat hook next to pig carcasses in London’s meat market. I was totally naked– because this wasn’t the U.S., where you decide that certain bits are naughty and cover them up, but in Europe nobody cares. What interested me very much was that my skin, and my skin coloring was exactly the same as that of the pigs who were killed and hanging behind me. My message was, that we’re all flesh and blood. Exploitation of women, children, the elderly, human beings of a different religion or nation, these animals hanging beside me, it’s all just insupportable.
What was the culmination of that? Were you forced to come down?’
No, actually. A couple of dozen butchers showed up because I think they were hoping I’d be 18, not 66 [laughs]. Surprise! But, no, everybody was respectful and they watched. And the photograph appeared in the Times of London magazine, and it appeared in a very well-read German magazine– there was no censorship. I’ve tried to put up a billboard with something across my crotch here in the U.S. with a slogan on it, and we can’t get it up for loads of money. It’s still considered too much. Why don’t you arbitrarily think that the ear is something you have to cover? Why do you have to cover your breasts?
When’s the last time you had a real run-in with the authorities?
Things have calmed down since 9/11, when there was great hysteria. The animal exploitive businesses seized the opportunity to get the FBI to tap our phones, and do things that I consider to be totally illegal activities because they had the cover of 9/11. And that’s abated. We really are being seen as more mainstream now, which on one hand is great, and on another hand is a little disconcerting because we’ve got so far to go.
But we do run into some problems with our demonstrations, we recently had a human barbecue and the police tried to move us on, but we prevailed. Of course our letters ladies are up on Capitol Hill serving vegan hot dogs. I was just strapped to a table in Trafalgar Square with a pipe thrown down my mouth with some horrible liquid coming out of it, to protest the Department of Defense’s experiments on animals. We have managed to stop some and we’re going to stop them all eventually.
What’s the most remarkable turnaround you’ve seen, either by a company or an individual, from doing something that’s cruel to animals to doing the right thing?
Oh, oh, oh, everybody will be angry with me, including on my own staff depending on my own staff, because there are so many. I don’t want to choose just one, but I think in science. It wasn’t a turnaround, so this may not qualify as a good answer. The National Institute of Health, which is so unresponsive to the public and listens only to Congress— and then only occasionally, we forced them to stop over 40 years of experiments on infant monkeys taken away from their mothers, given drugs, and made psychotic through isolation, and killed for absolutely no good purpose other than they had always done it.
They fought hard, and so did we, and now they’ve ended them. That would be my happiest thing, I think. But really it’s all the kids– PETA too has grown so big, and all the kids use those magic words, ‘What can I do to help?’ and that is the biggest turnaround since my generation, when we hadn’t a clue.
Do you have any plans for retirement?
No. If we have a cruelty-free world, I’ll go away. But until then it’s my privilege– honest to god, it’s a privilege– to have opportunities every day to try and chip away at some of this horror, and to influence people here and there so that they find a way to be true to their kind selves.