By Chere Di Boscio
Not very long ago, fur was coveted by most women, vegetarians were regarded with suspicion and vegans were virtually unheard of. Dog catchers roamed the streets, locking strays up in shelters that would kill them. At weekends, families would watch circuses that trained animals to perform tricks, through torture.
And then, almost singlehandedly, one woman came along and things started to change.
British born Ingrid Newkirk founded PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) rather unexpectedly. She was in the USA, studying to be a stockbroker, when she decided to take some kittens a neighbor had abandoned to an animal shelter. Seeing how the workers there abused and tortured the animals in the shelter (for example, by stomping on the kittens!) was a life changing-experience for Ingrid. She started working on behalf of animals, investigating cruelty cases and cleaning out kennels. She read and was deeply inspired by Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, and after her own personal experiences seeing wild animals doomed by steel traps set out in the wild; finding a pig left to starve to death on a farm and inspecting medical labs and circuses for the government, she decided she had to take some serious action.
Today, PETA is by far the best known advocacy group for animals, and it is continually growing. It was an absolute pleasure to interview Ingrid Newkirk to ask her more about how her experiences affected her views of mankind, what kind of progress she thinks she’s made…and why she wants to be barbequed!
You’ve witnessed a lot of animal cruelty in your time. How has that affected your view of humans?
Humans are curious animals – far more oblivious to the impact of their actions than they realise, but so powerful if they make kind choices. (One of my books is called Making Kind Choices.) PETA’s job is to make sure that they know any ugly facts and also that they become aware of their wonderful options, in food, clothing, personal care products, entertainment – every single pursuit. People are realising that animal-based “luxury” isn’t compatible with compassion. They’re being disabused of the idea that draping themselves with crocodile skin or eating an ostrich steak is a sign of wealth, when, in reality, it’s a sign of glaring ignorance and inconsideration.
Naomi and Cindy famously campaigned for you, vowing they’d rather ‘go naked than wear fur.’ And then they did fur campaigns! How did that make you feel? Did you have a word?
We had warned Naomi when we first saw her in fur, and she said she had no idea it was real, that she had arrived late, and so on – lots of excuses. But I fired her when she wore animal pelts for the third time. She was going through a really bad patch and had acquired a reputation for being unreliable and for angry outbursts. But that was a long time ago.
Is it true that your will still stipulates that your skin be turned into wallets, your feet into umbrella stands, and your flesh into “Newkirk Nuggets”, then grilled on a barbecue?
Yes. I have a lawyer and a pathologist to help me continue my activism after I die, if my body is still intact. The message is that we are all the same in all the ways that count, that it is as ridiculous to savour other animals’ flesh and use their skin as it is to savour my flesh and use my skin. The difference is that I will be a volunteer and give my body parts willingly, whereas animals’ flesh and skin are taken from them by force and they are killed in horrific ways.
It really frustrates me that big names now, like the Kardashians and the Hadid sisters, are promoting the use of fur. Should we be trying to shame them in public, or what else can we do to stop them from making it seem like wearing fur is ok?
They have received enormous criticism, and their events have been disrupted. Kim Kardashian had flour thrown on her. They are seen as mere paid product promoters, but their hearts are cold, and they seem immune to any videos showing the hideous slaughter of animals for their coats. There are better role models!
Which celebrities do you think have been most helpful in the fight for animal rights?
No one has been more helpful than our honorary director, Pamela Anderson, who devotes every free moment to women’s, children’s, refugees’, water-resource, and – in a big way – animal rights issues. She just met with mayors in France who are trying to keep wild-animal circuses out of their towns. Other wonderfully kind celebrities are all over our website – singers, actors, athletes, and designers including Joaquin Phoenix, Alicia Silverstone, Stella McCartney, Iggy Pop, and Miley Cyrus.
Have you seen any connection between the current rise of vegan diets and more support to end animal cruelty?
Definitely. When you are not eating animals, it’s natural to want to persuade others to abandon meat (most of which comes from factory farms), too, as well as to ditch leather, avoid cruel animal attractions on holiday, and so on.
What are some of your favourite go-to vegan foods or recipes?
I love the new vegan scrambled egg by Follow Your Heart, the Cavi-art out of Denmark, Linda McCartney sausages, and Quorn fish fingers as the taste-alikes. But I also enjoy Ethiopian pulses like yellow lentils, Italian pastas, and Chinese food like Szechuan tofu with black mushrooms and noodles as well as sautéed greens, such as watercress and choy sum. I’m also very partial to chips and mushy peas when I’m in England. And Baileys now has vegan Almande Almond milk Liqueur, which is fantastic over ice.
And what about vegan designers and beauty products – what do you love?
Stella McCartney is way out of my price range, but I love the prints, cuts, and innovative materials she employs. Young British designers like Hannah Weiland of Shrimps and Ashley Williams are also showing so many stylish, cruelty-free designs – and brands like Topshop and Zara are offering more animal-friendly options. I love the avant-garde vegan designers out of the Netherlands and France very much, too. We recently held a pop-up catwalk for young vegan designers in Los Angeles showcasing pineapple and mushroom leather as well as breathable pleather, which was tons of fun.
Tell us a bit about the HBO film I Am Animal that focuses on your life
I just heard that the author of Meatonomics became a vegan because he watched that film. I still hear all the time from people who have been moved by it, and that makes me happy. It is a film about some of PETA’s eyewitness investigations, our brainstorming sessions, and our antagonists. I’m so sorry that they had to cut so much from it because of time constraints.
What are some of the highlights so far in your career?
Among them would be starting PETA affiliates in countries from Australia to India, having the largest online social advocacy youth programme in the world, stopping all animal car-crash tests by automotive companies, getting the first-ever conviction of an experimenter for cruelty and closing his laboratory, putting a huge dent in the angora rabbit wool trade, and seeing vegan lifestyles explode in popularity.
Any last words?
Every single person is a very powerful individual with buying power, a voice, and the ability to learn, change, inform others, use social media to share videos, and make kind choices in every aspect of life.
All images: PETA. For more information, please click here.