A conversation with Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of PETA
Governments and organizations around the world will receive startling packages from Ingrid Newkirk after she dies.
Newkirk, 62, is still alive and well, and busy as ever as the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which she co-founded in 1980 with her then boyfriend, Alex Pacheco. But she’s designed her legal will to ensure that, once her days are indeed done, every last bit of her body will be used to make a statement about the injustices carried out against animals globally.
The Canadian Parliament will collect one of her ears to symbolize the screams of seals whose pelts are used for fur; her liver will go to France to protest the force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras; one of her pointer fingers will end up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a posthumous accusation, pressuring the agency to ban animal testing; and the list goes on.
“I want to be an activist after I’m dead,” she tells Good Times matter-of-factly. But there’s a bevy of things she wants to accomplish with PETA before then, as well. In anticipation of her forthcoming talk in Santa Cruz—“An Evening with Ingrid Newkirk,” which will be held at the Scotts Valley Hilton on Monday, Sept. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m., and at which she will present an award to Santa Cruz County Animal Services for their work with local animal rescue organizations —the longtime animal activist spoke to GT about the past, present and future of PETA and animal welfare issues at large.
What early experiences first led you to want to protect animals?
There were many. But I was a slow learner, and each experience brought me closer to embracing an all-encompassing view of how to treat animals. I grew up with a dog who was there before I was there called Shawnie, a huge red setter. I was an only child except for Shawnie, so he was my brother. We did everything together. I slept in his basket sometimes and he slept on my bed, and we rolled down hills together. We even got carsick together. I could read his expression and he could read mine. He knew when I was sad or irritated. We loved each other. That was the beginning, but I still only thought about dogs and cats and horses—the usual animals people think of.
You were a big meat eater earlier in your life—do you use that fact when trying to relate to meat eaters now?
Oh yes, definitely. I didn’t stop eating meat because I stopped liking the taste. I always thought I cared about animals; it was just that no one ever mentioned to me—and it didn’t dawn on me—that a slaughterhouse is an ugly, scary, filthy place. How it didn’t dawn on me, I don’t know. When I say I’m a slow learner, [I mean] I took all the anti-animal steps a person could—from eating them to wearing their fur to buying cosmetics that were tested on them—and yet I thought I cared about animals very much. I’m very encouraged that if there was hope for me there is hope for anyone.
What changes have you seen in the realm of animal welfare since you started PETA?
[There have been] massive changes, both in awareness and in concrete changes. When we started no one even knew what soymilk was, let alone [did we] have 12 varieties of almond, oat and whatever other types in any old supermarket. We have a thousand companies in this country and worldwide that don’t test their make-up and shampoo and floor cleaners on animals. There were only three [pre-1980]—and one you had to bring your own bottle. We stopped all car crash tests on animals worldwide. You know the dummies you see in car commercials? People take it for granted now. And now, people know what the word ‘vegan’ means—it used to mean someone from Las Vegas.
How has PETA itself evolved over the years?
[We’ve seen] massive growth. … We’ve expanded into Europe, India, and Asia. But there’s a lot of work still to do.
What’s at the top of that list? What issues remain big, pressing problems in your eyes?
Everything is a process, as people learn. But before I die I want all elephants and big cats and other animals out of the circus. They need to stay in their homelands with their families and not be dragged around and forced to perform with a bull hook or electric prod. That still has to stop. Also, the end of all animal experiments. It’s a huge technology era now—we have high-speed computers programmed with human DNA. We don’t need [animals for testing] anymore.
What is your response to critics who say that PETA is either too radical, or not radical enough?
First, I don’t think we are radical enough. There are other groups like the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] who are far more radical, and that’s fine. More power to them. So we are probably not radical enough. We are certainly not too radical—what is radical is seeing another living being minding their own business, turning them upside down, slitting their throat and turning them into a sandwich. That is radical. Asking for kindness to animals is not radical.
Another criticism, even from liberals, is that there’s too much that needs to be done to help people to spend so much time and energy working to protect animals.
Animal liberation is human liberation. A vegan diet is good for your arteries as well as the animals. Being kind is good for your heart. You can be all encompassing. We do have to look out for those whose voice isn’t often heard as loudly as ours.
What will your message be for attendees of the Evening with Ingrid Newkirk event in Scotts Valley?
My message is always the same: there are so many ways in which we can improve the lives of animals that it’s good to know how many there are, and to do as many of them as we can. Each person is so vital to making a kinder world for animals. Each person is very powerful. Each person can live a compassionate life that will make a huge difference.
An Evening with Ingrid Newkirk will be held at the Hilton Hotel in Scotts Valley, 6001 La Madrona Drive on Monday, Sept. 26 from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 or $10 for seniors and students and can be purchased by visiting Eventbrite.com.