Ingrid Newkirk remembers caring deeply about animals when she was growing up in England and India in the 1950s and 60s. She took in stray dogs and cats, and rescued baby birds that fell from their nests. She says she knew that if she saw someone beating a horse or kicking a dog, it was wrong, but she never made the connection between the animals she cared about and the ones she ate, or whose fur she wore.
That changed when, as a law enforcement officer in Maryland, she was sent to a farm where the owners had abandoned their animals to starve to death. Only one piglet was still alive when she got there. Newkirk gave him water cupped in her hand, and, she recalls, he made little grunts of gratitude. "And my job as a law enforcement officer was to
prosecute the people who had been cruel to that pig, but as I was driving home that night, I was wondering what I was going to have for dinner. And suddenly I thought, 'Oh yes, I defrosted those pork chops.'" She says she saw the contradiction for the first time in her life. "Here I am, I'm sure I'm paying somebody to hurt an animal, a pig, in horrible ways in a slaughterhouse and on a factory farm and yet I am going to prosecute some other people for cruelty to the pig I have seen, the one I met, and the one whose suffering has been right in front of me and it just seemed wrong." That's when she stopped eating all animals.
She founded PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — in 1980, with a mission much larger than vegetarianism. The organization fights to end the suffering of animals on factory farms, in the clothing trade, in the entertainment industry, and in laboratories. Some of PETA's first campaigns targeted research labs where monkeys and chimps were used as test subjects.
"We don't need to, in the 21st century, test our shampoos and our floor polish on animals in these crude ways," Newkirk stresses, adding "but it will take a public outcry before we stop." PETA scientists have talked to the U.S. Environmental Protecting Agency about promoting modern, non-animal tests, which, Newkirk says, "are far quicker, far more efficient, and they apply — because you use human data — more accurately to the human condition."
Newkirk compares PETA's uncompromising stand on animal rights to the fight for women's equality, or the movement to abolish human slavery. "We didn't want longer chains for the slaves, people wanted to be free. Well, the animals want to be free, too! We still have slavery, we still have all these horrible things we do, we just do them to another set of victims." She says the principle is important. "If you're against violence, and you're against inflicting needless harm on others, and you're all in favor of being decent and compassionate, then you have to try to get animal rights."
Over the past 28 years, PETA has convinced major fashion designers to drop fur from their clothing lines, helped to end the use of animals in car-crash tests and worked with fast food restaurants and grocery stores to buy meat from suppliers that can certify they treat their animals humanely. But Newkirk is proudest of her group's impact on people.
"I think the best [achievement] is seeing so many people start to think about what they're doing to animals, and take personal responsibility, not wait for the government." She notes that people have contacted PETA or visited the website to learn what the alternatives are to dissecting a cat in biology class, or where to find non-leather shoes, or information about becoming a vegetarian. "Those are the wonderful achievements, the sheer volume of people who are interested in the same way they were interested perhaps for the first time in the environmental movement maybe 25, 20 years ago. So I now see that with animal protection."
And Newkirk notes that where the public goes, businesses follow. "Companies are now realizing that consumers look more favorably on them if they don't hurt animals needlessly… it's the individual who makes all the difference."
In her new book, Making Kind Choices, Ingrid Newkirk outlines more ways individuals can continue making a difference for animals.