In the Hot Seat
The Satya Interview With Ingrid Newkirk: Part II: Activism and Controversy
Ingrid Newkirk is co-founder and president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the worlds most prominent animal rights organization. PETA has been a major force in bringing animal rights and vegetarianism into the consciousness of mainstream America. Much of PETAs success in exposing the public to the ubiquity of animal exploitation has been through its eye-catching and controversialat times notoriousprotests and advertising campaigns.
Last year PETA launched its anti-dairy campaign, with spoofs on the industrys famous Got Milk? ads. Two particular ads sparked heated controversy. The first, Got Beer?aimed primarily at college-age peopleclaimed that even a glass of beer has more nutritional value than a glass of milk. Free bottle-openers emblazoned with the Got Beer? slogan were a hot item and demand for them exhausted their supply. This campaign outraged members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization that raises awareness of drunk driving, especially among teenagers. In apparent solidarity with MADD, it also provoked radio talkshow host Mike Gallagher to purchase a cow and have him slaughtered on air (see Satya April 2000). Then there was Got Prostate Cancer? which claimed that dairy consumption is linked to cancer and featured New York Citys Mayor Rudy Giuliani sporting a milk mustache (Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year). Talkshows and newspapers condemned PETAs apparent insensitivity and lack of respect, and Newkirk appeared on CNNs show Crossfire in which she defended PETAs position. Not one to shy away from controversy himself, Giuliani held a press conference where he voiced his outrage at the use of his image and condition, then downed a glass of milk in front of cameras.
PETAs on-going anti-fur advertisements have included images of famous models who would rather go naked than wear fur. Last year, PETA released a more provocative ad to protest the widespread use of fur trim. Fur Trim: Unattractive features a close-up of a womans crotch with exaggeratedly bushy pubic hair fanning out from the panty line. Galen Sherwin, President of the National Organization for Women-NYC, wrote a letter in which she expressed her outrage at this apparently sexist ad, arguing that it objectifies and degrades women. Her letter and Newkirks response were featured in Ms. Magazine (Is This ad Sexist? April/May 2000).
The following is the second part of a two-part interview (see Part 1, PETA at 20 Years, in November/Decembers issue). The conversation continues in which Newkirk explains to Catherine Clyne some of PETAs more controversial campaigns, and talks about what its like to represent such ideas.
On the show Crossfire [9/29/00] you were quoted as sayingin reference to PETAs Got Prostate Cancer? campaign featuring Mayor Rudy GiulianiWe are desperate. We dont have the advertising budget of the milk people. Many of our readers can understand that justification. But one thing you said in the first part of this interview about PETAs campaigns is that some people find its not their cup of tea. Since PETA is the largest animal rights group, whats your response to animal activists who feel that some of PETAs campaigns are counter-productive or misrepresent animal advocates or even the truth?
Well, I dont know how the ad campaigns can misrepresent the truthespecially if you look at something like the Giuliani one. If anyone bothered to look at PETAs website, for example, which showed I think 11 studiesbut its something like 20 nowthat all link milk consumption, like meat consumption, to prostate cancer. Sadly theres too much cruelty for us to ever need to invent anything. The facts are probably far worse and numerous than the ones we put out, because we do have to temper how appalling things are. Theres stuff that we cant show the public, or theyll turn away.
The thing is, we make them gawk, maybe like a traffic accident that you have to look at. I think we do embarrass people in our movement and Im sorry for that, but theres a bigger picture. There are other people who believe in animal rights but dont have our style. To them, its not comfortable to find that weve been successful in making people stop and pay attention. So people will then criticize something like the Giuliani ad, and all the other animal advocates then find themselves having to defend it. To them I say please dont bother to defend it. We dont mind; you dont have to defend it. You can simply say look, there are lots of different peoplewe would never do thatbut lets talk about whats wrong with milk and where veal comes from, and put your own spin on it.
Theres the lovely feeling that people have that they have to defend us, when they dont; they simply have to attack the issue in their own way. No one has to stand behind us; weve never asked anyone to defend the way we get attention. The fact is we are the biggest group because we succeed in getting attention. If anyone has a better idea of how to get attention, please do it, because it embarrasses us sometimes [laughs], but we havent found a more successful way. The fact is we may be doing all sorts of things on a campaign but the one thing that gets attention is the outrageous thing. It simply goes to prove to us each time, that that is the thing thats going to work; and so we wont shirk from doing that facetin addition to all the other things we do that you never hear about because no one cares.
There is a little bit of hypocrisy in some of the commentsespecially those of non-movement membersabout poor Giuliani. To me its sort of like in England, where a lot of people are not in favor of the monarchy anymore, but if you come from Lithuania or NYC and you attack the queen, well all come out fighting. [laughs] Everyone in England will rise up and say how dare you? And I think theres a bit of that with Giuliani. New Yorkerseven though theyve made terrible fun of him and didnt have any room for himsuddenly thought Oh look, people are attacking our mayor and so they got defensive. Thats understandable, but you know, the fact is Giuliani has taken money from the dairy industry; he also took money to promote the circus not too long ago.
Giuliani hasnt listened to any of our polite letters asking to meet with him or showing him scientific studies making the connection; and then he goes on television guzzling milk and saying, oh, theyre just talking about a few ratsthey dont know what theyre talking about. I think it probably got him more sympathy than anything hes ever done in his political career. So he probably should thank us for it.
Why did you apologize for the Giuliani ad?
I apologized because so many of our members thought he was hurt, and at the time I said I dont believe he is hurt, but I dont want to hurt you, and if you think hes hurt, Ill apologize. However, were apologizing if we hurt him; were not apologizing for the campaign. I think the campaign was a huge success: more hits in three days than weve ever had on our website, and more requests for vegetarian starter kits than weve ever had. But I said to him if we hurt you, then I am sorry, but I didnt believe that we actually did.
What about the more inadvertent controversies with groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and their negative reaction to the Got Beer? ad, and feminists who feel the fur campaigns, particularly the Fur Trim: Unattractive ad, are exploiting women? In other words, some people criticize these ads as unnecessarily alienating groupseven those with whom animal advocates might share common ground.
I dont think anyone honestly goes out and has another burger or buys a fur coat because they dont like our style. Its very hardwe certainly were quite amazed at how upset MADD got. It was clear that they hadnt read the campaign materials which didnt ask children to drink and didnt suggest drunk driving. We have a lot of respect for MADD; but its rather odd in a way that every spring break and every college football game are sponsored by beer people. And yet when we said hey, theres more nutrition in a glass of beer than there is in a glass of milk, we got slammed. I think that they thought, PETAs a social advocacy group; they really dont have any right to use the word beer or to suggestas we werethat people of drinking age could drink beer.
In the end, we collected money from our staff and gave it to MADD, but they returned the check, which I dont think is in their interest. And we invited them to talk about it and they werent interested, which wasnt in the interest of anybody. So, one does what one can do, to say youve got your job to do, weve got ours.
The panties thingI just think its a hoot; I think its amusing in its own way. And I dont think its exploitative; it could be anybodys crotch. And most people would think Oh lord, I dont want that showing. Since our exchange, Galen Sherwin [NOW-NYCs President] and I have agreed to disagree, we patched that up.
In raising the awareness of people to the various issues of animal suffering, via activism, educational campaigns and other methods, would you say the ends justify the means?
I think thats too broad a statement because some ends do and some ends dont. If its anything thats going to result in suffering to animals or people, then I dont think it justifies the means.
You mean violence?
Yeah; but then again if you could hurt ten people to save 100 people and there was no option, what would you do? I cant really address that.
How do you feel being constantly in a hot seat as the spokesperson with the message that people love to ridicule or misrepresent?
I feel honored in a way. Ive passed the point long ago where I felt frustrated at people or personally upset that people had the need to do that. It isnt a personal matter. Im a human being. Human beings are slow learners; Ive certainly been a slow learner and Im sure Im still learning. I have the opportunity to allow people to ridicule what we do, and me personally, if thats what they need to do along the road to embracing a concept. Though in saying that, I recognize that not everyone will. You know, there are still people who would [use racial slurs] if they could get away with it; its just that the behavior has become unacceptable. It is an honor to be able to bear the brunt of that work in progress.
But I do get deeply depressed when people send things in the mail saying theyre going to hurt animals; people have sent us animal organs or have left injured animals on the steps. To me, this is the saddest partthey wouldve probably hurt the animals anyway because thats what theyre like. The saddest thing is the realization that a fellow human being is so inured to suffering that they would try to hurt another fellow human in that way, by taking it out on the defenseless.
Are you referring to the situation when radio talkshow host Mike Gallagher bought a cow and had him slaughtered in response to the Got Beer? ad?
No, I actually think that was pretty good, because the cow was going to be killed anyway without people realizing it. That cow was doomed. No death was added as a result of that. However, it did turn a lot of people away from eating meat that day and that week, and in some cases forever, because it gave us a platform to argue with Gallagher; we did countless radio shows and newspaper interviews. And as a resultagainlots of people asked for the veggie starter kit or about factory farming for the first time.
But I think he may have learned something. Im not sure if its true, but he said that in the end, he couldnt look [as the cow was being shot]. It may be that he had to confront what happens to animals every day as a result of his diet.
Its one thing to brazenly talk about something and its a completely different thing to witness and be a part of it yourself.
Yeah. We had a case where townspeople called us to support them because they didnt want a slaughterhouse to be constructed in their town. They wanted it out of town because otherwise the children would see it. And we said no. We wrote immediately to the council asking that they please construct it in the center of town; get it out in the open, please, where everyone smells it, everyone sees it, the children know what it is.
What other interests or means of relaxation do you have to help you cope with the intensity of defending animal rights? How do you keep your sense of humor?
[Laughing] Well, I have to think of the positive; thats how I cope. But I like a good London Times crossword and a cup of teathat makes me happy. And I love walking someone elses dog. I dont have the luxury of having a dog myself because I travel too much, but I love walking and cuddling somebody elses dog. I just came back from the shelter today and they let me walk three dogs at lunchtime. It was great. n
To view PETAs anti-fur ads, visit www.furisdead.com and www.milk sucks.com to see the anti-dairy ads. To learn more about PETA, visit www.peta-online.org or call 757-622-PETA.