JAMES STRECKER: Please tell us about something you have been working on or have recently completed. Why does it matter to you and why should it matter to us?
INGRID NEWKIRK: For months now, we’ve been touring around to campuses, town squares, shopping malls, and festivals, strapping virtual reality goggles onto people and letting them “become” a chicken or an orca, pecking in the fields or swimming in the ocean until something awful happens. It has gone gangbusters, but I want to find a way to make everyone in the world, who still eats animals or goes to SeaWorld and other aquariums, to watch. That puzzle matters to me, and if anyone has ideas, I’m all ears!
JS: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, what would you say?
IN: Bang my head against the brick wall that is human indifference, ignorance and arrogance, knowing that, as hard as it is, if you bang your head against a brick wall for long enough eventually it will fall. It goes quicker, if we all bang our heads against it.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in your work?
IN: I think the most important belief PETA expresses is that it is not hard at all, but super-easy, to help stop cruelty to animals if you realize what opportunities are presented to you all the time. For example, you eat, you put on clothes, you wash your hair, you seek entertainment, and every one of those things can involve animals or not, a kind choice or a cruel one. Deciding not to be photographed with a parrot on your shoulder is easy, but so is checking the labels on your personal care and cleaning products. So is not putting money into the jar if that health charity still experiments on animals -that is easy to look it up on peta.org- and not buying skins or wool or feathers, and trying tasty vegan versions of foods.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire most and tell us why for each one.
IN: Sojourner Truth seems to me to be a great role model: feisty, uncowed, truth-telling. She risked constant ridicule and physical violence but kept on saying what she knew to be right: “If your jug holds a quart and mine just a pint, who are you to deny me my little half measure full?”
I must cheat here on the next one, because it is a multiple of one! I admire and am grateful to every single human being who, born with these wonderful gifts of speech and freedom, does not devalue them or waste them, but says and does something at every opportunity: when they hear or see a wrong being committed, certainly, but also every day in countless ways when they have a chance to give others the facts, the choices, the encouragement to know what’s happening to animals and how to stop it.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
IN: I have far more crow’s feet. Other than that, I think I worry just as much that I’m missing some marvelous key that will open the door to the box with the solution to human callousness in it.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
IN: The biggest challenge, I think, is always that, as Desmond Tutu said, “It’s hard to awaken a man who is only pretending to sleep.” This I take to mean the people who KNOW they shouldn’t be cruel, but turn a blind eye to it so that they can carry on tacitly contributing to that cruelty, like paying for cheese and milk while pretending that the mothers don’t love their calves or that the cows aren’t artificially inseminated on a rape rack, and kicked down the same slaughterhouse chute as the “beef” cattle.
Other than that, not letting all the horrors you see paralyze you, but instructing that computer between your ears to keep looking for new ways to educate and liberate.
JS: Please describe a major turning point in your life.
IN: When I was about 20, my neighbors moved away, leaving a lot of cats and kittens, so when I drove them to the shelter I was treated to an unexpected “peek behind the scenes” and discovered the world of animal shelters and cruelty investigations. I immediately left my job in the stock brokerage business and went to clean kennels, drive the truck, and help. I imagine that my life would have probably been meaningless, had I not stumbled upon all this and been able to jump in.
JS: What is the hardest thing for an outsider to understand about what you do?
IN: Apparently that PETA isn’t just out there throwing paint on people in fur! Almost every time I do a radio or TV show for the first time, the host says something like “I had no idea you were such reasonable, courteous people!” Of course, we perform a lot of gimmicky stunts, just to keep animal rights issues in the news and part of the social issues buzz, because that’s what it takes nowadays. Even major human tragedies only have a limited shelf life in the news world, so animal issues are really hard to get air time for. And who wants to see blood and guts, the animals’ reality, anyway? So, the gimmicks get covered and the fact we employ more scientists than all the groups combined, who have stopped millions of animals from being experimented upon, isn’t understood.
JS: How and why did you begin to create in the first place?
IN: I’m not artistic, couldn’t draw a stick figure. I’m almost tone deaf, so I can’t play the piano well. But my mind is abuzz with how we can alert people to animal rights issues, plots and plans to save them. I’ve no idea how this happened, but I’m so glad it does.
JS: What haven’t you done as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
IN: There’s a long list of specific steps I’d love to accomplish on the road to animal liberation. These include the following:
getting all animals out of circuses (we just got another 13 bears out, and Ringling just took the elephants off the road) and turning zoos into sanctuaries;
switching all animal experiments to fabulous, high tech and sensible non-animal ones (ones “without the patter of little feet”);
making meat and dairy consumption as taboo as child molestation (it often IS child molestation given that the chickens in supermarkets are about 6 weeks old, veal calves, lambs are children);
closing down all animal clothings industries, from Chinese dog leathers that come into North America in the shape of gloves and jacket trim, to fur, angora, wool, exotic leathers (the videos of sheep being beaten while being sheared and snakes filled with water and gutted alive compete for most unwatchable on peta.org);
stopping the use of gut-wrenching poisons and cruel sticky glue traps used for “pest” control.
Oh, nothing big, just change the whole human mindset and win nonviolence as society’s modus operandi. The world is such an upside down place, with PETA considered “extreme” for advocating for respect for other living beings; with few people taking any lesson from the history of our earlier recognized oppressions of others. Money alone, great that it is for funding billboards and TV ads, isn’t enough, so I want to find new ways to influence people.
JS: What makes you noteworthy?
IN: Gosh, perhaps it’s just a public profile really, i.e. being the founder of a big group people know, and holding strong ideas that I speak about.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
IN: Don’t pay any mind to money and title, just DO something that improves the lot of others, because it won’t be long before you see life, not as interminably stretching out ahead of you, but running out! I promise. If you can, work for animals, in some way, as they are the largest group of abused individuals and groups ever in the history of our world, and your own species is responsible for most of that suffering. Come on in, we have internships and jobs.
JS: Of what value are critics?
IN: Critics help us examine more closely what we are doing, and see if there is any room for improvement or a change of view. One must never kowtow to them if they are simply trying to intimidate you and are wrong, but I think it’s good not to waste energy arguing, but to take anything you can find that is useful.
JS: How does your work make life more meaningful for you and for others?
IN: It is meaningful to me that I am totally not wasting my life as a dilettante, which I might have done without finding out about animals in trouble and the philosophy of animal rights. As for others, I do rejoice every day reading the remarks of people, including youngsters, who are going to stop doing something that they just learned hurts animals and start talking to their relatives and friends, even strangers if we are lucky, about it to open their hearts and minds, too. Our materials, videos, downloadable Vegan Starter Kit, cosmetics “no test” lists, and so on definitely make life more meaningful to others.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
IN: Please, please, please, not only change yourself but move on and change others. By the time we change our own habits, we have already caused a lot of suffering, so we need to get to other people with information as soon as we can. Use the resources, use the videos on social media, ring in to call shows, write letters to the editor, talk it up, talk it up.
JS: What is upcoming for you as a creative person, why does it matter to you, and why will it be important to us?
IN: We are determined to expose all the various and ugly ways in which animals are exploited and deeply harmed to become clothing: so far we’ve shown baby ostriches, alligators, snakes and crocodiles used for bags, belts, shoes and even ridiculous looking suits; we’ve been in dozens of sheep shearing sheds to show these gentle animals being punched, kicked, and wounded; dog leather factories in China; the horror of cattle being turned into leather; rabbits plucked alive for angora; but there’s even MORE. We are working on synthetics, pushing natural materials, talking to retailers about vegan-only clothing, and more, but we need everyone to ask for vegan clothing and to be vocal as to why they reject animal clothing and goods. That’s critically important.
Thank you James!