Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Ingrid Newkirk
Founder and President, People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA)

Mother Nature (originally published in The Observer)
June 2003

Part 1 of 3

You may not recognise her, but Ingrid Newkirk is one of the most powerful women in fashion. For 20 years her animal-rights group has hounded the fur industry and any celebrity seen to support it as Gisele found to her cost. Here, the founder of Peta tells Michael Specter why she's Pamela Anderson's biggest fan and how she converted Ben Affleck.

Each year, Victoria's Secret puts on a show in which two dozen of the world's most alluring models stroll down the runway dressed in nothing but stilettos and lingerie. Last November, the spectacle was held at New York City's Lexington Avenue Armory, and touts were selling tickets for $500. Celebrities such as Donald Trump and Woody Harrelson were there that night, and 11m people watched on TV. Security was unusually tight: police were on hand in large numbers, as were private bodyguards, along with a highly experienced team hired by Victoria's Secret. To enter the Armory, guests had to wait half an hour, then file through a checkpoint where their bodies were scanned and their bags searched with great care.

None of that prevented four members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) from infiltrating the audience. As Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen made her way down the catwalk, dressed in a beaded bra and black panties, the women leapt on to the stage, unfurling signs that said 'Gisele: Fur Scum'. They were gone in less than 30 seconds dragged off the runway, then arrested. Gisele, the world's most highly paid model, and the current face of the Blackglama fur ad 'What becomes a legend most?' seemed unfazed by the commotion; CBS shot the segment again, and the show went on. But film clips and news stories about the attack appeared throughout the world, dominating coverage of the show and infuriating Victoria's Secret.

It was not the first such event that Peta had disrupted, of course. There have been hundreds in the US, Europe, once even in Beijing. Peta activists have crawled through the streets of Paris with leg-hold traps around their feet; they have dumped buckets of money soaked in fake blood on audiences at the International Fur Fair. Recently, the group ran ads comparing the deaths of women murdered and dismembered by a serial killer to those of animals killed for meat. Officially, Peta does not engage in violence, but its leaders wholeheartedly defend and encourage guerrilla groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. In fact, Bruce Friedrich, one of Peta's most prominent leaders, says in a speech that is readily available on the internet, 'I think it would be a great thing if, you know, all these fast-food outlets and these slaughterhouses and these laboratories and the banks that fund them exploded tomorrow.'

One of Peta's best-known slogans is: 'I'd rather go naked than wear fur,' and the group has made good publicly on that promise so many times that the fashion community has come to expect it. Not long after the Victoria's Secret show, I called Gisele's manager to ask about the episode. She told me that it was important to know that 'in real life Gisele doesn't wear fur. It's just not who she is. You will never run into her on the street in fox or mink. Never. Gisele did the Blackglama ad because of its history,' she continued. 'She saw Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis and Maria Callas, and they were legends. And that is the motto. Gisele saw it that way and so did I. We did not see this as a product.' (Neither Blackglama nor Victoria's Secret was willing to talk about the show, Peta, or the ads.)

A few days later, US Weekly reported that Ben Affleck had bought a chinchilla coat in Las Vegas for Jennifer Lopez. Peta's special projects co-ordinator, Carrie Beckwith, immediately sent Affleck a letter in which she noted that it takes as many as a hundred chinchillas to make such a coat, and she described the process. 'The preferred method of killing chinchillas is by genital electrocution: a method whereby the handler attaches an alligator clamp to the animal's ear and another to her genitalia and flips a switch, sending a jolt of electricity through her skin down the length of her body. The current causes unbearable muscle pain, at the same time working as a paralysing agent, preventing the animal from screaming or fighting.

'You've been so good to animals in the past,' the letter stated. 'Now more than ever they need you on their side.' To help make her point, she included a graphic video. Affleck replied at once. 'You have opened my eyes to a particularly cruel and barbaric treatment of animals,' he wrote. 'I can assure you I do not endorse such treatment and will not do anything in the future that supports it. I thank you for your letter... A contribution to your organisation is forthcoming.'

Neither Gisele Bundchen nor Ben Affleck is likely to forget their experiences with fur and that is exactly what Peta had in mind. 'There is no secret about why we attacked those people,' Ingrid Newkirk, who is Peta's leader, told me later.

Newkirk is a 53-year-old woman with sharp blue eyes, an oval face and a bowl of tidy hair that has recently begun to grey. She often wears sporty, casual clothes, and at first glance looks more like a soccer mum than one of the country's more widely reviled political activists. Newkirk founded Peta two decades ago out of a room in her suburban Maryland home, and it has remained very much under her control as it has grown into the world's largest animal rights organisation.

'Gisele is a famous, beautiful model,' she says. 'Ben is one of the most popular movie stars alive. People pay attention to them and want to be like them. So they need to be reminded that if they make horrible, cruel decisions there will be unpleasant consequences. Humans need to know that. They need to understand that if they support the torture and misuse of other animals they will be made to pay. The animals are defenceless. They can't talk back, and they can't fight back. But we can. And, no matter what it takes, we always will.'

PETA describes itself as an 'abolitionist organisation', and its 13-word mission statement, while simple, is breathtaking in its ambition: 'Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment.' PETA believes that animals and by this it means all animals, from crustaceans to chimpanzees are on earth to occupy themselves and for no other reason. That humans take advantage of other animals in any way, simply because we are stronger or smarter, Peta sees as the abiding moral outrage of our time. The organisation has offended so many people in the two decades since it was founded (by Newkirk and a former colleague Alex Pacheco) that just to hear the word Peta is enough to make many people shudder from fear, disgust or simply weariness.

The group's tactics are often repulsive, but it has a Barnum-like genius for attracting attention. To protest the use of fur in the pages of Vogue, Peta once deposited a dead raccoon on the plate of Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor, while she was eating lunch at the Four Seasons in Manhattan. It deployed its own version of the well-known dairy industry slogan 'Got Milk?' to suggest without a bit of evidence that the fat in milk somehow caused Rudy Giuliani's cancer. ('Got prostate cancer?' said the billboard, which also had a picture of Giuliani wearing a milk moustache. 'Drinking milk contributes to prostate cancer.') PETA's publicity formula 80 per cent outrage, 10 per cent each of celebrity and truth ensures that everything it does offends someone. At the end of February, the group began travelling with what may be its most vilified exhibit yet. 'Holocaust on Your Plate' compares in great detail what humans routinely do to other animals to Hitler's systematic annihilation of 6m Jews. By the end of the first week, the Holocaust Memorial Museum demanded Peta stop using its photographs; the Anti-Defamation League and hundreds of others denounced it. The exhibit has been vandalised and Peta members in charge of it have been assaulted like most of PETA's material, the display can be found online, at masskilling.com.

There is never a shortage of stars willing to lend their names to the cause: Alicia Silverstone, Alec Baldwin and Drew Barrymore have all appeared in Peta ads. So has Stella McCartney, the only major designer to reject both fur and leather completely. Sir John Gielgud once made a public service announcement condemning foie gras just by explaining, in powerful detail and at great length, how it is made. Naked women also play a central role in Peta's demonstrations and advertisements, and if a political organisation can be said to have a muse, then the actress Pamela Anderson is Peta's. In March, she appeared on a gigantic new billboard in Times Square, wearing three strategically placed lettuce leaves. ('People enjoy sex,' Newkirk explained. 'It's a big part of human nature. So we appeal to that as often as we can. And who could ask for anyone better than Pam? People drool when they look at her. Why wouldn't we use that? We need all the drooling we can get.')

In February, Anderson travelled to Vienna, where she had been invited to the annual Opera Ball. When the matrons of Viennese society learnt that Anderson's date for the evening would be Dan Mathews, Peta's vice president of campaigns, they suddenly began cancelling their reservations, fearing what he might do to their furs.

The situation got so bad that Mathews, who had taken dance lessons to prepare for the ball, had to fax the organisers to assure them he had no intention of throwing red paint on their clothing. 'I plan to use waltzing as a weapon to charm the women out of their furs,' said Mathews, who functions as the Peta ambassador to the glamour crowd. 'Special occasions require special tactics.'

Peta owns a seemingly limitless supply of websites, and none of them are subtle. Scientists who experiment on animals have come under particular attack (marchofcrimes.com, stopanimaltests.com), and, throughout America, at least in part thanks to PETA, most investigators who work with animals in the laboratory and there are thousands are now reluctant even to discuss their work in public.

'Peta and the other extremists in the animal liberation movement believe they have to do spectacular things to gain attention,' Donald Kennedy, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a retired president of Stanford University, told me. 'I am sympathetic to that as a philosophy, and certainly we are all more sophisticated about our use of animals than we were 20 years ago. But they are simply wrong when they say you don't ever need to use an animal to develop a drug, design therapies, or study the course of disease. They have harassed legitimate scientists, frightened them, even driven people from the field. Does that really further their cause?'

Peta objects not only to the use of animals in science, and to anything having to do with fur (furshame.com), but also to zoos (wildlifepimps.com), fishing (fishinghurts.com, lobsterlib.com), and tobacco companies that still test their products on animals (smokinganimals.com).

These days, the PETA leadership devotes much of its energy to the issue that it sees as responsible for the most abuse of animals by far: the way American corporations turn billions of cows, pigs and chickens into meat each year (kentuckyfriedcruelty.com and murderking.com are just two of many examples; there are also wickedwendys.com and shameway.com.) Because circuses appeal so widely to the young, they arouse PETA's particular wrath (circus watch.com). One night in December, I stood in front of the Savannah Civic Center when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town. Newkirk and several colleagues were there, and they spent the evening bearing placards, dodging police and hectoring scores of families who were entering the coliseum with young children. ('Elephants are mammals!' they shouted. 'Mammals have hair. Do you know how trainers remove that hair so the elephants will look good for you tonight? They burn it off with blowtorches. Please make this your last visit to the circus.') The PETA video truck was parked nearby. With elegiac music playing in the background, a continuous loop of clandestinely shot footage ran on the truck's two giant screens, each showing trainers beating, shocking, whipping and even shooting elephants. The children who saw the video were horrified, and their parents were furious.

In 1972, Ingrid Newkirk was 22 years old, living in Poolesville, Maryland, and studying to become a stockbroker. Her favourite food was liver. One day, her next-door neighbour moved away and abandoned nearly a dozen cats. 'They were coming on to my property and having kittens,' Newkirk told me during one of our many conversations over the past six months. She looked in the Yellow Pages for the address of the nearest animal shelter, then gathered up the cats and drove over. 'When I arrived at the shelter, the woman said, "Come in the back and we will just put them down there,"' she said. Newkirk was born in England and reared mostly in India. She had only recently moved to the US, and the phrase 'put them down' meant nothing to her. 'I thought, "How nice you will set them up with a place to live." So I waited out front for a while, and then I asked if I could go back and see them, and the woman looked at me and said, "What are you talking about? They're all dead."

'I just snapped when I heard those kittens were dead,' Newkirk told me. 'The woman was so rude. The place was a junk heap in the middle of nowhere. It couldn't have been more horrible. For some reason, and even now I don't know what it was, I decided I needed to do something about it. So I thought, I'm going to work here. I went to see the manager, and he said, "We have one opening in the kennel." I asked to have it. He said, "What have you been doing?" and I said, "Well, actually, I am studying for the brokerage."' He laughed and told her she was perhaps a bit overqualified, but she begged him to let her try and, reluctantly, he agreed. The following day, Newkirk gave notice at the brokerage and started a new career.

What she saw at the shelter affected her profoundly. 'I went to the front office all the time, and I would say, "John is kicking the dogs and putting them into freezers." Or I'd say, "They are stepping on the animals, crushing them like grapes, and they don't care." In the end, I'd go to work early, before anyone got there, and I would just kill the animals myself, because I couldn't stand to let them go through that. I must have killed a thousand of them, sometimes dozens every day. Some of those people would take pleasure in making them suffer. Driving home every night, I would cry just thinking about it. And I just felt, to my bones, this cannot be right. I hadn't thought about animal rights in the broader sense. Not then, or even for a while after. But working at that shelter I just said to myself, "What is wrong with human beings that we can act this way?"'

For many years, while her father worked in New Delhi as a navigational engineer, Newkirk attended convent boarding schools. 'It was the done thing for a British girl in India,' she said. 'But I was the only British girl in this school. I was hit constantly by nuns, starved by nuns. The whole God thing was shoved right down my throat.' When she was 18, with the Vietnam War raging, her father was seconded to the United States Air Force and moved to Florida, where he helped design bombing systems for airplanes and ships.

Ingrid went along with him, and it was there that she met her husband, Steve Newkirk, while pursuing her hobby of auto racing, which remains one of her genuine passions (sumo wrestling is another). Steve took her to Watkins Glen and introduced her to the baroque world of Formula One; Newkirk has been a fanatic ever since. (The two were divorced in 1980, but are still friendly.) Newkirk thinks nothing of staying up half the night to watch races in Australia or Malaysia. Her office floor, in addition to being covered with welcome mats for cats and magazines like Animal Times and Meat & Poultry News, is strewn with the latest issues of Car & Driver and AutoWeek.

Newkirk and her husband moved to Maryland in 1970, and after her brief time at the shelter she became a deputy sheriff focusing on animal cruelty cases for Montgomery County. By 1976, she had been placed in charge of the animal disease control division of the District of Columbia Commission on Public Health. 'I loved meat, liver above all,' she said. If liver were somehow morally permissible, I asked her, would she eat it again? 'My God, I would eat it tomorrow. Now. I would eat roadkill if I could.

'I'd eat burgers, steak, anything. I love car racing and meat. I am a boy at heart, I am my father's son. When I worked at the Washington humane society, I stayed upstairs, slept in my clothes with my shoes on after working my day job at the sheriff's office, and then I would be on call at night.

On my way down into the District, I would stop in Potomac and pick up triple-ground prime meat. In my refrigerator I had ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and I would keep eggs. I would break a raw egg and take onions and capers and I would mix it all, and I would go about checking on the animals while eating this raw food right out of my hand. I am just a raw oyster, raw meat-eating person who happened to find out what happened in the meat industry, and I just can't support it,' she continued. 'It's so ghastly. So vast and wrong and ghastly.'

It was at about this time that Newkirk decided that it was morally impossible to draw a distinction between mistreating a pet and mistreating a pig or a chicken that we will never see until it appears on our plate. By 1980, she had come to believe that it wasn't enough merely to empathise with animals; she had decided that it was unacceptable for humans to use them in any way. From the start, Peta was more radical than any of the established animal-welfare organisations. In 1981, the group's investigation of the treatment of experimental monkeys in a Maryland laboratory, carried out by Alex Pacheco with walkie-talkies and hidden cameras, resulted in the first police raid of any US research laboratory on suspicion of animal cruelty. The Silver Spring Monkeys, as the case came to be called, made headlines throughout the country.

Newkirk loved the notoriety, and still does; jousting with the media thrills her. 'We are complete press sluts,' she told me. 'It is our obligation. We would be worthless if we were just polite and didn't make any waves.' On several occasions during our interviews, she asked if I was looking for any particular kind of quote or theme. I didn't understand what she meant, so she explained: 'Well, you know, that Reuters' reporter was so thrilled when I told him my position on foot-and-mouth disease. Don't you need something like that, too?' (When foot-and-mouth forced farmers to kill millions of animals, Newkirk made no effort to hide her delight. 'I hope it comes to the US,' she said. 'It wouldn't be any more hideous for the animals they are all bound for a ghastly death anyway... It will bring economic harm only for those who profit from giving people heart attacks and giving animals a concentration camp-like existence.')

Newkirk is well-read, and she can be witty. When she is not proselytising, denouncing or attacking the 99 per cent of humanity that sees the world differently from the way she does, she is good company. After years of detestable public behaviour, however, she has the popular image of a monster. Whenever I mentioned her name to friends, they would recoil. And she becomes more disliked with every PETA stunt; she can't walk through an airport without accosting any woman who is wearing fur. She no longer takes vacations in tropical or poor countries, because 'I spend the whole time rescuing animals from their horrid owners'. Some of her actions seem like Saturday Night Live skits. On 26 January, for instance, a bomb dispatched by Palestinian terrorists exploded on the road between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion. Nobody was seriously injured, but the explosives were strapped on to a donkey and detonated remotely. The donkey was killed. The following week, Newkirk wrote to Yasser Arafat.

'Your Excellency,' the letter began. 'All nations behave abominably in many ways when they are fighting their enemies, and animals are always caught in the crossfire. The US Army abandoned thousands of loyal service dogs in Vietnam. Al-Qaeda and the British government have both used animals in hideously cruel biological weaponry tests. We watched on television as stray cats in your own compound fled as best they could from the Israeli bulldozers.' Newkirk ended the letter by asking Arafat to leave the animals out of the conflict. She made no mention of the vast human toll the violence in the Middle East has taken. 'We are named People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,' she told me when I asked about it. 'There are plenty of other groups that worry about the humans.' A couple of days later, Newkirk sent me a satirical story that ran in The Onion, headlined, 'Heroic PETA commandos kill 49, save rabbit'. She thought it was hilarious.

In her idiosyncratic way, Ingrid Newkirk is a perfectly logical woman: when I asked her about the dangers associated with the rapid proliferation of deer in American suburbs, and suggested that surely their enormous population needed to be culled, she replied by saying, 'Deer are native Americans. We are not.' She regards the use of guide dogs for the blind as an abdication of human responsibility and, because they live as 'servants' and are denied the companionship of other dogs, she is wholly opposed to their use. She has had at least one dog taken from its owner. Among her most frequently cited statements is: 'When it comes to feelings like hunger, pain and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.' Once, after an hour of frustrating debate on the morality and merit of using animals in scientific research, I asked whether she would remain opposed to experiments on, say, 5,000 rats, or even 5,000 chimpanzees, if it was required to cure Aids. 'Would you be opposed to experiments on your daughter if you knew it would save 50m people?' she replied. Medical progress in scores of areas vaccine development, cancer treatment, genetics and Aids, among others would stop if we began to equate the lives of rats with those of humans. Newkirk doesn't care. 'For you this is just a passing issue, a story,' she said. 'For me, it's real. It's a horror I live with every day.'

I've received hundreds of emails from Newkirk. Many are informational, some chatty, and others simply absurd. More than a few, though, are heartfelt attempts to explain her view of the universe. When we were in Savannah, she told me, in the most unequivocal terms, that the world would be an infinitely better place without humans in it at all. I must have shown my astonishment, because by the time I got back to New York, later that day, she had already written thousands of words to me, of which this is only a sample:

'There are a billion mean tricks of nature. And human beings, who aren't "a thing apart" but part of nature, are cruel, out of sheer obliviousness if nothing else, but often out of malice or selfishness. A few clothes and a Jag and being able to read the NYT don't separate "us" from or elevate "us" above the other species!... Why does feeling superior mean being able to treat those "beneath us" with contempt? That's what the Nazis did, isn't it? Treated those "others" they thought subhuman by making them lab subjects and so on. Even the Nazis didn't eat the objects of their derision.'

PETA is not an easy place to work Newkirk often starts before dawn and, when she returns home, late, she fires off emails for hours. She demands nearly as much from her colleagues. Newkirk is not merely the boss; since 1999, when Pacheco decided to leave to pursue other goals, she has been the monarch. PETA has a board, but only because its tax-exempt status requires one; the board does whatever Newkirk tells it to do. 'This is not a democratic organisation,' she said. 'I never pretended that it was. I don't know where exactly it would go if it were a democracy. And I am not willing to give it a try.'

Most of the people who work at PETA see Newkirk as flexible and open to suggestions. From time to time, she will even approve actions and campaigns she herself would never undertake. Yet her singular reign has led many in the animal-welfare movement, including former employees, to refer to PETA as Ingrid Newkirk's cult. When I asked her about this, she went white. 'That's a very nasty and bad word and it shouldn't be in the article. I can't stand to hear that word. If you put that cult stuff in, nobody will take what we do seriously.' She sat silent for a few moments, visibly disturbed. 'I am just trying to make the best possible case for the animals. That is clearly what I have been put on earth to do. Even after I am gone I will try to continue.' A few days later, she sent me a copy of her will - which previously she had shown only to her attorney. Like nearly everything else Newkirk does, it contains an element of shameless hucksterism, a lot that is hard to take seriously, and a hint, perhaps, of something significant.

'While the final decision as to the use of my body remains with PETA, I make the following suggested directions:

a) That the 'meat' of my body, or a portion thereof, be used for a human barbecue, to remind the world that the meat of a corpse is all flesh, regardless of whether it comes from a human being or another animal and that flesh foods are not needed.

b) That my skin, or a portion thereof, be removed and made into leather products, such as purses, to remind the world that human skin and the skin of other animals is the same and that neither is 'fabric' or needed.

c) That my feet be removed and umbrella stands or other ornamentation be made from them, as a reminder of the depravity of killing innocent animals, such as elephants, in order that we might use their body parts for household items and decorations.

d) That my eyes be removed, mounted and delivered to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency as a reminder that PETA will continue to be watching the agency until it stops poisoning and torturing animals in useless and cruel experiments.

e) That my pointing finger be delivered to Kenneth Feld, the owner of Ringling Brothers or to a circus museum, to stand as the 'Greatest Accusation on Earth' on behalf of the countless animals who have been deprived of all that is natural and pleasant to them, abused and forced into involuntary servitude for the sake of cheap entertainment.

In 1996, Newkirk moved PETA from the Maryland suburbs to Norfolk, Virginia, principally because it's a cheap place to live. Norfolk is the home of the Atlantic Fleet and not exactly a hotbed of animal activism, but for $2m the group acquired a big building on the Elizabeth River, and more than a hundred people work there. The waterfront is dotted with shipyards, and the shimmering metal-and-glass offices are only a 10-minute walk from the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Museum and the battleship Wisconsin. The place has a northern European feel to it: steely and grey but soothing, too, with the sun bouncing off the water. The day I arrived, I watched as a series of the Navy's amphibious assault ships, filled with sailors and marines headed for the Persian Gulf, edged out into the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

Inside, the building could have been designed by Dr Doolittle. There is a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci chiselled into the lintel above the reception area. 'The day will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals the way they now look upon the murder of men.'

Dogs and cats roam the halls. There are cat ladders throughout the offices and animals are constantly leaping on and off them. At lunch, dozens of employees slip out to spend some time with their companion animals. (Nobody at PETA would ever use the word 'pet'.)

Besides Newkirk, the best-known members of the group are Bruce Friedrich and Dan Mathews. It would be hard to find three people who seem to have less in common. Newkirk considers herself a feminist and an atheist. Friedrich, whose title at PETA is director of vegan outreach, functions to some degree as the organisation's chief ideologist. He is a soft-spoken man, who, Newkirk once told me, 'lives like Christ'; he spent years working in soup kitchens in Washington, where, most of the time, he lives. Friedrich is a devout, even militant, Catholic, who gives 20 per cent of his meagre income to the Church and other charities and is as comfortable marching in an anti-abortion rally as Newkirk is talking about why, at the age of 22, she was sterilised. ('I am not only uninterested in having children. I am opposed to having children. Having a purebred human baby is like having a purebred dog; it's nothing but vanity, human vanity.')

Mathews, the third member of the triumvirate, is openly gay. He was raised in California's Orange County, where, as a fat, gay boy, he decided that being detested by most people around him wasn't as painful as living a lie. Mathews is 6ft 5in, and zips around Norfolk in a green Suzuki sidekick that he bought used, from a sailor.

These days, Mathews looks more like a male model than the chubby teenager he once was. Mathews is often Pamela Anderson's 'date', and while many of his colleagues live rather ascetic lives, he is just as likely to turn up at a club in Paris or New York as in Norfolk.

PETA is by far the most successful radical organisation in America, raising more than $15m a year, most of it in small contributions from its 750,000 members and supporters. Newkirk believes in spending as much of that as she can. There are departments devoted to wildlife, companion animals, investigations, advertising and, particularly lately, kids, who are more susceptible to the message that vegetarianism makes sense on nutritional and ecological grounds. For the most part, children do not hold PETA in the same negative regard as do many of their parents. (One of the most heavily visited PETA websites, peta2.com, is dedicated to youngsters.) The network of 8,000 activists between the ages of 13 and 24 has message boards, contests and games. It is run by Marci Hansen, an eager and articulate 34-year-old woman whose last job was as a marketing manager at Amazon.com. Hansen can talk endlessly about skateboarders, snowboarders, Pink, and surfing publications. 'We are after the kids who are looking and searching for something,' she told me. 'Teens want the truth. We walk the talk. You cannot call us hypocrites.'

Each week, Newkirk holds a kind of war council: she gathers two dozen of her top strategists around a square table in the second-floor conference room to plot their next moves and, while I was in Norfolk, she invited me to join them. Jason Baker, who runs the PETA operation in Hong Kong (there are also offices in England, Germany, Holland and India), presented a slide of a new advertisement he was preparing for the Asian market to publicise the plight of elephants. It is a picture of a naked woman, shackled and in chains. (The woman, Imogen Bailey, was recently voted Australia's sexiest model.) 'We are going to put whip marks on her back,' Baker explained to approving mutters, 'and, if it works visually, tears in her eyes.' Newkirk stared at the picture for a minute and then shook her head. 'She looks like she's pouting,' she said. 'It's too sexy. We need to make her look terrified.' Baker promised to take care of it.

Next on the agenda: the case of Charlton Heston. Heston has fallen ill with Alzheimer's, a disease with symptoms that can resemble those of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, the human form of mad-cow disease. Deer have a chronic wasting syndrome similar to that found in cattle, and, tenuous though it is, the link presents PETA with an opportunity to, as Newkirk put it, 'Toy with the idea that both Alzheimer's and CJD are related to meat consumption.'

'We can flaunt the idea that his disease is from deer meat!' somebody shouted. 'He has to hunt. He's a gun freak,' another person said. The group started to talk about his famous relationship with the National Rifle Association and complain about the gun lobby, but Newkirk cut them off. 'We are not anti-gun, we are pro animals. Don't lose the thread, people.' She then suggested renting billboards that would display a large picture of a gaunt Charlton Heston foaming at the mouth. Most of the people in the room were thrilled by the idea. But Joe Haptas, a campaign co-ordinator, was not among them. 'Are you kidding?' he shouted. 'That is just mean-spirited. He is an American icon. You can't do this.' Newkirk snapped back: 'Who said you can't pick on an icon? He is like Anita Bryant. He is pro-hunting. He has made his own bed.'

Haptas was horrified. 'My God, you're talking about Moses. We are going to pick on Moses? It'll alienate half our members and most of the known world.' Newkirk rolled her eyes and whispered, in a way meant for everyone to hear, 'So what?'

The PETA strategy session resembled the pitch meeting of a very bizarre Madison Avenue advertising agency. Nothing was too kooky or unkind to think about. 'Should we put somebody on the Atkins cruise?' one person wondered. The Atkins Diet, which is perhaps the most heavily meat-based meal plan in America, was sponsoring a cruise; it would be a meat-eater's paradise, and the idea of crashing it seemed like mischievous fun. But Tracy Reiman, who is in charge of international campaigns, quickly brought the group to its senses. 'Some people are paying thousands of dollars to go on the cruise. Do you really think we are going to win even one of them over? It would be a waste of time. And, by the way, it would be horrible for whoever gets stuck on that boat with those people. Can you imagine it? They would probably be thrown overboard.' The idea was abandoned.

Then it was on to an action planned for one of the Nordstrom department stores. 'You know they have a policy where they will take anything back for any reason,' Reiman said. 'One of our people in Seattle is going to return a dead fox.' After that, the eternal question arose: how do you deal with the running of the bulls at Pamplona? PETA, of course, is opposed to it, as it is to bullfighting. So it has decided to sponsor a giant naked race two days before the running of the bulls, in the hope that it will compete for attention (runningofthenudes.com).

PETA's big foray into the world of high fashion came next: the New York collections were coming up, and the group was sponsoring a show by Gaelyn and Cianfarani, who design clothes made from natural fibres, recycled bicycle inner tubes and sheets of latex. The sponsors agreed to give PETA space in the main exhibition tents during Fashion Week, but there was a price: the group was expected to leave everyone else alone. 'We just did the Gisele thing and now we have to behave ourselves,' Dan Mathews announced sternly.

Why would PETA participate in Fashion Week instead of trying to disrupt it? I asked Newkirk if it was possible that she was softening or changing her approach. She shook her head twice and laughed. But then she said, 'You can't pave the road. You have to put down a little gravel. Then somebody else comes and puts down some more gravel. And one day, some day, you have a paved road.' She smiled slyly. 'In the meantime, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be the biggest nag on earth.'