Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

Stu Bykofsky


SHE MAY BE the most feared woman in America, this grandmotherly 55-year-old with the light accent who was born in England, raised in India and had herself sterilized at 22 because she believes it more ethical to adopt an existing child than create a new one.

As co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk never had time for the adoption option. For the past 25 years, her life has been dedicated to leading the 800,000-strong, push-the-envelope, cross-the-line animal rights group.

She's a Lioness who's lionized by many animal lovers, but she's also been called radical, crazed, ruthless, evil, fanatic, intimidating, combative and dangerous.

One of her - and PETA's - chief detractors is the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group largely funded by the restaurant and food industry to "protect consumer choices."

Choices PETA would deny you, says CCF director of research David Martosko.

PETA wants to bring you, he says, "a world where you cannot take your children to the zoo or the aquarium, a world where you don't have the choice whether you want to eat a cheeseburger versus a veggie burger, a world where you can't wear a silk necktie or a wool sweater, a world where if you have cancer or AIDS, there simply isn't any meaningful research going on to help you."

That's probably true, but PETA can't do any of that without consent of the people and the people who get really, really angry, Newkirk responds, are those "who have businesses that test [cosmetics and medical procedures] on animals, that kill animals for food, depend on caging animals for the fur trade. Those people are very anxious to demonize me so that will scare people away from listening to the message," which is that you do have a choice between kindness and cruelty."

That's the theme of her chatty, emotional new book, "Making Kind Choices." There's more sorrow than anger in its 472 pages, which show how the world around us - of food, fashion, cosmetics - is filled with unbearable pain for animals that cannot speak, except through their torment and misery. The book brims with ideas about how to make consumer choices that are friendly to animals and the environment.

One choice PETA makes is to occasionally play the fool with over-the-top positions, such as Newkirk's ill-advised letter to Yasser Arafat after Palestinian murderers loaded a donkey with explosives in Jerusalem and blew it up near some Israelis. Newkirk complained about using the animal but didn't address the human deaths. Others do that, she loftily said at the time.

PETA also is criticized for using nudity (at least partial) in ads and for harassing leggy, hollow-cheeked models when activists crash the runways at fashion shows. Why all this zany stuff, Ingrid?

People have a short attention span and they want "controversial things or titillating things. So we have to turn heads. Having the facts is not enough," the Lioness says crisply.

"Very few people want to see heart-breaking pictures or videos [of animal cruelty]. So we have to make the issue attention-getting."

PETA is a genius at getting attention. Through publicity, and corporate intimidation, PETA has done more to lessen animal suffering than nearly any other organization.

PETA's 10-year war against Gillette got the company to declare a moratorium on testing products on animals; its "McCruelty" campaign pushed McDonald's into ordering suppliers to increase humane treatment of animals - a tremendous breakthrough because McDonald's is huge, and once it fell into
line, competitors were pressured to follow suit.

Since Newkirk can affect the bottom line of those who run slaughterhouses and fast-food companies and fur salons and medical labs and chicken farms, they call the Lioness arrogant and argumentative and ferocious.

No surprise, then, that Newkirk's had death threats, dead animals left at her door, gunshots fired into PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va. "Generally I take it with a grain of salt, figuring I've touched a nerve somewhere."

She is a vegan, meaning she neither eats nor wears nor uses any animal products. Truthfully, she does want you to be a vegan, too.

But, "head in the clouds, feet on the ground," she says. She knows that won't happen in her lifetime, maybe never. Meantime, she asks you to "veganize" just one meal a week - skip meat, poultry, fish and eat pasta, salad, beans, rice, carrots, bananas, apples, peaches, berries, corn, potatoes. Is that too hard a choice to ask? It doesn't sound so radical, combative and dangerous to me.

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