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November 19th, 2008 HENRY STERN | Q & A
 

Ingrid Newkirk

PETA co-founder is a “press slut” and proud of it.

     
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Ingrid Newkirk with her friend, Lady.
IMAGE: courtesy of PETA

Ingrid Newkirk is quick with a quote or to light up some folks.

As co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980, Newkirk has had a lot of practice at both. Newkirk and PETA, which claims 2 million-plus members, have no problem making people uncomfortable in their uncompromising pursuit of rights for every animal—be it a chicken, cow or mouse.

There’s PETA’s in-your-face: a “McCruelty” campaign that uses a photo of a slaughtered cow’s head. And there’s the silly: urging Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast’s milk instead of cow milk in its ice cream.

Newkirk is in Portland on Wednesday, Nov. 19, to discuss her latest book, One Can Make a Difference: How Simple Actions Can Change the World (Adams Press, 256 pages, $16.95). It’s a collection of essays by famous—and not-so-famous—people that includes the Dalai Lama, Martina Navratilova, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kevin Bacon.

Newkirk, 59, spoke with WW last week by telephone in a native English accent that’s so disarming it almost makes you forget how much she and PETA can piss people off.

WW: McDonald’s last week reported same-store sales were up 8.2 percent, in part because of its Southern Style chicken sandwich. When you read that, what do you think about the progress of the animal-rights movement?

Ingrid Newkirk: They [McDonald’s] are opening so many outlets in China. But they’re closing outlets in the U.S. The number of vegetarians is also going up.... And we’re working with supermarket chains and places like Burger King to actually make reforms. In Canada, for example, unlike the KFCs here, they have started a faux chicken sandwich that is selling well.

Those seem like incremental reforms. If the suffering among animals is so great, why not take more extreme steps?

There are militants out there, and we’re not among them. But our views are very radical for this society. We just choose to do it through public education and persuasion, sometimes making idiots of ourselves. Our philosophy is you’ve got to persuade the person at the bus stop.

But when PETA does stunts like advocating that a convicted killer in Oregon only get vegetarian meals in prison or that the Green Bay Packers change their team name because of its meat-industry history, doesn’t that guy at the bus stop say, “It’s just those PETA whack jobs again”?

You can dismiss us as those whack jobs if you like. But come to our website to see our video on Ben and Jerry’s, which was a silly thing. But people learn on the website about the dairy industry or the fur farms.... We don’t care if people make fun of us. We’d rather they didn’t. But we have to do it.

Did you really tell The New Yorker you and PETA were a press sluts?

(Laughs) How else do you reach people? You have to do whatever it takes to try to get people to talk about you and your serious issue.

No campaign you regret?

No. I’m a great subscriber to Chrissie Hynde’s perspective that when you’re working for a social cause, the danger isn’t in going far enough or feeling embarrassed or that it’s in bad taste. You’ve got to really push the envelope. Animals are in desperate trouble in the fur farms, in the laboratories.

How do you see your movement’s history compared to the abolitionist movement?

It’s so strikingly similar when you read books about that time, the arguments made against emancipation, slavery. And similarly with the women’s movement. There were newspapers who said women could never go to medical school because they’d faint at the sight of blood. We faced the same arguments based on the deep desire not to change the status quo or from abysmal ignorance. People thought black men couldn’t feel pain the way white men could; they thought black mothers had no real maternal feeling the way white mothers did.

Don’t African-Americans resent being compared to a cow, pig or a horse?

Some do. But Alice Walker doesn’t. She says a woman isn’t put here for a man, a black for a white, an animal for man. We’ve got very powerful supporters like Russell Simmons; the Reverend Al did an anti-KFC video. But people feel because they have supremacist ideas themselves, that we debase them when we compare them to animals. That’s the same as white people felt lower because they were compared to what they felt was a lesser or lower race.

What advice do you give people who are working with you and may get discouraged?

(Laughs) Drink heavily.

I give that general advice around here sometimes. But is there any more specific advice you give?

Look back and see how far we’ve come. And that will encourage you.

On your blog, somebody asked “what kind of abuse has the most pressing urgency above all others?” And you answered “pest control” for animals such as raccoons, beavers, mice, birds and insects. So what should I do if I see a rat in my house or have an ant infestation?

There is something you can put out that makes it so ants won’t come back. It’s the difference between stomping on an anthill and walking around it. With rats, everybody despises rats because they’ll spread disease. Of course, what do they spread but human filth. And they’re mammals like dogs, so they feel pain. If you have to do something with them, get a [humane] trap and cork up the areas that are letting them in. Why give them a gut-wrenching poison, why stuff their faces in glue. You ought to see a little mother mouse or mother rat. They’re like any other living being. I call them squirrels without bushy tails.

Do you have an animal companion?

I don’t have any animals, I travel too much, but I’m the world’s best dog-sitter when I’m home. Also people’s children.

Do you have a favorite essay in your book?

I love them all and I have some reserved for the sequel because I couldn’t cram them all in. But I think the one by Lily Mazahery—an essay on Iranian women who are stoned to death or buried alive for being in the company of a man or even a boy. Or for being suspected of flirting or even being killed for being raped. She’s helping them enormously from her regular job in Washington, D.C. Instead of just going about her daily work, she has carved a lifeline for these women and literally can save their lives. There are people in there like Dana Hork who just started to collect spare change from her stadium cup in her dorm room. And now she has a national organization doing the same thing.… My mother always said it doesn’t matter who suffers, it’s that they suffer. If there is one thread, it’s that every single person in the book is kind. Kindness is a virtue.


GO: Newkirk will speak at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, 7:30 pm Wednesday, Nov. 17. Free.
 
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