Part of our job is to be provocative to grab people’s attention: PETA Founder and animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk

In an exclusive interaction with HerStory, the controversial Ingrid Newkirk gives us the skinny of what PETA is up to, especially in India.

Part of our job is to be provocative to grab people’s attention: PETA Founder and animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk

Monday June 17, 2019,

11 min Read

Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid Newkirk, Founder and President of PETA

Ingrid Newkirk, the Founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), celebrated her 70th birthday on June 11. Dubbed by Fortune magazine as the "Mother Teresa of rabbits", she has shaped the world in many ways.

Newkirk has an interesting Indian connection apart from her work for PETA. Born in Surrey, England, she lived in Europe until she was seven-years-old.

Her parents then moved to New Delhi where her father worked as a navigational engineer and her mother volunteered for Mother Teresa and various charities. Her early volunteer experiences - packing pills and rolling bandages for people who were suffering from leprosy, stuffing toys for orphans, and feeding street animals - are what led her to believe that any living being in need is worthy of concern.

She quotes her mother who said, "It's not who suffers, it's that they suffer." When she was eight, Newkirk stopped a man from beating a bull that had collapsed with exhaustion from pulling a heavy cart in the sun.

This was the beginning. Since founding PETA US in 1980, she's planted the PETA flag in countries around the world, sparking a global movement that has changed attitudes towards animals and won a tidal wave of landmark victories under her leadership.

Her life, however, has not been without controversy. Over the years, Newkirk's commitment to animal rights has garnered everything from admiration to criticism to death threats. But she continues on her mission, undeterred.

In an exclusive interview with HerStory, Ingrid Newkirk tells us how it all began, about PETA in India, and the way forward.


Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid as a young child

HS: Can you tell us about the story behind the founding of PETA?

IN: In 1970, I was studying to become a stockbroker. A neighbour abandoned some kittens and I took them to a local animal shelter. I saw how some of the workers there abused the animals and that was a life-changing experience for me. I started working on behalf of animals, investigating cruelty cases. I read and was deeply inspired by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, and after my personal experiences of seeing wild animals doomed by steel traps, finding a pig left to starve to death on a farm, and inspecting laboratories and circus acts for the government, I realised that there needed to be an organisation like PETA.

HS: What are the areas you are most passionate about? 

IN: I feel particularly moved by the plight of chickens. Billions of chickens are eaten in India and when you go down some city streets, it is painful to see these dear little birds, stacked up in crates, covered in lice, afraid, awaiting the knife, in the sun and the dirt. They are just miserable.

I am also drawn by the plight of rats as so few people see them as the little mammals they are and the only reason they are “pests” is because they come to try to take what we leave in the streets. They have exactly the same feelings as a human and the manner in which they are exterminated with cruel poisons that eat out their insides is outrageous.

PETA Campaign

Ingrid in one of PETA's campaigns

HS: What have been PETA's biggest campaigns?

IN: PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: suffering for decades of animals in laboratories, slaughter for food, killing and torture in the clothing trade, and lifetime enslavement in the entertainment industry. We also work on other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds, and other “pests”; dogs and cats scrounging to exist on the streets in the face of growing human encroachment, for which sterilisation, not extermination, is the cure; and replacing “beasts of burden,” including enslaved and broken elephants, with mechanised vehicles.

HS: PETA has always been in the news, embroiled in controversies.

IN: PETA’s purpose is to stop animal suffering, and we use all opportunities to reach millions of people with powerful messages. We have found that people do pay more attention to our more provocative actions, and we consider the public’s attention to be extremely important. Sometimes this requires tactics that some people find outrageous or even rude, but part of our job is to grab people’s attention in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action. The current situation is critical for billions of animals, and our goal is to make people think. We're not out to be popular, but effective.

HS: How have you managed to convince the beauty & cosmetics industry and footwear industry, etc in their treatment of animals?

IN: So many now are cruelty-free, and that is because shoppers demanded it when we showed them films and photos and facts of the torment animals endure to put a pair of shoes or a purse or an eyeliner on the market. We always try the polite letter first, the request for a meeting, the sharing of experts, and we have all the science on our side. There is always the sensible and hardworking approach. If we get the cold shoulder and don’t get anywhere, we’ll agitate, provoke, and say, ‘we represent many people and you cannot ignore this’. Our members may bombard the corporate office with a demand that the company do the right thing and switch. We will even buy shares in the company and bring stockholder resolutions at their annual meetings.

HS: Can you share the most interesting anecdotes/incidents that happened to you since you began PETA?

IN: My favourite time in India was a tour of schools to read from my book Kids Can Save the Animals. The children were so proud of their kind deeds, and rightly so: one had persuaded her uncle to free the parrot he kept in a tiny cage as if she were a toy; another had rescued turtles from boys throwing stones at them in a pond; others fed dogs and put water out for birds on their school grounds, and so on.

There are many others, but one thing that happened was when someone raided a university laboratory and removed 70 hours of videotape showing experimenters mocking injured monkeys, slamming their heads into an “accelerator,” smoking cigarettes while doing surgery, and so on. Instead of going after the researchers who committed these abuses, law enforcement suspected PETA, because of our high profile, of raiding the lab. To avoid being served with subpoenas, all of us came and went from the office wearing monkey masks so that we could not be identified. Later, I met a prosecutor who apologised that they had been so misguided. However, through our work, the experiments were ended.

Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid campaigning against elephant slavery in India

HS: What has been your experience with PETA in India?

IN: In every country, things are slightly different, but the underlying choice is the same: to be cruel or to be kind. The manner of presentation sometimes has to be different to respect the culture. Some of our female staff members were beaten up by agitators in the Muslim community in Bihar simply for suggesting that goat sacrifice was an option, and could be replaced by the offerings of vegetables and fruit foods for the Eid. On the other hand, Hindus have attacked us for saying the obvious: that elephants aren’t treated like gods in temples, but as slaves who have been “broken” as children with fire and beatings and who should not be chained on cement, their legs rotting under them.

But changes are always happening: at PETA India’s suggestion, the Indian Pharmacopoeia Commission updated Indian Pharmacopoeia, the official compilation of approved tests for drugs made and sold in India. The new edition allows companies to use a modern, non-animal test for fever-inducing drug contaminants instead of testing on rabbits.

And after years of campaigning by PETA India to end the use of all animals in circuses, late last year, draft rules were issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change proposing to ban the use of elephants, horses, and all other animals in circuses across the country. Now they must be enforced.

HS: How have celebrities helped you in the movement?

IN: No one has been more helpful than our honorary director, Pamela Anderson, who came to India a few years back, and who devotes every free moment to women’s, children’s, refugees’, water-resource, and – in a big way – animal rights issues.

Other wonderfully kind celebrities are all over our website – singers, actors, athletes, and designers including Sir Paul McCartney, Amitabh Bachchan, both of whom helped us free the beaten elephant, Sunder, who was rescued by PETA and is now leading a happy life in a vast forested elephant care centre in Bengaluru.

Virat Kohli, Hema Malini, Shikhar Dhawan, Jacqueline Fernandez, Vidya Balan and others joined PETA's campaign against the cruel "sport" of jallikattu.

Kartik Aaryan, Hema Malini, Anushka Sharma, Lara Dutta, R Madhavan, Shahid Kapoor, Sonu Sood, Esha Gupta, Richa Chadha, Kartik Murali, Amrita Rao, Pankaj Advani, Poorna Jagannathan, and Rahul Sharma are among the stars who teamed up with PETA India for ads and exclusive interviews about their healthy vegetarian lifestyles.

Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra, Rohit Sharma, Sonakshi Sinha, Trisha Krishnan, Dino Morea, Sunny Leone, and Jay Sean all posed for PETA ads promoting the adoption of homeless dogs and/or the sterilisation of dogs and cats.

Rahul Khanna, Vijender Singh, Celina Jaitly, Hard Kaur, Jacqueline Fernandez, Sandip Soparrkar, Jesse Randhawa, and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and sons Amaan and Ayaan have all spoken out against jailing animals in zoos, keeping them captive in circuses, using and abusing them in performances, or keeping them caged.

John Abraham, Anushka Sharma, Jacqueline Fernandez, Arjun Rampal, and Zeenat Aman are among the top celebrities who have written letters to authorities calling for a ban on the cruel use of horse-drawn carriages in Mumbai or helped in other ways.

Former world number one doubles tennis star Sania Mirza used her racquet not just to win her matches but also to fund the work for animal welfare by putting it on the auction block. She also appeared in a print ad to promote adoption of homeless cats. Raveena Tandon, Dia Mirza, and Ileana D'Cruz showed their legions of fans what happens to animals who are skinned for fashion.

Ingrid Newkirk

HS: What do you think of the rising trend of veganism?

IN: In India, particularly, there are so many fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and delicious vegan dishes, that one can revel in vegan food. I consider veganism to be a way of life, not just what we eat but in everything we do. And it's wonderful. Anyone who is considering going vegan is about to embark on something exciting and interesting and tasty, and PETA India will help. And they'll make themselves feel better, not just healthier.

HS: I read in a news piece that your will stipulates that your skin be turned into wallets, your feet into umbrella stands, etc. Is it true?

IN: Yes. I was almost killed in an incident on a ‘plane, and afterwards I thought how I would like to continue my activism after I die, so I have a lawyer and a pathologist to help me so that if my body is still intact when the time arrives, my will directs that my flesh be fried up for a human barbecue and that my skin be made into purses and other leather products to show that no one wants to be killed to be made into a kebab or a shoe. The difference is that I will be a volunteer and give my body parts willingly, whereas animals’ flesh and skin are taken from them by force and they are killed in horrific ways.

HS: Where does PETA go forward from here?

IN: Animal rights is the way to go, and we are leading that way as much as we can, but we need everyone to do their part, to choose a way to help. The saying is that with all social justice movements you go through ridicule, discussion, and then acceptance. We are mostly at discussion.

PETA India will continue to show the appalling cruelties inflicted on bulls during the male-dominated jallikattu events, go forward with our ‘Save the Boy Child’ campaign, which reminds the public that millions of boy calves are thrown out by the milk industry to die of starvation, and male chicks in the egg industry are commonly ground up, drowned, burned, crushed, thrown into rubbish bins, and even fed to other animals while still alive. And that the way to stop that is not to drink cow’s milk that is meant for her own babies, and not to steal eggs from hens.