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Ingrid Newkirk, the unlikely extremist

Controversy and outrage helped Peta make animal rights mainstream, but has its founder gone too far?

A wall of quotations greets visitors to the London office of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) near King’s Cross station. The first, from Paul McCartney, declares: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian.” The second proclaims: “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” That was said by Ingrid Newkirk, whom I have come to see.

Newkirk, who turned 70 in June, is Peta’s founder and president, and it is just possible that she will one day be remembered as the campaigner who did for animals what William Wilberforce did for slaves, Martin Luther King did for black Americans and Emmeline Pankhurst did for women’s suffrage.

In the 39 years since she launched Peta with four friends in the basement of her Maryland home, Newkirk has turned it into the world’s largest – and most controversial – animal rights organisation, with 6.5 million members and supporters, 480 full-time staff, an annual budget of $60m, a dozen offices around the world and a mantra that reads: “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment.”

Using undercover investigations, outrageous publicity stunts, advertising campaigns that set out to shock, and aggressive agitation, Peta has done much to end humanity’s abuse of animals. It has all but closed down the fur trade, exposed the cruelty of factory farming, reduced the use of animals for research and entertainment, forced anti-cruelty legislation on to statute books and fostered alternatives to food and clothing derived from animals. Today it receives more tip-offs about cruelty to animals than it can handle, and most companies swiftly capitulate when Peta challenges their practices. “Sometimes we can just pick up the phone and say ‘It’s Peta and we’ve heard you’re doing this’ and you can almost sense the panic,” Newkirk tells me.

Once regarded as an extremist fringe group that the FBI suspected of “providing material, support and resources to known domestic terrorist organisations”, Peta is today in serious danger of becoming mainstream, as environmental and health concerns align with those of animal rights to boost vegetarianism and veganism.

“We have to be careful to be still pushing the envelope,” Newkirk laughs as she presses me to try a vegan sausage roll from Greggs – one small example of how manufacturers and retailers have adapted to changing mores. Mercedes now offers cars with pleather seats and Burger King veggie burgers, while H&M is about to introduce faux leather clothes made of pineapple and orange fibre.

Peta’s London office and its 30-odd predominantly young, female employees are, of course, 100 per cent vegan. There is not a carton of real milk, woollen jumper, or leather belt, shoe or handbag to be seen. Had I been wearing a leather jacket, “I’m sure the conversation at some point would have got round to what animals go through for leather,” says Newkirk. “We take animals’ flesh. We take their skins. We take their feathers. We take their wool. We steal it all though they need it and we don’t.”

Newkirk, whose eyes well up as she recounts the pain we inflict on animals, takes her compassion even further than her employees. Her apparent warmth conceals an inner steel, an extraordinary single-mindedness, an absolute dedication to her cause.

She was sterilised when she was 22 because she had no desire to bring more humans into the world. “To animals all humans are Nazis,” she says. “I’m ashamed of many humans. I have a lot of human heroes but the vast majority of people just need to wake up.” She ended a brief marriage because “I didn’t have the time”. She has been arrested two dozen times for staging animal rights demonstrations. She has hung naked among pigs’ carcasses in London’s Smithfield market, and had a tube rammed down her throat in protest against foie gras outside Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London. She has lain naked in a coffin in Times Square to protest against a Macy’s fur sale. She has sat in a cage in Taipei to protest against the drowning of stray dogs. She has pulled a cart through Mumbai to protest against the mistreatment of horses.

At home in Norfolk, Virginia, where Peta has its big, modern, four-storey headquarters, Newkirk stops on highways to check roadkill is really dead and not just injured. She pays a self-imposed “animal tax”  whenever she goes out to enjoy herself at a cinema, restaurant or coffee shop. She visits dog shelters wherever she goes on holiday. She strives to eliminate from her speech “animalist” idioms such as “kill two birds with one stone” or “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”. If Newkirk sees a woman wearing fur she feels duty bound to accost her. “I’ll say, ‘You’re so beautiful. Why have you ruined your looks with that awful fur coat?’ If they’re rude back to me I’ll say, ‘Just bear in mind that what I’m saying to you is what a lot of people are thinking.’”

Newkirk does not appear fanatical. She is articulate and engaging. She has a sense of fun. She loves – improbably – Formula 1 car racing. She tells stories against herself. She recalls with great amusement how she was jailed with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders after staging a protest in New York and the cops spent all night waking them up for selfies, singing “Back on the Chain Gang” and offering them bologna sandwiches minus the bologna.

But fanatical she is. “I’d rather be keen on getting something done than be complacent or nonchalant or uncaring,” she says in her mild mid-Atlantic accent. “If everyone was fanatical about something good then we would fix the problem.”

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On the campaign trail: Ingrid Newkirk in Mumbai protesting against the mistreatment of horses

Newkirk was born in the UK, in Surrey. She followed her parents to India when she was seven, and to Florida when she was 18 – her father was an engineer who designed aircraft bombing systems during the Vietnam War. She was raised a carnivore and particularly loved liver and onions and Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies. She bought her first fur coat when she was 19. She rode ponies. Aged 21 and newly married, she moved to Maryland and began training as a stockbroker until her epiphany.

A neighbour moved, leaving behind several kittens. Newkirk took them to an animal shelter where she believed they would be cared for. The place was a tip. The kittens were put down. Newkirk was so appalled that she abandoned stockbroking for animal welfare work. She became Washington, DC’s first female dog-pound master, then head of the animal disease control division of the city’s Commission on Public Health.

She came to believe it was unacceptable for humans to use animals in any way – for food, clothing, research or entertainment. In 1980, she and four friends launched Peta. The fledgling group swiftly garnered huge publicity by infiltrating the Institute of Behavioural Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, and exposing a psychologist’s torture of 17 monkeys there. Its revelations led to the first police raid on an animal research facility in the US, and the first conviction of an animal researcher, though it was later overturned on a technicality.

Peta has since gone from strength to strength. It has persuaded food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies to stop testing products on animals; fashion houses and retailers to stop selling fur, angora wool, mohair and exotic animal skins; car companies, the US army, the US coast guard and Nasa to stop using monkeys and baboons for lethal safety tests and training exercises. It has forced fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC to require improved animal welfare from their suppliers – though Newkirk regards that as a pyrrhic victory because, she says, factory farming can never be humane. Peta has prevailed on major advertising companies to stop using wild animals in commercials. It helped close America’s biggest circus after exposing its cruelty to its animals. It was part of the effort to pressure SeaWorld to end its orca breeding programme, and much else besides.

Other high-profile struggles continue. Peta is locked in battle with Canada Goose, which uses goose down in its jackets and – for the hoods – fur from coyotes caught in leg traps (Canada Goose says its animal products are ethically sourced). It is seeking to end the Iditarod, the long-distance Alaskan sledge dog race, by targeting its sponsors – “We will get it down, no question,” says Newkirk, who claims some 150 dogs have died since it started in 1973. It is likewise seeking to end the Pamplona bull run in Spain.

Peta’s modus operandi is straightforward. It collects documentary and photographic evidence of cruelty, either by infiltrating factory farms, slaughterhouses, research laboratories and testing facilities, or with the help of disgruntled employees. It presents that evidence to those responsible and, where possible, suggests alternative methods or products not requiring animals. If rebuffed, it moves to more militant action, which is where Peta really generates controversy. It mobilises its supporters to picket, boycott and buy shares in companies so they can attend their AGMs. It posts harrowing videos online. It uses celebrities. It stages publicity stunts.

It has invaded Vogue’s New York offices, where Newkirk took over the reception and told callers, “We’re closed today due to cruelty.” One of its activists once threw a dead raccoon on to the plate of the magazine’s editor, Anna Wintour, as she lunched in the Four Seasons hotel. It has set fire to cars outside auto shows to protest General Motors’ use of monkeys and baboons in crash tests. It has stormed the Paris showroom of Jean-Paul Gaultier to protest against its use of fur, smearing the windows in fake blood. It has disrupted fashion shows. Its supporters have crawled along streets with steel traps around their legs. It famously persuaded top models to pose naked for advertisements bearing the slogan “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”. Another of its campaigns showed skin being stripped from the back of the topless model Nicole Williams beside the words “leather is a rip-off”.

Critics, including other animal rights groups, say Peta goes too far, that some of its attention-seeking methods are so shocking they drive potential supporters away.

Beneath a banner asking “If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a lamb?”, it once grilled a horribly realistic skinned “dog” outside a Sydney shopping mall on Australia Day, when Australians like to barbecue. It made a commercial showing shoppers recoiling in horror when they opened handbags made of exotic skins and found beating hearts inside. Another ad showed guts spilling from a slit leather chair.

An outrageous campaign called “The Holocaust on Your Plate” juxtaposed pictures of animals in factory farms with those of suffering Jews in Nazi concentration camps. It said that while “12 million people perished in the Holocaust” (adding six million non-Jewish victims of Nazism to the six million Jewish people who died), the same number of animals are killed for food in the US every four hours.

“Everything that turns you off about Peta has come directly from Ingrid, simply because she knows its shock value,” Alex Pacheco, a disaffected co-founder of Peta, said of Newkirk in a 2007 documentary entitled I Am An Animal. “The idea is that it brings attention to the issue. The problem is it’s so outrageous it just brings attention to the fact it’s so outrageous.”

Newkirk is unapologetic. She readily admits to being a “press slut” who courts publicity because, she says: “You can hand a leaflet to someone on the street, but if you can tell the facts by showing a video or getting a picture in the paper there will be a lot more eyes on it.” The images are shocking because our treatment of animals is shocking, she argues. People have to be confronted with the truth to shake them from their complacency. Nudity works because “everybody knows people will look twice if somebody has their clothes off”. The lesson of the Holocaust was that “Jews and others who were not part of the powerful ruling forces were considered unworthy of life, and that’s how we see [animals]. They have characters, they have thoughts, and yet we treat them worse than we treat inanimate things.”

Newkirk does not do moderation. She would like to see a world in which humans eat no meat, drink no milk, consume no eggs and wear no wool or leather. She will not use the word “pet”, preferring the term “animal companion”, and would like to stop humans owning animals as pets altogether – except where the animals have been rescued from shelters. She disapproves even of guide dogs for the blind, saying better social services would be preferable.

She would stop all forms of sport and entertainment that use animals, from circuses and zoos to pigeon racing and horse riding. “Is there one sport we can point to where the animal is a voluntary participant?” she asks. “A good gauge of whether they want to be there is: if you took the harnesses and bits from their mouths and opened the gates would they stay or go?” Pressed, she conceded that throwing a ball for a dog was just about acceptable.

She would like to end all medical research using animals even if, for example, experimentation on rats or monkeys was necessary to find a cure for Aids. “Ninety per cent of what’s tested on animals doesn’t convert to helpful things for us,” she insists, though the scientific community strongly disagrees.

“If only one in ten drugs makes it to pharmacists’ shelves because the other nine are found to be dangerous or ineffective, then that isn’t a failing system by any means,” said Chris Magee, spokesman for Understanding Animal Research. “If you are lost in the jungle, knowing which paths will not lead you out can be as useful as knowing the best path home.”

Newkirk also supports the Animal Liberation Front, a guerilla group that forcibly seizes animals from laboratories and farms, and has on occasion been accused of targeting scientists with letter bombs and incendiary devices. She wrote a laudatory book about the group, which the FBI regards as a terrorist organisation. “Violence to life would be a problem, but I wouldn’t mind razing a building if it was used as a terrible place to torture living beings. That doesn’t bother me at all,” she says.

Newkirk is revered by Peta’s supporters. Alan Cumming, the actor, told me: “Without Ingrid, who is an extraordinary woman, there would be no Peta, and without Peta, the animal rights movement would not be the global powerhouse that it is today. Ingrid has been at the forefront of this movement for 40 years and somehow maintains her sense of humour.”

But she has also become, inevitably, a figure of hate to some. She regularly receives online abuse, including death threats. Asked if she has any form of protection, she replies “maybe” but will not elaborate.

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And so Ingrid Newkirk presses on – fearless, driven, unshakeable in her determination to fight “human supremacism” and end the “barbarous era” in which we live. It is an era that “damns humanity”, she says. It is an era she compares to Nazi Germany when people “saw the trains go by but pretended not to know”.

She has no intention of retiring now that she has turned 70. “Too much work to do,” she says. “I’ll retire if the world becomes decent and kind, but at the moment this clock is ticking faster and I need to get a move on.” She will continue campaigning “to stop the abuse of animals in labs, live plucked, anally electrocuted, cut up in class, beaten in circuses, chained in the backyard, sold in pet shops, hit in the face with clippers, caught in traps, kept in cages, hunted, trapped and torn apart”.

She will continue even after her death. She has drawn up a will designed to ensure that “my body be used in a manner that draws attention to needless animal suffering and exploitation”. She wants her flesh used for a human barbecue, her skin turned into purses, an eye sent to the US 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”. An ear will be sent to the Canadian parliament to help it hear “the screams of the seals, bears, raccoons, foxes and minks bludgeoned, trapped and sometimes skinned alive for their pelts”.

Ingrid Newkirk hopes that, a century from now, the world will regard the way we treat animals today with same horror with which we regard slavery. “People will say ‘Did they really do that to animals? Did they really chain elephants in the circus? Did they really take wildlife away from Africa and put them in cages? Did they really force-feed monkeys chemicals?’ I’m sure there’s a chance that will happen.”

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order