(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #6, May 1995)
A few years ago I got the chance to interview Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of the animal rights organization The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She was on a speaking tour. One of the stops was Wright State University, an entity that PETA had recently exposed as violating animal rights laws. It’s a long interview, so let’s get right into it.
CF – Tell me about yourself. Were you always involved in animal rights?
IN – I was a meat eaters meat eater, believe it or not. My last meat meal before I became a vegetarian was triple ground prime, which I believe I ate raw, steak tartar, with onions and capers in it. I wasn’t one who didn’t like meat.
I was a law enforcement officer and I went to a farm where the people had just moved away. They just abandoned the animals. They had a liquor party and they had broken the bottles in the animals stalls. The animals, before they died, had cut themselves to pieces. As a law enforcement officer my job was to prosecute. While looking around for the evidence in order to swear out a warrant for cruelty I found one little pig who was still alive. I managed to pull him out and give him some water. I sat with him for a couple of hours under a tree while waiting for a vehicle to take him to a vets. In that time I felt so sorry for him. He was just grunting. He couldn’t lift his head up. I had to help him. He was in miserable shape. He felt rotten. There’s no escaping it. He could have been a dog or a child.
That night, after I had taken care of the pig and processed my legal papers, I was driving home and started to think of what I would have for dinner. I thought, “Well I have these pork chops in the fridge.” At that point I thought, “What on Earth am I doing? I’m hypocritical.” I was going to arrest somebody for doing to a pig here for what I paid someone to do to a pig somewhere else.
Even though I had never been to a slaughter house (I’ve been to many ever since) I knew as everyone does that it’s not a walk in the park. It’s a pretty horrible place. So I became a vegetarian.
CF – Did that experience then start you on the road to forming PETA and doing other animal rights activities?
IN – Actually, no. I was always heavily involved in rescuing animals. I always cared about cats, dogs, horses and wildlife. That brought me into the realm of caring about animals one traditionally sees on farms.
In one of my jobs, in which I worked for the government as an inspector for the health department, I was inspecting laboratories. I went behind the scenes where people usually don’t go. I saw such enormous carelessness and indifference. A lot of the people didn’t understand that a rabbit had feelings or a dog needed to exercise or that there needed to be someone at the lab overnight to stay with an animal who is recovering from a major painful surgery. The people just went home, punched the time clock and went to the movies. I thought that there must be another way. I started to do my homework and found that you could buy products like shampoo, toothpaste. oven cleaner and shaving creams that weren’t tested on animals kept in cages in a laboratory.
With that in mind we sort of started a group. Started telling people where they could eat vegetarian food, where they could buy cruelty free products, and the interest was phenomenal. Later we raided a laboratory with the police and actually charged an experimenter with cruelty to animals for the first time in US history. That put it on the news and I started to hear from people from all over the country who wanted to get involved. That was 1981.
The co-founder of PETA, Alex, Worked for four months inside a laboratory, just to get some experience. He had found monkeys who had actually bitten off their finders out of stress because the cages where so small. Each monkey was isolated from the others, which is typical, even though they are very social and they want to groom and to touch and be with each other the way people do. The cages were rusted. The bars were broken in places and were jagged and stuck out and wounded the animals in the tiny enclosures. They were not often fed for days at a time because the caretakers weren’t supervised and they just wouldn’t show up.
So he documented all that and went to the police. The police served a warrant and the monkeys were removed. That was the very first time in this country that something had actually been done about the conditions that people didn’t see in the labs. And since then we’ve kept on-going with expose after expose.
CF – People often get confused with the terms vegetarian and vegan, could you explain them?
IN – We usually do things backwards I think. People are giving up red meat mostly for health reasons, but also because it’s easier for people to feel sympathetic and empathetic to cows. Cows are big animals and have large eyes that look at you. People can related. It’s much harder for people to think of chickens and fish as suffering pain and not wanting to die, but they do just as much.
Vegetarianism means not eating whole animals. Not eating steak, hamburger or hot dogs that are made from the corpses of animals who suffered in the process.
Veganism goes a step further by cutting out other animal bits and pieces that are unhealthy for you like milk and eggs which we steal from animals. We take milk that a mother cow needs for her calf, and the mother cow must be kept in a permanent state of pregnancy and lactation in order to produce the milk. When a calf is born it’s taken away from its mother. If the calf is male, it’s put into the veal stall, these very small cruel spaces, for fourteen weeks. That mother loves her baby. SO vegans don’t want to disrupt that mother/calf bond. They don’t want to support the veal industry, so they don’t drink milk.
Ecology is also a factor because factory farms abound here and those are the intensive kinds of farms which are now prevalent and which feed most of America. That of course means animals kept in very tiny spaces, usually not enough room to turn around or even to take a few steps in their whole lives. Factory farm means battery sheds of say 15,000 to 30,000 chickens just piled on top of each other, not being able to even stretch their wings. None of the animals really see the outdoors until the day they go to slaughter. Their life consist of trying to fight for a little space, being feed through an automatic system, that if it malfunctions they die, if the heating and cooling system breaks down there really isn’t enough labor on these kinds of farms to come in and care for the animals. The animals are on their own. We’re very concerned that people are distancing themselves from the package of meat in the supermarket, but I’ve found a tremendous interest in vegetarianism here in Ohio, and I think that maybe some of the people who have been close to animals, who have worked on farms are rethinking the whole factory farming business.
They also don’t eat eggs. Eggs nowadays come from chickens that are usually kept in very close confinement with the lights on 22 hours a day in order to produce one egg. So there is a lot of suffering before those animals go down the same slaughter ramp that the beef and boiler chickens go down, being hung upside down having their throats slit. It’s a cruel industry.
CF – Cruelty free products are popping up everywhere, and companies that scoffed at this cruelty free market seem to be finally getting the picture. In fact I read that L’oreal has recently signed PETA’s Cruelty Free Pact. How do you go about targeting companies that have traditionally tested on animals to change their ways and sign your pact?
IN – Well it isn’t us really. We’re the ones who go behind the scenes. We use hidden cameras. We’ve had people go to work for these corporations in laboratories, which is what happened with L’oreal. We captured them on film force feeding their products to animals. Putting their products into animals eyes and letting their eyes ulcerate out. They were also putting the animals into inhalation chambers and giving them mass doses of substances that would just cause them to go into comas and convulse.
What we do is take that footage to the public. We give it to the press. We give it to members of congress. We show people just how horrible the tests are. We show the company what we got and we say we are going public before we do. We give them a chance to say all right, we’ll do something different.
A company that’s huge like L’oreal takes a lot of pushing. They don’t change their ways readily. It took activist all over the world, 35 countries including this one, to stop buying the product, to write and tell the company why they weren’t buying, to put their money into cruelty free products, and to do anything you can imagine. We actually had activist cementing themselves into cement shoes outside the entrance of the companies headquarters. We had activist hanging banners saying “L’oreal, don’t test on animals,” on the Eiffel Tower, because L’oreal is based in France. People went door to door talking to their neighbors, collecting L’oreal products and sending them back to the company and asking for a refund. Finally the company said all right, we’ll use the alternatives.
CF – How many companies have signed PETA’s Cruelty Free Pact?
IN – When we started in 1981, there were only two or three. Today, there are over 525 companies that don’t test their products in these cruel ways on animals. They instead use ingredients which are called known safe ingredients. These are ingredients and ingredient combinations that have been in human use for a long time so we know what they do.
They also use techniques such as invetro testing in a test tube to see how one cell interacts with another. They use human corneas from eye banks, they use cloned human skin sometimes, or they just use ingredients that are from plants rather than chemicals, that they know are not toxic.
CF – How is the state of animal welfare in the Dayton area compare to the rest of the country?
IN – Well I think each area of the country has it’s own special abuses, and certainly farming is a big problem in this area for animals, and human health.
CF – DO the companies that still use animals to test their products not have much faith in these alternatives, or are they unaware of them, or is it a matter of economics? Is it cheaper to use animals as compared to these alternatives?
IN – In the old days all these large animal labs were set up so the companies that still use animals have to get out of what they see as an investment in cages and facilities. However, once they get away from it, which those 525 companies can attest to. It’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s faster and it’s not the public relations hassle.
But old habits die hard for very large companies like Procter and Gamble and Gillette. I suppose they think themselves above the market place. They don’t think that we can garner enough support to force them to change. Toppling L’oreal, causing L’oreal to go cruelty free is certainly an incentive because it’s one of the largest companies of it’s kind in the world.
CF – Some people would agree with this point when it comes to cosmetics being tested on animals. However, many think that medical research on animals is worth it if it saves a human life.
IN – There’s so much misconception I believe, although people are starting to wise up and ask questions like how we cannot have cures for cancer, for aids, for diabetes. You know we have insulin, but remember insulin is not a cure. We don not have cures, yet we’ve had so many years, decades, centuries of being able to use animals any way we wished and we have used millions and millions of them. So if we are not getting anywhere with animals, only from a selfish perspective we should say wait a minute, this isn’t working. And more people are. We have the National Cancer institute which is now testing without the patter of little feet. They are now taking human cells in test tubes and they are having chemicals interact to see if they cause cancer.
They recognize that a lot of times that rats are the most common animal used in laboratories, simply because they are convenient, easy to handle, and cheap which is not very scientific reasons for using them. They are not little men. Their metabolism is completely different. They even get tumors from the fluorescent lights. When their sex hormones are in full gear and they can’t get near the opposite sex, the stress of that even gives them cancer. They manufacture their own vitamin C and humans can’t. They are nose breathers, we’re not. All these things are physiological differences that cannot be ignored.
So a lot of places are moving away, especially private industry. the government is sometimes slow to act, but the private industry is saying that there are other ways to conduct tests. But we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to demand of our representatives that money that’s going to make animals sick is re-channeled so we can open these drug and alcohol treatment centers that have been closed due to budget cuts. We can give eyeglass subsidies to the elderly. We can do something to bring down our infant mortality rate, which means education, prevention, it means putting money into helping people change their diets.
CF – I understand that you recently paid a visit to Wright State University, the same university that PETA exposed as being cruel to animals in its experimentation on them.
IN – We’ve been butting heads with Wright State. We sent one of our people there to work undercover in the lab because three very courageous employees, who were sick of trying to change things from the inside and coming up a brick wall, blew the whistle on Wright State. So we put somebody inside with a hidden camera and log books, a trained investigator. She worked with the whistle blowers and we found out that at Wright State in the lab, employees were actually bludgeoning animals to death with a claw hammer so they could take them home after the experiment to eat. These were pigs and rabbits.
We also found out that the veterinarian in charge was not looking after the animals in even the minimal standards. For example, they had named the dogs after different brands of beer, which doesn’t show a lot of respect. One dog called Genesee was very sick, couldn’t stand up right, couldn’t get her balance, couldn’t eat, and had trouble swallowing her own saliva, was just stuck in a sling suspended off the ground overnight. She was given an expired saline solution and was just left there while everyone went home. She died overnight. And that wasn’t an isolated incident.
So we went to the United States Department of Agriculture with our findings and the National Institute of Health which funds a lot of this animal experimentation at Wright State. They found Wright State in violation of 18 counts of the Federal Animal Welfare Act. And the Federal Animal Welfare Act doesn’t require very much, so to be in violation to that means that you are really giving nothing to the animals.
I went on a tour of the lab yesterday. I wasn’t able to see very much, they closed all of the blinds and they certainly wouldn’t let me near the animals, but I was able to establish a relationship with the new vet, the old vet was sort of forced to resign. The new vet seems to be a little bit more open to having a dialogue. I also just found out that they still use kittens to practice incubation for human infants, and a lot of schools don’t do that anymore, because kittens don’t have the same tracheas as human infants. Their gag response is different. You can imagine how they hurt them by pushing and poking this tube down the kittens throat. I offered to have PETA buy them a model of an infant which many schools use, because it has skin that’s very much like a human infants skin, unlike a kittens throat. I’m hopeful to work with them.
CF – What about the scabies experiments that are going on at Wright State?
IN – Well, I learned yesterday to my delight that the scabies experiments on dogs, which we exposed, have stopped. That’s over. It’s been done very quietly. But the scabies experiments on rabbits, who certainly feel as much pain as a dog, continue.
Scabies, for those who don’t know, is a mite. Wright State is infesting rabbits with many mites. The rabbits get bites all over their ears and scabs would form. The experimenters would just rip the scabs off of the animals ears without any pain killer. The rabbits screams could actually be heard outside the closed lab door. So we’re very disgusted that they continue these experiments. It’s ludicrous to look for a vaccine for scabies, which they say they are doing, because scabies come from the lack of proper sanitation. It crops up in nursing homes. It crops up in third world countries where there isn’t any clean or running water. If you really wanted to do something about it you wouldn’t try to vaccinate everybody against what isn’t a life threatening disease, you would put the money in trying to clean up areas, towards more inspections of nursing homes, and be more responsible.
CF – Many views towards animals, or pretty much anything, are formed during childhood. What can be done to help children become more compassionate towards animals? In the same respect, what can children do to help influence their parents views on the subject?
IN – The second question is certainly right. Many children are bringing their parents along which was what happened with the environmental movement. Children have the wonderful ability, not being influence by profit and career, to ask the very honest questions like “What’s that on my plate?” If it’s an animal the child might say “Well if it’s an animal and you taught me to love animals and care for animals, then why an I eating this animal?” And they’re learning about health. Their ears are more open. They are helping their parents to change.
I wrote a book called Save the Animals: 101 Easy Things to Do and as soon as I finished it I got all these calls from teacher and parents saying my kids are annoyed, it’s over their heads, could you please do a kids version. The kids book wrote itself, because all I did was go down to the mail room and collect all the letters, poems, pictures, ideas, questions and suggestions that kids wrote us about. They were marvelous. Kids are so good about animals. Kids are demanding vegetarian meals at school and at home and that’s compelling their parents to learn about nutrition. Whey they do they’re more apt to come along with seeing that this isn’t a fad.
Kids don’t want to dissect. They go out onto these cleanup crews at lakes and streams, they cut up six pack holders so that ducks don’t get caught in them. They pick up fishing lines that sloppy fisherman had left around. And they’re really into animal rights. And they wouldn’t touch fur with a barge pole.
CF – We’re about out of time. DO you have anything else that you would like to ad?
IN – I think the most important thing is to open one’s eyes, open one’s heart to the idea that animals aren’t things, they’re living beings just like us. They don’t want to hurt, don’t want to feel pain, don’t want to be lonely. And when we start to look at how a product got to the supermarket on the shelf, or when we’re asked to do something in school like cut up an animal in what seems a passive exercise in which the animal’s already dead, or we are asked to go to a traveling show in which animals are used to look behind the scenes, to wonder how that animal came to that place dead or alive, to day do I want to be part of this. If there’s a passionate alternative let me embrace that. And I have free vegetarian recipes for anyone who wants them, as well as free alternatives to dissection. And I will also like to say that I have a handy list that people can carry with them when they go shopping. I list all of the companies that do and don’t test on animals.
CF – Where can people write for the recipes of for more information?
IN – The address is PETA, Washington, DC 20015. And the phone number in Maryland is 301-770-PETA.