Activist Ingrid Newkirk Fights Passionately for the Rights of Animals; Some Critics Say Humans May Suffer
Three decades later, something is being done—by Newkirk. Her name has become synonymous with the burgeoning animal-rights movement. Last month, at a glitzy, celebrity-studded gala in Washington, D.C., Newkirk and 300 others hailed the 10th anniversary of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the organization she founded in her kitchen with fellow activist Alex Pacheco. (This month, Newkirk. 41, is also celebrating the publication of her manual for animal lovers, Save the Animals! 101 Easy Things You Can Do.)
Today, PETA is the largest and most influential animal-rights group in the United States. With 325,000 members and an annual budget of $8 million, the 108-person staff wages a broad battle against everything from cosmetic testing to carnivorousness: The recent "Meat Stinks" vegetarian ad campaign, featuring country singer k.d. lang, was a PETA production. During the past decade, PETA has rescued thousands of abused animals from farms and pet shops and is trying to halt carnival cruelties such as mule diving. Explains Newkirk: "PETA's bottom line is that the acceptance of cruelty in any of its forms is not acceptable."
Although most people would agree that animals should be spared mistreatment, it is PETA's radical maxim "Animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on" that has drawn the organization into a bitter dispute about the ethics of medical testing on animals. Scientists have lambasted the organization, suggesting that its opposition to testing would eliminate gains made against diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and AIDS in order to save a few monkeys, cats and dogs. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan has dismissed PETA members as "nothing more than terrorists." Frankie Trull, president of the National Association of Biomedical Research, takes a more moderate view. "Nobody wants to use animals in research," she says. "However, at the moment there are still so many things that we don't understand about diseases that afflict so many people. Animals are our best surrogates." Newkirk doesn't dispute the fact that testing has resulted in medical advances but feels that "humans possess enough innovation and compassion to switch away from animal experimentation—whether to test drain cleaner, weapons or cures for human diseases."
PETA has proved its bite can be as strong as its bark. In 1981, Pacheco led police to a government-funded lab in Silver Spring, Md., where 17 surgically mutilated monkeys were found. The animals were rescued; the lab's funding was cut off, and its director was convicted of cruelty to animals—the first such conviction ever. In 1984, PETA evidence helped shut a Texas horse slaughterhouse, the largest in America. In the past two years PETA's Caring Consumer Campaign effectively forced cosmetic companies Estée Lauder, Avon, Mary Kay and Revlon to stop testing products on animals. "Ingrid is brave, talented and has a wonderful sense of humor, which is important in this terribly depressing work," says Fund for Animals President Cleveland Amory. "Whether it's rescuing a dog, pointing up cosmetic cruelty or going after a lab, she doesn't quit until something happens."
Newkirk grew up in an animal-loving household in Surrey, England. Her father, a navigational engineer, and her mother, a social worker, kept dogs, cats, chipmunks, mongooses and exotic birds. The family moved around the world and. in 1967, settled at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. There. Ingrid met a race car driver named Sieve Newkirk. They married the following year and moved to Poolesville, Md., where she began studying to become a stockbroker.
Her plans were permanently interrupted when a neighbor moved away, abandoning 19 cats. She took them to the local humane society. "It was the biggest dump I'd ever seen," Newkirk says. "Dogs cringed as you approached them. Animals sat in their own filth while workers sat on garbage cans smoking and laughing the day away."
Outraged, Newkirk convinced the shelter to take heron as a kennel cleaner. One day a local TV station showed up to investigate a complaint. The ensuing publicity got Ingrid fired, but soon the director was ousted and Newkirk was hired to replace him. One of her jobs was to destroy the shelter's unwanted strays, a practice that, while unavoidable, she thinks is "a lousy, lousy alternative." She did what she could to soften the animals' dismal end. "The night before they had to be destroyed," says Newkirk, "I would take home the ugliest, scruffiest, most decrepit ones and give them a special meal. I'd take them for a long walk and make a big fuss over them. For most of them, that was the best night of their lives."
Newkirk devoted herself passionately to animal welfare. She became Washington, D.C.'s first female poundmaster in 1978 and immediately halted the sale of animals to labs. Soon after, she became Director of Cruelty Investigations for the Washington Humane Society, where she aggressively prosecuted animal abusers, sending one man to jail for 10 days for burying six puppies alive.
Then, in 1980, Newkirk underwent a profound philosophic conversion after reading a book called Animal Liberation. Written by Australian Peter Singer, Liberation opposed "speciesism" and argued that animals deserved equal moral consideration and rights. Newkirk was stunned. "Before, I simply thought that people shouldn't cause animals unnecessary pain." she says. "I had never thought that maybe they don't belong to us, that they have their own place on the planet."
The shift was a logical step for Newkirk. Two years earlier she had become a vegetarian after a particularly harrowing cruelty investigation at a farm. Newkirk isn't sanctimonious about her choice. "I'd give anything for a steak sandwich, but my test is, if it screams and runs when you go after it, don't eat it."
Newkirk met Pacheco when he walked into the D.C. animal shelter and offered his assistance. They decided to found an organization to "fight on the front lines" for animal rights. "Our first job is to show people that things are really bad,' " says Newkirk. "Our second job is to help people change."
Over time, Newkirk's long days—and 20 arrests for civil disobedience—took a toll on her marriage. In 1980, she and Steve, who had no children, divorced. Because of threats (she regularly receives dead animals in the mail). Newkirk declines to discuss her personal life but will say "I have a very nice relationship with someone who is very kind."
Newkirk and PETA colleagues have established an eight-acre animal sanctuary near Rockville, Md., where she lives with pigs, guinea hens, chickens, ducks, goats, rabbits and sheep. Inside the rambling brick house, baby gates enable the four-footed residents to come and go as they please. For Newkirk, the Utopian community is one more PETA message she hopes will catch on. "Ten years ago I used to say our efforts for animal rights were like bubbles in a pot." she recalls. "We had a bubble here, a bubble there. One day I knew there would be lots of bubbles at the surface. When I look around me now, it's wonderful. The pot is really starting to boil."
—Susan Reed, Sue Carswell in Washington, D.C.