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Interview with Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid Newkirk with fake blood on hands

HBO

You've dedicated your life to helping animals. Where did that commitment come from?

Ingrid Newkirk

I'm... very moved when I see an animal suffering, and I do see it. I do understand it, I think, in part because of the dog I grew up with who was very close to me. He was like a brother. We went everywhere together and did everything together and I often slept in his dog basket. So I could see, early on, the expressions of his joy, of his sadness, of his worries and I think I just picked up on that and carried it with me, so that if animals are in trouble, it's very easy for me to read their facial expressions, to read their posture. And it does matter a great deal to me. I can't stand suffering, I just can't abide it. I want to do something to stop it.

I think that animals are the most vulnerable of all victims, because not being human they are so easy to dismiss. It is the ultimate prejudice, really. Even if you are being rude or hurting somebody of another race or religion, there's something that pulls most people up short, because they realize they're human beings. But if you don't even have that going for you, then it's very easy to be treated like dirt, like an inanimate object.

So, the more I learned about animals, not just rescuing dogs, but about the hidden places where they suffer: inside laboratories and on the fur ranches, in factory farms, behind the tent at the circus-places people usually don't visit-then the more it became clear to me that I really wanted other people to know what I had found out, because so many people want to be kind to animals. So it's just a driving force in my life to be that annoying little messenger who says, "Guess what? Here's what's going on."

I think that animals are the most vulnerable of all victims, because not being human they are so easy to dismiss. It is the ultimate prejudice, really.

HBO

What has been your guiding philosophy at PETA these last twenty-seven years?

Ingrid Newkirk

The guiding philosophy is that silence is a social cause's worst enemy. And whatever you have to do to break that silence and bring the topic into the arena of public discussion, you must try to do. If I were to do it most comfortably, it would simply be in discussion, but that's not how the world works. I can say something and almost no one would pay any attention, but if a celebrity says something, our culture is such that the world stops, whether you like that celebrity or not, you listen.

I've learned over a period of years, especially as the media has become more demanding of titillation-it wants sex, it wants sound bites-to try to render our message into something less intellectual, if you will, really more packaged and ready to go. Whether you make fun of us, or you find us gimmicky and silly, the job that we have to do is to put this issue out before the public, and have people discuss it, argue about it, because, again, we can't have silence.

It sunk in right then and there that if ever we were going to have any kind of break through getting to know each other better, this was the time because he would be in Florida, and something about being surrounded by our memories aided the discussion. And he just seemed to want to talk. I remember I asked him very off-handedly if he missed mom, and he said, no. It wasn't a loving association, it was a functioning association. And I was stunned. And I look back on that as the moment when, if I had been thinking at all about making a film, that was the moment where it occurred to me, this is going to be bigger than just about our family.

Silence is a social cause's worst enemy. And whatever you have to do to break that silence and bring the topic into the arena of public discussion, you must try to do.

HBO

Your campaigns often make people very uncomfortable? Is that your intention?

Ingrid Newkirk

Well, it angers them because it's so much easier to think about something that's happening in a faraway place. The problem is that we have to penetrate this barrier that people have put up, where they say, Don't show me, I like my steak. I don't want to look at that. Or, I'm too sensitive to look at that. They're not too sensitive to carry on supporting that cruelty, it's just they're too sensitive to see the cruelty, because they know then that they would have to change what they're doing. So it's really about honesty.

HBO

You famously said, "When it comes to feelings like hunger or thirst, pain, joy-a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

Ingrid Newkirk

Because that's a biological fact; we may not want to face it, but if you take a cigarette and you burn a mouse, that mouse is going to suffer as much as if I take that cigarette and burn my own arm. It's a little mammal. I'm a slightly larger mammal, but the nerves and the pain, everything is the same. And when you see animals jump for joy, uh, they're just full of life and delight. Or, if they lose somebody they love and they grieve, they pine. All the animals do that, it's not just elephants and dolphins. They're emotional creatures. And so, when it comes to feelings, a dog is a rat is a pig is a boy. It's an inconvenient fact and one that we keep trying to pretend isn't true so that we can carry on doing things that hurt them, but we won't feel guilty about it.

I hope that it will open some eyes and people will see why it is important to care about animals and feel sympathetic to them, and know that The Golden Rule applies to animals as well as humans.

HBO

What are some of the things you're most proud of that PETA has done?

Ingrid Newkirk

Well, one of the things I'm most pleased about is we have started another part of our organization called PETA 2 for teens through twenty-one years olds. Those young people are learning now about what they can do to help animals.

HBO

You also plan to give parts of your body away when you die, is that true?

Ingrid Newkirk

Well, what good do I have for my body when I'm dead? I had a very bad experience on an aircraft once where we all thought we were going to die. So I started to think, Well, that would mean the end of my activism, which means so much to me. I want to get as much done as I can before I die. And I suddenly thought, Well hang on a minute, maybe I could donate bits of my body to be used in stunts after I've gone, so I would have a little bit more 'life,' if you'll pardon the expression, to my campaigning. I started to list all the bits of my body and found uses for many of them. I found a pathologist who's willing to do the deed. And I researched all the laws in the different states. And so, it's in my will.

HBO

What do you hope audiences will take away from the movie?

Ingrid Newkirk

I hope that it will open some eyes and people will see why it is important to care about animals and feel sympathetic to them, and know that The Golden Rule applies to animals as well as humans. And perhaps, by seeing some part of this film they'll decide that they're going to make, even little, changes in their habits. Perhaps not go to the animal circus. Perhaps have a vegetarian day once a week, or reject the fur lining in their gloves. They'll do something-and they'll tell other people about it, so that those people can do something, too.

I Am An Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA