Wake up to how short life is. When my father was about 80, he said, “I may look old, but I’m the same person I have ever been.” Now I know what he means. The problem is that when you are young, you don’t realize that time will pass, and you will wake up not only with wrinkles and sag one day, but with the terrible realization that you have only so much time left. I heard someone speculate what it would be like to have a watch that, instead of telling you what the time was now, would tell you how little time you had left and I took that to heart. I’m like the rabbit in Alice and Wonderland now and have to hurry up, hurry up. There’s no time to waste to get things done!
As part of my series about companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ingrid Newkirk. Ingrid is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — the largest animal rights organization in the world, with more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide. 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: in laboratories, on factory farms, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry. It also works on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds, and other “pests”; the companion-animal overpopulation crisis; and the abuse of “backyard dogs.” Newkirk is also the author of a dozen books in seven languages, and her latest book, Animalkind, comes out in January 2020.
Thank you so much for joining us Ingrid. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are many, but one thing that happened was when someone raided the University of Pennsylvania laboratories 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 who were annoyed at this injustice, to put it mildly, came and went from the office wearing monkey masks so that we could not be identified. Later, I met a prosecutor who apologized that they had been so misguided.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was giving a presentation at a conference, and showing slides about how orphaned children and abandoned dogs had to sleep together on the streets in Columbia and there was no government program to help them. By mistake, I said it was British Columbia and deeply offended a group of Canadians in the audience. I learned to talk slower!
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
Through our celeb ads, colorful demonstrations, educational outreach, corporate negotiations, investigations, and envelope-pushing litigation like our lawsuit to grant property rights to other animals and to have orcas declared slaves of SeaWorld, we are getting people to talk about animal rights issues. People, especially young people, are now considering who animals are, and recognize that they feel pain, joy, love, grief, fear just as humans do. The pay-off is that this change of attitude has meant an end of elephants in the circus, the end of breeding orcas in captivity when they should be in the open ocean, the end of car crash tests on pigs and monkeys in favor of computerized mannekins, misdemeanors for cruelty to animals being converted to felonies, the massive trend towards vegan foods and vegan clothing everywhere you look, major designers ending the use of fur and in many cases “exotic” skins, the switch to cruelty-free cosmetics, and so much more.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?
We take our inspiration from Sojourner Truth, who in the 1800s stood up to the powers that be despite being black, uneducated and a woman. She knew what was right and, despite ridicule and even violence, stood firm in her quest for the abolition of slavery, for consideration of those who society had decided would remain powerless. Once, she was giving a talk and a mob burned down the boarding house in which she was staying. Her wonderful words to the almost exclusively male assembly were, “If your jug holds a quart, and my little jug holds a pint, wouldn’t you be mean to deny me my little half measure full?”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Recognize that studies have shown the inarguable fact that biologically we are all animals and that, regardless of an arbitrary factor like species, we are all sentient, meaning we feel and think and have interests, so we must not shrug and walk away but live our lives as if we comprehend the impact of our behaviors on those “others.” Stop eating, wearing, experimenting on animals, using them for entertainment, or exploiting them in any way. Follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I would say the ability to listen, strategize, and set a strong example by being willing to do anything you ask others to do. Listen: We brainstorm all the time, and bouncing one idea off other people usually ends up delivering a super visual idea like setting up a shower cubicle on the public street to make the point that there’s more water wasted in producing a pound of steak than leaving the shower tap running all day. Strategize: You may want to do one thing, but if you think carefully and weigh the pros and cons without bias, you can act more strategically than shooting from the hip. Set an example: I may be 70 now, but I will still strip to hang on a meat hook with real pigs’ bodies to make the point that we are all “sisters under the skin.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be grateful for volunteers. I realized when I first ran into sleek, high priced lobbyists on Capitol Hill that most charities will never be able to compete with big corporations, yet our volunteer will do that work because they believe in it and that gives us a boost we otherwise would not have. That’s just one example, but we find volunteers who can do everything from stuff envelopes to fly a ‘plane to bring animals out of flood areas after a hurricane, and we are grateful that they give the animals their time. A volunteer once said, “I haven’t much money, but I have time, and because of PETA, I don’t get to waste it but to use it doing what matters to me, and what counts.”
- Feed people. Many people will keep on eating exactly what they grew up eating, but if you hand them tasty vegan food, cook for them, deliver dishes to your workplace, show them where they can get it or how easy it is to make, you will convert them to a kinder path. One of our members had her son bring his entire baseball team to their house, fed them vegan hot dogs covered in vegan chili without saying a word, and they loved them. On the way out, she let them know and they asked their parents to get “that kind” next time they served hot dogs or chili!
- Worry about how to pay for things last, not first. It’s like the movie, “If you build it, they will come.” Show people what you can do, work hard to succeed, and then it is likely that people will support you, not just the dream of what you want to do, but the reality of it. I wrote a book called “One Can Make a Difference” and had a ball interviewing people who had small ambitions, for example, reaching into the college dorm couch and collecting the change they found there to give to charities, and now they run a national “Change for Change” organization, that collects vast amounts from all the people who look down their own couches and pull out nickels and dimes!
- Don’t hire people just because they seem nice. That is a tough one, but if you want to be successful you must hire people who can do a a great job. Early on, I had to fire someone who was kind and friendly but really inept, and it was very hard to do, but the fault was mine for not testing them and wasting a lot of people’s time. When she was fired, we found that there were many other things she had not done or had messed up and our lesson was brought home.
- Wake up to how short life is. When my father was about 80, he said, “I may look old, but I’m the same person I have ever been.” Now I know what he means. The problem is that when you are young, you don’t realize that time will pass, and you will wake up not only with wrinkles and sag one day, but with the terrible realization that you have only so much time left. I heard someone speculate what it would be like to have a watch that, instead of telling you what the time was now, would tell you how little time you had left and I took that to heart. I’m like the rabbit in Alice and Wonderland now and have to hurry up, hurry up. There’s no time to waste to get things done!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That movement is animal rights and it’s here. The saying is that with all social justice movements you go through ridicule, discussion, and then acceptance. We are mostly at discussion. “Otherness” is just a matter of happenstance. All living beings think and feel, and when we face that fact we have the duty to reject human supremacy, which, like other forms of supremacy, is based on simple prejudice. That will bring us to animal liberation, and end to speciesism (bias in favor of one’s own species in the same way some people are biased towards their own race or gender or religion or football team).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” These are the words of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, whose disciple came to my girls boarding school in the Everlasting Snows of the Himalayas when I was about 8 or 9. We were stuck up, rich little kids and we didn’t like to think of things other than boys and clothes and music, but those words stayed with me and I now live them.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Lots, I enjoy Bill Maher’s fearlessness in putting forward his views, his commonsense in the face of lunacy, his atheism, his wit, his insight, his abhorrence of cruelty, and his amazing tolerance for opposing views, He makes me laugh. But to have a meal with him would be self indulgent, so I’ll pick Melania Trump because I have hope that she can be an enormous influence on arguably the most powerful man in the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
At PETA (@peta) | Twitter, on Facebook too.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!