PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk

A month after asking Timothy McVeigh to die a vegan, the president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals dares you to say she cares more about animals than people.

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PETA's Ingrid Newkirk

At first glance, urging the murderer of 168 innocent people to give up meat, eggs and dairy out of consideration for animals seems either insanely optimistic or crassly exploitative. For Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, her group’s letter to Timothy McVeigh made perfect sense. In a nation that matter-of-factly slaughters 9 billion animals a year, Newkirk and her colleagues must maintain an incredible amount of hope.

The letter to McVeigh, penned by PETA staffer Bruce Friedrich, reads as a sincere expression of concern not just for animals but for McVeigh’s own spiritual well-being. Friedrich writes:

“I believe that your decision to go vegan would help the movement for compassion toward animals, and I am certain that if you made the choice prayerfully, it would profit your soul. As a Christian, I believe in acts of repentance, and it seems to me that you might benefit very much from such an act.”

If it sounds like PETA’s getting more ambitious, it is. In order to better pursue multinational juggernauts, PETA has opened offices in Britain, Germany, Italy and India in recent years. Fast-food chains, clothing designers and even U.S. presidential candidates know the bitterness of the long, hard P.R. winter that is a Newkirk-directed campaign. Tofu cream pies are thrown at CEOs, gruesome billboards go up near corporate headquarters and throngs of vocal protesters dog profit margins at the wave of Newkirk’s hand. McDonald’s, General Motors, Calvin Klein and, most recently, Burger King have all buckled under the strain in one way or another.

Newkirk, who served 25 years as a Maryland state law enforcement officer in addition to co-founding PETA in 1980 with Alex Pacheco, hopes the public will see past the organization’s sensational tactics. It’s the substance of the mission that still drives her after two decades: endeavoring to end what she perceives as humanity’s moral divorce from much of the animal kingdom.

Bruce [Friedrich] was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying, “I don’t know what it means for the vegan movement if Timothy McVeigh in his final days adopts a vegan diet.” Judging from the media coverage, it seems like a vegan McVeigh could go a long way toward permanently relegating vegans to the wacko column in many minds.

I’m never afraid of that. I can’t imagine why anyone would wish or hope that McVeigh continues to be violent until the very last minute. That’s mean and rotten at the core because it means people don’t really want him to change. If there’s anyone you would want to change, it would surely be someone who has demonstrated the active capacity to hurt and to kill.

I can’t imagine why anyone would root for him to have a steak — that would make him the poster boy of the hunting and fishing community. He’s very proud to say he does hunt, which puts him in the same league as all the school shooters, almost without exception. They either hunted themselves, or used their parents’ hunting guns, or were familiar with hunting. So he couldn’t be the poster boy for veganism when he’s lived his entire life being a hunter, and a meat-and-potatoes man, but it would show that there’s hope for absolutely anyone.

It also draws attention to the fact that even in the federal prison system, you can now get vegetarian meals. It will be food for thought and debate for several years to come if he does this. The federal prisoner who was executed before him took as his last meal an olive with the pit so that an olive tree, a symbol of peace, could grow out of him when he was buried. I think he was sending a message that nobody is irredeemable in a Christian context. Maybe this is the first time Timothy McVeigh has had his violence questioned in a context where he can actually start exploring what he does.

Have you had any feedback from the families of the bombing victims?

No. When Jeffrey Dahmer was eating people, we did hear from one of the victim’s family members. She herself had become a vegetarian after thinking about what the animals go through every day, and what somebody close to her had gone through for someone’s bizarre behavior and taste. Obviously everyone’s heart goes out to the families of victims — as Bruce says, “You can’t even remotely imagine what they must be going through.” But this is not disrespectful of them. If anything it’s trying to stop future violence.

Will you follow McVeigh’s advice and solicit Ted Kaczynski’s opinion on animal rights?

I think we will take that into consideration. But at the moment we would like to work with McVeigh in his final days.

What more can be done with McVeigh?

Bruce has written back to him. And we’re hoping to continue the dialogue. Because he wouldn’t be the first hunter who has been convinced that there is something wrong with what he did — hunting people or hunting other beings. He’s raising questions in his correspondence that the average person who eats meat raises: “Where do you draw the line?” Obviously McVeigh has trouble knowing where to draw it at the top, and where to draw it at the bottom, with bugs or what have you. These are typical responses of someone grappling with a new idea.

When you say drawing the line at the top, do you mean categorizing all humans as worthy of moral concern?

Yes, and I only mean that in our social context. You know, there are recent studies that show a lack of empathy can be a physical condition of the brain. Some people definitely have their brains wired in such a way that they are more able to be empathetic [than others]. And it may be that McVeigh is not capable of putting himself in the shoes of a person who is a victim, or the animal in the sights of his rifle. But something is going on there, as he acknowledges the fear and the horror of the slaughterhouse, though there is an irony in that he obviously hasn’t related that to taking the lives in Oklahoma.

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Much of the media coverage of the McVeigh correspondence has accused PETA of exploiting McVeigh’s crime. Why do you think it’s acceptable to compare one human tragedy to another, like Chinese forced labor camps to Nazi concentration camps, whereas, to many, it is totally unacceptable to use the killing of innocent humans as a way of starting a conversation about the killing of innocent animals?

Historically we’ve always had the problem of looking at what we’re doing now as a society and finding it much more comforting than looking at what has happened in the past. By that I mean we now acknowledge that you can’t do horrible things to human beings. That was not always the case — look back at the Holocaust or the treatment of African-Americans in this country. We can watch specials on television and read about it and we can have discussion groups in our schools about it because it is in our past. So we can feel superior by condemning it. What is extremely hard for us to do is anything that challenges current habits.

So people who speak for animals, like us, have to find ways to make comparisons when there is uproar over a violent act. What the viewer and listenership are doing is condemning violence by being upset at what Timothy McVeigh did. So if the underlying principle is the condemnation of violence and needless slaughter and the causing of suffering, then we say, “Here actually is something that you can do to reduce that violence, pain and slaughter.”

It’s much easier for us to condemn — rightly or wrongly — things that others are doing or have done and in McVeigh’s case, I think, rightly. But it’s far more difficult and uncomfortable for us to examine what’s on our own plates or how we’re contributing to needless pain and death.

I think the Nazi war posters are extremely interesting because categories of people are accused of having no feelings, being inconsequential and outside the realm of human consideration. What we’re doing now is exactly what we condemn others for doing in the past. It’s simply that the category of victims is different. And who the victim is shouldn’t make a bean’s bit of difference if you’re fighting to stop any violence or any unnecessary suffering or any needless death.

Just in the last 10 days there have been two significant pieces in the mainstream press. The Washington Post had a front-page article exposing conditions in slaughterhouses, letting people know — perhaps for the first time for many people — that conscious cattle are having their legs cut off and are being skinned.

Another piece, in USA Today, discussed culture among animals; they have family relationships, they learn, they are feeling and thinking beings. This is no news to animal rights activists. It’s just that now scientific study after scientific study has confirmed animal culture.

The tragedy comes after all these articles come out, while we say, “Gosh, animals have culture.” We carry on slaughtering animals for nothing more than a sandwich or, in Jennifer Lopez’s case, some mink eyelashes. So we don’t use the knowledge that we’re gaining because it’s inconvenient for us. Just as we treated blacks as incapable of maternal love and so on, we continue to use animals as if they are commodities when they are actually families, cultures and individuals.

In this instance, and in past campaigns, PETA has offered plausible, well-intentioned motives: Bruce wrote the McVeigh letter after encouragement from concerned friends in Oklahoma. Some people will give you the benefit of the doubt, but a lot of intelligent people will simply see these explanations as part of a P.R. ploy. And you don’t always get to go into depth on the issues as we are doing here — do you ever worry that you’re not getting through to enough smart, influential people?

I could say yes or no. Because yes, I worry that we’re not reaching enough of any kind of people simply because it is so tough to have a very serious social issue and to be able to get it into the public’s mind in any significant way, or to reach significant numbers of people unless it is couched in something sexual, something confrontational, something provocative. We had Monica Lewinsky every day for over a year, like it or lump it. We have McVeigh probably almost every other day. It’s very, very hard to penetrate the news. And we have this enormous obligation. You mention some people tuning out because they just think our approach is cheap; if we didn’t do this, no one would hear us. If we didn’t use these natural links, and they are to us natural links, no one would hear us. So our obligation is clear.

How do you respond to people who claim PETA cares about animals at the expense of caring about humans?

I’d like them to give us one example. A group is set up to care about homeless people — it would be like accusing them of caring more about homeless people than orphans. That’s their mandate. Our mandate is to care about and make heard the voice of the largest group of victims in the history of the world, encompassing 9 billion animals killed a year just for food in this country — not counting all the animals in entertainment, the elephants chained behind circuses, the animals with electrodes in their heads in the laboratories.

Our perspective is that if anyone says that, they can’t point to a single incident in which we care more about one animal, human or other. Secondly, vegetarianism is a diet that stops people from getting heart disease, cancer and stroke. Veganism is a diet that stops children from getting ear infections and colic. Vivisection is wasting money that could go to a birth defects registry instead of to addicting monkey mothers to cocaine. There isn’t anything we do that doesn’t benefit us as human beings — we simply have to shift the marketplace to a compassionate lifestyle from a callous lifestyle.

I interviewed artist Sue Coe once and she told me that she is much less forgiving in her renditions of lab workers than she is in depictions of slaughterhouse workers because slaughterhouse workers are usually immigrants, always poorly compensated and working in a field no one aspires to work in. Do you share her attitude?

I have a hard time condemning anyone who is cruel to animals because I think that if they could feel or understand what they were doing — the way somebody who works for a humane society or an animal rights group does — they wouldn’t do it. We need to stop the activity and not focus on condemnation of the individual.

People from all walks of life and of all economic backgrounds can be kind or cruel. So it may be extra-irritating to me, personally, to have to deal with someone who has an advanced university degree who is swimming rats to death to test executive stress, and much more comfortable for me to try to explain to an underpaid slaughterhouse worker with carpal tunnel syndrome who lives in a shack that looks like South Africa, outside the Purdue plant in Salisbury, Md., that what he’s doing isn’t good for him or the animals. But really, either individual has an equal chance of being educable as to what he or she is doing to animals. And my personal feelings about their level of education don’t play into it. Very poor people refuse to do things that are ugly to animals or people in times of great crisis, even at the risk of their own lives. Similarly, well-educated people do bastardly things to people and animals.

You’ve said that you would be glad if hoof-and-mouth disease were to take hold in America. Do you think moving the mass killing of animals into the public eye as has happened in England and elsewhere would result in a sustained increase in sensitivity to the plight of animals raised to be food?

You never know. But at least there’s a shot at it. In Germany we actually gave away 43,000 vegetarian starter kits in six weeks after the hoof-and-mouth outbreak. What has happened in Germany, the U.K. and France is that people are exploring vegetarianism because of mad cow — which is very frightening — and which we have here, I have no doubt. The only reason we can say we haven’t is because we only test — I think last year it was 2,300 cows — and we killed 36 million.

So I do believe seeing cows burning on the farms will wake a few people up who otherwise will never see their screaming deaths in the slaughterhouse. And it will save the cows the very ugly transport in all weather extremes to the most frightening places on earth. Having stood on the kill floors of slaughterhouses I can assure anyone that they certainly are the most frightening places on earth for the animals who, as the Washington Post has said, are often skinned while they’re alive.

You walk an interesting line in your relationships with the captains of the meat industry — on the one hand you publicly wish for their financial ruin and on the other you are able to nudge Burger King and McDonald’s into taking small but significant steps in the way of improving the lives of animals. Is there any example you look to for guidance on how to negotiate victories with powerful interests whom you’d ultimately like to see out of business?

What I say to myself all the time is that we have our heads in the clouds looking for Utopia, but we have our feet firmly planted on the ground dealing with reality. We make no bones about the fact that we want an end to all cruelty to animals. But I think the meat industry and the leather industry and the experimenters understand, especially if we’re fighting them, that we will back off if they move society and their industry a step forward. We’re not going to stop everything overnight, so while we work for the ideal we certainly wish to provide the carrot-and-stick incentives to move along toward that goal.

Animals are going to die by the millions today in all sorts of ugly ways for all sorts of ridiculous, insupportable reasons. If one animal who is lying in a battery egg farm cage could have the extra room to stretch her wing today because of something you’ve done, I think she would choose to have that happen.

In the past 21 years PETA has outgrown its original location, the basement of your suburban D.C. home, and become a huge international nonprofit with 700,000 members. Did you ever imagine the group would become what it is today?

I’m very bad at this. I’m not a crystal-ball person. Funny enough, I don’t really take much comfort in it because I just know the enormity of the work ahead. I never thought about it then and I don’t really think about it now.

You just keep going.

Yes, every day in the Augean stables with my spoon.

Peter Brandt is a writer living in Seattle. His work has appeared in Punk Planet, Insound.com, Buddyhead.com, Theryecatcher.com and the San Francisco Examiner.

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