By Paul Sutherland
An Interview with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk
Paul Sutherland: Spiritual people tend to think that they’re compassionate and caring, and I think that they are. But there seems to be a disconnect about the suffering of animals. How do you connect people so that when they stick their fork into a free-range chicken, they feel the suffering behind each bite?
Ingrid Newkirk: I understand the disconnect because I grew up eating animals. I think most people who think they’re eating “humane” meat have obvious compassion, but I urge them to think more deeply about the fact that you can’t trust the label. Truly humane meat is soy meat. It’s tempeh meat. It’s lentil loaf. It’s things that are made without stealing from animals and killing animals. Humane meat is falsely labeled. It’s less cruel, or slightly less cruel meat. That’s the accurate label—with the emphasis on slightly.
Most compassionate people couldn’t watch the slaughter process, which isn’t even covered by that label. Most couldn’t bear to see inside a pig transport truck, where, in winter, the pigs are frozen to the sides because they have flesh like ours. If there’s rain coming through, or sleet, or snow, their skin actually gets stuck to the interior metal, and they have to be peeled off when they reach their destination. Most people couldn’t bear even the stench which animals like chickens have to live in on farms that bear the label “humane meat.” I appeal to the compassion in people who have gone so far as to think that they’re doing something good, when really, they’re still contributing to an absolutely needless and horrific torture, torment, mutilation, and fear in animals who have every bit as much feeling as we do.
So part of it is allowing them to connect with the suffering that’s probably going on, and really looking deeply at that—and that’s hard.
It’s always about empathy, isn’t it? It’s to put yourself in another’s place. There were times when a white person couldn’t imagine putting themselves in a black person’s place, or a man couldn’t imagine thinking that a woman’s feelings really mattered. Now is the time for us to put ourselves in the place of these other individuals who have emotions and feelings, just like ours. They’re the same.
I was just at the TED Conference in Rio, where Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, the happiest man in the world, spoke about empathy. But at the dinner, there was meat. People don’t connect it to suffering.
Some years ago, I was invited to speak at a peace conference in Palestine, and I was the only person talking about including the other animals. The first night of the conference, in Bethlehem, there was a dinner, and they served lamb shank. This is in Bethlehem: the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world, and all that. They accommodated my friends and me with a vegan meal, but that was a special request.
During the conference, there were speakers who had suffered all sorts of horrors: they had been in prison, been injured, or had family members killed. And almost to a person, at the end of their talk, each one said, basically, “Please. Respect me. I’m a human being.” So when my turn came, at the end of my talk, I thought, this is just too perfect. I said, “Please, it has to go beyond respecting human beings. It’s not, ‘respect me because I’m a woman,’ or ‘respect me because I’m a Muslim.’ It’s ‘respect me because I’m a living being, meaning, I feel.’”
In war, often we try to train the troops to consider the enemy subhuman to make it easier to kill. Maybe in some ways, we’re sort of doing the same thing with animals.
Oh, precisely. Absolutely. If we thought of them as like us, how could we possibly stick a fork in them and chew on their flesh, and steal the milk meant for their babies?
Tell me more about the film Cowspiracy.
Well, Cowspiracy is fabulous, because it does what we have been doing for years, only in movie form. We have offered to pay for meals at banquets for environmental groups if they would go vegetarian. We have pushed the United Nations’ report showing that all our forms of transportation put together don’t equal the harm to the environment caused by animal agriculture. We chased Al Gore around when he came out with his wonderful film, Inconvenient Truth, to say, “Al, we understand your family produces Angus Beef, but we cannot avoid the inconvenient truth that going vegan is the most important thing you can do for the planet.” We used to have a billboard saying, “Al, too chicken to go vegan?” Or vegetarian. Of course, he now is vegan, like Bill Clinton.
Cowspiracy actually goes and sits down with the heads of environmental groups and with local governments that are working on water conservation, for example, and says, What about animal agriculture? They all skirt the issue. They all avoid the question. They say, “Our donors or our consumers aren’t ready for that.” Well, if they’re not ready for that, then maybe when the floodwaters rise, and the storms increase, and they can’t talk to their grandchildren because they can’t fly anywhere . . . Cowspiracy is great, and we are arranging showings of it in various places.
I have the beginning of this quote that somebody said. “Why should I worry about future generations? What have they done for me?”