It took a few but significant moments in a young girl’s life to make her the world’s leading champion of animal rights today.
“The word ‘vegan’ wasn’t known before,” Ingrid Newkirk, 72, told NextShark in an exclusive interview. “Now, young people mostly shun fur because they abhor cruelty to animals, and it isn’t fashionable.”
Newkirk is the founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organization. She recently published a Korean version — among five other languages — of “Animalkind: Remarkable Discoveries about Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion,” a book that delves into the wonders of animal life.
The British American activist co-wrote the book with author and fellow vegan Gene Stone. “We are all animals of course, that’s a biological fact, so we humans are part of animalkind,” she said.
The making of an animal rights advocate
Newkirk’s recognition of humans and animals as equals can be traced back to her early childhood. Born in England in 1949, she grew up with a dog she considered a “big brother.”
“When I was born, there was already a dog in our family,” Newkirk recalled. “We did everything together as I was an only child. We slept in the same bed, went on the same walks in the woods and by the river, and we even got car sick at the same time.
“That grounded me in the knowledge that we may all come in different packages, but we all feel the same pain, love, loneliness, joy and other emotions.”
At the age of 7, Newkirk moved to New Delhi, where her father, a navigational engineer, worked for the government. Her mother, on the other hand, volunteered for Mother Teresa in a leper colony, where she also helped out packing pills, rolling bandages and feeding strays.
It was there in India where Newkirk witnessed animals suffer not only as laborers but also as objects of entertainment. In a 2008 interview with the Financial Times, she recounted watching locals stuff a dog’s mouth with mud and laugh as they watched the canine drown.
That dog eventually died in Newkirk’s arms. “That was a turning point,” she declared.
Newkirk moved to the U.S. in her 20s. Given that the abuse of animals is universal, she began taking concrete steps to bring them relief. Once, she took some abandoned kittens to a government-run pound in Maryland, an event that altered her career for life.
“I was so horrified by their conditions that I immediately resigned from my job as a stockbroker trainee and went to work there, cleaning kennels so that I could provide some comfort for them and reduce their distress,” she said.
Newkirk later realized that she could not value animals if she was still taking their lives. This compelled her to ditch eating meat.
“I stopped eating animals after realizing that the live snails I bought at a market, and then the live lobsters who waved their antenna at me in the restaurant, could not communicate with me in speech,” she said.
“I valued their lives and it was absurd for me to take that most precious thing from them.”
Newkirk founded PETA with activist Alex Pacheco in 1980. At the time, the concept of animal rights was almost unheard of. Newkirk said people thought it was crazy to suggest that they did not aspire to own fur coats. It was also crazy to think that it was wrong for children to witness wild animals in distress, being dominated and winding up in circuses.
Now, the largest circus on the planet — Ringling Bros. Circus — has closed, while countries are passing laws to criminalize the use of wild animals for entertainment. And there are other advances worth noting.
“Plant milks — like oat, almond, soy and so on — are everywhere as are vegan cookbooks, vegan celebrities and vegan food to satisfy every taste,” Newkirk said. “When we started, a rabbit was killed in pregnancy tests; now it’s just a litmus test in a saucer. We have whole human DNA on the internet, and organs on a chip, so there’s a lot that’s changing and a long way to go.”
How “Animalkind” came to be
“Animalkind” was recently published in nine countries with seven translations, including Korean. The releases came ahead of International Animal Rights Day on Dec. 10.
At its core, “Animalkind” is a testament to the sentience of animals, supported by discoveries from scientific research. But it goes beyond the presentation of facts by offering tools that guide humans on how to put an end to the abuse and exploitation of animals.
Aside from acknowledging humans as part of “animalkind,” Newkirk said she chose the title because “I truly believe that being kind is the most important thing in life.” Meanwhile, the book’s research process involved continued observation and documentation, which she has always practiced.
“I collect everything I see every day about who animals are: their amazing abilities, communication methods, their cleverness, their own cultures, and how very gradually humans are coming to understand how astonishing all the other species are,” she told NextShark.
“Animalkind” dispels assumptions that ancestors of modern humans had always eaten meat — this leads to the notion that we are not natural carnivores after all.
Still, Newkirk acknowledges that humans are creatures of habit and that change requires effort.
“I think people are mostly creatures of habit. They eat what they are told to eat and given to eat as they were growing up,” Newkirk shared. “Their taste buds get so used to certain foods that they have to wrest themselves away from what is almost an addiction to them, when they figure out that they are eating foods that betray their own values.”
She added, “People want to be thought of, and to be, compassionate, environmentally friendly and healthy. They want to feed their family food that provides them energy, stamina and longevity, but meat and dairy are none of those things.”
“Animalkind” distills the exploitation of animals in four areas of human life: science, clothing, entertainment and food. When asked which of these areas is the worst, Newkirk was quick to blame food.
“People eat three times a day and may snack in between. This means if they eat flesh and drink lactate, billions upon billions of living beings are raised in filth, crowded together in panic, and have their throats cut just for that [purpose],” she said. “So, that is the biggest number, and in it I include marine life as people must recognize that it is a fact that fish die hideously badly. Additionally, seals, whales, turtles and dolphins are among other animals in the oceans that die in discarded fishing equipment and nets.”
South Korea, where the Korean translation of “Animalkind” will mark its debut, is infamously known for its dog meat trade. To date, around one million canines are believed to be killed in the country for food each year, according to the BBC.
Newkirk maintains an absolutist view in her advocacy. “Dog or calf, monkey or chicken, all feel fear and pain, so if someone is appalled at the callousness of tying a dog in a sack, beating them, transporting them in all weather and killing them with blows (usually more than one) to the head, then they must be equally appalled at the same thing being done to any other scared, living being who did nothing to deserve such cruelty,” she told NextShark.
A PETA article announcing the release of “Animalkind” mentions “speciesism,” which was first coined by Richard Ryder, another animal rights activist, in 1970. But it is only just now beginning to become a buzzword in vegan communities. PETA defines the term as “a misguided belief that one species is more important than another.”
Newkirk slammed the idea, as well as the more human-centric “supremacism,” pointing out that no being is above another in the greater scheme of things.
While the fight for animal welfare has seen tremendous growth in recent years, Newkirk stressed that it is far from over. She urges people to be kind and be more proactive in making a difference.
“Please live the kindest life you can live. Explore all the ways you can make a difference, learn who animals are and pass on what you learn,” she said. “Most importantly, help others open their hearts, eyes and minds to their potential to be good people in relation to other living beings by feeding them vegan foods, showing them vegan clothing options, steering them to cruelty-free toiletries and cosmetics and never, ever patronizing animal-based entertainment.
“It’s wonderful to know you are not knowingly causing suffering to someone who is every bit as sentient as yourself.”
Featured Image via Ingrid Newkirk