Ingrid Newkirk has no plans to retire. Having just turned 74, the president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which she co-founded in 1980 with fellow activist Alex Pacheco, has seen plenty of changes in how we value the lives and wellbeing of non-human creatures. Fur coats are no longer the coveted status symbols they once were, veganism and vegetarianism are mainstream, and circuses have stopped exhibiting elephants in chains.
But the work, she says, is far from finished, with crises on all fronts, and PETA is infamous for doing whatever it takes to draw attention to their causes, no matter how cringe or extreme it may seem. Members have thrown red paint at models wearing fur at designer fashion shows. The organization once curated a traveling exhibition that compared images of factory farming with photos of Holocaust victims, drawing widespread condemnation (despite being created by someone who lost relatives in concentration camps and funded by an anonymous Jewish philanthropist). Newkirk herself suggested that the Minnesota dentist who lured Cecil the lion out of a Zimbabwe national park to hunt and kill him in 2015 should be “hanged.” Overall, her revolutionary style has left many with the impression that PETA may be well-intentioned but frequently crosses a line in bizarre and counterproductive ways.
And, for another example of visibility at any cost, there’s Newkirk’s newly redrafted will, first published 20 years ago, which stipulates that she will have one of her legs broken and displayed at the Kentucky Derby to protest abuse of horses, while her intestines will be made into sausages to send to the steakhouse restaurateur known as “Salt Bae,” and parts of her skin are to be fashioned into a purse and belt to highlight the cruelty of leather products — among other requests.
Last week, PETA’s often personally directed and aggressive tactics led to a spat with Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson, who left a vulgar voicemail for Daphna Nachminovitc, the organization’s Senior VP of Cruelty Investigations, after she publicly criticized his decision to buy a puppy from a pet store rather than adopting. (PETA takes a strong stance against dog breeding, arguing on its website that when a breeder “brings another puppy into the world, a dog waiting in an animal shelter or struggling to survive on the streets loses a chance at finding a loving home.”) In the message, Davidson said he’s severely allergic to most other dog breeds, then told Nachminovitc, “Fuck you, and suck my dick.”
It’s hardly the worst Newkirk has heard in her long and radical career. Here, she discusses the upside of negative attention, the plan to have her body carved up after her death so various appendages can be sent to PETA’s top enemies, and whether we should be eating bugs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, last week, Pete Davidson left an irate voicemail on one of your senior VP’s phone because she criticized him for buying a puppy from a pet store. Did PETA leak that voicemail?
I don’t know, I was in the U.K., promoting my will.
Of course, your will. Do you know who’s going to actually carve up your body and see it delivered to these people and organizations? How’s that going to work?
Oh, I have a pathologist, it took a while to find her. She’s in California. And there’s an executor who is an attorney. And it’s perfectly legal. I mean, if you die in Spain, and you live in Los Angeles, you can have your body shipped back. So the body will be preserved and then [they] dissect it. Little bits of it can be carved up. And then it’s a question of jurisdiction [as to] what you can send. And so there may be some restrictions. We don’t know yet. But it’ll be up to PETA to take my suggestions and run with them when I die.
What were some of the additions to that? Elon Musk, he’s a new recipient on there?
Yeah, he is. Unfortunately, I’m sending him a part of my heart — [not] because I love him. So they don’t misunderstand me, I thought of my heart, because I don’t think he has one. I mean, he’s brilliant. There’s no question. But he has had this series of experiments for Neuralink, you know, the brain implant, and these 250 monkeys have died.
[Editor’s Note: According to a lawsuit from animal advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 23 monkeys have died as a result of Neuralink experiments. The company has killed about 1,500 animals in total, “including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys,” since 2018, according to a Reuters report on the federal probe into Neuralink over potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The company has acknowledged animal deaths but denied allegations of abuse, arguing that “all novel medical devices and treatments must be tested in animals before they can be ethically trialed in humans.”]
I just did an article interviewing a lot of people who want this brain chip. They didn’t seem to care that animals died in this in this testing process.
Well, a lot of people still eat animals. They don’t seem to care about that, either. So it’s no surprise. There is this misconception that you have to use animals — he doesn’t have to use animals. You don’t know if the monkey you’ve put the brain chip in is experiencing searing headaches, double vision. I mean, there are all sorts of flaws with it. But yeah, I wish people had more empathy. I think people have got hearts, mostly, and they don’t use as much of them as they need to.
What have the reactions to your will been like?
I decided to try to use it as a way to get attention for some very serious issues surrounding cruelty to animals in all manner of ways. And I think a lot of people have expressed surprise at things that they didn’t know are happening to animals, and that’s the very point of this. It’s a serious gimmick.
But it’s also meant to be shocking, right? Is that the idea of most PETA campaigns today?
I always go back to what [President Harry] Truman said. He said, “They say I give them hell. I just tell the truth. And to them, it is hell.” What we do is we show and we describe what is actually happening. And that shocks people, and it should shock people. It’s awful that animals are being treated as if they are tables and chairs without feeling when they have every bit as much feeling as any human being. It’s a speciesism on our part, you know, we have to get over it. It’s the same way we’ve treated women in the past, and anybody that we didn’t feel was up to our standard.
Your organization has been around for more than 40 years. What’s changed?
The mission remains the same, which is to stop violence and exploitation and cruelty to other living beings. What has changed is that, thanks at least in part to our ability to get things on the internet, which didn’t exist when we started, we can get information out far and wide, much quicker. And things are available now that weren’t 43 years ago. You know, 43 years ago, if you were inspired to stop separating a mother cow from her calf, you didn’t have soy or oat milk, cashew milk, coconut milk. I mean, all sorts of things have changed.
The online campaigns are designed to go viral. And they do. But often the reaction is quite negative.
If you look back at any social movement, the reaction is always has always been totally negative. Human beings are programmed, if you will, to resist change. So if someone tells you something new, that might change something that you’re doing, you’re going to reject it. Advertisers say a person has to hear a message at least seven times if it’s new before they absorb it. It’s part of that business of rejection, discussion, [and] finally, adoption.
Is there a kind of person who sees these campaigns as reinforcing an unflattering stereotype they have about animal rights activists? And they just get more entrenched?
Time will leave them behind. If you look at the caricatures of people throughout history who have been trying to change society in a positive direction, and stop some abuse or the other, they’ve always been caricatures. This would be nothing new. So it’s just to be expected. It’s not special to us.
What is the biggest crisis of animal abuse going on today?
Lord, that’s a question. You’re asking me at a time when we’re out in Ukraine because a dam has been bombed. And we’ve got boots out in the water trying to pluck animals off rooftops and out of trees. It’s extraordinary. The number of places you have to be and think of — we have everything you can imagine. These squash face dogs that have been bred, like pugs and French bulldogs, basically bred without noses, which nobody notices. They think they’re cute, until you point out that they’re deliberately deformed. They’re already illegal in other countries in Europe. And then you look at the major ones, which is billions of animals being hung up by one leg and having their throat slit for our sandwich. You’ve got the National Institutes of Health paying billions of dollars of taxpayers money a year to people in laboratories who are career experimenters — they have not moved with the times. They’re still frightening monkeys in cages with plastic snakes to see whether they’ll be traumatized. Yeah, they’ll be traumatized!
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
Me? No, no, no — if I have to. No.
If you had to, who do you envision carrying on your principles? Who will PETA be after you?
The reason I did the will is because I almost did die. Twenty years ago, I was in an airplane incident, a little tornado was tracking up from North Carolina. A small plane I was in coming from Minnesota — we had two, I think, young cocky pilots who decided they could go on in [as] every other plane diverted, and we got caught in wind shear. We were bashed around, as if we were in a tumble dryer. I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, we’re gonna die now.” And I named all the department heads, the senior vice presidents who I trust and who will carry on when I’m gone that I don’t want to be out of the neck. [After an emergency landing], I was sitting there thinking, I shouldn’t be here, which is what people think after those kinds of experiences. And that’s how the will came about. I thought, well, I can use my bits as parts… I won’t need them.
A different version of the organ donation idea.
Absolutely. And we do encourage organ donation, actually. I’ve asked for people’s suggestions. Some have been incredibly rude and butcher[-like]. Some trophy hunters and people who don’t like us. But, like, my liver will go to France because of foie gras. And lungs to the governor of Alaska, because hundreds of dogs have died in [sled dog] races. And I do want some of my flesh to be fried up with onions so that people smell it and think, “Oh, that smells so good.” And they come over and someone says, “You know, that’s her,” and they go, “Oh God.” I also have a lizard tattoo on my arm. And I want that portion of my skin cut off and made into a lizard skin handbag or purse.
Are there any PETA campaigns you regret?
No. In the end, everything works. You can think, “I could have done that better, I could have tweaked that in retrospect.” But in the end, everything really works.
Does everything get approved by you?
I’m 74. And so youth culture sometimes baffles me. We have young people on staff, thank god, who say, “No, no, no, no, that will fly.” And I think, “Okay, I’ll take your advice.”
When new young members join, are they drawn by all this media attention and the stunts?
It runs the gamut. I do think a lot of people see something catchy — that we did something provocative — and they come to the website to read more about it. And then their eyes are open, they see something they’ve never thought about before. And then they download a vegan starter kit, for example. Or they watch a video about horse racing. And they are shocked, because they’re now getting a glimpse behind the scenes, or something they just just hadn’t occurred to them before.
You mentioned the provocative stuff. I’m wondering if it’s still PETA’s position that there’s a connection between cow’s milk and autism. That was a controversial campaign a while back.
It wasn’t really a campaign. It was something that somebody had done a research paper on. And we simply reported that this research paper existed. The milk people had a commercial back then called “Got Milk?” We had a whole series of things that said, you know, “Got Zits?,” all sorts of things.
Right. And another one was “Got Prostate Cancer?” with Rudy Giuliani. [PETA and Newkirk later apologized for this ad.]
Let me tell you about that. My father had just died of prostate cancer. And if I put my father’s picture on a billboard, nobody would have known who he was. Giuliani at that point was mayor of New York, of course, he was having these news conferences. He was paid by the dairy industry. He was chugging a glass of milk at every news conference, every briefing. [Editor’s Note: According to contemporary reports, Giuliani appeared to start drinking milk during public appearances only after the PETA ad came out and he threatened to sue the organization. It’s not clear whether he had a relationship with dairy producers, nor that any was involved in this response.] And then he announced he had prostate cancer at exactly the time when my father had just died. And I had been thinking, how can I pass this on. My father, there was nothing more than he liked than ice cream and milk products. And that is linked to prostate cancer. And so we did this billboard with Giuliani’s face on it saying got prostate cancer. And there was a lot of media around it, because it was before anybody really talked about the health effects of dairy. Now, of course, everybody knows, or almost everybody knows. And you get lots of things saying, Well, if you’re gonna give up one thing, give up dairy because that’s linked to diabetes and prostate cancer.
You’ve probably gotten this question before: Do you kill insects?
[Laughs] I try not to.
If you catch a mosquito catching biting you… ?
I’d brush it off if I could. But that’s the sort of cliché question — not to insult you — that people use if they don’t want to change some obvious cruelty. They try to reduce it to the most absurd thing, like “I can dismiss everything you have said about every cruelty in the world, because you won’t swat a mosquito.”
Some people say we should be eating bugs to solve hunger crises and and reduce our reliance on meat. What do you what do you make of that?
Firstly, I find it really ridiculous that people would be looking for an alternative animal source of protein, which is what they usually say. You can get all the calcium and protein and everything else you need from plants and nuts and seeds and grains and what have you. Ecologically, I mean, you don’t need to do those kinds of things, because we have not fully explored the role of various insects, and how it interplays with our own ability to survive. Apart from being pretty revolting and unnecessary — if you ever watch people eating witchetty grubs while they’re still wiggling. We don’t know whether what will happen if we start decimating insect populations, and why would you need to start insect farming? It’s so sort of Anthony Bourdain-esqe. Like, “Let me eat a cobra’s heart, let me eat deep fried witchetty grubs.”
You would consider insect farming another form of cruelty?
It’s just unnecessary. We don’t know enough about insects, but we do know that they can feel. [If] a little boy or girl gets a magnifying glass and kills ants by burning them to death, we’re horrified, we know that’s wrong. So at some level we have an understanding that insects are not windup toys.
What is PETA’s relationship with other animal rights groups? Do your efforts to court media attention rub them the wrong way?
Some, certainly, and some love us. Disagreement is not unhealthy. Priorities are another thing. Some groups have chosen to concentrate just on wildlife or just on trophy hunting or just on animal sheltering. We work with many groups. We actually mentor and help many groups in areas such as fundraising and photography and undercover investigations. But some groups we vehemently disagree with, and they with us.
You see this revolution as existing on the same scale as the fight for human rights. Those analogies have also been controversial — like dressing up as the Ku Klux Klan to protest dog breeding at the Westminster Dog Show. People people get upset because it feels like you’re equating dog breeding with lynch mobs.
People always think their own group is special. I’m a woman. I’m not for women’s rights because I’m a woman — I’m for women’s rights because I don’t think any living beings should be oppressed and treated with violence or you know, those kinds of things. Our job is to try to say, “I understand, you’re offended at the moment. But please look at this.” It’s not that the identity of the victim is not important. It’s what’s being done to that victim that has to stop.
You’ve had a ton of critics. Do you care what these people say?
You have no idea probably how rotten it gets. Because people will send us animal organs in the mail, they will put a dead deer’s head up at our office door. I realized long ago that it’s the message that they’re angry about. It’s pressed some button. It’s not the messenger. They don’t know me. And they don’t know us. They don’t know the group. It’s like that thing you mentioned at the start, Davidson.
Right, Pete Davidson’s voicemail.
He called Daphna, who’s the loveliest person, her heart breaks every day for what she is doing to try to save dogs and cats. He called her a cunt and said “suck my dick.” I mean, why would you say that? So it obviously touched him in a way that he reacted violently, and people do that. And I figure, “Okay, hopefully you’ll have some remorse” You just have to live with it. Because if you were saying something they agreed with, there would be no point. You’ve got to try your best to reach the people who are on the fence. And in doing so, you’re going to reach people who actually enjoy killing animals, or just don’t have a kind bone in their body.