There was a time, over 12 years ago, when I had gotten into a fight with a man because he was hitting his horse, and someone commented 'yeh PETA wale log'. We didn't have the net those days, and yet, in one small city in India, fighting for animals was synonymous with PETA. And it was information I got online from their website that made me change my lifestyle to become a vegan.
Ingrid has helped millions of us to change for animals, to speak up for them and to focus on the issue of animal cruelty within our own lives and social circles. There are many who dislike and question PETAs ways, but there is no turning back from the fact that it was also due to antics like that, that in a little town in India, people knew about PETA over 12 years ago.
Perhaps one of the most controversial figure of our time, she has changed the way most of the world looks at animals and their suffering. And we are fortunate to start our interview series with her blessings and her thoughts.
When you lived in India as a child, there is an incident that you that you had shared in a speech where you chased a grown up man with a stick for being cruel to an animal. Please share the story with our readers?
When I was a little girl, living in New Delhi, we had a big plate-glass window facing out toward our garden and the road. One day, while I was drinking my soup at the dining room table and looking out, I saw a man coming along with a bullock cart. Something was clearly wrong. The bullock faltered, probably exhausted, perhaps ill. The man picked up a big stick and, lifting the bullock's tail, rammed it up into his rectum. The bullock bellowed and collapsed, and I dropped my soup spoon and ran up the street to him. As I ran, I saw the man pick up the stick again and go to hit the bullock who had fallen onto the pavement. Horrified, I could see that the man had raised the stick high over his head to strike the poor bull, but I got to him first and threw myself at him, grabbing the stick. I was so angry that I would have beaten him with that stick, but a bearer who had been running behind me stayed my hand. The man asked for forgiveness, and I was led back to my house. I always wonder what became of that poor bullock, but I know that he broke my heart and made me realize how hard and horrible life is for these "beasts of burden", and that is perhaps why I founded Animal Rahat, an organisation seeking to replace the bulls, along with the torture devices placed under their nose ropes, the heavy yokes, the whips, and the overloaded carts these often lame and ailing animals must pull, with tractors.
You are the person who made it possible for many avid meat eaters to get information that changed their life and choices, including me. Thousands and possibly millions have changed their diets and lifestyles thanks to your persistent work and effort, how do you see the road ahead for vegan and animal rights awareness?
Vegan eating and a vegan lifestyle (using non-animal materials) is catching on around the globe. I love to see how trendy it is now, how popular, how "in" it is to wear and eat vegan, but I think the change will be permanent for many people as they feel healthier and as they learn that animal-based agriculture is now considered by the UN a "top cause" of global climate change, drought and rising sea levels, as well as a major cause of the loss of aquifers and forests, which are cut down for grazing land, and that it is unsustainable. We want our grandchildren to survive, and that means we must seek out vegan foods and avoid skins. Of course, with plant-based milks and vegan meats in the shops, it's very easy for people of means, but for everyone a return to pulses, rice, other grains, fruits, breads and so on is both the healthiest and the least expensive choice.
As we are aware, most people resist watching gruesome material, i.e. watching what happens to the animals they eat. Since PETA has tried various methods of outreach over the years, and based on your experience, which of the two is more effective? Exposing people to these images or appealing to their better nature and seeking them to be compassionate with softer messages of love and kindness?
There is nothing more effective than seeing what we are supporting and realising we no longer wish to pay someone else to inflict terrible cruelty on another living being just for our fleeting taste or for a coat or cosmetics. The graphic footage about which people say, "Don't show me. I don't want to see it!" is vital. Appealing to people's kind nature is also important, but nothing changes people faster than actually witnessing the suffering rabbits go through when their angora fur is pulled out of their skin or the bleating of lambs while their throats are being cut. The key is to assure people that they will be happy – and they will be! – when they become the very people they wish to be: compassionate, caring and conscientious consumers.
Of the various issues related to animal rights: experimentation, entertainment, skin, meat and diary industries to name a few, we understand all are as important. But is there any one of these that is closer to your heart Ingrid? Or that you think needs the most attention at this point. And why?
They are all the most important to the animals enduring whatever particular kind of torture they are faced with, of course, and what is stunning is that we can stop most of them through our everyday actions because we all brush our teeth, shampoo our hair, choose what to wear today, go shopping, entertain ourselves, feed ourselves and others, buy gifts, and so on, so we make choices at every touch and turn to either support an animal-abusing industry or not – a very powerful set of daily choices indeed. My heart particularly goes out to chickens, because they are so overlooked. Having looked after many such "girls", I've seen how gentle, vulnerable, thoughtful and dear chickens are. Seeing them in the roadside stalls, filthy, covered with lice, under the hot sun, makes me crave their liberation.
Recently a PETA demonstration during a religious festival in Bhopal backfired, when an activist faced a mob attack. In countries where religion can spark off tensions, what are your thoughts on the pros and cons of using sensitive issues like religion to spread awareness on animal rights?
Religion is always a bit touchy, and it was sad that a Muslim woman, absolutely modestly dressed, making a polite appeal for people to consider giving alms for Eid rather than cutting a goat's throat, was greeted by a wound-up mob of men who attacked her. It was a non-violent appeal greeted by violence, of course, but there is luckily a move on the part of many to go back to the original idea of sacrifice, meaning YOU sacrifice something dear to you by giving something of yourself to others, not find a surrogate to sacrifice their life as a token gesture of your own righteousness. The recent slaughter of so many animals in Nepal in the name of religion must stop and must be protested until it does, as there is nothing remotely religious about harming others in order to gain religious favour. There are wonderful websites now for members of most faiths who are interested in animal rights.
India being as large as it is, and PETA India being one of the most prominent animal rights group, has a huge number of people who are keen to work as volunteers. Very often, one has heard people asking if there is an office or PETA centre in their city. Have you considered opening more branches in more cities here?
We are happy to provide help, resources and encouragement to people who wish to help animals wherever they are, but if we decentralise too much, we will end up spending a lot on administration instead of activism. However, we are deeply grateful to every single soul who can help, as animals need all the friends they can get. Lord knows they have a lot of enemies and complacent people who tolerate their suffering. Please contact the PETA India office to learn how you can help or visit one of our websites, including the US one, PETA.org, and you will find no shortage of ways to help – all vital – from talking to retailers, sending e-mails to violators of cruelty laws, meeting with members of Parliament, introducing friends and family to vegan foods, showing a film in local schools and posting our videos on your social media pages.
Today there is a long list of books on animal rights, advocacy and vegan cooking. It's confusing when one wants to pick up a few. Please let us know your personal favorites that you would recommend for our readers?
What would your advise be for people who want to become animal rights activists or for those who care for animals and want to do more for the cause?
Please just start somewhere – perhaps with feeding others, showing others how tasty and delicious and varied vegan foods can be because everyone eats, and also showing them the videos that we have online, like R Madhavan/Paul McCartney's "Glass Walls", so that they can see why their choices are important. Talk to children about being actively kind by stopping cruelty when they see it, objecting to animal abuse, and helping to lead their families, who love them, to make compassionate choices. Write until your fingers fall off, never be silent when you see something wrong, and educate, educate, educate so that you open other people's hearts and minds and eyes. Thank you very much, and good luck with all your own activism!
Ingrid E Newkirk