I think your body is a political instrument and you should use it if you want to.
— Ingrid Newkirk
Abuse yourself all you want, just leave animals out of it.
“My mother,” says Ingrid Newkirk, “was an English mother, which means she didn’t dote and fawn on me.” Newkirk, cofounder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has absorbed some of that reserve, at least toward herself and other people. She is, however, passionate about animals. To this end, she describes an early instance when she felt in herself her father’s “fierce temper.” It was her first visit to India, she recalls, and she spotted a man beating his bull in the street near a shop where she was drinking tea. When he put his stick up the animal’s rectum, causing it to scream and collapse, she jumped up from her chair and ran outside. “I was filled with so much anger and panic to stop this man,” Newkirk says. She was eight years old.
Since then, Newkirk asserts in Matthew Galkin’s I Am An Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA, she’s found a more organized outlet for her rage. She sees PETA as a way to challenge the “undeclared war on animals since the beginning of time, because they’re vulnerable.” Though her tactics have garnered criticism — from outright opponents as well as other animal rights activists — she remains dedicated to easing animals’ pain and fighting their exploitation. And the documentary offers an intriguingly multifaceted look at the trouble Newkirk makes. It opens with her reading from a selection of hate mail (“May I suggest that you have [your anus] stretched and used for the threshold for your front door at PETA,” “I wish you all meeting up with a Jeffrey Dahmer so he can rid the world of scumbags like you”), then cuts to a montage of media scoldings (including John Stossel’s query: “How far out to lunch are you people?”). Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral accuses PETA of “trivializing” animal rights (“They sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain”) and calls Newkirk a “media slut.”
Certainly, the media-ready events staged by PETA are eye-catching, whether tossing fake blood on women wearing furs or breaking into Jean Paul Gaultier’s Paris boutique in order to write red-paint protests on its windows (“Fur is Death,” “Death for Sale”). Such tactical aggression can have positive effects: in 1994, Calvin Klein wouldn’t meet with PETA until after they took over his office; “that same season,” the story goes, “he banned fur from his collection.” The action against Gaultier (“a real fur pimp”) begins with Newkirk engaging an unsuspecting clerk in conversation about “an obscene skirt (when her team worries about timing, she sighs, “Boys, you know, before you were born, I was doing animal rights protest”) and bringing along a squad of paparazzi-style photographers (in addition to the documentary camera crew) to ensure evening news coverage. “The image is the power that we have,” Newkirk explains.
The other images that grant PETA “power” are less staged, but infinitely more grueling. These are the video and photo documentations gathered during undercover investigations. In I Am an Animal, the primary investigation concerns ConAgra, the company that provides turkeys to Butterball. The kid who gets a job on the killing floor reports numerous abuses in his log book (including a worker who sexually abuses a turkey before he kills it), but can’t seem to make the video equipment work. This draws Newkirk’s ire. She’s done undercover work, and understands the toll (“It’s not a superhuman task,” she says, “it’s just a damn difficult task… and it is soul-racking if you care”), but she won’t tolerate failure. “The boy either does the job or he gets out,” she asserts. “We can’t have somebody in there who’s just mucking about… If he screws us over, he’s screwing the birds over.”
For Newkirk, the crucial stake is always the animals — endangered and voiceless. The film shows her cruising in the PETA van, seeking out creatures to be rescued: in mid-sentence, she stops to move a dove, “already dead,” to the side of the road, then hops back into the driver’s seat, addressing her interviewer: “Where were we?” When she finds a dog, starving and chained to a tire, she questions the owner, who stands with a bottle in a paper bag, his face downcast as he appears to be wondering what sort of whirlwind has descended on him. For her part, Newkirk won’t own any pets, long ago gave up on her “lovely marriage” (“I just honest to god didn’t have time for it”), and had herself sterilized at the age of 22, as she determined then that “there was something wrong with wanting your own child,” coming up with a mirror of yourself when there were plenty of children who needed homes. An atheist, she reasons that “the horrors in this world could never have been created by a loving god.”
There’s no question that Newkirk is committed. Just as surely, she has enraged many people, for different reasons. Where the John Stossels reject her contention that each chicken and calf and monkey is as deserving of human empathy as a child, others who share that belief reject her campaign tactics. The film grants time to all these positions, even providing visual support at key points; when PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco describes Newkirk’s notion that “There’s no such thing as bad press,” you see an action that drew dicey press, at least (naked women running in Pamplona, like bulls).
And when Wayne Pacelle, Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society, insinuates connections between PETA and the violent, illicit actions of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front), the film shows video by the ALF as they break and enter, then destroy property. “We’re demanding ethical consistency in the way people live their lives,” Pacelle says. “Once you move into the domain of intimidation or illegal conduct beyond civil disobedience, you’re moving into a dangerous pile of quicksand.” For her part, Newkirk says she won’t condemn ALF or confess any affiliation with ALF. She focuses instead on her own work, finding and confronting all kinds of animal abuse, a “far greater crime than any crime the ALF commit.” If the film doesn’t precisely support Newkirk’s absolutist moral and emotional case, it does suggest that her work — however righteous, extreme, or exasperating it appears — will never be done.