Select Page

On Founding PETA

Ingrid Newkirk

April 2001 – Colorado “Eleventh Hour” address


In 1980, a small group of friends started People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Back then, no one had heard of “animal rights.” Today, people remain confused as to what the term means, but they DO know that how we treat animals is important. Acknowledging animals’ rights can be as simple as respecting their needs. Of course, animals don’t need complex rights, like the right to drive or the right to vote-although considering the mess we sometimes make of our elections, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea.

Animals enjoy the natural world without ruining it. All they need is to be able to take a drink of clean water, to be nourished, to have shelter from extreme weather, and to be left in peace. It isn’t much to ask. Yet, today, few animals have those vital things. The reason they don’t have them is because human beings dominate the world and, to put it bluntly, enslave animals. That may sound harsh, but think about it. If allowed to be themselves, animals are self-sufficient, whole, and vital. They raise their own young competently, make a home in the earth, on a riverbank, or in a tree, sharing that small space with at least 40 other species, from raccoons and frogs to birds and insects. Animals don’t despoil the waterways or woods, as humans do with our poptop bottles and plastic bags, and, far worse, with the hog and chicken waste from our intensive farming systems. The Alaskan wilderness, which is often described as “uninhabited” and “unspoiled,” has, in fact, always been heavily inhabited-by billions of animals who have kept it pristine.

Although animals have wants and needs and behaviors of their own, they are often treated as nothing more than hamburgers, handbags, living test tubes, cheap burglar alarms, or amusements for human beings. They are not allowed to live their lives, but instead are forced to serve us, giving us carriage rides, performing silly tricks, and having their skin used for clothing. We use their flesh as food, despite knowing that we can eat far healthier food, and they are the surrogate tasters of our poisons.

I was inspired to form People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after reading a book called Animal Liberation, written by the philosopher Peter Singer. Dr. Singer suggests that instead of just being just kind to animals, which everyone knows one should be, we might try viewing animals as individuals like ourselves, as members of other cultures or, indeed, other nations-perhaps nations with languages we don’t understand, but with rituals and behaviors similar to our own. After all, animals are not inanimate objects; they are feeling beings who experience love and joy, loneliness and fear, in much, if not exactly, the same way we do. Although we have set ourselves up as gods who can do anything we please simply because we please, biologically we are but one animal among many. Many anthropologists believe that we have miscategorized ourselves as a separate class of animal (hominids) out of pure conceit, for now that we have unraveled the human genome, we see that we share 99 percent of our DNA with other primates. When we think about it, perhaps all that keeps us from treating the other animals with respect-the ultimate respect being to leave them in peace to do what they wish to do-is simple prejudice.

Human beings have a sorry history of prejudice. Through the ages, our feelings of superiority have caused us to denigrate and abuse others we have felt were somehow less important or less intelligent than ourselves, instead of exercising magnanimity and protecting them. While we teach our children the Golden Rule of “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You,” insist that “Might Does Not Make Right,” and pronounce that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of an arbitrary difference, like race or physical ability, somehow we continue to try to justify hurting, and even killing, other sentient beings, simply because we can get away with it. Our rationale is that they are not exactly like us.

Not that long ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, noting that the French had abolished slavery, yet the British had not, said: “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

The questions for our generation, and for future generations, are: “Who are animals, what are we doing to them, and should we change, no matter how comfortable we may be in our old ways?’

Some members of our own species may have been to the moon, and some can split the atom, but there are many ways in which human talents pale in comparison to the animals’. This is not a competition, of course. We are all in this together. In the same way that establishing women’s rights or rights for human minorities does not reduce men or white people, so facing up to our prejudices toward other species does not reduce humans; rather, it allows society to keep growing and expanding its ethical horizons, and individuals to become more compassionate, rather than just being bigger bullies.

There is a lot to respect and admire about animals. Our own military is still learning from dolphins, who use sonar not only to navigate, but also to stun their prey, and from bats who can find their way in total darkness. We cannot decipher animals’ languages, but it is indisputable that they have them. Monkeys have separate warnings to alert the troupe to a threat from the sky, such as a hawk, and a threat from the ground, such as a poisonous snake. Prairie dogs use different calls to signal the approach of a single human being, a friend, and a foe. Whales sing their histories through the great oceans, adding new bits of information every year. The tree frog drums his messages to others far away, while other frogs “hear” with their skin. Elephants speak to each other across many miles by using infrasound-powerful, deep rumbles at frequencies too low for us to pick up-and mice also talk at frequencies inaudible to the human ear. Crows are now known not only to play (in St. Petersburg, they have worn the paint off the cathedral windows by sliding down them on their bottoms, just for fun), but to have dialects. Birds from the South of France, for example, can’t understand birds of the same species from the North.

Animals use tools and have their own compasses. Ants fashion boats out of leaves with which to cross rivers. Wasps make a home out of a wood and sand mixture, as we make adobe huts. Orangutans in the rain forest, even very young ones, choose the right size leaf to use as an umbrella. Rabbits and beavers construct different rooms for sleeping, for food storage, and for waste. The humble newt can “read” the Earth’s pulsating electromagnetic field. While we may whine if we miss a meal or two, the emperor penguin sits for up to 45 days on the ice without an iota of food, guarding the egg that contains his successor. The tiny desert mouse rolls a stone in front of her burrow to collect the dew so she can drink water in the morning before the heat sets in. The turtle navigates by the Earth’s magnetic field, and starlings read the heavens for direction. It was an albatross, not a man, who first circumnavigated the globe and knew the Earth was round. As for family values, geese mate for life, and a male will risk hunters’ guns to stick by his injured wife when she is shot.

When people say, “But all that is just instinct,” I wonder how they think we human beings select our own mates, the people we love. Is it by cold logic? And how do we know to keep clean or to teach our children to walk? Our instincts are an integral part of us, yes, but all of us, from mice to cats, think: the dog who heads excitedly for the door when she sees you putting on your shoes and who relishes every moment of freedom; the bird who, seeing another bird in a bit of a personal dilemma, lends a hand; and the cat mother who enters a blazing home to rescue her kittens from a fire. From the extraordinary to the ordinary, all these acts demonstrate that all animals think, whether in the same exact ways or not.

We have all heard someone referring to criminal conduct say: “So and so behaved like an animal.” The Spanish Child Welfare Society offers another perspective on human vs. animal behavior in its television commercial that shows a rhinoceros mother teaching her child how to avoid danger and other mothers instructing their infants on grooming, bathing, and how to choose safe foods. The narrator says, “For once, we’re asking you to behave like animals!”

I was working for a humane society when I first started thinking about animals in a different way. I was already familiar with the often-terrible things that happen to dogs and cats and wildlife. People turn dogs and cats out into the countryside to fend for themselves; they also stab, beat, and shoot them and starve them to death on their chains at the far end of the yard. One afternoon, a cruelty call took me to a barn littered with broken glass. A family had moved away, leaving the animals behind. They were all dead except for one small pig. I lifted him up and held him in my arms, then gave him his first drink of water in perhaps a week. Then I bundled him off to the vet.

My job was to prosecute the people who had willfully caused this small animal’s suffering, so I made sure that I dutifully collected all the evidence. But while driving home that night, I began to wonder what I could eat for dinner. Ah, I thought, conducting a mental inventory of the contents of my refrigerator, I have some pork chops. The penny dropped! I realized how inconsistent it was of me to be preparing to charge someone with a crime for abusing one little pig while paying someone else to hurt and kill the other little pig I was going to eat for dinner.

I had never been to a slaughterhouse then, but, like most people, I knew that such places must be appalling. Today, I can tell you firsthand about the look in the eyes of the animals. As they are prodded and kicked along to their death, they can smell and hear and see what is already happening to those in front of them in the slaughter line. I have stood on the “kill floors” in slaughterhouses for many different kinds of animals, including a slaughterhouse for dogs in China. In the West, we are appalled by dog-eating, but of course no animals wish to be killed, and all of them, dogs and chickens and pigs, struggle fiercely to avoid the man with the knife. All are equally filled with fear.

It is perhaps awful to say, but the moment of death in the slaughterhouse may be the best part of these animals’ lives. I say that because to satisfy the tastes of so many people who crave chicken wings and burgers, animals raised for meat have a truly wretched existence. They are castrated and dehorned, have their tails amputated and their beaks seared off with a hot wire, all without benefit of anesthetics. Calves are separated from their loving mothers soon after birth so that the milk meant for these baby animals can become cheese and ice cream and the calf can be raised for veal. After weeks in darkness, the calves stumble down the same ramp their mothers will walk when their lives are considered insufficiently profitable. Animals on factory farms are crowded together in enormous numbers. Pigs must breathe in the ammonia from their own waste, collected in troughs beneath their pens. They suffer blackened lungs and have difficulty breathing, and their limbs become infected with open sores from lying on the hard cement. Undercover video footage shot by PETA shows pigs routinely clubbed with iron gateposts and beaten to death with claw hammers. The lame are thrown in and out of the trucks, and in bitter winter weather, the pigs’ sensitive flesh freezes to the sides of the metal truck body.

“Broiler chickens” are bred to be so top-heavy that the bones in their legs splinter and they spend much of their lives in chronic pain. In the egg factories, chickens can never stretch a wing or find room to lie down. When their laying life is over, they are stuffed into crates so roughly that their wings often fracture. The dying are afforded no care. Sometimes you may pass a transport truck and see them looking out through the slats, their eyes filled with despair. What we do to them is neither “civilized” nor humane.

In 1981, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals embarked on its first investigation. One of us took a job in a laboratory in Silver Spring, Md., where a group of macaque monkeys were kept. The monkeys had been taken as babies from their homes and families in the Philippines. The nerves in their spines had been cut, and this affected their ability to control their arms. The cages in which they were kept were rarely cleaned; in fact, they were so filthy that fecal matter rose to a height of a couple of inches in some places and fungus grew on it. The experimenter didn’t bother to give the monkeys food bowls, so when their food was thrown into the cage, the pellets fell through the wire and landed in the waste collection trays below. The monkey would have to pick the food pellets out of these trays in order to eat. The animals’ limbs were also injured from getting caught in the rusted and broken cage wires, and the monkeys had lost a great deal of their hair from malnutrition. The researcher had converted a small refrigerator into a shock box; inside it, the monkeys were punished if they failed to pick up objects with their damaged limbs.

We persuaded the police to do something unprecedented: to serve a search warrant on the laboratory and remove the monkeys. Seeing the faces of those monkeys turned up to the sunlight for the first time in many years as they came out of the lab encouraged people to seek alternatives to animal use. Scientists and laypeople wondered aloud whether it was morally right to experiment on animals at all and whether, indeed, it was scientifically valid to do so. Some physicians, upset that modern research methods were being neglected in favor of old-fashioned animal-poisoning protocols, began clamoring for funding for human epidemiological studies, the cloning of human skin, and computer technology that can bring quick and directly applicable results.

When PETA started, most cosmetics, toiletries, and household products such as oven cleaner were still tested on animals. Today, more than 550 product companies have switched to using human skin patch tests, computer assays, and human corneas from eye banks, and from gathering guinea pig data to analyzing human data. The arguments that animals must be used faded into oblivion because consumers refused to buy the products until the companies changed.

The current challenge is to shift agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, away from animal use. The most common toxicity tests still in use take a substance, like weedkiller or mustard gas, the effects of which we have long known from tragic human experience, and force-feed that substance to rabbits. Researchers poison kittens with it and finally feed it to other primates. No painkillers are given as substances like septic tank cleaner are smeared onto the animals’ abraded skin to see how much flesh they corrode, the results being crudely recorded. Chemicals are also placed in animals’ eyes and forced into animals’ lungs. When enough people protest, this will stop.

Since PETA formed, the role of animals in education, too, has changed. Instead of cutting up frogs and piglets, many schools now use computer programs or human anatomy lessons or take children outdoors to observe animals in their natural setting, without intrusion. It can be inspiring to realize that an animal digs a den without tools, stocks her larder without a supermarket, and can tell what the weather will be by lifting her nose into the wind.

Today, medical students can use the Harvard Program, opting to learn the skills of their profession on a simulator or alongside a skilled practitioner in surgery. Because of lawsuits and protests, students are no longer compelled to violate their ethical beliefs by watching the death throes of a poisoned pig. Models now have lifelike “skin” that breathes, and software programs allow students to start over if they inadvertently “kill” the virtual patient. As PETA’s message catches on, more people in all walks of life are beginning to embrace the idea that animals are not disposable tools, but individuals who need protection.

Most people, when shown how their actions contribute to cruelty and given options, will make compassionate choices. In the U.S. alone, while the demand for cheap flesh results in more than 9 billion animals suffering for the table each year-that’s 1 million animals eaten every hour-the number of vegetarians is growing rapidly.

I hope that someday there will be no elephants in circuses, kept in shackles, beaten with bullhooks, and denied their family lives and their freedom, all for a human being’s few moments of odd enjoyment; that the leghold trap and the fur farm will be outlawed the world over, as they already have been in England and several other countries; that wonderful natural fibers and synthetics will be chosen over leather; that responsible parents will raise their children not to acquire the meat addictions of my generation, which have brought us heart attacks, cancer, and stroke, as well as causing immense suffering for animals. I hope that all the animal laboratories will have closed down and that it will be illegal to keep any dog on a chain, shivering through the cold weather while the families they long to interact with enjoy the warmth of their homes.

PETA’s message is that each one of us is a vital player in life’s great orchestra. Every day, our choices perpetuate or stop needless violence. I hope that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will continue to be a conduit for positive change, and I ask that you please join us in making the world a less violent place for all living beings. Thank you.



Copyright: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., 2001. All rights reserved.