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Animalkind: interview with Ingrid Newkirk

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Animalkind: interview with Ingrid Newkirk

Animalkind, the latest book by Ingrid Newkirk, co-written with Gene Stone, is titled with a double-entendre that becomes clearer with each passage that shines a light on animals or holds a mirror to humans.

Separated into two parts, the easy-to-read book provides a wealth of information about our historical and ongoing interactions with other animals, suggesting ways to improve upon our treatment of our fellow creatures.

The first half is a heartwarming rendition of delightful stories, revelations, anecdotes and insights into the behavior of numerous kinds of animals, with research drawn from a multitude of sources. It will inspire, inform and educate even the most savvy and knowledgeable animal lover.

The second half is a sometimes-appalling look at the historical and continued mistreatment of animals, tracking the progress – or lack thereof – of our evolving ethics of interaction with the abundance of species sharing this planet with us. Providing some relief from the horror, the book offers glimpses of hope illustrated by the changing tide of thought, new products and research methods. A call to activism with suggestions of what each individual can do is Animalkind's lingering message.

Ingrid book cover

Q&A with Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of PETA and co-author of Animalkind:

How many books have you written previously? A dozen, including The Compassionate CookFree the Animals: The story of the Animal Liberation Front in AmericaLet's Have a Dog Party; 250 Ways to Make Your Cat Adore YouOne Can Make a Difference (stories of people who grew their passion into helpful, often life-saving, world changing movements); Making Kind Choices (an everyday guide); and The PETA Guide to Animal Rights.

How did the collaboration with Gene Stone come about? Gene wrote "Forks Over Knives" which is hugely popular and I loved it, so I thought he was just the person to co-write this book with me, as I am juggling so much other work, and I wanted to get it done to celebrate PETA's 40th anniversary (this year).

The book reads in your "voice," compared with previous books. What were his contributions? Gene and I each contributed different bits and worked together on some because of the wealth of material, but we agreed from the start that this book would have my imprimatur on it. 

It has a "Tale of Two Cities" feel with the two distinct halves. What was your reason for this approach? Sometimes I think society lives in darkness regarding animals and humans tend to make silly assumptions about them based on fear and misunderstanding, so I set out to try to conquer all that. I believe that many of the harmless things we do to animals come from not knowing much about them, even when we think we do, so the first part of the book tries to open eyes, minds and hearts to who animals are; their emotional lives, their awe-inspiring parenting skills, their astonishing parenting and fidelity, their incredible talents, communication abilities, and so on. Then, once we see how jaw-droppingly impressive animals are, how their abilities often far outstrip our own, especially when it comes to their five senses, Animalkind's second half offers ways in which we can avoid hurting and killing them, even inadvertently, with our choices of what to eat, wear, buy, how to entertain ourselves, and so much more.

This book reminded me a bit of one of your earlier books: Making Kind Choices. (The Afterward even uses the phrase "making kind choices.") Would you consider it a companion book or perhaps an updated version with broader ideas --- more of a call to activism than a shopping guide? I loved writing Making Kind Choices and its lessons are still absolutely relevant today, but we have learned much more about animals since that book was published so, while the theme is the same (after all, who doesn't want to make kind choices, to take the compassionate over the cruel?), the evidence is even more convincing now that we must take seriously the fact that intelligent life is all around us, and that it is our responsibility to look out for our fellow Earthlings and not allow all that is precious to be taken from them, including their children, the skin on their backs, their freedom.

You have cited such a wealth of sources dating back decades. How did you winnow the list and compile the examples best suited to illustrate your points? For me, caring deeply about animals as I do, it was like being in a playground surrounded with favorite things, the "things" being often little-known facts I could present to others who find animals interesting. There are several books' worth of fascinating facts I left out, but I tried to include many different sorts of information about many different species, those we think we know and who we might share our homes with, and those we might consider "exotic" or even scary: I put in something for everyone!

What is one of your favorite stories that didn't make the book? I will cheat and give you three: reindeer, who are farmed for meat in Finland, for instance, change their eye color from orangish-yellow in summer to blue in winter; they see the world very differently from the way humans see it, and are able to synthesize their own Vitamin D when the sun disappears for months at a time. Dogs are now being used by law enforcement officers to track child pornographers with those amazing noses of theirs that can not only pick up scents from miles away, but detect body heat, and they can smell a thumb drive in a metal box inside a steel cabinet, something human officers cannot do. It makes you think how awful it is to drag a dog away from a bush when his sense of smell allows him to read the news of who passed by, their state of health, etc. It is more than a chance to "do their business," it is a precious outing. I urge people to slow down and let dogs use the instrument Nature gave them, because being indoors all the time, staring at the wall, or, far worse, stuck in a crate, is a crashing bore for them; they need mental stimulation. And, another favorite: someone has found how to give dogs an MRI without scaring them, and has discovered that the part of a dog's brain that lights up when you give that dog a treat is the very same part of the brain that lights up in a businessman when you offer him a raise!

What animal stories surprised you? I know a lot about elephants as PETA India rescues them from terrible lives as living begging bowls, and I've seen the horror of them being chained up by the legs behind the Big Top, but I didn't know about their joy at swimming. If they are free living, or allowed to be free sometimes even when used for logging in places such as Sri Lanka, they will race to the ocean if they can, and swim for up to 30 miles, often with their faces below the surface of the water and their trunks above, used as snorkels to allow them to breathe! I also learned that while humans have a divorce rate of about 45% or so, pigeons, geese, swans, in fact most birds, are super-loyal and faithful, picking a partner for life and defending them against danger even at great personal risk. Both male and female pigeons make milk in their crops to feed their babies – called squabs – and so if you see two pigeons, one with a beak inside the other's, they may be kissing, because they do that, or they may be a parent feeding their youngster. 

Several of the stories included in the book involved inhumane or cruel research. How difficult is it to discuss the benefits and knowledge gained from such experiments while simultaneously fending off claims that more scientific experiments on animals are needed, either to advance human medical science or simply to understand animals better? There are several important points here. The fact that over 90% of animal experiments never translate into human benefit is well known in scientific circles, yet many experimenters are on a career track, doing the same thing, year after year, no one tapping them on the shoulder to point out that they are not discovering anything useful. Far more experiments don't even purport to be for medical or human benefit. These are mostly psychology experiments where animals are observed going insane, being stressed, losing their beloved babies; in one experiment that has been going on since the '50s to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and with no end in sight, monkeys are scared with plastic snakes and rubber spiders after their brains have been operated on. We have 19 scientists at PETA, and we work with the government to try to stop this cruelty and waste, and because today we have whole human DNA on the internet, organs on a chip, high-speed computers you can program with human-derived information, if the will is there, and the public opens its eyes to the waste and fraud and repetition, we will make even faster progress in relegating animal experiments to the garbage bin of history. 

How has reception been? feedback? The book seems to delight people and I am getting tons of positive feedback. A lot of "I never knew..." and that's wonderful. As Anne Frank said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single minute before setting out to change the world" and, for animals, that minute is now it seems.

In some ways, is this "preaching to the choir"? How do you get this message to the people who most need to hear it? Or is the hope that "the choir" will spread the word, as you mentioned in the book about using social media to speak out? I take that point quite seriously. I'm asking people to not only ask their libraries to carry it, and to give it to schools, but to gift the book to anyone they know who perhaps has a dog or cat or rabbit or hamster at home but hasn't connected all the dots and so doesn't yet realize how all animals are phenomenally important, all deserve understanding, respect and consideration. I think Animalkind can pave the way to that broadening of our compassion and our rejection of speciesism, human supremacism.

There are several celebrity endorsements of this book. PETA has long recruited celebrities for various campaigns. How do celebrity voices help in changing attitudes and actions? Stars command attention, we know that, so while everyone's voice and actions are extremely important, when a star does something, love 'em or hate 'em, everyone hears about it. Kim Kardashian used to wear fur constantly, every kind of animal was on her back but then Pamela Anderson wrote to her and asked her to have a heart, showed her a video of animals trapped and factory-farmed for fur, and Kim agreed never to wear fur again. She sent that message to all her fans. When Joaquin Phoenix used his platform at the Oscars to speak up for mother cows separated from their calves so we could use that milk for pizza topping, and appealed to us not to bully any living being in this way, to make them suffer, his speech went all over the world. I'm so happy to have Sir Paul McCartney, Edie Falco, Joaquin himself, Alex Baldwin, James Cromwell all praise the book, and to have a foreword by the lovely Mayim Bialek. 

As the book traces the progress made in the treatment of animals, it's clear that PETA has played a significant role. It's been a tough road, with disparaging attacks and disheartening revelations along the way. Nevertheless, you must be proud of the work you've done and the accomplishments achieved. As PETA has recently ended its "Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign, what are the immediate concerns and campaigns you're focused on? We've knocked out the "cruelest show on Earth," Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus, and we promote wonderful, non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil; we've stopped all car crash tests on animals; persuaded over 4,000 cosmetics companies to stop tests on animals, and persuaded every major designer to stop using fur; also, we've got many retailers to shun mohair, and we've supported the development of fabulous vegan leathers from pineapples, apples, grapes, even cactus! We have just launched SynFrog, a synthetic frog with a lifeline membrane that students can cut into and remove internal organs without taking real frogs from their ponds and streams, and without formaldehyde. We are determined to get the orcas and dolphins at places like SeaWorld released back into their ocean homes; to show people the cruelty they didn't know existed in shearing sheds for gentle sheep; to get kids to go vegan for the animals, their own future health, and the Earth's sake; and, perhaps most important of all, keep on getting modern research methods implemented to save millions of animals from the horrors of the laboratory.

What gives you hope that the tide is turning and the situation is getting better for animals? I can reflect now on 40 years of PETA activism, and on my own childhood (I'm 70) when dressing up in my grandmother's fox fur, complete with paws and tails, was something exciting, not horrifying; and only Hindus didn't eat meat, that sort of thing. Today, there are soy, almond, macadamia, oat and other plant milks in every supermarket; Beyond burger at fast food outlets; it's not just Stella McCartney who offers natural fibers and fabulous synthetics instead of animal hide; you can easily purchase a shampoo or floor cleaner that wasn't poured into rabbits' eyes, choose a medical charity that uses your donation to help patients rather than inflict disease on animals, and no one need dissect in school anymore. The world is changing, people are waking up to who animals are, and options are everywhere.

Where does your book tour take you next? Is Indianapolis included on your route? I'm off to Toronto this coming week, then Boulder, CO, Albuqueque, NM, and who knows. I hope to come to Indy, as I love racing, and I'm hoping the racing museum will be open when and if I get there.

Is there anything you'd like to add? Henry Beston said there are three things in life that are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is…to be kind. The Dalai Lama said the most important religion of all is kindness. And we are taught the Golden Rule of "Do unto others…" and "Kindness is a virtue," in school. All this shows how important kindness is and if we are kind people – and most of us are – we need to shake a leg, get on the stick, and not only live ethically with animals' welfare in mind, but encourage others to do the same. Wishing for a kinder world isn't going to work, doing things to get one will make a huge difference.


Guest Writer Animal Welfare and Auto Racing

Can we be better stewards of the earth and all of her sentient beings?

(8) comments

Heather Moore

Great interview, thank you! I heard Ingrid speak at a conference 27 years ago. It is largely because of her and materials that I received from PETA that I went vegan and learned to make other compassionate choices in my life. She’s an inspiration and she knows what it takes to get animal rights issues in the public eye.

Marianne Bessey

Really enjoyed this book - so much that I bought my mom a copy! Guaranteed you will learn something new and respect animals for their own individuality much more after reading.

Crystal Silmi

This inspiring book comes at a time when we need it the most. Humans are slowly awakening to the reality that our role is not to dominate all species, but protect them and enjoy the love, beauty and intelligence they share. I am so grateful to the compassionate and empathetic people of the world who are here to light the way.

Craig Shapiro

I've read this wonderful book and hope that others will, too. It's up to us to make a difference and "Animalkind" points the way,

Christina Matthies

One thing I really like about this book is that it is *not* preaching to the choir. The book is accessible no matter how much you know about animals and animal rights. It can be read by someone who is curious and wants to learn more (and may be considering going vegetarian or even learning more about ethics more broadly) and can also be really helpful to someone who is vegan. It opens up the world to you in new ways and you learn things about animals you didn't know before. It's good for teachers, too, and helpful for students. And the book moves quickly without weighing you down and you are a little surprised by how much is in there that makes you think twice when it's easy to read.

Lucy Post

Thank you for this interview! As we begin to understand our fellow Earthlings and view them as the intelligent individuals they are, it becomes harder and harder to keep thoughtlessly exploiting them--especially since there is always a kind alternative. I'm sure this book will be an eye-opener and a life-changer for many.

Kim Marie

I love how Animalkind makes us rethink our approach to coexisting with animals. Like the bit about how dogs' sense of smell is so superior that they can smell USB devices, yet we rush them on their walks because we don't understand how complex the information is that they receive from scents. It's us who need to learn from animals.

Maria Reviello

The stories shared here about animals' abilities are incredible. Animals are able to navigate the earth (without GPS), find love (without Tinder), and have fun playing (without billions of dollars being put into the sports industry). They certainly deserve our respect and are more impressive than most people know. I highly recommend reading Animalkind if you haven't already!

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