What we can all learn from the world’s most successful female activist

Anyone walking by London’s Smithfield Market one spring morning may have been in for a surprise. There, hanging naked by a meat hook, alongside the carcasses of dozens of pigs, was a tall, blonde, 66 year old woman by the name of Ingrid Newkirk.

This wasn’t a scene from A Handmaid’s Tale. This shocking act was a voluntary one, made by one of the world’s most prolific activists, the President of the biggest ever animal right’s movement, PETA, People for the ethical treatment of animals, which she founded 39 years ago, aged 31, and still runs to this day. You know PETA, the ones who, when it comes to exposing animal suffering, have acted as our conscience, our mirror, and our thought-provoker, bringing uncomfortable and often hidden truths to the forefront of our minds. They’ve shamed some of the world’s biggest and greatest brands who often sit in fear of their exposes.

We know these are subjects close to GLAMOUR women’s hearts. Our recent GLAMOUR activism survey revealed that a whopping 82% of you would never wear fur, 78% of you disagree with animal testing and 62% of say you’ll put your money where your mouth is, and never buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals. The meat industry is also slowly losing favour. While 21% of Gen X would become vegan, that number reaches 41% when it comes to Gen Z.

And Peta has helped shape a lot of your views. Although many of their campaigns are controversial, designed to shock, invoking as many critics as fans – from their famous ads in the 90’s that got supermodels Naomi Campbell, posing naked with the slogan, “I’d rather go naked than wear fur,” (Naomi famously went back to wearing fur a few years later), to storming into American Vogue’s office, answering their phone and saying, “We’re closed today due to cruelty’ in response to their use of fur in the pages of the mag, to more recent undercover videos of workers plucking the fur out of live and screaming Angora rabbits, to be made into Angora wool and sheep being beaten and cut in the name of woolly jumpers.

And the driving force behind all these controversial activists campaigns is Ingrid, who after all these years, is still leading from the front. Born in Surrey, by her own admission, she once owned a fur coat and ate meat. She’d been taught empathy for others from a young age, when her family moved to India when she was seven and her mother volunteered for Mother Teresa. “I grew up with orphans, stray dogs, lots of refugees in our home. My mum said, ‘It doesn’t matter who suffers, it matters that they suffer – try to do something about it.’ So I learnt from her.”

She formed the group PETA in 1980, quickly recruiting five friends. But it was her love for her pet dog Shawny that proved to be the tipping point, that transformed her from animal-lover to activist. “Shawny was like my brother,” she recalls. “It occurred to me one day he was just like us. No animal wishes to have their lives taken from them. They can feel love, they have all the emotions we do. I thought, if I care about animals but had done all these cruel things unthinkingly, maybe I should start a little group and try to show people how bad things are for animals? And then all the good things they could do instead, the kind choices they could make. It hit a nerve.”

She started small, but her aims were big. “In order to be heard, we held a demonstration at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in Washington DC, that was filmed on National TV. I held a banner in red, white and blue and the cameras thought it was some ra-ra national thing, but actually, it said, ‘Take back your mink, take back your pearls, I’m not one of those girls,’ which was a line from Guys and Dolls, which was a big Broadway hit at the time.”

Their next move was to “join forces with the police and raid a laboratory to take out monkeys who were being horrifically tortured. That made the national news. People started writing to us to say, How can we help?” Today PETA has more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide and Ingrid travels the world, promoting her cause. They have been responsible for ending so many cruelties, such as persuading General Motors to stop crash testing on animals, to shutting down puppy mills in the US, closing down North America’s longest running circus, Ringling Bros, convincing designers like Gucci, Michael Kors and Burberry to stop selling fur, stopping major airlines from shipping monkeys for tests and sparing 4.5 million animals from painful toxicity testing.

For now, she is focusing on highlighting cruelty in the wool and leather industry – fur may be firmly off the agenda, but most of us, including myself, seem to live by a different value system when it comes to other animal skins. Can she ever see a time that we view these materials as abhorrent as we do fur?

“Yes, I can see the avalanche approaching. The exposes are shocking. People are asking the same questions they used to about fur. That animal had to be thrown to the ground, hit with clippers, shawn, cut up, as you see in our videos. Or they had to be killed and their hide taken off them. If you actually look at a piece of leather, a substantial piece, you can see marks where that animal may have been whipped, hit the fence post, you can actually see that’s the skin of an animal.”

“In China I’ve seen dogs killed for leather that come into this country, obviously not marked as dog leather. You never know whose skin you’re in and, of course, I’ve been on the cattle trail in India, where you wouldn’t think it, but most leather is imported from. The cattle are abused so awfully. It broke my heart knowing those animals are going through hell for a leather satchel or a leather handbag or a leather coat. I can’t imagine anyone with a kind heart, who has just glimpses of what we’ve seen, would do anything other than seek out these new fashion items that are not the product of cruelty.”

Indeed, the alternative to the leather industry is a fast growing area of fashion.

“There are so many alternatives to leather now, such as substitutes made of grapes, pineapple and mushrooms. There are so many natural fibres. Stella McCartney is of course, an icon in this area.”

One of the interesting dilemmas about being ethical, and not wearing fur, is the alternative rise of fake fur, which may be less cruel to animals, but is just as detrimental to the environment, destined to sit in landfills for generations. Where does she sit on the ethical, sustainable issue?

“Fake fur is actually far more environmentally conscious – not to say it’s totally because it isn’t – than real fur. Real fur has to be treated with mortants, which are a huge cocktail of chemicals. They use things that are not only poisonous to the environment, but it’s also to treat the flesh so it doesn’t rot. They treat it so that if you throw a piece of fur out of your window, it will still be there years and years later. It doesn’t biodegrade, this is a fantasy.

On an animal it will, but once you treat it for human use, you have this chemical cocktail going on to stop decomposition. You also have to factor in the transportation, the feeding of the animals, what is happening on the factory farms to the animals and those farms have been banned in the UK for good reason, for cruelty and environmental reasons. Fur farming really adds to the damaging environmental footprint, which you do not have with something made in a factory.”

Her response to the injustices and cruelties she has witnesses has been a controversial one, sending PETA activists undercover to expose the meat and animal skin industries. Many of their ads and videos have gone viral and prompted fashion and more recently persuaded Zara to stop selling Angora. “I adore Zara,” Ingrid says. “When we showed them the Angora video they actually came to their Chinese factory to see it for themselves.

They were horrified and said, no more Angora, even though they had a million pound’s worth of Angora on their shelves. They gave it all to us and we sent that Angora to refugees in Afghanistan and to children who were freezing in the winter cold. They sacrificed that profit in order to do something ethical. We’re also very happy Victoria Beckham finally stop using crocodile and other exotic skins.” Is there anyone who you feel is really failing animals at the moment? “Yes, TUI. They need to stop selling tickets to and making a profit from Sea World.”

Could she ever have imagined a time that activism, her messaging in particular, would become so commonplace it’s just accepted? “We are becoming uncomfortably mainstream,” she smiles. “We’ve always been the radical voice, which I find amusing in a way and also sad. The way society has conducted itself towards animals has been pretty radical. You take an animal that’s living their own life and minding their own business and you capture them, imprison them, kill them, put them in shackles or the circus, that to me is pretty radical. “

“But now with the rise of vegan food and the understanding, the internet is able to show millions our videos in split seconds. People’s eyes, hearts and minds are opened. They’re suddenly thinking, I want to be the kind of person I think I am, which is a decent and kind person and if I’ve got these options, I want to choose the compassionate one. So I have seen a change and I think the internet is part of that. I can envision now that we’re going to have one company after another saying no animal clothing in this store and being proud of it and having shoppers flood in because they don’t have to read the label anymore. ”

I find myself mentally vowing to try to stop wearing leather and wool. After all, it’s because of PETA that I became vegetarian aged 10, which I’ve remained to this day. Whether they’ve persuaded me to go vegan remains to be seen. But the one thing that I can’t quite fathom is the revelation that PETA actually euthanizes some of the animals they rescue. How, I ask, can she justify this fact? “If anyone wonders why we euthanize, please look at our field workers video which is online. It will show you the condition of the animals we hold in our arms and allow our vet to leave this world that hasn’t been good to them.

These animals are completely crushed, they’re broken, they’re racked with cancer, they’re in pain and most of them are brought to us by their owners who don’t have the funds as it’s not cheap for vetinary care in the US. Where we do this is one small poverty pocket on the US. You can see every one of those animals online. You would never turn away from them if you had a heart.”

it’s not the only area they receive negativity for – their use of naked women in stunts is not always well received. Is it still necessary to use naked women, to promote the animal cruelty cause?

“We get a lot of criticism for using naked women to promote our messaging,” she shrugs. “I wouldn’t ask anyone else to do something I wouldn’t do myself. But the truth is, women ask us to get naked to help us. Even if it’s a sexy display, every woman who is doing it is entitled to keep her clothes on or take them off as she chooses. No one is paid to do this. It’s not Afghanistan. If you want to do that, you should be free in this country without criticism.”

So as a Glamour women, what can we do to make a real difference? Is signing an online petition, writing an article or holding a placcard on a march, enough?

“I adore you for asking this question because it’s the most vital question there is. Signing a petition is fine, but it really doesn’t do that much. What makes a difference is the amount of money you spend in a year on food, clothing and ways to entertain yourself. It’s your buying decisions that are worth thousands of pounds and it’s your voice. Or if you’re managing to show someone one of our videos online or on your social media, talking to someone about something you’ve tried. Perhaps a piece of clothing, a sandwich that doesn’t have animal product in it, that’s what makes a difference.”

I’ve met some ballsy and gusty women in my time as a journalist, but Ingrid officially wins my award for the most impressive – and progressive. Now 69 years old, she still has the energy of a sixteen year old. How has she been able to continue for all these years whilst witnessing such extreme pain and suffering?

“I cry a lot. My heart has been broken a million times. It doesn’t get any easier, but once you’ve seen it, it’s like child abuse or starvation, you can’t unsee it. If you care about it, then you think I’m going to do the little I can and I’m trying to rope other people in to help. Hopefully together, we can make a difference.”

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