When Ingrid Newkirk sits down to open her mail each day, she knows that finding a bloody animal organ or a vicious death threat is not just likely—it’s expected. As president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Ms. Newkirk has amassed an army of foes who are ostensibly as loyal to their cause as she is to hers.
In I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA, a documentary that premieres tonight on HBO, the 58-year-old British-born Ms. Newkirk reads from a sampling of letters she’s received since starting the organization with fellow animal rights activist Alex Pancheco in 1980. “All of you belong in a cage with all of your four-legged buddies,” she reads aloud. “I wish you all meeting up with a Jeffrey Dahmer, so he can rid the world of scumbags like you.”
Such violence, the human kind, seems to hardly faze Ms. Newkirk. “I actually have a stalker,” she told The Observer in a phone interview last week. “That’s frightening enough. This is a person who is mentally ill and has violent tendencies. But the rest of it? You can’t go through your life being controlled by the thought that there are external forces that may take you out.”
Ms. Newkirk is slight but fierce. Her tiny frame—often in dress more like that of a middle-school nurse than the head of an organization with nearly two million members—is matched by her friable voice. But while she may sound like someone’s dear old aunt, her words are more of the fighting kind.
“You may feel more comfortable just arguing things intellectually. But that isn’t the way society is now; it’s all Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and ‘Show us your tits,’” Ms. Newkirk said. She was responding to a question about PETA’s unconventional public demonstrations (she calls them “pranks”), which often involve innumerable gallons of fake blood and large graphic photos of animal torture.
Ms. Newkirk thinks such grand gestures are the only way to cut through what she calls her biggest enemy—“human obliviousness.” (After her organization set its sights on Kentucky Fried Chicken a few years ago, a reported 10,000 anti-KFC demonstrations took place worldwide. The campaign resulted in a complete overhaul of the company’s practices, from top to bottom.) “They are splashy; they are colorful; and sometimes they’re completely ridiculous,” she said of PETA’s public displays of disaffection. “But they are provocative, and they work.”
Ms. Newkirk tempers her seriousness with a shot or two of optimism. After arriving in New York last week to promote the HBO documentary, for example, she remarked on how most of the fur she saw was on older women. “I looked around the streets and it was wonderful! You could go for quite a while without seeing anybody with even fur trim on,” she beamed, her voice rising with excitement.
Although Ms. Newkirk claims to be out of touch with pop culture, she also knows that wooing young people to PETA’s cause is vital to its longevity. She is, after all, largely responsible for peta2, a “street team” for activists in their teens and 20’s. “I don’t understand a word of it; there’s alternative music, fashion, the works. And they say ‘vegan’ as if they’re saying ‘oxygen,’” she explained, before moving on to the topic of the fashion industry’s use of fur.
“The young designers, in the main, are really great,” she said. “I think the old fogy designers like Karl Lagerfeld and so on, and the desperate designers like Alexander McQueen who want to be bad boys—Jean Paul Gaultier—they really want to be like, ‘Look at me, look at me! Aren’t I just shameless?’ They want to be outrageous—‘Oh, très!’” she purred in a mock-fashionista nuance.
Ms. Newkirk, we gathered, has an excellent sense of humor.
One still gets the feeling, however, that many of her jokes are like rafts trying to stay afloat on a turbulent, furious ocean. In 2003, she made part of her last will and testament a matter of public record. In part, the document stipulates that her posthumous meat be made into “Newkirk Nuggets” and then grilled, her skin fashioned into wallets and her feet made into umbrella stands. “I certainly won’t have any use for it myself when I’m gone,” she told us.
The idea for her will’s corpse clause, Ms. Newkirk said, came to her moments before she thought she was about to die. “I was in an aircraft where we were eventually able to make an emergency landing after two failed attempts at other airports. We finally managed to land at the third airport with a teaspoon of gas and no hope in anybody’s heart—including the pilot’s. And while this was going on, I was thinking, ‘Damn it! I’m about to die and that’s the end of my campaigning life,’” said Ms. Newkirk, who, before changing the will, asked for the approval of her mother, her only surviving relative. “When I’m gone, I can carry on being a campaigner,” she said.