Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Newkirk’s personality drives the film I Am an Animal – starting with the first word of its title. During the course of filming, director Matthew Galkin comes to see Newkirk as operating “on a different plane than anyone I’ve ever met,” adding, for example, “I don’t think Ingrid needs the same kind of relationships in her life that I, or most people, do.”
The story begins with an undercover case against a primate lab in Maryland, in which activists gave the police evidence of filth and untreated wounds, and a prosecution was mounted. This got attention, the film explains, “like no other anti-cruelty group had done.” Newkirk, who previously worked as a Maryland law enforcement officer and a director of animal cruelty investigations in Washington, D.C., had found a calling. PETA was born.
Early in the film Newkirk invokes the day when everyone will think animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on, using a famous phrase that PETA’s founders apparently borrowed from the British Union of the Abolition of Vivisection, whose simple magazines and straightforward slogans PETA closely mimicked in the early eighties. By the nineties, PETA went glossy, and the use of celebrities and high-profile media stunts became its hallmark. And that’s what attracted Matthew Galkin to make this film: “PETA is aggressive and its marketing tactics are obscene and offensive to a lot of people. Yet Ingrid has grown PETA into the largest animal rights group in the world.” But are Galkin’s subjects prepared to tell us what “animal rights” is?
“Ingrid just has the philosophy, this mantra: She feels that there’s no such thing as bad press,” says Alex Pacheco, who co-founded PETA with Newkirk in 1980 but left in 1999. “Today the mission has become diffuse, and really watered down by what I call stupid human tricks.” And Galkin’s film includes plenty of media clips to illustrate the point: garish stunts including a campaign suggesting college students replace milk with beer. After seeing PETA’s blood-drenched photos on lunchboxes handed out to children, a parent asks, “Do I have the right to hit them if they frighten my children?”
“Everything that has turned you off about PETA has come directly from Ingrid,” states Pacheco, who says the shock value draws attention, but it’s attention to “ the fact that it’s outrageous.”
“I regret it,” Newkirk counters, “But if you switch on the nightly news, everything is reduced to the tiny sound bite. Everybody is obsessed with sex and obsessed with violence” and thus PETA’s choice “is no attention or some attention.” And if they don’t get attention, “nobody will know there is an animal-rights movement.” (The words “it works” and “no other tactic works” recur throughout the film.) But PETA has pursued sexist advertising zealously, with spectacles such as a Penthouse model “tofu-wrestling” in a tub of bean curd, and campaigns director Dan Mathews telling the Washington Times: “Playboy is helping us put the ‘T & A’ in PETA.”
The example Galkin presents is PETA’s video Milk Gone Wild, a rejected Super Bowl advertisement trading on the idea of female college students on display for their male peers. (This milk-related campaign is clearly geared to young viewers: “You won’t BELIEVE what we’ve packed into this video! You’ll see the HOTTEST girls baring it all – AND MORE!!! No rules, no parents, no limits, and of course no cows.”) Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, sees PETA staffers as driven to get attention by any means, paraphrasing a term of Newkirk’s own: press sluts. “Is that how you get a society to respect animals?” asks Feral. “I don’t think it does a thing for animals.”
Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti Defamation League, discusses PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. “This was so hurtful. This was not only hurtful to survivors, but it was hurtful to – just decent people. It trivialized what the Holocaust was all about.” Foxman points out that the Holocaust planners had a deliberate, genocidal “strategy to destroy and eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.” Foxman then seems to make a personal statement by saying that the parallel to animal agribusiness – insofar as it involves strong feelings about cruelty – is understandable to draw, and that’s “fine.” But then Foxman asks, “Is this the only way to express animal advocacy?” Not an unfair query; but Newkirk dismisses critics of the Holocaust campaign, saying “we must get over ourselves and not live in the past”.
Next, Newkirk and a half-dozen staffers review staffer Dawn Carr’s proposal for PETA’s Animal Liberation (“Are Animals the New Slaves?”) display, juxtaposing pictures of a hoisted steer and a lynching. A media relations staffer, obviously aware of the Holocaust outcry (but somehow not extrapolating that concern to the African-American perspective), asks if the slavery exhibition should avoid the use of Holocaust images. Newkirk says no, especially not if they happened to find a “super-duper one.”
Dr. James Cameron, aged 91 when PETA launched the New Slaves tour, founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Cameron escaped a lynching after he and two friends were falsely accused of murder in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. “I just cannot believe they would do this,” the museum’s director said. “Dr. Cameron was supposed to have been the third man in this picture.” Thus did the inner circle of PETA staffers create a spectacle with pictures of slaves and other exploited individuals, and reproduce the depersonalization of subjects who weren’t asked to authorize such reproduction. An African-American organizer campaigned to flood PETA’s faxes, writing, “I’d like to see someone write a point-by-point response to that form-letter pap they’re mailing back to people, because obviously they have few, if any, politically educated people in their ranks.”
Community response to PETA’s New Slaves tour is not covered in I Am an Animal; but Priscilla Feral observes, “They have exploited racism and women in campaigns, using people as props to project animal rights, and you can’t do that. You can’t sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain, a racist issue for example, and expect to advance an ethical cause in doing so.”
The White Dog
Newkirk tells the filmmakers “I believe in being decent to people”; yet most viewers will find something they do incurring Newkirk’s express disdain. Including many who do animal-protection work. Newkirk, whose oceanfront flat is not home to any animals, says people “ should work to help them” and not “accumulate them”. This disregards the needs of animals who are put into peril, or positions of dependence, because of human actions. They are our refugees, our asylum seekers. To them, the most critical help is food and shelter. Advocates who provide for the well-being of dependent animals become ethical models – both in their dedication to the individuals whose cause they’re entrusted to champion, and in their intervention in the breed-and-kill cycle that produces animals as disposable commodities in the first place. If an advocate declines this responsibility, however, basic decency would involve supporting – certainly not disparaging – those who accept it.
The filming goes out on the road, headed for North Carolina. Newkirk doubles back on the roadside to inspect the body of “a dove that’s probably dead but I have to have a look, because I never trust that they are. Dead! So where were we?”
The car pulls into a park of rust-streaked mobile homes. “There are occasions when I really have almost done physical damage to people,” Newkirk recalls, describing a childhood trip out of Britain and into India, where, she says, a man was beating a bull in the street and put a stick up the animal’s rectum, causing the animal to scream and collapse. “I was just filled with so much anger and panic to stop this from happening to this being,” Newkirk says. “And I tore the stick away from him; I was only about 8½, probably, and I made him kneel down. I was just f illed with rage. And this rage that is my father’s rage just came up straight inside me and he knew that he’s lucky I didn’t kill him.”
Newkirk approaches a badly underfed, white dog. “You look like like a sorry soul.” Newkirk quizzes the owner quickly, several times interrupting the answers, gives the dog a bowl of food, and tells the owner, a soft-spoken person with dreadlocks, that the dog has a serious case of worms. After offering the owner free veterinary care – “We have to sign him over for that. Let me get my clipboard” – Newkirk removes the dog.
In the van, Newkirk comments, “He’s just a thing. He’s one more thing that they have, I think. Sort of a passing nice idea, you’ve got yourself a pet. But the reality of care is – not understood.” Yet the ultimate proof that a being is a “thing” is when somebody can destroy it. And this is exactly what Newkirk proceeds to do.
The white dog waits in a glass room, where there appears to be at least one other animal.
“So what’s the verdict?” Newkirk asks Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s director of domestic animal welfare. Presumably Nachminovitch is reading from a vet’s report, yet there is no evidence of a vet actually seeing this dog.
Heartworm-positive, reports Nachminovitch. An abnormal red blood cell count.
As Newkirk looks on, Nachminovitch is on the phone, telling the owner they’ve discovered heartworm disease. “And so that requires some pretty aggressive treatment. You know, I want to talk to you about putting the dog to sleep.”
Newkirk adds: “I think he should go down right away.”
“If you look at him, he really l ooks miserable,” says Newkirk, with a brisk, throat-cutting gesture. “His whole face looks miserable. So will you?”
Nachminovitch says, “ I can see the pain in his eyes.”
“Will you?” Newkirk asks Nachminovitch .
The camera shows the face of an apparently calm, comforted dog.
Newkirk says, “I think I’m like a child who was raised by wolves.” She speaks of the dog who had the role of her childhood companion and sibling: “You come to understand them, and they don’t have to say anything to for you to know what they’re feeling.” Sounding uncannily like Temple Grandin, a slaughterhouse designer who suffers from autism and claims this permits an understanding of animals’ feelings, Newkirk speaks of being able to imagine herself going through “exactly” what animals go through.
No one from PETA tries to communicate with the person in the mobile home in more than the authoritative language of the expert assuming control. Nor do we see any hint of PETA going to the root of the matter: breeding and trading in dogs. The messages in this scene? Those who don’t treat dogs well shouldn’t have them. Animal advocates perform a lethal kind of sanitation role. As Priscilla Feral said after the film’s HBO premiere, “It’s not an animal rights message, but a reduce-the-suffering, kill them gently overall thrust, and that defines PETA’s regulatory approach to exploitation.”
“My first euthanasia experience,” Newkirk remembers, was taking a group of abandoned kittens to a shelter, believing they’d be homed, later to learn the reality. “Obviously I had betrayed them. I’d taken them to this place, and they’d been killed.” But that impression changed. “Sometimes, euthanasia is a gift… I had to study how to do it properly, because we weren’t taught to do it properly in the shelter where I started.” Newkirk reports having seen animals stabbed “with a needle that had never been changed – in a long time, and it had barbs on it and so on. And the animals would thrash about . . . It was like a slaughterhouse.”
Without actually saying that PETA’s policies include the roundups and systematic “euthanasia” of animals now well into five-figure numbers, the filmmaker asks, “Why did you take it upon yourself to do it, though?” Replies Newkirk, “Because I didn’t want them to experience that, and – well, I just knew that if I came in early, and made a clean place for them, and brought them out as if they were going for a walk, and did it kindly, they wouldn’t know.”
Galkin spent two years directing the film, and apparently never had reason to think that animal control and animal rights are two distinct concepts: Galkin writes:
Obviously, the dog’s situation was horrible, but watching Ingrid scurrying about, sweeping up dog sh--, feeding someone else’s animal, I felt her sadness and desperation that day like I hadn’t felt before. She’s the head of the largest animal rights organization in the world, and here she is, spending her day dealing with one neglected dog in North Carolina . . .
And this misses one of the film’s most striking and disturbing messages. Although Newkirk thinks sheltering animals detracts from advocacy, going out on interstate rounds to find and possibly kill them is not subject to that same objection. The filmmaker’s primary sympathy is for Newkirk, not the dog; not the person in the mobile home park, whose situation is also bleak yet who might be open to new understandings, if treated as a person. What did the filmmakers learn from Newkirk about animal rights or movement building?
The Killing Floor
Newkirk states that PETA’s “main goal is to stop suffering, as much suffering as we possibly can” but never distinguishes animal suffering that happens as biological fact from that which happens as a result of deliberate human activity. Yet this distinction is critical, for pain is a natural mechanism and to eliminate it all would be to destroy every single bit of conscious life on earth. Would the reduction of suffering be the key point if we lived in a society that respected animals’ interests in living on their own terms in their own habitat? The film fails to tell of the real world of animals’ interests and animal-rights advocacy, within Newkirk’s hearing but beyond her ken. When a staffer shows Newkirk footage of a person in Oklahoma hitting tigers, Newkirk first says, “Do we have more of this?” and then stops short. “I am deeply worried,” Newkirk says, “because we keep doing these investigations into exotics, and it’s all worthwhile … but the one thing that everybody needs to get involved in is empathy with the animals they eat and don’t think twice about” rather than bears and tigers. The Thanksgiving holiday is coming, Newkirk adds, and “we absolutely need an investigation inside a turkey slaughterhouse or a turkey factory farm.” Then, seemingly lumping all undomesticated animals into the classification of “cute”, Newkirk says, “All animals feel – not just the cute ones with the big eyes, not the fluffy bears, and the smiley dolphins, but all the animals.”
True, but the point of animal rights isn’t to ensure nonhuman beings feel better in captivity. It involves opting out of animal agribusiness, not reforming it; it means advocating for the interests of free-living animals and defending the habitat they require to experience their lives. In the midst of today’s world, with its melting ice caps and extinctions, nearly every aspect of Newkirk’s focus is gravely obsolete.
“No one is going behind the scenes. Who would want to go into these ugly places?”
Mary Beth Sweetland, director of the research and investigations department, approaches a young employee. “I’ve been talking to Bruce about you for quite a while. And I know you’re really valued down in the campaigns department. But we’ve got a big investigation planned. It’s the ConAgra slaughterhouse and they provide Butterball with turkeys.”
The young campaigner’s head is shaved into a military buzz. But once on the killing floor – where, from 5:45 a.m. to 5 or 5:30 p.m., a four-person team works the shackles to process some 50,000 birds every day – Chris is utterly unable to run the hidden camera. Thus, Galkin’s is the only crew to tape cruelty during the two months Chris descends into despair. “I saw a turkey get sexually abused before it died today”, Chris tells the filmmakers. About filming this part, Galkin has said: “I secretly want drama and I want everything to go haywire because it’s potentially good for the film, but when it does, it’s difficult to watch people suffering though the lens of a camera.”
Like those of the soldier who declines to shoot, Chris’s constant technical failures suggest a gut resistance to an active role in violence. To Sweetland, they mean a job undone. Sweetland approaches Newkirk, who is typing an e-mail. “Thank you for your favorable review of [Newkirk’s book] Making Kind Choices . . . ” Newkirk is told of the lack of footage, Chris’s battery-charge failures.
“He was told exactly what went into this job. It’s not a picnic, it’s not a walk in the park; he was told,” Newkirk replies.
“We can’t afford to just lollygag around with some young person who can’t get their act together . . . Mary Beth, you’ve got to come down on him like a ton of bricks.”
Newkirk replaces Chris, saying to Galkin’s camera: “I could do it myself so I know it’s doable.” By failing to produce what Newkirk wants, “he’s screwing the birds over.” But the inability to just follow orders and observe atrocity with a lifeless, electronic eye is to Chris’s credit, and it’s disturbing to watch this young person on the verge of breakdown with no one around to help. In Chris’s failure, perhaps we see where the real hope for the end of war-like treatment of the Other – human or not.
A more experienced infiltrator is deployed. At the headquarters, they watch Jay’s footage. Mary Beth Sweetland says, “I like this, Jay, following this truck. Those animals are just crammed so tightly in those cages.” A close-up. “Look at them panting, and this is in June, when it was cooler.”
Jay documents the workers grabbing the birds as “innumerable bones” are broken.
We hear Newkirk exclaim, “He’s just throwing them!”
When a staffer asks whether Chris’s notes and sworn statement will carry any weight in court versus the more reliable video evidence, Newkirk says they’ll use all “we possibly can just hang onto by a straw” in order to build a case that the plant has offended state cruelty law and the Poultry Inspection Act. A press conference begins. Arkansas law, Newkirk points out, deems anyone engaging in “cruel mistreatment or neglect” guilty of animal cruelty, defined to include causing “unjustifiable” pain. Whereas Newkirk says footage of abuse has the potential to change the world, the group doesn’t challenge the agricultural use of birds or animals generally; the idea here is to score a victory with a “big” company, and on the grounds that workers in the investigated plant have inflicted “gratuitous” harm. Butterball assures PETA that if there is any abuse found, they’ll fire the employees responsible. “I wouldn’t hold your breath ‘til you turn blue,” Newkirk tells the camera – without a word, now, about the goal of “total animal liberation” asserted earlier in the film.
Not surprisingly, activists on the street convey a mixed message: “Like a free DVD?” “Boycott Butterball; we found them molesting birds at a processing plant in Ozark.” “Go vegetarian this holiday, but at the least don’t support Butterball.” Similarly, in lab investigations, we see no critiques of, say, language studies. Instead, we see “hell holes” where monkeys are used in experiments guaranteed to make an audience squirm, animals’ skulls being crushed, skinned heads, breeders hitting animals with guns. PETA goes in “to stop suffering” – again, a distinct concept from “total animal liberation” – and the film takes no note of the incongruity.
The investigator receives approval to rescue a turkey who falls from a truck, and whom Newkirk receives and puts in a room at the PETA headquarters, with a heap of straw and a radio playing. “Look at those little, tiny ears. We’ll get you some water.” The scene has a weird, fetishistic quality in a setting where so many animals are processed into lifeless bodies. Like the U.S. president who “pardons” a single turkey on Thanksgiving Day, here’s Newkirk, who can order the demise of an animal at any minute, saving one bewildered bird. Commenting on the turkey’s lucky day, Newkirk leaves the bird at a refuge – run, one must assume, run by the accumulators previously mentioned.
Newkirk hugs a designer who promises to use no wool in the coming season. Is Marc Bouwer preferring the bouquet Newkirk brought to a pie in the face, a takeover of a runway, or a dead animal dropped in the middle of a perfectly set table? Or is the commitment based on principle? The answer is evident when Bouwer qualifies the vow as meaning products of the Australian Wool Industry – a particular business PETA has targeted in a lawsuit. “We definitely won’t use wool from Australia, that’s for sure!”
But then there’s Jean Paul Gaultier. The video cover – with a fur-clad Newkirk behind a glass window, drenched hands smearing red fluid over the pane – depicts a protest at Gaultier’s boutique in which PETA protesters smear the storefront with fake blood. Dan Mathews sees the Paris shop, with its furs and large windows, as a “great target” and Newkirk agrees: “We want to take over those windows.” They get to Paris, film crew in tow, and Newkirk leads a rehearsal. Mathews wants to speed the entrance of Newkirk’s entourage of protesters; Newkirk wants to browse alone for a few minutes. A brief squabble ensues, with Newkirk sure of the plan, and Mathews sceptical. While Newkirk impatiently restores the dominance hierarchy, we see Mathews doing what other staffers aren’t: openly second-guessing Newkirk.
The manager locks the protesters into the shop as Mathews sprays the windows, holding a sign (“Death for Sale”) printed in English. Newkirk wears a t-shirt saying Fur Is Dead. Pedestrians pause to watch this rather surreal exhibition until the group – covered in dye and chanting (in French) “Gaultier, murderer!” – is hauled away by the Paris police.
Back in the U.S., the authorities are increasingly treating as “terrorism” any actions that disrupt the affairs of businesses that rely on animals and products derived from them; and as the film points out, PETA has already been the subject of FBI investigations into possible ties to the militant Animal Liberation Front. Pacheco says “everything the ALF does, by definition, is illegal” so “you’d be a fool to admit” working with them.
A videotape of a fire-damaged building appears. In other footage, a Columbia emeritus professor describes the home phone ringing at 2 a.m. by someone who claimed to be watching his movements, and how this upset the family. Newkirk declares that animal abuse is “a far greater crime than any crime that the ALF may commit.” But one can and should oppose authoritarian treatment by humans against each other and other animals. And not, as Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle states at one point in the film, because coercion “hands a strategic opportunity to our opponents.” Yes, activists who resort to coercion and threat can enable animal users to manage activists – by portraying activists as menacing. But we need not call anyone our “opponents” if we’re committed to the ethical evolution of humanity. As a social movement, animal rights is about cultivating understanding, not finding opponents.
Newkirk praises the ALF but insists that “PETA has chosen a much different way to go”– although if there’s any striking revelation in this film it’s how much PETA people are expected to behave like the modern ALF. The interest in scoping out “targets,” in investigating, infiltrating, and seizing control, is evident in nearly every scene.
In a hall-of-mirrors effect, the theme of infiltration is replicated in this production itself. No one’s ever been in Newkirk’s flat before, says Galkin in the film’s press notes – not even other PETA people. “Like any corporation – and PETA is essentially a corporation – it took a while to peel back the layers and finally sit down with Ingrid herself,” says Galkin. “She agreed in principle but it took many months of shooting until I felt I was really inside both the organization and her life.” Who’s zooming who? PETA’s paid staff tops 300 people, we’re told, but those seen on camera are the same people Newkirk has time and again unleashed on the public. And although the producers intermittently allow others to critique PETA’s tactics – for interviewing “people who seem to share the same goals as Ingrid, but who might be critical of PETA’s methods,” Galkin explains, “allows us to get into more subtle arguments about PETA and the animal rights movement in general” – they never ask anyone to present a coherent message of animal rights. Had they done so, the film might have had more than curiosity value.
At the group’s 25th anniversary gala, an interviewer asks pop singer Pink, “Why do you support PETA?” The answer: “‘Cause I love animals!”
After watching the premiere, Priscilla Feral said, “I met the film crew when they’d just returned from Paris with Newkirk. They were giddy over having access to celebrities. They ended up doing a number on Newkirk, which Newkirk understands, but apparently they don’t.” Indeed, a portrayal of a media-driven individual wanting to brand the idea of animal rights is disconcerting to activists. For the public in general, as one writer says, “I Am an Animal deftly highlights why the movement is so hard to take seriously, exhibiting a kind of messianic zeal, narrow perspective and shrill moral superiority that borders on narcissism.”
“I believe that the horrors in this world could not ever have been created by a loving god”, says Newkirk, whose opinion of this world is stark: “Overall it’s not a nice place.” And Newkirk resolves to continue, even in death, to be its perpetual nemesis. The finale is Newkirk’s reading of the last will and testament that directs her skin to be made into leather products, and her flesh into “Newkirk Nuggets,” barbequed to demonstrate that all flesh smells the same when cooked. One eye is to be mounted and sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (long under PETA’s scrutiny for violations of its animal welfare rules) to keep an eternal watch.
For activists, the clearest message from I Am an Animal is the importance of accurately describing what groups do, so as not to mistake demagogy for respect, strategy for moral coherence, regulation and authority for conscientious commitment. Yes, PETA has accomplished something: the imposition of tabloid culture onto a serious idea. PETA gets away with it because, as the nonprofit most admired by people aged 13 to 24, its pool of supporters is perpetually replenished. In the course of a year PETA’s “Youth Division” chatted up more than 2 million young people at music festivals and other events. And the kids are consumers, persuaded to spend over a million dollars a year on PETA merchandise. Trendy rock musicians, sex(ism) and violence sell well to people in this emotionally vulnerable time of life. For the perceptive among them, I Am an Animal will be a wake-up call: They will know a cultural paradigm shift cannot be brand-named, and it’s precisely that insight that will lead to the most significant steps for animal rights.