I went to hear Ingrid Newkirk, the president and founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), speak in Cambridge recently. I went because I was curious to learn about the animal rights movement from Newkirk herself, the organization’s star spokeswoman whose media stunts dramatizing animal abuse and suffering at the hands of humans have been enormously effective – and highly polarizing. I was surprised that the audience wasn’t younger or larger, given Newkirk’s celebrity and the growing awareness (at least here in the People’s Republic) that animal rights activists can no longer be dismissed as a bunch of cranks who throw red paint at women in fur coats.
About one hundred members of the local PETA choir gathered on a Sunday afternoon at Lesley University. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the congregation was roughly two-thirds female. We gatherers may be more naturally sympathetic to the plight of animals (just as we are prone to hoarding cats), or maybe the guys were all hunkered down in their man caves watching the Patriots game that afternoon. Charismatic as Newkirk is – she calls to mind a feistier, British version of Diane Sawyer – her brassy, take-no-prisoners manner may put off men of the alpha hunter variety. I suspect that I was one of the few non-vegans in the audience, and I was glad that I’d thought at the last minute to change my footwear from leather boots to canvas sneakers. (I still may have crossed some line because Converse cannot say definitively that no animal-based glues are used in their shoes.)
I have tremendous admiration for Newkirk’s passion. Her unblinking commitment to ending the suffering and exploitation of all creatures great and small is extraordinary. Working tirelessly since 1980, when she exposed the cruel abuse of monkeys at a federally funded research lab in Silver Spring, Newkirk has moved the animal rights needle significantly toward mainstream acceptance. She has every right to be proud of the progress her organization has made over the past three decades, and casts herself as both an optimist and a fighter: “Movements for social change can succeed if you don’t have a wishbone where a backbone ought to be,” she asserted.
Newkirk wants us all to view animal rights – total animal liberation is PETA’s true goal – as the next logical frontier in the Civil Rights movement. She’s not shy about quoting Lincoln out of context (“If we ourselves do not wish to be slaves, then we surely do not wish to be masters.”) and she has a gift for tossing off witty jabs against speciesism (“We humans think we’re special because one of us invented Cheetos and another the self-cleaning oven.”) “Never be silent,” she implored any spineless audience members who might hesitate to impose their animal ethics on others.
Ethics. As Newkirk spoke, I looked at the PETA logo projected on the screen behind her. The lower case “e” stands out. Am I an unethical person because I resist seeing the issue in the same black and white terms Newkirk does? I am an animal lover of the first order with a dog blog to prove it, yet I struggle with PETA’s absolute line in the sand. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a vegan shoe-wearing, card-carrying PETA member, I probably weigh in at about a 5.
My animal ethics are wildly inconsistent. I am a vegetarian, but I can’t extend PETA’s ethics to most fish. I do try to stick to sustainable seafood, and I won’t eat Flipper, but I don’t lose sleep over cod or clams. I buy cage-free eggs, but I realize that I still eat processed foods that contain eggs of unknown provenance. I am indiscriminate in the kinds of dairy products I eat, turning a blind eye to what Newkirk calls the “rape racks” used to impregnate the cows and goats – the lactating mothers whose babies are cruelly snatched from their udders – that produced my Greek yogurt and my chèvre cheese. I do not eat lamb or veal, but I wear sweaters made from sheep’s wool and shoes made of cowhide. I abhor the way foie gras is produced, but my winter coat is stuffed with goose down. Newkirk is adamant that there are no responsible dog breeders, but I bought my cockapoo from a local breeder, though at least Eddie didn’t come from a puppy mill in Kansas. In Newkirk’s book, I imagine I am only marginally better than a clubber of baby seals.
When I arrived home after the lecture, my house reeked of charred chicken. Newkirk noted that Americans eat one million chickens per hour; my husband prefers his cooked to a crisp. He knows how I feel about eating meat, and I respect his choice to continue doing so, though he now eats less of it than he used to because I do more of our meal planning and food shopping. Truth be told, I am too lazy to become a vegan, because it would require far more effort to eliminate all fish, dairy and eggs from my diet. Changing my own diet won’t amount to a hill of beans, and if I refuse to coerce my own family members into changing their habits, how can I in good conscience lobby strangers’ to change? I care but I don’t care enough, or I care about too many other issues at the same time and am too easily overwhelmed.
It’s complicated. Newkirk scores a perfect 10 on the animal ethics scale, but when she casually let slip that she sometimes shops at Payless Shoes I wondered if she had weighed the human cost of manufacturing cheap synthetic shoes in the developing world? Or the environmental cost of the plastic leather used in many vegan shoes and bags. Every single thing we humans consume comes with a hidden cost beyond its price tag. The real world is full of gray areas, and once you make an emotional investment in caring about issues like animal rights, climate change and fair trade, to name a few, the burden of making socially responsible choices can quickly lead to pessimism. Paralysis, even. What most inspired me about Newkirk was her unwavering optimism that social change is possible, that individual actions can and do make a difference.
So I will continue taking small steps. Last week I visited a vegan shoe store in Porter Square and bought a pair of rubber boots. (The next time it rains look for me walking my dog in my new purple Bogs.). Sudo Shoes stocks some very attractive styles, and I will definitely make the store my first stop the next time I need new shoes (and first I will try to wear out the shoes I already have). I have already told three friends about Sudo, and if you’re reading this now you know, too. That’s something, right?