REDWOOD: When and why did you decide to become a vegan?
NEWKIRK: It was a very slow process. I was a slow learner. I grew up eating meat, had my first fur coat when I was 19. I’m 56 now, and there were no animal rights activists then to hand me a card, admonish me in some way, and say, “What are you thinking? If you care about animals, why are you wearing them and eating them?” But I had a few events in my life which opened my eyes gradually to the difference you can make if you think of all animals, not just dogs and cats and horses and certain birds, as being important. But [to think of] all of them as having feelings.
I was a law enforcement officer in Maryland and I went on a case of abandonment of animals on a farm. The people had moved away and left all the animals. And they had all starved to death except one little pig. And I found this little pig in very bad shape, pulled him out of the barn, and took him outside. He was so weak that I actually had to hold his head up and help him drink some water. My job was to prosecute those people for leaving the animals to starve, and I was to find them. Driving home that evening, I was wondering what I could have for dinner, and I remembered that I had defrosted some pork chops. And suddenly, I realized that even though I had never been inside a slaughterhouse (I can’t say that now), that of course they are not very pleasant places and must be very frightening for the animals. And I realized I was prosecuting somebody for being cruel to one pig while I was paying someone I didn’t know to be cruel to another pig. There were lots of little incidents like that where I thought, “Oh dear, I shouldn’t do that. I need to find something different to eat or wear.”
REDWOOD: Could you tell us about the beginnings of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?
NEWKIRK: I worked for the Department of Human Resources in Washington, and one of my jobs was oversight of the animal shelter and inspection of all animal facilities in the District of Columbia. One day, this young man walked into my office to volunteer for the city and he told me about certain things I had no idea about. I knew about laboratories because I had inspected them, but he knew about dairy farming, and he made fun of me for caring about animals and still using milk in my tea. I had never thought about it before.
REDWOOD: What did he tell you about dairy farms? And what do you know now about them?
NEWKIRK: I had stopped eating veal when I was seven because my mother refused to serve it in the house when she found out how veal calves are kept, in these little crates. He said to me, “Well, you realize that the reason the veal calves are taken away from the mother is so that the milk can be marketed for us. And there’s no reason that, as a grown adult, you should be drinking milk anyway. And there’s no reason you should drink the milk meant for a baby calf. So why support the veal industry?” And I thought, well, I’ve never connected those dots before. He also taught me about whaling. He had come off a whaling ship in the Atlantic, and he told me the horrors of whaling and what is done to dolphins caught in tuna nets.
REDWOOD: What is done to them?
NEWKIRK: They drown because they can’t back up, so they get tangled in these massive, football-field sized nets that are cast for tuna. The dolphins follow the tuna fishes. And then they are ground up on board or they just drown and die in the nets. So he was filling in some gaps for me. I thought, it’s funny, I’ve cared about animals my whole life and I didn’t know that. So I thought maybe I could start a little group, and if people who care about animals want to know where they could get an alternative to a shampoo tested in rabbits’ eyes, I could say, here are the (at that point) three companies you can buy from. And maybe I could open their eyes to some things, too. But it hit a nerve and it grew very quickly.