REDWOOD: What do you think have been PETA’s greatest successes?
NEWKIRK: Changing hearts and minds, truly. Not very tangible or sexy. Well, it is tangible in that you can see how many people order the vegetarian starter kits from us, how many call and ask if there is an alternative to this, because I don’t want to hurt the animals. For example, pests in the home or dissection in the school. But tangible victories? Of course, one of my favorites is that we got all the car companies (the last one being General Motors) to stop using pigs and baboons in crash tests; they now all use mannequins.
REDWOOD: How did you go about organizing that?
NEWKIRK: We always start the same way. We write politely, we research the alternatives, we showed that Mercedes and some foreign car companies were no longer using animals in these tests, that there were superior methods at their disposal. We try to meet with the executives of the company that we wish to reform. And when the door is slammed, and sometimes it is slammed (often it works that way, especially if the company is big), then we start enlisting public support, asking consumers to write in, and it escalates from there. In the end, when GM acquiesced, we had reached a stage where we were protesting every auto show, and people had donated old GM cars to us, which we were breaking up in front of the auto shows to make a point about crash tests on animals. And they finally agreed to stop. And now no car company uses animals in crash tests.
REDWOOD: PETA is widely known for some of its most dramatic tactics, particularly on advertising campaigns. Could you mention a couple of the more controversial tactics that PETA has used and also mention some of the more quiet, ongoing approaches pursued by the organization?
NEWKIRK: Most of our work is work you won’t read about in the press because it’s not flamboyant or provocative, it’s just solid work, a lot of it behind the scenes with corporations, seeking reforms step-by-step. But we have such a serious message, and society these days makes you jump through a lot of hoops to get attention for a serious issue. You can’t blame people, in a way, or the press, because there’s the war, there was the tsunami, there’s violence in the streets, and there are all sorts of extraordinary things happening every day. And people are busy, so competing for their attention is a little difficult. So one of the ways that we get people’s attention, even if it means that they’re going to argue with us or dislike us for it, is to be provocative.
One of the most provocative billboards we ever ran was a picture of Rudolph Giuliani with a milk moustache, that said, “Got prostate cancer?” and gave a website, because he had come out to say that he had prostate cancer, he was battling it. We had written to him because he was constantly drinking milk at his news conferences—there was some promotion he was involved in—and explaining to him that milk is actually linked to prostate cancer. I had just lost my father to a number of things, one of which was prostate cancer. His heart and his prostate were battling as to who was going to take him first, and I initially thought I would run a picture of my father. But I thought no, nobody will know who that is or care, so I had written to Rudy Giuliani and said that we’re thinking of running a billboard with your image on it, and please will you think about this issue and stop promoting milk. He didn’t respond, so we ran it. And immediately we got tons of press, most people shouting at us, but thousands upon thousands of people actually going to the website and learning of the link between prostate cancer and dairy, which was our goal.