Perhaps Newkirk is reluctant to hold grudges because she has her own less-than-ethical past. "I grew up eating every kind of animal except dog," says the British native. "And I got my first fur coat at 19." In fact, it didn't dawn on the activist that the animals she loved and the food she ate weren't actually that different until she worked as a humane officer in a Maryland sheriff's department.
Called out to an abandoned farm to investigate a case of animal cruelty, Newkirk found a barn full of broken liquor bottles and the carcasses of many pigs and horses. Only a dog and one small pig, "a shadow of his former self," had survived. She carried the pig out of the barn and sat with it under a tree, feeding it drops of water from her fingertips and waiting for the veterinarian's truck to arrive. Driving home after the ordeal, Newkirk was running through a mental inventory of what she could cook for dinner. "Oh, I've got some pork chops," she thought, but she couldn't bring herself to eat them, and hasn't since. "So much for the Egg McMuffin," she says with a laugh. Newkirk says she was a "slow learner" even after this epiphany. It was years before she was able to toss her last pair of leather shoes in the homeless bin and "never look back."
Newkirk's slow process of veganization is hard to reconcile with her fondness for extreme tactics such as dumping manure in front of meat-packing plants, sabotaging pigeon shoots, throwing fake blood on fashionistas in fur, advertising that meat causes impotence and tossing tofu-cream pies at corporate leaders. Newkirk says she would rather be silly than be ignored. PETA's recent protests against Vice President Al Gore's support of animal-testing met with a deaf ear until they sicced a seven-foot-tall bunny on all the veep's public appearances. Then the White House wanted to talk.
But Newkirk points out that most of PETA's practices are not outrageous or sensational, that the organization has a "big, quiet side" of straightforward letter-writing and education campaigns. That side just doesn't get a lot of press.
It's PETA's quiet side that has spawned Newkirk's new book, You Can Save the Animals: 251 Simple Ways to Stop Thoughtless Cruelty. The book goes light on detailed descriptions of slaughterhouses and go-to-jail-for-the-cause bravado, opting instead for feel-good stories of anthropomorphic animals like a rooster named Lucie who likes to watch television, "talk" to his owners and eat at the dinner table. It's a how-to book with tips on introducing more vegetarian meals into your diet, finding entertainment alternatives to zoos and circuses, writing letters to the editor, signing up for a hunting license (thus limiting the number of licenses that can be issued to real hunters), buying cruelty-free products, stopping dissection in schools, even getting rid of cockroaches humanely (with bay leaves). None of these suggestions would seem to have much impact on the problem, but Newkirk is patient with the public. "You can change a few small habits," she says, "and make a world of difference."
Ingrid Newkirk signs copies of You Can Save the Animals Tuesday, October 19, at 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 2545 Town Center Boulevard, Sugar Land, (281)265-4620. Free.