What Animals Can Teach Us

In Ingrid Newkirk’s new book Animalkind, the PETA founder looks at why our fellow living beings deserve our respect, and how we can best defend them.

Forty years ago, Ingrid Newkirk founded PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world. The advocacy group’s boisterous tactics (paint-bombing Vogue EIC Anna Wintour’s fur coat, celebrities going naked) were a cultural lightning rod, but arguably they worked. Veganism has grown more than 600% over the last five years in the U.S. and cruelty-free cosmetics are becoming the norm, not the exception. (Chantecialle’s products are 100 percent cruelty free.) Her new book with writer Gene Stone, AnimalKind, explores the sometimes astonishing richness of animals’ interior lives (they’re just like us!), and some of the ways that technology is finally creating a kinder world for animals.

Photo courtesy of PETA.

This book is packed with so many studies about animals’ complex emotional lives, their communication and navigational skills and penchant for play. These revelations must come as no surprise to you–you’ve known that animals are amazing for a long time! But did you come across any new findings that blew you away?
I collect fascinating stories and facts about animals, but I learned a lot writing this book. For instance, I knew about dogs’ phenomenal sense of smell (which makes it absolutely forbidden to drag them away from smelling things on their walks and even from eating things in front of them!), but I didn’t know that the part of a dog’s brain lights up when they are offered a treat also lights up in a businessman’s brain when he’s offered a raise! As for elephants, I knew that they communicated to each other subsonically, with rumbles that travel a mile or more underground, but I didn’t realize that they not only use their trunks as snorkels when they swim but, they will leap into the ocean – in Sri Lanka, say – and swim for the sheer fun of it for 30 miles or so. I also learned about light communication and how moths, like cuttlefish, can send patterned signals to others on one side of their bodies without anyone on the other side having any idea that any signaling is going on at all.

"Humans have power over other animals and should show mercy and understanding, not use that power in unethical ways."

Dogs get lots of attention in the book for their emotional intelligence, and ability to communicate and play. Got any interesting tidbits for us cat owners about how smart, sensitive and cool our cats really are?
The joke is that dogs would make hopeless poker players because they would be unable to stop wagging their tails if they were dealt a good hand. Cats do not give up their secrets, or feelings, as easily. Like cows and horses, cats communicate using very subtle facial expressions and ear and tail movements that we don’t often recognize. Also like dogs, cats have been known to travel vast distances over routes they’ve never taken before to return to an original home when their family has moved, even crossing rivers and highways to do so.

Many of the original studies demonstrating animals’ rich inner lives were conducted unethically, yet they led to important insights. Is there some level on which this kind of research is necessary for a factual understanding of animals’ intelligence and psychology?
Times have changed, but not enough. In the past it was thought acceptable to harm animals simply to determine what makes them tick: nowadays researchers who conduct invasive studies on animals know that the public will not take kindly to such disrespect and torment, yet it still goes on. More and more people do care. It is a familiar refrain that if we do X to another species, we might learn something about our own, but what gives us the right to deprive another living being of their freedom, interests, natural life and even life itself to satisfy what is often just "scientific" curiosity? Humans have power over the other animals and should show mercy and understanding, not use that power in unethical ways.

The second half of your book demonstrates humane alternatives in medicine, clothing, entertainment and food, thanks to advances in technology. For those who haven’t yet read the book, can you cite a couple of innovations that are promising the most dramatic cultural shifts? Does this technological progress make you optimistic about our culture’s ability to embrace, as you say, “a new age of animal-free living”?
It's all extraordinarily exciting. We now have whole human DNA on the internet, organs on a chip, PETA has funded a new artificial lung to replace animals who are stuck into tubes to inhale smoke, and we have also funded an incredible artificial frog, called SYNfrog, with a lifelike skin that students can cut open with properly placed organs inside; they can remove these with forceps, so that schools save frogs and funds, and students learn respect for living beings through modern lessons. We have over 4,000 cosmetics companies now carrying our own or the Leaping Bunny logo, showing that they do not test in rabbits' eyes and other ghastly ways, but use synthetic skin, human skin, and so on to test shampoos, floor cleaners, toothpaste and so on. Designers and retailers have seen our undercover investigations of the shearing sheds, where sheep are cut to bits, and are moving away from real wool - something shoppers can do immediately. And we've ripped the lid off of the cashmere, mohair and leather industries, even the feather industry, so now you can look for pineapple, grape and apple leather–Chanel has a fabulous pineapple leather hat!

"Who wants to get to the end of their life and think they didn’t stand for what is right, that they didn’t contribute anything to improving the world for others?"

You advise readers, “Don’t keep your activism in the closet.” And yet, for many people, making their beliefs public feels risky or overly political. How do you advise consumers make the transition to being vocal about animal rights issues at a volume that feels right to them?
I look at it this way: Who wants to get to the end of their life and think they didn’t stand for what is right, that they didn’t contribute anything to improving the world for others? I wish there had been people to tell me where my first fur coat came from, to point out that the milk in my tea is a product of the veal industry (the calves are taken from their mothers so that their milk can be sold), but for years, there weren’t. And it can be done ever-so politely and helpfully–start perhaps by saying, ”I didn’t know this, and perhaps you don’t know it, but I found out that…(and explain).” Give vegan food and gifts to people, cook for those you love or those at work so that people have a chance to try new things; show off your new vegan shoes, comment on store websites, and post videos, happy and sad ones, on your social media accounts. Offer to help anyone transition away from cruel choices to compassionate ones.

You probably get this alot, but....Do you have a spirit animal? Which and why?
This year is the year of the rat, you know, because of this little mammal’s strong spirit, alertness, intelligence, adaptability, and vitality. I have always admired how, even when people are out to get them in all sorts of cruel ways, they try their best to survive, eke out an existence even in hostile environments, and care for their families.


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