Fair trade certification appeals to socially and environmentally conscious people. A sound, transparent certification process educates and guides all of us who care about poverty alleviation, gender equity, workplace safety, abolition of child labor, and the encouragement of sound environmental practices.
But among these many progressive, admirable goals, one is missing. Why not also recognize the interests of other conscious animals? If we seek to protect the environment, why not also respect the animals who inhabit it? If we question the use of harmful chemicals, why not confront the emissions of methane, waste runoff, and other dangerous effects of animal agribusiness? Why not set a standard, based on pure vegetarian principles, that prohibits commodities derived wholly or partly from animals — beings who are never workers by choice?
This proposal is a logical extension of the established Fair Trade standards, and would be welcomed by the health-conscious and humane — people who usually support fairly traded goods already.
Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) is the umbrella for over 20 initiatives in Europe, Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.1 TransFair, the U.S. certifier and FLO member, does not certify any products derived from animals.2 (Some of its commodities, such as vanilla and cocoa, may, however, find their way into dairy chocolates or ice creams.) A visit to Global Exchange’s online fair-trade store reveals that other FLO members do certify products derived from animals, such as honey and soccer balls made from leather.3
Recently, we noted Global Exchange’s name endorsing a bid to put industrial husbandry adjustments (for egg and pig-flesh processors) on California’s November 2008 ballot. The changes sought through this initiative are largely cosmetic, but if they were substantial, they would expand the space taken up for animal farming, which is ecologically problematic. As our population grows, animal farming spreads — bringing deforestation, water pollution, heavy chemical use, and the killing of predators to preserve ranchers’ wealth.
Did you know? Opt out of animal agribusiness, and you’ll generate about a ton and a half less greenhouse gas this year than an omnivore consuming the same amount of calories.
And what would the animals consider fair trade, if they could vote? Surely, trade that doesn’t turn them into commodities.
This is an issue to watch. It’s time to make it clear that the route to fairness involves showing people how to cook and plan enjoyable gatherings without doing so at the expense of other animals.
Fair trade organizations are always considering new commodities for certification. To ask TransFair USA to continue to avoid certifying animal products, write to:
Paul Rice, CEO
1500 Broadway, Suite 400
Oakland , CA 94612, United States .
To ask FLO to consider altering its certification standards to exclude animal products, write to:
Barbara Fiorito, Chair
Board of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
Bonner Talweg 177
53129, Bonn, Germany.
The message to convey is: Together with Friends of Animals, we view a animal agribusiness as degrading to human health, other living beings, equitable distribution of resources, and the environment. We support meaningful work for people, without the commodification of other animals.
- 1. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International; available: www.fairtrade.net/about_us.html (last visited 14 Jan. 2008).
- 2. See TransFair USA, “Fair Trade Products”; available: www.transfairusa.org/content/shop/products.php (last visited 14 Jan. 2008).
- 3. Global Exchange; available: www.globalexchange.org (last visited 14 Jan. 2008).
In 1982, Paul Rice, age 20, was studying economics and political science at Yale. Rice decided to spend the summer working on farms in Nicaragua. After finishing his degree at Yale, Rice returned to Nicaragua for 11 years, while the Contra War raged, and after. He continued working with farmers and established a successful coffee co-op.1
Paul Rice is now president and CEO of Transfair USA, which last December won business magazine Fast Company’s prestigious Social Capitalist Award the fourth time running.2 The award is given to nonprofits that do good by following best business practices. Transfair USA monitors fair-trade certification of such products as coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit, rice, sugar, vanilla and flowers. Fair trade ensures that farmers get a fair price, can compete in the global marketplace, can practice sustainable agriculture and are able to invest their profits in their communities.3
It may seem like a long road from the fields of Nicaragua to the Oakland, Calif., headquarters where Rice runs his nonprofit, which over the past nine years has produced more than $91 million in additional income for some of the world’s most disadvantaged farmers.4 But for Rice, a conscientious citizen of the global village, it’s not.
“After 11 years in Nicaragua, I realized that markets didn’t have to be the enemy, that in fact markets could be an incredibly powerful force for liberating the poor and that Fair Trade was a really interesting, innovative, powerful model for approaching that,” Rice said. “If I stayed in Nicaragua, I could continue to impact the lives of 10,000 families. But if I came back to the States and tried … to put Fair Trade on the map in a much bigger way, that maybe I could impact the lives of 10 million farmers.”5
So, Rice got a master’s degree from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and launched TransFair USA.6 Now, Fair Trade Certified products are available in 40,000 retail outlets throughout the United States and Canada.7
The Birth of Fair Trade and Its Remarkable Growth
In 1946, a Mennonite volunteer, Edna Ruth Byler, was working with a sewing class in Puerto Rico and found that many women were creating beautiful lace but living in grinding poverty. Byler began taking pieces to the mainland U.S., where she sold them and returned the profits to the women directly. Eventually, her efforts grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which has developed from a single store established in 1958 to the biggest fair trade retailer in North America.8
Fair Trade didn’t really become an organized movement, however, until the 1980s in Europe. In 1988, Solidaridad, a Dutch non-governmental organization, or NGO, created the first Fair Trade certification and label. Similar systems sprouted up across Europe over the next few years. In 1997, these myriad organizations founded Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), an umbrella organization that sets Fair Trade certification standards.9
FLO estimates that consumers worldwide spent a record $2.21 billion on Fair Trade certified products in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available. This marks a 41% increase from 2005 and benefits more than 1.4 million producers and workers worldwide.10
So how does Fair Trade work exactly? The Netherlands-based International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), and umbrella group for 300 groups in 70 countries, defines fair trade as “a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.”11
TransFair USA cites several principles that define a product as Fair Trade:
- Democratically organized cooperatives receive a guaranteed minimum above-market price. They also receive an additional premium for certified organic products. (Fair Trade products are often, but not always, organic.)
- Workers have freedom of association and safe working conditions, while child labor is strictly prohibited. (The cocoa industry is especially notorious for using child labor.)
- Importers purchase from Fair Trade producer groups as directly as possible, eliminating middlemen.
- Fair Trade farmers and farm workers decide themselves how to use their Fair Trade revenues.
- Fair Trade farmers and farm workers invest Fair Trade premiums in social and business development projects. (These can range from improving educational opportunities to developing organic farming techniques.)
- The certification system supports environmental sustainability. Genetically modified organisms are prohibited, harmful agrochemicals are limited, and the conservation of ecosystems is encouraged.
According to Rice, it’s a win-win situation: “There’s a direct correlation between the quality of a cup of coffee, or the quality of a banana … and the amount of money the farmer actually gets paid for that harvest…. If farmers get a decent price, then they can invest more in the quality of the final product.
“So there’s actually an alignment of interest there between your and my desires as consumer and the return to the grower…. When you buy a Fair Trade product you’re also helping other families around the world. Helping families keep their kids in school, helping them farm in a sustainable manner.”12
Fair Trade products are more expensive, but usually not out of line with the cost of the premium end of a product line. Fair Trade products, while growing in popularity, still represent a tiny fraction of world trade: In 2006, only a little more than 3 percent of the coffee sold in the United States was Fair Trade Certified.13
But as Fair Trade commodities become more mainstream, the prices will likely come down. “There is no reason why Fair Trade should cost astronomically more than traditional products,” said Transfair USA spokesperson Nicole Chettero. “We truly believe that the market will work itself out as Fair Trade Certified products move from being a niche market to a mainstream option. As the demand and volume of Fair Trade Certified products increase, retailers will naturally start to drop prices to remain competitive.”14
Concerns About Fair Trade
There are some concerns about the Fair Trade model, even among people most likely to embrace the concept—consumers concerned about ethical buying. One objection results directly from the mainstreaming of the Fair Trade movement. Large corporations such as Wal-Mart, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Nestlé have begun selling fair-trade products. Not only are such corporations known to sell products that use or harm animals; many conscientious consumers worry that companies often cited as poor corporate citizens will take advantage of the aura of social and environmental awareness. Wal-Mart has been criticized for low wages and lack of health care benefits, and Nestlé has been boycotted for its marketing of formula as a substitute for breast milk in the developing world, putting babies’ health at risk when the formula is mixed with local water, or due to the lack of protective antibodies and nutrients in breast milk.
But the Fair Trade movement is focused on putting its certification logos on products, not endorsing corporations. Because it is the product that is certified (in the case of Transfair USA, look for the black and white logo), consumers can shop for Fair Trade Certified products at various stores, including some online.
“We’re proud of the fact that consumers have stepped up and bought Fair Trade,” Rice said, “and that in turn has pulled more and more companies into the fold, because, let’s get real, big companies don’t jump into Fair Trade out the goodness of their hearts. They jump into Fair Trade because there’s a market for it.15
“So TransFair’s approach is … to really embrace the opportunity to work with big companies in order to have a larger impact on the world. We don’t want to ever be accused of being a greenwasher. … The way we manage that risk is by setting very clear expectations up front with the companies that we work with around setting a balance between the volume of Fair Trade that they move, and promotion that they put out around that. So there needs to be a balance.”16
Another concern has to do with global warming and the locavore17 movement, which argues that as much as possible food should be locally grown or locally produced. Obviously, transporting food over long distances contributes to greenhouse gases. And since products such as coffee and cocoa are from the Global South, many locavores eschew them altogether.
True, if you live in the United States, drinking coffee or enjoying a chocolate bar is contributing to global warming. On the other hand, the movement for Fair Trade empowers disenfranchised workers, helping them to make a better living and encouraging sustainable agriculture in some of the most environmentally vulnerable parts of the planet.
For instance, three-quarters of the world’s coffee growers farm less than 25 acres.18 And often, small coffee farms are a mere acre or two.19 The small size of the farms encourages sustainable practices such as shade-grown coffee, which is grown in a forest-like setting that provides habitat for myriad species, especially migratory birds. This is certainly preferable to the habitat loss caused by large monoculture plantations.20 So there is both social and environmental value in buying Fair Trade products.
“TransFair’s whole model is based on consumers’ voting with their pocketbooks,” said Fast Company magazine.21 And that means each and every one of us can make a small difference when we shop.
To learn where to find Fair Trade Certified products, type in your zip code at the Web page www.transfairusa.org/content/WhereToBuy.
- 1. Britt Bravo, “Fair Trade Certified: An Interview With Paul Rice of Transfair USA” — Worldchanging.com (www.worldchanging.com/archives//006477.html).
- 2. “45 Social Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World” — Fast Company (Dec./Jan. 2007-08).
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. TransFairusa.org, “Paul Rice: Detailed Bio” (visited 3 Jan. 2007).
- 7. “45 Social Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World” (note 2 above).
- 8. Fair Trade Federation, Washington, DC: “About Fair Trade” (visited 8 Jan. 2007).
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. FLO press release, “Global Fairtrade Sales Increase by 40%, Benefiting 1.4 Million Farmers Worldwide” (25 July 2007).
- 11. IFAT Web site, “What Is Fair Trade?” (last updated 4 Dec. 2007; visited 8 Jan. 2008).
- 12. Britt Bravo, “Fair Trade Certified: An Interview With Paul Rice of Transfair USA” (note 1 above).
- 13. Andrew Downie, “Fair Trade in Bloom” — The New York Times (2 Oct. 2007).
- 14. Jennifer Alsever, “Fair Prices for Farmers: Simple Idea, Complex Reality”—The New York Times (19 Mar. 06).
- 15. Also see Julian Baggini, “Comment: Free Doesn’t Mean Unfair” — ;The Guardian (5 Mar. 2007).
- 16. Britt Bravo, “Fair Trade Certified: An Interview With Paul Rice of Transfair USA” (note 1 above).
- 17. The New Oxford American Dictionary “word of the year” for 2007. Oxford University Press USA (blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore).
- 18. Andrew Downie, “Fair Trade in Bloom” (note 13 above).
- 19. Britt Bravo, “Fair Trade Certified: An Interview With Paul Rice of Transfair USA” (note 1 above).
- 20. Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign Web site (www.shadecoffee.org).
- 21. Cheryl Dahle, “Work in Progress” — Fast Company (Dec./Jan. 2006-07).
Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Newkirk’s personality drives the film I Am an Animal1 – starting with the first word of its title. During the course of filming, director Matthew Galkin comes to see Newkirk as operating “on a different plane than anyone I’ve ever met,” adding, for example, “I don’t think Ingrid needs the same kind of relationships in her life that I, or most people, do.”2
The story begins with an undercover case against a primate lab in Maryland, in which activists gave the police evidence of filth and untreated wounds, and a prosecution was mounted. This got attention, the film explains, “like no other anti-cruelty group had done.” Newkirk, who previously worked as a Maryland law enforcement officer and a director of animal cruelty investigations in Washington, D.C., had found a calling. PETA was born.
Early in the film Newkirk invokes the day when everyone will think animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on, using a famous phrase that PETA’s founders apparently borrowed from the British Union of the Abolition of Vivisection, whose simple magazines and straightforward slogans PETA closely mimicked in the early eighties. By the nineties, PETA went glossy, and the use of celebrities and high-profile media stunts became its hallmark. And that’s what attracted Matthew Galkin to make this film: “PETA is aggressive and its marketing tactics are obscene and offensive to a lot of people. Yet Ingrid has grown PETA into the largest animal rights group in the world.” 3 But are Galkin’s subjects prepared to tell us what “animal rights” is?
“Ingrid just has the philosophy, this mantra: She feels that there’s no such thing as bad press,” says Alex Pacheco, who co-founded PETA with Newkirk in 1980 but left in 1999. “Today the mission has become diffuse, and really watered down by what I call stupid human tricks.” And Galkin’s film includes plenty of media clips to illustrate the point: garish stunts including a campaign suggesting college students replace milk with beer. After seeing PETA’s blood-drenched photos on lunchboxes handed out to children, a parent asks, “Do I have the right to hit them if they frighten my children?”
“Everything that has turned you off about PETA has come directly from Ingrid,” states Pacheco, who says the shock value draws attention, but it’s attention to “ the fact that it’s outrageous.”
“I regret it,” Newkirk counters, “But if you switch on the nightly news, everything is reduced to the tiny sound bite. Everybody is obsessed with sex and obsessed with violence” and thus PETA’s choice “is no attention or some attention.” And if they don’t get attention, “nobody will know there is an animal-rights movement.” (The words “it works” and “no other tactic works” recur throughout the film.) But PETA has pursued sexist advertising zealously, with spectacles such as a Penthouse model “tofu-wrestling” in a tub of bean curd, and campaigns director Dan Mathews telling the Washington Times: “Playboy is helping us put the ‘T & A’ in PETA.” 4
The example Galkin presents is PETA’s video Milk Gone Wild, a rejected Super Bowl advertisement trading on the idea of female college students on display for their male peers. (This milk-related campaign is clearly geared to young viewers: “You won’t BELIEVE what we’ve packed into this video! You’ll see the HOTTEST girls baring it all – AND MORE!!! No rules, no parents, no limits, and of course no cows.”) Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, sees PETA staffers as driven to get attention by any means, paraphrasing a term of Newkirk’s own: press sluts. “Is that how you get a society to respect animals?” asks Feral. “I don’t think it does a thing for animals.”
Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti Defamation League, discusses PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. “This was so hurtful. This was not only hurtful to survivors, but it was hurtful to – just decent people. It trivialized what the Holocaust was all about.” Foxman points out that the Holocaust planners had a deliberate, genocidal “strategy to destroy and eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.” Foxman then seems to make a personal statement by saying that the parallel to animal agribusiness – insofar as it involves strong feelings about cruelty – is understandable to draw, and that’s “fine.” But then Foxman asks, “Is this the only way to express animal advocacy?” Not an unfair query; but Newkirk dismisses critics of the Holocaust campaign, saying “we must get over ourselves and not live in the past”.
Next, Newkirk and a half-dozen staffers review staffer Dawn Carr’s proposal for PETA’s Animal Liberation (“Are Animals the New Slaves?”) display, juxtaposing pictures of a hoisted steer and a lynching. A media relations staffer, obviously aware of the Holocaust outcry (but somehow not extrapolating that concern to the African-American perspective), asks if the slavery exhibition should avoid the use of Holocaust images. Newkirk says no, especially not if they happened to find a “super-duper one.”
Dr. James Cameron, aged 91 when PETA launched the New Slaves tour, founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Cameron escaped a lynching after he and two friends were falsely accused of murder in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. “I just cannot believe they would do this,” the museum’s director said. “Dr. Cameron was supposed to have been the third man in this picture.” 5 Thus did the inner circle of PETA staffers create a spectacle with pictures of slaves and other exploited individuals, and reproduce the depersonalization of subjects who weren’t asked to authorize such reproduction. An African-American organizer campaigned to flood PETA’s faxes, writing, “I’d like to see someone write a point-by-point response to that form-letter pap they’re mailing back to people, because obviously they have few, if any, politically educated people in their ranks.” 6
Community response to PETA’s New Slaves tour is not covered in I Am an Animal; but Priscilla Feral observes, “They have exploited racism and women in campaigns, using people as props to project animal rights, and you can’t do that. You can’t sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain, a racist issue for example, and expect to advance an ethical cause in doing so.”
The White Dog
Newkirk tells the filmmakers “I believe in being decent to people”; yet most viewers will find something they do incurring Newkirk’s express disdain. Including many who do animal-protection work. Newkirk, whose oceanfront flat is not home to any animals, says people “ should work to help them” and not “accumulate them”. This disregards the needs of animals who are put into peril, or positions of dependence, because of human actions. They are our refugees, our asylum seekers. To them, the most critical help is food and shelter. Advocates who provide for the well-being of dependent animals become ethical models – both in their dedication to the individuals whose cause they’re entrusted to champion, and in their intervention in the breed-and-kill cycle that produces animals as disposable commodities in the first place. If an advocate declines this responsibility, however, basic decency would involve supporting – certainly not disparaging – those who accept it.
The filming goes out on the road, headed for North Carolina. Newkirk doubles back on the roadside to inspect the body of “a dove that’s probably dead but I have to have a look, because I never trust that they are. Dead! So where were we?”
The car pulls into a park of rust-streaked mobile homes. “There are occasions when I really have almost done physical damage to people,” Newkirk recalls, describing a childhood trip out of Britain and into India, where, she says, a man was beating a bull in the street and put a stick up the animal’s rectum, causing the animal to scream and collapse. “I was just filled with so much anger and panic to stop this from happening to this being,” Newkirk says. “And I tore the stick away from him; I was only about 8½, probably, and I made him kneel down. I was just f illed with rage. And this rage that is my father’s rage just came up straight inside me and he knew that he’s lucky I didn’t kill him.”
Newkirk approaches a badly underfed, white dog. “You look like like a sorry soul.” Newkirk quizzes the owner quickly, several times interrupting the answers, gives the dog a bowl of food, and tells the owner, a soft-spoken person with dreadlocks, that the dog has a serious case of worms. After offering the owner free veterinary care – “We have to sign him over for that. Let me get my clipboard” – Newkirk removes the dog.
In the van, Newkirk comments, “He’s just a thing. He’s one more thing that they have, I think. Sort of a passing nice idea, you’ve got yourself a pet. But the reality of care is – not understood.” Yet the ultimate proof that a being is a “thing” is when somebody can destroy it. And this is exactly what Newkirk proceeds to do.
The white dog waits in a glass room, where there appears to be at least one other animal.
“So what’s the verdict?” Newkirk asks Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s director of domestic animal welfare. Presumably Nachminovitch is reading from a vet’s report, yet there is no evidence of a vet actually seeing this dog.
Heartworm-positive, reports Nachminovitch. An abnormal red blood cell count.
As Newkirk looks on, Nachminovitch is on the phone, telling the owner they’ve discovered heartworm disease. “And so that requires some pretty aggressive treatment. You know, I want to talk to you about putting the dog to sleep.”
Newkirk adds: “I think he should go down right away.”
“If you look at him, he really l ooks miserable,” says Newkirk, with a brisk, throat-cutting gesture. “His whole face looks miserable. So will you?”
Nachminovitch says, “ I can see the pain in his eyes.”
“Will you?” Newkirk asks Nachminovitch .
The camera shows the face of an apparently calm, comforted dog.
Newkirk says, “I think I’m like a child who was raised by wolves.” She speaks of the dog who had the role of her childhood companion and sibling: “You come to understand them, and they don’t have to say anything to for you to know what they’re feeling.” Sounding uncannily like Temple Grandin, a slaughterhouse designer who suffers from autism and claims this permits an understanding of animals’ feelings, Newkirk speaks of being able to imagine herself going through “exactly” what animals go through.
No one from PETA tries to communicate with the person in the mobile home in more than the authoritative language of the expert assuming control. Nor do we see any hint of PETA going to the root of the matter: breeding and trading in dogs. The messages in this scene? Those who don’t treat dogs well shouldn’t have them. Animal advocates perform a lethal kind of sanitation role. As Priscilla Feral said after the film’s HBO premiere, “It’s not an animal rights message, but a reduce-the-suffering, kill them gently overall thrust, and that defines PETA’s regulatory approach to exploitation.”
“My first euthanasia experience,” Newkirk remembers, was taking a group of abandoned kittens to a shelter, believing they’d be homed, later to learn the reality. “Obviously I had betrayed them. I’d taken them to this place, and they’d been killed.” But that impression changed. “Sometimes, euthanasia is a gift… I had to study how to do it properly, because we weren’t taught to do it properly in the shelter where I started.” Newkirk reports having seen animals stabbed “with a needle that had never been changed – in a long time, and it had barbs on it and so on. And the animals would thrash about . . . It was like a slaughterhouse.”
Without actually saying that PETA’s policies include the roundups and systematic “euthanasia” of animals now well into five-figure numbers, the filmmaker asks, “Why did you take it upon yourself to do it, though?” Replies Newkirk, “Because I didn’t want them to experience that, and – well, I just knew that if I came in early, and made a clean place for them, and brought them out as if they were going for a walk, and did it kindly, they wouldn’t know.”
Galkin spent two years directing the film, and apparently never had reason to think that animal control and animal rights are two distinct concepts: Galkin writes:
Obviously, the dog’s situation was horrible, but watching Ingrid scurrying about, sweeping up dog sh–, feeding someone else’s animal, I felt her sadness and desperation that day like I hadn’t felt before. She’s the head of the largest animal rights organization in the world, and here she is, spending her day dealing with one neglected dog in North Carolina . . .7
And this misses one of the film’s most striking and disturbing messages. Although Newkirk thinks sheltering animals detracts from advocacy, going out on interstate rounds to find and possibly kill them is not subject to that same objection. The filmmaker’s primary sympathy is for Newkirk, not the dog; not the person in the mobile home park, whose situation is also bleak yet who might be open to new understandings, if treated as a person. What did the filmmakers learn from Newkirk about animal rights or movement building?
The Killing Floor
Newkirk states that PETA’s “main goal is to stop suffering, as much suffering as we possibly can” but never distinguishes animal suffering that happens as biological fact from that which happens as a result of deliberate human activity. Yet this distinction is critical, for pain is a natural mechanism and to eliminate it all would be to destroy every single bit of conscious life on earth. Would the reduction of suffering be the key point if we lived in a society that respected animals’ interests in living on their own terms in their own habitat? The film fails to tell of the real world of animals’ interests and animal-rights advocacy, within Newkirk’s hearing but beyond her ken. When a staffer shows Newkirk footage of a person in Oklahoma hitting tigers, Newkirk first says, “Do we have more of this?” and then stops short. “I am deeply worried,” Newkirk says, “because we keep doing these investigations into exotics, and it’s all worthwhile … but the one thing that everybody needs to get involved in is empathy with the animals they eat and don’t think twice about” rather than bears and tigers. The Thanksgiving holiday is coming, Newkirk adds, and “we absolutely need an investigation inside a turkey slaughterhouse or a turkey factory farm.” Then, seemingly lumping all undomesticated animals into the classification of “cute”, Newkirk says, “All animals feel – not just the cute ones with the big eyes, not the fluffy bears, and the smiley dolphins, but all the animals.”
True, but the point of animal rights isn’t to ensure nonhuman beings feel better in captivity. It involves opting out of animal agribusiness, not reforming it; it means advocating for the interests of free-living animals and defending the habitat they require to experience their lives. In the midst of today’s world, with its melting ice caps and extinctions, nearly every aspect of Newkirk’s focus is gravely obsolete.
“No one is going behind the scenes. Who would want to go into these ugly places?”
Mary Beth Sweetland, director of the research and investigations department, approaches a young employee. “I’ve been talking to Bruce about you for quite a while. And I know you’re really valued down in the campaigns department. But we’ve got a big investigation planned. It’s the ConAgra slaughterhouse and they provide Butterball with turkeys.”
The young campaigner’s head is shaved into a military buzz. But once on the killing floor – where, from 5:45 a.m. to 5 or 5:30 p.m., a four-person team works the shackles to process some 50,000 birds every day – Chris is utterly unable to run the hidden camera. Thus, Galkin’s is the only crew to tape cruelty during the two months Chris descends into despair. “I saw a turkey get sexually abused before it died today”, Chris tells the filmmakers. About filming this part, Galkin has said: “I secretly want drama and I want everything to go haywire because it’s potentially good for the film, but when it does, it’s difficult to watch people suffering though the lens of a camera.”8
Like those of the soldier who declines to shoot, Chris’s constant technical failures suggest a gut resistance to an active role in violence.9 To Sweetland, they mean a job undone. Sweetland approaches Newkirk, who is typing an e-mail. “Thank you for your favorable review of [Newkirk’s book] Making Kind Choices . . . ” Newkirk is told of the lack of footage, Chris’s battery-charge failures.
“He was told exactly what went into this job. It’s not a picnic, it’s not a walk in the park; he was told,” Newkirk replies.
“We can’t afford to just lollygag around with some young person who can’t get their act together . . . Mary Beth, you’ve got to come down on him like a ton of bricks.”
Newkirk replaces Chris, saying to Galkin’s camera: “I could do it myself so I know it’s doable.” By failing to produce what Newkirk wants, “he’s screwing the birds over.” But the inability to just follow orders and observe atrocity with a lifeless, electronic eye is to Chris’s credit, and it’s disturbing to watch this young person on the verge of breakdown with no one around to help. In Chris’s failure, perhaps we see where the real hope for the end of war-like treatment of the Other – human or not.
A more experienced infiltrator is deployed. At the headquarters, they watch Jay’s footage. Mary Beth Sweetland says, “I like this, Jay, following this truck. Those animals are just crammed so tightly in those cages.” A close-up. “Look at them panting, and this is in June, when it was cooler.”
Jay documents the workers grabbing the birds as “innumerable bones” are broken.
We hear Newkirk exclaim, “He’s just throwing them!”
When a staffer asks whether Chris’s notes and sworn statement will carry any weight in court versus the more reliable video evidence, Newkirk says they’ll use all “we possibly can just hang onto by a straw” in order to build a case that the plant has offended state cruelty law and the Poultry Inspection Act. A press conference begins. Arkansas law, Newkirk points out, deems anyone engaging in “cruel mistreatment or neglect” guilty of animal cruelty, defined to include causing “unjustifiable” pain. Whereas Newkirk says footage of abuse has the potential to change the world, the group doesn’t challenge the agricultural use of birds or animals generally; the idea here is to score a victory with a “big” company, and on the grounds that workers in the investigated plant have inflicted “gratuitous” harm. Butterball assures PETA that if there is any abuse found, they’ll fire the employees responsible. “I wouldn’t hold your breath ‘til you turn blue,” Newkirk tells the camera – without a word, now, about the goal of “total animal liberation” asserted earlier in the film.10
Not surprisingly, activists on the street convey a mixed message: “Like a free DVD?” “Boycott Butterball; we found them molesting birds at a processing plant in Ozark.” “Go vegetarian this holiday, but at the least don’t support Butterball.” Similarly, in lab investigations, we see no critiques of, say, language studies. Instead, we see “hell holes” where monkeys are used in experiments guaranteed to make an audience squirm, animals’ skulls being crushed, skinned heads, breeders hitting animals with guns. PETA goes in “to stop suffering” – again, a distinct concept from “total animal liberation” – and the film takes no note of the incongruity.
The investigator receives approval to rescue a turkey who falls from a truck, and whom Newkirk receives and puts in a room at the PETA headquarters, with a heap of straw and a radio playing. “Look at those little, tiny ears. We’ll get you some water.” The scene has a weird, fetishistic quality in a setting where so many animals are processed into lifeless bodies. Like the U.S. president who “pardons” a single turkey on Thanksgiving Day, here’s Newkirk, who can order the demise of an animal at any minute, saving one bewildered bird. Commenting on the turkey’s lucky day, Newkirk leaves the bird at a refuge – run, one must assume, run by the accumulators previously mentioned.
Newkirk hugs a designer who promises to use no wool in the coming season. Is Marc Bouwer preferring the bouquet Newkirk brought to a pie in the face, a takeover of a runway, or a dead animal dropped in the middle of a perfectly set table? Or is the commitment based on principle? The answer is evident when Bouwer qualifies the vow as meaning products of the Australian Wool Industry – a particular business PETA has targeted in a lawsuit. “We definitely won’t use wool from Australia, that’s for sure!”
But then there’s Jean Paul Gaultier. The video cover – with a fur-clad Newkirk behind a glass window, drenched hands smearing red fluid over the pane – depicts a protest at Gaultier’s boutique in which PETA protesters smear the storefront with fake blood. Dan Mathews sees the Paris shop, with its furs and large windows, as a “great target” and Newkirk agrees: “We want to take over those windows.” They get to Paris, film crew in tow, and Newkirk leads a rehearsal. Mathews wants to speed the entrance of Newkirk’s entourage of protesters; Newkirk wants to browse alone for a few minutes. A brief squabble ensues, with Newkirk sure of the plan, and Mathews sceptical. While Newkirk impatiently restores the dominance hierarchy, we see Mathews doing what other staffers aren’t: openly second-guessing Newkirk.
The manager locks the protesters into the shop as Mathews sprays the windows, holding a sign (“Death for Sale”) printed in English. Newkirk wears a t-shirt saying Fur Is Dead. Pedestrians pause to watch this rather surreal exhibition until the group – covered in dye and chanting (in French) “Gaultier, murderer!” – is hauled away by the Paris police.
Back in the U.S., the authorities are increasingly treating as “terrorism” any actions that disrupt the affairs of businesses that rely on animals and products derived from them; and as the film points out, PETA has already been the subject of FBI investigations into possible ties to the militant Animal Liberation Front. Pacheco says “everything the ALF does, by definition, is illegal” so “you’d be a fool to admit” working with them.
A videotape of a fire-damaged building appears. In other footage, a Columbia emeritus professor describes the home phone ringing at 2 a.m. by someone who claimed to be watching his movements, and how this upset the family. Newkirk declares that animal abuse is “a far greater crime than any crime that the ALF may commit.” But one can and should oppose authoritarian treatment by humans against each other and other animals. And not, as Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle states at one point in the film, because coercion “hands a strategic opportunity to our opponents.” Yes, activists who resort to coercion and threat can enable animal users to manage activists – by portraying activists as menacing. But we need not call anyone our “opponents” if we’re committed to the ethical evolution of humanity. As a social movement, animal rights is about cultivating understanding, not finding opponents.
Newkirk praises the ALF but insists that “PETA has chosen a much different way to go”– although if there’s any striking revelation in this film it’s how much PETA people are expected to behave like the modern ALF. The interest in scoping out “targets,” in investigating, infiltrating, and seizing control, is evident in nearly every scene.
In a hall-of-mirrors effect, the theme of infiltration is replicated in this production itself. No one’s ever been in Newkirk’s flat before, says Galkin in the film’s press notes – not even other PETA people. “Like any corporation – and PETA is essentially a corporation – it took a while to peel back the layers and finally sit down with Ingrid herself,” says Galkin. “She agreed in principle but it took many months of shooting until I felt I was really inside both the organization and her life.”11 Who’s zooming who? PETA’s paid staff tops 300 people, we’re told, but those seen on camera are the same people Newkirk has time and again unleashed on the public. And although the producers intermittently allow others to critique PETA’s tactics – for interviewing “people who seem to share the same goals as Ingrid, but who might be critical of PETA’s methods,” Galkin explains, “allows us to get into more subtle arguments about PETA and the animal rights movement in general”12 – they never ask anyone to present a coherent message of animal rights. Had they done so, the film might have had more than curiosity value.
At the group’s 25th anniversary gala, an interviewer asks pop singer Pink, “Why do you support PETA?” The answer: “‘Cause I love animals!”
After watching the premiere, Priscilla Feral said, “I met the film crew when they’d just returned from Paris with Newkirk. They were giddy over having access to celebrities. They ended up doing a number on Newkirk, which Newkirk understands,13 but apparently they don’t.” Indeed, a portrayal of a media-driven individual wanting to brand the idea of animal rights is disconcerting to activists. For the public in general, as one writer says, “I Am an Animal deftly highlights why the movement is so hard to take seriously, exhibiting a kind of messianic zeal, narrow perspective and shrill moral superiority that borders on narcissism.”14
“I believe that the horrors in this world could not ever have been created by a loving god”, says Newkirk, whose opinion of this world is stark: “Overall it’s not a nice place.” And Newkirk resolves to continue, even in death, to be its perpetual nemesis. The finale is Newkirk’s reading of the last will and testament that directs her skin to be made into leather products, and her flesh into “Newkirk Nuggets,” barbequed to demonstrate that all flesh smells the same when cooked. One eye is to be mounted and sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (long under PETA’s scrutiny for violations of its animal welfare rules) to keep an eternal watch.
For activists, the clearest message from I Am an Animal is the importance of accurately describing what groups do, so as not to mistake demagogy for respect, strategy for moral coherence, regulation and authority for conscientious commitment. Yes, PETA has accomplished something: the imposition of tabloid culture onto a serious idea. PETA gets away with it because, as the nonprofit most admired by people aged 13 to 24, its pool of supporters is perpetually replenished.15 In the course of a year PETA’s “Youth Division” chatted up more than 2 million young people at music festivals and other events. And the kids are consumers, persuaded to spend over a million dollars a year on PETA merchandise.16 Trendy rock musicians, sex(ism) and violence sell well to people in this emotionally vulnerable time of life. For the perceptive among them, I Am an Animal will be a wake-up call: They will know a cultural paradigm shift cannot be brand-named, and it’s precisely that insight that will lead to the most significant steps for animal rights.
- 1. Stick Figure Productions, I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA (for Home Box Office (HBO®), a division of Time Warner Entertainment Company, L.P.; 2007).Sheila Nevins, executive producer; Mikaela Beardsley, Steven Cantor, Pax Wasserman, producers; Matthew Galkin, producer and director. This description is not intended as a full, chronological description; readers are encouraged to view the film for full context. Mary Beth Sweetland, a PETA employee who appears in the film and this review, has been affiliated with another U.S. animal-advocacy group since this writing. This review was first written for the electronic journal Abolitionist-Online (www.abolitionist-online.com/). Thanks to Dustin G. Rhodes and Serafina Youngdahl Lombardi for conversations helpful to this writing.
- 2. I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA, Press Notes: “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (Walker & Associates, HBO Media Relations, 2007).
- 3. “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (note 2 above).
- 4. John McCaslin, “Inside the Beltway: Lettuce Entertain You” – Washington Times (19 Jul. 2000).
- 5. Dana Williams, “New PETA Campaign Sparks Outrage” – Tolerance.org (9 Aug. 2005).
- 6. Administrator of the Assata Shakur forum (16 Aug. 2005), who twelve days later noted that PETA had removed part of the pictorial and added text, but urged members to continue the protest until “every vestige” of the display was gone.
- 7. “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (note 2 above).
- 8. “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (note 2 above).
- 9. PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco’s job at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Maryland, PETA’s first undercover investigation target, involved inflicting pain on monkeys.
- 10. Notwithstanding the “total animal liberation” sound bite, PETA opines: When there is a respectful, loving bond between horse and human, then horseback riding is as much an act of companionship and exercise as walking one’s dog. However, just as we oppose the use of “choke” collars on dogs, we also oppose the use of whips, spurs, and other devices that cause discomfort and pain to horses. PETA supports humane, interactive training. Just as a dog can be lovingly or abusively house-trained, gentle methods can be employed to teach a horse to allow a rider on his or her back. Carla Bennett, “How does PETA feel about horseback riding?” on AskCarla.com (as visited 1 Dec. 2007). Bennett is identified as “PETA’s kindness consultant” and the “Dear Abby of Animal Rights” in PETA’s electronic publication.
- 11. “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (note 2 above).
- 12. “Some Questions for I Am an Animal Director Matthew Galkin” (note 2 above).
- 13. In Gary Strauss’s article “HBO Unleashes an ‘Animal’ Tale About PETA Founder” (19 Nov. 2007), Newkirk approves of some aspects of the film; yet: ‘[O]n a personal level, I found the film mortifying,’ she says in an interview with USA Today. ‘I’m not a morose person. I’m amazed at what (Galkin) left out and a bit uncomfortable about what he put in,’ she says. ‘I suppose people can make fun of me and deride us for the things we do. All that matters is we get out the stories of what’s being done to animals.’
- 14. Brian Lowry, “ I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA” – Variety (18 Nov. 2007).
- 15. A 2006 survey by the market research firm Label Networks showed PETA as the nonprofit organization most likely to attract volunteer work from people aged 13 to 24. Kim Severson, “Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate” – New York Times and International Herald Tribune (25 Jul. 2007).
- 16. PETA Financial Reports (fiscal year ending 31 Jul. 2005) show contributions of $29,887,786; gross merchandise sales of $1,049,419; and interest, dividends, royalties and other income at $457,486, for total revenues of $31,394,691.
Getting Canada Past Its Seal Killing Days
This has gotta stop. Seals shot and clubbed. Large animal-protection groups making an annual springtime event of flying helicopters to film the violence, staging scuffles with Newfoundlanders for the media, publishing various flyers and e-mails, sending celebrities to the ice floes, building their membership ranks as they go.
Canada ’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans show that in a strong market year (such as 2006) the seal kill is worth around $30 million. (To put that into perspective, two of the largest animal-protection groups heavily invested in the blood-soaked spectacle boast annual budgets of over $120 million each.) It should be possible to ensure local employees of the seal-killing business have other ways to sustain themselves. This is an issue of economics, and it has an economic solution.
As a Canadian, I’m speaking directly with the people of Newfoundland this year, working to find solutions that will work for the people themselves, rather than simply telling them they’re wrong. Doubtless they’re tired of the attacks, and they’d like to find employment that is less of a risk to their lives, offering a long-term and reliable income that doesn’t disadvantage the individual. Currently, many are leaving Newfoundland for the oil sands of Alberta, which promise more lucrative earnings.
I’ve carefully watched campaigns surrounding the seal kill for ten years, and have seen some pretty misguided ideas. One of the worst is the Canadian seafood boycott promoted by Whole Foods Market and most animal-protection groups, which suggests that buying fish from non-Canadian waters will somehow save the seals. Not only does this condone the depletion of other marine environments of sea life; it also makes no economic sense. There is some flexibility in the seal-killing ceilings, and more seal pelts may well be sold just to make up for any losses on the fish-selling side.
So we need a fundamental transformation in the economy. This won’t be easy, but it has to begin — perhaps in the form of a government buy-back of kill permits. This was done with cod licensing when cod populations nearly vanished. The cod have yet to recover, despite a 15 year moratorium. Although we don’t want to wait until the seals are disappearing to stop killing them, they do in fact face threats: climate change has diminished the ice floes seals need to reproduce, and this trend is likely to continue into 2008 and beyond.
Alternative economies do exist. The eco-tourism sector in Newfoundland is bustling. Yet when I phoned more than a dozen eco-tour companies in Newfoundland and the tourism bureau, I found no eco-tours to see these seals. Of course, they are in an area of dangerous ice, but it’s possible that the government’s effort to prevent protestors from witnessing the killing — and the killing itself — has also kept tour companies away.
Through meetings with people in Newfoundland, we’ll gain the insight that will enable solutions. People employed in the annual commercial kill are normally not there because they wish to be, but because they feel they have to be. As one Newfoundland resident told me in a phone interview, “many would love never to go again.” They deserve better, and a fair economy should be demanded from their government. Seems the pieces are all there, but require some assembly.
The rest of Canada needs to step up as well and shoulder the responsibility for this disgraceful mass slaughter for fur and novelty nutrition products. If we act collectively, and stop polarizing this issue, but instead treat the matter of creating and alternative economy with the seriousness it deserves, both the seals and people of Newfoundland stand to gain.
Zach McKenna’s St. Augustine Eco Tours
Any nature lover who has gone on a big-boat dolphin-watching tour probably got a sinking feeling quickly. No, of course, the boat wasn’t going down, but the experience can be pretty dismal. The interpretive knowledge imparted often amounts to something like “Two dolphins are on the port side,” and you find yourself jostled by dozens of people clicking point-and-shoots. Such excursions are often absurdly described as a kind of ecotourism.
“Ecotourism” is now so widely used as a marketing term, it is almost meaningless. But Zach McKenna’s St. Augustine Eco Tours, in northeastern Florida, puts the “eco” back where it belongs. McKenna offers intimate, nonintrusive excursions in the estuaries around St. Augustine, with each tour limited to six people. There are myriad bottlenose dolphins, abundant shorebirds and the occasional manatee or sea turtle.
But such trips are only really made compelling when one learns about other animals’ behavior, their habitats and the local ecology, and McKenna is a font of information. A certified interpretive naturalist as well as a boat captain, he grew up on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, whose environment is very similar to the tidal areas of St. Augustine, and spent his youth exploring barrier islands in the region.
“A lot of kids were unhappy there,” he said. “There were no bowling alleys, no movie theaters. But for me it was heaven on earth; I was always going on adventures with friends. Some islands didn’t have bridges. The Gullah people looked after us.”
McKenna was also deeply influenced by the local naturalist, author and illustrator Todd Ballantine ( Tideland Treasure: The Naturalist’s Guide to the Beaches and Salt Marshes of Hilton Head Island and the Southeastern Coast ). Following in his mentor’s footsteps, McKenna has begun writing nature columns for local papers, illustrating them with his own photographs.
From the age of 15, he worked on sailboats out of Hilton Head. “I was the guy who talked about dolphins and birds,” he said.
McKenna said that some charter boat crews would hand-feed dolphins frozen bait, which sometimes contained rotten fish that would sicken or kill the dolphins. It was a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and McKenna asked the act’s enforcement agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to investigate and monitor the situation. “I hated seeing dolphins that I’d grown up with die,” he said. The practice has been virtually eliminated at Hilton Head Island.
And just last year, when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considered taking the manatee off the state’s endangered species list, McKenna fought it tooth and claw by mounting an email campaign. The commission recently voted against delisting the manatee. 
McKenna holds a degree in business from Flagler College, but wasn’t happy with the traditional corporate life. “It had great pay, benefits, and security. But the moral dilemmas in that world made it easy to walk away. I guess I always knew I would be in environmental education,” he said.
At college, he met his partner, Gracie. She has “an amazing love of the outdoors,” he said. Together they moved to St. Augustine, where he started his ecotourism business in 2006.
McKenna is also conducting the first-ever population survey of bottlenose dolphins in the St. Augustine area. He photographs them, identifying individuals by their dorsal fins. People on his boat tours often help with the work.
“This project will include the first use of GPS-enabled cameras and software designed to identify photographs of dorsal fins within seconds like fingerprints,” McKenna said. “The importance of the GPS-enabled cameras and computer identification programs is that the data can be taken anywhere in the world, and documented individuals will come up as a match even if they were last seen thousands of miles away. It may change the way population studies are done globally.”
Next on McKenna’s very ambitious to-do list forming a nonprofit organization to provide schoolchildren with an opportunity to take the boating trips at little or no cost. He would like to give them a vegan lunch as part of the package.
To learn more about St. Augustine Eco Tours, call 904-377-7245 or visit www.staugustineecotours.com.