Floor Show: Looking Back on the Newkirk Biopic “I Am An Animal”

How time flies. I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA (Stick Figure Productions for HBO®, a division of Time Warner) is now eight years old. Its website labels it “unavailable” (though it can still be found).

Yet a biopic of Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) since its founding in 1980, remains significant in the story of animal advocacy. And this film speaks to an ever-relevant topic: the effects of emotionally charged rhetoric and images of animal abuse. As I’ve noted at the Species and Class blog, many animal charities employ graphic video footage of industrial animal handling. I’ve also briefly noted this in the newly published On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Centuryciting this biopic. Here, then, is a brief exploration of the biopic and what it might tell us about popular advocacy.

I Am an Animal begins by recounting Newkirk’s role in the documentation of animal handling in a Maryland primate laboratory, focusing on filth and untreated wounds, and the subsequent prosecution, which got attention “like no other anti-cruelty group had done.” Newkirk, who was 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, borrowing a slogan then associated with the British Union of the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), whose simple magazines and straightforward messages PETA closely mimicked in the early eighties. By the nineties, PETA’s magazine had gone glossy, and high-profile media stunts became the group’s hallmark.

A well-known slogan usually associated with PETA originated with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Here it is on a post card sent to me by the first vegan I ever (knowingly) met, Robin Lane.

A well-known slogan usually associated with PETA originated with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

I PROVOKE, THEREFORE I AM

According to filmmaker Matthew Galkin’s Press Notes: “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.”

As for the “obscene and offensive” Newkirk explains: “Everybody is obsessed with sex and obsessed with violence”; so PETA’s choice “is no attention or some attention.” Galkin introduces the audience to PETA’s Milk Gone Wild, a rejected Super Bowl anti-milk video. Remember that one? PETA promoted it by exclaiming: 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. The sexism has continued for years in PETA’s public campaign designs: the need to be “edgy” supposedly dictates sexual objectification and even jokes about gendered violence.

Another of Galkin’s scenes has Newkirk reviewing a staffer’s proposal for PETA’s Animal Liberation (“Are Animals the New Slaves?”) display, juxtaposing pictures of a hoisted steer and a lynching. When a media-relations employee asks if the slavery exhibition should avoid the use of Holocaust images, Newkirk says it would be fine to use them as well, especially if they happened to find a “super-duper one.” In this film we learn a lot about how it became accepted, and then routine, for campaigners to replicate the traumas of subjects – human or not – who can’t consent to being displayed as victims. Today, this routine is confronted by writers such as Claire Heuchan at Media Diversifiedobserving that “Black experience is regularly placed on a par with animals as a provocation.”

JUST A THING

Newkirk’s home – perhaps to the surprise of viewers who associate advocacy with rescue – isn’t shared with any other animals. Newkirk says people “should work to help them” and not “accumulate them” – neglecting the reality of homeless domesticated animals as our refugees, our asylum seekers.

Newkirk’s “work to help them” includes killing, as the film then shows. In North Carolina, Newkirk approaches an underfed dog. “You look like like a sorry soul!” Newkirk quizzes the owner quickly, several times interrupting the answers, then sets down 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 takes 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 you’re a “thing” is that somebody can destroy you. And this is exactly what Newkirk proceeds to do. At PETA’s headquarters, where the dog is found to have an abnormal red blood cell count in addition to worms, Newkirk directs an employee to kill the dog. No one tries to communicate with the dog’s owner in more than the authoritative language of the expert assuming control. PETA’s dual message is clear: Some people shouldn’t have animals. Advocates perform a lethal kind of sanitation role.

THE KILLING FLOOR

Then we watch the filmmaker filming another filmmaker. Chris, a young PETA employee, is tapped to videotape a ConAgra site where turkeys are slaughtered for the Butterball brand. On the killing floor – where, from dawn to dusk, a four-person team works the shackles to process some 50,000 bird into bodies every day – Chris breaks down and can’t run the hidden camera. Galkin’s crew films the two-month period in which Chris descends into despair.

Though Chris’s constant technical failures suggest a gut resistance to an active role in violence, Newkirk is not impressed. “We can’t afford to just lollygag around with some young person who can’t get their act together .” By failing to produce what Newkirk wants, “he’s screwing the birds over.”

A more experienced infiltrator is deployed to catch the company’s violations of the Arkansas anti-cruelty statues and the Poultry Inspection Act. A press conference is planned. 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 articulated idea 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.

PETA’s street campaigners then convey PETA’s 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.” So, what does animal advocacy want?

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

When Newkirk hugs a designer who promises to use no wool in a coming season, fashion mogul Marc Bouwer qualifies the vow as meaning products of the Australian Wool Industry – a particular business group PETA has targeted. “We definitely won’t use wool from Australia, that’s for sure!”

Again, what does animal advocacy want?

Newkirk’s PETA, for all its brashness, can’t give a clear response. The PETA website suggests that a “perfect world” of freedom for horses isn’t possible, so just don’t use whips and spurs, for “gentle methods can be employed to teach a horse to allow a rider on his or her back.”

Newkirk states that PETA’s “main goal is to stop suffering, as much suffering as we possibly can” but isn’t too interested in animals living in their free, uncontrolled states. When a staffer shows Newkirk footage of a person 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”; and attention is redirected to assembly-line turkey processors. Then, evidently lumping all undomesticated animals into a cute class, 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.”

But animal liberation isn’t a movement to make conscious beings feel better in captivity. It involves opting out of animal agribusiness, not ensuring workers follow the Poultry Inspection Act; it means advocating for the interests of free-living animals and defending the habitat they require to experience their lives. And it means careful attention to root causes of social inequality, not generalizing about, and policing, the financially poor.

Amidst today’s social-movement dialogue, with its attention to intersectional critiques of objectification, and on today’s Earth, with human domination driving mass extinctions, nearly every aspect of Newkirk’s focus is gravely obsolete. Would someone like to explain, then, why its base of financial support is ever increasing?

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2 thoughts on “Floor Show: Looking Back on the Newkirk Biopic “I Am An Animal”

  1. Great perspective, Lee. Thanks.
    As far as this… “Everybody is obsessed with sex and obsessed with violence” Obviously everyone she is in contact with is. You once asked me to consider who this kind of marketing brings into the vegan movement. That one question answered so many of mine.

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