Newkirk learned the concept of ahimsa early in life.
Question: Who are you?
Ingrid Newkirk: Ingrid Newkirk. I’m President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
I was born in Surry in England on the Timms. I’ m not sure if that was a big formative part of my life, except that I had a dog who went everywhere with me and was like a brother to me. And I probably learned more about how to read animals’ expressions, and when they’re sad and when they’re happy from that dog that guided me in the rest of my work with animals. But I did move to India, and I spent the bulk of my childhood in India. And there I think I learned lessons that only came back to me later. I didn’t realize them at the time, this concept of ahimsa, which means “do no harm”.
When I was very little I thought I’d be a ballerina, and then a concert pianist, and then a mathematician. And finally I was studying for the brokerage, taking the brokerage exam when I happened upon some abandoned kittens. I ended up taking them to the local animal shelter, and I was so appalled at the conditions I found there. It really burst a bubble for me. I had no idea things could be that grim for animals in the United States. So I quit my brokerage job and went to clean the kennel there.
I think that moment when I started working as a kennel cleaner in an animal shelter, it was the start of a path. As a child I had always, and so had my mother, taken in animal refugees, human refugees. We always did charity work. There were unwed mothers that we helped to look after in India; orphans, lepers. We were always involved in that sort of thing. And all the strays off the streets – the animals who were hurt. But professionally it was that day when I started as a kennel cleaner, and then learned more and more about all the ways in which animals suffer; and all of the ways that you could stop that suffering. And then that started my career.
Question: Who was your greatest influence?
Ingrid Newkirk: When I was really young, I think the great Indian philosopher ______¬____ one of his disciples came to my boarding school. I was in a boarding school of all very rich little kids from overseas. We were quite snobbish, and this barefoot disciple arrived and told us about nature and about the values of simplicity; not of cherishing material things, but of decency, and understanding, and respect. And I think at the time we all snickered at him, but later on his words rang true to me as I grew up and came home to mean a lot.
Question: Do you still feel that affinity for nature?
Ingrid Newkirk: I think that caring about nature, frankly, is a lost cause, which is a very unpopular thing to say. But I think the natural world is disappearing at such a fast clip that it’s almost pointless to try to do anything to stop it. So that’s not where I focus my energies. I think nature can be terribly cruel. The human being can be deliberately cruel. Nature just is. But the wonders of nature are fast disappearing. And as we construct more and more things; as we have a greater and greater human population, there’s almost nothing left. And soon one day it will be gone.
Recorded on: November 12, 2007