Ingrid Newkirk, PETA

Founder and executive director, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Ingrid Newkirk wasn’t born a vegan. She once wore leather and used products that were tested on animals. Like most people, the co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals came into her cruelty-free lifestyle gradually.

Born in Britain, Newkirk grew up in France and India. Her mother worked with Mother Teresa, and as a result, Newkirk got a good dose of charity from a young age.

“She always said it doesn’t matter who suffers but how,” Newkirk said of her mother. Newkirk grew up rescuing animals, particularly stray dogs, and by the time she moved to America in the early 1970s, she had shifted career focus — from a stockbroker to a kennel worker.

PETA began in her Maryland apartment, and over the years her meager efforts expanded. Today PETA has more than 80,000 members, 120 staff members and offices in four countries. In the mid­1990s, Newkirk moved the headquarters to Norfolk.

Inside BusinessNorfolk

Newkirk’s primary intent is to give people options—from providing lists of restaurants that serve vegetarian and vegan options to donating dissection software to local high schools.

“Let us make it easy for you. Here are the kind things you can do,” she said. Her newest book, Making Kind Choices, will be out Jan. 12.

“We try to help the largest number of animals,” she said. Therefore, PETA focuses on four core areas: animal testing, the food industry, the clothing industry and entertainment.

A big focus is education and outreach, but the group provides practical solutions, too. In October they spayed and neutered BOO dogs and cats. Beginning in the fall, they give away doghouses and straw to families that keep their dogs and cats outdoors in the winter months. PETA even sends tofurkeys (tofu turkeys) overseas to vegetarian military personnel serving in Iraq.

“When we first arrived [in Norfolk], many people were afraid that we would be a disruptive influence,” Newkirk said. Indeed, it’s not easy to be president of PETA, a group that many love to hate.

Newkirk has found dead deer in her parking lot and injured snakes shoved into the doorjambs of the PETA building. But she doesn’t take it personally. She invites individuals to find something within the PETA agenda that resonates with them.

“People should not be afraid because we grapple with every issue,” she said. “If anyone cares just one dot about cruelty to animals, there’s something we can help you with at PETA and If you don’t like cruelty, come with us just one step.”

The “nastiness” hasn’t gotten her down, though.

“My job is to at least have people argue about it,” she said. “You can shoot the messenger, but the message stays.”

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