Interview: Ingrid Newkirk / by Tara Kaushal

April 2013: The founder of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world famous animal rights organisation, talks about PETA and animal rights in India.

Ingrid Newkirk.jpg

What are yours and PETA's agenda for animal rights? What are the beliefs that guide you?

PETA and all PETA affiliates are driven by the burning desire to open people’s eyes to the fact that all living beings deserve consideration and must not be treated cruelly in a myriad of ways simply because we don’t think, are ignorant of their nature and sentience, or feel we can get away with abusing them without consequence. We believe in respect for all, doing away with the caste system that allows others of all types to be exploited and abused, the lack of reasoning and decency that allows people to believe their own race is superior to the others, that men are more important than women, and that the interests and feelings of all other species who happen not to have been born human, can be tossed aside. We do not believe might should make right. And if everyone accepts these premises, then we will have a better society and an acceptance of animal rights.

What is the animal rights situation in India? In what way is the situation here better or worse than the world over? 

India has traded on her reputation as a country in which animals are often revered, but some of its citizens have drifted so far from the ideal in that in the name of religion, a male elephant is kept frustrated in chains for life, bellowing and trying to break away to be who God or Nature has intended him to be; a ‘sacred’ cow is likely nowadays to live in a factory farm dairy and be manipulated with harsh drugs to produce more milk and her beloved calf is taken from her so that we can steal every drop of milk that was intended for him. There is no romance in the reality for Nandi, the bull, who has a bleeding nose from a rope thrust through his septum, a bed of nails tied to his side to gouge him if he turns to the right or left, and a heavy yoke on his back as he trudges overladen with sugarcane from the factory. In Mumbai, horses are forced to haul loads of tourists, and you see them tottering along on swollen ankles, pulling Victorias—a carriage that is a relic of a bygone time. Indians were by and large vegetarians but are turning away from this traditional, compassionate, healthy diet and courting diabetes, heart disease and cancers with their new interest in eating animal flesh. The leather goods and meat in India come from among the worst slaughterhouses in the world. Cows and other animals are crammed onto trucks in such high numbers that their bones shatter, they suffocate or die en route to slaughter. Those who survive are hacked at with dull knives in full view of others.

On the other hand, India has the Animal Welfare Board of India. Set up in 1962 in accordance with Section 4 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, the first of its kind animal welfare organisation to be established by any government in the world. It is also following in the footsteps of the EU by moving toward a ban on testing cosmetics on animals, has humane education in many school systems so as to better prepare children for a world in which they can make kind or cruel choices, and following in the release of PETA India’s video exposes such as ‘Glass Walls’—the first comprehensive video expose of what happens to animals for meat, eggs or dairy—numerous people are choosing to switch to a vegan diet. In fact, vegan groups are popping up everywhere including the Mumbai Vegans, Bengaluru Vegans, Chennai Vegan Drinks and more. There are vegan shoes and vegan handbags and vegan everything!

In what ways is PETA India working towards animal rights in India?

In India we are working on numerous initiatives. This includes ending the use of animals to train students, and now because of our efforts and those of progressive scientists and politicians, the use of animals to train medical, pharmacy, zoology, life sciences and dentistry students has been banned. That said, despite the ban, some universities including Delhi University are still using animals, which is outrageous. PETA India is working to ensure the ban is enforced. We are also pushing through our seats on Bureau of Indian Standard Committees to end the use of animals to test cosmetics and household products. Following our pressure and that of MP Maneka Gandhi, the Drugs Controller General of India, Dr GN Singh, declared in the last BIS meeting regarding cosmetics that animal tests will be suspended until satisfactory validated non-animal methods are included in the current safety standard.

We are also working to end Jallikattu, a cruel so-called bull ‘taming game’ played in southern India, and have caught on video participants feeding bulls alcohol, stabbing them with knives and rubbing irritants in their nostrils in order to force them to run. These bulls have crashed head first into busses and into people’s homes while running for their lives and have died or shattered their bones in the process. We are also working to push the government to ban the use of all animals in circuses. Many species of animals are already banned, but of course no animal wants to be chained, whipped, separated from all that’s natural and comfortable, including from their families, and forced to perform daft tricks. We have convinced the Election Council of India not to permit animals to be used in political rallies, persuaded Jet Airways to promise that it will not transport animals to laboratories, and together with wonderful activists helped save 70 beagles from cruel tests (these beagles are now in loving homes). Millions of children will learn how to respect animals and peacefully coexist with them now that the Central Board of Secondary Education has endorsed our humane education programme, Compassionate Citizen, on its website and is requiring all CBSE schools to use this beautiful programme as part of their school curriculum. PETA also worked with the Animal Welfare Board of India to successfully encourage it to classify the common crushing method of castrating bulls as a violation of The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The AWBI states that all bulls must now be castrated under anaesthesia by a veterinarian rather than have their testicles crushed with a rock while they are fully aware. We’ll see how long it takes to implement this vital directive.

I’m also happy to say that PETA India's youth division reached thousands of young people in the last year alone with information about cruelty to animals by partnering with Submerge, Sunburn, Nokia Indiafest; we attended and leafleted and showed videos at more than 130 college events in that time span. These are just some of the many initiatives PETA India is working on, so it’s all quite exciting.

What do you think of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals law in India? Some say it, and the Animal Welfare Board of India, lacks teeth. What do you think of the law itself, and its implementation? And how does PETA interact with the AWBI?

The AWBI had formulated a draft Animal Welfare Act, 2011, and submitted it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests to replace the outdated Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. However, two years after the draft was submitted, it continues to simply collect dust.

Currently, the penalty for cruelty to animals is too weak to act as a deterrent. It is between 10 to 50 rupees for the first offence, which may go up to 100 rupees for a subsequent offence or up to three months in prison. The new proposed Animal Welfare Act, 2011, if passed in the form submitted by the AWBI, would result in the penalty for cruelty to animals being at least between 10,000 and 25,000 rupees or imprisonment for up to two years—or both—for a first offence. For a subsequent offence, the penalty would be between 50,000 and one lakh rupees and imprisonment for one to three years.

The chairman of the AWBI, Dr Kharb, is a very kind-hearted man. PETA works very closely with the AWBI and him. In fact, recently, when we learned that the Elephant Festival in Jaipur planned to use elephants without obtaining AWBI permission, we worked with the AWBI to get the planned cruel uses of elephants (polo, tug-of war, rides) stopped. But many decisions, such as the passing of the draft Animal Welfare Act, need to be made at the central government level. And fast.

An edited version of this interview appeared in Governance Now in April 2013.