S1.E3: Free the Animals: Amazing True Stories

with guest Ingrid Newkirk

About this Episode

How far would you go to save dogs in research laboratories?  In this exclusive interview with Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), she shares incredible true rescue stories from her book Free the Animals which shines a light on the Animal Liberation Front, an animal rights organization that took extraordinary steps to save animals from research laboratories.  An inside look at how PETA is leading the way to end cruel experiments on animals once and for all.

Guest: Ingrid Newkirk

Ingrid was born in Surrey, England, and lived in Europe until she was 7 years old.

Until she was 21, Ingrid had given no thought to animal rights or even vegetarianism. In 1970, however, when she and her husband were living in Maryland and she was studying to become a stockbroker, a neighbor abandoned some kittens and Ingrid decided to take them to an animal shelter. This was a life changing-experience for Ingrid and led to her first job working in behalf of animals—cleaning kennels and investigating cruelty cases. Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation and Ingrid’s experiences in that job and later on—including finding a fox and a squirrel caught in steel traps, finding a pig left to starve on a farm, and inspecting laboratories and circus acts for the government—made her realize that there needed to be an organization like PETA.

Ingrid has also served as a deputy sheriff, a Maryland state law enforcement officer with the highest success rate in convicting animal abusers, the director of cruelty investigations for the second-oldest humane society in the U.S., and the chief of animal disease control for the Commission on Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Since founding PETA, president Ingrid Newkirk has grown the group into the world’s largest animal rights organization. Under Ingrid’s leadership, legislation was passed to create the first-ever spay-and-neuter clinic in Washington, D.C. She coordinated the first arrest in U.S. history of a laboratory animal experimenter on cruelty charges and helped achieve the first anti-cruelty law in Taiwan. She spearheaded the closure of a Department of Defense underground “wound laboratory,” and she has initiated many other campaigns against animal abuse, including ending General Motors’ car-crash tests on animals.

Since it was founded, PETA has exposed horrific animal abuse in laboratories, leading to many firsts, including canceled funding, closed facilities, seizure of animals, and charges filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. PETA has also closed the largest horse-slaughter operation in North America, convinced dozens of major designers and hundreds of companies to stop using fur, ended all car-crash tests on animals, helped schools switch to innovative animal-free dissection tools, and provided millions of people with information on being vegan, companion animal care, and countless other issues.


Ellie Hansen, host:

Free the Animals was first published in 1992 and that was 30 years ago so what inspired you to re-release the book and why now in 2022?

Ingrid Newkirk:

Well the first time I wrote it I felt it was really important to record the history of what really broke open to the public what was going on in the laboratories. People really didn’t think there was anything they could do. They didn’t know what was going on. They thought it was a few animals being treated very nicely to cure really important diseases. They had no idea it was a massive industry. And the same is true today. People who were born thirty or twenty or fifteen years ago often have no idea the Animal Liberation Front…that band of wonderful committed individuals ever went in and got the animals out and got the video and the photographs out and were able to show people what was going on, rescue animals, and stop some experiments in their tracks; not all but some.


The stories in Free the Animals take place in the 1980s. What can you say about the organization called the Animal Liberation Front in North America in the present day if anything?


It basically doesn’t exist in America because of improved security systems that didn’t exist back then now. Now you have face recognition, fingerprint recognition, CCTV, all these sorts of enhanced security measures that simply went there when these raids were carried out. You had a guard, maybe armed guard or unarmed guard, patrolling the premises. You had maybe police car cruising by on the outside. It was unlikely that there was much beyond that except a burglar alarm and the Animal Liberation Front people learned how to disconnect the wires on window alarms and so on. They used some pretty creative things for their time but times change. You still hear of things happening in some parts of Europe with the Animal Liberation Front, but here it’s definitely faded away.


Actor Joaquin Phoenix has written the forward for your book and he now also owns the movie rights. So how did that relationship come about and do you think that your book will one day become a movie?


Well I can only hope it becomes a movie—you know Hollywood…you never know–but Joaquin is just a super individual as everyone knows who cares about animals and maybe saw him on Oscar night devoting his entire speech time to his acceptance of the award to the plight of mother cows and their calves. He could have said anything but he decided I need to make this point…the cheese on your pizza…that glass of milk…that slice of cheese…comes from a mother who loved her calf and her calf was taken away from her so you can have it. He’s appeared in many of our PETA commercials. He doesn’t wear animals in addition to not eating them. He’s appeared in a field with beautiful wonderful sheep around him and shown our video taken undercover of how sheep do indeed suffer greatly and get cut to shreds sometimes when they’re shorn the other indignities that happen to them. And he pretended to drown himself once in a tank of water to say look if you pull a fish out of their environment this is what they experienced. Their suffocating.

He’s been with us for many years. I have the utmost respect for him and I think he lives a very ethical life as indeed his whole family does. The whole Phoenix family…they’re a role model of being kind to animals and everybody else.


I re-watched his Oscar speech as I was reading the forward for your book and it’s incredibly emotional and he gets incredibly emotional. You could just see his passion for this cause coming through.


He feels it in his heart. These aren’t just words spoken by him. He sticks his neck out for animals. In the forward he describes how he was down at an animal save demonstration and he was so upset. He spoke to the stockyard owner (the slaughterhouse) owner and he managed to obtain a mother and her calf and rescue them. Of course he laments that unless everybody else gets involved you can’t save them. You don’t have to physically go to a slaughter house, but you can physically save them by eating vegan cheese, oat milk, almond milk, you know all that sort of stuff. And please think of the mother cow and calf. So I think he’s just the most ethical, kind, decent person.


Joaquin Phoenix quotes John F. Kennedy in his forward saying, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” John F. Kennedy said this in a speech in 1962. What is your personal view on civil disobedience and have you seen this method of activism succeed in long-term changes in the animal rights movement, especially as it pertains to animal experimentation?


I think every social movement has a component of activism which often includes civil disobedience. Certainly the women’s movement, AIDS experiments when they first began…we had AIDS activists lying down in front of cars and blocking traffic in Washington…and it had a huge impact. And it has had an impact with animal rights. I mean we’ve for many years we’ve demonstrated by lying down in front of fur stores for example, or at the National Air and Space Museum to protest NASA sending monkeys into space, and that actually did work. I mean it was part of a concerted program with multiple prongs of different kinds of pressure, but it definitely was a very useful worthwhile one. We’ve had people you know climb on the roofs and sit down in front of the buildings to stop animals being taken to the lab and that has helped and that has worked too. So yes, I think it’s one factor among many that has to be used in any social movement–animal rights included… experimentation certainly.

I should give you an example actually that goes straight to what you said, was the National Institutes of Health …and I talk about this in the book. The University of Pennsylvania was getting a boat load of money from the NIH to bash baboons heads in an accelerating device and the ALF went in and took out 70 hours of video tapes that the experimenters had shot themselves. I mean since then, experimenters have been a bit cagey about shooting video because they know it could be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The ALF brought out this video, they were almost caught, and I tell that story in the book. They turned it over to PETA. We then, 101 of us—when no action was forthcoming and the funds were still flowing to these baboon head crash experiments—we went into NIH, went up to the eighth floor of the funding building, and locked ourselves in. And we were there for four days and four nights. As a result of that, which was all over the news–our sitting of a 101 people-Margaret Heckler, who was the Secretary of Health and Human Services, she sent someone to get the tape from us. We showed it to her and she cut off all the funding for that experiment.


So you were actually there yourself?


Oh, yes. It was quite a time. The NIH tried to freeze us out by turning on the air conditioning so high that it was so uncomfortable and we had to wrap ourselves in curtains and rugs and everything else. Of course we didn’t have any food and so we worked out a basket system down from the eighth floor to the ground to get food. And then they cut that off. It was quite a time but in the end we won.


Similar to that laboratory you’re talking about with the baboon head bashing studies, some of these research laboratories that are uncovered by the ALF activists in your book remind me of stories I’ve researched about scientists conducting experiments in the 1800s. Animals being experimented on without anesthesia…basic medical needs not being met and scientists laughing and making fun of their animal subjects who are suffering. To be frank, I mean these types of experiments and things happened 200 years ago and it’s hard to fathom that this is still happening even today, when we’re supposed to be so concerned for animal welfare.

And one of the stories you tell in your book involves the City of Hope which is a medical research facility that used dogs to study cancer in the late 1970s and 80s. And they had a long history of negligence including sloppy surgical procedures and failure to provide post-surgical care to sick and dying dogs. Dogs were routinely found dead in their runs after being left untreated and unattended. This brings me to a recent 2022 undercover investigation PETA recently conducted at an animal research facility called Envigo. It sounds so similar to the City of Hope. Can you describe Envigo for those who might not know what they do and what PETA investigators found at Envigo in this investigation? How is this type of animal cruelty still going on today?


I think the reason it’s going on is that it’s not in front of your face. Most people never go inside a lab. They never see what’s happening. And the second thing is the big lie, which is, “Oh, trust us. It’s all for the good of humanity.”

It isn’t. It’s something like I think it’s $19 billion a year given out from NIH alone (taxpayer funds) to conduct animal experiments. We don’t even have a cure for the common cold right now. The way we found an HIV drug—or combo of drugs—that actually did some good was with high-speed computers programmed with human data and data from components of drugs. This animal experimentation thing is a big business. There are people who supply cage washers, lab chow, decapitators, stereotaxic devices. It’s an industry and there are actually trade groups set up to push Congress never to look…and they’ll say things like, “It’s science. You don’t understand. It’s science.”

It isn’t. It’s common sense that this is rubbish. We’re in 2022 and we have all sorts of wonderful technology and state-of-the-art research methods. We have–everyone knows–organs on a chip. We have a human heart the size of your fingernail that you can do things on—a heartoid. We have gas-chromatography, mass spectrometry…we have all this stuff that we can use and yet this big business wants to keep churning around, force feeding animals…putting electrodes in their heads…taking their babies away and putting them in psychiatric experiments…scaring them with rubber snakes and plastic spiders. I mean absolute rubbish.

So anyway, this Envigo place that you mention is a place that breeds thousands of beagles to churn them out and send them into laboratories everywhere. And it’s in Virginia. We sent an undercover investigator inside. She worked there for several months and in those several months found 350 dogs and puppies mostly puppies died because they got fluid on the brain from improper breeding; they got their legs and their heads stuck in cage bars; they drowned in drainage ditches; and so on. I mean just total abject negligence and that’s not even getting to the part where they ship them off to the lab.

We went to the USDA with our video, with our photographs, with our veterinary experts. The USDA went inside. They found immediately over 70 violations of the pathetically minimal Animal Welfare Act, and that takes some doing. There have been many more violations since…this was 2021 October… and since then we have worked with the Virginia legislature to try to stop this kind of activity. They’ve been wonderful. It’s been a break-through. The Department of Justice has moved in and I’m happy to say we’ve had we’ve taken out over 800 beagles to rehome including this wonderful old man called Samson who had been eight years as a breeding male in that noisy, cement, filthy place. And he’s so happy. He rolls in the grass. He sleeps on the couch. But when we got him out he had a urinary tract infection, all his teeth were rotted out of his head because they just don’t care.

The US Department of Agriculture has failed to suspend or revoke their license. If they’d done that simple thing which they should have done and which they have a mandate to uphold the law, these beagles would all be safe. But the place is going to close down. That’s a fact. It will be over with. But it’s just one skittle in the whole game, and everybody is needed to please go to PETA.org, sign the petition, get involved, talk to your representative. The big thing is we have got to get the Research Modernization Deal to become something that NIH and these others use which changes from using animals to using state-of-the-art methods.


Your book takes aim at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in many of the stories. I can see why because the NIH is the largest biomedical research organization in the world and also provides most of the funding for animal research, somewhere in the neighborhood of tens of billions of dollars per year. And in the stories in your book, the NIH is upset by the truth uncovered by the ALF undercover investigators and they actually try to derail some attempts to help the animals and in fact go as far as to support the cruel experiments. Do you think the NIH has changed in the last 30 years in their views of animal experimentation?


The NIH age hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. They’re incredibly defensive. They don’t wish anybody to encroach, to investigate them. They are above the law and they intimidate people. They know that they have got a huge bag of money there that they can dole out so experimenters are afraid to speak up quite often. But let me give you one example that just happened and that is we have investigated the University of Washington where monkeys have died because they’ve been sent through burning cage washers, they’ve scalded to death, they’ve died because their watering devices broke and nobody cared to see–day after day they were dehydrating and they didn’t have any water. They have died of diseases they never should have had and we just exposed them for actually illegally importing monkeys and finding monkeys that had diseases already before they were put into experimentation. I mean so many violations that your mind boggles, your head swirls with this information. Violation after violation after violation year after year. NIH just awarded them all their millions of dollars to carry on doing exactly what they’re doing.

So NIH has a lot to account for. We all know…Dr. Fauci got into trouble for the beagle experiments and the transgender experiments that he has authorized. Above him was until very recently his boss Francis Collins and Francis Collins hasn’t met an animal he wouldn’t want to experiment on or pay someone else to experiment on. That’s just his modus operandi… his way of life. He is so in bed every experimenter you cannot get past the Francis Collins wall. He is out now and is an advisor–God help us all–to President Biden. They are looking for a new head of NIH and we can only hope that they find somebody who isn’t from the old boy network…from the old guard…who isn’t one of these career animal experimenters…but somebody who cares about human health, who cares about progress and modernization, and maybe with a little luck has some feelings for what these animals are put through when they’re kept for year after year in a metal box that they can see out of called a cage.


PETA scientists have been researching the utter failure of the animal experimentation paradigm to help humans suffering from disease. This truth is now wildly accepted by scientists throughout the world…that the animal experimentation paradigm just doesn’t work…and so PETA has introduced a plan: the Research Modernization Deal. Can you tell us more about this deal and what we can do…as listeners…to help get this passed?


Absolutely delighted to do that because I think very few people have the opportunity to know that 90% of the experiments conducted have nothing to do with human health at all. They’re mostly psychology experiments. They’re mostly just show-and-tell experiments. For example, one we’re trying to stop now it’s called the forced swim test. And what you have is pharmaceutical companies getting ready to market an anti- depressant and so they force feed it to mice or hamsters or gerbils and then they drop the animal into a glass-sided beaker of water from which they cannot escape. And the animals…these small animals…are swimming, swimming, swimming to try to stay afloat not to drown and if they’ve taken the anti-depressant or been forced-fed it, maybe they’ll swim longer, maybe they won’t swim as long, maybe they’ll swim the same amount of time–that’s put on a chart. And if they can find any correlation they will use that to market their drug. I mean this is such a cruel, hideous experiment but that’s what goes on and that’s what people should remember.

In one of the stories in the book where we get a little dog called Vanguard out of the Navy lab in Bethesda, Maryland where all the presidents go to get their physicals. That dog, 37 years ago, was about to be decompressed. He was about to be deep sea dived in a tank of water and his spine would have been crushed to study the bends. That happened 30 years ago. Forty years before that it had been going on. No new treatment for the bends. We are now 30 years later, it’s still going on with sheep this time, crushing their spines. No new treatment for the bends. So, everybody needs to be disabused of the idea that they’re really trying to find a cure…no they’re not. They’re using old Roman-style experiments that go nowhere. 90% have nothing to do with cures. 95% percent of drugs that come on the market have failed in human beings but were successful in animals. And when the amount of litigation reaches a certain level the drug company will take that drug off the market and that’s why you see all those things that say, “Warning: side effects…anaphylactic shock, dizziness, and so on.

The Research Modernization Deal is what we’ve got to have. And we’ve given it to every member of Congress. We’ve given it to Parliaments overseas. The Dutch government is now implementing it. What it has is a clear outline of the different types of experiments and in the order of their least importance…you know the ones that are totally frivolous at the top and you can immediately get rid of them because you don’t need them at all; you don’t even need an alternative. And under those are ones where there is a superior method to research that topic so you can substitute. Maybe it’s a three dimensional virtual reality model… who knows what it is…a super computer…could be an epidemiological trial…could be anything. Our map, the Research Modernization Deal, just plots out bit by bit every single thing that you can—to the betterment of human health–do to replace the use of animals and of course with that you just wipe out cruelty. We need everyone to push hard, to go to their members of Congress, and to write letters to the editor, to get in touch with us, to watch the video, to get hold of the Research Modernization Deal, or just to say to your representatives and senators, “Please compel the NIH to modernize and look at the Research Modernization Deal and implement it and then everybody will be better off.”


So when we sign those petitions…and I sign those petitions as often as I can… does it really matter to members of Congress or the person you’re writing to?  I know people sometimes wonder is it worth my time?


It depends. I’d say it’s always better to do it than not do it because it might. But superior to those things is writing an actual letter that lands on the congressman’s lap and lands in the congress woman’s in-tray. They can see that someone took the time to write. And we have draft text that anyone can use and you can speak from your heart. It’s very important if you are a constituent to say that, “I’m in your district. I’m your constituent. I vote and I want you to support this or I don’t want you to support something else,” but a letter is best. A visit would be wonderful. Get a friend who lives in the same district and just take that few hours if you can if they’re seeing visitors…I mean with the pandemic some of them aren’t still…go and see them. If they do a town hall go to it and stand up and ask the question. You might be nervous, your knees might shake, but you’re doing something wonderful because the animals can’t stand up and do that. So…letter best… petition sometimes… it just depends but it’s certainly something.

And a phone call. Call the Chief of Staff. Say, “I’m your constituent, Senator’s so and so constituent…and I have a point.  I’d like to hear back from the senator.” And if you’re donating to them of course they will listen to you.


Getting back to your book, there is a section of the book that has been sitting with me. The heroine and main character Valerie is sitting with her boyfriend a restaurant one evening having a glass of wine. Valerie, who was once a police officer and is now an Animal Liberation Front organizer, is feeling guilty for being able to relax and enjoy herself with a glass of wine. She says to her boyfriend who is now worried about her, “I’m sorry. I’m having trouble seeing the world in the same way I used to. I’ve taken a peak behind the facade into a chamber of horrors. When I’m doing something to stop the pain for a few animals or for one animal it’s like getting a shot of anesthesia. But when I’m not helping, I feel lower than low.” Can you relate to Valerie’s emotional state here? And what would you have said to Valerie to help her move forward?


I can relate to that emotional state because in my job and for many people they see what’s happening to animals. It isn’t a fantasy. It isn’t occasional. It’s trucks on the way to slaughter. It’s a baboon who’s been sitting in the same cage on the same slats for many, many years and people mocking him. Or thrusting a monkey into or a mouse into a smoking chamber or into a plexiglass tube. You see those things…it’s like going to war. How can you then just scrub them from your mind? And it’s our species who is doing those things. Animals have done nothing to us. They’ve never declared war on us. They’ve never taken us prisoner, injected things into us, and slit our throats. It is very hard sometimes to carry on but I definitely feel I would have said to Valerie, “Look. Look at what has happened with the changes that have come about because you have acted…other people have acted. We’re a community. We may not even be physically linked but we are all there as a community and when we act things have happened. Just look at how far we’ve come. And then instead of looking at the enormity of things just look at enough to keep yourself motivated and going.”

Carve out something you can do. Never undersell yourself because your voice is so important. Your typing fingers are so important. Your influence is so important. Even if people say to me, “Oh nobody listens to me,” I say, “Oh yes they do. They squirrel away in the back of their heads the things that you’ve told them that they didn’t know and you will change so much.”

But if you give up, if you walk away, if you distract yourself to the point where you can’t see what’s happening to animals anymore, then you should be depressed because you’re doing nothing and you’ll look back on your life and think, “I could have done something and I didn’t.” It doesn’t take much you know.


I think we can all be activists and we can come at activism from different angles. Some of us will write. Some of us will speak. Some of us might take part in civil disobedience. And that is what your book Free the Animals is about to me… people who are saving animals lives by bravely confronting those who prefer to do their acts of cruelty in the shadows. What are your thoughts on this?


Absolutely. Absolutely and there are as many ways to help as there are human beings. It’s what you eat. It’s what you wear. It’s what you buy…the cosmetics…the household cleaners. There is no good sending say a hundred dollars to an animal protection group and then spending a thousand dollars over a period of time in a store for goods that actually someone else is hurting animals to produce. Those acts are vital and they do sway companies, too. Companies listen to what consumers say and most importantly they look at what consumers buy. So if you demand something that’s cruelty free you’re going to get it and if you don’t buy it it’s going to drop off in popularity. You can give gifts for baby showers and weddings and birthdays to people to show them something that’s wonderful and cruelty free and they might then end up doing that themselves. And show films. I always say that a picture’s worth a thousand words. A video’s worth a million.

For the book Free the Animals actually I did a twenty-minute section of it. It’s on PETA.org. You can look at it and show it to others; have a watch party; post it on your social; wake other people up because it can’t just be us. We have to keep growing and growing. And get kids involved. That’s really important.

Just put your toe in the water…take a step. If you’re already taking some steps well we can perhaps help with ideas of how many more steps there are to take. So we hope to be a resource at PETA. PETA.org has everything for alternatives for children who are about to dissect or who are told to dissect how they can properly object and what else they can use. We’ve got library materials.

Free the Animals and Animal Kind are good…and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer…are great to put in libraries. You can give people the audio books of Animal Things for the holidays.

I just believe that if we just arm ourselves with materials and leave them where we go…  doctor’s office, super market, gym… I’ve seen people on a train or on a plane pick up the magazine I’ve just put in the pocket there and spend the flight or a portion of the train journey reading it and I think, “For the first time you now know something about what’s going on in labs, or how your food becomes your food.”

** Not long after this interview with Ingrid Newkirk, Envigo was ordered to release all 4,000 beagles languishing in their facility to rescue organizations around the United States to be adopted.  This rescue will go down in the history books as the largest dog rescue EVER!  Stay tuned for the latest details at peta.org.

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