May 02, 2023

Forget fur

Animal rights charity Peta is best known for its naked anti-fur stunts, but these days it is more worried about wool. Co-founder Ingrid Newkirk explains why shearing is sheer cruelty

While anti-fur protesters were busy mobbing London fashion week earlier this month, Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of Peta, was otherwise engaged. She was in Israel, "leading a 30,000-strong march through the streets against live export", she says. She enunciates the words slowly, with emphasis, as if this is the really important story. Because for Newkirk, fur is all but dealt with – "a minority issue". By which she means it is worn by "older people … ladies of the evening and the occasional foreign visitor from an unenlightened area". Nothing to worry about there, she says, as neither sex workers nor the elderly are "a good advertisement".

But surely this is wrong. Despite Yoox Net-a-Porter's announcement in June that it would no longer sell fur, designers are still using it liberally. One designer recently matter-of-factly enumerated the animals that had gone into a single garment. The most photographed shoe of 2016 was a Gucci kangaroo loafer, and the same house is currently selling a mink coat for £25,000.

If a full fur coat has become a rare sight, the fur industry has trimmed its pelts accordingly and encouraged a thriving market in accessories. This is stealth fur, fur for people who would never wear a coat, but consider a fluffy keyring harmless – or easier to hide. How else to explain the proliferation of fox-fur iPhone cases (£400), mink Prada bag straps (£730), raccoon-trimmed parkas and even Anya Hindmarch mink fur stickers with which to decorate your bag (at £250, let's hope the adhesive is strong)? Nor is this solely a high-fashion trend. A raccoon pompom hat costs as little as £20.

"What we call ‘a little bit of tat’," Newkirk says, disapprovingly. She clips the words, as if this is a matter of taste rather than ethics, which seems surprising until she slips, all in the same well-spoken voice, into details of cruelty to animals to make any listener flinch.

Take this story about Beyoncé. The musician is top of Newkirk's fantasy list of celebrities to front a Peta campaign, but she has proved resistant, even though Newkirk sent her and Jay-Z a faux-fur bedspread as a wedding gift and received "a beautiful letter back". To continue the courtship, Newkirk arranged for a Peta employee to bid for lunch with Beyoncé in a charity auction.

Along went Hannah from the Peta office in Norfolk, Virginia, and settled down across the table from Beyoncé and Beyoncé's mother. "And at the lunch," Newkirk continues, "Hannah brought out a little video and said, ‘I wanted to show you something,’ and showed Beyoncé a video of raccoon dogs being anally electrocuted." Hannah from the Peta office must have lost Beyoncé at anal electrocution because Beyoncé's mother apparently promptly whisked her daughter out the restaurant, and Peta was later refunded its bid money.

Newkirk flits from fur to dog leather to the new frontier – feathers.

"Look," Newkirk says, standing up to show off her new quilted coat by a company called Save the Duck. It looks and feels as if there is down inside, but no, she says, it is stuffed with recycled bottle tops. She is equally excited about Vegea, a new wine leather made from grape skins; pineapple leather; and Stella McCartney's advances in "skin-free skin".

Oh, and there is another new frontier. Last winter, Alicia Silverstone stripped off for an update of Peta's seminal "I’d rather go naked …" advert, but this time the slogan was: "I’d rather go naked than wear wool."

Wool? Well, they’re never going to win that one.

"Oh, we will!" Newkirk exclaims. "Young people, they’re right on top of it. They understand it. And sheep are so gentle, they’re so dear!" Last year, secret footage that Peta had gathered from sheep-shearing huts in Victoria, Australia, helped to bring about the first convictions of sheep shearers in Australia for cruelty.

"People would always say: ‘It's just shearing. It's a haircut …’ The shearers, a lot of them are on amphetamines because they have to work at speed. Men punching these sheep. They smash them on their backs, they punch them on their face. With their fists, with the metal clippers, they sew them up without [painkiller].

"Showed Joaquin [Phoenix] this video," she says – she has a habit of eliding the pronoun, so it's not clear if she or a Peta colleague did the showing, but maybe the two amount to the same. Phoenix is a vegan who nonetheless wore wool suits. After he saw the video, "Joaquin did a television ad for us and a print ad for us, wearing his new vegan suit, and saying: ‘I didn't know.’" The suit was made from so-called "future wool". Humans are allowed to make mistakes, as long as they repent.

"We’ll win, we’ll win," Newkirk says briskly. She is fresh from victory over the angora [rabbit fur] trade, and has a whole Hollywood department busily bending the ear of celebrities, and she has Pamela Anderson. The day we meet, Newkirk's colleagues in London are discussing the possibility of dispatching Anderson to Jeremy Corbyn's house with a hamper, after the cheese-loving Labour leader talked about his interest in veganism. It was Anderson who wrote to Melania Trump to ask her not to wear fur and secured the first lady's acquiescence.

I had always thought that the outrageous stunt, especially overdone nudity, was Peta's favoured weapon of persuasion, but it turns out that they are all furiously writing letters. When I ask Newkirk if Peta has run out of steam – there seem to be fewer stunts, and didn't it miss a trick with Game of Thrones's flagrant use of fur on set? – she says: "I think they did get off lightly. We’ve written to them."

That sounds sedate, given that Newkirk, 68, once occupied Calvin Klein's studio and a few years ago was photographed beside pig carcasses, hanging naked from a meat hook. Soon she plans to ask members of the public to suggest updates to her famous will, which, if her corpse is intact, will see her flesh barbecued for public consumption. The pathologist and lawyer are on standby; she is at her most gleeful when talking about the enticing scent of frying onions that she hopes to emit.

It is hard to square these antics with the well-mannered woman in a white collar and grey tunic, who is offering macaroons and enthusing about the forgotten art of letter-writing. Even Kim Kardashian received a card, in which Newkirk commiserated with her on having been robbed at gunpoint. "You always hope – I didn't push it – but you always hope if someone has a frightening or painful experience they’ll relate," she says. "So I had hope."

Other old-fashioned campaign tools include bird seed (for lame pigeons) and "Meat Stinks" stickers for the door of ladies’ stalls, both of which she always carries. But really, she says, her main weapon is her mouth.

"The butt-inski, we call it, because we’re always butting in. I’m not going to live for ever. I just want to speak to, write to, do, as much as I can think to do."

She cheerfully accosts people on the street, in lifts, at the cinema. The other week at Whole Foods, she left her place in the queue to talk to a woman with eggs in her shopping basket. "Excuse me," Newkirk said, "you know you can get the vegan egg replacement over there, or I use tofu for a scramble." And last year, she managed to persuade "a number of people" to unzip the fur collar of their £850 Canada Goose jackets and hand them over. How?

"I say: ‘Excuse me, I’m awfully sorry to interrupt you. I’m sure you don't realise, but that Canada Goose collar comes from a coyote who is caught in a steel trap.’"

She sounds incredibly polite, which is strange because in the past she has been criticised for ‒

"What do you mean?" she says. (This is a different kind of butt-inski.) "How rude!"

In the past she has been criticised for campaigns that seem – well – cruel.

When the then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for instance, Newkirk, who had recently lost her father to cancer, saw "the perfect storm". To draw a link between milk, which Giuliani enjoyed, and prostate cancer, Newkirk came up with the idea for a billboard that riffed on the "Got Milk?" advertising slogan. Alongside a picture of Giuliani with a milk moustache, it asked: "Got prostate cancer?" (She had already tried writing to him, to no avail.)

The advert was reviled. Well, I say, it does seem unkind, just when someone has been diagnosed with cancer. "I can't imagine he thought: ‘Oh, that's hurtful!’" she cries. "I don't believe it for a moment. Crocodile tears! Nooo!"

For someone who has spent a lifetime campaigning against cruelty to animals, Newkirk can come across as rather sharp towards humans. I mention that attendees of London fashion week, vegetarians among them, were spat at by anti-fur protesters, and she replies: "I’m not sure if that part was made up by the furry nasties or if it was real."

I wonder if she just doesn't really like people. She looks astonished at this. "I am a person," she says, "and other animals are people too."

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