I grew up in a family where we would never be cruel to an animal, but we ate them. We wore them. But my mother was absolutely tuned into animal things, children's things and human charities. If we saw a dog by the road or anything, we always stopped, and she did what she could. But I still didn't connect the dots. I had a fur coat, a Ginger Rogers job when I was 19, and rhino skin boots.
Then, in the late '70s, I read Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation." He suggested that it's not enough to treat them kindly, to have a longer chain, or a bigger cage, or to be gentle to them as you lead them to slaughter. He suggested that they're other tribes, other living beings like us — which, of course, I now wholly embrace — who have the same emotions, the same fears and desires. They love. They feel joy. They feel fear. The whole thing. And it was a revelation to me. I felt so stupid that I had never thought of this. I thought: My god, that's what I believe inside me. They're not like us. They are us. As Singer said: You're not gods, and they're not trash. We're all in this together. The great orchestra of life.
What was your first activism?
I was 7 or 8, new to India. We were living in Delhi. I had a big plate glass window in front of my dining room, and I was drinking some soup. Back then, there were bullock carts coming along the road, and I was watching, and this man, he took his very thick wooden stick and smashed the bullock repeatedly. The bullock actually fell down. And he took the stick, lifted the bullock's tail, and rammed the stick up inside the bullock. And I just dropped my spoon and ran up to the road. I was only a child, but I took his stick, and I probably would have tried to break his back or his head or something, only a servant from an adjoining property had seen me run, and he ran behind me, and he took the stick.
When you ran out and took the stick, what did you feel?
As if you have become part of the victim — and you're not going to allow this to happen. If you have any power, you're not going to allow this to happen. People say, and I think it's true, that within those moments you don't realize how small you are or anything else. You just go for it. Because it's wrong. And people sense it inside you. They know that you're serious and you're not going to allow this.
PETA does a range of work, but is best known in most people’s imagination for big, brash ads or actions — ways to visually provoke people.
Gimmicks. Well, I wouldn’t say “provoke” usually, even though it seems that way. They’re all provocative. But they’re to educate. And often they’re rather desperate in that we can’t find any other way to get the message out. As we say: Never be silent. The worst enemy of any social movement is silence. If people can’t even argue it or object to it, it doesn’t exist. So we have to find ways, and we will shamelessly run the gamut of everything.
The ideal is, you tell people something, and they think: “Good lord, I had no idea. I’ll absolutely change what I’m doing.” [Laughs.] But of course, everyone knows there’s a lot of competition for attention. And people often don’t want to see. They don’t want to know. They’ll say, you know, “Don’t show me. I like my steak.” So it’s hard to engage. So if we’re left with starting a dinner party conversation that begins with something like, “Oh, those PETA people. Did you see what they did today?” — fine.
The more extreme campaigns — photo shoots where you’re naked and hanging by a meat hook, or being force-fed or in a cage — those are going to make people uncomfortable.
I did that hanging on the meat hook completely naked in the Smithfield Market in London. But I have to cover my naughty bits in America. I think it makes people uncomfortable because of nudity. And that's really not the point of it. The point of it is to get people to discuss it. My flesh and the pigs' flesh was the same color, absolutely the same color. Pig flesh looks the same as human flesh. I like the idea that we can help people put themselves in other animals' place.
And then throwing blood or whatever on people wearing fur?
Never have. It's one of those urban myths. Don't mind it. Don't mind the idea at all.
Because people are afraid of it.
That kind of fear is fine. It works. This idea that, “Oh, god, it’s the PETA people.” When we were fighting the Bobby Berosini orangutan case — he was the headliner on the Strip in Las Vegas, and we had videotape of him beating the orangutans before he took them on stage in their spangly little outfits, making kissing noises. If they misbehaved, they knew they’d get a piece of metal rebar on their back. We released the videotape to “Entertainment Tonight” — and managed to stop his act.
Some years later, another casino decided they could probably get him back and have an orangutan act. We met with the lawyers and showed them everything, and they just didn’t care. It was a money deal for them, you know: bottoms on seats. They wouldn’t listen to any argument about cruelty to animals or the manner in which he kept them. So I had a piece of metal rebar, and I threw it across the table at the attorneys. [Laughs.] And it smashed into the table. And they thought, “Oh, god, those PETA people.” And decided not to have him. And I thought, you know, this is pathetic. I have made all of my arguments. I’ve shown you the video. And that’s what it took is just for me to slam that rebar in front of you and say, “There will be trouble if you have this man perform.”
When you make people feel uncomfortable, does it bother you? Do you think activists have a higher threshold for discomfort?
I try not to make them feel uncomfortable in an aggressive, intimidating way. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. For example, someone wearing a fur coat. I mean, unless you’ve lived in a cave, you know that there’s something wrong with fur. So I will always smile and be polite. I always say, “That’s a beautiful coat, but I don’t know if you realize how animals are killed for those things. I had a fur coat earlier on.” They’ll pretty much tell you to get lost these days because they know. It’s like, if you work with children or the homeless: If you see it, how can you switch it off and pretend it doesn’t exist? That’s not to say I don’t from time to time, because I do believe you should take your brain out, swill it in cold water, and [put] it back in. So I go on holiday. I watch a funny film. I’ll do a Guardian crossword. Have a cup of tea. Go to bed early. You can’t be completely mired in it. But you can’t just walk away.
We're not less sensitive. It's that we have a job to do. We have an obligation. The woman in the fur coat, maybe she's wearing 20, 40, 60 animals. They're dead. They can't stick up for themselves. But the next batch needs somebody to stick up for them. No matter if it's uncomfortable, if it's awkward. You have to do it. We all are very sensitive, or we wouldn't be doing this. And we get upset. But not about asking somebody not to hurt others or kill others. We get upset because we see what the others are going through. And I think it gets harder as the years go by.
Why, because you thought you’d be further along?
You've seen too much. I have to steel myself. A video comes in, and I have to watch it. I've had to stand on the slaughter floor. I actually sharpened a knife for someone to cut a buffalo's throat on a slaughter floor because it's about trying to reduce suffering. And, I mean, how much can you take?
Do you think it’ll get to a point where you can’t take it anymore?
No. You're not allowed. Not allowed.
Have you had actions or ads or campaigns that you’ve later regretted?
If we do offend someone, I will always apologize — for what it’s worth. Because I didn’t mean to offend. But when someone gets offended because they feel that you’re likening them to animals — that’s the most common thing — I believe it’s a moment, which probably isn’t often successful, to say: Our very point is there’s nothing demeaning about being likened to an animal. Because we are alike. And, in fact, it’s that mind-set of separatism and discrimination that has allowed you and the group you identify with to have been treated badly. If you’re against violence, it’s not just about being against violence to yourself. Could you please look at the principle and not have a knee-jerk reaction to it? Broaden your circle of compassion. The suffering that you associate with, I’m sure it’s absolutely hideous. We’re against that, too. But it’s not special in and of itself. It’s the causing of suffering that’s wrong. Needless suffering is wrong. The identity of the victim should be irrelevant.
We’re against racism. We’re against sexism. We’re against ageism. We’re against any of these discriminatory, arbitrary, oppressive, dominating things. And we’re against speciesism because it’s the same principle. We’re all in it together. Strip away the fur, fins and feathers. Who have you got? You’ve got a feeling, sentient being.