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Fighting Tooth & Claw : Ingrid Newkirk's Combative Style And Headline-grabbing Stunts Have Shaken Up The Animal-rights Movement

March 22, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic.

TURN OFF A MAIN THOROUGHFARE INTO A SMALL, GRAVEL PARKING lot and there it is, an ark in the suburbs, a wooded eight-acre sanctuary known as Aspin Hill that is home to more than 150 animals--from parakeets to 350-pound pigs--nearly all of them rescued from slaughterhouses or other grim fates by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Hi, girls. Hi, everybody," Ingrid Newkirk, PETA co-founder and national director, greets six sheep as she strolls the grounds, surrounded on three sides by a middle-class residential tract in Silver Spring, Md. Bill the goat, a former animal-shelter occupant, watches Newkirk as she strokes a sheep. Jeffrey the pig, who was abandoned by a breeder, naps nearby. And trailing visitors across the soft ground like pet beagles are Fred and Sammy, two large turkeys found beside a road after they had fallen from a truck. Newkirk points to a duck. "He flew in yesterday."

Set among dogwood, cherry and apple trees are three structures, the largest a rustic old two-story office-residence that four unpaid PETA interns, Aspin Hill manager Sharon Honnell and her 9-year-old daughter share with scores of birds that screech and chatter from their large aviary. Until recently, Newkirk lived at Aspin Hill, which was given to PETA in 1988 by an anonymous donor who had purchased the land from a developer. Four and a half acres of the property are an animal cemetery where 70,000 animals are buried, including three dogs (Spee De Bozo, Cindy and G-Boy) owned by J. Edgar Hoover. A cat named Peter Pan was the first to be interred there, in 1920, but burials are now limited to the animals of PETA members who, if they wish, can be buried alongside their pets.

Animals beside humans is the appropriate metaphor for Newkirk. "Why should it be," she asks in the car on the way back to PETA headquarters, a few miles away, "that discrimination on the basis of class or gender or nationality or religion is wrong, but it's OK for us to exploit the other animals?"

Her passionate declarations that animals are the moral equivalent of humans have helped to make Newkirk the most visible and controversial figure in the American animal-rights movement. Nurtured by a decade of her promotional stunts and provocative public pronouncements--equating, for example, animals with slaves and concentration-camp internees--PETA (pronounced PEE - ta ) has grown from humble origins to an 800-pound gorilla. Newkirk's pugnacious activism has built it into the largest organization of its kind in the country, claiming more than 350,000 members, and narrowed the gap separating animal rights from the mainstream of American morality.

To her devout followers, who share PETA's philosophy that "Animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on," Newkirk is an admired and beloved leader. To others, however, the stubborn, combative, sharp-tongued, media-manipulating, headline-grabbing Newkirk and her tenacious organization are something else--something akin to the Antichrist.

"These are evil, horrible people, fanatics like Saddam Hussein and Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan," charges Bobby Berosini, the Las Vegas showman who in 1990 won a devastating $2-million defamation judgment, since reduced to $1.5 million, against PETA, which had accused him of mistreating the orangutans in his act. "Anti-God, anti-American fanatics--that's what they are!" adds Berosini, almost shouting into the telephone.

PETA also gets under the skins of the fur trade, the meat industry and medical and scientific research laboratories that experiment on animals--all of which it has targeted for extinction. Representatives of those groups paint PETA members as uncompromising extremists. Says Stephen Pretanik, director of science and technology for a broiler-chicken trade organization, the National Broiler Council: "No matter what changes you institute, they'll never be satisfied until you reach their ultimate goal of not raising animals for food." Adds Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research: "PETA's philosophy is, 'I have my opinion, and you have my opinion.' "

But those are PETA's natural enemies. Within the splintered animal-rights movement, Newkirk and PETA also have their critics. Some former allies have come to believe that the organization has gone too far with pie-in-the-face stunts and a newspaper ad that equates humans eating meat with cannibalism. "PETA is trivializing the movement by following what I call the 'Three Stooges' theory of animal rights," says former PETA lawyer Gary Francione, a professor of law and director of the Rutgers University Animal Rights Law Clinic. "Their campaigns are selected more for media image than content."

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