Fur Flies in PETA Documentary

If the name Ingrid Newkirk doesn't sound familiar, here's a brief introduction: she's the reason it's embarrassing to admit you have a subscription to Dog Fancy. In 1980, Newkirk cofounded the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the group's paint-smearing, pie-throwing, body-baring antics have made it the public face of the animal-welfare community, occasionally for the better, but much more often, for the worse.

"I Am an Animal," an engrossing documentary premiering Monday on HBO, tells the story of Newkirk's rise to the presidency of the world's largest animal-rights organization, and along the way it evenhandedly dissects PETA's methods and tactics.

It's a fascinating time to examine Newkirk's rationale. There have been several recent controversies in which the needs of humans have contended against the often conflicting concerns of animals. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely following his admission of involvement in a dogfighting ring. Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres went into hysterics in front of a television audience, pleading for the return of a dog she got from a draconian adoption agency then later gave to a family friend—when the agency discovered what she'd done, it removed the dog from the friend's home. "Heroes" star Hayden Panettiere made headlines when she engaged in confrontation with a group of Japanese dolphin hunters. And on television, the popular meerkats Flower and Shakespeare of Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor" were killed, leaving the show's fans stunned and saddened.

In each of these cases, editorialists have mocked those who take the side of animals, reflecting an attitude that has become conventional wisdom—those crazy animal nut jobs are at it again. This attitude stems from the position that those interested in animal rights are uninterested in human rights. It would stand to reason that people could be interested in both human and animal rights, except that so many facets of human life—diet, fashion, entertainment and medicine—depend on the subjugation and exploitation of animals.

Still, most animal lovers manage to reconcile the competing interests. Newkirk, however, is not you usual animal lover. "Animal" makes clear that she does in fact care more about animals than she does about people. The film shows her youth as the reverse image of a serial killer who provides early evidence of his predilections by killing animals. She recounts a story from her childhood, wherein at 8 years old she confronted a grown man whom she saw abusing a bull. "He knows he was lucky I didn't kill him," she says. It's made clear that, for whatever reason, Newkirk was just wired this way.

She has led an unusually human-free life: distant parents, no siblings (save for a dog who she thought of as one), no children (she volunteered for sterilization at a young age) and no husband (she was married, but didn't have time to invest in the relationship). She defends controversial ad campaigns comparing the suffering of animals to African slaves and Jews during the Holocaust. In a thread pivotal to understanding Newkirk's mindset, an idealistic, young PETA foot soldier is sent undercover into an Arkansas Butterball turkey processing plant. After two months of working in the plant, he has notes but no video; he blames technical difficulty, but it's clear his inability to execute has more to do with mental anguish. Newkirk orders him to be replaced. "Once in a blue moon, the investigator won't do their job," she says. "They'll shirk, and then I have no sympathy for them."

Her response seems harsh until the replacement investigator presents the footage he's gathered, which displays animal cruelty so gratuitous and severe, it's guaranteed to shock any conscientious person, not just kooky animal crusaders. The turkeys are hung upside-down in harnesses used to secure them before their throats are slit. In one scene, a worker hangs a turkey in a harness, then inexplicably punches it. In another, a turkey is hurled against a cement wall, maiming it, then a worker sits on the still-live turkey as if it's a throw pillow. As the saying goes, you don't want to know how the sausage is made.

Newkirk's unyielding passion cuts both ways. PETA's influence has been invaluable in bringing the issue of animal rights into the national spotlight, but their brash and offensive stunts have dominated the media in a way that falsely suggests they are representative of the mainstream animal-rights community. The film features interviews with Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, who excoriates Newkirk for her support of the terroristic Animal Liberation Front, and Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, who says Newkirk has "trivialized animal rights."

The irony of Newkirk's story is that she is as much a symbol of human rights as she is a symbol of animal rights. In the film's opening scene, Newkirk reads hate mail. One letter reads, "With all of the innocent children being exploited, aborted and abused, with all of the people starving in this world, why don't you pull your head out of your a-- and fight for a real cause rather than if a cat gets caught in a fan belt." The letter summarizes the problematic attitude of PETA's opposition, the attitude that people don't have the right to care about whatever they want to. DeGeneres has the right to cry when a dog gets taken away from children who came to love him. Panettiere has the right to protest the slaughter of dolphins. "Meerkat Manor" fans have the right to care as much about the death of real meerkats as "Sopranos" fans have to care about the deaths of fake mobsters.

There are bound to be dissenting views on animal rights—if such a concept even exists, given humans' de facto sovereignty over the natural world. But no one has the right to impose his or her opinion of what's important on others. When people start trying to force their will on other creatures, whether man, fish or fowl, Newkirk's philosophy of humanity is affirmed anew.