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I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA

HBO // Unrated // January 8, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted January 25, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Informed opinion about PETA and its president Ingrid Newkirk divides into three camps: those who support their aims and tactics wholeheartedly; those who support their aims, but take issue with their more divisive tactics; and those who despise their aims and tactics. Mathew Galkin's feature-length documentary I am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA (2007) gives due consideration to all three perspectives.

I am an Animal provides sufficient background information to appeal even to viewers who know nothing about PETA or Newkirk. Put briefly, Ingrid Newkirk co-founded the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1980. PETA received national attention in 1981 for providing the press with video evidence, obtained through undercover investigation, of monkeys subject to crippling surgeries, electroshock, immobilization, and starvation by a federal research lab. This media coup was followed by successful campaigns prompting General Motors, L'Oréal, Maybelline and others to eliminate product testing on animals, and prompting several fashion designers to stop promoting fur.

Under Newkirk's continued leadership, PETA now claims the title of the world's largest animal rights group, with 1.8 million members and supporters, 300 employees, and an operating budget of $25 million per annum (these numbers are subject to dispute). Since 1981, PETA has conducted over 75 undercover investigations, penetrating research labs, fur farms, circuses and slaughterhouses to document the mistreatment of animals.

Supporters of PETA will find much in I am an Animal to confirm their position. As Galkin's use of archival material documents, PETA has achieved a number of important successes both in getting businesses to change their practices and in prompting millions of consumers to deliberate the ethical quandaries of purchasing animal products.

Detractors of PETA and Newkirk will also find much here to confirm their opinion. I am an Animal documents numerous activities which can be deemed absurd or grotesque; examples include ad campaigns that liken the meat industry to the Holocaust, and animal ownership to slavery; anti-dairy ads that gleefully linked former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani's prostate cancer to milk consumption, and encouraged college students to drink beer not milk; nude protests of fur and wool; splattering politicians, business leaders, and people wearing fur with pies, paint, and fake blood. Galkin also briefly examines alleged links between PETA and the extremist Animal Liberation Front (ALF) which was listed as a terrorist organization by the US government in 2005.

Finally, those viewers who trek a middle course by supporting strengthened protections for animals while disavowing the more extreme tactics of PETA will also find much to like here. Beyond the successes and follies identified above, Galkin provides thoughtful interviews with spokespeople for the mainstream animal welfare groups, Friends of Animals and The Humane Society of the United States, as well as with PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco who left the organization in 1999. These moderates argue that PETA's tactics allow animal welfare to be portrayed as a fringe interest by the mainstream media; trivialize human rights abuses; and, otherwise alienate general public support.

Beyond examining PETA and Newkirk's efforts, I am an Animal also provides further biographical detail about Newkirk which will confirm views of her as either a noble champion of animal rights or a nut depending on one's biases. Newkirk was voluntarily sterilized at age 22, and is amicably divorced for lack of personal time. She has no animals. She's an atheist. She lives in a Spartan condo devoid of artwork, drives a non-descript car, eats microwave dinners, and appears to otherwise be content with few material possessions. She seems to spend nearly all her waking hours working for animal rights. Finally, her will provides that upon her death her skin is to be made into fashionable leather goods, her flesh is to be cooked, an eyeball is to be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, and her feet are to be made into umbrella stands.

Very little time is devoted in this documentary to consideration of the underlying questions of animal rights: what is meant by animal rights; are rights inherent or endowed by human institutions; does providing or acknowledging animal rights threaten or diminish human rights; etc. Given the short 72-minute runtime, the absence of this material is completely understandable though.

A warning to parents and educators, this documentary includes extremely graphic and disturbing images of animal abuse. These images were obtained in slaughterhouses, circuses and zoos, breeding kennels, and research labs by undercover PETA investigators. There is a strong argument to be made that these images are vital to understanding PETA's mission and tactics, and the dedication of Newkirk and her supporters, though PETA detractors may regard the footage as sensationalist aberrations. Regardless, parents and educators are advised to view this disc before deciding whether to screen it for minors.


The Video:
I am an Animal originally aired on HBO. The DVD provides an anamorphic presentation of the documentary in its original 16:9 aspect ratio. Archival materials used in the documentary are often of poor quality, but this is to be expected. Overall, the image quality is excellent.

The Audio:
Viewers may select to listen to the original English 2.0 Dolby Digital audio track, or a 2.0 Dolby Digital Spanish dub. The audio sounds good with noticeable differentiation between channels, and no distortion or dropout.

The Extras:
Unfortunately, there are no extras on this disc.

Final Thoughts:
Mathew Galkin does an admirable job of presenting a balanced view of the controversial animal rights group PETA and its President Ingrid Newkirk. Viewers of all viewpoints regarding PETA and Newkirk's aims and tactics will find material here that confirms their position. I am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA is engrossing and informative, and is therefore highly recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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