Sharpening the perception of a mute crisis: An interview with PETA Vice President Kathy Guillermo

Kathy Guillermo, the vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) discusses the history of the organisation often embroiled in controversy, touching on everything from the disturbing silver springs Monkey case that launched the animal rights movement, collaborating with Wu Tang Clan's The RZA and speciesism, to the Metropolitan police's London-wide ban on Extinction Rebellion protests, the mixed bag of the Trump administration, changing the phrases we use to talk about animals and more.

For the past 39 years, PETA has strived to revolutionise the way people think about animals. How do you think the landscape for animals has changed since PETA was started 40 years ago next year?

I think there have been tremendous strides. We have a huge amount of work to do but I've been with PETA for thirty of those nearly 40 years. I remember the days where we could not get into a corporate meeting with executives. We had to chain ourselves to their front doors to get their attention and now we work regularly with giant corporations in the food industry, the chemical test industry and many areas, to make differences for animals. I see a time now where people know what the word vegan means and it was not very long ago when people didn't even recognise that word. There's a recognition of animals as sentient beings in many parts of our society's that wasn't there before. People know what animal rights is, there are kids now who grow up deciding they want to be an animal rights activist, or an animal rights attorney, which is something that was just unheard of 40 years ago, especially in the United States. So I see that we have made huge progress and I see that also we have a long way to go in many areas. There are still billions of animals dying in the food industry, millions of animals being tormented inside laboratories, so for all the progress we've made we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

How do you measure the impact of your work and legacy and re-evaluate new ways to make a difference today? 

Well, there are several ways we evaluate what we do. One is that we look at the impact on the animals themselves and how many animals are spared from industries, where they were used to perform and on the success side of that, we think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which used so many elephants and other animals for long periods of time, for decades and now that circus has closed. We see many places around the world outlawing the use of wild animals in circuses, so we see very straight forward and real progress that has an impact on the animals there. I think we see some of that in the testing realm, as well in the experimentation area, where we see recently for example, the environmental protection agency after working for many years with scientists from PETA, has committed now to ending the use of mammals in toxicity testing, which whilst not as fast as we would all like, is huge progress and we can measure that because we know that involves millions of animals who will never be brought into this world just to be poisoned to death. There are other ways of measuring it too. We look at some of the lawsuits that we have done; the thirteenth amendment lawsuit involving the Orca's at SeaWorld and the thirteenth amendment is that part of the US constitution that prohibits slavery and it doesn't say "only for humans" and so we brought a lawsuit on behalf of the imprisoned Orca's and we challenged SeaWorld and the court on that issue. Now we lost as we expected that we would but we got a hearing in court and the way these things work, is we do a lawsuit and we lose and we lose and we lose, then one day we win and that's what our attorneys tell us. So I think that we can measure that to the progress we make in the legal battle on animals, even though it's a work in progress and it's still evolving over time.

Speaking of evolving, can you talk about your personal journey within animal rights. When did your personal journey and fight to stop animal cruelty start?

Well, for me as I think with so many people, it was a little bit of an evolution. I was always interested in animals, mostly because when I was a child I wanted a dog and the way I happened finally to acquire a dog, was to find a puppy who had been abandoned. I realised that at that point at the age of ten; oh my goodness, people abandon dogs, who would do such a thing? I then became interested in the overpopulation of dogs and cats and the mistreatment of these animals by some people and decided that when I went to college that what I would do afterwards, was to help dogs and cats in animal shelters. That was the beginning of what I did. I happened to graduate from college the same year that PETA was founded and so I followed this organisation, which was at the time a very small organisation. I saw them burst into the headlines with the silver springs Monkey case; a very sad story of Monkeys’ abused in a laboratory, that became a landmark case in the animal rights movement in America. I began to donate to PETA and I read their material and I made that switch from "well, animals are beings who deserve our kindness and we need to care for them" to "animals are individuals who share the planet with us, who have their own rights and their own desires to lead their own lives and they're not here for us to use in any way. That's not why animals are on the Earth". So I made that transition and as it would happen, a few years later I moved to Washington DC and applied for a job with PETA and then of course, I went the whole way and came to believe very strongly that we need to establish the rights of animals in the court room and in the public culture. 

Tell us about the link between animal rights activism and environmental activism and the necessity of them both needing to co-exist together? 

I think that you're right, the link is very strong between the environment and animals rights and that is because when we talk about the existential threat to our planet, we're really talking about animal agriculture, because animal agriculture is the biggest creator of greenhouse gasses in the world and we are not going to be able to preserve this planet if we don't stop consuming animals, so I think that they're inextricably linked. We're also talking about preserving the Earth for all of us, not just for human beings but for the other animals on the earth, and environmentalists who strive to save habitat do so in part, or largely because they're trying to preserve species who live in those areas. I think we have to be cognisant that all species, not just the ones who happen to be popular, are deserving of our help in this way. I think that you're quite right that to call yourself an environmentalist and still consume meat is a problem and to be for animal rights and not be concerned about what we're doing to this planet is also a problem. 

How is PETA working to support the recent Amazon forest tragedy and what has now been said to be close to an irreversible tipping point? 

Yes, you know, (sigh), I remember many, many years ago, since we're talking about the history of PETA, when we discussed launching what was then the first vegetarian campaign in the United States. Our goal was always to get to that vegan word and encourage that, so I'm happy to see that it's in the lexicon now, that we all understand what a vegan is. It has, as you point out, become quite crucial that we pay attention to what's going on in the Amazon and elsewhere around the world, if we are going to make a dent here and reverse things. We have for all of our years that we have been an organisation, advocated for a vegan diet. In the beginning it was largely for ethical reasons, almost entirely for ethical reasons, because at that time, that long ago, the issue of global warming was not as large on the radar as it is now and it was still some years away that scientific organisations actually measured greenhouse gasses and where they’re coming from. As soon as that report became public, we were out there in front of the public with it and out there in front of the then Vice President Al Gore, who was the leading proponent at that time of the effort to stop the greenhouse gasses and yet was himself not a vegan; he is now I believe, which is a fortunate thing. We were out there making that connection right away, right from the start and we have done this both through scientific comments and letters to people, who need to be pushing this point of view, who need to be making this case to the public, but also in very colourful ways in protest. We for example, have done a number of protests where somebody actually is in a bathtub behind a shower curtain, showering in public to show the link between animal agriculture and the waste of water resources. 

Do you think that PETA is unjustly criticised for it's approach to protests and how do you view protest versus intervention? 

Well, we have to do all of it. What often gets the public attention is our colourful protests but believe me, we're there behind the scenes doing the very difficult legal work and the scientific work. We have more scientists on staff than any other animal organisation, more attorneys on staff than any other animal organisation; so often what the public see is a tiny tip of the iceberg of all that we do. As far as what we do, we know that silence is quite literally death for animals. If we're not talking about this issue and we don't create some public debate about them, then we're not doing our job properly. We choose to make a splash in colourful ways, because we don't care so much about our popularity, or at least we care less about our popularity than we do about the animals themselves and it's crucial that this issue be on the front pages of the paper! 

There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago about Martin Luther King JR and in that film, which is a wonderful film; there is a real life quote from Dr King, where he says "We're not going to win this in the trenches. We're going to win this battle on the front pages of the newspaper every night and on the television news in the morning". There's so much truth to that line, if these issues fall out of the headlines, then we're all sunk, so we're peaceful, we're legal but we do what we need to do to keep things in the public eye. 

How does the civil rights movement specifically extend a battery in PETA's back? 

The civil rights movement is a great example to us and the animal rights movement is the logical extension of the civil rights movement. If you think about the rights of individuals, it really doesn't matter what the species is. What matters is, are they sentient? Can they suffer? That's what's crucial here and we've been really happy to see the King family themselves recognise this and support animals rights and several of them are vegan for this reason. We find that throughout the civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez was a vegetarian and so many of the people who understand the exploitation of certain humans, totally get it when it comes to the exploitation of other beings and that connection is there, but I think it's all one battle in the end. It's all one fight and it's happening at different times and in different places and with different species but it's the same fight. 

Somebody who represents the same fight you speak of and also is a product of the civil rights movement is The RZA from Wu Tang Clan, who you worked with last year. What was it like collaborating with RZA for a PETA advert last year? 

RZA has been a marvellous supporter of animal rights and of PETA and has collaborated with us on a wonderful video, which people can see at If you haven't seen it, it begins with RZA's face and his face morphs into other human beings and then other animals, all different species and eventually then comes back to him. His point is, we are all one, we are all the same, the species doesn't matter speciesism is as bad as racism and he makes this in such a moving and powerful way. I think that video is a must see for everybody. 

In what ways do you think PETA has affected popular culture since its inception? 

I think that the most wonderful thing, is that we have a generation going on two generations now, who have grown up knowing the words animal rights. It's not a foreign concept like it was when I was a child, which dates me, but it's quite true. The idea that animals might have rights, that animals might be anything other than these beings that we hopefully are kind to but are free to use in almost any way, that was quite foreign when I was a child. To see generations of kids grow up knowing what that term means and having some respect for it and recognising it, is probably the most crucial part of the change that has occurred over the last 40 years and the very real progress and victories that we've had in, for example, getting pigs out of car crash tests in Europe and the United States, in closing down whole areas of animal experimentation, in I hope spurring more documentaries like we've seen recently like Blackfish, which show what life is like for those animals. I think it's almost impossible for me to quite comprehend what life was like in 1969 compared to 2019; it's almost unreal to think about the difference there's been. I do think that PETA had a big part in that and I'm proud of the work that this organisation has done but mostly I'm proud of the public for accepting these ideas and for considering them, which I think are so important. 

Do you worry that the "vegan pound" is limiting an increase of people becoming vegans because of price being so high that it's hard for them to make that transition? 

That's an interesting point. I mean, I suppose it depends on how you do it. Being vegan can be very inexpensive and it doesn't have to be something that costs a lot of money in order to feed and clothe yourself. It depends on what people do I think. I don't usually eat the mock meats or anything anymore, which tend to be the more expensive food. I focus almost entirely on vegetables and grains and Tofu and things like that, so it's definitely affordable if you shop what we call the four walls of the groceries, where the fresh foods are primarily and cook those. An interesting thing about vegan clothing is that you can do everything from buying the cheap what we call pleather, or plastic leather shoes, or you can choose to buy designer shoes that are now touted as vegan, so it just depends on where you fall in that continuum. 

If you could address the one singular and biggest problematic misconception that people have of PETA, what would it be? 

The one thing that bothers me probably more than anything and I don't know how to quite get around it, is that people don't really know all of the work that we do. It sounds kind of like I'm giving us a compliment and I guess in a way I am, but we have so many victories every week, so many small and large ways that we're helping animals, that it's almost impossible to give each one the weight that it needs. So I think sometimes people see a colourful protest or controversial ad and they may think "well, that's what PETA does"; that's such a small part of what we do. I also have to give credit to the amazing people and to social media, because that's made such a difference in activism. To be able to tweet out or text out a message to people and have them take action based on that, has meant that corporations that are abusing animals will hear from 100,000 or 200,0000 people in a very short time; so these victories that we're able to bring about in large part, are possible because of social media, because we can reach people with important messages. It wasn't so long ago that we were entirely dependent on media, now thank goodness we can reach people without that, so I guess the tricky part for me is wishing that people could understand the tremendous amount of work that goes on every week. 

Do you think that PETA has in the past, made any mistakes or said anything that, on reflecting, you regret for whatever reasons that are personal to you? 

Oh, I'm sure we have. I think it's inevitable that at some point we say something or do something that we wish we hadn't done and occasionally we've apologised for things. For the most part though - no! For the most part, I think we're very careful and considerate and strategic in what we do and sometimes what people think is a misstep, is actually quite carefully planned. So just because we get a negative backlash doesn't mean that we weren't fully aware we were going to get it and chose to do it anyway, because it gets it out there. I think recently that we got such a huge amount of attention for talking about idioms in the speech, things like "kill two birds with one stone" and we suggested that we needed to be more respectful of other species in our language, so we suggested "feed two birds with one scone" and we went through all the idioms that we could think of involving animals and we proposed alternatives for them or new ways of expressing the same thought, that kept the spirit of the original. A lot of people made fun of that and that was great! We'll take it. People can make fun of it, people can object to it, just don't stop talking about it. 

We mentioned the necessity of environmental rights co-existing with animal rights earlier. What are your thoughts on the Metropolitan Police and the unacceptable recent London ban on Extinction Rebellion protests, which as you're aware, have been more than civil and peaceful? 

Well, you're going to have to educate me on that one because I'm not sure what happened, I'm sorry to say. 

The Met police recently made a London wide ban on demonstrators protesting in the capital, threatening arrests. Having been vilified and having had your rights attacked yourselves, what do you think it says about our basic civil rights and what is it do you think it says about police officers and their relationship to environmental rights and specifically animal rights in 2019? 

We have seen a number of attempts over the years to silence activists and most of the time those requests come from the very industries that are abusing animals and that are profiting from the abuse of animals and that's where they originate. Sometimes they work their way through the legal process and they come out as laws or as rules. I am wondering if one traced it back, if we would find that that's exactly where it came from. I'm sorry that I'm not more familiar with that but that would be my concern. In general in the US, our relationship with the police departments is quite good and they have actually in one occasion, I think it was last year when we were going to distribute for our thanks-giving, which typically families will eat a slaughtered turkey at their thanks-giving celebration and we were promoting the use of vegetarian turkeys and we offered a police department in Texas if they wanted to give. They were giving out turkeys to people who had got tickets in a show of good faith. We said we'll give you tofu turkeys, if you give that out and they did it. There are one on one situations like that, where police officers have been so good and so helpful and I have to wonder if any organised response to silent protestors comes from somewhere behind them. I don't know. 

Is there a dialogue between PETA and Donald Trump right now? 

We sat back and waited at the beginning to see what would happen. I think there has not been a direct dialogue between PETA and Donald Trump and his administration has been very much a mixed bag for animals, as well as for human beings. We have seen some of his appointees really roll back progress we have made, specifically around the area of open records and that's very disturbing. In this country we can get records through Freedom of Information Act requests, so that if say for example, an experiment is publicly funded we can get records on that experiment and now have the animals retreated. We have had a very hard time over the last couple of years with the sharing of public information. The Trump administration has also rolled back protections for animals or enforcement protection for animals for those agencies that are supposed to be making sure that people exploiting animals are actually following the law and we've had a lot of issues with that. On the other hand his appointee to the environmental protection agency was the one who announced this enormous progress in getting rid of toxicity tests on mammals, so it's been a very mixed bag on animals. 

If you could offer any advice to those wanting to contribute and make a difference for the animals in our current political climate, what would it be?

Well, I think we can all start with the very things we do in our own lives first of all. We can be vegan and not just in the sense of what we consume but what we wear and the cosmetics and products that we use, what we clean our house with, get rid of the leather, get rid of the wool. There's so many amazing fabrics now that are available and more being developed all the time, that there's really no excuse anymore to have to use the skin of a Cow or an Alligator or the wool from a Sheep, especially with what we know about these industries, so that would be the very first thing. People can go to whatever PETA website is in their own country, in the UK there is a PETA UK website, PETA.ORG is the US website and there are so many action alerts that people can participate in. They can send an email to an animal exploiter and let them know exactly what they think about what they're doing to animals, and these really do win campaigns, every email counts, every text counts, so all of these things are a part of our effort, so they can do that. Of course they can contribute financially if they want to do that too.

What's next for PETA?

There is a lot coming up. One of our international efforts is to persuade the governments around the world to make it a priority to stop experimenting on animals. We know now, we've always known it was unethical and cruel. We now know also that it doesn't work, that 90% of basic research, most of which involves animals doesn't lead to treatments for humans, so it's a colossal waste of time and money and obviously deadly for the animals, and we have put together a plan for various governments around the world to take action and phase it out. We lay out the case in the case in this plan and we will be going to governments in the EU, in Asia and in the US, getting them to embrace this plan. This grew out of our effort with the Netherlands, which made a commitment to begin to phase out all animal experiments a couple of years ago and we put this document together for them at their request and since then we have grown it, so we're very excited about that because we think this is good science, this is humane science and this is going to spare millions and millions of animals. We're working very hard on areas involving the use of animals in entertainment, so called entertainment, places like SeaWorld and any places that continue to allow wild animals in circuses, that's really important. A bigger effort that we're embarking on is to help people understand what speciesism is, what it means and why it's wrong, it's like racism but with other species, and why we need to take a look at that and our relationship with other beings and how each of us plays a part that. 

Interview by Luke Bailey