When PETA Vice President Dan Mathews sat down with his longtime friend Sir Paul McCartney in April 2005, the two reflected on their two decades of work in behalf of animals.
Dan: What would you say about how things have changed since PETA’s been on the scene?
Paul: Twenty years ago when you talked about animal rights, people didn’t know what you were talking about. But with the help of PETA, people have been exposed to knowledge over the years and have learned what it’s about—just how cruel we as a species are to our fellow inhabitants of the Earth. When I first heard of PETA, the idea that it would be called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals appealed to me because it was elegant and gentle about the idea that we simply just need to treat them ethically. I think the idea has grown from that platform, and now it’s a huge voice for animal awareness.
Dan: When we first started, we were able to take our undercover video to 60 Minutes or 20/20, and they would fight over it and do these thought-provoking exposés. Now that society has become less interested in these programs and more interested in sensationalism and the tabloids, we have to reinvent ourselves to keep our issues on the front burner; we have had to do a lot of theatrical things. It’s a statement on our times, but how does that make you feel?
Paul: I agree with you. I think that’s one of the huge dangers of any movement—that it can suddenly seem passé when people think, “We’ve done that; we’ve dealt with that issue.” Cruelty issues have unfortunately become one of those things where people say, “Vegetarianism was all right, but that was then—Atkins is now.” Now, of course, Atkins has run its course, and it’s been proved to be wrong, which we could have told them all along. We just have to hold our nerve. I think it is essential to play in the arena you’re in. I think that’s something PETA is very cool with. You will do the stunts, you will do what people might think are silly things, but in order to get the point across, I think you have to.
Dan: Much of what we do is geared toward kids, who have a great sense of justice. This is the first generation in which kids have grown up with this issue. Twenty-five years ago, parents were petrified when their kids went vegetarian—some still are. You have raised some fantastic vegetarian kids. What would you say to anyone who is worried about their kids going vegetarian or vegan?
Paul: I think you just have to read up on it if you’re worried, because the facts are there. Unlike 25 years ago, there is a lot of medical opinion that supports it. I would say quite conclusively that the facts are in favor of vegetarianism. We always say, for cruelty to animals, vegetarianism is the great thing to get rid of that. For the planet, to prevent depleting the water and the land and everything, it’s a great idea. And I think it’s a great thing for your health, and doctors nowadays agree with that. There are plenty of great books and organizations, so no matter where you are, there is someone to help you. That’s your first step, and I think your second step is just look in the supermarket for good vegetarian food, and I think it’s so much more readily available now. I think that’s what puts a lot of people off, thinking they have to change their whole habits, whereas we don’t—we just substitute. So there’s this huge range of great products for Christmas dinner or Sunday roast, then there’s your roast potatoes and all the great stuff that comes with it. It’s very easy to do. Anyone that’s worried about it should get the facts, look into it, and go do it.
Dan: I don’t know what people think is going to happen when their kids stop eating meat. You have wonderful kids who don’t seem to have missed a thing. In fact, I think they’ve gained from it.
Paul: I personally think so. My mother, who was a nurse, would be very worried about protein. Growing up, I thought that’s what gives you protein—meat—and I think a lot of people think that. I have a lot in common with Joe Public because that’s who I was ’til I got in The Beatles, so I can often understand people’s concerns, and protein would be my mother’s. But I know it’s actually a huge fallacy. You can get your protein from a million other non-animal places, and it’s much better for you. Heather and I are raising a baby, and obviously we aren’t going to give her bad food; we just make sure she gets the best food, and it is vegetarian. And we know what’s what because we look into it instead of just accepting McDonald’s and what it throws on your plate. I think the thing is just to ask about it. You look at a film like Super Size Me, and those things come in very strongly on our side.
Dan: There is some exciting news: The last pope was the first to say that animals have souls, and now Pope Benedict has come out against factory farming, saying it makes a mockery of God’s creatures. As someone who was raised a Catholic, do you have a message for him?
Paul: God bless him! I think it would be fantastic if someone in his position who’s able to reach so many people took a strong stance on that, because one of PETA’s strongest points, and one of mine, is compassion. That certainly is a basic tenet of the Catholic religion. I think it would be terrific if he took a strong stance and urged people to come out against that kind of thing.
Dan: You announced a campaign against KFC a few years ago with us. After hours-long meetings with them, some of KFC’s top players agreed to make recommendations for the basic care of chickens to their suppliers, but none of them would be enforced, so it was just a bunch of hot air. Do you have any words for KFC?
Paul: Get with it. This is a modern age; you can be … well, actually my message to them would be, “Get lost.”
Dan: The fur trade has fought to bring fur back, especially with the cheap imports from China. There are a few celebrities, such as J. Lo and P. Diddy, who still wear fur and say, “We want to be educated,” but we’ve sent them videos and information over the years, and they still wear fur. What would you say to them?
Paul: That’s the great thing about PETA—you are relentless. I think it’s very sad. Look at early pictures of me in Help!, and I’ve got this black fur coat on that Linda liked because it was such a cool coat, or so it seemed at the time. And I remember asking the salesperson, “What is this?” and he said, “It’s nutria.” I had no idea what he meant. The point I’m making is that I understand all too well the attraction of, when you first earn money, you want to show off. You want the most ridiculous furs, you want chinchilla dripping off you, you want jewelry. The trouble is, the difference between fur and jewelry is fur hurts someone. What PETA and I want to say to them is, “Look at these videos, because you are going to see anal electrocution, you’re going to see animals with their throats slit, and you are taking a beautiful animal’s coat.” I met someone recently who was wearing a polar bear coat, and I said, “Oh, man, why are you doing that?” And he actually listened to me. He was shocked. He was interested. I think hearing it from me, he took a little notice, and I said, “You know, polar bears had to be killed for that. Animals have to be killed, and their lives are taken often in the most disgusting ways for you to have your coat, and that’s the reason you shouldn’t do it.” So that’s what I would say to P. Diddy. J. Lo—you look good enough anyway, baby!
Dan: Animal rights people often feel as if we’re up against overwhelming odds and that there’s so much to address, you know?
Paul: Remember all the things in the past that seemed insurmountable. Remember Gandhi in India. It seemed like he could never do it. One man in a loincloth taking on the might of the British Empire—impossible. But he did it. He won. The abolition of slavery, that looked like it would never happen. Civil rights looked like it would never arrive, but it did. South Africa’s apartheid looked like it would never end. Mandela being head of a nation like South Africa, which was so white and prejudiced. It would have been unbelievable when I went to school. All of us get a little worn down by it, but the truth is, we are winning. We will win in the same way that people now do have civil rights. We are learning to understand these issues.