Ruth Harrison's book, 'Animal Machines', remains one of the
most durable and damning indictments of factory farming. Ena Kendall
presents a portrait of the author who campaigns tirelessly against
the iniquities of intensive animal husbandry.
Ruth Harrison is not a very public person despite the publicity
that has flared around her from time to time. A long and hard
campaign against factory farming has affected her natural reserve,
but her methods have never been those of the advertising agent: if
they had been, she could have slipped into the headlines much more
often. Reason and fact rather than emotion are her weapons, and her
opponents, no doubt much to her irritation, have never been able to
write her off as another animal crank. She is careful, for instance,
to distinguish between factory farming and intensive farming.
What transformed a housewife - and trite as the description is,
that is what she was - into the country's leading expert on factory
farming was almost an accident: a leaflet through the door from the
Crusade Against All Cruelty to Animals in the late 1950's. Until
then her concern had been with people rather than animals, although
she had been brought up to be a vegetarian. Her mother had become
revolted by the sights she saw in the open slaughterhouse she passed
every day on her way to school. It was not, however, until Ruth read
the Crusade's leaflet on factory farming that she felt impelled to
take more decisive action. "I could not permit suffering to continue
where I could actually do something about it," she says now.
Ruth Harrison also happens to be a Quaker. She joined the Society
of Friends early on in World War II when she was a student at
Bedford College, London - then evacuated to Cambridge. "One of the
attractions was its freedom, not tied to any particular dogma. I
liked the feeling that the voice of conscience can be made known to
each one of us." The voice was there and fate took a hand in the
selection of a cause.
The outcome was a book, "Animal Machines", published in 1964
after a year's hard writing. This authoritative and lucid exposure
of the evils of factory farming so disturbed Christopher Soames,
then Minister of Agriculture, that he called a press conference on
the morning of publication. It was then that the Ministry's chief
scientist, one of 10 experts present, observed blandly that "merely
to deprive an animal of light, freedom to exercise or pasture" did
not constitute an offence.
"It was the word 'merely' that stuck in people's throats," said
Mrs. Harrison, the memory painfully clear. She angered many farmers
at the time when she said that cruelty was acknowledged only when
profitability ceased. "But it is equally true today."
Animal welfare work absorbs a good deal of her time, although it
is no more than one facet of her involvement with the land and all
that lives on it. She was a founder council member of the
Conservation Society, and in 1972 she and her husband, Dex Harrison,
architect and editor of the publication Specification, wrote
a survey on how to conserve resources - forecasting almost exactly
the confrontation with the Arabs on oil supplies well over a year
before it happened.
She writes, addresses learned societies and groups, carries out
research, travels, much of it at her own expense, serves on
committees and tries to influence Whitehall decisions.
Her husband has always backed her to the hilt, although in the
early days he was fairly detached about her work. Then one day he
drove her to a research unit she wanted to look at. "The first thing
we saw was a double broiler unit with a viewing section in the
middle. It was dark on both sides. Slowly they brightened up the
lights, as they do in the theatre, and gradually you became
conscious of this sea of birds massed all around. The emotional
impact on my husband was quite big. We went into a deep litter unit
where they had had an outbreak of feather pecking and the birds were
pretty raw and I think that shook him.
"We saw another research farm with a veal unit where the calves
were kept on slats, in solid-sided cages in the dark. When the light
was switched on, there was a terrific buffeting in the crates. The
farmer let one of the shutters down and the calf's face as it came
into view was an anguished face.
"I couldn't have done this work if it hadn't been for an
extremely tolerant and fair-minded husband." Before she married, she
might have gone into the arts. In her teens she had a picture
accepted for the Royal Academy. After the war she won an award to
RADA, although she wanted to write plays rather than act, and that
is still an ambition. George Bernard Shaw, whom she met as a girl,
recognised her idealism - later to be transformed into practical
action that would surely have met with Shavian approval - and
inscribed a copy of his "Black Girl in Search of God" to "Ruth -
also in search of God".
Her headquarters is home, a secluded Victorian house in
Kensington, where she lives with her husband and her two children,
Jonathan, 19, and Jane, 18, and a Persian cat of 14.
Her pale colouring and soft, light voice give the impression of a
certain fragility, but opponents know it as the fragility of the
practised judo expert: one flick of her wrist and they are likely to
end up, dialectically, on the floor. She is, she says, an introvert
and at one time was immensely shy, but public speaking and constant
confrontation have overcome any shrinking violet inclinations. She
has an unwavering gaze, and a deadly ability to coolly shred an
argument to pieces. In short, a formidable opponent. Animal-lovers,
too, are apt to find her tearing holes in their assumptions,
particularly if their facts are shaky.
She has, predictably, grown tougher and less naive through her
work. She remembers a radio debate before her book was published, in
which she spoke against an official of the British Broiler
Association. "It taught me quite a severe lesson, I went along armed
with my notes and my opponent was there with his PR man. I was
tremendously unsophisticated and made my main points in what was
supposed to be a pre-broadcast run-through. The PR man took them
down, and fed through the answers to his boss. The producer said
there was no time for my opponent's main points to be put. When it
went over the air they represented me as an emotional housewife, not
backed up with facts. I've learnt a lot through bitter experience.
"Something else I've learnt is that you can get an expert to back
up almost any idea, but the expert idea is not always objective and
unbiased. We have tended to accept too much without question."
Scientists often wasted time proving what common sense could have
told them. "It reduces science to the point of ridicule," she says,
"when you have to prove that keeping a battery chicken in conditions
in which it can hardly move causes suffering. That sort of research
is merely buying time.
"Science has made it possible for us to treat animals as things,
but does that mean we have the right to do so? To make an animal's
life worth living goes beyond protecting it from pain and distress,
it means giving it some pleasant stimuli. As far as we know, an
animal's pleasure in life is in the exercise of inherited behaviour
patterns. The severely deprived battery hens, 'white veal' calves,
immobilised sows and fattening pigs do not live - they only exist.
There has to be a balance of advantage against disadvantage for both
the animal and the farmer."
Mrs. Harrison has always been a realist and welcomes improvements
that some people might regard as derisory. For example, under a
factory system, pregnant sows are kept closely confined in bare,
concrete-floored stalls. It's like keeping a dog imprisoned all its
life in a bare-floored kennel, for pigs are as intelligent as dogs.
But if straw is spread over the concrete, the sow can at least
indulge one instinct, which is to root. This is the sort of small
concession that Mrs. Harrison never undervalues. "One has to
recognise that it took 30 years to get rid of child labour. If you
adopt a very extreme position; you could put the whole fight back."
She has frequently been attacked by others opposed to factory
farming who do not understand that she will not be pushed into
sweeping and unsustainable judgements.
"You're going to offend people whatever you do," she said
philosophically. "You have almost to be a lone fighter."
In action, she is indeed a loner, strictly in control of her own
campaign. Yet 20 months ago, events slipped uncharacteristically out
of control when she was involved in a widely-reported libel action -
a minor cause celebre - with the dissension-wracked RSPCA as a
backdrop. Ruth Harrison brought an action for libel against Nadia
Nerina, former ballerina and fellow council member of the RSPCA,
because of a letter Miss Nerina sent to 38 other council members
criticising a leak of so-called confidential information and
suggesting that Ruth Harrison was not a fit person to be a member of
the society. (The information leaked was a letter from the British
Field Sports Society to the Chairman of the RSPCA threatening to
challenge the RSPCA's charity status if it campaigned for laws
against field sports.)
Mrs. Harrison lost her case and had to find a staggering £20,000
or so in costs. A fund launched by friends like the Archdeacon of
Westminster, the Venerable Edward Carpenter, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir
Julian Huxley, Dame Margery Perham and Tristram Beresford has raised
£6,000 to date: she has enough to meet her own counsel's fees but
not those of opposing counsel. Now she thinks she may have to go
She is still a critical and somewhat thorny member of the RSPCA
Council, sticking firmly to her views on confidentiality. "My first
loyalty must be to the cause for which I was elected, my second to
the members who elected me, my third to the Council itself. At no
time would I promise confidentiality at the risk of suffering to
One aspect of her investigations over the years has been
slaughter, a curious subject, perhaps, for a vegetarian, but
completely in line with her policy of finding out exactly what
happens as a prelude to improving things. She has seen it in many
countries, from the instant decapitation of the Sikh method in
India, "probably one of the most humane forms", to the stunning and
throat-slitting of our own broiler chicken factories, and the
captive-bolt pistol of our abattoirs. Our smugness irritates her.
She is alarmed about failures of stunning equipment, with the
possibility that an animal may go to its death fully conscious and
terrified, although paralysed, and wants to see a lot more research
into stunning methods, with statutory testing of equipment before it
is put on the market.
"Farm animals have experienced much the same kind of emotions as
man - joy, fear, pain, suffering. I myself feel repugnance at the
thought of eating them, but this is something people have to come to
by themselves. Only the vegan, who abstains from using all animal
products and byproducts, can claim to be vegetarian on genuine,
Nevertheless, she would like to see people cutting meat out of
their diet at least two days a week to help towards a fairer
availability of food throughout the world.
She has never been anti-farmer - it really is the case that some
of her best friends are farmers - only opposed to the excesses of
the factory farmers, many of whom, she points out, are really
businessmen who farm by remote control, with no sense of
stockmanship. "The true farmer has been harmed immeasurably by these
people and has been forced, against his natural inclinations, into
systems about which he's cynical and distrustful." She always draws
the crucial distinction between the intensive farmer and the factory
farmer. The first uses technology with restraint and discrimination
to achieve more output without changing the pattern of his animals'
lives. The second keeps his stock permanently indoors, crowded
together, often in dim light, deprived of pasture, fresh air, and
exercise and any opportunity to indulge the simplest instincts.
Their lives are regulated by automatic feeding and timing devices
and they are forced to conform as one of a mass every hour of their
Sometimes the lines are blurred and Mrs. Harrison agrees that she
has learnt so much about the complexities of farming that she finds
herself in the classic liberal dilemma of no longer being able to
make an easy argument, without questioning herself. "I find it more
difficult to make absolutely clear-cut statements: there's a very
large area of grey in between the black and white."
Her book, the warning signal, had many repercussions. The
Brambell Committee inquired into the welfare of animals kept under
"intensive livestock husbandry" conditions and Mrs Harrison was
invited to join the Ministry of Agriculture's standing advisory
committee on farm animal welfare. Her book was published in the
United States and on the Continent: in Germany and Switzerland it
led to inquiries into farm animal welfare; in Holland, it is a
textbook. Indirectly, it led to a discussion at the Council of
Europe Protection of Animals Committee, on which she sits as an
observer. She is also a member of the council of the Zurich-based
World Federation for the Protection of Animals.
Views on the future of factory farming differ. Dr. Paul Leyhausen,
a German behaviourist, thinks the worst excesses are past their
peak. Tristram Beresford, a Wiltshire farmer and writer and firm
ally of Mrs. Harrison, believes factory farming is entrenched
particularly in view of present-day labour and feed costs, although
her campaign would check abuses implicit in the system.
Mrs. Harrison on the contrary sees it as "a passing aberration of
a grabbing society". The system's dependence on automation,
artificial lighting and heating, and on imported feedstuffs, made it
especially vulnerable to the energy and grain crises. She foresees a
return to simpler methods that do not rely on extravagant uses of
energy, to grazing, to a more labour-intensive agriculture and to
craftsmanship. "It doesn't mean that the back can't be taken out of
laborious jobs, but it means being progressive in the right
"What we first of all have to bring to bear is common sense and
an ethical approach. We need systems that don't deprive the animal
of the exercise of natural behavioural patterns, or the soil of
natural manuring, and which maintain the precious value of a rich
and varied landscape. Our use of land must be one ensuring constant
fertility and regeneration. This line of thought, touched on in my
book, is now becoming the mainspring of my effort."
NB. Originally published in The Observer Colour Magazine
with the heading "A woman's war against cruelty to animals'
From the April 1975 edition of The Vegetarian.