The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Ruth and the ruthless

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 bankrupt.

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 animals."

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, humanitarian grounds."

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 lives.

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 direction.

"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.

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