The Fellowship of Life
SACRED FACTORY FARMS
The secular vegan movement has welcomed the belated arrival of an official campaigning Christian Vegetarian Association in Britain.
Yet twenty years ago, the animal rights movement was involved in major protests against factory farms run by religious orders. The legal battle between Compassion in World Farming and the monks of Storrington Priory led to a ban on veal farming in this country. Similarly, in 1989, two battery hen units at Daventry, nr. Northampton were closed following an outbreak of Salmonella and over a decade of demonstrations.
John Gilheany spoke to one of the organisers of the campaign to reach the hearts of the hens’ owners – the Sisters of Our Lady of the Passion. John Curtin is a lifelong activist and media spokesman who has been a Buddhist for several years.
JG: The Daventry campaign seems to have begun in 1978 with a sit-in by the formative Animal Liberation Front. So what was the mood and strategy among demonstrators by the time that you got involved?
JC: I wasn’t involved in ’78. I really got involved in the animal liberation movement in 1983 and the first demo I ever went on was the Daventry nuns. When I joined the movement it was very radical, very dynamic and every town had a strong animal rights group.
I was brought up a Catholic, I’ve got an auntie who’s a nun; a lovely, lovely woman and I’d heard lots of stories about nuns in my life; the terrible abuse of children when they used to run their schools and things in Ireland; the brutality, so I knew that side of nuns but when I found out that some nuns were running a battery farm, I was amazed.
JG: Aren’t the two forms of abuse very similar in the overall context of religious scandal?
JC: Yeah, but it immediately stuck out then: nuns running a battery unit! So I went along and I was amazed, I’ll never forget it.
And the main thing I will never forget is meeting the woman who ran the place, Sister Katherine, the Mother Superior. She was absolutely obnoxious. We were having our demo and I don’t know what our idea was; probably at that point to go into the sheds and have a look.
JG: By invitation?
JC: No, not by invitation. It wasn’t like a national march or anything, so the only people that went along were animal rights groups, or activists. It wasn’t a public march but there were some local media and police there. It was a bit of a hoo-haa but the main protagonist in the plot was this Sister Katherine. She was very loud, very aggressive – a very vocal person. I remember there were lots of punks there.
Put yourself in that time of the radical animal rights movement, a lot of the punk bands had written songs about vivisection; a very important cultural time for the animal rights movement. And I remember there was a little woman there with dyed hair and some rings in her nose and this Sister Katherine was just firing into her: ‘Oh mah gawd, look at you! You’re a disgrace, look at your nose, you should be ashamed of yourself, cover yourself up!’
And the reason I remember that is that I was trying to speak to her and say ‘Look, I’m a Catholic, I’ve an auntie who’s a nun and she’d be disgusted by what you’re doing.’
JG: That’s exactly what I was wondering about. So there came a point early on where you turned to them and said ‘Look, you’ve got your priorities upside down here!’
JC: Well, the only one that would do any talking would be Sister Katherine; the other nuns didn’t speak but she did more than enough speaking for all of them. She was a ranter, you know?
JG: So she wasn’t particularly daunted by this mob on her doorstep?
JC: No, it wasn’t a mob – that wasn’t the vibe at all. We were just having a demonstration. It was more a clash of values. We acted peacefully.
I’ve been on demonstrations where people would say they were descended on by a mob but it normally means just a few people standing around with banners. This was the first demo I went to and it was immediately obvious to me that we could shut this place down just through media giving negative coverage to the battery farming nuns – All creatures great and small and all that. This was a public relations disaster for them and they’d never be able to get away from it.
JG: A lot of animal rights types are pretty meek individuals in the first place, aren’t they?
JC: Yeah, I would say so.
JG: Did the activists ever get a bit afraid of the nuns?
JC: No, I was giving as good as I got but she wouldn’t talk about the hens with you – she’d just give out personal insults to people around her. If she did, she’d say ‘If they cluck, they’re happy and if they’re not happy they wouldn’t lay eggs.’ That’s the sort of standard line that all battery farmers come out with.
I’ve been in too many battery farms and when you open the doors the noise is just incredible, it’s like a madhouse – a grotesque, horrible noise that will never leave me. That noise is not happy hens clucking – it is bedlam.
JG: This was really the era of the regional Animal Liberation Leagues. So was there that tendency to think in terms of half-protest/half-raid?
JC: Yeah, I was already thinking ‘If there’s hens in there, let’s get them out’ but I was very inexperienced then. This was just a regular demo run by a coalition of local groups and hunt sabs and seeing as the police were present it wouldn’t have been a good idea to take hens out that day. As time went on I went back on numerous occasions to free some of the hens.
JG: So what did the demos hope to achieve when persuasion seemed to be out of the question altogether?
JC: Yeah, when I think about Sister Katherine now I have this smile inside my head because she just breaks any stereotype you can have of a nun being a meek and mild person. She was anything but – she was off her head – and like a hunt security person, arms crossed ‘You ain’t gonna get past me sonny!’ – that type of way. A very formidable person.
I’m glad I met her because she’s someone you can never forget but it was self evident that we were never going to be able to reason with her.
JG: The other nuns hadn’t taken a vow of silence, or anything, they just felt they could let her take care of the whole thing?
JC: Oh yeah, absolutely. Forgive the pun but Sister Katherine ruled the roost.
JG: Obviously, you’re quite well known for having been heavily involved in the direct action scene over the years. So presumably, you dropped away from the Daventry protests…
JC: No, oh no… at that time there was a very organic link between above-board demonstrating and direct action. It was very often the same people, actually. And the police knew this, I’m not giving any official secrets out. So no, I carried on campaigning against them for years.
JG: You didn’t get disillusioned after the first occasion?
JC: Oh no.
JG: So why did you keep going when you knew that they were a hopeless cause?
JC: When you pick a campaign, sometimes, you pick it for tactical reasons and I always knew we could shut this place down: let’s have this as the place to discuss this issue. How else are you going to get the press along? If you’re at a convent, they’ll come every time. There’s something intrinsically comical about nuns versus protestors – perfect material for tabloid headline editors!
JG: Did the press share your sense of righteousness?
JC: Well, we never got bad publicity. All the demos we did would attract publicity whilst Sister Katherine had nothing else to say except ‘My hens are happy’.
JG: What about the national press?
JC: Yeah, we got the odd bit of national press but mainly it was local.
One of the things we did was put the battery units under surveillance because on previous occasions we’d gone there and seen quite a few birds in the excrement pit underneath. You’ll always have these hens that drop down … so I got a local wildlife expert to come with me and we sat there for two days and nights.
If you’re going to keep a farm there’s all sorts of regulations and one is that you check on all your animals including a check on whether any have fallen down into the shit pits. While we were doing the surveillance we did take water and food to the hens but we didn’t actually get them out until we got the RSPCA in. But there wasn’t a prosecution, unfortunately.
JG: What other tactics were adopted?
JC: I remember one demo where we occupied the convent in 1986 and these people were trying to stop us. There were 6 or 7 really, really, large, east European men in suits – like security-type people, very odd – and Sister Katherine was trying to set them onto us like a sheriff in a wild west film: “Go on, go gettem!”
And I don’t remember seeing too many religious icons but on the walls were pictures of the Apollo space mission. At one point, I had the clear thought that this was just some sort of weird CIA spy network masquerading as nuns!
It was all so surreal but I still remember being shocked that inside the unit – although it was what you’d always find inside a battery farm; hell – there was small religious statues in there which I was really disgusted at.
JG: Let’s look at 1985 – just to get between the salmonella and the time you first got involved – apparently, these were the “most productive” battery units in the country and the nuns were able to build a new chapel with the profits?
JC: Yeah… I was inside prison, I’m afraid, every single day of 1985, so I’ve got no hands-on experience but yeah, there were demos against that new chapel.
A lot of times animal liberation people do economic sabotage and smash-up places. That didn’t really happen with the nuns. There was a massive stained-glass window for example and that never got smashed.
The media often accuses us of behaving like hooligans and vandals. I am delighted that over the years the animal liberation movement has smashed up property used to exploit animals. I find it so hypocritical how the story of Jesus, the personification of unconditional love and pacifism, going to the temple and kicking the tables over is buried under the carpet. I can understand what led Jesus to flip out – he was angry about blood-sacrifice in the temple and all its surrounding hypocrisy and greed.
JG: Actually, that seems to be the interpretation of most vegetarian clergy - that Christ would have been far more incensed by the whole slaughterhouse scenario than simply the mercenary aspect.
At the same time, I'm not entirely sure if the ALF - which has been described as 'not so much an organisation as a state of mind' - could really claim much of a Biblical licence because that 'state of mind' seems to be wrath a lot of the time, isn't it?
JC: I thought “wrath” and the Bible went hand in hand – that’s why Bush and all other Judeo-Christian warmongers have always liked to have a Bible close at hand.
I wouldn’t want to think of the ALF having a Biblical license seeing as it’s that license that has caused so much bloodshed. I’m simply making a point about how the episode of Jesus ‘kicking-off’ at the Temple never seems to be addressed by the Church.
I am proud to belong to the animal liberation movement – and one of the things that I’m most proud about is our predominantly peaceful nature. Yes, we are angry but even when that anger reaches boiling point and it spills out as illegal direct action the fact is that our actions have been against property. The suffragettes coined the phrase of “the politics of the smashed window” when it came to encapsulating why they damaged property in order to get people to wake up and take notice of what they were saying and I can totally relate to that logic.
It might not seem “pretty” or intellectual but if it works then that’s what matters. We cannot force society to become compassionate towards our fellow creatures but we can force it to, at least, look at the issue and that’s what I believe has been the critical role of the ALF’s shock tactics.
JG: It was halfway through the ‘80’s that militancy became more extreme and the media turned on the movement. It seems that the press started to sympathise with the nuns, as well, after salmonella was diagnosed in one of their flocks?
JC: Yeah. They had a public relations guy, an Environmental Health Consultant who was their main spokesman for that and the press; they just loved the image of old nuns waddling around like penguins in all this chaos - so there was tabloid headlines everywhere about the ‘Siege of the nuns’!
At that time the press weren’t really interested in the ethics of the animals’ side of things, it was more the public health angle.
JG: You can see the press sympathy shifted though because the nuns barricaded themselves in one of the battery units which many papers referred to as “the Henhouse”.
There seems to me a sense that things had gone full circle and the protesters had influenced the nuns over the years.
JC: No, I never saw it as that at all. They were trying to save their business. The place was all surrounded by Ministry of Agriculture, police, media…these hens were going to get killed, but what the nuns were concerned about was that they were due to be slaughtered before they had squeezed enough profits out of them.
The nuns wanted to make some stand and get some sympathy for the farmers. But the life of a battery hen to me is one of the cruellest things that human beings have ever dreamt up. Life is about suffering, you can’t avoid it but to invent a system where from birth to death there is suffering… so we didn’t really go too much into ‘Save the Hens’ because their life was so miserable. They live maybe 18 months or two years like that and then get taken off to the slaughterhouse…at least if these birds were killed it would be done on site and hopefully by injection from a vet.
JG: In the end they brought in a team of ex-miners who just rung their necks.
JC: Oh, did they? I can’t remember…but the nuns thing about saving the hens – why would you want to save animals’ lives who are in despicable pain, who have never seen the sky or a blade of grass..?
JG: The other thing that made the situation irredeemable was that the nuns owned ten acres of ground.
JC: Oh yeah; obviously our first point to the nuns was that they could at least give the birds access to the land but we gave up on that because it was just too obvious and she wasn’t interested in any dialogue at all. We would have loved to have got her on radio debates, I did everything I could to engage her but no, she wasn’t having it.
JG: The other thing about the ten acres is that it was ostensibly there for ‘contemplation’.
JC: Aha, I never saw them walking the grounds doing any contemplation. The only time I’d seen them was going between the Convent and the battery farm. They were busy; running a factory farm, you know? They were business people.
JG: And you didn’t get any sympathy at all from any of them?
JC: No. The rest of the nuns did look deeply uncomfortable and did act like you might imagine nuns to act – meek and mild but Sister Katherine was such a dominant figure that I suppose none of the others dared to show any dissent if they had felt any.
At one point they had to go to the High Court in London. So you had this mass load of journalists there because you’ll always get good tabloid headlines out of a nun. So me and my girlfriend, Angie, decided to do a press stunt. Angie dressed up as a nun. We told the media that she was from another convent, that she was against battery farming and that she had asked whether she could join us on our demo. We gave her this poster about battery farming and I said I’d do the talking to the press and we decided to call her ‘Sister Theresa’ who I said was from a silent order! They loved it and pictures of “Sister Theresa” duly appeared in the national press.
JG: It seems that the reason the press largely sided with the nuns wasn’t so much that they were acting as ‘saviours of the hens’ – everyone knew they weren’t – it wasn’t the “thin black line” that they got the press to describe them as or all those other soundbites but that they hinged their protest on two rather shrewd premises.
The first was that the Ministry had the ‘right’ to slaughter the birds but they hadn’t the right to gain access without permission from the nuns. The second was that their strain of salmonella was slightly different and non-toxic and to add to it the nuns themselves used to eat the eggs.
So it wasn’t like John Gummer shoving that hamburger down his kid’s throat; they were actually prepared to put their eggs where their mouths were, you know?
JC: Yeah and again it makes you think of how weird the whole situation had become. The egg industry was panicking at the time, every day it was headlines: eggs/salmonella/eggs/salmonella – and the media could do exactly the same thing this week if they wanted to, nothing’s changed on that one – the egg industry is still riddled with salmonella. That particular media storm had all been kicked off by one off the cuff remark made by Edwina Currie that salmonella was endemic within the egg industry. The NFU were completely panicking and needed to get people on the side of honest farmers:
– “Hmmm… let’s have a look at how to present our occupation; I know, let’s ask the nuns!’
It’s not something you’d normally think of but the egg industry did totally gel with that Katherine; so she was used as the mouthpiece of the whole egg industry!
JG: What I’ve been struck by in the coverage of the demise of the units that appeared in animal rights journals is the lack of jubilation. I thought there’d have been a party outside the gates or something?
JC: Yeah…but you’ve reminded me now of the people wringing their necks off – no, it wasn’t a place of champagne celebration, by then we were just sick of them. If we’d shut them down purely on the basis of a moral victory due to our campaigning but no, the salmonella complicated the whole thing.
Our celebration was to go there perhaps a couple more times, in the dead of night, and take as many hens as we could and give them good homes before the order came to kill all the birds.
JG: The second flock were slaughtered at the end of 1989 and the nuns had publicly pledged to take up manufacturing Belgian chocolate. But they’d already gone back on a promise to transform the units into a cheese factory. So presumably, you wouldn’t have taken their word for it a second time that they wouldn’t just re-stock?
JC: We didn’t believe a word of what Sister Katherine said. We kept an eye on the place though while the infrastructure for the chocolate plant was set up.
JG: How did most activists perceive Christianity by that stage?
JC: Well the nuns were just freaks but the Church’s biggest crime was undoubtedly its absolute silence about everything to do with animals. There are really gorgeous little Christian groups involved with animals but they are absolutely, infinitesimally, tiny. Aren’t they?
JC: A splinter wouldn’t make them look huge! So organised religion is just a tragic mistake of the past for most animal liberationists.
JG: Lastly, the image of the animal liberationist with a hen or a beagle under their arm is now an icon – it’s the Underground Railroad, Schindler’s List…it’s the same tradition. So now that the ‘classic’ raid has largely receded into animal rights folklore…
JC: No, it is far more difficult now, compared to back in the eighties, to organise raids in this country but there’s a lot happening all around the world now. There is a website www.directaction.info where you can see for yourself how much is going on.
JG: Well, I was wondering if you could describe the moment when a cage has been opened, an animal has been lifted out and it’s got the prospect of freedom. You don’t know that for sure, you don’t know if you’ll get busted but how does it feel?
JC: Hmmm, yeah an interesting question. I would say for me, personally, I suppose at the time, during a raid, you’re a bit on auto-pilot. You click in to a sort of working function, you’re there to do a job at the time, so it can be a bit dispassionate apart from adrenaline, nerves, stuff like that. It’s afterwards it really hits you and it can hit you in an unusual way like some of the absolute, most depressing moments of my life have been after a perfectly successful raid. Even though you get massive exhilaration from it – it can also hit you like a tonne of bricks; it’s the thought of all the ones that are left behind because it’s such a beautiful thing to do for those lucky ones that you can help. It brings everything to a head but the main thing I remember is just a simple feeling of being happy; just thinking you’re glad you were born even if this is all you’re going to do; just to give this battery hen a chance to see the sky for the first time is brilliant… one of the best feelings in the universe!
NB John Gilheany examines the Daventry demos in a book which will be available later in the year: Familiar Strangers: the Church and the Vegetarian movement in Britain (1809-2009).
There’s also brief footage of the protests in ‘Jill’s Film’: http://www.jillphipps.org.uk/jillsFilm.htm .
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