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We speak with Christine Townend about her journey as a political activist for animal welfare, uncovering the motivation for her new book A Life for Animals. Townend also discusses the changes she has observed in society's attitude towards animal welfare within Australia and the major concerns she sees that still need to be addressed in this area.
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In your work as an advocate for animals in Australia, and in running the Help in Suffering animal shelter in India, you encountered resistance ranging from ignorance and indifference to outright hostility. What kept you going? Did you ever think of giving up? Do you have any advice for activists today who might be facing similar challenges?

The greatest resistance I received was in Australia from people who stood to lose financially should veganism become popular. I was particularly hated by the farming community and agribusiness in Australia. It was the injustice practised towards animals, together with the fact that they were suffering every day in their millions from pain and fear, which drove me to fight. For example, mulesing is the most gruesome mutilation carried out without any anaesthetic. The sheep or lamb is held upside down in a ‘cradle’ while the folds of skin are sliced away, the tail cut, and, if a male, the testicles pulled out. All this is done without the use of anaesthetic.

The idea that someone could eat the body of a near relative, a non-human animal, repulsed me. It was a relief to live in India where the tradition of ahimsa (harmlessness) still seemed to prevail in Rajasthan, and where, instead of being considered a radical, I was actually considered conservative because I was vegetarian.

I’m not really good at advice but I guess the most important point is to feel furious (I mean to feel the same sort of white rage which the Christ felt when he went into the temple and tipped over the tables of the money-lenders). Feel furious about mistreatment of animals, about the total violation of the human–animal inter-relation, about human abdication of all responsibilities towards animals. Humans are wrecking the oceans, the forests, the beaches, and they are violating a relationship which belongs to the commons. The human–animal inter-relation belongs to all of us, including the creatures, and why should some hunter go shooting a duck for pleasure, when it is my relationship to the duck that is being violated? What right has some hunter got to get a kick out of wounding a flapping, struggling duck when I also own that relationship between human and duck, and I do not want that relationship to be degraded by the cheap thrill of wounding a living thing? Enjoying hunting is degrading to the human spirit.

In A Life for Animals you describe your moves back and forth between Australia and India over many years. What changes have you observed in how people think about and interact with animals in the two countries during this time? How much progress have we made in Australia in terms of our treatment of animals?

So much has changed since I called the first meeting of Animal Liberation in 1976. If restaurants are a useful guide, then I recall how in the 1980s it was almost impossible to order a vegetarian – let alone vegan – meal. I usually ended up with a plate of vegetables minus the meat. And in the 1970s–1980s, no-one knew what a battery cage was. I remember one person asked me whether it involved giving electric shocks to laying hens. These days there are free-range egg options filling the supermarkets, and people are horrified by the idea of hens being caged, their beaks severed, crowded together, three to a cage, crawling all over each other, unable to escape to a quiet place to lay an egg, unable to stretch, unable to scratch in the earth, and killed when they are classified as ‘spent layers’ at 18 months of age.

You write beautifully of Sita, the characterful blue heeler who shared your journey from Australia to India. Do you have any particular animals in your life at the moment?

Yes, we have a dog who was gifted to us when he was a puppy and he is full of love and intelligence. From what the science tells us, I realise pigs are as intelligent as dogs, and feel pain in a way similar to dogs, and yet people eat pigs, but most Australians would find it disgusting to eat a dog. I go to the dog park and see the absolute love people demonstrate towards their dogs, and vice versa, and yet these very same people will go home and eat the flesh of a pig.

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You’re also a poet, novelist and artist. How do you see the relationship between your art and your activism? Are they separate, entwined, complementary, in conflict, something else?

It seems to me that where there is beauty, there is a connection with the heart of all beings. I have written a novel about an Indian elephant, Moti, recounting her story in the first person. There are some beautiful poems written as though the animal is speaking in the first person, for example The Donkey by G.K. Chesterton. My doctorate supervisor, Associate Professor David Brooks, has also written beautiful poetry about animals. It seems to me that through poetry people may feel a flash of intuitive understanding as for a moment they enter the mind of a non-human animal, and in that state are briefly connected with the creatures and their needs. Deep image poetry draws upon the universal subconscious, which I believe to be shared with non-human animals. And yes, with my art I have tried to paint beauty – how the ancient relationship between the shepherd and the sheep was so close, the sheep following the shepherd in total trust. I have seen this in Rajasthan and in Egypt. This is the opposite from agribusiness, where animals are treated as commodities with which a person can make as much money as possible. Gina Rinehart, a billionaire, has no need to further her profits and yet she has plans to export 300,000 cattle live to China every year.

If you had to predict the future, what animal welfare issue do you think will be (or should be) most pressing in the next few years?

The mutilation of animals seems to me to be a very urgent problem, because it is a total violation of the human–animal inter-relation. Humans have at this moment in history power over the farm animals, and to abuse that power by causing terrible pain, often lasting for days, seems to me absolutely immoral. For example, in the intensive pig industry, piglets have their teeth clipped (despite the sensitive nerves inside the tooth), their tails cut, the scrotum cut and testicles pulled out if they are male, all without the use of any anaesthetic or painkiller. In the wool industry, mulesing is a brutal surgical mutilation, carried out without the use of anaesthetic, and in the very sensitive tail area of the sheep. The purpose is to control blowfly strike and it’s quicker and easier to mules than to muster sheep, dip and crutch, or to breed for plain body (without wrinkles). Many family farmers are humane and don’t mules. It is the pressure of the profit motive and price competition that forces these welfare shortcuts to be made.

A personal connection in the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences reported to me in 2016 that out of a flock of about 70 million in 2015, 4.2 percent, that is nearly 3 million sheep, died ‘on the farm’. In addition, 20 percent of all lambs die before marking, as Hon Justice Michael Kirby related in the foreword to my previous book Pulling The Wool. These are figures from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences. ABARES has stated that ‘Death rates for sheep in Australia are generally higher in years of severe drought such as 2002–03 and 2006–07. Average death rates have generally trended down over the long term.’ It seems to me obvious that, when humans take animals into their care, they, the humans, have a duty of responsibility to look after those animals with compassion and care. It worries me that when I drive through the country I see sheep standing, without shelter. They stand in rain, snow, wind or burning sun without a shed or a tree to shelter them. Much of this is related to economics. Struggling family farms simply cannot afford the cost of shedding. A truly caring government would help with loans or subsidies so that small-scale farming could remain competitive.

Do you prefer silence, music, or something else when you’re writing? Do you have any writing rituals?

I like listening to classical music. Listening to Mozart is like going to church.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Animal Welfare in Australia by Peter Chen. There’s also a lot of helpful information posted on the Australasian Animal Studies Association website, and many journals which are now publishing papers in various disciplines which establish the fact that animals, including fish, feel pain, suffer emotions, anticipate and remember. These papers can be found by joining either Research Gate or Academia.

I’m also reading the Productivity Commission’s report Regulation of Australian Agriculture. This research was requested by the government to see how ‘red tape’ could be reduced in agriculture. Nonetheless, this committee found it important to recommend that ‘animal welfare regulations seek to achieve welfare outcomes that (among other things) meet community expectations. However, the current process for setting standards for farm animal welfare does not adequately value the benefits of animal welfare to the community.The process for setting standards would be improved through the creation of a stator agency responsible for developing national farm animal welfare standards using rigorous science and evidence of community values for farm animal welfare.’

It would be good if this recommendation could be implemented by the government. Maybe readers could email their local federal MP and ask for this recommendation to be applied.


Join us at one of the book launches:

Dr Melissa Boyde will launch the book in Adelaide on Tuesday 4 July 2017 at 3:30pm at the Adelaide 2017: Animal Interactions conference at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Peter Singer will launch the book in Melbourne on Friday 14 July 2017 at 6:30pm at Readings St Kilda.

The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG will launch the book in Sydney on Friday 25 August at 6 for 6:30pm at Gleebooks, Glebe.

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