A Tribute to Ruth Harrison

When you think of Ruth Harrison, who died at age 79 on June 13 at her London home, your immediate thought would be of her long crusade against factory farming. But you could also think of Henry Salt, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Rachel Carson and Richard Ryder—movers and shakers, all.

Ruth Harrison was one of them and together they ushered in the modern era of animal protection—call it what you will: "welfare" or "rights" (Ruth preferred the former, even though she is thought of in the context of "rights").

She was catapulted into that league of reformers with her 1964 book, Animal Machines, a faultlessly documented and indignant assault on the excruciatingly intensive housing of veal calves, chickens and pigs. When she learned that no one else was speaking out against these atrocities, she dropped everything and began her book. She was following Rachel Carson's path in writing Silent Spring because no one else wanted to expose pesticide dangers.

She visited these heart-breaking prisons, especially those of crated, infant, male dairy calves taken from their mothers soon after birth, tethered in small, dark stalls, not allowed to suckle anything, given little water, fed antibiotics and iron deficient artificial milk to fatten them and keep them anaemic so they could be killed at 12 weeks to fill the plates and satisfy the palates of customer-preferred, tender, white meat. She also described in detail the overcrowding of caged laying hens, broilers and pigs.

Ruth pointed to the economic forces behind it all. "Life in the factory farm," she wrote, "revolves entirely around profits, and animals are accessed purely for their ability to convert food into flesh or 'saleable products'." She also reported on the feeding of antibiotics, growth stimulants, hormones and tranquilizers with no regard to the consequences to the human consumer.

She sent her completed manuscript to Rachel Carson, whom she had never met, and asked her to write the foreword. So stunned by what she read, Rachel asked a mutual friend, Christine Stevens, "could it be true?" Christine replied, "Indeed, it is true" and encouraged her to write the foreword. In it, Rachel expressed hope that the book would "provoke feelings of dismay, revulsion and outrage" and called for a consumers' revolt.

Carson's endorsement, a good publisher, her husband's graphic photos and serialization in a London newspaper helped to spread the word. The public reaction was so intense that the Ministry of Agriculture ordered an investigation chaired by Professor F.W.R. Brambell. The Brambell Report led to an Act of Parliament governing farm animal welfare. It wasn't long before the veal crates were abolished and better conditions were provided for chickens and pigs.

Despite her modest manner, Ruth was a genuine "whistle blower." But she never dreamed that her "radical" efforts would be rewarded by inclusion in the 1986 Queen's Order of the British Empire honor's list. In her youth, she had dreamed, however, of a career in the theatre. That dream was interrupted by World War II hospital service in the Friends Ambulance Corps post-war service in Germany. But soon thereafter she graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her career as an actress and director was on its way—helped by coaching from by a neighbor, George Bernard Shaw. Also, she absorbed his views on a hypocritical society, especially when it came to fox hunting and meat eating.

Her father, Stephen Winsten, was a friend of Shaw's and authored three books about his life. Both men—like Gandhi—looked to animals' greatest unsung champion: iconoclast, vegetarian, author of Animals Rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939). (Gandhi was inspired by Salt and Henry Thoreau in throwing off the British Rule of India. Gandhi entered Ruth's life when her mother, Clare Winsten, painted his portrait.)

Her promising theatrical career met a roadblock when she received a leaflet on the plight of veal calves. Not only did that permanent detour lead to reforms in England, but in many other European countries. (Her book was published in seven countries and was the inspiration for the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes.)

Animal Machines also lit the fuse for greater animal advocacy when a group of British scholars in 1971 wrote Animals, Men and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans. Ruth's essay opened the book which also included a chapter by Richard Ryder who coined the term "speciesism."

Up until her death from cancer she was deeply involved in the development and acceptance of alternative methods of raising meat animals. Helping her in this were several animal behaviorists, as well as Diane Halverson, AWI Farm Animal Advisor and her sister Marlene of Northfield, Minnesota.

Her honors, numerous affiliations and many contributions to animal welfare—such as blowing the whistle on the cruel electrocution methods of euthanasia unknowingly used by a large shelter for dogs, which was quickly changed when it learned the electric current must pass through the brain—are too many to list but her never-ending dedication and focus on helping factory farm animals, hopefully will spur long overdue reforms in the US.

"Wherever it is read it will certainly provoke feelings of dismay, revulsion, and outrage.  I hope it will spark a consumers' revolt of such proportions that this vast new agricultural industry will be forced to mend its ways."

 —Rachel Carson on Animal Machines

—Ann Cottrell Free