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Sounding the Alarm

News Icon 10/08/2016

Next year is Compassion’s fiftieth anniversary. When we look back at some of the organisations we have worked closely with over this time, one organisation that stands out in the UK is Chickens’ Lib. Formed around 1970, co-founded by Violet Spalding and her daughter Clare Druce, together, they helped write the history of the campaign against battery cages.

Clare’s new book, Chickens’ Lib, is the story of their organisation. It’s an insider’s account of their campaigns, in which Clare modestly shares their successes and vents her frustrations that much more has not been achieved.

Clare’s passion and honesty shines through in her book, which I have the pleasure of discussing with her here in the first of a two-part interview.

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Clare Druce, founder, Chickens' Lib

Philip: What first motivated you to get involved in animal welfare?

Clare: Throughout my childhood I spent a lot of time on a smallholding in deepest rural Sussex, and this experience gave me a love of nature and animals.

By the 1960s I must have had an inkling of how badly things were going for farmed animals, because around 1967 I picked up a copy of Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book “Animal Machines” and life was never the same again!

I was appalled by Ruth’s accounts of the way animals were being treated in factory farms. I lent the book to my mother, and she was equally horrified.

Optimistically, even hoping to make a difference, we started to write letters to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now Defra). But we soon saw the futility of this approach, as letters in response to ours held nothing but boastful assurances that Great Britain had the best animal welfare standards in the world, etc., etc..

A year or two of these pointless written exchanges was more than enough for Violet and me: we decided on some direct action. In my book I describe our first “invasion” of MAFF, at their animal welfare HQ in Surrey, when we smuggled in a mock cageful of sad, abused, near-featherless ex-battery hens, into the heart of MAFF’s premises, demanding to see one of the chief pen-pushers. This demo resulted in excellent publicity including headlines on street billboards throughout Surrey. Though still just the two of us, with no outside support, we were well on our way.

Philip: What do you think are your greatest achievements as a farm animal welfare movement?

Clare: The word ‘achievements’ suggests goals reached. In fact, clear-cut victories were few and far between. However, I do get satisfaction from the fact that we did research whole areas of abuse that had previously received little attention. I think our strength lay partly in a decision to concentrate first and foremost on poultry issues.

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Clare's books

I believe we were the first pressure group to expose the full squalor behind the cruel broiler chicken industry, those young birds genetically selected to be clinically obese, while the parent stock must be kept on severely restricted rations. We also researched the disgraceful turkey industry. Nor did the shocking abuse of quail, ducks, ostriches and game birds escape our fact finding activities.

I am proud to have acted as an expert witness on poultry matters for the defendants in the ‘McLibel’ case, and felt great satisfaction when Mr. Justice Bell ruled that many of the husbandry practices carried out by companies supplying McDonalds at the time involved cruelty.

I’m very happy that over the years we were able to help emerging animal protection campaigners, supplying information and materials, and generally keeping in touch, including with our overseas contacts; it’s rewarding to think we were hastening progress elsewhere in the world, as well as nearer home. 

Then I believe we were among the very first of the ecological/animal rights pressure groups to sound the alarm about the reckless overuse of antibiotics, though for years successive governments and veterinarians took no notice, despite urgent warnings expressed by physicians.

Philip: With 2017 being the fiftieth year since Compassion was founded, how do you remember our founder, Peter Roberts? How much did you work with him and do you have a favourite anecdote to share?

Clare: I remember Peter Roberts with gratitude, and as a strong and dynamic character.

I greatly admired his courage in taking legal action against the appallingly cruel white veal trade; ironically, indeed shockingly, the farm chosen to expose the system was run by monks!

In fact, Compassion lost the court case, but as Peter put it “we lost the battle but won the war”. The result of this courageous step was that the UK was, I believe, the first country to outlaw the infamous veal crate system. This case illustrated Peter’s abiding compassion for all farmed animals.

Peter was excellent company too; once in a while we took part together in demonstrations and I remember his lively humour then, always welcome on occasions that at heart were deadly serious.

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One of Chickens' Lib battery hen posters

At the stage when Chicken’s Lib was still limiting its campaigning to the suffering of caged hens, we’d become known for our success in obtaining birds direct from their cages (by devious, but always legal, means). I describe in my book one occasion when Compassion urgently needed hens for an important press conference in central London, and turned to Chickens’ Lib. We were able to help, buying four pathetic little birds from one of the worst places imaginable, described in some detail in my book – a black comedy, as it turned out. We also collaborated on a battery hen poster and a broiler chicken leaflet, and remained mutually supportive whenever possible.

Philip: Thank you!

Look out for the second instalment of Philip’s two-part interview with Clare Druce coming soon.


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