After graduation, I lived and worked in India for three years, and that sparked my interest in comparative religion. I started as a supply, then full-time. teacher in the RE department at Bramston School, a comprehensive in Witham, Essex, which no longer exists. After the sudden illness of the head of department, I was interviewed along with others and appointed in their place.
The school had quite a scattering of students who were “anti-foreigner”. I tried to open their eyes a little and took them on school trips to places like the mosque in Regent’s Park and the Hare Krishna temple. One group of 14- and 15-year-old boys enjoyed going “Paki-bashing” at weekends, and our most qualified chemistry teacher told me that he got some stick from the lads. When I took them all to the mosque, they watched their teacher praying with the other men, from the women’s gallery. Six weeks later, he told me that the boys had given him no more trouble. I think his sincerity and honesty got through to them.
Another young Plymouth Brethren teacher, who admitted that he thought I was going to hell, told me on the way home in the coach: “I never knew before that Muslims had morals.”
I managed over seven years to take RE from being a sink CSE subject to having two GCSE groups and new A-level group. I followed a multi-faith syllabus, and included lots of ethical work, too.
I grew up on a farm in Ireland, probably learned to milk a cow before I could read, and saw chickens being slaughtered, and so forth. But then I was given a neighbour’s lamb to look after when I was five. Patrick was an absolute darling, and I swear he had a sense of humour. He grew and grew, and when it was time for him to go back, they told me his mummy would be so pleased to see him. But my big sister said: “You’ll probably eat him for lunch on Sunday.” That Sunday, we had lamb. My father told me to eat my meat, and I did: none of us had any idea you could be a vegetarian. But Patrick probably inspired my subsequent work.
During my years in the Essex school, I was becoming more and more concerned about animal-welfare issues. After reading Gandhi’s autobiography, I became vegetarian and, later, vegan. I’ve been a vegan for 48 years. Finding milk or margarine then was really difficult, and I hated soya milk at first, but I persevered. I had one or two awkward situations, such as being taken out to dinner at a steakhouse. “Oh, Joyce, are you all right?” People just didn’t get it. Cheese is the hardest thing to give up. Any vegan will tell you. But someone’s been telling me about a new vegan Brie. . .
Finally, I decided to look for a job in animal welfare, and became a campaigns person at Compassion in World Farming. Injustice to other beings of all kinds makes me angry. I was appointed CEO in 1991. I was deeply involved in the successful campaign to get the UK Government to ban the use of narrow stalls for pregnant sows in 1999.
The Meat Crisis, co-edited with John Webster, had its first edition in 2010 and was revised in 2017. We wanted to highlight all the downsides of factory farming, not only the welfare issue. He still publishes on animal welfare.
Compassion in World Farming started in the UK, but now we also have offices in the EU, Beijing, the US, and South Africa, and are hoping to increase, both in staff numbers and effectiveness. We began lobbying and campaigning at EU level, and this led to the EU including recognition of animal sentience in the Treaty Of Amsterdam in 1997. We do a lot of work with food businesses in Europe and America, raising their standards and gradually reducing the meat content of their foods. Compass Foods, who supply lots of schools and hospitals, published targets to reduce meat by 25 per cent by 2025 as a result of our lobbying.
Brexit was a totally retrograde step, politically and in general. People need to get together rather than separate, and it’s caused all sorts of problems to people at different levels. Also, EU elections of MEPs were the only truly democratic elections we had, where every vote counted.
Most of the EU legislation governing animal welfare was lost in the UK. One important thing was the recognition of animals as sentient beings, the base from which you legislate for farming standards. We did eventually get the UK Government to bring this in last year.
The EU has moved a lot. There’s a specific method for mass petition, and they have agreed to completely phase out caging farm animals by 2027, after 1.5 million people requested it. But all the farming organisations are lobbying; so we’ll have to see.
Without scientific explanation for the unruly climatic and geophysical disturbances in their environment, most people in the ancient world believed that the divine power(s) had to be placated by offering them your best possessions: your child, your horse, and so on. So, animal sacrifices were often performed out of fear or gratitude after a crisis had passed. Today, meat is bought and eaten in wealthy countries routinely, and in the belief it is healthy and good for the kids. It’s cheap at the checkout, although costly to the animals and the environment.
Meat has cultural implications, too, not least because your mother cooked it for you, and because God — in the Bible and the Qur’an — said it was OK. The post-flood covenant in the Bible was with all creatures, yet meat was suddenly allowed. The New Testament is pretty silent on the issue.
Hindus came to see the Divine in all creatures. Swami Vivekananda put it well in 1897: “In every man and in every animal, however weak or wicked, great or small, resides the same Omnipresent, Omniscient soul. The difference is not in the soul, but in the manifestation. Between me and the smallest animal, the difference is only in manifestation, but as a principle he is the same as I am, he is my brother, he has the same soul as I have.”
There are amazingly beautifully teachings about animals in all the faiths, but how many of the sermons preached in a year would be about that? One per cent, if you’re lucky? I’ve never heard one. My new book challenges faith leaders to do more talking about the well-being of animals and our relationship with them. John Paul II said: “The compassion of the Lord extends to every living creature.” Pope Francis says in Laudato si’: “Man must therefore respect the particular creature.” To give them credit, they have spoken out. David Clough, a professor at Chester and a Methodist preacher, founded CreatureKind. He also encourages Christian churches and schools not serve factory-farmed meat.
I went to a convent boarding school in Ireland. I was a believing Catholic, and when I went to Trinity College, Dublin, which was a Protestant university, I headed up the Catholic student society. I had many discussions with students of many different beliefs.
Today, I do two days a week consultancy for CiWF. I also teach a Tai Chi and Qigong class locally, belong to a philosophical discussion group, walk, and sing. I’m a granny and great-granny.
My first experience of God was probably on a student retreat at a Dominican Priory. Later, it was as a healing force for my very sick son. I’m not sure how it has developed. I’m an uncommitted person deeply interested in faith issues.
Being with family and friends makes me happy; beauty.
So many people striving for a better, more compassionate world gives me hope for the future.
I pray for family, friends, the well-being of all people and animals. I’m not sure if it’s prayer.
I’d choose to be locked in a church with Mahatma Gandhi. He was an honest person, full of compassion and forgiveness. I could learn so much from him — and thank him.
Joyce D’Silva was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Joyce D’Silva’s new book, Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and practice, is published by Routledge at £29.99 (Church Times Bookshop £26.99).