joan’s long march
for animal rights
Famous for her dramatic acts of protest, Cambridge’s Joan
Court has chained herself to railings, locked herself in a cage and even
gone on hunger strike – all in the name of animal rights. Now 90, she tells
ALICE RYAN why she will always be an activist.
SITTING at her kitchen
table, with a little grey cat beside her and a well-padded tabby at her
feet, Joan Court is in a reflective frame of mind.
Cambridge for her dramatic acts of protest – from going on hunger strike to
locking herself in a cage – she is a dedicated animal rights activist.
And, now 90, Joan is looking back over her life, her work, and her
enduring love affair with animals.
“I’ve always had a special bond
with cats,” she admits, stroking the small grey, who gives a purr and
stretches out on the tabletop.
“Cats are so beautiful and so
intelligent. I’ve got six at the moment, all rescued. Ideally I like to have
seven, but I’ve just lost a Siamese...
“I want to record a cat’s
purr and have it played when I die; I would be quite happy for that to be
the last sound I hear on earth.” Joan has just released the second volume of
her autobiography: called The Bunny Hugging Terrorist, it charts the last
three decades of her life – and her ongoing involvement with animal rights.
Published in paperback this summer, the book is prefaced by Labour’s
Tony Benn; clearly a long-time admirer of Joan, he pays tribute to her
“intelligence, passion and humour” and deems her “a shining example of grey
“It is about my life,” says Joan. “But, more than anything,
it is a tribute to the animal rights movement – which I believe to be the
greatest social movement of this century.”
The book is a sequel to
In the Shadow of Mahatma Gandhi, a memoir of the earlier part of Joan’s
Abused by her mother, a violent alcoholic, and abandoned by
her father, who committed suicide when she was 12, she grew up determined to
help other children in need.
First a pioneering nurse-midwife – a
move which took her to India, where she encountered Gandhi – she then became
a social worker, specialising in child protection.
Joan’s love of
animals dates back to her early childhood. “It all started with Sam, the
little cat who used to keep me company while I was waiting for my drunken
mother to come home,” she recounts. “He was an enormous comfort to me when I
was five and all alone in the silent flat.
“My mother was pretty
awful but, even as a child, I had this incredible ability to find the good
qualities in her – like the fact she loved animals too.
She used to
go round the fields and put eau de cologne on donkeys’ ears to stop them
being bothered by flies.” Having dedicated much of her career to child
welfare as Joan approached retirement, she turned her attention to animal
“People often ask me why,” she admits. “It really started
when I found out about vivisection. Then I found out what was happening in
the meat industry. And then I found out about live exports. Like a lot of
people, I’d been going through life almost totally ignorant of what was
happening to animals all around me.”
Joan actually came to
Cambridge, aged 60, as a mature student of social anthropology. Shocked by
the anti-vivisection posters and fliers she saw in the city, she joined
local campaigners straight away – and went on her first demo the very next
A founder member of Animal Rights Cambridge, which is still
going strong, Joan has devoted her time and energy to the cause ever since.
“One of my proudest achievements is helping to get fur out of
Cambridge,” she says.
“One of our specialities was stink bombs: it’s
amazing how quickly a shop empties when a group of respectable-looking
ladies go in and then, on a signal, all stand on a stink bomb at the same
time. It’s proof that direct action works.”
Campaigning against all
forms of animal cruelty, Joan has been on endless marches and sit-ins,
chained herself to several sets of railings (including those outside the
Cambridge Senate House), locked herself in a cage, gone on three hunger
strikes and been arrested four times.
“I was once arrested for
holding a banner when I was told to put it down,” laughs Joan.
I was arrested for throwing a brick, which I actually hadn’t. It was a bit
trying really. Prison cells are quite claustrophobic. And they’re very
boring: I think they should paint them nicer colours.”
last went on a hunger strike – as part of a protest against animal testing –
she went without sustenance for 72 hours. She was well into her 80s at the
time. “By the end I was suffering from severe confusion; I didn’t recognise
my best friend,” admits Joan.
“But I recovered very, very quickly. I
always do.” One of Joan’s greatest adventures was, she says, her 2004 voyage
on a Sea Shepherd patrol ship – as part of a crew tasked with fighting
illegal fishing, whaling and the hunting of seals. At sea for weeks, she
says it was “an amazing and wonderful experience”.
is, she explains, fuelled by her first-hand experiences of seeing animals
suffer. Several years ago, provoked by a TV documentary about pig farming,
she visited a slaughterhouse.
“It was much worse than I thought it
would be,” she recalls, shuddering. “A lot of the pigs weren’t properly
electrocuted, so they were falling off their hooks and were clearly
conscious when they were killed. And there was an enormous amount of blood,
it was just pouring out of them.”
Another low was, continues Joan,
watching sheep being loaded onto lorries, ready for live transportation
overseas. “I think that’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” she says.
“They were separated from their family and friends and loaded in so
tightly they could hardly move. The whole place stank of ammonia. And I
could see their faces, looking through the side of the trucks – and I
couldn’t help them.”
A vegetarian from the age of 18, Joan became a
vegan 10 years ago.
A believer in the sanctity of all life, she is
also a Buddhist. Single, Joan lives in Cambridge with her adored cats.
And she has a close network of friends, many of them fellow animal
rights campaigners, whom she describes as her “fictive family”; a chapter of
The Bunny Hugging Terrorist (because “that’s what people call us, bunny
huggers and terrorists”) is dedicated to them.
On acts of violence
in the name of animal rights, Joan says: “I am opposed to violence towards
people as well as animals.” She admits: “One of the annoying things about
getting older is that you can’t be as adventurous as you want to be.
"But, if I’m proud of anything, I’m proud of the fact I’ve stayed with it:
I’ve never given up campaigning for animals to be treated with respect, as
beings with their own internal, emotional lives. And I never will.”
:: Joan’s memoir, The Bunny Hugging Terrorist, is out now in paperback.
Published by Selene Press, it’s priced £9.99.