Christine Townend

Photo from the Think Tank for Kangaroos website

Christine was born in Melbourne in July 1944.  The family moved to Sydney when Christine was 8 and her father obtained a senior business management job.  Christine’s first attempt at tertiary education was not successful – she left teacher training after 2 years, having only enjoyed the English subjects. (Later, in her 40s, she completed a BA Hons in Politics and Philosophy.)

Christine married young at 21 and had the first of her 2 sons when she was 22.  Her twenties were spent as a home maker and mother to her children in what she describes a conventional upper middle class family.  Christine was however also writing novels – and completed two published books that focused on a young woman’s journey of self-discovery.

In her early thirties, Christine was awarded 2 special purpose literature travel grants and she chose to go to India.  By this stage, Christine realised that she was deeply unhappy with the way she was living her life – “going to luncheons and playing bridge”.   She started reading environmental books and had made a first approach to the Total Environment Centre.

In India, Christine met “a realised woman – who was so wise and so beautiful –  and she sorted me out.  I came back a different person.  She said we must give service to the world, or words to that effect, and she wrote to me for many years and encouraged my work in Animal Liberation.”

Christine’s father was a Christian Scientist and her mother was Church of England.  Christine was always interested in religion.  She became an atheist at University, but eventually found that she couldn’t belong to any religion.  However, the Upanishads (Indian spiritual scripts) offered her many important explanations about the world, and she now describes her life as being “driven by her spiritual beliefs, and these beliefs were a driving reason behind starting Animal Liberation”.  Christine has published two books on spirituality issues.

When she got back from India, Christine joined the Colong Committee of the Total Environment Centre (TEC).  The extract below describes those early days working with TEC and Milo Dunphy.

Having established Animal Liberation in 1976, Christine then wrote In Defence of Living Things which set out her thinking in the area of animal rights.   Animal Liberation grew and became increasingly successful .   Christine describes the people involved in AL as “a happy team of people, we had a lot of fun, there was not much, if any, dissension. We supported each other.”  Christine was recently invited to speak at the Animal Liberation 35th Anniversary celebrations.

Christine was the leader of Animal Liberation until 1990, doing all the publicity and working full time for the cause.  She had an office at home, kept the family going, and was supported financially in her work by her husband Jeremy, who was then a lawyer, working 12 hours a day in the city.

She joined the Australian Democrats and ran for election on their ticket four times, focusing on policy concerned with care for the environment and animals.   In the 1988 NSW State election she was second on an Environment Group ticket for the Legislative Council (with Milo Dunphy and Alice Oppen).  At that time she was  Secretary of the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies, a member of the NSW Animal Welfare Advisory Council and the CSIRO Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Animals in Research.  With Peter Singer, she had also founded Animals Australia (initially called ANZFAS).

I asked whether Jeremy was surprised that his wife had turned into such a prominent activist.  She said:

It was difficult living in the Sydney’s north shore in the circles where I worked.  Women got married and they stayed at home and they had children and that was it.  I lost touch with my friends.  My mother was always proud to see me on TV but she was embarrassed as well, a lot of her friends were country people.  It was difficult for all of my family, and Jeremy’s family.

In 1990 Christine was at a World Society for the Protection of Animals conference in France, and met a woman whose organisation in France was supporting a ‘Help in Suffering’ animal shelter in India.  Christine was encouraged to go to Jaipur, India and visit the shelter.  She was quickly offered the position of Managing Trustee – the person responsible for its day to day operations.

Taking on this position was a very difficult decision for Christine.  It was made easier by Jeremy’s decision to leave his legal partnership mid-career and move to India to be with Christine and run “the little animal shelter” in India.

They sold the family house and went to India with only a small monthly income.  As the years went by, the shelters attracted more funding from international donors and grew bigger, and new shelters and programs grew up.  The staff grew from 5 to 40, and the ambit grew from dogs to elephants and other animals.   In the end, the couple spent the 17 years in India together (which Christine says was the saving of her marriage).

It was a very intense and demanding work.  Christine was in overall charge of the operation, initiating new projects, checking the animals with the vets, liaising with the funding bodies and government authorities and writing multitudinous reports.    Jeremy designed the kennels, did the accounts, was responsible for infrastructure development and organised the staff.

It was a totally different type of leadership to the type Christine had been used to in Australia, although the lessons she learned in Animal Liberation were an important grounding.

I asked Christine how she dealt with family disapproval for her decisions to devote so much time to animal rights issues.

On the advice of another spiritual teacher, Christine resigned from her position in India in 2007.  She felt herself starting to burn out, and becoming overwhelmed by the human and animal suffering.

Back in Australia, Christine and Jeremy are still involved with supporting 2 shelters in  Darjeeling and Kalimpong – visiting India once a year. Christine is also taking some time to do her creative work – writing and painting – and is part of a think tank about kangaroos.  Christine is also about to embark on a Doctorate of Arts at Sydney University.

When I asked Christine which women leaders she admires, she nominated NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon, who she perceives to have quiet, thoughtful wisdom and a good understanding of the connection between the natural world and the suffering of animals; and Germaine Greer for “liberating women”.

I finished by asking Christine about her thoughts now as she looks back at her leadership in the animal rights movement, and what would act against women becoming leaders in the environment movement.

I can remember feeling like I would like to do something to help, but I also felt a lack of self confidence in my own abilities.  And one really needs circumstances that pull or push you into a situation where you get an opportunity to launch yourself forward.  But if you really feel a sense of injustice about something, you will find a way to act.

You might like to read more about Christine’s extraordinary life in John Little’s biography Christine’s Ark.  In re-reading the interview, I thought about some of the similarities between Caroline Chisholm’s story (see previous blog) and Christine’s – particularly in the role that their husbands played in supporting their activist wives, and the role that spirituality played (albeit very different types of spirituality) in the lives of both women.


The Australian Women’s Register


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
This entry was posted in Townend, Christine, Women leaders in social change movements. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Christine Townend

  1. Tony Kelly says:

    Hello Jane
    I like this piece. A very interest story and well documented in a simple style. One observation – the quote from Jeremy ends with a reference to my family and Jeremy’s family. It is unclear who you are quoting. Having a bit of his voice in the piece is good.

    • Jane Elix says:

      Hi Tony – thanks for the comment. It is actually a quote from Christine, rather than Jeremy, which I will now make clear in the text. Glad you enjoyed reading Chris’ fascinating story. – Jane

  2. Shazz says:

    Hi there Jane,
    Just thought I would let you know, my 11 year old daughter has a school project, to select someone that has made a difference in the world, in a positive way. She has chosen to do her research on Christine. She is currently reading through “Christine’s Ark”, by John Little, and getting her information from there. I’ve found your post giving a good summary though, thank you for providing it.

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