BOOKS: Christine’s Ark: the extraordinary story of Christine Townend and an Indian animal shelter
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2006:
Christine’s Ark: the extraordinary story of Christine Townend
and an Indian animal shelter
by John Little
Macmillan Australia (1 Market Street, Sydney, Australia;
61-613-9825-1059; fax 61-613-9825-1054;
<www.panmacmillan.com.au>; <email@example.com>), 2006.
324 pages, paperback. $32.95 Australian.
Until I started to cry, neither the Sikh driver, Mr. Singh,
nor the unwanted sightseeing guide believed me when I said we wanted
them to take us to an animal shelter on the outskirts of the ancient
Indian city of Jaipur, instead of shopping for rugs.
Mr. Singh didn’t really speak English, but the tour guide
was fluent. Earlier that morning we had refused to ride an elephant
to the top of the Amer Fort, and they reluctantly arranged for a
jeep. At the temple atop the fort, we were deeply upset to learn
that a goat was being sacrificed inside, and refused to enter. At
the temple where pilgrims fed pigeons for good luck, we were pursued
by a legless beggar on a roller cart. The only experience we had
enjoyed that day was when a languor monkey jumped down from a parapet
in front of my son Wolf, who was only seven then, in 1997, ripped
a garland of marigolds off Wolf’s neck, and quickly climbed back to
the top of a parapet to eat the flowers. It was over in half a
minute. First we shrieked, startled, and then began to laugh. The
driver and guide were convinced we were crazy.
When I said we would skip the rest of the tour because we
were expected at a place called Help in Suffering that took in sick
animals, they didn’t seem to comprehend. Instead, they took us to
the shopping district to look for rugs. I wrote on a paper the
address of the place with the phone number and said we wanted to go
there. They talked it over in Hindi, and the next thing we knew we
were at a manufacturer’s outlet for stone carvings. That’s when
tears of frustration began flowing and eventually they realized I
wasn’t going to buy anything expensive. Losing interest in us, the
guide had the driver drop him at a tourist bureau, where the baffled
Mr. Singh phoned the shelter for directions.
Even with directions, the Help in Suffering sanctuary wasn’t
easy to find. We drove through the old walled “pink city” to a
highway that cut through the typical urban sprawl of a populous
Indian city, where temporary huts made of garbage bags sheltered
street people on sidewalks that surrounded the walled yards of new
middle class dwellings. Mr. Singh stopped several times to ask again
for directions. The farther out of town we got, the more likely
were the people to know of the animal shelter.
Finally we made a turn off the highway onto a smaller road,
and quickly saw a sign for the sanctuary. We drove through the open
gate, which hung on whitewashed pillars. The car was surrounded by
a pack of barking dogs and people who seemed to like them. At once I
felt at home. Through the happy chaos emerged Christine Townend,
the Australian managing trustee of Help in Suffering, and her
I had known of Christine by reputation for many years. She
founded the Australian organization Animal Liberation, and wrote a
book, Pulling the Wool, about the sheep industry, before taking
over the management of the Help in Suffering sanctuary. The
sanctuary was the second of three major Indian humane societies
founded by the late Crystal Rogers (1906-1996). Under Christine’s
direction, Help In Suffering achieved global prominence by
conducting a street-dog sterilization program sponsored by the World
Society for the Protection of Animals, similar to the Animal Birth
Control program pioneered by the Blue Cross of India in Chennai.
Christine was middle-aged and quietly beautiful. Jeremy
seemed good-natured and strikingly nice, though “nice” is not
usually something that strikes one at all.
We sat in the sanctuary courtyard and ate banana cake,
surrounded by dogs rolling in the dust. In the distance was a river
that had shrunk from the banks, and outside the walls of the shelter
was visible a stone or concrete platform that turned out to be used
for funeral cremations. After a relaxing visit came a tour of the
sanctuary. Wolf had immediately liked Christine, and behaved as if
she were an old friend. He took her hand and together they inspected
dogs in cages and talked to horses and donkeys and cows.
I didn’t want to leave the sanctuary ever, as it seemed an
oasis amidst the hustle and hassles of India, but soon it was time
to catch a train for Delhi to attend a conference sponsored by the
Animal Welfare Board of India, a quasi-governmental body. Deciding
to go also, at the last moment, Christine arranged to ride to Delhi
with our driver, Mr. Singh, whose home was in Delhi. Having only
been able to cope with the reckless chaos of Indian highway driving
by not looking at oncoming traffic, I wondered at the casual way at
which Christine arranged for the ride. I found her composure at the
prospect of the five or six hour drive into India’s capital city
quite remarkable. I was relieved and almost surprised to see
Christine at the conference the next day, looking as calm as she had
been at the sanctuary.
Thus began my friendship with Christine–poet, artist, and
animal activist–whose life story is told by biographer John Little
in Christine’s Ark: the extraordinary story of Christine Townend and
an Indian animal shelter. Little binds Christine’s multi-faceted
history into a coherent whole, along with the story of Jeremy,
without whose support through four decades of marriage Christine
would not have gone so far, neither in space nor in achievement.
After meeting in India, we stayed in touch through
correspondence between Christine and Wolf. Christine would send him
cards with pictures of birds, and Wolf would send a drawing in
return. Our paths began crossing at international conferences, but
it was through e-mail in recent years that I learned that we have
more in common than our animal work. Like Christine, I knew I had
a definite purpose in life from my earliest awareness in childhood.
Once I began to realize it was to help animals, I did my best to
tune it out, fearing the pain that comes with compassion for the
suffering. Christine, on the other hand, jumped into her role once
she saw it, but the realization that her life’s work was for the
animals came only after a search through various other causes,
including aboriginal rights and environmentalism, left her
Both of us began seeking the meaning of life in childhood,
with explorations into various religions that seemed promising but
always failed to convince in the end. Unlike me, however,
Christine pursued spiritual knowledge with the same dogged
determination she brings to her animal welfare efforts. Leaving
their two young sons for Jeremy to tend, along with his law
practice, Christine traveled to India looking for answers in 1974.
There she met a Buddhist nun who was to become her spiritual advisor
for many years. On returning to Australia, Christine shaved her
head, embarrassing the family, especially the children, who found
their mother incomprehensible. Jeremy couldn’t fathom her either,
but kept hoping Christine would settle down, one episode after
another, each taking her farther from his understanding.
A circuitous path with many “accidents” eventually led
Christine to her ultimate spiritual guru, Vimala Thakar, whose
biography, The Hidden Master, she wrote in 2002.
Concurrent with the spiritual quest has been Christine’s work
for animals, which began with founding the organization Animal
Liberation in 1976 with Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose
book Animal Liberation (published earlier in 1976) gave impetus to
the modern animal rights movement. Campaigns for chickens and sheep
took Christine into factory farms and aboard the ships that transport
live sheep for slaughter in the Middle East, a trade that continues
today. Her fight against cruel practices of the Australian sheep
industry made her controversial and brought her into conflict with
her sister, who had married a sheep rancher.
Christine had seen how animals raised for food were made to
live and how they died, always suffering. She thought she was
prepared when asked to investigate the hidden beef industry of India.
She wasn’t. John Little writes of Christine’s first trip to an
Indian slaughterhouse in 1989:
“In Australia she had seen pigs slaughtered by sticking a knife in
the heart; she had seen frightened cattle rolling their eyes as they
were carried along a conveyor belt toward their destruction; she had
seen sheep electrocuted between the ears in order to render them
insensible to slaughter; she had visited ships where Australian
sheep were packed three to a square metre to endure the three-week
journey to the Middle East; she had seen hens crowded into battery
cages, and pigs kept most of their lives behind iron bars. But now
she began to understand the massive hidden killing which was
happening all over the world. She had not thought until then about
the significance to humanity of this calculated, callous war between
two kingdoms of nature, with one the permanent victim and the other
the eternal aggressor. The cattle, especially, touched her heart.
The whipping, the shouting, the pulling and pushing toward the
noise and smell of blood, the moans and grunts of dying, bleeding,
shattered, ripped creatures–all this they meekly endured with their
great, confused, helpless, staring eyes. If they had fought or
argued it might have been easier, but their trust and their misery
at human betrayal seemed to render them immobile. They raised no
protest, no questioning voice. And they almost seemed to redeem
whatever was done to them by their soft meditative eyes that were the
gentle eyes of herbivores who never killed, never warred, never
tortured; who worked and served patiently and unquestioningly under
the yoke that galled and marred. They were driven and whipped,
always hungry, usually thirsty, always tired. Yet at the end of
all this they were killed, without having been thanked once,
without even one touch of love. She wondered if perhaps somewhere in
a field, secretly, a peasant farmer had embraced those
sweet-smelling necks for one last time. Perhaps once they had been
loved, had been thanked, had known compassion. ‘If I could have
asked one thing it would have been that someone somewhere had loved
them, that my own love could assuage a lifetime of human
indifference. I loved them as deeply as it was possible for any
person to love. They were my creatures, of me, my beloved animals,
In describing her anguish, Christine spoke for all who suffer
because of their empathy for animals.
Christine returned to Australia with a heavy heart and the
dawning realization that she needed to be in India. A trip to Europe
for meetings with animal advocates put Christine in touch with
Crystal Rogers. Help in Suffering was then struggling under poor
management. Christine was easily talked into going there to see if
she could assist. Once there, she knew she had found her destiny,
and decided she must continue her work in India even if it meant the
end of her marriage. But as she prepared to announce to the
long-suffering Jeremy her decision to live and work in India, Jeremy
made his own decision to sacrifice his home and law practice and all
that he held dear to be with her, in India. Christine flew to
Australia to sell their house and put things into storage, and
returned to Jaipur with Jeremy, who promptly put his considerable
talents to good use at the sanctuary. It was 1992.
After starting the Animal Birth Control program in Jaipur,
which eventually sterilized most of the dogs in the city and
virtually eradicated rabies there, Christine and Jeremy saw the need
for an ABC program in Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas
in northeast India, where they had ventured on a holiday.
Christine secured the funding needed to build the Help In Suffering
shelter and clinic now serving that region. Meanwhile, in 1998,
she helped Pradeep Kumar Nath to begin an ABC program in
Visakhapatnam, on the Bengal coast, under the auspices of the
Visakha SPCA. This ended the previous municipal practice of
electrocuting stray dogs and allowing the killers to sell their skins.
Many of the stories in Christine’s Ark include mention of
other people who are prominent in the animal welfare cause, not only
in India but in Australia and Europe. However, some of the most
touching tales that Little chooses to relate are about unknowns and
poor people whose poignant struggles to save their own animals make
Christine’s Ark a story of compassion for people as well as animals.
Case after case underscores the bond of interdependence that exists
between humans and animals, whose ultimate natural expression is
While portions of Christine’s Ark might bring the sensitive
reader to tears, most of the stories are inspirational and uplifting
and some are quite funny. There was a monkey at the Jaipur sanctuary
who had recovered from injuries and needed to be released into safe
habitat. One day Christine and her helper Daya were “driving past a
temple in a nearby suburb when she had an idea. They stopped the car
and approached the saddhu [‘holy man’] sitting cross-legged under an
old peepal tree. He agreed that they could leave the monkey there.
The next day they brought the monkey to the temple and released him.
He walked quietly to the saddhu and sat on his lap! They returned a
few days later to see the saddhu sitting as usual under the tree.
The monkey was nowhere in sight. They assumed that he must have
fled. The saddhu smiled and quietly lifted his blanket to reveal the
monkey asleep underneath. In the peace of the temple the little
creature had found a safe refuge for life.”
Help in Suffering was not to be the Townends’ refuge for
life. As they entered their sixties, Christine and Jeremy began to
find India more arduous. Frequent bouts with diarrhea from unclean
water and the extreme weather of the Rajasthan desert become less
tolerable. Christine was badly mauled by a guard dog and required
plastic surgery. Christine and Jeremy began to return to Australia
more often, and a few years ago started to live in Australia again,
with frequent visits to the shelters in both Jaipur and Darjeeling,
with which they remain in daily e-mail contact. Christine has
recently been painting pictures for an exhibition that benefits Help
Far from accepting retirement, Christine recently emailed, “I know
I have more work yet to do of a more demanding nature.” One can only
marvel at her spirit, and hope for a sequel to Christine’s Ark.
Animal Stories by Christine Townend
c/o Help in Suffering, Maharani Farm, Durgapura, Jaipur, Rajasthan
302018, India; 2006.
91 pages, paperback. $20.00 U.S. includes postage.
Christine Townend in this collection of short stories, poems
and paintings expresses her belief in the spiritual connection
between human and non-human animals.
Her colorful stories draw on her experiences in giving care
to chronically overworked and ill-fed beasts of burden, mainly
elephants and donkeys, at the Help In Suffering animal hospital and
sanctuary in Jaipur, India. Townend explains how she uses
compassion to forge a bond with suffering animals. Each story
describes a different relationship.
Townend’s discoveries about the treatment of captive
elephants will shock those who may still believe mahouts are animal
lovers, who subdue elephants with kindness. The elephant safari
business involves vicious domination of the animals through physical
violence, beyond the sight of gullible tourists.