BOOKS: Such a Nuisance to Die

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2011:

Such a Nuisance to Die:
the Autobiography of Her Serene Highness Princess Elisabeth de Croy
as told to Joy Leney
The Book Guild Ltd.
(Pavilion View, 19 New Road, Brighton BN11UF, United Kingdom.
Distributed in the U.S. by Transatlantic Publications.) 2010.
256 pages, hardcover, illustrated. $38.50.

The many animal advocates who were fortunate enough to have
encountered Her Serene Highness Princess Elisabeth de Croy at
international events and conferences in the decades between 1970-when
she officially opened her Refuge de Thiernay sanctuary for
animals-and her death in 2009, would use many positive adjectives to
describe Elisabeth, but “serene” would probably not be one of them.
When I met Princess Elisabeth at the first Asia for Animals
conference in Manila, Philippines, in 2001, she was almost eighty
and still livelier than the average forty-year-old. She wanted to go
to a slaughterhouse after the meeting ended and was looking for
someone who would go with her. As I was already trying to steel
myself for an investigation of the Korean dog and cat meat trade on
the way back to the U.S., I demurred.

The title of Princess Elisabeth’s autobiography was taken
from a statement made as she was nearing the end of her life: “It is
such a nuisance to die when there is so much more I need to do to
help people and animals.” The book was actually ghostwritten by Joy
Leney, Elisabeth’s confidante and colleague, who spent many years
working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals in the
United Kingdom.
The book begins with Princess Elisabeth’s family history,
tracing her aristocratic roots within several European countries. It
was somewhat difficult to follow, and the least interesting part of
the book. I was under the impression that royal titles were
abolished in France at the time of the French revolution. However,
it seems that while Elisabeth was born in 1921 at Chateau d’Azy in
the Bourgogne province of France, she was actually a princess of
Belgium. Elisabeth’s Refuge de Thiernay was built on property given
to her by her mother. The shelter is located near the chateau,
which is still inhabited by members of the Croy family.

Early years

Elisabeth was well schooled in the principle of noblesse
oblige by her parents, to whom she gives much credit throughout the
book: “My philosophy of life is very much rooted in the philosophy
of my parents who believed that, if one is given great privilege, one
must, in turn, help others.” Elisabeth was also greatly inspired by
the resistance activities of her Aunt Marie and Uncle Reginald during
World War I. Marie and Reginald worked with martyred nurse Edith
Cavell to help wounded French and British soldiers escape from
German-occupied Belgium. All three were arrested, with Cavell
executed for treason. During World War II, Elisabeth’s parents hid
Jewish children in the chateau.
It was Elisabeth’s English nannies, however, who were
credited with instilling the ethic of kindness to animals during her
childhood. Elisabeth’s family was very typical of their time and
place when it came to treatment of animals, including in the very
gruesome “sport” of boar hunting with packs of dogs. One such
episode is described by Elisabeth as a formative moment in her
Elisabeth left the rural family home for the glamor of Paris
after World War II. She worked for a short time as an international
flight attendant, but for the most part, Elisabeth was a
self-described “party girl” for the next two decades. But even
during this time, in which her primary role was being a celebrity,
there were many examples of humanitarian service. Each Christmas,
she organized a benefit for a local dog shelter, involving other
dog-loving celebrities such as the Duchess of Windsor. Elisabeth
describes actress Ingrid Bergman and singer Edith Piaf as being
especially sympathetic to the feelings of animals. But Elisabeth
sadly recalls the irony of how she and others would wear fur coats to
benefits for animal causes. It was a time in which people were
largely unaware of the cruelty represented by fur–something which
can no longer be used as an excuse.
In Paris, Elisabeth made friends with young Jacqueline
Bouvier, who spent some years in France before her marriage to John
F. Kennedy. Elisabeth’s interest in animals did not seem to make an
impression on Jackie, who was well known as an avid fox-hunter and
later, after being widowed when President Kennedy was assassinated,
married Aristotle Onassis, who made his fortune in whaling. After
Jackie’s marriage to JFK, Elisabeth also became friends with the
President. Reading a passage of the book describing President
Kennedy’s excitement at seeing Elisabeth at a party given by Charles
de Gaulle, with Jackie back at home in the White House, I could not
help but wonder exactly how friendly they were, since Kennedy’s
philandering is now the stuff of legend. Alas, Elisabeth alludes to
having many love affairs, but provides details of none.

Refuge de Thiernay

Elisabeth went on a fact-finding mission to Algeria during
its revolution from France, and later visited Nigeria during the
Biafran war. She witnessed much violence and injustice firsthand.
Eventually she felt that she wanted her life to stand for more than
modeling French designer fashions and mingling with the glitterati.
She decided to devote herself to helping the needy, and the animals
were (and are) the neediest of all.
Elisabeth worked hard to build her animal shelter from the
ground up, and her Refuge de Thiernay remains a success even now.
Elisabeth sought advice and assistance, including veterinary
expertise on surgical sterilization of dogs and cats, from
established European animal welfare organizations such as the Royal
SPCA of Britain. In 1980, Elisa-beth was asked by the RSPCA to be
part of a new coalition, called Eurogroup for Animal Welfare (now
Eurogroup for Animals), which was to advise and persuade the
European Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, and the
European Commission on matters involving animal welfare.


Joy Leney summarized the founding history of Eurogroup for me
by email: “At the time, although there was growing interest and
recognition of animals as sentient beings in many European countries,
European legislation did not specifically include animal welfare.
When the European Economic Community was established, the Treaty of
Rome signed by six founder states in 1957 became the legal base for
institutional and policy changes within the European Union. However
the Treaty did not include any reference to animal welfare, being
more concerned with matters of trade.”
Continued Leney, “Eurogroup successfully campaigned and
lobbied for a revision to the Treaty of Rome, resulting in the
Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, when for the first time in European
law, animals were referred to as sentient beings. Elisabeth
actively campaigned with Eurogroup from the early days and maintained
her support and commitment for the organisation until the very end of
her life. Up until her latter years, she also regularly attended
the Animal Welfare Intergroup meetings at the European Parliament’s
plenary sessions in Strasbourg, to keep abreast of current thinking
and developments. In addition she also met with decision makers in
many European countries on behalf of Eurogroup and as an ambassador
for other organisations to discuss the need for legislation coupled
with public education. As she often said, one without the other was
a waste of resources! Elisabeth did not live to see the Treaty of
Lisbon, which came into force from December 1, 2009, largely
through the campaigning and lobbying efforts of Eurogroup. This
Treaty includes ‘animal welfare’ and instructs all E.U. member
states and institutions to ‘pay full regard to the requirements of
animal welfare.’ Elisabeth would undoubtedly have been elated with
the news of this significant and welcome milestone, and would have
been most generous in acknowledging the efforts of all those who had
contributed. Always modest and unassuming about her own efforts,
she would insist that she had done nothing special in life–she just
did what came natural to her and had been so privileged to be part of
the worldwide animal welfare family.”
Elisabeth’s social pedigree lent status to Eurogroup, and it
was probably the work she performed in her prominent role within
Eurogroup that is her most enduring legacy for animals. Laws and
rules adopted by the European Union are impacting countries
throughout the world (including China and the U.S.) as they seek to
comply with animal welfare standards in order to be allowed to export
animal products into the E.U.
Elisabeth’s heroes among animal advocates included the late
Christine Stevens, founder of the Animal Welfare Institute, and
John Wash, now retired from WSPA. Both Stevens and Walsh were among
the greats of animal advocacy who most inspired me in my youth.
Elisabeth was extremely fond of Buddhist monk Wu Hung, who works for
animal welfare in Taiwan, and she told of the brave work of others
such as Tamara Tarnawski of SOS Animals in Kiev, who was personally
imperiled when she took on the dog-skinning cartels that held the
animal control contracts in some former Soviet nations. Elisabeth
names many other prominent animal advocates, including several
others who also used to work for WSPA, including Pei-Feng Su
(founder of ACTasia), Janice Cox (co-founder of World Animal Net),
and veterinarian Jenny Remfry.
Conspicuously not mentioned in the book is Brigitte Bardot,
almost as famous in France as an animal rights activist as for her
earlier career as an actress. Bardot was only 13 years younger than
Princess Elisabeth, and it is impossible that they never crossed
Curiously, it was Elisabeth’s view that Princess Grace of
Monaco was not interested in animals, and yet Princess Grace was one
of the first celebrities to take the pledge that she would no longer
buy fur (though she acknowledged that she would continue to wear the
furs she already had). At the time of Princess Grace’s tragic death
in 1982, she was reputed to be a lover of animals and nature.


One cannot live for 88 years and not have some regrets.
Elisabeth seems to have had very few, but she did wish she had
placed more emphasis on education: “If I could start again I would
give higher priority to education, my own education and animal
welfare education for the general public. When I started my Refuge I
was so busy trying to cope with caring for the animals, I had no
time to develop education programmes. Over the years we did develop
some educational activities, but on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, when time and
manpower allowed, now I realise that education should have been an
integral part of my work from the beginning.”
Anyone who has been involved in animal sheltering can attest
to the difficulty of addressing broader animal welfare goals while
tending to the physical needs of large numbers of hungry, messy,
and sometimes sick or injured animals who require immediate care.
For most organizations and individuals, resources are finite.
Money, time, and energy must be deployed so that what seems most
urgent is dealt with first. There may be little left over at the end
of a day (or a lifetime) to devote to awareness programs,
legislative campaigns, or delving into abstract concepts of animal
rights. Unfortunately, unless and until greater awareness of the
need for protecting animals is achieved in the general public, there
will be an infinite number of animals in need of the direct aid
provided by heavily burdened animal shelters.
In the end of her story, Princess Elisabeth provides a brief
but accurate assessment of what the past half a century of animal
advocacy has meant for animals: “Since the dawn of man centuries
ago, many millions of animals have been used for man’s pleasure,
for food, for work, often used and abused through ignorance and
indifference. But in my lifetime thankfully I have seen some
positive changes, such as an improvement in treatment and attitudes
towards animals in circuses, farm animals and companion animals.
Also there is a general acceptance that animals experience emotions
and sensations, including pain and can therefore suffer. There are
many more animal welfare groups around the world than when I started
and the veterinary profession has come much closer to us.”
The book may not “motivate generations of animal welfare
champions” as is claimed in a publicity quote on the book’s jacket,
because Princess Elisabeth may not have been famous enough for
generations beyond the present to be interested in her personal
history. The celebrities with whom Elisabeth socialized and dallied
are written about in much greater depth and detail in other sources,
and Elisabeth seems not to have had time for any of them after 1970,
when she began the mission for animals that would consume the
remainder of her life. There is little in the book that will engage
those interested in the philosophy of animal rights or welfare. The
book’s most enduring value is likely to be in providing a perspective
into a very formative period in the history of animal advocacy. Such
a Nuisance to Die will be an invaluable addition to any serious
collection of works on animal welfare, and of course it will be of
great interest to all who met and were inspired by the inimitable
Princess Elisabeth.
–Kim Bartlett

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.