A Very Personal Animal Journey
This article is based on my recent meeting with Compassion in World Farming Patron and well-known Downton Abbey actor, Peter Egan, for my Big Table podcast which can be downloaded here.
A few weeks ago, I met with Peter Egan to talk about his life, his acting career and his connection with animals. I started by asking him when his love of animals began and he told me how it all started with a chocolate brown labrador and collie whilst growing up in an all-Irish household in North London. ‘I think, like all kids with dogs, you first learn the meaning of friendship from dogs because they are there for you. They always want to play, they are very welcoming and they always listen to you’.
As we talked, we discussed how all children have compassion and a love for animals, but in a strange and arbitrary way, that early feeling is all too often educated away. Peter commented, ‘When a child is in school, they may have hamsters and rabbits in cages, fish in bowls and they visit zoos. They start to learn very early that the human relationship with an animal is that of ownership and control. I think it is all part of the process of de-compassioning a young person’.
Peter’s love for those dogs who shared his early life was clearly evident. He spoke fondly of their rescue history, their names and characters and how one in particular, a spaniel collie cross called DJ (so named because of his black body and white bib), became the gatekeeper to a whole new world of animal understanding and advocacy. ‘I can never ever mention DJ for too long without getting very moved’, he said. ‘I used to sit and chat to DJ and I found myself looking in his eyes and thinking, there’s more to this than meets the eye. He introduced me to the magnificent world of animals and so I attribute my complete dedication and compassion that I feel for every species on this planet to DJ.’
We discussed how Peter’s interest and love for farm animals was rooted through his companionship with DJ. He admitted that in his early years he had seen farm animals as a commodity, as a food source, but DJ had caused him to question this. In addition, Peter had watched the film, Earthlings, and was horrified by it. ‘I thought I was watching a horror story. I couldn’t believe it, I just could not believe the amount of destruction I was watching and the carelessness, and how anyone, how any human being, could treat an animal in the way the animals were being treated in that film, just for a sandwich or for a Sunday Roast. I know it’s a cliché – but for that momentary mouth-pleasure. To destroy an animal for that, it was heart breaking’. After watching the film Peter began to learn more about farming practices and decided to become vegan.
He kindly acknowledged the role Compassion in World Farming has played in helping his understanding. When I asked if he was aware at that time of the many animals being kept for a lifetime in cages, like laying hens in battery cages and pigs in crates where they can’t turn around, he answered ‘No, I didn’t know anything about that at all. I didn’t put that together. I think a lot of that came about after first meeting you and being introduced to Compassion in World Farming. And then learning more about the work that you were doing and the fact that these horrible situations exist’. Since then Peter has been an incredible Ambassador for our charity and for change, including our End the Cage Age campaign.
Peter has enjoyed a very long and successful acting career with roles in the internationally-acclaimed Downton Abbey and in Ever Decreasing Circles and Unforgotten, to name a few. I asked if his love of animals and being vegan had caused any interesting moments in his work life and he told me he has written into any contract, the need to provide him with vegan food. ‘What is wonderful about that is that, in the last five years particularly, every location caterer that is imaginative and good at their job, always has a vegan option on the menu. And I just love that. If there is food on set, they make my food look like meat with mushrooms.’
I hear how Downton Abbey has proved to be especially helpful to Peter in his animal campaigning work, opening media doors that might otherwise have been closed. He tells me too of interesting acting projects on the horizon with a new series of Hold the Sunset, the next series of the thriller, Unforgotten, and a completely new role in After Life 2 with Ricky Gervais. After Life is Netflix’s hugely successful series which is brutally honest in the portrayal of grief but which mixes this with Ricky’s own outrageously, brilliant humour. Not surprisingly Peter can’t wait for filming.
As we neared the end of our meeting, I was keen to touch on the big issues such as animal cruelty, environmental degradation and the whole climate crisis and I asked Peter to identify his greatest fear moving forward. ‘My greatest fear? It’s the stupidity of human beings colluding with their own destruction and not being aware that they are colluding. Because people think what’s wrong with my steak sandwich, or my hamburger, or my chicken nuggets? What’s wrong with the fact that I eat meat three times a day, because I like it, and it’s produced, and I help commerce, I help the world go round, because I am buying food, and taxes, I’m contributing as well as enjoying what I want to eat. Without actually understanding that, by eating the amount of flesh that they eat – they are taking so many of the resources out of the planet that they are going to drain the planet dry, for want of a better image, and the planet will be no more. So, my greatest fear is that human stupidity will actually bring about human annihilation.’
But he has hope too. ‘I do think all of the young people I meet, and I meet a lot of young people, I mean when we had the Stop Live Transport event in Hyde Park; there were lots and lots of young people there. Then there is the very articulate Greta Thunberg. She’s a wonderful, wonderful speaker. She’s fifteen or something, isn’t she, and has a huge following… So, that peer group I find inspiring. I mean – and it’s a cliché – the young give me great hope for the future.’
It had been a great meeting and I thanked Peter so much for sharing his very personal journey, for telling us about DJ and about what animals mean to him and for sharing his hopes for the future. And finally, of course, I thanked him on behalf of us all for being such a wonderful, committed and valued Patron.
This blog is only a small part of a thoroughly enjoyable, insightful and personal conversation with Peter. I strongly urge you to listen to the podcast which may be downloaded here.
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