A special blog post today to mark the anniversary of John’s passing. An edited version of this obituary was published in The Hunt Saboteurs Magazine – HOWL (issue 109)
John Hicks, a former Chairman of the HSA, died February 27th 2015 at the age of 63.
John joined the HSA committee in 1974. By mid 1975 he was on the HSA committee and by 1976 had become Chairman.
John was out sabbing regularly. My first diary entry mentioning him was when he and his wife Jo (‘the Crowborough group’) sprayed the Old Surrey & Burstow’s hounds as they were being walked from the kennels to the 1974 Boxing Day meet. Two months later I noted that he’d lost his shoe in the mud as riders with the Chiddingfold, Leconfield & Cowdray FH attempted to ride him and others down following our successful splitting of the pack – we had the Brighton Young Liberals and the Petersfield & Chichester Young Socialists out with us that day and the tactics included ‘sprays, air bombs, hollers, horn & jeers’. And John was in the ring with us at the South of England Show in June during the parade of the Surrey Union hounds.
By now, appreciating the value of direct action, John and partner Jo had set up Animal Activists to fight other aspects of animal cruelty, principally the fur trade and vivisection. There was much overlapping of membership. John & Jo chained themselves to racks of furs in Harrods and many more demos at this and other such stores nationwide were to follow. When the UK’s largest fur chain ‘Swears and Wells’ closed the company admitted that it was due to the Animal Activists campaign. The group also staged sit-ins in vivisection labs such as Consultox in London and a run on at Crufts Dog show during the main event to complain about the judges of the show breeding dogs for vivisection, with John getting arrested for Breach of the Peace. Zoos and circuses were also targeted nationwide. The Bampton Horse Fair, where many horses were sold for vivisection or for meat, was closed within a year of being targeted by AA – the RSPCA had been trying for over 20 years. All of these campaigns gained much valuable media publicity.
John And Jo After Hunger Strike
Cliff Goodman (Northampton HSA) and HSA committee member Ronnie Lee had been jailed for 3 years in March 1975 for their Band of Mercy activities against the vivisection industry. John didn’t go that far but he and Jo staged a hunger strike outside the Alderley Edge, Cheshire HQ of ICI in protest against the company’s forced inhalation tests on beagles for their New Smoking Material. Two months earlier fellow HSA committee member Mike Huskisson had been involved in liberating three of the Smoking Beagles. Sadly ICI got Snap back and killed him but the other two, Major & Noddy, got away to the safety of Ferne Animal Sanctuary in Dorset. The dogs had to make a quick escape though after a tip off but not before John, with his veterinary training, had redesigned their ear tattoos. Fifteen years later BBC TV’s ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years’ actually featured John & Jo’s hunger strike.
John Aged 19 – Royal Army Vetinary Corps
Unlike the rest of us anti establishment members of the committee John had a history as a dog trainer in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. He’d joined at the age of 17 and amongst other required activities had gone fox hunting and meat inspecting at a slaughter house. He immediately appreciated the barbarity of hunting and went vegetarian. He bought himself out of the army to become involved in animal welfare and initially worked for The Animal Defense Society and Compassion in World Farming. He kept his RAVC jacket though and it would really aggravate the hunters when they saw him wearing it on sabs. Indeed it was probably that jacket that got him punched in the guts and nutted at an Oxfordshire Coursing Club event in October 1975.
We had our Open Door programme on BBC1 in November 1975. It heavily featured the Tickham Hunt and we learned that they were particularly out to get John. They’d already broken into his occupied car a couple of times, once to throw lighted rookies at the occupants and on another occasion to grab a box load of sprags, welded three pointed nails that in earlier wars had been used to cripple horses but which in John’s case were for puncturing the tyres of any pursuing hunt vehicles (they were never used though). At the time he and Jo lived in an isolated caravan on the Ashdown Forest. We’d reported our concerns at the East Grinstead police station but the dim cop mistook us for hunters and actually started running sabs down. Problems started materialising in August 1976 with phone threats, two men outside the caravan late one night who he’d chased into the forest and subsequent noises at night time. John & Jo had been caring for a couple of foxes in a pen. Both were poisoned.
In February 1977 John was one of the 39 sabs arrested for running onto the Waterloo Cup coursing field at Altcar near Liverpool after John, in the lead, had raised his walking stick during an agreed march past and caught the police on the hop. And in October 1978 two Dormobile loads of us went up to the Orkneys in an attempt to stop the seal cull. John brought his rubber inflatable boat with him but the weather was so foul and our experience so limited that we had to abort the mission. We did stop two men shooting rabbits on our way back across the Highlands though.
Earlier that year John had taken over as manager of the Foal Farm animal rescue centre in Biggin Hill. It was in debt and the conditions the animals were in were appalling, to the point where the RSPCA had been campaigning to close it. Within six months John & Jo, with the help of sabs, had made dramatic improvements. They were to stay there for three years, during which time they carried out a massive rebuilding project, paid off the debts and left the trustees with almost £125,000 in the bank. We had the occasional party there but John fell out with the committee because of their approach to non domestic animals (e.g. meat sandwiches for sale) and John deliberately provoking them by naming the big boar pig “Rasher”. Eventually they sacked him, but not without a fight.
He’d contemplated taking over the running of the Ferne Animal Sanctuary near Chard in 1981 (he did eventually become a trustee) but by now he’d John had now left the HSA committee and joined the LACS committee and the possibility of taking over the management of the League sanctuaries on Exmoor from Raymond Rowley had come up. Dick Course, who was Executive Director at the time, wasn’t in favour but John was nevertheless voted in as Head of West Country Operations in April 1982 at an annual salary of £5,500. He was based at St Nicholas Priory, near Dulverton, deep in Devon & Somerset Staghunt territory and had over 2,500 acres of League reserves to safeguard. He dropped off the committee as a result of the appointment. Not wanting animals destined for the slaughterhouse on the land a ‘no grazing’ policy was implemented. He monitored and photographed the activities of all the hunts in the area and his confrontational approach to hunts during his sabbing years inevitably meant that he lived under constant threat of attack. He was badly beaten up many times but sometimes the attackers were actually convicted of the assaults. It wasn’t all one sided though. In October 1984 he was reported to the police for poking a loaded shotgun up a hunt supporter’s nose in a car parked outside St Nick’s. He’d suspected the guys of poaching.
John was the key witness in the League’s High Court injunction case against the D&S in early 1985 in which the verdict was that hound entry can be classified as trespass and an injunction imposed on the hunt from entering one of the League’s sanctuaries. All costs were awarded against the D&S. The verdict was all down to John but, because of the constant friction between him & Dick Course (he’d received a disciplinary letter from Dick) he wasn’t even invited to the celebratory meal afterwards. Further attacks came as a result of the court case, along with many death threats which led to special police protection being provided. The hunters were so desperate to stop John they tried framing him for planting a bomb but a well known hunt supporter was jailed for this.
While he was in the West Country John & Jo started up ARC, a series of animal rescue centres, in 1984 which they ran initially from St Nick’s before their move to a bungalow on a six acre Exmoor farm at Brompton Regis that summer where they set up their own animal sanctuary ‘Animal Tracks’ which housed ARC animals and from where John could still keep an eye on the Devon & Somerset Staghunt on behalf of the League. Despite the regular harassment from Dick John managed to stay on as Sanctuaries Manager for another seven years but by 1991 he’d had enough and handed in his resignation. Dick had been ousted in April 1988 after a 12:2 vote of ‘no confidence’ and Jim Barrington had taken his place. Jim’s suggestion that John had lied about the new sanctuaries helper’s recorded diary movements was the catalyst. It has since been suggested that Barrington was at the time already working on the quiet with hunt big wigs with a view to a future career with them and that getting John out of their hair would stand him in good stead following the success of the High Court injunction which some of them were saying was ‘the end of stag hunting’.
In October 1987 John had been given £300,000 by an elderly lady friend with potentially millions in the pipeline. He put the money towards his new sanctuary and set up a committee of three which included the elderly lady, himself and old fellow HSA committee member Alan Knight. This was the beginnings of what was to become International Animal Rescue which was formally set up in September 1989.
In October 1990 John had breakfast with Paul & Linda McCartney to discuss their purchase of the land on Exmoor on which Alan was acting as a trustee. Paul told John that he was one of the few people that he could get on with easily. He also had a close friendship with screen writer Carla Lane.
One of the first IAR campaigns was against the annual slaughter of 6 million migrating birds in Malta. Whilst filming bird shooting In November 1992 John had a shotgun held at his head while a bird’s head was pulled off in front of him. He was beaten so badly that he ended up in hospital under police protection because of the death threats. After another campaign in Malta had exposed immense cruelty at a dog sanctuary John was sent in by the Minister of the Environment with armed police to take it over. A team from the UK flew to the island to build good facilities and treat all the sick animals. The Minister told the main Malta TV news that Malta owed John a debt that could never be repaid. IAR was also involved with trapping & neutering feral cats on the island.
Meanwhile however John was still keeping his interest in activism in the UK alive. In February 1992 he used IAR money to buy the 2 man microlight which was planned to buzz the coursing field at Altcar that month. Sadly bad weather prevented its use. And in August 1994 he was Master of Ceremonies at Trafalgar Square at the end of a 2,000 strong anti hunt march from Hyde Park organised by Niel Hansen’s National Anti Hunt Council. The League wouldn’t support it because the ALF were represented. I noted ‘Loads of funny hairstyles, whistles, bongos and hollering and horn blowing. We had an inevitable sit down outside Boots near Piccadilly Circus and another one outside McDonald’s. There was a sudden surge forward which made everyone inside McDonald’s window jump back. A couple of bottles headed towards the window but there were no breakages’. MP Tony Benn was one of the speakers.
In August 1997 a similar NAHC anti hunt rally attracted between 4,000 & 30,000 (depending on who told you). John appeared on the podium with ALF spokesman Robin Webb. These rallies were an annual event at this time. At the 1998 one we stopped outside the Countryside Alliance HQ for a rant and once again John acted as MC, introducing Celia Hammond, Andrew Tyler, Robin Webb & a PETA spokesperson. Melanie of the ALF Supporters Group led a one minute silence and then told a jubilant crowd that 3,000 mink had been liberated in the New Forest the previous night.
By May 1999 John was back on the LACS committee but by then he and Jo had decided to set up International Animal Rescue Goa, having witnessed the lack of animal welfare facilities out there and in October 2000 they left Animal Tracks and moved permanently to Goa, leaving the UK end of IAR, now run by Alan Knight, to deal with dancing bears in India and eventually orangutans and slow lorises in Borneo.
Since its formation IAR Goa has sterilised over 30,000 dogs and 11,000 cats, rescued countless dogs, cats, cows, bulls and even snakes from wells, handled thousands of road accident cases, treated hundreds of animals that the owners couldn’t afford treatment for and, because of the number of monkeys in need of help, set up the Primate Trust as a sister charity to IAR Goa. John became recognised as one of the leading Primate experts in India. The work has continued ever since.
In addition to the beatings over the years John was always prone to accidents. His foot was broken when a donkey trod on it, he broke his leg when he stepped into a rabbit hole and the top his finger was bitten off by a badger. John also suffered with his health. Stress gave him ulceration colitis, he had a dicky heart valve which gave him a heart attack at the age of 42 and by his mid 40s he was suffering badly from osteoarthritis. But, following a successful operation for prostate cancer in December 2014, it was the post operative lack of care that killed him. He’d been well on the way to a cancer free recovery but it was delayed action on the resultant blood clots in his legs, leading to gangrene and, in turn, pulmonary embolism that was to lead to his death on the 27th February 2015. The hospital had put the painful reaction down to a ‘panic attack’ and had given him sedatives to deal with it! He was cremated on the same afternoon and his ashes are now at the house under a tree planted next to his favorite monkey’s pen.
John could be an irascible bugger at times and regularly went over the top in his insults but he was passionate, ever true to his beliefs and always led from the front whether it was in the hunting field or mucking out in a stable – definitely the sort of person to have on your side.
John Leading A Demonstration Against The Orkney Seal Hunt.