Vivisection by Numbers

The Home Office has now published its statistics for the animal research completed in Great Britain (i.e. the UK without Northern Ireland) during 2021. As expected after the enforced lull of the Covid period, the total number of ‘procedures’ is greater than it was in 2020 – in fact by 6%, at 3,056,243. Putting aside that two-year vagary, the numbers have been slowly falling since 2015. But then the numbers in 2015 were at their highest in all the years since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986: 4.14 million. Even now, therefore, this 3.05 million or so only takes things back to where they were in 2007, or in 1992 (or for that matter in 1957), and these were not themselves low points. The numbers have switch-backed through the years, and this seven year downward trend is too brief to mean anything. In short, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, for all its patchy good intentions, seems to have had little sustained influence on the scale of animal research. 

That set of 2015 statistics was the first to be reviewed in this blog. I’ve been looking at that post, and the six that followed it, to see if there have been any significant changes, perhaps even encouraging ones.

Certainly the publication day (30 June this year) has been turned into a notable event in the animal research calendar, well-attended, metaphorically speaking, by the institutions that did the work. They are now chivvied into the public eye by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), which also provides some standardized material for them to use: even Cambridge University, second keenest user of animals in 2021 (Oxford comes ‘first’ again this year), doesn’t bother to be original in its statements. The various presidents, provosts, and other notables all declare in similar terms their conviction that animal research remains crucial to medical progress, and likewise their commitment to minimizing it.

I’m guessing that UAR even has some influence in the way the Home Office handles the numbers and their publication (the UAR commentary appeared on the same day as the official statistics). At any rate, the presentation has become much more eye-catching over the period. The statistical detail is more liberal, too: what used to fit into a few pages of tables has now become a separate interactive programme so complicated that you wonder who can want to know that much. There’s even something ghoulish about dabbling in all those numbers of the dead.

So yes, there’s been a notable change in the manner of reporting the year’s animals, on the part of the Home Office itself and of the various institutions responsible for them. This began, of course, back in 2012, with the founding of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research (much written about in this blog). It would be unfair to say that it’s only a matter of PR, however plentiful that is; there genuinely is more information now being provided. In fact by far the most informative summary of the Home Office numbers each year is the one featured on UAR’s web-site (this year’s is linked below, saving me the trouble of providing one here).

But the Concordat has never made it a collective aim to reduce animal research as a whole or to hurry on that day foreseen in European Directive 2010/63 (which used to govern UK research) when there would be none at all. On the contrary, the purpose of all this publicity is simply to reconcile such of us as mind about the welfare of animals to their continued use in research. Meanwhile, falls in numbers like the present one, or increases in them, are viewed rather as natural phenomena than something that needs dealing with. “The numbers of procedures carried out on living animals,” says this present Home Office report, “is determined by several factors, including the focus of scientific and medical endeavours, the economic climate and global trends in new technologies or fields of research.” The annually repeated genuflections to the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement) made by the various research institutions reflect this same spectator’s position in the matter: as if to say, let the 3Rs do what they can for the animals – that’s their job – while we get on with our vital work of using animals for research.

In fact, as to public policy, there has been a noticeable decline in purposefulness since 2015. The period of the coalition government (2010-2015) had been a very hopeful one, thanks to the work of the one Home Office minister we’ve ever had for whom the rights of animals really mattered: that is, Norman Baker. Although he was in post for a short time only, he committed the state to a policy of reducing animal research and periodically reporting on the success of the policy. Since 2015, we have heard no more about this, and it’s symptomatic of the low status of lab animals in political thinking that there are no distinct provisions for them in the present government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare (they are also, of course, excepted from the Animal Welfare Act of 2006) And after all, the Home Office minister responsible for animal research has many other calls on his attention which are likely to seem more urgent: as Minister for Crime and Policing (a title with a wholly false promise in the case of the animals), his other concerns include (I make a selection) unauthorised encampments, drugs and alcohol, facial recognition, football policing, firearms, and natural disaster relief. What are animals doing there at all?

It’s not so surprising, anyway, that the Home Office agency whose work it is to inspect and sanction animal research laboratories, namely the Animals in Science Regulation Unit, has not produced an annual report since 2018. No explanation has been given for withholding this information about practices in research laboratories during a period when the animals have been more than usually vulnerable. Not that there’s no news at all from these places. Their own web-sites, and UAR’s too, keep up a steady current of research stories showing what is being learnt from animal research. How many of these discoveries turn into real benefits we can’t know, but the propaganda value of reporting them is clear enough. In a House of Commons debate on animal research, which took place in February of this year (as a result of an e-petition), Dr Ben Spencer cited one such newsworthy instance, the operation in Maryland which put a pig’s heart into a man (discussed in this blog as linked below), and he concluded thus:

It would not be possible to develop transgenic animals for organs for human transplantation without research into animals. I cannot see the future of medicine, particularly the exciting stuff such as xenotransplantation to treat diseases, without the use of experiments on animals.

“exciting stuff”! The unhappy truth seems to be that neither official attitudes nor the ethical argument itself have made any progress since 2015. This same MP (formerly a doctor in the NHS) reminds us that another traditional defence of experimenting on animals, that it also helps them, is still thought convincing. “Without the ability to do animal research,” he said, “we are doing animals a disservice in terms of their future health and the prevention of disease.” He illustrated the point by recalling the “very upsetting” news in 2020 that 15 million mink had been culled in Denmark as a result of the Covid pandemic (see this blog for 28 November 2020). These mink, he rightly said,

are not stupid creatures. They are amazing, highly intelligent animals. Fifteen million are gone, just like that, because of the Covid pandemic.

We must suppose his distress at the news to be sincere, like the similar distress which is always spoken of at the culling of farm animals during foot and mouth epidemics (which Dr Spencer also cites) and other such outbreaks of disease. But the strange premise of such distress is that the short and miserable lives in cages or other confinements, imposed for human uses on these animals, are their proper and natural lot, to which unintended ill-health and death come as a cruel interruption. Such thinking is unlikely to do much for animals in research laboratories.

The minister, Kit Malthouse, wound up the February debate by telling his fellow MPs, “It is possible to be both an animal-lover and accept the need for experimentation on animals, in the greater cause of human and animal health.” Greater than what, he didn’t say: love, perhaps. But that phrase ‘animal-lover’ is anyway wholly unprogressive. It’s not our love that mice, rats, dogs, horses, non-human primates and all the other denizens of laboratories, need – though no doubt love is much better than nothing, even when nothing is its consequence, as it must be for these lab animals. What they need is their share in the right to live. For all the astonishing diligence of these annual statistics, and the elaborate and even humane bureaucracy which they represent, they continue to be essentially the numerical record of an enormous and cowardly wrong.

Notes and references:

The latest Home Office statistics can be seen here:   The quotation is from p.9. The summary provided by UAR (tailed with some supportive pieties) is here:

A transcript of the House of Commons debate on e-petition 591775 can be read here:  The petition asked for a revision of the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 to include laboratory animals. It gained 110,276 signatures, the rule being that a debate is triggered at 100,000.

The pig’s heart operation is reviewed in this blog here:  The mink cull and its implications are discussed here:

Freedom Deferred

On 14 June, the New York Court of Appeals issued its ‘opinion’ (i.e. ruling) in the case of the elephant called Happy, whose entitlement to be released from captivity in the Bronx Zoo has been argued through the New York courts by the Non-human Rights Project (NhRP: the case is reported in this blog for 26 May). The judges rejected the appeal, affirming the decisions already made in the lower courts that this elephant cannot be the subject of a writ of habeas corpus. Whatever her cognitive and emotional properties as an elephant, she lacks the necessary and all-sufficient qualification of being human: Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not non-human animals.”

You’ll understand that the courts have not been refusing liberty itself to the elephant; they haven’t got that far. They’ve been refusing permission to request liberty on her behalf through a habeas corpus hearing. She is not even entitled to have her liberty asked for. If you wonder why this “procedural vehicle” can’t transport animals to freedom as well as humans, the answer is this: “the great writ [i.e. of habeas corpus] protects the right to liberty of humans because they are humans with certain fundamental liberty rights recognized by law [my italics].In short, the law says that humans alone have a right to liberty because the law jolly well says so. You can’t be clearer than that.

Well, couldn’t the law, by means of the habeas corpus writ, take a new look in this case? No: if the law in this matter is to be revised, the judges say, then it must be done by the state or federal legislatures. And after all, as they add with some natural pride, the state of New York has introduced, over the years, all sorts of laws and regulations to protect animals. The judges list some of them. However, noticing (as I guess) that this list, with its “now” such a law and “recently” such another, implies a clear direction of travel, they add a little footnote: this series of protections for animals “does not inexorably create a common law or constitutional right to liberty.”

In fact the judges themselves think that such a right for animals would be impossible to manage. If once it were to be established (for instance by allowing the NhRP to petition and succeed with its habeas corpus writ on Happy’s behalf), there would ensue “a morass of case-by-case inquiries”, with no guidance for the judges except their own “subjective” opinion about the welfare of each animal. In this “flood of petitions” foreseen by the New York judges, any owner or user of animals – “farmers, pet owners, military and police forces, researchers, and zoos, to name just a few” – might find themselves having to justify their dominion in the courts: an absurd situation, of course.


So this 14 June judgement is a seventeen-page affirmation of speciesism. For these judges, even animal protection laws, indeed even a court-case like the present one, pick us out as special: such concern for the welfare of other species just seems to be “an essential characteristic of our humanity.” Hence, of course, the Bronx Zoo’s determination, as testified by its chief veterinarian, to “ensure Happy’s continued physical and psychological well-being and health” (as illustrated in the photograph). It makes you rather proud to be human.

However, the more important and promising part of this judgement is that two out of the seven Appeals Court judges – Rowan D. Wilson and Jenny Rivera – submitted strong dissenting opinions. In fact, their reasoning takes up ninety-one further pages of the court’s published ruling. Judge Wilson’s is much the longer text, and Judge Rivera endorses it in hers, so I shall speak mainly about what he says.

Judge Wilson begins his opinion by recalling that in 1906 this same Bronx Zoo included among its most popular exhibits a human being called Ota Benga. This unfortunate man had been taken, with others, from among the Mbuti people living in what was then Belgian Congo. Like Happy, he had no status in law from which to appeal for his release. Ota Benga was not technically a slave, nor, when he gained his freedom (though he died shortly afterwards), was it achieved through a habeas corpus writ. But the discreditable story tellingly introduces Judge Wilson’s subsequent attack on the complacent speciesism of the five-judge majority. There is nothing historically fixed, in law or sentiment, about the human family as those judges now picture it. The further back we go, the more clearly do we find the roots of speciesism in a simple privileging of ‘persons like us’, however defined or felt at different times.

And of course Judge Wilson does take us back, in particular to slavery itself, and the part which the habeas corpus writ played in challenging that, at times when it was permitted in statutory law. More than permitted, in fact: the federal Supreme Court expressly endorsed it in its 1857 ruling in the now infamous Dred Scott case. But only three years later, in the so-called Lemmon Slave Case (Juliet Lemmon being the ‘owner’ of the slaves) ,the New York Court of Appeals itself, the same court now ruling in Happy’s case, had freed eight slaves in a habeas corpus hearing on the grounds (among others) that “liberty is the natural condition of men.” This court looked at the detention of these slaves, Judge Wilson argues, not as a matter of established law, but as a matter of justice. He also analyses the Somerset case of 1771 – a favourite reference for Steven Wise, the founder of the Non-human Rights Project – in which a slave was similarly freed with a habeas corpus writ in London.

The intended implication of all this, of course, is that it’s now the turn of other species of improperly detained being to be brought into the scope of the writ. But the courts have very much disliked this line of argument. In the opinion of the five-judge majority, to allow any sort of comparison between human slavery and the plight of animals is “odious”. You may recall Steven Wise’s own response to this objection, made during a radio programme (reviewed in this blog on 12 September 2016): “My people were enslaved by Pharoah a long time ago, and I understand it.” Judge Wilson is more circumspect. He anyway does not propose, in his argument, that Happy or any other animal should be classed as a ‘person’ (which is the NhRP aim). With artful humour, he propitiates the speciesism of his five colleagues, conceding the point to them thus: “Human beings should have greater rights than elephants, if only because we make the rules.” For him the connection is simply that slaves did not have, in earlier centuries, as animals do not have now, what the other judges call “fundamental liberty rights recognized by law”. The habeas corpus writ, he argues, has always been impartially available to redress wrong in just that absence of other legal protection.

Then he reassures the others as to the “enormous destabilizing impact on modern society” which they believe a victory for such as Happy would entail. A favourable decision in habeas corpus does not change the law at large; it deals only with individual cases. It did not, for instance, put an end to slavery, or for that matter emancipate women, though it did liberate individuals in both categories from particular captivities. No “flood of petitions”, such as the judges fear, happened then – although, as the judge shrewdly asks, “if Somerset’s Case, the Lemmon Slave Case or the cases involving women and children had produced a flood of habeas petitions freeing victims of unjust confinement, would history view them with disapproval?”

Near the beginning of his opinion, Judge Wilson quotes the famous passage in Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (also quoted on VERO’s own banner): “The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny [Bentham’s own sceptical italics].” It’s a telling quotation partly because, as Wilson’s more complete version shows, Bentham himself, the great reforming jurist, puts the animal case into the context of slavery: “the rest of the animal creation” (“the animal creation”, as his text makes clear, includes humans) means, in his context, ‘coming after the freeing of slaves’.

But more essential to Judge Wilson’s case is that phrase “The day may come.” He looks upon the habeas corpus writ as above all an innovative device, providing a type of redress that is “slightly or significantly ahead of the statutory and common law of the time” – exactly, then, a bringer on of such hoped-for days. Indeed he says, after the Bentham quotation, “that day is upon us.” He accordingly dismisses the majority’s preoccupation with precedents and traditions, what he calls their “glommed-together authorities”:

The majority’s argument—“this has never been done before”—is an argument against all progress, one that flies in the face of legal history. The correct approach is not to say, “this has never been done” and then quit, but to ask, “should this now be done even though it hasn’t before, and why?”

Neither of the two dissenting judges share the complacent speciesism of the majority five (who at one point confirm their point of view with a quotation from an Agriculture and Markets Law which helpfully defines ‘animal’ as “every living creature except a human being”). This is how Judge Rivera puts the point:

The majority’s argument boils down to a claim that animals do not have the right to seek habeas corpus because they are not human beings and that human beings have such a right because they are not animals. But, of course, humans are animals. And glaringly absent is any explanation of why some kinds of animals—i.e., humans—may seek habeas relief, while others—e.g., elephants—may not.

Both judges insist that so far from being self-sufficient allocators of value and status, human beings have their own value and status implicated in this relation with other species. Judge Rivera concludes her argument by saying this about Happy the elephant:

Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive—a spectacle for humans—we, too, are diminished.

Accordingly, Judge Wilson sees the law (the common law at least, and habeas corpus in particular) as a reflection not of what the five judges picture statically as our “humanity”, but rather of “who we might want to be as a society”. This is what’s called ‘virtue ethics’: that is, ethics founded, not on contracts or calculations, but on a model of what we should be, or, viewed another way, of what we shall in time regret not having been, even have to apologize for failing to be – as we have apologized in the case of slavery.

Both of these dissenting opinions argue, then, that the habeas corpus writ is a means by which the law might enable us to become what we ought to be, and that in leaving Happy petitionless in captivity the court has failed both the animal and the people.

Notes and references:

The ruling of the New York Court of Appeals, with the dissenting opinions, can be read here:

The appeal itself (on 18 May) is reported in this blog here:  The radio programme that had Steven Wise and other lawyers discussing the rights of animals was broadcast in September of 2016, and was featured in this blog here:

The Bronx Zoo veterinarian is quoted on Happy’s welfare in the Appeals Court majority opinion.

The Jeremy Bentham quotation comes from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Clarendon Press, 1781, p.311, note 1.

A Templeton Inheritance

All the time, in universities and other science institutions throughout the world, men and women are engaged in studying the minds of other animals. The word ‘mind’ isn’t the one they normally use, of course: ‘cognition’, ‘behaviour’, ‘affect’, and other such terms keep the subject less dangerously anthropomorphic. A few of these studies show up in the media in the form of ‘smarter than we thought’ stories, the smartness usually consisting in surprisingly human-like capacities: so what’s meant is ‘more like us than we thought’. But most of them belong to a steady and un-newsworthy throughput of laboratory research using the less picturesque animals. Whereas the research that appears in the press has sometimes been dis-interestedly concerned with how different species think and behave, these others are nearly always using them to provide insights into the human mind.

Here’s one such research project going forward at present. It appears as Non-technical Summary number 2 (because so far I’ve only looked at two, out of a possible 466) in the list of research projects approved by the Home Office in 2020, which have just now been published by the government. The project is titled ‘Affect and cognition in rodents’. It will use 1400 rats and mice over a five-year duration. 75% of the planned ‘procedures’ are predicted to be of ‘mild’ severity, and the rest ‘moderate’. Against the question “What will happen to the animals at the end of the study”, the applicants have put “Kept alive/Killed”, which seems to cover all the possibilities, if not very informatively. The general aim of the project is as follows: “To identify and characterise the psychological and biological mechanisms underpinning the affective and cognitive processing of rewarding and punishing stimuli and dysfunctions/disturbances of such processes.” There’s a limit, you see, to how ‘non-technical’ one wishes to be in these matters.

The knowledge gained from this research, as the quotation clearly implies, will be knowledge not just of rats and mice, but of humans too (perhaps of all animals with central nervous systems). In fact the principle benefit hoped for will be “novel therapeutic strategies” for human psychiatric disorders. But the project should also, we’re told, contribute to a better understanding and treatment of laboratory rodents. You may suspect that the second benefit was a politic after-thought (it’s for their sakes too!), for surely, now that so many millions of these rodents have passed through their hands, researchers must know all that can be known about how to look after them? But no, only in 2017 did research show that mice would rather be carried in cupped hands than upside down by the tail. There’s always more to learn! Perhaps the same will be true of the “novel therapeutic strategies”, then.

You’ll have noticed the phrase “psychological and biological mechanisms”. The old behavioural model of mind, as a machinery of responses put together by a history of pleasures and pains, evidently lives on, and indeed much experimental psychology still relies on this reductive way of dealing with mind. However, there is presently an ambitious scheme of research into this subject of animal minds which expressly repudiates what it calls “mechanistic models of animal cognition”. It also dispenses with the assumption that animal mentality has been a more or less straight-line trek from the near-darkness of simple organisms to the brilliant light of human intelligence. This project is a collaboration between neuroscientists, ethologists, philosophers and other academics, and is called Diverse Intelligences.


The collective aim of Diverse Intelligences is to create a ‘periodic table’, like the familiar one that maps the chemical elements by atomic number, but in this case mapping all the varieties of animal intelligence by – well, what? perhaps neuro-anatomy, behaviour, habitat-niche. At any rate, the idea is that it will organize and relate animal minds but not rank them. Human intelligence will be there all right – necessarily distinct for, as one of the participant scientists says, “There is something different about it because other organisms on this planet are not having conversations about this” (though they surely are having to deal with it in practice). Distinct, then, but not privileged, for he adds “I don’t think it’s a story of human exceptionalism.” And all the other animal minds will have their own distinct positions likewise.

Before thinking further about this great international project, it’s helpful to know where the funds are coming from. The provider is the Templeton World Charity Foundation, a huge philanthropic outfit founded by Sir John Templeton. That’s a name well-known in Oxford. It was Templeton money that turned the university’s Centre for Management Studies into Templeton College (just outside the city). This institution merged with Green College in 2007 to create Green Templeton College. Sir John himself was a very successful investment financier in the USA, who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1930s. His early benefactions were aimed at raising standards in business and management, but he had ambitions for something much more comprehensive, which the Charity Foundation calls “the science of human flourishing”.

Green Templeton College, a graduate college with special interests in medicine, social sciences, and environment, already reflects this ideal. But John Templeton was a committed (though undogmatic) Christian, and believed that humans couldn’t flourish without cultivating and as far as possible understanding their spiritual nature. So the Foundation undertakes to “support exploration of the nature of religious belief and practice”, and “invest in basic scientific research that could shape how we think about human existence.” Accordingly, the Templeton Prize, another generous arm of the charity (it’s worth more in cash than the Nobel Prize), has been given equally to scientists and religious figures – ideally, it seems, to those who belong to both camps.

This particular attempt to bring science and spirituality together receives a hearty drubbing from the biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. He speaks of it as “a very large sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” Particular fun is made of a project funded by the Foundation in 2005-6, sometimes called the Great Prayer Experiment, and aimed at testing the efficacy of prayer in the convalescence of heart-surgery patients (no positive effects were identified). Dawkins considers that the Prize, and the Templeton projects more generally, have a corrupting effect on science and scientists.

The God Delusion is a brilliant and entertaining book, and the Templeton values, as earnestly promoted in the Foundation’s high-minded prose, are anyway rather easily mocked. But then the prize-winner last year was the primatologist Jane Goodall, and here one can see how the Templeton vision works. She has of course proved herself a highly accomplished scientist. Has she also said “something nice about religion”? Well, she has said “I feel a really strong spiritual connection with the natural world on which we depend.” And the prize citation spoke approvingly of her “humility” – rather a key Templeton word, and with good reason when desiderated of science and scientists. I’m not sure exactly what aspects of Jane Goodall’s work the Templeton Foundation had in mind there, but it’s surely true that her studies of chimpanzees pioneered a less reductive, less condescending zoology. Giving names to these animals (not numbers and not facetious nick-names), as she did in violation of scientific orthodoxy, can now be seen as standing for a sense of engagement and responsibility which have since expanded far beyond them in her thinking. So not just chimpanzees and not just wild animals, but farm animals (she is now a vegan) and lab animals (she opposes the use of animals in research) are implicated in that “strong spiritual connection with the natural world”.

We can hope that the Diverse Intelligences project will incorporate that sort of spirituality, but its topic is a hard one, ethically as well as scientifically. The word ‘intelligence’ itself seems to make human cleverness the standard. One of the philosophers involved in the project has argued that, for just that reason, this word will help to claim for other animals the mental prestige which we have treated as peculiarly our own: they’re clever too! I’m not altogether convinced by this argument.

Then there’s the ‘gee whiz!’ aspect of the subject. An article about the Diverse Intelligences project has recently been published in New Scientist (a serious non-academic journal of science news and analysis). Enthusiastically citing instances of animal “smarts” (is there such a word?), its author mentions rooks that can get at a “treat” floating inside a jar by dropping in stones that raise the water-level, octopuses that can “easily open a jar”, and a chimpanzee able to memorize “random sequences of nine numbers that a screen flashes at him for only 60 milliseconds”. Certainly these skills show cleverness, but contrived tricks of this sort will not, or at any rate should not, do much to “fundamentally change how we view other species”, as the writer believes the project is set to do. (Incidentally, the Diverse Intelligences prospectus does not rule out experimental work, unless it’s “cruel or inhumane”.) Even the “sense of wonder”, spoken of in the article (and Richard Dawkins, too, is very keen on the value and sufficiency of science-fed wonder), is in practice very selective. It won’t much help the species we’ve subdued and multiplied into anonymous familiarity, like farm animals or the rats and mice of the non-technical summaries.

53. glimpse of freedom

The claim which such subject animals have to our respect and forbearance is not that they’re “astonishing” in the New Scientist sense, or even clever, though it should have been their birthright, as it certainly is that of every wild animal, to be clever enough for the life they would naturally lead; it’s that they have as much inclination and right to flourish (the Templeton word) as any other animals, humans included. I hope that this will be clearly implied when they have their own boxes in that periodic table, the same size of box as ours and all the others.

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s online publication Non-technical Summaries granted in 2020 was issued complete in two ‘volumes’ on 6 June 2022. ‘Affect and cognition in rodents’ occupies pp. 18-25. The total of 466 projects takes up 3465 pages. See

The mouse-handling study is reported here:

The Templeton Foundation’s general aims are quoted from its very extensive web-site here:  The prospectus for the Diverse Intelligences project appears here: There’s an interesting interview on film with one of the academics involved (Marta Halina of Cambridge University) here: It’s she who thinks that ‘intelligence’ will be a usefully corrective word in studies of cognition.

The God Delusion is quoted from the Black Swan edition of 2007, p.40.

Jane Goodall’s Templeton Prize was featured in the Guardian newspaper on 20 May 2021, accessible online here:

The article titled ‘Different Minds’, written by Ute Eberle, appeared in New Scientist on 14 May 2022, at pp. 42-5. As well as the author herself, one of the Diverse Intelligences academics, Andrew Barron of Macquarie University, is quoted from this article (on human intelligence).

The woodcut, from Sue Coe’s collection The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto (OR Books, 2017), dreams of intelligent co-operation among farm animals, tragically caught up as they are in the workings of human intelligence.

I See My Light Come Shining

The documentary film Unlocking the Cage (reviewed in this blog for 13 February 2017) follows the lawyer Steven Wise as he tries to persuade American judges to free four chimpanzees from varieties of miserable captivity. At the end, we see him thoughtfully watching an elephant forced to provide fun for American families. Elephants would indeed come next in his campaign (called the Nonhuman Rights Project or NhRP). Not that the chimpanzees had been freed; nor were the three elephants who came next, in court cases from 2017 to 2020. Some of this company of prisoners died during the endeavour. Tommy the chimpanzee simply ‘disappeared’. The others languished where they were, or went on to different forms of captivity and exploitation.

Wise in court

Even so, it’s not a story of failure. Steven Wise would be a hard man to defeat, and the NhRP is always making progress, as this post will show. On Thursday last, it came before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. It’s the first time this court has dealt with the rights of an animal, and also, as Wise says, “the first time in history that the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a case that demands a legal right for a nonhuman being”. The subject of the case is an Asian elephant, 51 years old, presently being kept for public interest and entertainment at the Bronx Zoo. The court’s judgement will be published at some time in the coming weeks.

The elephant in question is called Happy, an insultingly inappropriate name for this animal so patently deprived of her natural pleasures. It expresses, besides, the frivolity of attitude in the humans who imported her, with six other elephant calves, into the United States from Thailand in 1971. The abducted animals were named after Snow White’s seven dwarfs (elephants called after dwarfs, you see: chuckles all round!). The same facetiousness has pursued her ever since. In the monorail car that takes visitors above her enclosure, so a report in National Geographic tells us, “a chirpy guide cracks jokes and rattles off facts.” In media likewise, of course: one report on the case is headed “Happy the elephant hopes to pack her trunk after court case”. What fun animals are!

Intentionally or not, all this drollery is a proportioning device, and it works. As counsel and judges discuss the situation in the Court of Appeals (a video of the proceedings is available on the NhRP web-site), that name continuingly damages the seriousness of the case, sentimentalizing and diminishing the animal, making her seem incongruous as the subject of attention in that grand setting.

That, of course, is exactly the case being made by the respondents to the case (the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Bronx Zoo which it manages): i.e. that neither Happy, nor any other animal, is important enough to feature in a writ of habeas corpus of the sort which the NhRP is bringing to the court on her behalf: “It puts them in the same category as people, which we oppose” says their counsel. The text of the habeas corpus writ does indeed refer to “persons”. It’s a device in common law (that is, law as developed by judges in the courts, rather than fixed in statutes), which requires those who detain such “persons” to justify the detention before a court or else to release them. And this is the legal instrument with which Steven Wise has been trying to liberate those chimpanzees and elephants. In order to make it work, he has had to show that these animals can properly be considered ‘persons’.

Elephant Scratching Face on a Tree

The argument is not, then, about welfare, which is covered in statutory law. The Zoo’s counsel may well be right in insisting that Happy’s treatment satisfies such law, miserable as she obviously is, but it’s beside the point. The key word in the NhRP’s case is ‘autonomy’. Happy is entitled to be called a ‘person’ and so enjoy the protections of habeas corpus because she has all the cognitive and emotional faculties of an autonomous being, fit to make her own choices and direct her own life. She should therefore be freed to practise and enjoy her autonomy, if not in the absolute wild (it’s far too late for that), at least in a sanctuary that closely imitates it.

Of course no animal has yet been freed in such a way, and this fact inhibits judges who, in common law, generally look to former cases (i.e. precedents) for their guidance. But at least they are not confined by statutory laws, and in practice judges have often enough decided according to their own sense of natural justice or of the changing social attitudes and requirements of their times. Specialists in the use of habeas corpus have spoken of its efficacy in past cases to establish human rights, for instance the rights of wives and children, which “were well in front of statutorily mandated protections”. Steven Wise has written a book about one particular instance: the judgement of Lord Mansfield in 1772, freeing the slave James Somerset, even though there was no existing law to say that slavery was illegal, nor any common law precedent for such a decision. Lord Mansfield’s decision was essentially a moral one: slavery was, he said, “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.” Britain of course had no such positive law to support slavery, so James Somerset was freed.

It had been put to Lord Mansfield that freeing Somerset would have a catastrophic effect: learning that Britain had outlawed slavery, Somerset’s fellow-slaves in the Americas would “flock over in vast numbers, over-run this country, and desolate the plantations”. Lord Mansfield acknowledged that such concern for the larger consequences, good or bad, of a court’s decision, were legitimate (lawyers call this factor in judicial decision-making ‘policy’). But he rejected it in this case, using the Latin dictum ‘fiat justitia ruat coelum’ (roughly, ‘let right be done regardless of consequences’). And now this same argument as to ‘policy’ is being put to the judges in Happy’s case. Counsel for the Zoo warns of “the dramatic impact” that a victory for Happy “would have on our society.” Not just farmers would feel their livelihoods threatened. The Zoo’s case has the backing of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which fears that extending habeas corpus to animals “would impede important medical breakthroughs”. One judge asked counsel for the NhRP whether the aim was to make any human use of an animal illegitimate; another wondered if dogs might in future be habeas corpused from their owners. In fact the Bronx Zoo, which intends to discontinue its elephant ‘exhibits’ in the near future anyway, seems to be fighting the case precisely in order to prevent this dangerous precedent.

It’s a difficult point to defeat in court, and counsel for the NhRP (not Steven Wise this time, but Monica Miller) admitted that it would be “disingenuous” to say that Happy, if freed, would bring an end to the story. Of course she would not. For after all – which Ms Miller did not say – autonomy is nature’s promise to every life born, except perhaps in the case of swarm animals. (I note a placard at one NhRP event that reads “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings”.) Accordingly, counsel for the Zoo complained at an earlier hearing, “this is not really about elephants. It’s about elephants, it’s about giraffes . . .” “It’s about animals,” the judge agreed – perhaps nervously, perhaps with Mansfield-like willingness to let in the uncertain future (for this was Judge Alison Tuitt, of whom more below). And that indeed is the answer to the ‘floodgates’ objection: Fiat justitia, let right be done, and after that let us adjust ourselves to whatever world it turns out to imply.

It doesn’t take long to watch the recent hearing in the New York court, because the whole thing took no more than half an hour. It may even seem somewhat disappointing: shapeless, imprecise. (I missed Steven Wise’s good-humoured forensic authority.) But there have been three earlier hearings in lower courts, with much longer attention spans. And besides, the case in this New York court has the backing of a great volume of argument submitted by its amici curiae (‘friends of the court’, effectively expert witnesses): there are eighteen of these textual ‘briefs’ – involving 146 organisations and individuals, including lawyers, philosophers, zoologists, and theologians – together constituting an education in animal rights. And it’s evident from those earlier decisions, adverse though they’ve been, that the judges do read and ponder these amicus briefs, as well as the arguments put in court. At any rate, the aforementioned Judge Tuitt, for instance, when ruling (“regrettably”, as she said) against the NhRP’s claim in the Bronx County Supreme Court in 2019, said this:

Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.

And she quoted Judge Eugene Fahey’s opinion in the case of the chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko the year before:

The issue whether a nonhuman has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately we will not be able to ignore it.

Writing in the year 2000, Steven Wise recalled having to speak for animal rights before judges who belonged to “an intellectual world that Galileo and Darwin” had “not yet penetrated.” Since then, however,

judges who matured alongside the newer animal rights movement have begun to take their places. They will be better equipped to examine the objective data and hear – not just listen to – the supporting arguments. They will begin to rattle the cage.

That’s just what Justices Tuitt and Fahey were doing to the cage. In time, for certain, they or other judges will actually open it. May it be this time, and this elephant’s cage which they open!

Notes and references:

There is a petition backing the case for Happy’s release to a sanctuary here:

The film Unlocking the Cage (2016) as reviewed in this blog:

The court hearing on 18 May can be viewed in this video, which actually starts at Ihr 04 minutes in, with some introductory comments from Steven Wise: This page also has links to various reports in the media, including the piece in National Geographic quoted above. The heading ‘Happy the elephant hopes to pack her trunk’ comes from The Times newspaper, 13 May 2022.

The amicus briefs submitted for the NhRP to the New York court are listed, with links to the texts, here:  The quotation about habeas corpus comes from brief no.7, which provides an excellent account of the writ and its potential.

Steven Wise’s book about the James Somerset case is Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial that Led to the End of Human Slavery (Da Capo Press, 2005: note the word ‘human’ in the title: not all slavery yet.] He also writes about the Somerset case in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals (Profile Books, 2000), from which the quotations from Lord Mansfield and counsel in the case are taken (pp. 50 and 103-4), and also the concluding quotations about judges old and new (p.77). The words about slaves flocking to Britain were actually those of counsel for Somerset himself, caricaturing the argument as used by the opposition.

The National Association for Biomedical Research is quoted from the amicus brief which it submitted on behalf of the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, itself quoted in a very thorough article in the New Yorker (7 March 2022) about the case. The quotation “it’s about giraffes . . etc.” comes from this same source.

Judge Alison Tuitt’s ruling, in 2019, can be read here:  Judge Fahey’s words are quoted from his opinion in the 2018 hearing of the case for the chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko: What he says very clearly implies an expected transition from law as an exclusively human amenity, to law that provides justice to all that can benefit from it.

The title is a line from Bob Dylan’s song I Shall Be Released, played during the final credits for the film Unlocking the Cage.

Anti-Vivisection Forty Years On: a Conversation with Mel Broughton

Last Thursday there was a demonstration with banners and leaflets outside Oxford University’s animal research laboratory in South Parks Road, as there is every Thursday and has been for many years. Of course Mel Broughton was there, the man who led the campaign against the building of the Oxford lab, and (successfully) against the primate research centre earlier proposed at Cambridge. Mel’s experience of arrest and imprisonment for arson during the Oxford campaign was described in this blog four years ago, shortly after the conclusion of his ten-year sentence. When he was free of his sentence, and had returned to South Parks Road (“I promised myself that as soon as I got off licence I’d come straight back here, and I did.”) and to the animal rights movement in general, it was a scene very much changed from the one he had known. On Thursday, he spoke about the changes and about the present and future of the animal rights movement.

Mel 2

Mel’s own prison sentence, and similarly severe ones passed against a number of other activists, were part of an increasingly resolute intervention on the part of government and police authorities to support animal-research institutions. Almost certainly both Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University’s new laboratory would have been defeated without this intervention. It involved both financial backing and stricter legal and policing controls. Demonstrations and marches, and even those Thursday afternoon vigils, were so conspicuously policed that they had a quasi-criminal appearance. All this had, as Mel says, “a chilling effect” on the movement, as it was intended to do: not just making direct action a much more hazardous option, but also alienating many who would otherwise have given active support at events.

Two developments which should have been beneficial – the rise of social media and the increasing popularity of veganism – have in fact, so Mel believes, rather compounded the problem. In the case of social media, the will to support a cause can too easily be satisfied by online ‘action’:

They go on their smart-phone and they look at a post about a demonstration, and they go ‘O.K.’ and click on it, and that’s it, they think it’s done. The responsibility for everyone to do something themselves, for everyone to act, has been largely taken away. It’s almost like ‘follow us on Twitter, or ‘like’ us, and we’ll do the work for you.

Veganism has, of course, been an excellent thing in itself, in so far as it lessens animal suffering. Mel himself has been vegan for forty years:

I’m all for it. But veganism doesn’t guarantee animal rights. ‘Go vegan!’ they say, but for many animals it makes no difference. Their status remains exactly the same.

Unless veganism is taken on as a necessary implication of the belief that animals have rights to life and freedom, then it’s likely to be a life-style choice, more about the person than about the animals, and therefore to lead nowhere.

That was indeed the view of it taken by Stephen Clark in his remarkable book The Moral Status of Animals (1984). Throughout that book, he insists that veganism, or vegetarianism at the least, is a minimum commitment, a starting-point. He says, “All those who believe that animals are not utterly beyond moral consideration, that they should be spared all avoidable pain, are duty-bound to abstain from meat, and to campaign against vivisection.” You’ll notice the connection of the diet to the campaigning – specifically, campaigning against vivisection. It’s the point Mel Broughton was making, and Mel recalled that vivisection was indeed a crucial interest in the early days of modern animal rights in the 1970s: “Vivisection was the issue which gave birth to the animal rights movement, that and hunt sabbing.” He himself came into the movement in the early 80s, involved in the campaign of that time against animal research at Oxford University. The policy then was “direct action to save lives”, notably the lives of laboratory animals.

These are still Mel’s priorities. During a hunt event three years ago, Mel was ridden down by a huntsman, and very seriously injured; after a long delay, the man is now facing a charge of ‘wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm’. But animals in laboratories remain Mel’s priority: “I do think that vivisection is the darkest crime of all . . . I don’t think anything comes close to the laboratory in terms of complete violation of rights.”

In those earlier days, the research institutions themselves largely relied for their freedom of action on the ignorance of the public. They would close ranks and increase their security after each public scandal. Since then they have learnt to be more sophisticated. In particular they have created the ‘Concordat on Openness’ to advertise, at one and the same time, pride and confidence in their animal research and commitment to doing less of it. Has all the publicity arising from this Concordat – the countless web-pages about animal research, the ‘virtual tours’ of laboratories, the open days and other such initiatives often recounted in this blog – helped to baffle the anti-vivisection movement? Mel Broughton concedes that it “placates people who want to think the animals don’t suffer.” It enables them to think so, by judiciously selecting what’s shown (even the Concordat organizers admit this): “It’s a snapshot, that’s all it is; it’s dishonest.”

More positively, all this publicity, in common with the now elaborate bureaucracy that regulates animal research, is evidence of the effectiveness of all the years of opposition: “You could argue that they were forced to do it because we were exposing them; they had little choice but to do it.” But of course the essential character of vivisection has not changed, and it has come clearly into light again at MBR Acres, the establishment at Wyton near Cambridge that breeds beagle dogs, at the rate of about two thousand a year, for research-use in the UK and beyond. When the American company Marshall Bio-Resources first took over this breeding enterprise from Harlan Interfauna, all the dogs then being kept there were destroyed. This sort of ruthlessness, says Mel, is “the reality of vivisection”.

Mel speaking

Mel Broughton and others started to make MBR Acres the target of attention two years ago. Making visits at night, they placed cameras at the perimeter fence. These cameras recorded the boxing and transporting of the beagles, ugly and sinister images which gained national coverage in the Daily Mirror and other places in April and May of 2021. The small group of activists that had been making regular visits there now swelled in number, some began to stay overnight, and today there’s a permanent Camp Beagle at the gates of the establishment. Mel says that it’s “one of those campaigns that theoretically we could win; they could be closed down.”

So MBR Acres has become the focus for activist anti-vivisection, as Oxford once was. And the ordeal of radical dissent – the confrontations, the policing, the arrests – is renewed there. The company hopes to secure an injunction limiting the scope of the protest, just as Oxford University did. And Mel Broughton is once more the principal name in the injunction: “I find myself in the High Court, going through the whole process again.”

Many individuals have taken their part in the anti-vivisection protests over the forty years since those 1980s protests in Oxford; most have passed through and gone, replaced by others with their own periods of commitment. A very few have been there throughout, and Mel is one of them. He has paid very heavily for his purposefulness and leadership, but he is wholly steadfast:

I’m not defeated, and there’s a lot still to be done. I’m not going to stop. 

Notes and references:

Mel Broughton was speaking on Thursday, 5 May, during one of the weekly demonstrations in Oxford organised by SPEAK campaigns. His account of arrest and life in prison can be read in this blog here:

The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen R. L. Clark, was published by Oxford University Press in 1984; the quotation is from pp.169-70. This is the most impassioned and uncompromising of the academic accounts of the subject that I have encountered.

The photographs show Mel Broughton in South Parks Road and speaking at an event in London.

Remembering the Millions in the Global Lab

This coming Sunday, April 24th, will be World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s the first time since the Covid pandemic began that the anniversary can be properly observed with a collective event. The venue will be Cambridge, whose university was second only to the giant Crick Institute as a user of lab animals at the last national count in 2020. The 177,219 animals that Cambridge University used included 84 sheep, 16 pigs, and 41 non-human primates (nearly three times Oxford’s number). Those primates – rhesus macaques and marmosets – were (and others still are) being used in the study of human psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.


Here on the right are details of the Cambridge event.

The previous WDAIL event, in 2019, was at Oxford. I was among those who spoke on that occasion, and I post a transcript of my speech here – not because it was anything so great in itself, but because I tried to make it a concise summary of the moral and spiritual meaning of the World Day, and I don’t have anything much to add to it now. I began by quoting an estimate of the total of animals used annually across the world. That total, 118 million, referred to the year 2012. A more recent calculation, for the year 2015, suggests that the total of animals killed in laboratories may then have been 192.1 million. So the matter has not become any less urgent.

Speech given at Oxpens Meadow, Oxford, 27 April 2019:

We can’t know how many animals it is that we’re remembering today in all the world’s laboratories. A calculation made back in 2014 suggested 118 million. No doubt it’s far more now, and anyway that was only the vertebrates, the animals we choose to count: the mice, birds, fishes, cats, dogs, monkeys. It’s a big enough list, but many other sorts of animal are slaves to science, unregistered animals, species whose names we may hardly recognise. But there is this one thing that we do know about all of them, the thing they all do have in common: they were all born with the will to live and to flourish in their own ways, just as we were in ours.

It’s what that ancient Sanskrit teaching means when it says ‘Tat twam asi’, “Where you see life, that is you.” Well, that’s a spiritual way of putting the matter, no doubt, but it’s a plain fact also, and the great scientist Charles Darwin presented it as such in the mid-nineteenth century, when he showed that all life is one great multifarious will to flourish. In the mid-nineteenth century! Therefore the whole filthy modern history of vivisection, beginning as it did in Europe at about that same time, has been carried on in full awareness of that fact.

“All life is one”. That’s how it was stated by the man whose birthday on 24th April is commemorated by this World Day for Animals in Laboratories: Hugh Dowding. And I would like to say something about that most remarkable man: Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, the man who directed the RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the man who is therefore to be credited with preventing the defeat and invasion of this country at that time.

Here was a man answerable for the fate of countless humans at a critical moment in human history, answerable in particular for the young fighter pilots who risked dreadful injury or death in the sky. And it was known that he did feel very great care and concern for the welfare of these men. After all, one of them was his own son.

So did he therefore come out of that war believing that there was a special sanctity in our human life, some special entitlement, that obliged all the other animals to serve our interests? No, on the contrary. He expressly objected to the use of animals in defence research, at Porton Down and at Harwell. Not just was it cruel and futile; he thought it actually promoted war. This is what he said:

failure to recognise our responsibilities towards the animal kingdom is the cause of many of the calamities which now beset the nations of the world. Nearly all of us have a deep-rooted wish for peace—peace on earth; but we shall never attain to true peace until we recognise the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.

He said that in the House of Lords, because he had been made Baron Dowding in 1943. And he used his time in the House of Lords again and again to present the case for animals: animals in circuses, in slaughterhouses, on farms, but especially animals in laboratories.

And probably the House of Lords has never before or since heard such plain-speaking on that subject. He began one debate by saying, The process of preparing this Motion has been a most painful one to me, because it has compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty.” And he went on to describe some of those cases to their lordships: cats at the Royal Naval Laboratory made to breathe 100% oxygen until they convulsed and died; monkeys at the Lister Institute infected with rabies; the joining together of rats as Siamese twins. That last experiment was being carried out at Oxford University, where Dowding was astonished by what he called “the callous attitude of the people . . . and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.”

Well, no doubt things have changed. Perhaps there are fewer ‘useless’ experiments nowadays, here at least. But it was never Dowding’s aim to make animal research more strictly useful. Here’s what he said about that:

I want to make clear at the outset my own personal position. It is this: that even should it be conclusively proved that human beings benefit directly from the suffering of animals, its infliction would nevertheless be unethical and wrong.

Yes, “Unethical and wrong”. And not because we’re animal-lovers. We may or may not love animals: so very much the better if we do, but it’s beside the point. What we know is that they are life as we are life, they value their part in life as we value ours, and they have as much right to it as we have to ours. That’s what it means to say all life is one. We know it to be a factual truth. Science itself has told us so. Well, let science practise what it teaches and give our fellow-creatures their own lives back!

Notes and references:

The 2019 WDAIL event at Oxford was described and pictured in this blog here:

The estimate of animals used in global science during 2015 was published in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals in 2019, and can be viewed online here:

Five Hundred and Sixty Seven to Be Taken Daily

Oxford University has now published statistics for the ‘procedures’ conducted upon animals in its research laboratories during 2021. The total count was 207,192. Of these, 95% were procedures on mice, though also in use were rats (1,188) and ‘other rodents’ (159), non-human primates (13), guinea pigs (55), birds (unspecified, but presumably domestic fowl, 7), many fish, a few ferrets, and one frog. The total is up by about a quarter on the 2020 number (169,511). That was a year when Covid-19 impeded laboratory activity, but that same difficulty continued throughout 2021, so that this latest total too must be supposed artificially low. For all the talk in university publicity about the 3Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement), the numbers of animals being used has remained pretty steady for several years, after a notable jolt upwards in 2014 (the 2011 figure was 156,215).

These latest statistics are posted in the University’s ‘News and Events’ web-pages, where they are said to show “numbers of animals that completed procedures”. The phrase “completed procedures” is a collectible euphemism, with its suggestion of animals moving purposefully forward in their training, rather as students and researchers do, but it means, of course, ‘completed their lives’ or rather had their lives completed for them. In fact all these numbers are tiny obituaries.

Then there is the term ’procedure’ itself, frequently complained about in this blog. It’s the Home Office’s basic unit for computations (rather than animals themselves, as implied in Oxford’s introductory wording), but it has no standard value. It is defined by the Home Office as “An act of commission, deliberate omission or permission applied to, or having any effect on, an animal”, which must by law be recorded when that effect is such as to cause the animal “a level of pain, suffering or distress equivalent to or greater than the introduction of a hypodermic needle.” It’s true that the severity of the pain caused by a procedure is roughly measured in the statistics, as demanded by the Home Office and shown in these from Oxford: thus, it may be ‘mild’ (the seven birds), ‘moderate’ (ten of the primates) or ‘severe’ (two of the primates, the one frog, and 1,877 others). But to call it ‘an act’ is quite wrong; it’s a course of action, possibly brief, possibly extended over the whole of a research project – and the standard research project lasts five years.

Even apart from this essential obscurity, how little one really learns from these numbers! No context is offered for them: they are simply inserted annually into the appropriate space in an otherwise unchanging text: ‘News and Events’ is a strange misnomer for these ossified animal research pages. Yes, there are several ‘research case studies’, but these too have been unchanged for some years. Elsewhere (in the university’s Gazette) the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, which supervises the whole vivisection enterprise, publishes an annual report, but even this is mostly repetition year by year. It’s an extended account of the impressive bureaucracy of management systems, training courses, and other constants of the modern laboratory scene, but it rarely strays into particulars, and never lingers there. Thus, in last year’s report,

We have had non-compliances that resulted in a focus by the Home Office. This focus has resulted in close monitoring and an action plan initially commissioned by the Establishment Licence Holder that has been extended as part of the overall review of animal related activity.

That’s all that was said, properly muffled in university-office prose, about something which must in fact have been a significant lapse or series of lapses.

What’s patently needed is a brief commentary by a senior scientist, perhaps by the Head of the Biomedical Services Division, saying what the annual numbers imply, what changes in types or methods of research they reflect or conceal, or even that there has been no change of any sort. Failing that illumination, a table showing what all these animals were being used for would be of some help. The annual Home Office statistics, collecting together all the institutional returns, do indeed show this: for example, what aspects of physiology, or disease, or behaviour, were being studied, and whether for basic knowledge or for therapeutic purpose. Therefore the university must have its own annual numbers already prepared in this way.

That single frog – conspicuously real as it seems in the upside-down way of statistics (the smaller the number, the more convincing the contents), conspicuous also as suffering in the ‘severe’ category – may be taken as an example. What sort of research uses this one frog? It appears to be the last of a tradition, for there were 322 frogs in the university’s 2015 research, 226 the next year, then 155, then 89, and none in 2019 or 2020. Are we to welcome this as an instance of successful replacement of animals in research, with one last savage experiment, or is it simply that other species are now being preferred to the frogs?

Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) isolated on white

There may be a simpler explanation. This variety of frog, of the genus Xenopus (we aren’t told what species), is commonly used in developmental biology, the science of growth in health and disease. It is therefore most studied as eggs and embryos – in other words, too early in its life-cycle to enjoy the protection of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act or be counted for Home Office purposes. Certainly there’s no obvious decline in such research; a European Xenopus Resource Centre is located in Portsmouth, and a recent journal article promoting such research speaks breezily of “the international Xenopus community”. For some reason, then, this Oxford Xenopus may just have outgrown its anonymity and accordingly had to be counted. At any rate, this one individual probably represents a fully-exploited population of frogs, labouring for science at Oxford beneath the Home Office radar. But that’s just speculation, of course.

In the past, this blog has noted mis-statements in the university’s animal research pages (and had them corrected). I’ve deduced from those errors that the scientists themselves neither compose nor even read the pages. They should be doing both, so that the knowledge published there could be up to date and usefully informative to outsiders.

Notes and references:

Oxford University’s latest statistics appear some way down the page here:

The Home Office’s definition of ‘procedure’ is taken from its Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO, 2014, pp. 7 & 10.

The Oxford University Gazette is quoted from the issue of 17 February 2021, Supplement (2), p.267, online at file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/University%20of%20Oxford%20Gazette%202020-2021%20-%20Vol%20151%20(redacted).pdf

The illustration shows Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frog, which is probably the species being used in Oxford laboratories. Outside Africa, it is regarded as an ‘invasive species’, much like Homo sapiens, to whom it also has some physiological similarities which favour it for research purposes. Illustration credit: Shuttlecock, at, a site which also gives more details about this frog’s utility in research.  

Neither Wise nor God-like: the Inglorious Story of Mankind

Among the many voices offering to interpret world affairs as they stumble from bad to worse is that of Yuval Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On such things as climate change, Covid-19, the invasion of Ukraine, he gives his thoughts in the press, in interviews, at international conferences, through his own online platforms, and even by means of a limited company called Sapienship. He seems less like an individual academic, more a sort of international enterprise, and in fact he is an enterprise of sorts, or at least a team – which is the word he frequently uses for the group of people that manages him and his works. No wonder, then, that the modest few lines of acknowledgements that went with his first foray into popular history, Sapiens: a Brief History of Mankind (originally published in Hebrew in 2011, English edition 2015) had expanded to a fulsome two pages by the time of Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (English edition 2016).

It’s on the very great success of those two books, with help from a more recent collection of essays titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (“a thrilling journey through today’s most urgent issues”, says the publisher), that Harari’s celebrity is founded. Sapiens and Homo Deus are large and ambitious works, covering the past, present, and future of our species in about 450 pages each. The first of them shows how Homo sapiens broke away from the other human species, and from fellow-animals at large, and came to dominate the world. Our crucial advantage, Harari argues, was co-operation: not merely of the herd or tribal type already practised by other species, but on a huge pyramid-building or Manhatten-project scale. This sort of co-operation was made possible by language, and made effective by shared myths or “stories” (a favourite word of Harari’s), which have been able to bind even far-distant strangers together into collaborative or at least compatible effort: not just ideological stories like Christianity or liberalism, but social constructs like states, corporations, and above all money. The second book, Homo Deus, follows the species into the future, where he makes a try at divinity and immortality (I say ‘he’ because, as world-subjugator, sapiens feels like a ‘he’, though Harari writes ‘she’), but then comes up against a new and less vulnerable contender for supremacy: artificial intelligence.

Sapiens cover

These are not celebrations of Home sapiens. In fact both titles come to feel bitterly ironic as the narratives progress. The species appears at its modest best in the conditions provided for it by nature, as hunter-gatherer tribes. The agricultural revolution, which turned humans into stationary owners of land and animals, is seen by Harari as a disaster, not just for the animals (of whose part in it, more later) but for the humans too. The chapter that recounts it is titled ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’, and Harari derives from it one of his major generalisations, characteristically illustrating it not just with the invention of farming but also with the coming of e-mail: “Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.”

For although humans in some sense invented history when they used their large brains to emancipate themselves from mere biology, they have always been more its victims than its managers. Harari shows (though he doesn’t expressly say) that the term ‘sapiens’, coined for us in the eighteenth century by the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, is a laughable misnomer. A much more accurate word would be ‘habilis’ (clever, dexterous), except that it’s now unavailable, having been appropriated for one of the extinct or conjectural Homo species. As for Homo deus, into which sapiens may hope to transform himself, Harari foresees that human god-likeness would almost certainly be an accomplishment within reach of an elite only, a matter of “upgrading a handful of superhumans” (and we can guess the sort of people they’d be). But anyway, the project will become irrelevant, because the “tremendous religious revolution” already now taking place is set to apotheosize not man but the data handled by artificial intelligence (the final chapter of this second book is titled ‘The Data Religion’). “Once this mission is accomplished,” suggests Harari, Homo sapiens will vanish.”

Homo Deus cover

Neither wise nor god-like, then, and of course the delinquencies and blunders of sapiens have been most steadily and consistently felt by his fellow-animals. Early on in Homo Deus, Harari says “Some readers may wonder why animals receive so much attention in a book about the future.” His answer, a slightly disingenuous one, is that our relations with the other animals “is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.” Disingenuous because it’s very clear that he minds what’s happened to the animals not so much as a caution to our self-interest, but rather as a terrible wrong in itself, and he minds that wrong a lot more than he seems to mind “how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans”. That’s partly because his great sweep across human history suggests that subduing and even extirpating this “deadliest species ever in the 4-billion-year history of life on earth” would be quite a planet-friendly and well-justified next step, whomever it’s taken by. More obviously, the wrong to animals has really happened and shows no signs of abatement.

In both the books, Harari devotes many pages to descriptions of the ruthlessness of animal husbandry. It was bad enough in its first days, but even in the early chapters of Sapiens, when we’re still deep in the past, he shows in some detail what it has now come to in the mass cruelties of modern factory farming. By page 425, when we’ve had time to notice how much of human advancement in health, comfort, and mere numbers, has been plundered from the life-potential of these animals, he concludes that “industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” He has by this point reviewed the Spanish destruction of the Inca and Aztec peoples, the slave trade of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the aggressive Europeanization of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, and many other horrors. Recall also that Harari is himself Jewish, and his first audience were Israeli students (Sapiens started life as a lecture series). It is, then, a bold and determined statement to make, and one, incidentally, which he has repeated in at least one recent interview.

Harari does include laboratory animals in this record of exploitation, but he makes no equivalent survey or complaint of their experience. Rather, he uses results from animal research to support a larger theme of the books, that animals have more sentience, more talent, more value than humans have found it convenient to recognise. Thus Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments in maternal deprivation, evidencing the passion of the maternal bond in mammal nature, are accepted as science, and used to condemn the violation of that bond in dairy farming. The swim-test, which puts rats in a tube of water and times their willingness, with and without anti-depressant medication, to struggle in the hope of escape, is reported by Harari as showing that rodents must be supposed to have “human-like emotions”. He does not conclude that in these cases the findings themselves show the experiments should never have been undertaken (though he does call Harlow’s “shockingly cruel”). Reviewing some less intrusive research into the intelligence of pigs, carried out at Pennsylvania State University in the 1990s, he mentions without comment, perhaps even as an entertaining detail, that the pigs were christened Hamlet and Omelette – a patronizing vulgarity which ought surely to be derided. The animals, notably the monkeys, that are being used in the cause of cyborgism (enhancements of human mental and physical powers, a major theme in Homo Deus) go unmentioned.

In short, these books are disappointing on the subject of animal research. (Oddly enough, Harari is also disappointingly equivocal, in his interviews, on the merits of veganism, a subject not touched on at all in either of the books, unless I’ve missed it.) Still, he clearly means to promote animals in human estimation, and these various research instances, showing as they do the quality of non-human animal minds and emotions, cumulatively enforce what Harari says in a late chapter of Sapiens about the pursuit of happiness:

When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

That, however, is what history – as piloted, or at least fronted, by humans – has consistently done. For of course the special importance and indeed sanctity of sapiens himself is another of those ‘stories’ that he tells. But it seems that the coming of Dataism, even if it never does quite subvert humanity, will not do the other animals any good either. Since, as imagined by Harari, it countenances only whatever can create the data it grows by, then “value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.” Animals cannot do this, and therefore, for instance, “all the experiences of wolves – as deep and complex as they may be – are worthless.”

In fact, those formerly dominant ‘-isms’ – theism, capitalism, humanism – have already gone a long way to make animal experience “worthless”, except in special condescensions (don’t muzzle your ox when he’s treading out the corn, don’t cause ‘unnecessary’ suffering, etc.). And as you’ll have noticed, Harari’s ‘Dataism’, sinister as it sounds, is not an easy thing to envisage, not very convincing or even intelligible (perhaps that’s its secret weapon). But then he doesn’t ask us to believe in it, only to think about it or to worry about whatever else we may think is preparing to supplant us. And supposing we can imagine something worse than sapiens in charge of the world, at least Harari’s account of the human regime makes it just as easy to imagine something a whole lot better.

You’ll feel that these two books don’t say anything new about the plight of animals. Certainly they aren’t works of research or innovative philosophy. (Harari’s academic speciality is, or was, military history; academic reviewers tend to think he should have stuck with what he knows best.) Their novelty consists in shrewd summaries, speculations, and insights. It consists also in their very sombre and corrective version of that familiar theme, what it means or has meant to be human (compare, for instance, the treatments by Steven Pinker and Rutger Bregman, discussed elsewhere in this blog). The first section or sub-chapter of Sapiens is titled ‘An Animal of No Significance’, and the last, almost with a sneer, ‘The Animal that Became a God’. The book’s penultimate sentence summarizes humanity as “wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” So this is human history not just as it affects sapiens himself but as it has been felt by the other animals and by the rest of the planet. We have good reason to want everyone else to read these books, even if we don’t get round to it ourselves.

And the great thing is that everyone else is reading them. Some of the front covers have been introducing their titles as “The million copy bestseller”, but by now that’s patently an underestimate. There can be few mainstream languages into which the books haven’t been translated. Nor is it just low-life readers like me and passengers at airports ingesting them. Interviewers and other promoters like to dazzle us with names of the books’ eminent admirers: Obama, Gates (“I knew it would spark great conversations round the dinner table”, his blog brightly exclaims about Sapiens: I wonder why that’s such a counter-inducement), Zuckerberg, Netanyahu, Macron. This list of names may not prove anything about the books, but it does show their reach. And since they are books which are surely capable of doing some good, we can take satisfaction in their success and in Harari’s rise to international notice.

Notes and references:

Quotations are taken from Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind (Vintage Books, 2015) and Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (Vintage Books, 2017; first edition in Hebrew, 2015). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, advertised as “an exploration of what it means to be human”, is published by Jonathan Cape, 2018. Rather typically, they are now available as a boxed set of three. I should add that all three books are easy and enjoyable to read: one reviewer, rather unkindly, calls them “infotainment”. Interviews with Yuval Harari in the New Yorker, Guardian, and other publications can easily be found online.

This Coward Cruelty: the Activist Art of William Hogarth

As promised in the previous post, here are some comments on William Hogarth’s series of engravings published in 1751 and titled The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pictures have some topicality anyway, because the exhibition Hogarth and Europe is in its last few days of presenting Tate Britain’s “new ways of looking” at the great man’s work.

You might expect those “new ways” to involve relating this most English of artists to his European fellow-practitioners, and something of that sort is indeed attempted, but it’s not the main theme of the show as signposted in the running commentaries. These are much more interested in the contemporary “inequalities around class, race and gender” which can be found illustrated by the pictures, sometimes with evident purpose on Hogarth’s part, more usually without. The continual nagging on these subjects has keenly irritated the exhibition’s reviewers, who have spoken variously of “pious captions”, “sanctimonious wall-texts”, “self-righteous sociological lectures” and “wokeish nonsense”.

Of course there is good reason for reading morals in or even into Hogarth’s art, if rather less for reading politics there. Many of the pictures – and those the best known and most original to Hogarth – are indeed presented as moral tales, told in sequences of images, with their consequentialist morality announced or at least hinted at in their titles: The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, Industry and Idleness. But ruthless as the moral justice is that punishes vice in these paintings, there is much more fecklessness than vice to be seen in them, and more largely a generous and boisterous acceptance of what a near-contemporary critic and biographer of Hogarth, Allan Cunningham, called “the follies and frivolities of the passing scene”. While the central characters are contriving their own personal ruins, there goes on around them a vulgar confusion of human life which Hogarth does not seem particularly indignant about: drinking, petty thieving, snogging, urinating, larking of all kinds.

Only in one of these moral series that Hogarth created, namely The Four Stages of Cruelty, is there something like the strict and concentrated censoriousness that the Tate’s wall-texts are looking for, and ironically enough it’s on a theme in which the Tate commentators seem to have no interest at all. Indeed the series itself is not shown in the exhibition or, as far as I could find, even mentioned. And yet Hogarth himself spoke with unusual earnestness of it, saying that he created the engravings “in the hope of, in some degree, correcting that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind”.

Accordingly,his approach to them had a single-mindedness of purpose nearly unique in his work (Gin Lane has it too). Most of the other series began as paintings, from which engravings were made for more popular sales; the Four Stages were engravings from the start, and were made and sold as cheaply as possible, so as not to be “too expensive for the persons to whom they were intended to be useful”. Stylistically Hogarth wanted “a strong bold stroke” rather than “delicate engraving”: not just as cheaper to make, but as more immediately eloquent of the ugly scenes (“expressing them as I felt them”), and also because, since these images “were addressed to hard hearts”, he “preferred leaving them hard”. It’s exactly what the artist Sue Coe means by her phrase “activist art”, and in fact she based her own illustrated narrative of animal cruelty, Pit’s Letter (published in 2000), on these engravings.

Probably it’s an essential feature of such art that it’s distressing to view. Sue Coe says that when people weep in front of her prints of animal suffering, “That, to me, is great – it’s like,You’ve got it!’ ” No doubt that’s why Allan Cunningham, who saw in the Cruelty series “great skill in the grouping, and profound knowledge of character”, none the less wrote “I wish it never had been painted [i.e. engraved].” Better, of course, to say, as Hogarth himself would surely have done, ‘I wish the subject had never been there to paint.’

Hogarth plate 1

Here is the narrative sequence. In Plate 1, as shown, we see boys in a street variously tormenting cats, dogs, and birds. In the centre, the series protagonist Tom Nero (his name being chalked on a wall by a neighbour, with a scrawled gallows above it) hideously maltreats a dog. In Plate 2 we find Nero at work as a hackney coachman. His horse has collapsed with a broken leg, and Nero, now habituated to cruelty, tries to beat the horse back to work. Elsewhere in the street, a donkey is being similarly worked toward death, a sheep beaten, an escaped bull being chased. In Plate 3, Nero’s savagery, thus rehearsed upon animals, has been directed against his pregnant lover. In a lurid moonlit scene, she lies dead with her throat cut, while Nero himself is taken into custody. A discarded letter shows her pathetic loyalty to the man. And lastly, we see in Plate 4 the end foretold by the boy with the chalk: Nero has been hanged, and, in line with the Murder Act of that same year (1751), his body has been made available for dissection. The discarded heart of the corpse (for what’s going on seems to be half-science, half-butchery) is being eaten by a dog.

So the argument of the Four Stages is – partly, at least – that cruelty to animals naturally passes into cruelty to fellow-humans, and thence into crime, disgrace and degradation. That is the human story to it, one that continues to be told in police files and reports today. Thus far, the ethics might be as the contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Kant had them: one should be kind to animals because it’s good practice for treating humans well.

But that detail of the dog in Plate 4 puts the matter rather differently. Hogarth is giving the animal a kind of come-back (it happens also in Plate 2, where the escaped bull tosses a human into the air, and a nearby dog seems to be entering into the fun). For although the stage-by-stage ‘progress’ in cruelty may be a purely human matter (the downfall of a man habituated to violence), the wrong to animals is of the same character and the same weight as the wrong to humans. Nero’s crime against the woman is shown by that love-note as a cruel betrayal; just so, the dog in Plate 1 licks the hand of the bully tying a bone to his tail. The real difference pictured in the Four Stages is not in the importance of the wrongs, but in the instituted sanctions. The humane man in that hackney coach notes down Nero’s name and number, and perhaps Nero will lose his licence (though I can find no mention in the licensing regulations of the time that horses had to be well treated). But in 1751 the criminal law gave no protection to animals; it is only for violence against the person that Nero is finally punished. The implication of the Four Stages is clear: sanctions ought to begin where cruelty itself does. It took another seventy years for that to start to happen.

Under each of the four pictures there’s a set of verses commenting on the action (written by a poet friend of the artist). One such verse addresses Tom Nero thus:

Inhuman Wretch! say whence proceeds
This coward Cruelty?
What Int’rest springs from barb’rous deeds?
What Joy from Misery?

These questions actually appear under Plate 2, but by that stage there’s a reasonable answer to them: these men have a use for the animals, and mean to effect it. Violence has become a routine of work to them. The stanza really belongs under Plate 1, where the cruelty of the boys is quite gratuitous, practised as something enjoyable in itself, as their gleeful expressions show. One might despairingly answer that the “barb’rous deeds”, far from being ‘inhuman’, derive from a trait or flaw peculiar to the species: the restless ego and its search for acknowledgement. But a more particular explanation seems also to be offered.

In the top left corner, at a high window, two boys have tied bladders to a cat and launch the poor animal into the air. It’s a type of experiment: will the cat float or fall? Something of the same depraved curiosity is present in the other acts of cruelty. In all of them, humans are trying things out on animals to see what will happen. One or two of these cruelties distinctly call to mind more formalized animal researches: the two cats induced to fight (see Roger Ulrich’s experiments in the 1960s, featured in this blog), a bird blinded (see any of the countless experiments that have involved depriving animals of sight, hearing, etc.). And therefore perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in Plate 4 that goes beyond Tom Nero’s case.


That scene of dissection is apparently set in the premises of the Company of Surgeons, just then being established as a separate and learned profession (separate, that is, from the traditional barber-surgeons): hence the royal arms set up above the president’s chair, and other signs of professional dignity. It may be that what Hogarth’s first biographer John Ireland calls “disgusting and nauseous objects” are unsurprising, if still deplorable, in such a context. More concerning is that these medical men, as Hogarth depicts them, “seem to have just as much feeling as the subject [i.e. Tom Nero] now under their inspection” – that is, none at all.  Ireland concludes that “frequent contemplation of sanguinary scenes hardens the heart, deadens sensibility, and destroys every tender sensation.” Worse still, Hogarth leaves us unsure whether Nero himself, fixed to a pulley and eviscerated, really is without feeling. He seems to be crying out, as if suffering vivisection rather than dissection at the hands of these unfeeling men.

It may be the end of Nero’s career, then, but this shocking final act of the series doesn’t wrap up the story. It looks into the future, and warns that what Hogarth calls “hard hearts” may need correcting in professional places as well as in the streets – may in fact be more intractable there, for these are not powerless urchins satisfying idle curiosity, but members of a proud and established collective, whose curiosity had the honourable name of ‘natural philosophy’ or, as it would come to be called, science.


                *            *          *             

William Hogarth especially liked dogs. They appear in odd corners of many of his pictures, pursuing their own interests. He put one of his own admired pugs into a self-portrait, as if to take pride in their similar personalities. But in his garden at Chiswick, the pets’ cemetery seems to have accommodated other deceased animal friends too. Everything about his Four Stages engravings was aimed at making them not profitable or liked but “useful” in the service of animals, and he said of them, “If they have had this effect, and checked the progress of cruelty, I am more proud of having been the author, than I should be of having painted Raphael’s Cartoons.”

Notes and references:

The exhibition Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain until 20 March. Quotations are from the pages of the gallery’s web-site devoted to it. The reviews appeared in various papers and journals, and seem to have been unanimous in admiring the pictures but ridiculing or at least deprecating the Tate’s commentary on them.

Contemporary quotations from Allan Cunningham, John Ireland, and Hogarth himself are taken from the compilation Anecdotes of William Hogarth, edited and published by John Nichols in 1833, pp. 64-5 and 233-7.

Sue Coe is quoted from two interviews, one in 2012, now online here, , and one in 2017 for the online journal Animal Liberation Currents here:

Her own activist art for animals is reviewed in this blog here:

The post in this blog about Roger Ulrich’s research into the origins of violence is here:

Other information and ideas about Hogarth come from Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding, Profile Books 2021, and this article in The Eighteenth Century, vol.42, Spring 2001: ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, by James A. Steintrager.

The illustrations show Plates 1 and 4 of the Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and Self-Portrait with Pug, painted in 1745.

Vivotecnia Redivivus: a Disgraced Company Rides Again

Last April, in a post about maltreatment of animals at the Vivotecnia contract research company in Madrid, I wrote that “the public and official response is certain to ruin it” [see ‘Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business’, linked in the notes below]. A correction is now necessary to that naïve assessment of the situation. Vivotecnia is not at all ruined. Among the contracts continuing to keep it busy are four with public institutions. The most recent of these has been agreed with the University of Barcelona and its partners at the Barcelona Science Park (a University venture); 38 beagle puppies are being used to test a therapy for hepatic fibrosis (more about this project later). Altogether, these four contracts are worth over a million euros, comfortably mopping up the cash penalty that Vivotecnia has been required to pay to the Comunidad de Madrid, which is the licensing authority for its animal research.

dogs at vivotecnia-06

For yes, Vivotecnia was indeed punished. The fine for two “very serious” and 23 “serious” infractions of Spanish law 32/2007 (on the “exploitación, transporte, experimentación y sacrificio” of kept animals) was set at €37,827, about one third of the maximum possible. Vivotecnia’s licence to use animals was suspended, but for a few weeks only, and no animals were removed even temporarily from the company’s perfunctory care. The restoring of the licence is said to have been conditional upon certain “corrective and preventive measures”, including CCTV in the labs and a veterinary team responsible for the animals’ welfare (was there not one before?).

That seems to be the new situation at Vivotecnia, then, though in fact there is little certainty about it, rather less than there was when at least someone inside the lab was recording what went on. The company itself has naturally kept quiet about the whole business, and official statements have been only modestly informative. One of the Spanish government’s own ministers has complained of an “information wall” blocking visibility to the public and to the national government. As this suggests, there is a much greater delegation of laboratory supervision and discipline in Spain than obtains, for instance, in the UK. Most of the responsibility is vested in the sites themselves, with accordingly more scope for institutional delinquencies of the sort filmed at Vivotecnia.

An information wall, certainly, but no lack of uplifting wordage aimed at calming the commotion. As an instance, the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE) published a statement a few weeks ago, deploring the various hostile and inaccurate “news items” in circulation. It sketches out, instead, the “reality of research with animal models in Spain”. This research, it seems, is not only “essential” for human and animal health, but is also “strictly regulated and supervised”, with a commitment to “transparency” supported by more public institutions than any such agreements in other countries can boast. (Vivotecnia is not signed up to it, of course, and indeed is not named or even hinted at in COSCE’s far-from-transparent statement.) As part of its reassurances, COSCE puts special emphasis on the efficacy of two varieties of ethical machinery for safeguarding animal welfare and driving down the number of animals used: the 3Rs principles (reduction, refinement, replacement) and the local ethics committees.

On Vivotecnia’s own web-site there is a very similar account of the necessity and efficient regulation of animal research, with likewise no allusion to the recent scandal. But that scandal has highlighted the weaknesses of the much-flourished 3Rs. Most of the testing carried out by such contract research organizations as Vivotecnia is mandated by law; there can be no question of ‘replacement’, then. Besides, even at their best these principles only govern the design of an experiment or trial; they have nothing to say about the treatment of animals once the experiment starts, still less about the general husbandry of them. I suspect, anyway, that because so much of the work done at CROs is necessarily routine in design – dosing with a substance in such and such quantities, over such and such a period of time – the 3Rs are appreciated more as a PR point than as a prompt to good science and ethics.

That suspicion is surely confirmed by the one item posted, on 19 July 2019, under ‘Latest News’ on Vivotecnia’s web-site. This announces an exciting collaboration with Spain’s Centre for Cancer Research in “the complex task of developing animal models of lung cancer induced by the same inducing agent as in humans, that is tobacco smoke, and with a molecular biology and histology as close as possible to that found in smoking lung cancer patients.” Vivotecnia, with its “ample experience . . . of exposing different animal species to toxic agents such as tobacco” will do that part of the work, and also the subsequent testing of different therapies. The point is that “To date, there are no animal models of lung cancer induced by tobacco”. This project to create them is, then, the precise opposite of ‘replacement’. As to whether such research is “essential”, I need say nothing.

The ethics committees are not, any more than the 3Rs, the controlling force they’re claimed to be – at least, if Vivotecnia’s example is in any way representative. As I’ve mentioned, these local bodies carry much of the responsibility for ensuring animal welfare in Spanish laboratories, and they are themselves little supervised from above. Vivotecnia’s own committee, it emerges, included in its membership three of the company’s managers, including its founder and CEO, Andrés König. These are people whose primary interest would presumably be the commercial success of the company rather than the welfare of its animals, and who would have, also, the authority to insist on their point of view at committee meetings. König himself is not a vet by training, as those who set up these animal research businesses often are. His special expertise, we’re told on Linkedin (told, presumably, by the man himself), is in “company start-up, business model definition and implementation, strategic design and execution, as well as funding and exiting of financial investors”: vital skills, no doubt, but not likely to do the animals any good.

However, perhaps the composition of the committee did not matter very much, for there is some doubt whether it was holding meetings at all. An account of the situation, published in the Spanish paper El Pais, calls it “el comité ‘zombie’ “ and reports that many of the 177 employees at Vivotecnia, notably those of them doing the actual handling of the animals during tests, were unaware of its existence.

That fine of €37,827 was an institutional matter, imposed upon Vivotecnia by the regional authority. There is also a judicial proceeding under way, the prosecution of some individuals for animal cruelty. This will take much longer to reach conclusions, if it does so at all, but already the employee who secretly filmed the place – a veterinary technician called, perhaps pseudonymously, Carlotta Saorsa – has been giving preliminary evidence to a judge. It’s this evidence that has provided much of what’s now known about Vivotecnia’s way of working, and that has been keeping the scandal in the public eye, in Spain at least. The newspaper El Pais has been especially vigorous in reporting it all.


In such circumstances, you may wonder why the University of Barcelona and its other research partners should take this short cut to notoriety of inviting Vivotecnia to collaborate in the studies of hepatic fibrosis. The university has recently defended its action in a public statement, insisting that it has “exhaustively reviewed” the terms of the project to make sure it will conform to all regulations. The contract, we’re told, went through a “scrupulous process of tender”, and Vivotecnia’s was the winning bid. Poor university, now harried by demonstrations, its walls daubed with ‘Stop Vivotecnia’ and similar advice! The simplest explanation at present suggested in the Spanish media for what seems a wilful blunder is that Vivotecnia’s winning bid was in fact the only one received. But anyway, what has embarrassed the university will very likely have helped in the brisk rehabilitation of Vivotecnia.

It’s a very unpleasant story. And the scenes of careless maltreatment and deliberate cruelty in the video are now substantiated by that evidence given by Carlotta Saorsa about the lab culture at Vivotecnia. Expressing concern for the animals was apparently regarded as foolishness: the senior staff were uninterested, and the others (such as those seen in the film) ridiculed it. By the way, Vivotecnia claims in its web-site that care for the animals is not only “of paramount importance” as a matter of “our moral responsibility”, but also essential to “research excellence”; no surprise, then, to hear that test results were being falsified when things went wrong. Even the science, for which these animals suffered, was unsound.

william hogarth the four stages of cruelty_ second stage of cruelty

All this information has come to us through the bravery and dedication of one person. It’s the situation so vividly represented in the series of prints which the artist William Hogarth published in 1751 under the title The Four Stages of Cruelty. The scenes of cruelty to animals that Hogarth pictured in them show callousness as a catching disease, entailing misery upon larger and larger animals as the sick persons grow into adulthood, until humans too become the victims. But in each of the four pictures there is one humane person, hardly noticeable but remonstrating or at least unhardened, who keeps the way open to moral rescue. (Hogarth himself was one such; more about him next time.) Then the rest of us can do our numerous and much easier bit to make that way broad and permanent. In the present case, it can include signing the petitions linked immediately below, one of them to save and re-home the 38 beagles (if that’s still possible), the other a more general appeal to the European Commission to confirm and expedite its declared course toward a scientific research scene with no animals in it. Please sign if you can!

Notes and references:

The petition ‘Salvar a los 38 cachorros Beagle’ (Save the 38 beagle puppies) can be signed here: There’s a separate English version here: And Humane Society International’s petition to the European Commission can be signed here:

The original post in this blog about Vivotecnia is here:

The complaint from Spain’s Minister for Social Rights is reported here, with also some insight into the way powers over animal research are distributed in Spain:

The COSCE statement, issued last month, can be seen here:

Vivotecnia’s ‘latest news’ about the smoking research is featured here:

The ‘zombie’ piece in El Pais, one of several excellent reports on the Vivotecnia subject, is online here:

The University of Barcelona’s defensive statement about the beagle research is here:

The illustrations show (1) beagle dogs at Vivotecnia, (2) writing on a wall at the University of Barcelona, and (3) a detail from the second of Hogarth’s series of prints, showing the coachman Tom Nero (whose career of violence the prints primarily narrate) thrashing his collapsed horse, while some lawyers riding in the vehicle look to their own safety, and one man takes a note of Nero’s identity.