The Romance of Vivisection

The artist Emile-Edouard Mouchy painted La leçon de physiologie sur un chien in 1832. The picture now lurks somewhere in the Wellcome Collection, that huge archive and museum of medical science assembled by the pharmacist and businessman Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), and visitable at the Wellcome Trust headquarters on the Euston Road in London. There haven’t been many serious Mouchy painting.jpgartistic attempts at the subject of vivisection, for very obvious reasons. Fewer still are those that treat the subject without express distaste, but that is what Mouchy seems to be doing in his leçon. For that reason, no doubt, the picture is sometimes used for illustration in neutral or defensive accounts of animal research, though never, so far as I have seen, with any further comment. Some further comment is therefore what I shall attempt to provide now.

Everything about La leçon shows physiology as a new and as yet un-institutionalized subject. The setting seems to be a private room, perhaps an attic. The furniture is unscientific and inadequate: seats for a lucky few only (which makes for a fine artistic composition). But it’s evidently a rising subject, too: the scientist is a young man, addressing youths. The whole scene looks to the future; even that second dog implies a miserable succession of animals ahead. And those dusty-looking skeletons relegated to a shelf at the back: they hint that physiology is taking over from anatomy as the key biological discipline and new foundation for medical studies (though anatomy remained indispensable, of course). And that was indeed a fact, unhappily illustrated by the recent appointment, to the chair of medicine at the Collège de France, of the notorious pioneer of vivisection François Magendie.

As for Mouchy’s vivisector himself, there in the centre of the picture, he glows with light, patently a luminary. The picture makes a romantic hero of him, much as the artist was about to do more plausibly for his chosen subject in La Mort de Thomas Becket (1834). In fact Mouchy seems to be raising him beyond even that. Surely there’s something familiar about the scene in that upper room, with the young acolytes grouped around their teacher in various postures of earnest attention or whispered comment, six on either side? It’s a version of the last supper, as described in the Christian gospels and in many works of art subsequently – so many as to constitute a genre of its own, and one which was certainly well-known to Mouchy.

The vivisector, then, is to be imagined as investing a great and universal truth in these young students, who will take it out into the future. And something more than that must be implied in this re-casting of the last supper: this new truth, the world as revealed by the uninhibited practise of experimental science, is to supplant the old Christian one as the governing authority in human (Western, at least) minds. Certainly that’s what did happen during the nineteenth century, and vivisection was the crucial setting for the contest of values which it involved. Hence the title which the novelist Ouida (real name Maria Louise Ramé) gave to her brilliant attack of 1893 on vivisection: ‘The New Priesthood’. By then it was a familiar enough idea, and indeed had constituted a deliberate policy for science’s promoters (for Thomas Huxley, for instance, of whom more below). But it took many years of struggle and habituation before this shift of cultural authority could be accepted. To represent that triumph as Mouchy did in 1832 must have seemed a shocking and blasphemous hyperbole. At any rate, the painting was apparently refused exhibition at the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris expressly because of its subject-matter.

Let’s consider the dogs themselves now, something that the students are plainly not doing. Their eyes follow the master’s knife as it points at the wound and the exposed interior of the subject dog. Their postures and expressions of rapt attention suggest that they hardly hear the dog’s howls, certainly are unmoved by them. The barking of the second dog is the only indication of sympathetic interest anywhere in the picture. In this case, then, the necessary silence of a painting is itself expressive: you can choose to hear that noise or merely to register it. For a modern audience, in fact, the scene may be more reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experimental study of obedience to authority than of the last supper (see note below): under the direction of a master, these malleable young men, with their sensitive faces and cultured modishness, are learning indifference to animal suffering, a terrible and portentous lesson.

Does the artist have that moral dimension of the lesson in mind? I feel sure that he doesn’t, however plainly present in the picture it is. He knew his duty as an artist to the animal form, and he represents the distressed movements of the dogs with vivid accuracy. But he seems to draw no conclusion. There is one hint of dissonance just behind the vivisector, where a student puts his hand on another’s arm and points to the door. He might be saying (should be saying) ‘I’m having no part in this!’, but that’s simply imputation. He might even be intended for the one dissonant element present in all representations of the last supper – the uneasy and disloyal Judas – but that seems too literal-minded. It’s true that the making public by dissidents of supposed intra-professional scenes like this one was soon to become a vital part of the moral challenge to vivisection, but for all his foresight the artist was not in tune with that part of the future. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

Anyway, Mouchy does indeed in this picture seem to foresee that physiology would become, as Thomas Huxley called it in 1854, “the experimental science par excellence”, and in becoming so would help in what Huxley called “the destruction of things that have been holy”, and the rise of a new god, “the God of science”. It’s another vulnerable god, however. As the Christian sense of what nature meant gave ground (and one can’t pretend that it had ever served the other animals well), newer ways of understanding and valuing life were prompted into being, notably by the indignation which scenes of the sort pictured by Mouchy aroused. The absolute right of mankind to make the rest of the world its servant was put to critical and creative question.

The Wellcome Collection has no special interest in that ethical dimension, but it has some items which do illustrate it. As a corrective to Mouchy’s romantic humanism, vivisection cartoon.jpgthen, here’s a cartoon from seventy-five or so years later, as published in the Berlin satirical paper Lustige Blätter. “Now, no sentimental nonsense, please!” says this vivisector, mocking the habit of his profession: “The principle of unrestricted research demands the vivisection of this human in the interests of the health of the whole animal kingdom.”

 

 

Notes and references:

The image of Mouchy’s leçon is made publicly available on the Wellcome Collection’s web-site, with a few further details, including the Salon’s rejection of the picture, here: http://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1202391?lang=eng

The cartoon image is likewise available here, dated c. 1910, artist not named: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/xm8wtpm4?query=vivisection%20cartoon&page=1

The “upper room” is specified in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, though they also say that it’s a large room, which indeed it would have to be to accommodate twelve at table.

Ouida’s ‘New Priesthood’ article was published in The New Review, vol.VII, pp.151-164.

Stanley Milgram was a professor in social psychology. In his classic series of experiments, the human subjects believed that they were assisting in a study of how humans learn. They were required to use incremental electric shocks upon their unseen but clearly heard students as a way of enforcing memory (the ‘students’ were actors). In reality the point of interest was how far these subjects were willing to go with the supposed shocks in their obedience to professional authority. See his book Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row, 1974).

The Huxley quotations appear in Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp.56, 104, and 106.

Advertisements

Two Anniversaries, One Lesson

Today is International Day of Non-Violence; Thursday 4th October is World Animal Day.

To take today’s anniversary first: it was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, as a day which UN members and associated organisations are invited to celebrate in “an appropriate manner” with a view to encouraging “a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. I can’t find in the publicity for this most worth-while venture any suggestion that refraining from violating the bodies and rights of animals, even just for the day, might constitute an “appropriate manner”. However, amongst the online support for the Day of Non-Violence there is a selection of quotations where, tailing along after Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, and other champions of peace, the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages.”

This was certainly the model of non-violence promoted and practised by the man whose birthday in 1869 the UN day commemorates: that is, Mohandas Gandhi, commonly titled (but not pleasingly to him) ‘Mahatma’, meaning great or perfected soul. The word for non-violence which Gandhi himself commonly used was the Hindu ahimsa, and just as Edison spoke of “the goal”, so Gandhi saw ahimsa as something to be continually yearned towards, against the resistance of worldly impossibility:

Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living – eating, drinking and moving about – necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.

“incessantly strives”: this strenuous reaching for the just life is evident in Gandhi’s earliest adult days as a law student in London. A vow made to his mother not to eat meat or even eggs (that is, as a violation of Hindu teaching) was the origin of his vegetarianism, but he soon came to decide for this diet on its own ethical merits, and then, characteristically, to regard promoting it as “my mission”. Starting a vegetarian society in Bayswater was his first public action. But to pursue, in the London of the late nineteenth century, what in his case was a nearly vegan diet (he reluctantly continued to use milk) was an almost comically difficult project, especially for one living in lodgings and hotels, to whom every menu was written in a foreign language. Later on, much more demanding trials came to test his convictions. When members of his family, or he himself, fell ill, doctors would indignantly decry his dietary rule. When, for instance, his young son Manilal had typhoid, the doctor urged Gandhi to let him prescribe meat and eggs, saying “Your son’s life is in danger.” But Gandhi, “haunted” by this responsibility, nevertheless insisted that “Even for life itself we may not do certain things.” All this is DSC05074.JPGrecorded in his autobiography, where also he says “To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

The doctrine of ahimsa governed also, of course, his attitude to the use of animals in medical research. Although Gandhi led the campaign to free India of British rule, he admired many things about Western life and culture, including its “scientific spirit”. He titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, characterizing his life, in that title and in his introduction to the book, as a series of essays towards his moral and spiritual ideals, never completed or absolute. So he took his crucial image of growth and struggle from the “scientific spirit” of the West. But he also said

I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. I detest the unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science and humanity so-called, and all the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence.

How indeed can a proponent of non-violence say otherwise, or is there, somewhere in the UN’s documentation for the day, a list of permissible exceptions?

But even ahimsa, still there as Gandhi’s preoccupation in the last lines of his autobiography (“the only means for the realization of truth is ahimsa), was itself part of a larger vision of a more literal life-sympathy. This vision is most poetically expressed in Gandhi’s praise of the cow and its sanctity in the Hindu faith:

The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives … Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.

I shall return to that vision in a moment. Meanwhile, that second anniversary: World Animal Day on 4th October. This observance, a more highly organized and practical occasion than the non-violence day, was initiated in 1925 by Heinrich Zimmermann, editor of the Berlin journal Mensch und Hund, and is now sponsored by the Naturewatch Foundation. The date which Zimmermann chose for it was, naturally enough, the feast day of the late twelfth-century saint Francis of Assisi.

Here was a Gandhi of his own time: similarly a devotee of poverty and humility, wearing the simplest peasant clothing; a forceful organizer, travelling and exhorting on behalf of his ideals (formalized in the Franciscan Order); strict with himself and others, but wholly kind-hearted; evidently a powerfully attractive personality; and of course a man persuaded of the kinship of all the created world.

The stories which record Francis’s feeling for non-human animals, as told for instance in the early biography by St Bonaventura, are no doubt many of them legends rather than sound recollections: his preaching to an attentive congregation of birds; the mutual affection of Francis and a “sister cicada”; the returning of a “fine, live fish”, presented as a gift to him, back into the lake, where the fish “played in the water nigh the man of  God, and, as though drawn by love of him, would in no wise leave the boat-side until it had received his blessing.” But even as embellishments rather than facts, these stories do certainly express the mind of Francis as known from his attested life and writing.

Perhaps more significantly the stories express a tradition of broad sympathy in Christian and pre-Christian minds, which disposed them gladly to imagine and believe in such free communications. In the introduction to his book of animal-friendly liturgies, Animal Rites, the theologian Andrew Linzey sees this tradition as having reached “its fullest flowering in the life of St Francis of Assisi”: fullest, because it was subsequently  pushed out by a type of spirituality “whose primary impulse is to gain knowledge through the exercise of analytical intelligence”. This newer line of theology did not just distrust the intuitive character of the old sense of kinship, but turned against nature itself as binding humanity to the flesh and the world. It’s a hopeful sign of recovery, then, that Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope in 2013.

And, like Gandhi again, Saint Francis did not feel for animals merely a sentiment of friendliness and sympathy, as for other but alien lives. St Bonaventura says of Francis

When he bethought him of the first beginning of all things, he was filled with a yet more overflowing charity, and would call the dumb animals, howsoever small, by the names of brother and sister, forasmuch as he recognised in them the same origin as in himself.

You remember Gandhi’s phrase “identity with all that lives”. Accidents of place and period fall away, for it’s a truth perennially visible: to the eye of faith in these two men, to the eye of science in Charles Darwin, to the political eye in Richard Ryder’s term for its opposite, ‘speciesism’. At all times, in all mentalities, there’s a way to see it, because it’s really there.

There’s a scene near the end of Iris Murdoch’s fine philosophical novel The Nice and the Good (1968) which draws together the concerns of these two October anniversaries in a kind of parable. Willy Kost, a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau, has hitherto been unable to speak of his terrible experience, complicated as it was by a fatal lapse of courage on his own part. Very near the end of the book, he at last does speak of it to Theo, a disgraced monk tormented by his own moral troubles. Theo encourages him to tell, but is reluctant to hear, perhaps can’t bear to. Instead, he thinks about an injured seagull recently brought to him by two sorrowing children. Theo had assured them that the bird could not survive, and must be freed from its slow death. He must drown the bird in the sea: “It was the kindest thing, the only thing.” The children run off, crying. Theo does not remove his shoes or roll up his trousers, as he might do for his own comfort, but walks as he is, holding “the soft grey parcel of life”, into the sea. When the bird is dead, he brings it out with him:

He mounted the shingle and walked with wet clinging trouser legs along to the far end of the beach where he knelt and dug with his hands as deep a hole as he could in the loose falling pebbles. He put the dead bird into the hole and covered it up carefully. Then he moved a little away and lay face downward on the stones.

Back in the present, as Willy’s voice continues to tell the story of Dachau, Theo, half listening, “pressed the thought of the seagull against his heart.”

I find myself unequal to explicating this moving episode, and shall leave it to mean what it will.

 

Notes and references:

The United Nations non-violence day is presented online here: http://www.un.org/en/events/nonviolenceday/.   The related quotations appear on a World Economic forum page here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/09/non-violence-day-inspiring-quotes/.

An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth was originally published serially in Gandhi’s weekly journal Young India, during the 1920s. It was first published as a book in two volumes, 1927 and 1929. Quotations here are from the Penguin Books edition of 1982, translated from Gandhi’s original Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, pp. 318, 59, 230, 222. The statement on vivisection came in Young India 17 December 1925, p. 440, and the praise of the cow in Young India 6 October 1921, p. 36, both of them quoted in The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Prabhu and Rao, Jitendra Desai 1967, pp. 426 and 388.

Quotations from the life of St Francis by St Bonaventura are from the text published by J.M.Dent, 1904, pp. 90, 88-9, and 85.

Animal Rites, by Andrew Linzey, was published by SCM Press, 1999. Quotations are from pp. 6 and 8.

Quotations from The Nice and the Good are from the Penguin Books 1969 edition, pp. 355.

The Mirror Test

An article published in August by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, in its online journal bioRXiv, is headed ‘Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test’. The story was picked up in various more popular science publications and in the general media, for this is a much-loved line of research with them – the line in question being clearly announced in the heading which the Daily Mail gave its own account: “Tiny fish is the first to pass the self-awareness test by recognizing its reflection in a mirror.” Or to sum up, in a twitter comment, the sudden claims now being made on behalf of this fish, “Cleaner fish are AWESOME! They show self-awareness.”

The research itself was somewhat less conclusive. Ten of these cleaner wrasse fishes (Labroides dimidiatus) were put into a tank which contained a mirror. At XRF-Labroides_dimidiatusfirst they treated their own reflections as intruders into their territory and acted accordingly. Then, becoming used to the mirror, they behaved in a more improvised manner, apparently testing out the mirror with “idiosyncratic postures and actions”. Finally they seemed to use the mirror more as humans might, showing “self-directed behaviour”. This behaviour most specifically included scraping off marks (hence the ‘mark test’) which had been applied to their skin under anaesthetic and were designed to be undetectable to the fishes except in their own reflections.

The conclusion which the authors reach in their report is that the fishes did indeed show responses of the sort recorded for previously ‘successful’ species, notably chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. Therefore, if those former experiments are to be regarded as having demonstrated self-awareness in the animals concerned, so must these be: cleaner wrasse, then, must be “self-conscious and have a true theory of mind” (i.e. awareness of their own mind and motives, and of those which others may have). However, faced with this ambitious imputation, the authors very reasonably prefer to argue that the test itself is unsound, or at least has been over-interpreted in the past. The test shows, they suggest, no more than an animal’s awareness of its own body (surely a necessity for survival) and the ability to learn that a mirror can enhance this awareness. And indeed other research has shown that pigeons and even ants (please accept the ‘even’ for now) can put a mirror to such use. To claim self-awareness for all these creatures would be to make it an ordinary condition of life – which perhaps it is, but nobody so far does assert this; on the other hand, to claim it for apes and dolphins who ‘pass’ the test, but not for these other less prestigious creatures, would be (I’m delighted to find these scientists saying) “taxonomically chauvinistic” – i.e. speciesist.

The authors of the article end by suggesting that “many more species may be able to pass the test when it is applied in a manner that is sympathetic to their natural biology.” This is surely true, and in fact the ethologists Mark Bekoff and Roberto Gatti have adapted the test for dogs by using the scent of the dogs’ own urine as the ‘reflection’. For of course making it a test of vision, the primary sense for humans but not for every animal, inevitably ties it to what humans do, makes it in fact a set of comparisons with ourselves.

And indeed that is just what it always has been. The hidden or (in more popular versions) expressed question has always been not just ‘How like us is this animal?’ but ‘How nearly as clever as us is this animal?’ Hence the strangely unscientific terminology which has been characteristic of this line of research, and which we’ve already seen instances of. Thus, elephants who seemed to recognize themselves in a mirror, as we were told in the leading professional journal Science a few years ago, “have joined the elite group”. The same journal more recently reported on a similar capacity in some magpies: only two out of the group of birds “passed the test”, but this is apparently “similar to the success rate in chimpanzees.” To sum up: passing the mirror test, so this article says,

is regarded as evidence of knowing who you are – a higher neural skill underlying human abilities such as self-consciousness and self-reflection. Researchers have given the test to a wide variety of species. Most fail.

Fail! It’s a wonder (I know the point has already been made elsewhere in this blog) that these second-string animals manage at all. You’d have to feel sorry for them.

This new research with cleaner wrasse, and its revision of the standard interpretation of such research, ought to help correct the absurd anthropocentrism of the mirror-test tradition, and is accordingly welcome. Even so, it’s sad to see these strange and fascinating animals (already demeaned and abused as decorative fishes for aquaria) emerge into the light of intellectual attention for this irrelevant reason, that they may ‘know who they are’ or at any rate be able to learn how to use a mirror. The beauty and complexity of their niche in coral reefs, where they eat the parasites and other unwanted material off ‘client’ fish, and indeed help to keep the whole coral system clean, makes this mirror test crude and reductive. It’s really a part of the ‘smarter than we thought’ genre of research, which itself has some relation to the amusement of dressing animals in human clothes. It all amounts to preening ourselves in the rest of nature: in short, making a mirror of it, for of course we are, as a species, mirror-addicts.

As to the ethics, the testing of the cleaner wrasse had the blessing of the Animal Care and Use Committee of Osaka City University, where the research was done, and we must suppose that the Committee meant what it said. But these mirror experiments are necessarily tainted with the cruelty of the behavioural psychology tradition, and their earlier versions, at least, show as much. The originator of the MSR test (mirror self-recognition) was Gordon Gallup, from Tulane University’s Psychology Department – always an ominous location for research animals. Gallup published his first report on the subject in 1970. His subjects were four “pre-adolescent” chimpanzees, born in the wild (a happily mirror-free environment, ensuring that they’d had no practice). Here’s what happened to them:

Each animal [the report goes] was placed by itself in a small cage situated in the corner of an otherwise empty room. [Remember that a sense of self is what’s being looked for in the animals who are being treated thus.] After two days of isolation in this situation a full-length mirror was positioned 3.5 metres in front of the cage to provide enforced self-confrontation. Observations of the animal’s behaviour were made by watching his reflection in the mirror through a small hole in an adjacent wall. After 2 days (8 hours each) of exposure to the reflected image, the mirror was moved to within 0.6 m of the cage and left in that position for 8 days … etc.

It’s a miserable performance, with its bleak and meaningless setting, cruel isolation of the juvenile animals, and “enforced self-confrontation”, all tending to rule out natural behaviour, and then the scientists squinting at it all through a hole, like Peeping Toms. (For more on this last particularly unpleasant dimension in animal research, see the petition set up earlier this month by Peta under the heading ‘Sex, Violence, and Vivisection; Are Some Animal Experimenters Psychopaths?’, noted below. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Gallup or his assistants were of this kind.) And although these unpleasant proceedings were offered as “the first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a sub-human form”, the experiments with cleaner wrasse, to say nothing of pigeons and ants, have since suggested that very little was really being discovered.

Reports on MSR in the more popular science press and other media (which, as I say, love all this kind of ‘smarter than we thought’ research) are frequently headed ‘Mirror, Mirror’, to give the science a brightening connection to a familiar saying, the wicked stepmother’s refrain in the folk story of Snow mirror, mirrorWhite. Evidently it’s not done with any serious thought, because that story, so far from representing as an evolutionary boon the sort of self-awareness dramatized by correct use of the mirror, shows it as a source of neurotic restlessness and self-doubt. And that indeed is the mirror’s habitual character in the fictions where it appears. Here’s a trio of the finest of these, with the dominant sentiment in each case: Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘I look into my glass’ (self-pity), Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ (helpless protest against ageing), Shakespeare’s Richard II  (the king calls for a mirror, trying unsuccessfully to authenticate himself). These instances, with their sadly alienated mirror-gazers, don’t prove anything of course, but they represent a tradition of intelligent distrust of the kind of self-awareness that the mirror represents, and the “self-directed” mind and life which go with it.

No doubt this capacity to see and think we know ourselves, as individuals, groups, nations, and even species, has been essential to the rise of humanity, for good or ill. But we should admire the talent cautiously, cease to regard it as one of nature’s top prizes, and cease to teach it (or think we’re teaching it) to other animals. It’s not, after all, what is most needed by us now, or by them at all. The animal-activist son of a professor of psychology in Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts it thus:

We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects. [my italics]

Or as Albert Schweitzer said in one of his Sermons on Reverence for Life, “Wherever you see life – that is you!”

 

Notes and references:

The full article from bioRXiv, posted 21 August 2018, is linked here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/08/21/397067.full.pdf+html  The twitter comment was posted alongside the short version of that article.

The Daily Mail online reported the research on 31 August.

An article on self-awareness in dogs, as tested with urine samples, can be seen at https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/do-dogs-have-sense-self

The Science article about elephants (‘Jumbo Reflections’) appeared in the issue for 30 October 2006, and about magpies (‘The Magpie in the Mirror’) on 19 August 2008. The report by Gordon G. Gallup Jr on his chimpanzee experiments (‘Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition’) appeared in Science on 2 January 1970.

The Peta report and petition can be found at https://headlines.peta.org/sex-violence-vivisection/?utm_source=PETA

The quotation from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is at pp.201-2 of the edition published by Profile Books, 2014. Albert Schweitzer is quoted from A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life (Macmillan, 1998), p.10, translation by David Larrimore Holland. The sermons were originally preached in 1919, in the Church of St Nicolai, Günsbach. The saying is not Schweitzer’s own, of course, but is at least as old as the Hindu Upanishad from which he borrows it.

The sketch of Labroides dimidiatus is by Xavier Romero-Frias, and the illustration of the Snow White story comes from a 1916 re-telling in Europa’s Fairy Book.

 

The Noise of a Great Host

On Saturday 25 August, the Official Animal Rights March, organized by the group called Surge, made its way through central London. There were related marches in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but this particular one started at Millbank, by the Houses of Parliament, and finished in Hyde Park. It was a huge clamorous assemblage – the organizers say ten thousand people. That may be an overstatement, but at any rate the march took about twenty minutes to pass any particular point.

From such a procession, which frees attention from the usual demands of road and pavement traffic, the buildings and other places on the route can be properly observed for once and seen for what they really are. To take just the beginning and end: at first, the huge and over-detailed Houses of Parliament, seat of the earliest of all representative governments and still laboriously governing the nation without any representation at all for the vast majority of its residents, and lastly Hyde Park, notionally an irruption of nature in the middle of a great city, but in reality an exhausted tract of human playground.

And one characterizing thing about the human species as imaged in the scenes passed by the march is its addiction to war. The rallying point was the famous burghers.JPGRodin sculpture in Victoria Gardens, Millbank, titled The Burghers of Calais. These are the six dignitaries who, in legend and perhaps in fact, gave themselves up as a ransom for their city when it surrendered to the English army of Edward III in 1346. A fine image of heroic suffering, then: more generally, an incident in war – the Hundred Years’ War, in fact, which my dictionary of history describes as a “series of wars, punctuated by periods of peace or truce”.

And just such a description of human history as a whole was evidenced along the route which the march took through London. Leaving the burghers of Calais, it next went past the statue of Winston Churchill as war leader in Parliament Square; then on into Whitehall, with its fine Cenotaph built to honour the dead of the Great War; then past the new memorial to the women women's memorial.JPGwho served in World War Two, and the statue of Earl Haig, Commander of the British Army in France in 1915-18; then, the Crimean War Memorial in St James’s; then, just before Marble Arch, the memorial to Bomber Command; and finally, at the southern entrance to Hyde Park, the memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars, with its colossal statue of Achilles, naked except for a sword and shield, a summary of man as mere belligerent. And as if to affirm this story of the perpetual merry-go-round of war, the statue was made from the enemy’s cannon balls.

Most of these memorials are impressive and even moving records of courage and self-sacrifice: seen, that is, from within the species and taking it as given. Seen from without, however, they’re simply a shameful record of delinquency, the evidences of a uniquely disorderly species.

Is there some connection between this war-making and the affluence which is the other most patent characteristic of these streets of central London, with their clubs, restaurants, pompous hotels, and luxury goods displayed in windows? It was a proposition put by the Quaker and zoophilist Thomas Woolman in his Plea for the Poor (1774): “May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses and the garments in which we array ourselves and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.”

Doubtless there is such a connection, but much more directly and essentially this affluence is the plunder from a war which is only not recognised as such because it’s simply a way of life. This is the war which Rachel Carson spoke about in her book Silent Spring (1962): “man’s war against nature”. In her book she habitually uses that phraseology: “our war against the insects”, “war on blackbirds”, “all-out chemical war on the gypsy moth”. She writes that “the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its crossfire,” and she summarises it all as humanity’s “relentless war on life”. Rachel Carson did not mean these expressions for images, but for fact. She showed, indeed, that much of the post-war insecticide novelties of the 1940s and 50s were taking forward research pursued during “man’s war against his own kind” – as memorialized in Whitehall: “post-war” because, thank God, there are indeed “periods of peace or truce” between human wars. There is no truce, however, in the war against nature: a few sanctuaries, perhaps, but peace never.

Rachel Carson was writing about only one branch of that war, the destruction of the lives that compete for food with or otherwise annoy human beings. But all our exploitation of animals fits into that same war and the war mentality. Edward III may have spared the lives of the six burghers, but he appropriated their city and staffed it with Englishmen. Likewise, but more ruthlessly and ambitiously, we have appropriated the lands and lives of all the other species. Humanity is everywhere an army of occupation, and its exactions are there on show along St James’s and down Piccadilly: the leather goods, the cashmere shop, the charcuterie, the cheap burgers and, by way of contrast, the pricey Ritz Hotel menu: Veal Sweetbread (£28), Native Lobster (£52), Roast Bresse Duck (£38), etc. You’ll observe in that menu how a habitat becomes a ‘provenance’ to interest the consumer, a sort of gourmet’s trophy.

Very rightly, then, the marchers were chanting Their milk . . .  not ours! Their flesh . . .  not ours! Their skins . . .  not ours! Their lives . . . not ours!”  Simple and absolute: the wrong is so elementary that it can properly be changing the world.JPGsummarized in sayings and chants. “We are trying to change the world”: yes, and not in favour of some impossible utopia. On the contrary, the change would be to turn it, as the novelist T.H White said, “right back into the real world, in which man is only one among innumerable other animals” – no longer their conqueror and scourge, an anomaly in life’s history, but their co-tenant. “With us, not for us”, one placard said. After all, it’s certain that we shall have to unlearn the habit of war or else finally destroy ourselves, and here’s the place to start: “Peace begins on the plate”, said another. (Of course if we do destroy ourselves, it might liberate the other animals in a more lastingly satisfactory way.)

 

Notes and references:

The title is a quotation from the Bible, 2 Kings 7: 6.

The Hundred Years’ War is described as quoted in A New Dictionary of British History, ed. S.H.Steinberg, Edward Arnold, 1964.

John Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or a Remembrance and Caution to the Rich can be read here: http://www.richardporowski.com/documents/books-papers/john%20woolman%20-%20a%20plea%20for%20the%20poor.pdf  The quotation is from Chapter 10.

T.H.Whyte wrote about “the real world” in a letter of December 1940, quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner in her introduction to The Book of Merlyn, Fontana, 1983, p.18 (slightly altered here to correct a mistaken preposition). The theme of Whyte’s story of Merlyn and King Arthur is how to cure humanity of the habit of war. The book is discussed in this blog on January 1st 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/two-merlins-and-their-tasks/

Love Talk

A radio presenter, referring last week to Brian May’s book about Victorian photography, described him as a “badger-lover”. Naturally enough: it’s how his campaign against the culling of badgers in Britain is habitually summarized. Even a quite serious interview in the Guardian newspaper speaks of May’s “love of animals”. This is a convenient shorthand, no doubt. And besides, the question in both cases, radio and newspaper, was really ‘What’s he like?’ The badgers and other animals just help us to chew over that question, if we wish to. However, it’s noticeable in the interview that May himself does his best to refuse the personalization of the topic: “I just care about the animals”, he says, adding “This concerns us all.”

The word for such a person and such a point of view used to be ‘zoophilist’ or ‘zoophilite’. In fact the journal of the first British anti-vivisection organisation, the Victoria Street Society, was titled The Zoophilist (first published, 1881). Of course that’s just a more classical version of ‘animal-lover’, a phrase already in use at that time, but the classical form is exactly what knocks out the homely personal associations. It helped, too, that the word came into currency during the vivisection controversy of the 1870s (though it had been in occasional use for some years before that), giving it a purposeful and even political character. A zoophilist was someone whose interest in animals could not safely be supposed a matter of merely personal sentiment. Accordingly, one of the pioneers of animal rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939), spoke of “the zoophilist movement”.

Salt tried to save that movement from its association with the concept of the animal-lover, an association which its opponents deliberately used against it. For this purpose he wrote a short play titled ‘A Lover of Animals’. One of its characters says “if we are to fight vivisection, we must rid ourselves of this false ‘love of animals’, this pampering of pets and lap-dogs by people who care nothing for the real welfare of animals . . . and must aim at the redress of all needless suffering, human and animal alike – the stupid cruelties of social tyranny, of the criminal code, of fashion, of science, of flesh-eating.”

Unfortunately the word ‘zoophilist’ fell out of use (though Salt himself was still using it in the 1930s). It’s true that there are now various specific words and phrases for those who might formerly have been called zoophilists (‘animal activist’, ‘animal advocate’), but ‘animal-lover’ survives as the only general term, still carrying with it the associations to which Salt objected. Most damagingly, perhaps, it locates the relationship firmly in the person. It’s what the person is like, not the situation; it’s all subjective, in short.

And therefore, when Peter Singer came to renew the “zoophilist movement” in his book Animal Liberation, his first necessity was to dissociate it from the image of the ‘animal-lover’, just as Salt had tried to do. He starts the preface with a story of being invited to tea by two old-style animal-lovers who knew about the book he was writing and therefore supposed him one of themselves. They discovered, to their bewilderment, that Singer had no pets, “didn’t ‘love’ animals”, was not even “especially ‘interested’ in animals”. There’s some pathos in this situation, though I don’t think that Singer, a resolute young man at the time of the tea and the writing, was much affected by it. Anyway, the story dramatizes the idea which Singer wishes to establish as a premise of the book:

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an ‘animal-lover’ is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals . . . The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of non-humans from serious political and moral discussion. [pp. x-xi]

It was a radical and powerful statement in 1975, even though it was what Henry Salt had been saying eighty years before.

And the habit of siting the interests of animals in the mind and sentiment of the people who speak for or about them lives on, as we’ve seen. It’s what the people are like. And from there we move on to what the whole nation is like. Britain is a nation of animal-lovers”, says a Member of Parliament, leading a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter (26 February 2018). Members of Parliament habitually say it whenever questions of animal welfare arise there: “We’re a nation of animal-lovers . . . ,” their speeches begin. Perhaps the formula does have some value, because it usually implies that we ought to demonstrate our ‘love’ in the particular instance under review. But of course it goes with merely corrective improvements (e.g. slaughtering the animals in the UK instead), rather than radical change. After all, since we ‘love’ animals, we must already be doing the right thing by them in general; any problems are likely to be anomalies rather than symptoms of an essential wrong.

This national version of the formula has been as durable as the personal one. The valiant zoophilist Hugh Dowding (see this blog on 26 June 2016) did all he could to expose its falsehood during debates in the House of Lords. This is what Dowding said there in 1956:

We English people pride ourselves upon being a nation of animal lovers, and we tend to be righteously critical of the lower standards of other nations. In point of fact, as a nation we are not animal lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals. It is true that we cherish our domestic pets and that we have qualms about the condition of old and worn-out horses; but where the interests of animals run counter to our sports, our amusements or our pockets, the animals receive scant consideration at our hands.

And he listed “examples of the general callousness of the nation towards animals’ suffering”, including “the vivisection laboratory”.

Unfortunately Dowding was no more successful in this case than Henry Salt or Peter Singer in theirs. The nonsensical saying seems to rise above all evidences against it, and of course it has a currency far beyond the Houses of Parliament. For instance, and puzzlingly, it’s a saying much liked by Cruelty Free International (CFI), an organisation which campaigns very effectively against the use of animals in research. Here too the formula seems to have some practical use as moral leverage: for instance, “As a nation of animal lovers, the UK should lead the way in ending dog experiments.” Perhaps it also has a consolatory purpose. The CFI style favours puns and sobriquets of a cute or warm-hearted kind: “our feline friends”, “sharing our homes with a pooch”, “five facts that will make you barking mad for animals”. Like “nation of animal-lovers”, these tropes are presumably intended to sweeten an unpleasant subject. They do so, if at all, at some expense of seriousness, but at least they’re harmless flourishes rather than untruths. The claim that Britain is a nation of animal-lovers, however, is both harmful and untrue.

And the badger cull itself has shown that it’s not becoming any less untrue. In fact even before that started, the naturalist Richard Mabey wrote about what he called “the New Vermin Panic”: “With a sense of disgust and outrage that seems borrowed from the Dark Ages, wildlife is increasingly being demonised for the slightest intrusion into human affairs.” Among the examples he gave was the “farcical commotion” recently caused by a fox that had strayed into a boutique in the Portobello Road. The manager reported that “people started shrieking and ran out into the street in their socks . . . We shut the shop because we couldn’t tell if it would make our customers sick.” This was in the capital city of a nation of animal-lovers.

The phrase is a foolish one, and should be disused everywhere. Probably ‘animal-lover’ itself should be discarded too, at any rate in all public discourse. The case for the animals has nothing to do with the love which some of us have for some of them – a love very often real and honourable, of course, but also fickle and partial, and in any case beside the point. What the animals need from their human fellow-creatures is not love-talk from their special friends, agreeable though that must be, but the sympathy and active respect of society as a whole. In short, ‘animal-lovers’ or not, “This concerns us all”.

 

Notes and references:

The interview with Brian May was in the Guardian of 4 May 2011.

Henry Salt used the term ‘zoophilist’ throughout his writing on animal rights, but the particular quotation comes from The Creed of Kinship (1935). His play ‘A Lover of Animals’ was not separately published, but appeared in The Vegetarian Review, February 1895. Both texts are quoted here from extracts published in The Savour of Salt: a Henry Salt Anthology, ed. George and Willene Hendrick, Centaur Press, 1989, pp. 199 and 56.

The preface to Peter Singer’s 1975 edition of Animal Liberation is quoted from the 1995 Pimlico edition, pp. x-xi.

The debate in the House of Lords on the use of wild animals in circus performances took place on 31 January 1956.

The quotations from Cruelty Free International appear on its web-site at https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/

Richard Mabey is quoted from A Brush with Nature, BBC Books, 2010, p. 217.

Out and About with Anthrozoology

John Bradshaw’s book The Animals Among Us (2017) ends with a scene at his five-year-old grand-daughter’s school, where the children are delighted to find that what they had left the previous day as a clutch of hen’s eggs has turned into eight live chicks. The author says “a fascination with animals was kindled in Beatrice’s mind that day”, and goes on to draw the moral, which is implicitly the moral of the whole book:

Her generation will have to stabilize the ecology of the planet for their own survival. Why would they want to do this without knowing the reality of animals, both pets and wild?”

Actually the chicks have been hatched in the school’s incubator, so perhaps “reality” isn’t the right word. But then the book is mainly a history and anthropology of pet-keeping, and although the title of this last chapter is ‘Animals Maketh Man’, the story it finishes has been mainly about what humans have made of animals, for good and ill (predominantly good, so Bradshaw believes, and one review of the book quite accurately calls it a “celebration of pets”). Anthro.JPG

You can see that it’s a book with a personal touch to it, a popular book then, but popular science: in fact its sub-title is The New Science of Anthrozoology. As the book (and its cover) make obvious, Bradshaw regards this new science as essentially about our “personal relationships” with animals, therefore about why and how we keep pets. And he ought to know, because he was one of the coiners of the name and founders of the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) in 1991. However, even ISAZ doesn’t quite agree with him, defining the science more broadly as “the interactions between human and non-human animals”. And it’s a version of that definition which the Oxford English Dictionary prefers: “The multidisciplinary study of the interaction between humans and other animals”. By way of illustration, the Dictionary quotes another popular introduction to the subject, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some we Hate, Some We Eat (2010): “Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of our interactions with other species.”

The wider the scope of this new academic discipline, if that’s what it is, the more its attitudes matter. Herzog not only gives it a very large scope, but goes some way to fix its attitudes, for his book has been a notable success, enthusiastically reviewed (“Read this book, read it again, and share it widely. It is that important.” – Mark Bekoff), and also much cited. Steven Pinker’s discussion on animal welfare in The Better Angels of Our Nature (reviewed in this blog on 25 May) has Herzog in 14 of its 64 footnotes. John Bradshaw himself calls the book “seminal”, and his own has clearly been influenced by it.

Herzog is an academic psychologist, but he writes his book as a genial guide and roving interviewer. The book is full of journeys to meet people, of drinks, meals, and chats, but yes, people: Carolyn, Staci (“forty-one but looks ten years younger”), Sam, Becky (“she loves animals. She really does.”), Bobo, Pam, Fabe (“a legend among western North Carolina cockfighters”). There are animals too, of course, some of them with names, but mostly too numerous and out of focus for that, and interesting not for themselves but as dramatizing these human personalities. Well, Herzog.JPGit’s there in the title of the book: the animals are the vaguely specified point of reference, but it’s the people, “we” (the key word in the book, perhaps in the science), who govern those intriguingly contradictory verbs: we’re the mystery, then. And the publisher’s summary makes the same point: “this enlightening and provocative book will forever change the way we look at our relationships with other creatures and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.”

So when anthrozoologists have us looking at animals and our treatment of them, we’re really looking into the mirror yet again, getting, as Herzog says, “an unusual glimpse into human nature” [35]. It’s a point likewise implied throughout John Bradshaw’s book (even though he’s a biologist by training), and often enough made explicit: pet-keeping “provides insight into what makes us human”, and “is one way of expressing what it means to be human.”

For Bradshaw it’s really an anthropological point: modern pet-keeping is the latter end of a long history of dealings with animals which have helped to make human communities successful. For Herzog, naturally enough, it’s the human psyche which makes it all so interesting. And not just the variety of attitudes between Carolyn, Bobo, Fabe, and the rest, but the variety within any one person’s attitudes. Hence his sub-title: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals.

It’s true that he occasionally suggests that we’re on our way somewhere: “our beliefs about how we should treat other species are changing.” He even says that anthrozoologists “hope that our research might make the lives of animals better.” [17] But mainly it’s the inconsistency that fascinates him. For instance, there’s “the moral ambiguity of the human-meat relationship”. He finds this ambiguity well identified by Staci, with whom he shares a meal of raw home-raised steak (“I ask for seconds.”). Staci says “It’s amazing how complex our psyches must be in order to nurture creatures every day for seven months, only to have them sent away and then come home in little freezer packages.” [203]

Herzog looks for complexity of this sort wherever he goes – and finds it, of course, or seems to. He sees it, for instance, in a research laboratory, where the mice being used in experiments are “cared for by a competent and fully certified staff” [220] but, if they should escape, at once join the category ‘pest’ and are ruthlessly trapped and killed. (Is there really any contradiction or even paradox here?) And still on the theme of research animals – to whom he devotes a chapter, ‘The Moral Status of Mice’ – Herzog quizzes animal advocates like Jonathan Balcombe and Marc Bekoff on their willingness to use, when making their claims for the sensibilities of animals, evidence derived from the sort of animal research which they would like to prohibit. He concludes that “reason can be elusive in the debate over animal research.” [234]

In fact that’s his conclusion on all the varieties of human/animal relations which he views in the book. His last chapter is titled ‘The Carnivorous Yahoo within Ourselves’. It’s a quotation from J.M.Coetzee’s fiction The Lives of Animals (1999), which describes the experiences of a novelist, Elizabeth Costello, as visiting lecturer at a university, her chosen subject the animal holocaust (her term for it). Shouldn’t we accept ourselves as we are, one questioner asks her: “Is it not more human [there it is again] to accept our own humanity – even if it means embracing the carnivorous yahoo within ourselves?” Implicitly, Herzog’s answer is yes. “What the new science of anthrozoology reveals”, he says on his last page, “is that our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships with the animals in our lives . . . are more complicated than we thought.” But the confusions needn’t be deplored or apologised for: “they are inevitable. And they show we are human.” As you were, then; or rather, as you are, for by the end of Herzog’s book, the habitual present tense (even at such moments as “I ask for seconds”) carries a momentum of acceptance and validation. It’s what humans just are like and how interesting with it!

Hal Herzog is a good-humoured observer, with a sympathetic and knowledgeable interest in non-human animals, though a much greater one in humans. His book is full of information as well as chat, and although it doesn’t ever quite answer that set question, why it’s so hard to think straight about animals, he at least shows clearly enough that most people don’t succeed. Still, he may have been unwise to evoke the ghost of Elizabeth Costello in his last chapter. It’s not just that her answer to the Yahoo question is so much more searching than his own (there isn’t space here to talk about that). As Coetzee presents her, Elizabeth Costello doesn’t just lecture on, she publicly suffers, this subject. She calls it a “wound” and speaks accordingly, without jokes or flourishes, without geniality. She refuses almost discourteously to be made a personality of (a Becky or a Fabe) by the assembled academics, and thereby to turn the problem into an intriguing aspect of herself and take it away with her when she goes. In short, she makes Herzog’s treatment of the subject, and anthrozoology itself, seem jaunty and superficial, a human self-indulgence.

Nevertheless, Anthrozoology lives and grows. In particular it’s a rising subject in universities, where likewise it seems to be essentially anthropocentric. Here are a few of the inducements offered to potential students:

“At its core, the field of anthrozoology is about helping people live better lives.”

 “Welcome to Anthrozoology! Are you interested in learning more about the significance of animals in our lives?”

 “The MA in Anthrozoology will be of interest to anyone who would like to investigate the many and varied ways in which humans perceive, engage, compete and co-exist with non-human animals in a range of cultural contexts.”

It seems that the ISAZ journal Anthrozoös takes the same point of view, habitually concerned with human attitudes or more generally with the human part in the relationship. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the journal recently made available online its “top 30” articles (ranked by downloads and citations). Of these, sixteen have to do with the therapeutic possibilities of animals; at least six are about human attitudes and ‘perceptions’; only three show interest in the experiences of the animals themselves.

So? Other journals, other academic disciplines, are free to study whatever’s missing from this new ‘science’, and have of course been steadily doing so: philosophy, for instance, women’s studies, literature. But the name ‘anthrozoology’ makes a claim which either misrepresents what it does or misrepresents the subject itself. As promoted and practised, it’s simply a branch of anthropology or perhaps sociology, the study of man by an interested party, and should be called by its right name.

Meanwhile, a study of “human-wildlife interactions”, featured recently in the journal Science, indicates how much there is to learn about the animal part in the relationship. Under the heading ‘Animals feel safer from humans in the dark’, the journal reports that the human presence is obliging other animals not only to give up land, but also to give way temporally and live by night rather than by day: “nocturnality is a universal behavioral adaptation of wildlife in response to humans.” This change in behaviour entails abandoning “natural patterns of activity, with consequences for fitness, population persistence, community interactions, and evolution.” We may miss the affable style of Bradshaw and Herzog, but that’s what I call anthrozoology: not just humans looking at themselves anew in the animals they happen to keep, use or eat, but the whole world of animal life (zoology) and what the human element (‘anthro-‘, or properly ‘anthropo-‘) shunts it into doing.

 

Notes and references:

The Animals Among Us: the New Science of Anthrozoology is published in USA by Basic Books (2017) and in the UK by Allen Lane (2017) and Penguin Books (2018). The quotations come from this latter edition, pp. 310, xii, ix, and 21.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals is published by Harper, 2010 (p/b 2011). Page numbers for quotations are given in the text.

Coetzee’s short fiction The Lives of Animals was subsequently incorporated as chapters 3 and 4 of the novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) and the quotation is from pp.100-101 of the edition of that novel published by Vintage in 2004.

The advertised courses in anthrozoology are at Carrol College (Montana), Exeter University (UK), and the University of Windsor in Canada.

The journal Anthrozoös was started in 1987, before ISAZ was founded, but was subsequently taken over by ISAZ. The anniversary issue can be seen here: http://explore.tandfonline.com/page/ah/rfan-30th-anniversary-vsi

The article ‘The Influence of Human Disturbance on Wildlife Nocturnality’ is published in Science, 15 June 2018, vol.360, pp.1232-35. A brief report about it by a staff writer under the quoted title appears on pp.1185-86. Quotations are from both texts.

The Many and the One

The Home Office has now published statistics for the animal research done in Great Britain during 2017 (not the UK, because Northern Ireland publishes its own modest contribution to the scene separately).

Very little has changed since 2016 for these statistics to record (see the chart below), but there’s a notable innovation in the look of them. There are now three or four distinct colours, instead of the old black, white, and grey; the former tables and columns have been supplemented with graphs of zig-zagging lines in tonic blues; helpful comment and explanation appear in tinted text-boxes. In short the document has been designed to engage and even impress the reader, rather than merely to provide, with implicit apology, unwelcome information. This suggests the influence, perhaps even the direct advice, of Understanding Animal Research and its PR project, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. And UAR’s director, Wendy Jarrett, makes a comment on the statistics which reflects this new way of seeing them: not as a regretted cost, certainly not as a “necessary evil” (when was that phrase last used?), but as an index of achievement:

Animal research continues to play a vital part in the development of modern treatments and medicines. While the numbers of procedures may vary from year to year, we should be proud of the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide.

Here, anyway, is VERO’s summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2016, with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2016  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,866,435    2,781,685
 Fish   535,819    514,059
 Rats   249,389    241,544
 Domestic fowl   139,860    125,280
 Sheep    48,095    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    26,186    22,560
 Horses    8,948    10,600
 Rabbits    15,431    10,362
 Dogs    4,932    2,496
 Non-human primates    3,569    2,215
 Other species    38,059    31,073
 Total:    3,936,723    3,789,373

Direction of travel:

For the second year in a row, there has been a welcome fall in the total number of animals used, this time a fall of slightly less than 4%. Nothing can be deduced from this; as the Home Office puts it “any clear trend for recent years is as yet difficult to determine.” However, there is a very clear trend for the century so far: a rise of nearly 45% since 2001’s 2.62 million. Nor is the prospect good. If the UK were to leave the European Union without making terms to remain a partner in REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals – a bad enough system already), it might have to create its own testing regime, duplicating what is done collaboratively in the rest of the EU. Or rather, it apparently would have to. A government minister truculently told a House of Lords committee  earlier this month, when asked about this possible secession from REACH, “if that required animal testing, that would require animal testing.”

The term ‘procedure’:

Viewing the Home Office’s annual pageantry of numbers, so eloquent of orderly record-keeping and nothing if not factual, the dazzled reader must keep in mind that the basic unit, the regulated ‘procedure’, is itself an unknown quantity. A helpful hint to this effect is provided in one of those text-boxes, where ‘procedures’ in the plural is defined in the singular, a confusion of number which characterizes all official documents when dealing with this point, for very good reason. More plainly indicative, a GM animal, whose bringing into life rightly constitutes a procedure, may be required to do nothing ‘regulated’ again, or may be involved in years of experimentation: either way the history will count as one procedure.

Or those horses: you’ll notice that they’re one of the few species in greater demand this last year. Mainly, it seems, they’re made to yield blood products for use in medical diagnosis and other scientific analysis. What: just the once each? Of course not: it’s really their career, and that would be the right term for what is asked of all these animals. Some animals may eventually retire, as perhaps the horses do: much more commonly, the end of their part in the project coincides with the end of their life. (This is something which the statistics ought to record, but in fact they say nothing about death.) Either way, the term ‘procedure’, with its suggestion of a single experience, is a misleading fiction, and therefore so are all these numbers.

Classifying the pain:

Actually the statistics do say something about death. Being found dead in your cage after a ‘procedure’ is one of the indicators for a ‘severe’ classification, we’re told. Others include needing help to eat and drink (to survive, in short). It may be that the statistics for each of the four main levels of suffering – sub-threshold, mild, moderate, severe – really are informative. They seem to change very little from year to year (the Home Office notices this), but I don’t know what that implies.

About 5% of procedures (not including GM breeding) are said to have imposed ‘severe’ suffering on the animals involved (95,025 of them) during 2017. So-called ‘regulatory testing’ (tests required by law in the EU or the UK, or beyond) takes a disproportionately high part in this category. Of its 505,000 or so procedures, 10% or more were considered severe. That’s no surprise, since this class of work includes toxicity-testing (195,000 procedures), and the Home Office statistics show that for this purpose the LD50 and LC50 tests – identifying the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills half the animals – are still in use.

Numbers and individuals:

How much does anyone really learn from these numbers? No doubt they provide a rough knowledge of the scale of animal research, and which species and which purposes are tending upward and which down. But it is rough knowledge. Not just the basic term ‘procedure’ is opaque: the classifications of research are uninformative. Thus, one cat, of the 198 cats dealt with in 2017 (190 in 2016), suffered pain in the category ‘severe’. The purpose of the research in question was ‘animal diseases and disorders’. That’s all that there’s space to tell us. And how dependable even that much is may be deduced from the ‘Revisions’ to previous years’ statistics attached at the end. Here we find, for instance, that 5,930 sheep and 1700 horses which had appeared under ‘protection of the environment’ (itself a sinister enough category) were in fact engaged in ‘routine production – blood products’. It’s not so much that a mistake has been made – easily enough done in the stress of all this bureaucracy. More sobering is how little an outsider can make of the difference.

Animal protection groups quite reasonably tend to call the annual statistics ‘shocking’. I would say instead ‘stupefying’. Seeing these great phalanxes of animals moved around in their graphs, columns, tables, and other formations simply dulls the imagination. In fact, to re-iterate other posts in this blog (and the whole annual performance is after all a wretched re-iteration), these statistics are a variety of euphemism. Certainly they’re much better than secrecy, but they take the mind off the subject of individual suffering, which is the one thing that matters. Just occasionally, in the smaller numbers, momentary illuminations are offered as to what we’re really seeing: that one cat, for instance, needing help to eat or drink, suffering pains which “a person would find difficult to tolerate” (Home Office guidance on the ‘severe’ category), or perhaps being found mercifully dead in the cage.

By way of final re-iteration, I shall re-append the picture of the Oxford University OU primatemacaque monkey: suggested caption, ‘Waiting for the End’.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s publication, Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2017 can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/724611/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2017.pdf

I should add that a much more informative annual account of animal research is provided in the Non-Technical Summaries (i.e. of proposed research), also published by the Home Office. There is more about the NTS in the VERO blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/

Wendy Jarrett’s comment, and Understanding Animal Research’s response in general, can be read on their web-site here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/animal-research-numbers-in-2017/

The government minister who spoke to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee was Therese Coffey MP, at a session on 18 July of this year.

The complete Home Office guidance to ‘severity’ is provided in Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, 2014, especially pp.12-13.