In a small private garden by the River Thames at Greenwich, visible from the right of way, there’s a fine sculpture of a goat, and beside it a text cut in stone: IN MEMORY OF THE UNCOUNTED MILLIONS OF ANIMALS WHO DIED NOT OF FOOT AND MOUTH BUT OF THE CURE FOR IT. So this goat represents all the cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and other animals which were slaughtered in the year 2001, as a way of curing Britain’s worst outbreak so far of foot and mouth disease. He’s shown on his hind legs, generally a sign that a goat is getting at something intended to be out of reach, the goat being the least herdable, least biddable of all farmed animals. That’s no doubt why the god Pan, half-man half-goat, is commonly imagined not just free in himself, but also as an image and model for the unruled life. I say this not by way of art criticism, but so that this sculpture can be seen for what it is: a tragic reminder that even farmed animals are only human property in so far as centuries of force and habituation have deceived both parties into behaving as if they are.
At any rate, that’s certainly how the humans behaved in 2001, a year of crisis for that unhappy relationship. Let us indeed remember, then, those “uncounted millions” which were killed in that epidemic period of eleven months, February to December 2001.
Not that the number itself (estimated at about 10.5 million) is so large by farm animal standards. In fact it’s rather less than half the number of those same species which would be passing, unseen and unremembered, through the slaughterhouses of Britain in the ordinary way of business during such a period. But for savagery and panic-selfishness, and as a hideously public show of the contempt in which animal life is really held by the British establishment (including the National Farmers’ Union), the episode is unique in British farming. Only a small proportion of the slaughtered animals were even known to have foot and mouth. DEFRA’s own records put it at 2,030 confirmed cases. All the other casualties were ‘culled’ in order to prevent the spread of the disease from the affected farms. It was a giant and half-crazed exercise in preventative medicine, with a gun for the medicine.
To improvise a massacre and disposal on that scale made blunders, cruelties, and squalor inevitable. Slaughtermen, ministry inspectors, policemen and soldiers descended upon the targeted farms and peremptorily killed and cremated the animals. Some of the scenes are recorded in diaries and interviews of the time or shortly after:
They were totally disorganised. They went in and they killed the animals just where they stood … some still had their heads through the feeding areas.
The dead and dying lay heaped on each other, with calves stood among them.
Huge pyres were created; whole landscapes smelled of these mass-cremations:
… they are tonight burning the animals which were slaughtered yesterday. The fire is at least 200 yards in length and lighting up the sky for miles around.
For everyone there was the effort needed to blank out the awful sights sounds and smells of the slaughter, the pyres and the empty fields.
Nick Brown [Minister of Agriculture] stood up and said he was going to slaughter everything in Cumbria that was within three kilometres. He meant it. He meant it. Everything, cattle, sheep, pigs, everything within three kilometres. And there were dead bodies everywhere.
“everything within three kilometres”: so not just the farmed and traded animals had to go. That Greenwich goat recalls especially the 2,500 or so of his own kind which were killed, and many or perhaps most of these were individual pets or small groups of show-animals, or animals on smallholdings. For instance, the statistics for the cull show that just one goat was killed in Roxburghshire, one in Kent, two in Cornwall, five in Wiltshire. A local newspaper reported one such scene:
Mrs Elizabeth Walls, proud owner of Misty, a 1 year old goat, was last night distracted by police, while a vet and MAFF official broke into her stable and killed the frightened animal – without any written or verbal permission whatsoever from Mrs Walls. [MAFF was the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It was remodelled and re-named as the Department of Food and Rural Affairs during 2001, the year when its rotten reputation finally imploded.]
All this fury and haste suggests a frightening plague of some sort, perhaps with the hazard of cross-infection to humans. But there was no such excuse. Only one human in Britain has ever shown symptoms of foot and mouth – not surprisingly, since it’s a disease of cloven-footed animals. But even for them it’s hardly a plague. With its high fever and blisters, it’s certainly unpleasant, but it’s rarely fatal: at least 95% of infected animals would recover, if allowed to do so. The fear was simply commercial. Animals which have had the disease are less productive of meat and milk. More drastically, the status of the nation as a global dealer in farm animals and their products would have been affected. The most favourable status is the one which this whole policy of massacre was designed to reclaim: that of a country free of foot and mouth disease without the aid of vaccination. Here indeed is the explanatory and shameful feature of the whole episode. There was a vaccine, but we chose not to use it.
Of course there was a vaccine. After all, Britain has had a research institution specializing in foot and mouth disease for about a hundred years. These days it’s called the Pirbright Institute, but from 1924 until 1963 it had ‘foot and mouth’ in its title, and it is still a world centre for study of the disease. The man who did more than anyone else to develop the vaccine there was its one-time deputy-director Professor Fred Brown, who in 2001 was working at the U.S.A’s equivalent of Pirbright, the Plum Island Disease Center. When the disease was first diagnosed in the U.K., he naturally enough urged the authorities to use the vaccine. He said, “it would be crazy not to operate a programme of mass vaccination immediately.” Subsequently, Professor Brown called the culling policy “barbaric … a disgrace to humanity”.
Those years of research must themselves have cost the lives of many thousands of animals, because the Pirbright Institute is a vivisecting establishment. It’s where much of the animal research classified in the Home Office records as devoted to ‘Animal Disease and Welfare’ happens. The 2001 epidemic therefore illustrates the ambiguity, or more plainly the humbug, in that phrase ‘animal welfare’, on which the familiar claim is based that vivisection serves the health of animals as well as of humans. ‘Health’, in humans, means being well and likely to live long; health in animals only means fit for purpose: in excellent health if a pet, in merely productive health if a farm animal, in consumable health if about to be slaughtered. On a modern farm, very few animals are ever healthy in the sense “likely to live long”. The phrase ‘animal welfare’ is therefore a blind. By way of confirmation, the Pirbright Institute claims on its web-site that it played a “vital role” in the management of the 2001 epidemic, when perfectly fit animals were killed in their millions because they made a better commercial prospect as ashes. At that time, its official name was the Institute of Animal Health.
Back at the Greenwich sculpture, commenting as it does on all this shameful history. You may notice that the goat is made at least partly of found or used materials. Its maker, Kevin Herlihy, says that to work thus in re-cycled stuff is to feel “life clawing its way back from the rubble of dereliction”. This admiration for the goat’s life-will, and the corresponding respect for the animal-dead shown in the simple stone, make of the little garden scene an eloquent opposite to modern farming attitudes as they were exposed in the panic and savagery of 2001, and as they persist in all their inhumanity today.
[The quotations are taken from The Health and Social Consequences of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Epidemic in North Cumbria, Dr Maggie Mort et al, Lancaster University 2004, online at http://www.footandmouthstudy.org.uk/, and from Fields of Fire, ed. Quita Allender, Favel Press Sussex, 2002, online at www.warmwell.com/jan1fof.html. Professor Fred Brown is quoted from the Daily Telegraph obituary, 10 March 2004. DEFRA’s account and archive of the 2001 outbreak can be found at http://footandmouth.fera.defra.gov.uk/. Kevin Herlihy’s work can be seen at http://www.wimbledonartstudios.co.uk/kevin-herlihy/%5D