A chart showing the numbers of animals used in experiments in U.K. universities during 2014 (the most recent reportable year) puts Oxford University top, with its grand score of 226,739 – ahead of its nearest rival Edinburgh by about 25,000.
It may be that Oxford University’s scientific leadership takes quiet satisfaction in this result, if they’ve noticed it, as tending happily to confirm the University’s pre-eminence in biomedical science. After all, wasn’t this what their new building was for, to secure Oxford’s traditional place as the nation’s prime centre of animal research? However, as posted on the Oxford Students for Animals facebook page (and many others), the new information is headed ‘How many animals has your university killed?’, so it’s evidently not intended to please the contestant institutions, or the students whom they train in the practice. Accordingly there’s a defensive (but temperate) comment underneath it, from a medical scientist at Nottingham. He compares the lives of the U.K.’s laboratory animals favourably with those of animals on factory farms, and ends with this advice: “shut the meat industry down FIRST before you try and curb the use of animals for discovering the drugs that cure our diseases.”
In one form or another, it’s a very familiar defence or put-off – as old, perhaps, as the vivisection debate itself (though not for that reason either right or wrong). It was certainly in use when the question first came before the British Parliament by means of a Royal Commission in 1875-6. Among those who tried it was the man who later became Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Part of his evidence tending to show that laboratory animals didn’t need legal protection was that ‘game’ animals were much worse off: the man had been a keen hare-courser, so of course he would have known what he was talking about. In 1927 the same argument was used by H. G. Wells in an article for the Sunday Express, in whose pages George Bernard Shaw soon afterwards demolished its moral logic thus: “This defence fits every possible crime from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter. Its disadvantage is that it is not plausible enough to impose on the simplest village constable.” Pitch-and-toss, incidentally, was a game of mixed skill and chance, played with coins, and was at one time illegal as a form of gambling, if played in the street: not as bad as picking pockets, no doubt, which in turn was not as bad as … etc., etc., until the argument comes to rest just short of mass murder.
Still, the defence is being made in this present instance by a researcher at Nottingham University, an institution which, though itself a user of animals in research (scoring a modest 17,924), does also accommodate the laboratories of the excellent Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME). It therefore surely deserves a more considered reply than the Shaw quotation, and I shall try to give at least part of one.
Why, then, don’t anti-vivisectionists turn their attentions to the far greater suffering (numerically, certainly, and perhaps also in most other respects) endured by factory-farmed animals?
The first thing to say is that of course they do. I’ve used the word ‘turn’ to highlight the sleight of hand in the argument; most, if not all, anti-vivisectionists can and do have both wrongs clearly in view concurrently, as well as a whole range of others. It’s all one subject, though individuals and organisations may specialize within it: hence the one collective term by which Peter Singer identified it in the first sentence of Animal Liberation in 1975, “the tyranny of human over non-human animals”.
But vivisection is, besides, bound in with factory farming in a more particular and unpleasant way. The move from husbandry to mass-processing of farm-animals has been made possible at every stage by scientific research, including biomedical research. (Burdon Sanderson himself devoted his early vivisectional research to disease in cattle.) When Ruth Harrison first showed the public what was happening on Britain’s farms, in her book Animal Machines (1964), she made this fact very clear: “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The livestock farm and its farmer were being made dependants of the laboratory and the scientist. How far this has gone since then can be read in any issue of Farmers Weekly.
For even while Ruth Harrison was publicizing the wretched effects of this development, other voices were busily promoting it. One such was a 1965 volume in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series (of all innocent publishing brands), entitled Modern Poultry Keeping. The word ‘keeping’ has an old-fashioned suggestion of husbandry about it, but any readers of this book foolish enough to be expecting to teach themselves a job in agreeably rural surroundings, perhaps amateurishly collecting eggs in a basket, like the wholesome woman on the old Ovaltine tins, were indignantly corrected. It was now a “highly specialized business calling for men [N.B.] with a wide technical knowledge”. Raising table-poultry, for instance, “consists wholly in rearing birds that will carry the maximum amount of flesh in the shortest possible time, at the lowest cost.” You need maths, biology, and a good grounding in what the book calls “light engineering” to get that right – or someone else does, to get it right for you. And of course that “technical knowledge” also includes knowledge of the pharmacopoeia: oestrogen pellets to ‘caponize’ the would-be cockerels, antibiotics against disease, and so on.
Then there’s animal behaviour. The Nottingham scientist specifies this in his comment, reasonably enough, as one of the things that cannot be studied without the use of real animals, and indeed it’s been responsible for some of the most cruel and shameful scenes in laboratory history. Another book contemporary with Animal Machines, P. L. Broadhurst’s Science of Animal Behaviour (1963), reviewed some of these scenes, but not apologetically; on the contrary, the author took the view that the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In particular he looked forward to a time when the “pitifully small” role so far played by animals in food-production would be greatly expanded, using the knowledge gained in the laboratory of what they can be induced or compelled to do: not just to make food out of themselves at minimum expense, that is, but also to pick fruit or mind machinery, or more generally to be what his book, with naïve but untouching enthusiasm, calls “slave labour”.
So much for agriculture as envisioned from the laboratory. That things on the farm are only as bad as they are, and not as they might have been (and may yet be), can at least partly be attributed to the ‘curbing’ of such dreams at source. It’s very much harder to correct them once they’ve become real.
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The man usually regarded as the founder of experimental physiology, the Frenchman Claude Bernard – a bust of whom stood on our own Burdon Sanderson’s mantelpiece in Oxford – proudly described and championed his science’s characterizing spirit as “éminemment conquérant et dominateur”. That spirit of tyranny was glaringly evident in Bernard’s own work, so much so that one of his assistants subsequently wrote, “I cry off, and am prepared to see not only science, but even mankind, perish rather than have recourse to such means of saving it.” Unfortunately Bernard’s version of the scientific spirit has survived through more than 150 years of vivisection right up to the hideous attempts of recent years at xeno-transplantation and even (not in the U.K.) the transplanting of animal heads. It’s not only farming which is pervertable by science such as this. No doubt biomedical research has produced valuable knowledge and great benefits. But some of that research, both the valuable and even more tragically the worthless, has been at a cost to animal lives, and to human decency, which no real or speculative benefit to ourselves should have been allowed to justify. So far from leaving such research to itself for a while, it’s our duty to all animals, including ourselves, to do continuously everything we can to curb it.
G. B. Shaw is quoted from Shaw on Vivisection, ed. Bowker, 1949, p.35; Animal Machines, 2013 (2nd edition), pp.37-8; J. I. Portsmouth, Modern Poultry Keeping, pp.2 & 5; Science of Animal Behaviour, p.132 & foreword; Claude Bernard and George Hoggan are quoted in John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger, 1988, pp.46 & 77.