A Servant of the State of Nature

Among the images of national self-sufficiency called up during the recent referendum debate was, if I heard correctly, the Battle of Britain. That was a victory which Winston Churchill (himself also hauled into the debate) fixed into national memory with his “finest hour” speech. It’s true that he promptly sacked the man who did most to create the victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, but soon afterwards, in 1943, he made amends by putting Dowding into the House of Lords as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the home of Fighter Command). House of Lords etiquette requires a serviceman of high rank to be referred to as “the noble and gallant lord”, as if expected to coast his way through the remainder of life on the strength of his war record. And that’s certainly the character in


which Dowding is now memorialized outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London: a towering uniform, with a text below it quite rightly reminding us that to this man “the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”

In fact, like many distinguished soldiers, Dowding had no great admiration for the business of war, or for the sort of nation-state politics which create the conditions for it. And so far from resting content after the war as a British soldier-hero, he had his vision set on a far wider community even than the United Nations, and a far more ambitious conception of what would constitute peace than even the U.N. had in mind. He told the House of Lords in 1952, “we shall never attain to true peace – the peace of love, and not the uneasy equilibrium of fear – until we recognize the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.”

The “scheme of things” which Dowding meant was one he wrote about in several books from 1942 onwards, the one rather loosely termed spiritualism. At the centre of spiritualism is the belief that life and death are not opposites but alternating states, in continuing contact with each other, leading each soul on a path towards perfection, “back to the ultimate source from which it originated”. I can’t speak with confidence about this; I don’t find it convincing or even appealing. But he did, and he was a man who had to hazard the lives of hundreds of young men, and answer for the violent deaths of very many of them, not just as a personal burden but in the literal sense of speaking to their families. One must feel respect and even awe for the conclusions, on the subject of life and death, of such a man.

Anyway, so far from the stealthy dabbling in posthumous domestic relationships which the word ‘spiritualism’ sometimes suggests, Dowding’s “scheme” was panoramically inclusive (as one might expect from an aviator). He felt a “life chain” joining all nature, “from the mineral through the vegetable and the animal to the human”. The animal part of it he became especially aware of under the influence of the woman he married in 1951 (at age 69), Muriel Albini. He became vegetarian, and was actively involved in her pioneering campaigns against the abuse of animals by the fur and cosmetics industries. He helped his wife to found and promote the pioneering charity and business Beauty Without Cruelty. And as a member of the House of Lords he now tried to get the legislature to take more notice of animal suffering.

The speeches which Dowding made in the House of Lords between 1948 and 1965 – on ‘humane’ slaughter, the training of circus animals, the poisoning of ‘pest’ animals, and vivisection – are surely some of the most urgent and radical which that chamber has ever heard on the animal subject. Several of these debates he himself had initiated, and he was determined that his case should be shown to be, not sentimental (by which he meant uninformed and subjective), but “justified by the facts”. His preparations for the debates on vivisection, in particular, had “compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty”, and he meant to make his fellow-peers, too, face this “traffic in flesh and blood”. He introduced to them, for instance, the “devilish device known as the Noble-Collip Drum”, then a quite new contrivance (and still used today) in which “the animal is very slowly battered to death”; he described the experiments on cats forced to breathe 100% oxygen at the Royal Naval Laboratory at Alverstoke, another wretched story of protracted execution; he spoke about the ‘siamesing’ of rats at Oxford University. This example of vivisection at Oxford (not the only one he instanced) had been reported to him by a doctor friend who had been allowed access to the laboratories of that university, of which he was an alumnus: “What particularly struck him was the callous attitude of people who were otherwise normal, decent members of society; and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.” Quizzed on this last point, the young scientist doing the siamesing had explained to the doctor what was useful about it: “It’s going to get me my degree.”

For the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which at that time was still regulating all such research in the U.K., Dowding had little respect: “merely a sop to public conscience”, “the vivisectors’ charter”, its machinery of enforcement “futile and delusive”. In 1949 a man convicted under the Protection of Animals Act (1911) of starving his dog had been imprisoned for three months and banned for life from keeping dogs; in that same year the Journal of Physiology reported on a long series of nutrition studies during which numbers of puppies had been similarly starved in order to produce diseases of deficiency. “Imprisonment for the amateur in cruelty; honours and rewards for the professional wholesaler,” commented Dowding. It was “a Cruelty to Animals Act in fact as well as in name.”

Of course, other speakers in these debates reassured Dowding that, Act or no Act, scientists could be trusted to do their research humanely, that they were, just like himself, “anxious to spare the animals as much suffering as possible”, and were even “enriched by their work in love and meekness”, whatever that meant. Dowding took no notice of these complacencies, and he was contemptuous of the larger fiction associated with them – that Britain was a nation of animal-lovers: “we are not animal-lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals”. By way of illustration, he spoke of a recent outcry about 300 monkeys suffocated, through carelessness, in a B.O.A.C van at Heathrow. This public indignation, which might well have been taken as good evidence of British concern for animals, Dowding turned inside out. More than 125,000 monkeys, he said, were coming through Heathrow every year:

“Those 300 were the lucky monkeys: they experienced only about fifteen minutes of slow suffocation. What happened to the others? Here are some of their experiences …

Dowding then read out a long list of vivisection horrors. At the end of it he said, “Yet about all this there is no newspaper outcry”.

In fact the concept of the animal-lover, whether person or nation, was and is delusive and irrelevant. Dowding knew that it appealed mainly to people for whom animals have no real standing of their own and so are quite properly dependent upon the interest and kindness of their superiors. Hence, of course, the preferential treatment, in the 1876 Act, of the particular human favourites, the dogs, cats, and horses: “pure sentimentality”, Dowding called that; “All warm-blooded animals feel pain and all are equally entitled to protection.”

When Dowding spoke about the spiritualist “scheme of things”, there must have been some comical unease in that 1950s House of Lords; containing as yet no women and no life peers, it was probably even less of a ‘new age’ scene than it is now. He did admit that his speeches had sometimes sounded “rather like a sermon”. But whether one shares his beliefs or not, it’s enlightening to see how they raised this apparently conventional Englishman far above his fellow-peers in ethical vision, simply by convincing him of the unity of life. Against their moral job-lot of sentiment, custom, selfishness, and improvised kindness, he brought his serene absolute (“I speak of what I know”) that “all life is one”, and all lives “brothers and sisters”. And even when pressing for the modest particular reforms which were all he could hope politically to achieve, he always kept that larger and revolutionary truth in open view, proportioning all those timid mitigations of wrong: thus, when he argued for the captive bolt gun and the casting-pen in slaughterhouses, he nevertheless told the Lords, “sooner or later, the time will come when we shall regard the eating of animal flesh as we now regard cannibalism.”

But of course one does not have to come at this great truth that “all life is one” by the spiritualist way that Dowding followed. There are many other ways to discern and represent what is, after all, at its least a worldly fact: from Albert Schweitzer’s existentialist ‘reverence for life’, through Charles Darwin’s science of evolution, down to the single word ‘speciesism’ with which Richard Ryder nailed its delusory opposite. (That Darwin’s way, the most matter-of-fact, the most patently fitted to the understanding of a materialist society, has in practice done so little good for the animals, is sad evidence of the littleness of our scientific culture.) But just now we need reminding of it in its political character. There is only one stable and non-arbitrary jurisdiction, which did not need arguing into existence and cannot be debated out of it, and to which we unalterably belong, namely the animal kingdom (etymologically ’kin’-dom). This is the one which Hugh Dowding, having rescued the merely provisional and historical kingdom of Britain, went on to serve without reservations for the remainder of his life and, as he hoped and believed, far beyond.


[The statue of Hugh Dowding, by Faith Winter, was erected in 1988. The photograph is by René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net). All the quotations above are taken from Hansard debates in which Dowding spoke: these took place on the subject of vivisection in October 1952 and July 1957, and on the other subjects in March and May 1948, Feb 49, Nov 50, Oct 53, June 54, Jan 56, Dec 57, May 58, Dec 62, and Feb 65. They can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/lords/ . Dowding’s labours on behalf of laboratory animals are remembered in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (established in 1974 by the National Anti-Vivisection Society), and also on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, which falls on 24th April, Dowding’s birthday.]


Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]”. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-06-07-fish-can-recognise-human-faces-new-research-shows ; for the article in Scientific Reports, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep27523 ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/monkey-experiments-max-planck-institute-germany .]






Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MRCVS, part 2

In part 1 of this post, I mentioned the books written  by the vet James Herriot. His reminiscences are no doubt coloured up for better entertainment, but they’re also authentic records of veterinary life and of the changes, good and bad, brought to it during the later 20th Century. In fact librarians, undeceived by the slapstick elements, shelve them under ‘Animal Husbandry’ (Dewey Decimal 636). So it’s worth having a look at one such book, The Lord God Made Them All, before returning to today’s veterinary scene.

The book was published in 1981, but is set in the years following the Second World War, when veterinary medicine was just starting to take advantage of the antibiotics whose development had been hurried forward by the needs of that war. Herriot astonishes some of his farming clients, and himself also, with the new therapies, and at the end of the book, his partner Siegfried Farnon contemplates the changing scene with characteristic optimism:

Look at all the new advances since the war. Drugs and procedures we never dreamed of. We can look after our animals in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago and the farmers realise this. You’ve seen them crowding into the surgery on market day to ask advice – they’ve gained a new respect for the profession and they know it pays to call the vet now … There are great days ahead!

The suggestion is that the interests of animal, vet, and farmer (the client) would in future be more nearly at one. And certainly the problems of a three-way pull – what the modern British Veterinary Association calls the “veterinary surgeon’s trilemma” – has been well illustrated in the earlier parts of the book. In Chapter Ten, Herriot injects a cow for ‘foul of the foot’ (Fusiformis necrophorus) with one of the new drugs. The foot is miraculously healed, but the site of the injection, the cow’s jugular vein, develops phlebitis, and shortly afterwards the cow dies. Herriot is painfully upset about the cow, of course: “To any conscientious veterinary surgeon, killing a patient is a terrible thought”. Then there is the loss to the farmer, severe enough to raise “the possibility that he might be going to sue me”. Finally, “I had lost the practice a good client, and that was not a pleasant thought either.”

It happens that the farmer in this case is a very sympathetic character, and the disaster stops with the cow, so that the story simply shows two humane people doing their best for an animal – the standard model, one might hope and suppose, of the veterinary scene. But not all the Dales farmers are so humane. One of the cartoons by Larry which illustrate the earlier editions of these books shows Herriot attending to another sick cow, while a farmer gloomily watches, a thought bubble above his head picturing a cash register with money falling out cows on Port Meadowof it. Even the vet, says Herriot, “must always have the farmer’s commercial interest in mind”, and tell him or her “when treatment is obviously unprofitable”. It must be so, while animals are traded goods.

And then there is the larger conflict or contradiction, unaffected by the humanity or otherwise of the farmer or vet. Herriot calls it “the fundamental sadness of a country vet’s work – that so many of our patients are ultimately destined for the butcher’s hook”. He himself, for all his obvious kindness, is necessarily reconciled to this sadness, and is, besides, himself a ‘mighty trougher’, to use his own phrase. When that cow with phlebitis dies, it’s an index of Herriot’s dismay that he can’t face the “nice slice of home-fed ham” laid out for his breakfast, but there seems to be no ironic intention in that phrase: the conscientious man has simply lost his appetite.

However, he surely does feel and intend the irony in those words of Siegfried Farnon’s about looking after our animals in a way that would previously have been impossible. For what, among other things, those new “drugs and procedures” turned out to have made possible were the progressive de-naturing of the life of the farm-animal and the kind of “looking after” which is practised on the modern factory farm – that cruel and squalid scene which vets today find themselves servicing.

And now at last, as I said at the end of the previous post, the veterinary profession seems to be hoping to get some ethical grip on this development, and more generally on the human/animal relation as mediated by the vet. In the BVA’s document Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare, published in February, the three-way pull is given a proper ethical formulation. In future, it says, the interests of the animals will be

our explicit aim and motivator … working with our clients and being economically viable are enablers for us to improve animal welfare … The veterinary surgeon’s trilemma (arising from our duties to animals, clients and our employers) will never be far away but the BVA, in considering veterinary surgeons’ primary motivation, will provide leadership on the principle of the veterinary profession being animal welfare-focused. [Here and in subsequent quotations, I have added the italics]

Specifically in relation to farming, here are some of the BVA’s intentions, as summarised in the document:

Develop a position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture that includes the importance of animal welfare in sustainable development, defines stakeholders that the veterinary profession should consistently account for (those whose interests would be affected by decisions made) and considers how their interests should be weighed by an animal welfare-focused profession • Review BVA’s own food procurement policy in light of an agreed position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture • Link advocacy on priority animal welfare problems to increased consumer awareness of assurance schemes that seek to address these problems.

The civil service prose makes this all sound rather abstract and office-bound, but the intention is clear enough, that vets should occupy at last their proper role as animal advocates, both individually in their daily work and as a profession. In fact the BVA has already been campaigning alongside – though not, as far as I know, in collaboration with – Animal Aid on the subjects of CCTV in slaughterhouses and non-stun slaughter (see the Times, 12 May, p.22). Before the recent national and local elections, the BVA sent a “manifesto” to all the candidates, putting its concerns on these and other matters. And although the new policy is evidently being purposefully directed by the current President of the BVA, Sean Wensley, it has been based on extensive consultation, during which the profession’s members have made clear that this is what they wish their profession to be like. In fact the policy builds on a slightly earlier publication issued jointly by the BVA and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and entitled Vet Futures, where similar intentions were expressed:

We need to clarify the expectations we have of ourselves – and the public has of us – in terms of challenging any practice that undermines animal health and welfare. Vets and veterinary nurses need to feel confident that they have the authority and expertise to speak out, and will be supported by their peers when they do so. 

The crucial anomaly, Herriot’s “fundamental sadness”, remains, that a vet’s work with farm animals will entail keeping them fit to be killed and eaten before they reach maturity – as children, in fact – just as a research vet’s work means fitting animals for premature death in the laboratory. But it’s significant that the BVA document itself makes the comparison with child-care: “We [i.e. the public] expect a paediatrician to prioritise the best interests of their young patients, enabled by the child’s parents/guardians and the doctor’s skills and resource.” And it’s certain that we don’t expect a paediatrician to prepare children for the table, or for the laboratory bench and incinerator. True, the word ‘interests’ is used there, rather than ‘rights’, a word which does not appear in the BVA document. Still, the concept of rights is plainly implied, and perhaps most plainly of all where the document speaks of animal welfare as “a rapidly evolving social concern, following on from moral progress towards women, minority groups, people with disabilities, children and others”. That sequence has been habitually and convincingly put forward as part of the animal rights argument. Now at last the veterinary profession has acknowledged it, and means to act accordingly.

Of course Mr Hyde is meanwhile still busily at work in the profession, notably in the research world (which unfortunately the BVA does not even mention). The Royal Veterinary College, for instance, seems to have taken no part in the new vision. The Animal Health Trust (the “pre-eminent” charity studying and treating ill-health in animals) is a licensee with the Home Office, and joins the RVC among the signatories to the vivisectors’ ‘Concordat’. Veterinary journals still publish gruesome laboratory research, and their solemn cautions to prospective authors, as to the welfare of the animals used, turn out to be no more than reminders of the 1986 Act. And so on. In fact readers of Robert Louis Stevenson will recall that the savage Mr Hyde does finally prevail over Dr Jekyll, though at the prompt cost of his own life. Since March of last year, UK vets have (quite rightly) been permitted to title themselves ‘Dr’: let’s hope it’s a prognosis of their increasing commitment to the more civilized of those two models of the human being, the one that doesn’t start by destroying its fellows and end by destroying itself.


[References: the BVA’s Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare: BVA Animal Welfare Strategy (2016) and the joint BVA/RCVS Vet Futures: a Vision for the Veterinary Profession for 2030 (2015) can both be read online. The quotations from The Lord God Made Them All (Michael Joseph 1981) are taken from the BCA edition of the same year, pp.348, 84-5, and 234.]