Ecce Homo

Today, 24 April, is World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s impossible to know even approximately how many animals are making this claim on our attention, because most of them are unrecorded. Even where there are official counts, the rules and standards differ. The U.S.A., for instance, does not include in its published figures any rats, mice, birds, or frogs – the most commonly used lab animals. Its last official total (767,622 in 2015) is therefore likely to have been about 1% of the true number. The most recent attempt to produce a reasoned estimate of the world total (a 2014 report commissioned by Lush Cosmetics) put it at over 118 million, but conceded that this was itself very probably much less than the truth.

Here in the U.K., the main event to mark WDAIL will take place in Birmingham on Saturday 29 April. This is the link to the facebook page:

At the head of that page, there is just the one pictured animal to represent those WDAIL monkeyuncounted millions, but the right one, as I shall say later. On Easter week-end, which is when I am writing this, the hideous contraption (I don’t know its technical name) which has been clamped to the monkey’s head appears like a stylized crown of thorns.

MantegnaThere’s unfortunately nothing far-fetched about such a comparison. In fact it was put to the congregation of the Oxford University Church long ago by one of the University’s most eloquent preachers and noblest men, John Henry Newman. At that time (early 1840s), he was vicar of that church and parish, as well as a university tutor. He was giving the Easter sermon, and he wished to persuade that congregation, largely consisting as it did (or so he was increasingly coming to feel) of over-comfortable and under-spiritual colleagues, to have a more living sense of “those awful sufferings whereby our salvation has been purchased”. He hoped to do this by inviting his listeners to recollect “how very horrible it is to read the accounts which sometimes meet us of cruelties exercised on brute animals”, and in particular those cruelties which were “the cold-blooded and calculating act of men of science, who make experiments on brute animals, perhaps merely from a sort of curiosity.” He pictured such an animal “fastened … pierced, gashed, and so left to linger out its life”. And he then asked, “Now do you not see that I have a reason for saying this, and am not using these distressing words for nothing? For what is this but the very cruelty inflicted upon our Lord?”

So it was as a sort of moral exercise that Newman first invoked those images of animal suffering, as a practice in sympathy, but also and expressly he was gripped by the images in themselves, and he used words for them as strong as a Christian could find: “there is something so very dreadful, so Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.” Satanic! This meant something shocking at that time, addressed to a congregation in which almost all must have been earnest believers, and many of the men in holy orders themselves (as college fellows commonly were). Newman was shifting the matter from the realm of personal sensibility (“horrible to read … distressing”), and into eschatology: death, judgement, heaven and hell. He could not at that time have condemned vivisection more absolutely or more permanently.

Soon after that, Newman left Oxford, exiled by his decision to be ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. And subsequently the religious preoccupations which so vitally engaged him and others during the nineteenth century have ebbed away, from Oxford University and elsewhere. The meaning which the pictured monkey holds for humanity and our self-explanation, in its character as our forebear, probably commands now a larger congregation than the meaning of Easter does, supposing that they have to be at odds. At any rate, the idea that Christ’s sufferings, real and terrible as they historically were, constituted a sacrifice ‘purchasing our salvation’ is a hard one to accommodate in science-minded western culture. Still, as the picture of the monkey shows, we’re not done with sacrificing as a principle. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw believed that a primitive trust in propitiatory sacrifice was what really persuaded the modern public of the efficacy of vivisection, in so far as it was persuaded.

But there’s more to the comparison than just that ancient habit of making others pay our debts. When we see another species of primate, we get as near as we may to looking at our own genesis. Ecce homo, in fact (the Latin version of words ascribed to Pontius Pilate: see the note below). The last lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (discussed in the post for 10 September 2015), record the narrator’s encounter with a confined chimpanzee, bullet-proof glass between them: “I recognized everything about her … As if I were looking in a mirror.” But we have heard from this woman’s brother that such recognition is only the start in finding who we really are. Referring to the absurdly over-rated ‘mirror test’ for animal self-consciousness (essentially a test of human-likeness), he has told her, “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 points for those who get all the way to insects.” So other primates are the go-betweens, who both are and show our relation to all the other animals beyond themselves, and therefore to life itself. In putting them to death in this way, we offend against life our own maker, and, as children of nature not God, we condemn ourselves with no means of forgiveness. This is the story that the monkey photograph tells.

If you can, be in Birmingham on Saturday and speak up for the equal holiness, beauty, and right to freedom of all life.


Notes and references:

World Day for Animals in Laboratories was instituted in 1979, the particular date being the birthday of Hugh Lord Dowding, whose work for animals is discussed in the post for 26 June, at

The Lush report can be read here:

Newman’s sermon ‘The Crucifixion’ was collected in volume 7 of the eight-volume Parochial and Plain Sermons (quotations from pp.134-37 of the 1868 edition).

Quotations from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are from pp.308 and 201-2 of the U.K. edition (Profile Books, 2014).

The painting is by Alberto Mantagna, dated 1500 and titled Ecce Homo. “Ecce homo!” is what Pilate exclaims when he presents Jesus to the crowd (in the Latin Vulgate translation of John 19.5). The common English version would be ‘Behold the man!’, but the Latin can equally mean ‘Behold mankind!’

I don’t know the source of the WDAIL photograph.

Poets and Vivisectors

I see mention of a recently published anthology titled Vivisection Mambo. What – a whole book of verse on the hideous subject? But the title turns out to be misleading. The word ‘vivisection’ is evidently there for metaphorical purposes, to imply that the poems inside are searching, bare-nerved, even bloody – in a word, important. ‘Mambo’ is added, I guess, to show that they’re also lively and fun, like the dance. No doubt the poems themselves are all these things, but they aren’t about vivisection. The title is just taking careless and improper advantage of the frisson that might be supposed to go with the word.

In fact it’s hard to find any poetry that is about vivisection, though heaven knows it’s a subject which needs attention of the imaginative ethical sort that poetry can provide. There’s one large and terrifying poem of early twentieth century date called The Testament of a Vivisector, written by the fine Scottish poet John Davidson (more of that some other time). Davidson was a trained scientist, and probably knew more than most about laboratory life. And I suspect that it’s lack of such immediate knowledge rather than the ugliness of the subject that keeps poets away: poetry isn’t easily made out of generalizations.

There is one poem about vivisection which makes a deliberate merit of this impersonality, as its business-like title suggests: ‘The Use of Animals in Research’ (from the collection Mrs Carmichael by Ruth Silcock, Anvil Press, 1987). “Animals are different”, says its first line with well-aimed meaninglessness, for it soon appears that the voice surveying “our work” is indeed that of a practitioner. Here in fact is a go-between like Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, knowledgeably reassuring his public of the value of animal research, though without Blakemore’s tact or sophistication:

                                    No one can doubt the
                                    of scientists. The proof: nearly
            one third of all licensed experiments
                                    are for medical re-
            search. The rest not. Nevertheless these other tests
                        could promise amelioration

                        of mankind’s lot. For instance …

Then the prosaic voice goes on to list some of the things tried out on animals. It’s not just a sketch: the poem is fourteen seven-line stanzas long. In fact, as the author says in a note, it’s a verse-rendering of material from Richard Ryder’s 1975 book, Victims of Science.

You’ll have noticed the poem’s strange metre and rhyme scheme, blatantly at odds with the syntax, even severing individual words:

                       To be brief, and not bore you:
                                    zoologists, psych-
                        ologists, neu-
                                    rologists, in pure research, like
            to transplant animals’ heads, deprive young
                                    monkeys of mothers, spike
            electrodes into brains, blind cats, stop food, punish
                        pigeons (it’s shown on television too).

The vivisector’s voice – with its didactic love of numbers and lists, and its banal equanimity – seems to be ignorantly stumbling through the poetic form. He wrecks the aesthetics, and for their part they mangle his discourse. It’s mainly through this contradiction or irony that the poet herself comments on what she has him saying. And her principal comment seems to be that the vivisector – by turns patronizing, populist, and defensive – cannot rise to the ethical seriousness of what he speaks about.

‘The Use of Animals in Research’ appears in the Mrs Carmichael collection under the heading ‘Two Animal Poems’, paired with ‘William Cowper’s Hares’. In this other poem, Ruth Silcock describes the eighteenth-century poet’s relations with the three hares which at one time he had living in his house. And this history of Cowper and his pets, which he himself also wrote about, makes an illuminating corrective to the vivisection poem.

For instance, so far from extenuating human cruelty, Cowper was painfully sensitive to it, and wished, above all, to protect his hares. It’s true, that he therefore had to keepCowper's hares them from their natural life; the word “prisoner” is used in Ruth Silcock’s poem, though the hares were more or less tame, and seem to have had the run of the house and garden. But their natural life, so Cowper feared with good reason, would entail being hunted by humans. In his own long poem The Task, he had spoken of this in the case of the first of his hares (a doe):

            Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
            Has never heard the sanguinary yell
            Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.

And then, addressing the hare herself,

             I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d
            All that is human in me to protect
            Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.

It’s an ambitious phrase, “All that is human in me”, and a helpful reminder of what’s missing from the glib voice and perfunctory philosophy of the vivisector in ‘Use of Animals’.

Then there’s the question of numbers and the attitudes that go with them. “In one year in Britain”, says the vivisector (referring to the early 1970s),

                                    perform over five
                        million, three
                                    hundred thousand trials on live
            animals: seventeen thousand dogs, twelve
                                    thousand cats (I arrive
            at forty-seven dogs, thirty-five cats a day),
                        four hundred horses (eight a week, roughly).

That last and telling word, “roughly”, summarizes the sweeping indifference of all such Home Office maths to the individual animal, in whom alone life and its possibilities of pleasure and suffering exist. In this sense the numbers are an abrogation or at least a suspension of morality. And it’s not just that Cowper’s hares are three only, and have been distinguished and dignified by names. Yes, their individualities have been nurtured in that domestic setting, but it’s clear that they were not created by it:

            Tiney would not be tamed. Puss, much
            gentle usage made tame.
            Bess was born brave and tame …

            As the shepherd knows each sheep,
            Cowper distinguished each hare:
            among a thousand,
            no two are alike.

Every animal has a life peculiar to itself by title of nature, whether humans think they recognize and understand its inwardness or not. The names and other recorded distinctions are for human benefit, and add nothing to that original fact, though they may evidence kindness, as they clearly did in Cowper’s household.

It all comes down to that word “usage” (“Puss, much / gentle usage made tame”), here meaning ‘treatment’. In treating other animals humanely (with ‘all that is human in us’), we make way for their particular beings, as we would wish our own to be made way for. In merely putting them to “use”, we insult nature in them and in ourselves. These are existential truths which poetry is peculiarly fitted to communicate. I don’t say that either of the ‘Two Animal Poems’ is brilliant – they don’t aim to be – but both are plain-spoken, aesthetically distinctive, unsentimentally truthful. Together they leave their own modest but permanent memorial to what is possible of good and bad in the human sensibility, and what that may mean for the other animals.



Notes and references:

Vivisection Mambo is edited by Lolita Lark and published by Mho & Mho Works (San Diego, CA), 2015.

Ruth Silcock was a psychiatric social worker, and many of her poems are about institutions, authorities, and the pathos of dependence.

The quotation from William Cowper’s poem The Task (published 1785) is found in Book III, sub-titled ‘The Garden’.

The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at