The Antiviv: a Hospital without Cruelty

At a biomedical research establishment in Holland shown in the BBC documentary Monkey Lab (BBC3, April 17), a veterinary assistant speaks of her affection for the animals which are used in experiments there:  “Sometimes I really have to cry a little bit … So why do I have this job?” The answer she gives is that she herself uses medicines, and to shun the work which provides them would make her “a hypocrite”.

In one form or another it’s an argument which is frequently used against those who object to vivisection. Someone prepared to benefit from the therapies which medical science produces cannot honourably object to the means used to produce them; or to put it the other way round, anyone who does object to vivisection should refuse its products. And just so that we should know what that implies, the champions of vivisection would like these products to advertise their origins in animal research: “there is a case”, said Lord Winston in a House of Lords debate, “for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.” This drug, in short, will defeat your ethics. Lord Taverne developed the idea: “it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating ‘All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals.’ ” Merely by consulting a doctor, then, someone opposed to vivisection is discrediting their principles. The aim is to freeze such people out of the health service, or rather, since they have to be a part of it, if only by paying taxes, to freeze out their ethics.

As a matter of fact, living up to their ideals is something that few humans do manage, and I can’t see that the merit of the ideals is compromised by that. As Robert Browning’s artist Andrea del Sarto says, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s Heaven for?” If we don’t aim higher than we can presently get, ethics would become merely a matter of describing how we do behave, not how we ought to. Of course, a campaigner against animal abuse who isn’t vegan is plainly contradicting themselves. But then there’s a real alternative choice there – not to eat animal products – and it’s a choice which anyone can easily make. There is no such choice in modern medicine, here in Britain at least and probably anywhere. The nation has only one health service, it’s supported involuntarily by all who pay taxes, and it’s premised on animal research.

In that sense, medicine is a service like policing, fire-fighting, or defence: you pay for it, and you get it in the one available form, whether you like that or not. If you don’t like it, you must hope and try to have it changed. Meanwhile, you may heroically shun it altogether, or at least use it as little and as judiciously as possible. But it’s as unreasonable to argue that someone who objects to animal research ought to do without the state’s medical assistance as to say that someone who campaigns for changes in the police or fire services should do without police protection or should make their own arrangements about putting their house out if it catches fire.

In fact even before the National Health Service was established in 1948, the medical profession had made animal research an inseparable part of its institutions. This is what made the controversy in Oxford in the mid-1880s so crucial. By building and endowing an animal research laboratory, to the specifications and for the use of one of the nation’s leading practitioners of vivisection (Professor Burdon Sanderson), the University was endorsing and confirming the practice as the way into the profession for its students. Prophetically, then, the man who led the opposition to this development in the University, Bodley’s Librarian E.W.B.Nicholson, warned his colleagues, as the date for the final vote on the subject approached, “If we are beaten then, we are beaten for ever.” To teach medicine as an animal-using discipline was to fix it as such for all subsequent generations of practitioners.

Here’s an illustration of how that works, from ten years previously:

Lord Cardwell (taking evidence during the 1876 Royal Commission on animals in science): Therefore any students who come there, so far as your teaching and influence are concerned, adopt, I presume, the principle that you have adopted?

Dr Klein (professor of pathology at the Brown Institute, London): Yes.

Lord Cardwell: And consider that a physiological inquirer has too much to do to think about the sufferings of the animals.

Dr Klein: Yes.

Even so, attempts have been made to break this monopoly of the vivisectors in medicine, and to provide a cruelty-free alternative. One such was the National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, established at Battersea Park, London, not far from the scene of the 1907 Brown Dog riots (see the post for 7 August 2015). In fact the hospital was itself briefly caught up in those riots when a band of medical students, driven away from the Brown Dog statue itself, made the nearby building its target. Their indignation and violence (more deliberate and destructive, incidentally, than anything that animal rights “extremists” have ever done) reflected a medical training which now committed them in practice and professional allegiance to experimentation on animals. That is, they saw anti-vivisection as a threat, or at least an insult, to their craft, prestige, and livelihood. Fortunately the hospital, like the statue, was adequately defended on that occasion, mainly by the local population.

Here are a few facts about Battersea’s National Antivivisection Hospital, also known as ‘the Antiviv’. It opened in 1903 at Lock’s Folly, 33 Prince of Wales Drive. The money for it had been raised by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and it was subsequently kept going and expanding largely by donations and bequests from well-off sympathizers. It was located in a poor district of London, to whose people it provided a precious service (doing “great and useful work”, according to Battersea’s mayor in 1907), and these people too supported it, not only by strength of arm as mentioned, but also by fund-raising: carnivals, concerts, boxing tournaments, more poignantly by direct gifts, including free work. By the end of the 1920s, the hospital was treating 400 in-patients and 40,000 out-patients each year.

During all this time the hospital was, in the words of its own board of directors, “a standing protest against cruel experiments on animals, and a concrete demonstration that these are not necessary for the succour of the maimed or the healing of the sick.” Nor was this “protest” merely implicit: there was a notice-board outside which declared the hospital’s principles. The principles were that no experimentation on animals or humans (this last a common and not unfounded fear among working people at the time) would occur on its premises, by way of training or research; there would be no treatments derived from live animals; and its staff would all have signed a declaration against vivisection. It was the opposite, then, of the doctor’s surgery as proposed by Lord Taverne.

Of course the Antiviv had difficulty paying its way. This was a difficulty for all the ‘voluntary’ hospitals (meaning those not owned and funded by local authorities or the state, i.e. most of them). It was exactly in acknowledgement of this general problem that the Prince of Wales ‘s (later King Edward’s) Hospital Fund for London had been set up in 1897. Through this agency, funds were to be raised in a systematic way and distributed to the voluntary hospitals – those of them, at least, which were assessed as efficiently run. Naturally the Battersea Hospital frequently applied for funds from this source, but although the Fund never seems to have found fault with the running of the hospital, it consistently withheld its support. The Fund’s reasoning was variously expressed at different times and by different individuals, but the essential reason was clear: its General Council did not wish to encourage a venture which, as one hospital fund-raiser put it, “casts a great slur upon the profession generally”. Sir Henry Burdett, a leading member of the Council, argued that an anti-vivisection hospital was impossible anyway, because there was no modern medicine or medical treatment which had not at some point involved animal research. To take a stand against it was therefore “humbug”.  Already in 1909, then, the hypocrisy charge was being used to discredit and subvert any effort to make medicine cruelty-free.

The Antiviv closed down in 1935. Its last chair of the board of governors, Lord Ernest Hamilton, blamed the failure on “this ceaseless hostility of King Edward’s Hospital Fund administrators who refused to help us. If they had helped us, we should now be financially solvent, but they have refused to give us a penny.” (It’s an unhappy irony that the Fund had been set up in the first place “to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign” – in tribute, that is, to a monarch who was passionately opposed to what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection … a disgrace to a civilized country”.) That the Antiviv had been working well as a hospital is sufficiently indicated by the fact that, having simply changed its name to the Battersea General Hospital and dropped its anti-vivisection rules, it continued to function as before, in fact went on serving South London until 1972. The building was demolished in 1974, and its address no longer exists: a huge block of modernistic flats now squats on the historied site.

The Antiviv was not the only attempt to set up a cruelty-free health service, but it was the latest to survive. What Burdett said about it, that it couldn’t actually free itself of the products of animal research, was probably true. In fact, that was always a controversial question among its own people, how strict to try to be. In this matter, there can be no innocence any more, and already there could not be then: the medical profession itself had made sure of it. But the “reach” was absolutely right, towards a health service in which the great talents, skills, and practical compassion of the professionals would not be dishonoured by a background in animal exploitation. That the “grasp” failed, for that time, was a tragedy – one that, as we’ve seen, need not have happened. It says nothing about the validity of the ambition, only about the wretched history of its deliberate defeat, that those who champion it are still obliged, if they’re to accept scientific help in time of need, to participate in that dishonour.



Notes and references:

The Lords Winston and Taverne were speaking in the House of Lords debate on the transposition of EU Directive 2010/63 on 31 October, 2011. The subject was debated again in similar terms in that House on 25 October, 2013, with reference to the Medicinal Labelling Bill.

E.W.B.Nicholson’s words come from a letter which he sent to all signatories to the Oxford campaign on 6 March, 1885 (Bodleian Library 1516d.4).

The Cardwell/Klein exchange is from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, p.185.

Information and quotations about the Battersea Hospital come mainly from ‘Boycotted Hospital: The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, London, 1903-1935’, A.W.H.Bates, Journal of Animal Ethics, vol.6, no.2 (Fall 2016), pp.177-87; also from Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, especially chapter 1 (the “great slur” quotation is from p.19); and from reports in the Times newspaper for 1 October, 1907, and 31 May, 1935 (on the maintenance and then closure of the hospital), and 6 February, 1897 (on the founding of the Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund).

The words of Queen Victoria are taken from letters written to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Home Secretary William Harcourt in the early 1880s (see The Extended Circle, ed. Jon Wynne-Tyson, 1985, p.386).


Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

Among the various attempts to persuade chimpanzees or other great apes to use a human language, the most famous or notorious, certainly the most written-about, has been ‘Project Nim’ – the attempt, from 1973 to 1977, by Herbert Terrace at the University of Columbia, to teach the animal whom he originally named Neam Chimpsky to use American Sign Language (ASL).

That name itself was ominous. True, it wasn’t a senseless joke. Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, wished to test Noam Chomsky’s claim that language, as humans used it, was a unique and innate capacity of the human brain. If a chimpanzee, brought up in human society, could learn to converse in some way with humans, that much language at least would be shown to be the product of culture, a learned behaviour. So Terrace named the chimpanzee to show that the project was a challenge to Noam Chomsky. But unfortunately the name also expresses an estimate of value. Like the name ‘Dolly’ for the cloned sheep (see the VERO blog on 29 August, 2016), it makes a joke of the animal’s participation in human affairs. In fact it belongs with the mock-dignity of a chimpanzees’ tea-party. An animal not to be much respected in itself, then, but made over to a human purpose: that was the implication of the name.

Accordingly, it was Neam Chimpsky’s fate to be snatched with unceremonious violence from his captive mother (a ‘breeding’ chimpanzee at Dr William Lemmon’s Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma), pitched into a more or less unprepared human family in New York, and wholly subject for the next four years to the chaotic professional and private interests of whatever people Terrace could find to run the Nim_Chimpskychimpanzee’s education and home life. Most of those people proved devoted and loyal to Nim (as he came to be called) while they stayed with him. It was not so much the difficulties of looking after Nim, though these were great enough, as the instability of the human relationships that caused what Terrace himself calls “the necessity of introducing more and more teachers into his life … The revolving-door manner in which caretakers cycled through Project Nim”. Nim’s so-called “socialization” in fact consisted in a succession of broken homes: a training in delinquency.

Yet during this time Nim rose above his slighting name and its moral implications, and re-characterized it in his own true image, as vital things do (poor Dolly was too unassertive to discredit the joky etymology of her name, as it deserved). The ‘Chimpsky’ disappeared from ordinary use, and the ‘Noam’ reference was forgotten. In fact, discovering Nim as a real and enduring being is the most interesting lesson that Herbert Terrace can be seen to learn during his own account of the project, the 1979 book Nim. Accustomed to pigeons and rats as subjects, creatures which he could with impunity put away in cages and forget when not in use, he found that Nim was a 24-hour phenomenon: “Even more than a human infant [of which Terrace had no experience either], Nim needed constant contact and attention.” More urgently, chimpanzees mature quickly, so that any “unseized opportunity to teach Nim to sign seemed to be an opportunity lost forever.” In practice, Terrace mostly delegated these demands, but even delegating them required time and understanding.

A theme for a comedy, perhaps: harassed scientist taught to live and love by warm-hearted monkey. But in fact the story of Nim was a tragedy. There came a time, unprepared-for like most of what happened during the project, when Nim’s growing strength started to make his vagarious moods a physical danger to his carers (there were several trips to hospital). Both man-hours and funds for the research were becoming scarce, and anyway Terrace now had plentiful results in notes and film of Nim’s communications during nearly four years on which to base his research conclusions. So Nim was indeed put back in his cage: that is, he was sedated, as his mother had been when he was stolen from her, and taken to the place which one writer about Nim (Elizabeth Hess) describes as “a dreary, crowded, woefully inadequate cement prison” – the Institute for Primate Studies from which he had come. Having been taught to regard himself as a human (when asked to sort photographs of chimpanzees and humans, he had put his own picture among the humans), he was thrown back among his own kind and left to start again.

Terrace himself, a more sympathetic man than Dr Lemmon, devoted a chapter of his book to this miserable event. The chapter is somewhat disingenuously titled ‘Nim Leaves’, but it doesn’t shirk the pain and violence involved. After all, such ASL as Nim had learned did not encompass explanations or persuasions. The parting had to be done with a trick:

Nim didn’t realize what had happened until I got up and padlocked the door. He then began to scream and tried to force the door open … Without further ceremony we all walked out of the building. I will never forget Nim’s incessant ear-piercing screams and his look of fear and anger when I abandoned him in his cage.

In the recent documentary film Project Nim (2011) one of Nim’s household who had been present on that occasion still seems tearful when she remembers it: “a nasty thing to do … We coaxed him down there because he trusted us … We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.”

But Terrace had in preparation what many of his co-adjutors regarded as a further betrayal, this one strictly as a scientist. In his report on the research published in the journal Science in 1979, he argued that Nim had not been using ASL as a proper language at all. Nim had learnt to use many individual word-signs (125 of them by the end), and could use them in combinations of up to four, but there was no good evidence that he was using a syntax to make variable sense of them, still less that he was generating altogether new meanings in such a way. Not just Nim, either. Terrace rejected also the more positive conclusions of previous studies (for instance, the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner with the chimpanzee Washoe). The title of the article was ‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ The answer which Terrace gave was this: “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other non-human species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.” In short, no.

Terrace did not altogether abjure the romantic possibilities of inter-species communication which his own research seemed thus to have closed off. At the very end of his book, he writes that such communication would be “as exhilarating as receiving a message from outer space”, while to introduce language into the culture of a group of chimpanzees “might provide a priceless glimpse of what life was like at the dawn of human civilization.” But this may have been the licensed rhetoric of a book’s last lines. The question with which he starts the book, whether “humans could take comfort in the assurance that our language made us unique”, had been emphatically answered. Terrace told the New York Times, “Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.”

So it turns out that Nim was not teaching humans to understand a different animal; he was just helping us to take another admiring look at ourselves in the mirror: as Terrace more recently said of Nim, with familiar speciesist condescension, “he should be greatly respected for sharing himself and his abilities in the pursuit of what it means to be human.” No surprise that this last quotation comes from a piece published on a pro-vivisection web-site.

Terrace’s much-publicized conclusions from his research certainly had a baleful effect on other such projects and their chances of getting funds. We may not regret that in itself, but more importantly his conclusions have also helped to keep chimpanzees and the other great apes, and in a queue behind them all the other animals, for that much longer outside the circle of our moral fellowship. And thus a quarter of a century later Oxford’s Professor Colin Blakemore could still be defending the use of great apes in experiments on the grounds that “there is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.” Nim’s return to prison was, in this sense, wholly emblematic.

As I said, there have been many tellings of the Nim story. The most thorough, apart Nim books copyfrom Terrace’s own account, would be Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp who would be Human (2008), the book on which James Marsh’s film Project Nim was based. One of the briefest and most poignant versions was published in the New Yorker in 1976, while Nim was still in ‘education’ at Columbia. The author, Mark Helprin, doesn’t in fact mention Nim by name; it’s possible he had no knowledge of him (though Terrace was good at generating publicity for his research in the media). Rather, Helprin tells the larger story of which poor Nim’s career is an illustration. The title is ‘Letters from the Samantha’.

The captain of “an iron-hulled sailing ship” is reporting to his superiors a typhoon and its troublesome consequences. From that sudden violence in nature, the ship has come into possession of “a large monkey”. The presence of an animal on board is a serious breach of regulations, but unlike lesser creatures, which the captain has from time to time found on the ship and promptly dispatched, this one makes special claims, being “like a man”. Indeed, it was the captain himself who had him rescued. And once he has been fed, the monkey becomes biddable, even friendly. A special “throne” is made for him. But his presence produces disciplinary problems among the crew, and the captain feels that he’s losing his own authority on the ship. Still, he cannot bring himself to order the monkey to be thrown back into the sea: “I brought him on board in the first place.” More than that: the monkey’s personality has had a powerful effect upon the captain: so far from his dominating the animal, “it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know.” But finally, disregarding the various opinions of his crew (just as Terrace suddenly announced to his staff the end of ‘Project Nim’), and more significantly violating what he himself has learnt, the captain grasps the monkey, subdues his struggles, and throws him overboard to drown. And now he must restore a proper attitude on board the ship. Accordingly, he addresses the crew on the subject of the ape thus:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going … He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone.



Notes and references:

The book written by Terrace himself is Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Knopf 1979). Quotations are from the U.K. edition (Eyre Methuen, 1980) pp.97, 108, 5, 127, 202, 226-7, 4.

Quotations from Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess (Bantam, 2008), are from the 2009 paperback edition, pp.46 and 242 (which quotes Terrace speaking to the New York Times).

‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ appeared in Science, 23 November 1979, vol.206, no.4421, pp.891-902. The full authorship was H.S.Terrace, L.A.Petitto, R.J.Sanders, and T.G.Bever. The recent comment from Terrace (“… what it means to be human”) appeared on the website Speaking of Research, in a ‘guest’ post, 15 August 2011.

Colin Blakemore was quoted in the Independent, 2 June 2006, introducing a Medical Research Council publication which promoted the benefits of experimentation on non-human primates – including, when “necessary”, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos).

Among other discussions of the Nim story, these two are especially interesting: (1) Peter Singer’s review of the film Project Nim, and the unfriendly exchange between Singer and Terrace which followed it, in the New York Review of Books for 13 October and 24 November 2011; (2) another review of the film, this one a really fine and impassioned piece of writing (it starts with an attack on the name Nim Chimpsky) in the journal Dissent, 17 August 2011, by Benjamin Hale. The Dissent article can be read here:

The short story ‘Letters from the Samantha’, by Mark Helprin, was first published in the New Yorker, 5 January 1976. It has been re-published in Helprin’s Ellis Island and Other Stories (Dell, 1981), and also in the excellent American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Dell, 1987), pp.271-82.

The illustrations show Nim washing up, and two book covers: the front of Hess’s book, and the back cover of Terrace’s book Nim, picturing the author and the chimpanzee.

As to Nim’s later life: he stayed at the IPS until 1982, when it began to fail as a paying concern. He was then sold on to somewhere very much worse, New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, with its grotesquely inappropriate acronym LEMSIP. After a very public controversy, in which Terrace took a part arguing for special treatment in Nim’s case (other chimpanzees were sold to LEMSIP at the same time and stayed), Nim was taken back to the IPS. In 1983, Nim was sold again, this time to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, property of the animal activist Cleveland Amory. This was a wholly benevolent animal sanctuary, but it was primarily for equines, and for a year or so Nim lived a wretched life alone in a cage, a period vividly recorded in the film Project Nim. Then other chimpanzees were brought to Black Beauty, and we can hope that Nim lived a reasonably contented life until his premature death at 26 years of age in 2000.