Come See Our Worlds

A new public relations venture from Understanding Animal Research (UAR) provides ‘360° digital tours’ of four animal research laboratories in the U.K. One of them is Oxford University. Two others – MRC Harwell and the Pirbright Institute – have likewise featured in this blog before. The fourth is Bristol University, where the main event shown is heart surgery being pioneered on a pig.

The tours consist of all-round views, navigable and magnifiable, of different rooms and activities (60 such views in all), with brief explanatory texts and some video clips (35 of these, up to six minutes in length). The model for this venture seems to have been an unidentified primate facility presented online in 2015 by France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, but these new tours are quite a lot more sophisticated. In fact technically it’s a remarkable show, very smoothly done, almost mesmerizingly so. Nor is it crudely assertive or defensive. Animal care staff show what they’re doing with convincing sympathy; scientists in casual clothes speak with reassuring authority about important work. Such as it is, you can’t fault it.

No doubt it’s pleasant for them to talk about how well they care for animals, and to show the animals enjoying their strange stylized and minimalist habitats, if that’s what the animals are doing (I can’t tell). Talking about the suffering and death is harder, and there’s accordingly much less of that. The suffering, in fact, is hardly touched on at all, except as something conscientiously minimised; there’s nothing to indicate, for instance, why the U.K. law should bother with a ‘severe’ category for experiments. The killing is necessarily mentioned from time to time, and it’s done with some uneasiness, not so much visible (though I think it is noticeable) as verbal – that is, in the resort to various genteelisms. The word ‘kill’ is used once only that I heard; otherwise it’s ‘euthanize’ and its strange variant ‘euthanaze’, or a selection of circumlocutions, such as ‘put to sleep as at the vet’s’ (just like our own pets, in fact), ‘culled at the end of their lives’ (the ingeniously evasive formula pioneered at Oxford University: see post for 28 October 2015), or, the most scrupulously oblique of all, “How long they stay with us depends on …etc.”

These are fairly transparent euphemisms; we know well what’s meant. Some of the strictly scientific narratives contain terms which more seriously cloud the meaning: for instance, in accounts of neurosurgery on (or, more companionably, “with”) monkeys at Oxford, there is talk about “manipulation”, of the need to “intervene in their brain and change a little part of it”, and of injecting “a very small amount [of what?] precisely into the brain”. Here, most of us don’t know what’s being meant, and are left to guess.

UAR’s news-piece about these tours says “Watch the videos to see technicians talking about how they look after their animals and to find out from scientists why animals are being used.” You notice what’s missing: the middle term in this scene, what really happens to the animals in between the being looked after in caring confinements (we see a lot of this) and the goal or “why” of it all. The “why”, as spoken of in these tours, is of course not product-testing or mere knowledge-garnering, but the feared sicknesses of affluent societies or ailments which affect children. So if we aren’t adequately reassured by the scenes of animal comfort at the one end, at least our concern about the middle part will be frightened away by mention of those natural cruelties against us which are about to be cured by these means.

But of course the whole show must itself be a sort of euphemism. Its aim is indeed to ‘speak well’ of its subject, and to miss out what can’t be spoken well of. And even if the tours were altogether impartial, mere good taste would steer them away from anything unpleasant to see, particularly because one of their declared aims is to be of use to school students as young as eleven (so there’s a preliminary warning about the pig surgery). You can navigate all those rooms, then, without stumbling upon anything disagreeable like the fridge for animal corpses pictured elsewhere in this blog (“For dead animals. Please put in plastic bags.”). But some such equipment must be on the premises somewhere, presumably in rooms shown blank on the plans provided. At MRC Harwell, for instance, I calculate from inadequate evidence that mice must be dispatched on the premises at a rate of about one per minute. That amounts to a fair proportion of the work. It ought to be shown, in good taste or not.

At about the same time that this set of laboratory tours was put online by UAR, its equivalent organisation in the U.S.A., Americans for Medical Progress, put up their version, entitled Come See Our World. As the cheery showbooth-style title suggests, this is much more blatantly a public relations push, and what it intends to accomplish is plainly stated in brand-manager’s terms: “to replace outdated, inaccurate images of animal research with current accurate views.”

With this in mind, an album of photographic “views” of contented animals, many of them with pet names, has been assembled, with brief texts explaining their role in research, and some links to further details. The animals are grouped by species. Among the felines, there’s ‘Sadie the Research Cat’, the kitten Midnight (“likes to kiss her special person”), and Sophie, who kindly “helps” researchers study heart failure. Sadie, of the sinister title, is shown sitting on a sort of metal-framed shelf behind bars. Among the dogs, Blake is enjoying a bathe in a paddling pool. ‘Beagle playing with Kong’ shows a dog in a cage with a wire grille floor. Among the monkeys, there’s ‘Mom and baby rhesus on hammock’, in a grim tiled room.

I would upload one or two of the views here, but they’re only made available to those who support the “mission of the Come See Our World project”. This mission, in so far as it goes beyond replacing one set of images with another, is evidently to persuade the public that the patent kindness and sound judgement of scientists is quite sufficient to ensure good practice, with no further intervention from the law, still less from ill-informed public indignation. As one professor of psychology recently said, “each scientist has to make his or her own moral decision”. This dubious assertion (even in the U.S.A. there are some external controls over what researchers may do) was made by Richard Davidson, with reference to the work presently being done in his own department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Ned Kalin. Dr Kalin’s “own moral decision” is that it’s quite all right to take new-born monkeys away from their mothers, in order to study anxiety by inducing it in them. For many years he has been building upon the research notoriously done in this line by Harry Harlow (see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How Not to Treat Babies’). In fact the photo of the two rhesus monkeys with their ugly modernistic hammock comes from that same university. So may God help that ‘Mom and baby’ and all the others they represent!

I don’t know whether Kalin’s work is mentioned in Come See Our World; I can’t find it anywhere. The picture of ‘Mom and baby’ has a text about the life-cycle of the species – a sad irrelevance here, I would have thought – and a list of research areas, but nothing more particular. At any rate, the site is not apologetic about the use of the various monkey species. In fact, those “outdated, inaccurate images”, which apparently need replacing in you or me, turn out to constitute, when rightly understood, something to be proud of, for we’re told that “Nonhuman primates have a rich history of contributing to significant medical advances.” “rich history”! So speaks the ad-man.

It’s hard to know what one has really learnt from these tours, since there’s no knowing about what one hasn’t been shown. (The French tour seems to have been filmed on a general holiday: I only spotted one member of staff and, more puzzlingly, one animal, a solitary monkey somewhere in a whole cage-scape of bars.) The institutions themselves, who thus ration the knowledge, must know it all, however; perhaps one merit of these exercises in publicity might therefore be to draw their attention to any differences which exist between what they’re doing and what they wish the public to suppose that they’re doing.


Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at Come See Our World is at The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at, and the Pirbright Institute at

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.





Moral Maze

After 27 years on air, BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme The Moral Maze has at last got round to the animals, with an episode titled ‘Veganism and Animal Rights’. The advertised formula for this programme is “combative, provocative and engaging debate”. The journey not the arrival, then: that is, it aims to make a showy fight of things amongst the four panelists, not to reach a finished position – as, for instance, Radio 4’s more intellectual Agree to Differ does. But a position of some sort may be reached all the same, and it certainly was in this episode: “We’re all riddled with inconsistency”; “Most of us haven’t got a leg to stand on”; “Human beings are all over the place, aren’t they?” In this case, then, it turned out not to be a maze at all. Faced, for instance, with the acknowledged “unspeakably disgusting” practice of industrial farming, the panelists knew the way out (it was in their title anyway); they just haven’t yet taken it.

That “all over the place” was the voice of Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of Arts and also the excellent chair of Agree to Differ – accordingly an intelligent and judicious contributor. Not speaking very elegantly here, perhaps, but then the discussion is a hustled one: “shouty talking over each other”, someone on Twitter calls it. Ideally the more or less expert ‘witnesses’, whom the programme invites along each week, would bring order and, even more usefully, knowledge to the scene, but this is not quite how it happens. Probably the programme is “engaging” (at least in the sense ‘harassing’ or ‘tormenting’) partly because of this absence of controlling information: “No mention of … !” seems to be a common exasperated complaint online.

Thus the first witness on the present occasion, the self-styled ‘Angry Chef’ Anthony Warner, was presumably invited as an expert on the rights and wrongs of food. But although strongly opinionated he had no moral or other case to offer. In fact his repeated assertion (there’s a lot of repetition in The Moral Maze, a disheartening indication of how we commonly do think and argue) was that this primary business of eating, which conditions all we are and do, is a non-moral activity: “guilt and shame have no place in starvation-textthe world of food.” I recall Ronald Sider’s eloquently titled book of 1978, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. There’s morality enough there, and it would have been helpful to have had someone on The Moral Maze to point out the contribution which the meat and dairy diet, as pioneered in the West, makes towards that continuing age of hunger in other parts of the world.

At the other end of the programme, the fourth witness was an animal rights philosopher, Professor Mark Rowlands. Wouldn’t he bring some intellectual order? No: he got cornered and harried by the programme’s least articulate but most belligerent panelist, Claire Fox, brandishing that weakest of all intellectual enforcers of animal-abuse, ‘contractarianism’. The notion is that animals have no moral claim on us because they aren’t themselves ‘moral beings’: i.e. that morality is a contract, and only contract-makers like ourselves, who bring moral responsibility to the table, can participate. This most reductive and unconvincing thesis, straying into ethics from its proper home in political theory (where the philosopher Thomas Hobbes originated it), could surely be shot down by a professional philosopher? Or rather, in this case, put right, because in fact there is an improved version of contractarianism for which Rowlands himself is a leading spokesman. He even regards it as “a strong – and perhaps the best – case for the moral claims of non-human animals” (see his book Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice, 2009, p.118).  He twice called the unreformed contractarianist argument “strange”, which I suspect is a professorial hint to a student to try again, but there’s no time for such gentilities in The Moral Maze, least of all with Claire Fox. And the professor’s mild academic joke, querying whether humans are right to think even themselves morally responsible, was simply trampled by her.

Vivisection had come onto the scene with the third witness, Dr Bella Williams from Understanding Animal Research. In Dr Williams, the new ‘Concordat’ style of PR – conciliatory, un-strident – was very much in evidence, impressing chairman Michael Buerk (“absolutely splendid”), but exasperating Claire Fox (“a disaster for medical research if that was the strongest proponent”). But the fact is (or “is is”, as Claire Fox habitually says) that a moral case for vivisection is impossible to put well, since the actual and originating rationale for the practice is simple expediency. Giles Fraser – “priest and polemicist”, as the chairman introduces him – put the familiar but effective Martian question to Dr Williams: would it be right for superior aliens to experiment on us? There was a fascinating silence of two seconds or so, but the vivisector’s answer has to be yes, and Dr Williams reluctantly gave it. Giles Fraser, for whom perhaps this trope was new, expressed astonishment: “A big wow!” And he said of her evidence “I don’t think you agree with your own position [i.e. that it’s morally right to use animals in research] … You’re basically saying there’s no morality in it at all.”

And yet animal research is, so Michael Buerk said when he introduced Dr Williams, “the ultimate example of prioritizing our interests over those of animals”: he meant, and she agreed, that all the other abuses are patently unnecessary, and accordingly indefensible, whereas this one at least claims to respond to an authentic need. If this case fails, there’s nothing left.

Though introduced as a priest, Giles Fraser was not putting an explicitly Christian point of view. Claire Fox, however, did claim to be putting what might be regarded as religion’s philosophical opposite: “As a humanist, I think animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, she said; “I am a humanist, and animals are beneath us.”

Humanism, then: traditionally it has been aimed at severing humans from gods, dogmatic religions, and all the other means and excuses by which we might evade the responsibility for our own situation and future. In particular, it asks humans to give up the privileged status provided for us by supernatural fictions (as humanists consider them), and to come to terms with what our best guide to knowledge, i.e. science, has shown: that we are part and product of the natural world, homogeneous with all the other life in it. Humanism ought, therefore, to be an animal rights position, though certainly not the only one. At any rate, one of the originators of modern animal rights thinking, the novelist Brigid Brophy, was a signatory to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto. In fact she considered anthropocentrism to be one of the superstitions from which humans urgently needed to free themselves; she mockingly called it a “special revelation”.

Claire Fox’s version of humanism severs us not from gods and their like, or not only from them, but also from the rest of nature. Another word for it, which Ms Fox threw in at one point, is ‘exceptionalism’, a most dangerous and unpleasant concept which one would suppose had been permanently discredited by the twentieth century. To substantiate her vision of man as the solitary value in the world she used a curiously politicized and unscientific zoology, habitually speaking of the other animals as “a species”: “an animal is a completely different species … an inferior species.”

I thought at first that Claire Fox’s pugnacious contempt even for welfarism in our relations with other animals (she called factory farming “a wonderful step forward for humanity”) might be a role gamely adopted by her in order to keep up the programme’s “combative” format. But having learned a little about the Institute of Ideas, of which she is the director, and its hostile attitude to environmental values in general, I see that she meant it all. From her point of view, the violence of factory farming is not just permissible; it’s desirable, as evidence and actuation of human ascendancy. To think animal suffering important in the way our own is, and in fact to see our own suffering as a useful guide to what they feel, “reduces us to lumps of meat”. More generally, to concede rights to animals is “anti-humanist”.

This is a very ugly version of humanism, for which happily I can find no authority in the statements of the main humanist organisations. The International Humanist and Ethical [nota bene] Union, for instance, which regards itself as the “umbrella group” for the national organisations, speaks in its foundational statement of “an ethic based on human and other natural values”. It specifically reminds humanists that “other animals deserve moral consideration too!” I think that the exclamation mark is probably a sign of recognition that humanism has been slow to come to terms with nature, and is still uneasily disorganised on the subject, just because its vis-a-vis has traditionally been the supernatural. But that phrase “other animals”, acknowledging our proper context as humans, is by itself sufficient to put Claire Fox’s version outside the mainstream. Her ideology is not really humanism at all: it’s simply speciesism, raised from a convenient wrong into an ideology. The best name for it would be human-racism.

All the same, this episode of The Moral Maze was a welcome (at times even entertaining) broadcast. It did not bring anything new to the subject; in fact I think that everything in it, good and bad, had already been accounted for in Brigid Brophy’s momentous Sunday Times article of 1965, ‘The Rights of Animals’. But at least it evidenced that the vegan case “has traction”, as Michael Buerk (not known as a friend to animal rights) admitted in his opening remarks. The very great importance of the vegan case, both as a work of moral reasoning and as a growing presence in contemporary attitudes, was plainly shown. True, most human beings are still “all over the place”, hypocrites in the matter, as Giles Fraser said of himself. Animals will continue to pay a terrible price for that. But morality is always further along the road than practice, and at least this programme suggested that the majority of us are on the way or know we ought to be.


Notes and References:

The episode of Moral Maze was broadcast on Wednesday, 2 August. It can be heard again here: For more about The Moral Maze, see the VERO post for 10 May 2016. The episode of Agree to Differ which treated vivisection, and brought together VERO’s patron Richard Ryder and Professor Tipu Aziz, is available for hearing again here (though I couldn’t get it to work this time):

The “special revelation” quotation is from Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Godlovitch and Harris, Gollancz, 1971, pp.126, in Brigid Brophy’s chapter entitled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’. There’s more about Brigid Brophy and the Sunday Times article in the VERO post for 11 October 2015.

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto (there have been other more recent formulations, of course) can be read at The International Humanist and Ethical Union statement is online at

The Institute of Ideas and its background is featured in a long but quite entertaining article by Jenny Turner in London Review of Books, 8 July 2010, here:




In Defence of Frances Power Cobbe

On the web-site of Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency for animal research in the U.K.), an article has recently been posted under the heading ‘Why the anti-vivisection movement took an absolutist view’. It’s written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, and his subject is Frances Power Cobbe, who was the person most responsible for bringing vivisection into the reach of a dedicated law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.

That Act, momentous as it was, in fact painfully disappointed Frances Cobbe, because the promising bill which had started out in the House of Lords a few weeks earlier had been “mutilated” (her word) during its passage, in order to make it acceptable to the medical profession.  One of Miss Cobbe’s fellow-campaigners, the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, hoped to reassure her by describing the Act as “a foundation on which to build amendments hereafter as evidence and opportunity shall be offered to us”. But in fact it never was amended, and for 110 years it inadequately oversaw the expansion of animal research in the U.K., from the few hundreds of animals used annually at the time of its introduction, to peaks of five million and more in the 1970s.

Chris Magee brings Frances Cobbe’s legacy right up to date, and blames the “140 years of astonishingly little progress towards her aims” on her decision, as leader of the anti-vivisection movement and of its first collective, the Victoria Street Society, to campaign in future for nothing short of abolition. He declares that “there are two things which push progress on – messy compromises and technological innovation”. These, he says, have brought whatever relief to laboratory animals they’ve enjoyed since the days of Frances Cobbe, and she must have realised this would be so: “She knew that by her approach, more animals would suffer.”

So why did Frances Cobbe take, as the UAR title has it, “an absolutist view”? Magee quotes from Cobbe’s autobiography some of her “tenuous reasons”, and finds them unconvincing. His preferred explanation refers the matter more simply to her own psyche. She “didn’t get her way” and chose, for the sake of “her personal narrative” to characterize the half-success, which the Act in fact represented, as “a great betrayal”. She, at least, would remain untainted by compromise. In fact she wanted to be high-minded more than she wanted to help animals: choosing “her soul over their wellbeing”, Magee calls it. More generally – for his account is also a critique of the abolitionist ideal, whoever holds it – he uses the phrase “burnishing one’s halo”.

I don’t think that Frances Cobbe did use that word ‘betrayal’ in anything she wrote about the 1876 Act, and I’d be surprised to find it in the thinking of so disciplined and unself-pitying a personality. Still, that episode did very reasonably come as a hideous shock and disillusionment to her.

It’s not that she was unused to failures or to deferred results in such matters. She was already an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, notably on women’s legal rights and women’s suffrage. Her active strife against vivisection had begun in Florence in 1863, where she had organised a ‘memorial’ or petition against the ruthless vivisections being conducted by Professor Schiff. He, of course, was unmoved by the list of important names: ‘a pile of aristocrats’ the republican professor called it, or words to that effect. But Frances Cobbe only concedes that  “The memorial, as often happens, did no direct good.” [FPC’s italics here and throughout] The implication is clear enough, and when more than ten years later she put together a petition urging the R.S.P.C.A. to sponsor a bill restricting vivisection in the U.K., the failure of that proposal didn’t demoralize her either. Supported by the public attention which she had raised, she took up the management of the project herself. After some parliamentary false starts, the government was pushed by the controversy into setting up the 1875 Royal Commission. The Commission found that vivisection was indeed “from its very nature, liable to great abuse, and … ought to be subjected to due regulation and control.” Accordingly the government agreed to support a bill sketched out by Frances Cobbe and fellow-members of her Victoria Street Society, and it was introduced in the House of Lords by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon.

This bill didn’t propose to prohibit vivisection, but it was an abolitionist bill all the same, for it put dogs, cats, and horses out of bounds altogether. Other animals were to be used in experiments only if anaesthetized. Having government support, the bill seemed certain to pass successfully through Parliament. But there was a delay, during which the medical profession vigorously lobbied the Home Secretary, Richard Cross. The bill was revised accordingly, finished its passage through Parliament, and received royal assent in August of 1876 – surely with reluctance on the part of the Queen, who was as keenly opposed to vivisection as Frances Cobbe herself.

So dogs, cats, and horses were back in the laboratory. They could even be experimented on without anaesthetics, if the licensee applied for and received a special certificate. The Act did introduce inspections of laboratories, licensing of practitioners, and special protections for the dogs, cats, and horses (the certificates). Yet the alterations to Carnarvon’s bill seemed to Frances Cobbe so thorough as “even to make me fear that I had done harm instead of good.” Could the 1876 Act really have made things worse?

The answer, for Cobbe, was premised on the fact that all the controlling – the licensing, certifying, and inspecting – would necessarily be in the hands of fellow-professionals (only unconditional prohibitions escape this fundamental defect). True, the Home Secretary would be in overall charge, but who could depend on the moral sympathies of every successive tenant of that office? Richard Cross had seemed fairly sympathetic, or at least willing to do something to pacify the public concern. His successor, William (‘Buffalo Bill’) Harcourt, was something more than unsympathetic. He was one of the members of Parliament who talked out (i.e. prevented a vote upon) a later anti-vivisection bill sponsored in 1881 by the Victoria Street Society. More drastically, he formally delegated the administration of the Act to the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, as the appropriate experts in the matter. This organisation had been set up in 1882, and had as one of its declared objects to ensure that the Act would be “harmlessly administered”. In this it largely succeeded until the subject of animal research came before another Royal Commission in 1906.

And if the Home Secretary was undependable, the inspectors might be supposed even more reluctant to intervene. After all, it was (so one eminent physiologist had said in 1875) “absurd” to ask an official, however keen he might be to serve the animal interest, “to inspect half a dozen others of at least equal status with himself”. And as to the keen-ness, Frances Cobbe quotes one inspector of the time calling the anti-vivisection campaign which had produced the 1876 Act “a senseless and mischievous agitation”. Meanwhile the licences and certificates would be in the bestowal of the profession, whose agents would of course have sympathy with the aims and practices of the applicants.

But perhaps that sympathy would not anyway be necessary to the success of the applications. Those aims and practices had been given an extraordinary public showing during the Royal Commission: one after another, the new breed of physiologist had justified itself under detailed questioning. Frances Cobbe had not herself given evidence, but “I heard constantly all that went on at the Commission.” When she was later explaining her rejection of half-way measures, she remembered all that. Writing in her pamphlet The Fallacy of Restriction Applied to Vivisection, she argued that once anti-vivisectionists conceded the utilitarian principle, it would mean entering into “inextricable difficulties to determine, next, the point where a little pain, or a greater pain, to one animal or to a thousand animals, ought to be sanctioned to obtain benefit for mankind; and how great or direct that benefit ought to be, and how far be likely of attainment. We fight the battle, in short, thenceforth on our enemy’s ground; and must infallibly be pushed back and back, till all the excesses of scientific cruelty be justified, just as they were by the different witnesses before the Royal Commission.” Among the experiments thus “justified” before the Commission had been the baking and starving of dogs to death, from which indeed something must certainly have been learned. Surely those who could speak confidently of such things in the lay setting of a commission would have little difficulty in convincing less shockable fellow-professionals of their good faith.

What in particular made Frances Cobbe fear that she had “done harm instead of good” was that all these supposed controls over what was done in research had a quid pro quo in the formal entitlement to do that research, which the Act now provided for the first time. Strictly speaking the 1876 Act was an amendment to a more general Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. Among other things, this earlier law made it an offence to “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture … any animal”. Admittedly the only prosecution of a vivisector under that Act had failed, in 1874, but the Act itself had not been found unable in the matter. Now it was made so by the 1876 amendment, which established vivisection as a specially protected case. So, Frances Cobbe writes in her autobiography, “we found that the compromise that we proposed had failed, and that our bill providing the minimum of protection for animals at all acceptable by their friends was twisted into a bill protecting their tormentors”. And it’s at this point that, as she records, “we were driven to raise our demands to the total prohibition of the practice, and to determine to work upon that basis for any number of years till public opinion be ripe for our measure.”

Looking back in the early 1890s, as she wrote her autobiography, over “the heart-breaking delays and disappointments of this weary movement” (“this”, because she never ceased in her active commitment to it), Frances Cobbe came to believe that it was just as well that Carnarvon’s bill had failed. If it had become law, then it would have answered and allayed the concern and indignation aroused during the earlier 1870s. There it would then have endured, whether authoritative or, more probably, ineffectual, in either case steadily mis-educating generations as to the proper relations between humans and other animals. Now, instead, the Act and the practice would be constantly under challenge.

In fact the whole human/animal relation would thereby come under challenge. It’s true that vivisection was a special case, a portentous innovation in the misuse of animals, because it was the practice not of poor men, drunkards, vicious criminals and other such unexemplary types, but of “men who hope to found the Religion of the Future, and to leave the impress of their minds upon their age, and upon generations yet to be born”. Still it was related to all such cruelty, as the title of the 1876 Act made clear. To campaign against vivisection, then, was also to draw continual attention to “the whole department of ethics dealing with man’s relation to the lower animals”. And therefore Frances Cobbe concludes her account of the subject in her autobiography by expressing “my supreme hope that when, with God’s help, our Anti-vivisection controversy ends in years to come, long after I have passed away, mankind will have attained through it a recognition of our duties towards the lower animals far in advance of that which we now commonly hold.” That controversy hasn’t yet ended, but she was surely right in imagining that a much larger conception of animal rights would eventually arise out of the pioneering anti-vivisection movement, if it only kept its nerve and principles.

Chris Magee speaks approvingly of Frances Cobbe as a personality, though in a slightly patronizing way: “I like to think I’d have got on with Frances Power Cobbeher writing style makes it feel a bit like you’ve been hanging out with an educated, thoughtful, and caring and personable individual.” This, I suggest, understates her remarkable force of character. When Cobbe set up the Society offices in Victoria Street in 1876, she made sure that one of the rooms was homely and comfortable – not for her own sake, but to sustain the morale of other women faced with “the frightful character of our work”. Anyone who has looked through her own multitudinous campaigning publications, with their long extracts from reports of experiments, and their illustrations, will feel the force cobbe possible.JPGof that phrase, and admire her accordingly.

And we must remember that she led this campaign against a medical establishment hardly less absolutely masculine in fact and mind-set than the armed services. Magee calls her decision (subsequently incorporated in the rules of the British Union Against Vivisection, which she founded in 1898) not to co-operate in any measure short of prohibition, “a 140 year hissy fit” (= ‘fit of hysterics’?). His mock is not directly aimed at Frances Cobbe herself, but it surely implicates her, and it’s a reminder of some of the things said about her and such as her by contemporary opponents. In private letters, Charles Darwin jeeringly confused the genders of Cobbe and her colleague George Hoggan, and Thomas Huxley referred to her as “that foolish fat scullion”. More publicly, the physiologist and champion of vivisection Elie de Cyon wrote in the Contemporary Review about “hysterical old maids … whose tenderness, despised by man, has flung itself in despair at the feet of cats and parrots.” Portraits of Frances Cobbe, who was indeed unmarried, suggest both how vulnerable she was to such mockery, and also what strength of character she possessed to endure and to rightly estimate it.

Late in her life, Frances Cobbe was left money by a fellow campaigner, so that she who had had to make her own way in the world, and who had never been paid for her long years of campaigning work, was able finally to live in a rather grand house in rural Wales with the woman-friend she loved. I feel glad to picture them there.


Notes and references:

The article by Chris Magee can be read on the UAR web-site at

Wishing to be fair to both parties, I have used the same number of words in my response as Magee uses. I haven’t dealt with the subsequent remarkable achievements in medicine which, Magee rightly says, Cobbe could not have foreseen. He believes that they have subverted her case against vivisection, but her plainly stated view was that “the Elixir Vitae itself would be too dearly purchased” by such means. Nor have I dealt with that part of the anti-vivisection movement which was willing to go on pursuing a gradualist policy, notably the National Anti-Vivisection Society, but it needs saying that after 1898 Frances Cobbe wasn’t making decisions on behalf of the whole movement.

Quotations from Frances Power Cobbe come mainly from the chapter titled ‘The Claims of Brutes’ in Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, which in the American edition published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894, is in vol.2 at pp.556-634. Other quotations are from the pamphlets Four Reasons for Total Prohibition of Vivisection and The Fallacy of Restriction applied to Vivisection, which are collected with many others written by Frances Cobbe in the volume The Modern Rack, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1889. Both of these books can be read online. Some other information comes from Emma Hopley, Campaigning Against Cruelty: the Hundred Year History of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, BUAV, 1998.

The quotation from the report of the Royal Commission is at p.xvii, in Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876.

Quotation and other information about the aims of the AAMR can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, Michael Joseph 1971, pp.70-77.

The absurdity of expecting a man to supervise his equals in status is argued in a letter written to Charles Darwin by John Scott Burdon Sanderson in April 1875, quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.77.

Huxley’s phrase is quoted in Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, 1997, p.76; de Cyon’s article on the “hysterical old maids” was published in the Contemporary Review, no.43, 1883, pp.498-511.

The photograph is of the portrait plaque of Frances Power Cobbe in Manchester College, Oxford.