Remembrance and Refuse

Although decisions about what happens to animals in laboratories are mostly taken by those doing the research, the daily maintenance of the animals is done by others, the animal care ‘technicians’. These are the people who will get to know animals individually, if anyone in the laboratory does. Many of them, perhaps most, will have gone into the work exactly because they ‘like animals’. It’s a strange and potentially unhappy situation for these people, and one which for that reason has produced its own corpus of sociological and psychological study.

Out of this work have emerged various therapeutic suggestions – therapeutic for the humans, that is. For instance, staff might be encouraged to view the laboratory relation as “symbiotic” rather than bleakly exploitative: “We take care of the animals, and they take care of us.” (I won’t bother to expose the sleights of hand involved in this formulation.) Another suggestion is to keep “favoured ‘mascot’ or ‘pet’ animals in the workplace”. This is quite a traditional device. Some of the earliest group photographs of the Physiology Department at Oxford University feature just such a dog. Perhaps the dog providing this service was the professor’s own, for he was known as a ‘dog-lover’ (a “favoured” dog-lover, that is). In fact it was considered a rather entertaining anecdote that when Professor Burdon Sanderson was once walking his dog through the University Parks, a woman expressed the hope that he wasn’t taking it along to be vivisected (laughter all round!).

This device of the laboratory pet as lightning conductor for caring sentiment leaves the other animals exactly where they were, of course, perhaps kept at a convenient distance by the oldest “coping technique” of all: minimal contact, numbers not names, and euphemisms of various sorts.

A rather more inclusive means of reconciling staff to their role as purveyors of live animals to fatal research is now growing in popularity: the memorial. The most traditional form of memorial is the plaque or picture, acknowledging in a permanent but discreet way the nature of the work being done. The University of Rochester Univ Rochester School of MedicineMedical School in New York, for instance, has a rather fine bronze plaque with the text “To those who give their lives for the welfare of mankind”. A notable euphemism itself: you’ll appreciate the choice of verb and its convenient present tense (the memorial is looking ahead as much as back: perhaps war memorials should try this).

It’s doubtful if any text in which an institution memorializes those whom it has itself put to death can quite escape a flavour of humbug. Memorial events may be even more of a challenge. As one such event in Canada (at the University of Guelph in 1993) candidly acknowledged in its prepared reading, “To thank the animals seems logically inappropriate because their contribution was taken, not given.” Even so, the attempt has continued, and some institutions in the U.S.A., Canada, and most animal memorialnumerously in Japan, hold such events annually, with a wide variety of observances, religious and secular: prayers, poems, personal testimonies, ritual procedures, gongs, and so on.

No doubt different cultures design and experience these memorial events in different ways. They must mean differently also to different individuals. Although a moderate regret seems to play an accepted part in them, I don’t find that remorse or the associated desire for forgiveness does, and with good reason: as the guilt-burdened King in Hamlet poignantly asks himself when he tries to pray, “May one be pardon’d, and retain the offence?” That the “offence” – in our case the habit of using animals in research and the benefits claimed for it – will indeed be retained is made obvious by the annual recurrence of the events. But pardon of some kind is implicit in them, self-pardon and institutional pardon, together with its more positive counterpart, a sense that the right thing has been done after all. Hence the recorded effects of such events: “It made me feel proud of what we do”, “It made me realize how much good has come from using animals”, “I went away feeling good about what we do for our animals.” Now we can see more clearly the idea behind these memorial events: they improve morale in the laboratory. They are, in fact, as I said earlier, therapeutic in nature. And after all even feelings of distress can be turned to one’s advantage: as one sociologist specializing in this topic has observed, such feelings show that one has a conscience – surely a comforting possession for anyone to know they have.

That some good does come also to the animals out of all this is certain. Most of the events and other memorials aim to promote respect for the animals (living as well as dead), however compromised that may be in reality. Apparently some events even recall particular animals, rather in the manner of pet funerals. But this last seems to be uncommon, for obvious reasons. It’s not just that there is no grave or pyre, of the sort which normally goes with funeral observances, and that abstraction or idealization must therefore be the characterizing mood; no, committal to ground or fire couldn’t even be imagined in such a setting. How could the event (half an hour each year, in one recently advertised example) possibly keep up with the numbers?

“We simply throw them away”, one scientist says of the unsatisfactory animals produced during his research project on genetically altered chickens. It’s a stray comment heard and recorded at a conference on an especially disgusting theme, the artificial insemination of commercial poultry. But it’s surely the truer record of what happens in laboratories, what in fact must happen, and of the attitude implicit in animals bin 3that. In truth, a bin is a more accurately expressive memorial to laboratory animals than, say, a garden (where, besides, the animals will never have gone in life or death).

This point is made wretchedly clear in a 2014 article in the journal Environments, titled ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’. After all, these animals have not been enjoying healthy outdoor lives: “A vast array of chemicals is involved in every step of animal research and testing, including chemicals for sanitation, disinfection, sterilization, animal care, and research and testing procedures.” Therefore when the time comes to dispose of the animals, they simply become part of an enormous waste problem: “Millions of animal bodies, many of which are contaminated with toxic or hazardous chemicals, viruses, or infectious diseases, and significant amounts of other laboratory waste such as animal excrement, bedding, excess feed, caging, needles, syringes, and gavages, are discarded after use every year.” Mostly, this terrible miscellany is being steadily incinerated, either at the laboratories themselves or by agencies doing it for them. Landfill is another option. The toxic effect of all this isn’t the subject here, alarming as it is: I’m viewing the matter simply as a gigantic and continuous act of cremation or committal, and asking the question, how could any memorial event or art-work make palatable sense of it, even acknowledge it? In so far as they console or inspire, such memorials must deceive.

A like situation is presented with contrasting honesty towards the end of J.M.Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace. The dead animals in this case are not laboratory animals; they come from a charitable Sunday veterinary clinic where the disgraced professor of English, David Lurie, now helps out. The clinic’s function is to heal the animals brought to it by impoverished owners in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, or to neuter them, or most commonly to put them down, their owners having allowed them to sicken beyond rescue or having lost capacity or willingness to support them. But an incinerator is where the dead and bagged animals, mostly dogs, go after the clinic. And it’s the local hospital incinerator, where the scene is much as described in the Environments article, a dump of mixed refuse piled up and waiting for the incinerator to be fired on Monday morning.

Leaving the dogs there overnight among the rubbish is something that Lurie cannot agree to do: “He is not prepared to inflict such dishonour upon them. So he takes them home in his van, and returns with them early the next morning. But by then they have stiffened, and to fit their bodies into the feeder-trolley the workers at the incinerator beat them down with shovels. Lurie could leave before this happens, refuse to witness it, but he won’t; instead, he does the incinerating of the dogs himself, saving them from this last indignity. He cannot explain to himself why he does it: “For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?” And if it cannot help the dogs, nor certainly does it advantage or dignify him.

When Lurie is first helping at the clinic, he expresses the view that animals understand death better than we do, that they are “born prepared”. The woman who runs the clinic disagrees: “I don’t think we are ready to die, any of us, not without being escorted.” This indeed is what Lurie discovers, and when we last see him he is preparing thus to escort a crippled dog the whole way: that is, to “caress him and brush back the fur so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.”

It’s not presented as a heroic or even a useful service: “It will be little enough, less than little: nothing.” Nor do I suggest that this fidelity – to what? To an “idea of the world”, Lurie concludes – is even conceivable in the circumstances of a research laboratory, whose output of animal bodies is likely to be on a scale that defeats respect and decency, let alone escorting of any sort. I simply offer Lurie’s unsentimental labour, stubbornly unyielding of consolation or satisfaction of any sort, as a critique of the memorials described above. It may well be that such memorials do some good, fortifying people whose work can make a difference for the living animals, and reminding their institutions that something needs putting right: so good luck to them, just as long as nobody supposes that the memorials themselves do put anything right, or that in their dignity and artistry they correspond to anything that’s really happening. They may be well-intentioned and helpful lies; but they’re lies all the same.


Notes and references:

The descriptions of memorials, including the quotations, come from Susan A. Iliff, ‘An Additional “R”: Remembering the Animals’, in the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.38-47. This is a sympathetic account by a vet with direct experience of the subject. The observation about having a conscience comes from an article by A.Arluke, ‘Uneasiness among Laboratory Technicians’, in Occupational Medicine, vol.14, 1 April 1999, pp.305-16. Another writer on this theme of uneasiness in the laboratory is the psychologist Harold Herzog: e.g. ‘Ethical Aspects of Relationships between Humans and Research Animals’, ILAR Journal, vol.43, 1 January 2002, pp.27-32. This and the Iliff article can be accessed online.

The quotation about throwing chickens away comes from a report of the First International Symposium on the Artificial Insemination of Poultry held at the University of Maryland in 1994, cited in The Experimental Use of Chickens and Other Birds in Biomedical and Agricultural Research by Karen Davis, 2003, accessible online at

The article on waste from research laboratories is ‘Review of Evidence of Environmental Impacts of Animal Research and Testing’, by Katherine Groff et al, in Environments, 2014, pp.14-30.

The quotations from Disgrace are at pp.144, 146, 84, and 219-20 of the edition by Vintage Books, 2000. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Illustrations: The bronze plaque at Rochester is a cast of the one originally made by Amelia Peabody for the New England Deaconess Hospital at Boston in the 1920s, photograph made available from the online version of Susan Iliff’s article cited above. The animal memorial garden, shown in preparation for a service of remembrance in 2016, is at the Okinawa Institution of Science and Technology in Japan. The image of a laboratory waste bin is by Brian Gunn of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals.





Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came of course the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here: