Dog on a Lilo

The author William Trevor has been generally acknowledged as a master of the short story form, often likened in this to Anton Chekhov. One of the last of the stories published in his life-time (he died in 2016) was ‘Folie a Deux’, coming at the end of his 2007 collection Cheating at Canasta. The story’s title refers to shared madness or aberration, a phenomenon in psychopathology with quite a clinical literature of its own. The aberration in this case is shared by two young boys, who together cause a dog to drown in the sea.

Boys are notoriously cruel. Chekhov himself, in his story ‘Kashtanka’, shows one of them tormenting his father’s dog by feeding her a piece of meat on a string and then gleefully pulling it back out again. But Trevor’s two boys are not cruel. They are pleasant well-brought-up boys, and the old limping dog Jericho is their liked companion in seaside explorations. Inquisitive is what they are, the less conventional boy Anthony especially so. Much of what he says takes the form of questions: “Why’re you called that?” he asks when they first meet. “Am I older than you?” “Do you know what an orphan is?” Not that Anthony himself is an orphan; in fact it’s evident that his father has a continuing part in this habit of enquiry. “Information was everything, Anthony’s father maintained”, and at lunchtimes particularly he imparts it: “Why aeroplanes flew, how clocks kept time, why spiders spun their webs and how they did it.”

The boys meet each year at Anthony’s house by the sea during the summer holidays. The questions asked by Anthony become more practical and scientific. “‘What would happen if you didn’t eat?’ Anthony wondered.” (For the grown-up version of this question, asked and tried out on animals with similar simplicity of mind, see the post ‘Starvation Street’ at 5 June 2017 in this blog.) The boys experiment with a water hose to create a rainbow. “A jellyfish was scooped into a shrimp net to see if it would perish or survive when it was tipped out onto the sand” (but they are told to put it back into the sea).

“What would happen if . . . to see if . . .” Among professionals, it’s called basic research: “to see what happens” was indeed a phrase used by the pioneering experimental physiologist Claude Bernard. And as Anthony progresses at school, he is noted as clever at science and maths subjects. The way things unhappily turn out, however, he doesn’t progress far.

One summer, the boys find a bright yellow Lilo washed up on the beach. With their inducement and assistance, the dog Jericho willingly climbs on to it, and they launch him out to sea: “He played his part, going with the Lilo when it floated out, a deep black shadow, sharp against the garish yellow.” (As William Rutherford, Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh University, told the Royal Commission in 1876, “it is wonderful what one may do to a sheep-dog without the animal making any commotion”, and Jericho is a black Labrador, an equally biddable breed of dog.) No ugly force or Buccleuch_Avon_(1885)excitement, then. It’s all done in the merely inquisitive manner of their other researches: “They watched as they had watched the hosepipe rainbow gathering colour . . . they wondered what would happen, what the dog would do.” And yet they know that a primal wrong is being done. Their knowledge and their shame is expressed by the silence which falls between them even as they do it, and which endures: “Nothing was said as they watched the drowning of the dog . . . They did not ever speak to one another about the drowning of the dog.” As time passes, this silence grows and alienates the boys from each other.

In Seamus Heaney’s celebrated poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a boy fascinated by frogspawn, and devoted to collecting it, has a curative shock when he witnesses the mass mating of the frogs themselves, and imagines in it an avenging motive against himself. ‘Folie a Deux’ pictures likewise the ‘death’ of an experimental physiologist, but the revulsion here is both less dramatic and more profound. The story makes clear that the transgression is not something imagined in the childish mind: it has a real presence and meaning of its own. The folie or act of madness consists in drowning the dog; the shame and the silence that follow are its rational and proper consequence.

As the story presents them, these seaside days are being recalled in adult life by the second participant, whom we only know by his surname ‘Wilby’. This is a man comfortably placed in life, and indeed attached to comfort, material and mental. He has a good income from the sale of his family wine business, and in a gentlemanly way he now deals in rare stamps. The Jericho incident is something which he has almost forgotten, the more easily because he heard, long ago, that Anthony was dead. We are told, “He has lived easily with an aberration, then shaken it off: what happened was almost nothing.”

But now he has to learn otherwise. Pursuing his philately in Paris, Wilby takes a meal in an unaspiring little brasserie, and he sees Anthony there. The schoolboy whom he knew, clever at science and maths, now works in the brasserie’s kitchen as cleaner and washer-up. Although Wilby resists the idea, he knows that this menial work which Anthony does with evident thoroughness, and often enough (as we learn) without taking even the small wage owed for it – in fact Anthony’s whole austere and solitary way of life – is a response to the death of the dog. Nothing so purposeful as expiation or redemption is being attempted, Wilby realizes. The durability of the memory and of the silence (they do not mention the incident, or indeed converse much at all) implies anyway that there can be no expiation. Simply the drowning of the dog is something that Anthony “honours because it matters still.” And although Wilby, more conventional and more selfish, will recover peace of mind among the stamps of the Paris sale, he finds that “he likes himself less than he likes his friend.”

That last line of the story, characteristically unemphatic, is the only comment which Trevor makes, even indirectly, on this brief tragedy (twenty pages long). Nor does he expressly relate the story to anything beyond the two boys and their glimpsed adulthoods. But it’s easy enough for the reader to do so, because the story catches the subject at its source, showing the spirit of scientific enquiry at the moment of its tragic over-reach: the whole history of vivisection is therefore implied in it. When John Vyvyan nears the end of his account of twentieth-century animal research, The Dark Face of Science, he concludes that while such things as he has recounted are done, “the human race has no right to happiness.” That, scaled to the personal, is the moral also of Trevor’s fable. It’s what has brought Anthony to the brasserie kitchen.

 

Notes and references:

‘Folie à Deux’ was first published in the New Yorker, and then in Cheating at Canasta (Viking, 2007).

The post ‘Starvation Street’ can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/starvation-street/

Claude Bernard is quoted (in translation) by John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger (Micah Publications,1988, first publication 1969), p.47. Professor Rutherford was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, as recorded in the Commission’s Report (HMSO, 1876), p.150.

The final quotation is from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971), p.183.

The photograph is of a noted labrador called Bucchleuch Avon in old age (photo from the 1890s and now in the public domain).

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On the Trail of an Untruth

Oxford University’s online introduction to animal research, headed ‘Research using animals: an overview’, takes the form of a questions and answer session. Your simple requests for guidance (“Why is animal research necessary?”, “Is it morally right to use animals in research?”, “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”, etc.) are answered with firm authority (“No.” starts the answer to that last question) but in relaxed, even incorrect, English (“they share a huge amount of similarities with humans.”).

Your fourteenth question (a slight whine imputed to it by this time) is this: “We may have used animals in the past to develop medical treatments, but are they really needed in the 21st century?” It receives the following answer: “Yes. New techniques have dramatically reduced the number of animals needed – the number has almost halved over the last 30 years – but there is overwhelming scientific consensus … etc.” No comparative figures, for the University or for the UK, are supplied to justify that astonishing claim between the dashes. However, it clearly refers to the nation as a whole, and of course the national numbers are readily available. They show that in the 29 years between 1987, when the counting system introduced by the 1986 Act came into use, and 2016, when the national statistics were last published, there has been an increase of about 5%. (If 1986 were taken as the reference date, the increase would be larger, but the two numbers are not properly comparable.) Not a steady increase, it’s true: there was a fall in the numbers till the year 2001, to about 2.6 million, then a steady rise to the 2016 number of 3.94 million. This history needs to be kept in mind during what follows.

Why should the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee (ACER), whose duty it is among other things to keep the University and the wider public informed on this subject, make such a wild and therefore discreditable claim about numbers? The answer, as I discovered by asking, is that it didn’t. Apparently ACER itself doesn’t compose the official public account of animal research at the University. The account is put together in the University’s Public Affairs Office. Presumably that’s why these animal research pages, which date from about 2011 and hardly alter except when the annual numbers change, nevertheless appear in the category ‘News and Events’. We’re dealing, as it turns out, not with the voice of authority but with PR.

So how did the Public Affairs Office come by this false claim? Unlike ACER, this is a department of the University which doesn’t willingly answer questions (its preference is evidently for what the Concordat on Openness calls “public-facing communication tools”: i.e. one-way traffic). Therefore I had to start with a guess. In its search for tonic material about animal research, where would the Public Affairs Office look? Surely it would go to its fellow-professionals at Understanding Animal Research. The UAR web-site is there for just such a purpose. “Click here to find everything you need to know about animal research”, it says – this particular encouragement specifically but rather puzzlingly directed at “scientists”. To journalists, the appeal is more frankly utilitarian: “the pages below give you quick access to our media centre, where you will find guidelines, quick facts, and links to other good information sources.” Quick facts: just what the Public Affairs Office would have been hoping for. So that’s the trail I followed.

But this is a very large web-site, branching out indeed into subordinate web-sites: one a sort of encyclopaedia of the subject (AnimalResearch.info), another a “global information service about animal rights extremism” (AnimalRightsExtremism.info), a third dealing with the industry’s Concordat on Openness. As the UAR’s name implies, the general premise of the whole site is that not disputation but knowledge is what brings us to a right attitude: that is, to approval of animal research as a necessary resource when other satisfactory means do not exist. This is what UAR habitually refers to as “the middle ground”, though what exactly it’s in the middle of is not clear: certainly there is a more radical position (in favour of abolition), but no position more reactionary than UAR’s (anything goes, for instance) is countenanced by UK law.

In general the tone of the web-site is merely positivistic, rather than defensive or strident. Here is UAR on the subject ‘Goat’, for instance. (That title itself, making the animal sound like a useful material, oil or aluminium perhaps, makes further comment unnecessary.) “Goats”, we’re told,

are gaining acceptance as an established model for biomedical research and surgical training . . . Moreover, a unique advantage to using livestock or companion animal species is that it also allows for ‘dual-purpose’ research: that is, research that not only benefits human health by greater understanding of biological processes, but can also advance animal agriculture so that we have a continued supply of abundant, safe, affordable, and high quality meat and dairy products.

Besides, the “friendly and docile nature of the goat” make it a particularly “desirable animal model for research and teaching programs”. At the end of this survey of the animal – a text whose spelling suggests that it comes from an American source, though none is cited – we’re told that “214 experimental procedures used goat [again] for research in 2016 in the UK.” 214? Wake up, UK: you’re missing opportunities!

Other animal species can be followed in an ‘A-Z of animals’. (I’m still looking for the source of that claim.) Ferrets, for instance: among their points of utility has apparently been the testing of the notorious drug thalidomide, which “induces birth defects in very few species”. That’s odd, because elsewhere we’re told that thalidomide would have shown up as harmful to unborn babies if only testing on animals had then been required, because “it had very similar effects in many species.” This latter version is perhaps the more reliable, since it appears in a section expressly devoted to correcting common misunderstandings, headed ‘Myths and Facts’.

Countering the ignorance and disingenuousness of its opponents is an essential part of UAR’s mission, and a certain amount of acerbity, jeering even, is thought legitimate here. (This is especially so in the pieces written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee. His account of Frances Power Cobbe was the subject of a post in VERO’s blog on 1 August 2017.) Accordingly, the ‘myths’ are presented adversarially, as ill-informed assertions, rather than as polite questions (“Research on animals is not relevant to people because animals are different from people”, rather than Oxford University’s “Aren’t animals too different from humans to tell us anything useful?”). But otherwise this feature on the UAR web-site does bear quite a close resemblance to the University page. And sure enough, when we reach myth number 11, “Animals don’t need to be used in research because there are alternatives”, the factual correction includes these sentences: “Scientists have strong ethical, economic and legal obligations to use animals in research only when necessary. Thus the number of research animals used annually in the UK has almost halved in the last 30 years.” Found it!

I don’t doubt that this was the source for the University’s statement, dismaying as it must be to see a university picking up and disseminating knowledge in this amateurish way. It unhappily illustrates, in fact, just how ‘myths’ (in this loose sense) work. As for UAR, their excuse for setting the myth going is that it was material left over from some earlier year, when it was quite properly posted as a fact. The last time such a claim could justly have been made was in the period 2001-4, when numbers were indeed about half what they had been in the UK’s worst vivisection years of the 1970s. 2004: that was well before UAR even existed under its present name. “Click here”, then, “to find everything you only need to think you know about animal research.”

UAR has promptly removed the claim from its web-site, but of course it’s the habit of myths to live on in spite of the evidence or even of express correction. At the time of writing, Oxford University continues to give the claim currency (though VERO first queried it in mid-April), and who can say where else it’s been taken up and promoted? I know that numbers aren’t the essence of what’s wrong with vivisection. They may even – as this blog has often said – help to obfuscate the matter. They certainly will if they’re not even the right ones.

 

Notes and references:

The Oxford University web-page in question is at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

You can see a chart of Home Office numbers from 1945 onwards on p.13 of the statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

“public-facing communication tools” is quoted from the Annual Report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, 2017, referenced and commented on in this blog last Christmas here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/

UAR’s web-site is at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/  The account of the goat is on the associated web-site here: http://www.animalresearch.info/en/designing-research/research-animals/goat-capra-aegagrus-hircus/