A Belgian Artist Admonishes his Nation

Among the countries engaged in work on Covid-19 is the Kingdom of Belgium. “Research in Belgium uses animals to find effective treatments for Covid-19”, announces the European Animal Research Association (EARA), an organisation which promotes awareness and acceptance of vivisection in EU member states, much as UAR does in Britain. The animals in question include mice, rabbits, and llamas. Monkeys too, although the Belgian institution that has been using them in its work, VIB-UGhent (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie at the University of Ghent), manages to publicize its “important milestone in the development of a Covid-19 drug”, and specifically “the moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments”, without mentioning animals at all.

The EARA aims to induce such organisations to be less bashful. In fact a few years ago, when it wished to counter unfavourable publicity on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, the EARA published on that day a collective declaration of intent by Belgian science institutions to be more open (or at least publicity-conscious), on the model of the UK’s Concordat on Openness. VIB was a participant, perhaps without much enthusiasm. At the time (2016), the EARA said it had chosen Belgium for the purpose because “if we could successfully carry out this project in Belgium, then it could be reproduced anywhere.” That sounds like a chauvinist jest, but the thinking was that Belgium, with its strong regional identities and three official languages, would be unusually resistant to collective action.

Perhaps also in mind was the fact that the country does not have a strong tradition of concern for animals to make sense of such distractions from the business of research. It had no dedicated animal welfare law until the 1929 Protection of Animals Act, in which vivisection occupied just one article. Yet already Belgium was notable enough for its practice of animal research to be apostrophized by one of its most famous citizens, the artist James Ensor (more of him in a moment), as a “tormenteur d’animaux”. Even now there is no dedicated anti-vivisection grouping in Belgium, though since 1992 the excellent organisation GAIA has included animal research in its campaigning. But as a practitioner of animal research Belgium is not much less active than the UK in proportion to its population. And with about 2.5 % of the EU’s population, Belgium accounts for about 5% of the animals used in EU research.

Anyway, that 1929 Act had been preceded by several years of contention, to which, as we’ve seen, James Ensor had vigorously contributed. As a highly unorthodox artist, a pioneer of expressionism, Ensor had suffered many years of rejection and neglect, but finally he had become a figure of national celebrity, had even been created a Baron by King Albert. This recognition to some extent tamed Ensor; in particular, he destroyed all the copies he could recover of his savagely satirical print featuring Albert’s predecessor Leopold II as Roi Dindon (i.e. ‘King Dolt’). But his rage against disrespect of nature, and in particular against animal research, was never mollified, or gentrified as to its expression. In an interview at that period, one of those formulaic interviews which set the celebrity to fill in their favourite this and most regretted that, Ensor’s answer to “Ce que je deteste le plus” [what I hate most] included among other things “les vivisecteurs gavés de cruauté, bouffis de suffisance et d’insensibilité profitable” [vivisectors stuffed full of cruelty, bumptiousness and lucrative insensibility.] Incidentally, that French verb gaver, when used about animals, means to force-feed; it’s borrowed into the English of the animal-research world as ‘gavage’, presumably to help camouflage a very ugly procedure.

But Ensor’s most dramatic intervention in the controversy was his painting of 1925 titled Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs (usually translated as ‘The Vile Vivisectors’, but ‘shameful’ might be more apt). He was now in his sixties, and had generally turned away from painting in favour of writing and music. His greatest works were done, and it’s an indication of his earnestness that he not only undertook this sizeable picture (62 by 80 cm), but made a second version of it four years later, eloquently unaltered by the disappointing law of 1929.

With its chinoiserie patterns, grotesque and masked figures (including skeletons), and crudities in the tradition of the satirical cartoon, Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is wholly characteristic of its artist. Even the presence of the artist himself (top right in hat) is a familiar trope: in one gruesome painting, The Dangerous Cooks (1896), Ensor’s own head is being served up to a group of critics, two of whom are spitting or perhaps being sick. But whereas these various elements often create baffling results – one modern critic has justly called Ensor’s art “always compelling and often utterly mystifying”Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs has a strong, even blatant programme.

Reading from the left, a skeleton, on whose cranium a bird is spitting, bribes a compliant priest to endorse the practice which is dramatized under their hands by the convulsed James Ensor The Vivisectorsfrogs. The priest, upon whose head the same bird seems to be defecating, is with his other hand gripping the arm of a woman, presumably one of his browbeaten flock, herself consequently being spat upon. Her other arm is held by a skeleton doctor preparing a syringe. Next comes an even more obviously unhappy woman (or is she wearing a mask?), whose wrist is being held by a second skeleton.

These five figures seem to be ranged in contemplation of something out of the picture, so perhaps the roundel at the top is being imagined as a mirror reflecting what they watch. Here, anyway, a physiologist is giving a class, showing the inner workings of a dog whom his assistant is helpfully disembowelling. Ensor was not a believer, but he frequently used the crucifix as an image of unjust suffering, sometimes putting himself there, sometimes Christ; here it’s the lab animal.

Finally, at the top right, Ensor himself and three masked heads express their indignation by spitting at the repellent scene or its mirror image. “Infâmes vivisecteurs,” Ensor is saying with characteristic vehemence; “je vous crache tout mon mépris à la face” [I spit with all my scorn into your face].

Skeletons have always been seen, naturally enough, as disagreeable reminders of mortality. They frequent Ensor’s pictures as mockers of human pretensions and comforts. They are present at the fun of carnivals, or lounge in bourgeois sitting rooms. One of them waits patiently, with scythe to hand, for some doctors to finish treating their Ensor's human herdpatient. Perhaps most eloquently of Ensor’s outlook, in Death Pursuing the Human Herd the skeletons stampede an endless crowd of panicking humanity along the narrow streets of Belgium. In Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs the skeletons appear as sinister sponsors of vivisection, and at the same time reminders that medicine cannot, whatever sacrifices are imposed in its cause, save humans from death, though it may postpone death, a point that is perhaps being hinted at in the doctor’s time-piece.

Well, why not at least endeavour to postpone it, then, at any cost (to others)? Ensor’s answer is implied in the mood of shame, anxiety and defeat created in the painting. That mood is all the more poignant for the futile gaiety of the clothing, with its forlorn celebration of colour and natural forms. These are fallen people, a fallen society.

It’s an answer which, in its heroic form, was famously incorporated by Homer (if it was Homer) in the Iliad, millennia ago. Sarpedon, the king of Lycia, is urging his friend and fellow-warrior Glaucus into battle against the Greeks, and he gives two reasons for them to hazard their lives in this way. One is that to behave high-mindedly is the proper counterpart of their privileged status in the world; the one vindicates the other. They had an obligation to be, as Alexander Pope translated it, “The first in valour, as the first in place.” And the second reason is that to duck the battle doesn’t after all mean getting to live for ever; otherwise, as Sarpedon candidly admits, he himself would forgo the fame and stay safe at home. The best, the only wise, course is therefore to act reputably, “Brave though we fall, and honour’d if we live”.

A species could do worse than make that its motto. Certainly we may hope, and indeed strive, to stay alive, knowing as we do that eventually we must fail; what we mustn’t do is gain time dishonourably by making others endure the strife for us. That’s the infamy which Sarpedon exhorts Glaucus to spurn, and which Ensor angrily showed that his own contemporaries, so far from spurning, were thoroughly implicated in, as their successors still are.

 

Notes and references:

The EARA press release about Belgian research, which incidentally also provides a link to a map showing all such Covid-related animal research in the world, can be read here: https://www.eara.eu/post/research-in-belgium-uses-animals-to-find-effective-treatments-for-covid-19.  Its account of the World Day counter-publicity is here: https://www.nature.com/articles/laban.1025.pdf?origin=ppub. VIB’s own announcement is here: https://vib.be/news/vib-achieves-important-milestone-development-covid-19-drug

The EU Commission issued, earlier this year, comparative tables of animal research in the various member states for the period 2015-17. From those numbers I’ve made a rough estimate of Belgium’s position. See https://230099ef-af46-4cc6-b2be-415f0041b55e.usrfiles.com/ugd/230099_1c8721de340d4dee9b70acdc3c7afc8e.pdf

Quotations from Ensor himself are taken from the Les écrits de James Ensor (Brussels, 1921) p.131, and Ecrits de James Ensor de 1921 à 1926 (Ostende-Bruges, 1926) p.6. This second reference is for the interview, which may have been a device of Ensor’s own, rather than a genuine exchange. Some of the answers and indeed the questions are eccentric and fanciful, though the answer quoted is serious enough.

The quotation about Ensor’s art comes from a piece in the Royal Academy’s RA Magazine for Autumn 2016 by Michael Prodger, titled ‘James Ensor: a man of many masks’, and accessible here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/james-ensor-man-of-many-masks. Ensor’s later pictures are generally not much discussed, but Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is reproduced and briefly spoken about in Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s Ensor (Tashcen 2016) pp.87 and 89. She also mentions the second version of the picture. But of course there are very many books about Ensor, who is now considered one of the greatest and most original of the modernists.

The Homeric episode of Sarpedon and Glaucus comes in Book 12, lines 310-28.

Counting the Cost Again: the 2019 Numbers

The numbers for UK animal-research procedures completed during 2019 have now been published by the Home Office. The total was a little over 3.4 million, a fall of 3% on the previous year. That means that there has been a modest decline in the total every year since 2015, tending to correct the brisk upward tendency which began after the year 2001, when the number was 2.62 million. We’re now back at any rate to pre-2010 levels. In fact, 2019’s total is, as the Home Office text says, “the lowest number of procedures since 2007”.

Back in 2001, that 2.62 million number was the lowest total since the 1986 Act had been passed, the lowest in fact since the mid-1950s. The notable fact was modestly presented in that year’s report as the first of fourteen ‘main points’ in ordinary black type, after eleven pages of general introductory matter. By contrast, this year’s achievement appears in a special box of ‘key results’ on page one, a three-colour affair enriched with graphics of various kinds, the numbers being set in eye-catching 36 point type. Why not? It makes navigation of the essential information that much easier. But of course it also quite changes the reading experience. The feeling you get is that the Home Office, rather than merely allowing you to know all this, as in earlier days, actually wants you to know: wants you to know that the numbers have gone down, certainly, but also, it seems, that 57% of the procedures were made for the purpose of ‘basic research’ – not obviously a point to boast about, but getting the same vibrant treatment in that text-box. The remainder of the report is laid out in a similarly easy-read style.

No doubt it’s partly the ‘Concordat effect’ that we’re seeing, and have been seeing gradually over the last few years of these government reports: the fashion, that is, for a more bullish PR, which celebrates rather than apologises for animal research, cleverly extolling at the same time both its claimed great achievements and the promise to do as little of it as possible. It’s also, I suspect, a response to the two-yearly Ipsos Mori surveys of attitudes to animal research (the next one is or was due this year: see notes below for previous ones). These surveys habitually find that respondents consider themselves ill-informed about animal research and regard the institutions that practice or supervise it as secretive and untrustworthy. “Come See Our World!” is how the promotional organisation Americans for Medical Progress title their digital introduction to the wonders of animal research. It’s a slogan which the Home Office now seems to have adopted too.

Here, anyway, are a few points about that world, as it was in 2019.

Regulatory testing:

This is probably the most unsavoury class of procedure, conducted to satisfy national or international laws of one kind or another. It continues to make up about one quarter of all the experimental (as opposed to GA animal-breeding) work. It’s the industrial end of animal research, involving the mass through-put of animals in standard testing regimes. The products and devices being tested include medical therapies, but also pesticides and other lethal products, and the techniques used for testing them still include, astonishingly, the ruthless LD50 AND LC50 tests. Accordingly this category of research is consistently the worst for animal suffering. In other experimental work, about 4% of the procedures are usually counted as ‘severe’; in 2019, the rate for regulatory testing was 10.8%. We are told (on page 14) that ‘severe’ procedures are those which cause “a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health and well-being”. Since all sixteen of the “eye irritation/corrosion” procedures conducted on rabbits in 2019 were classified as ‘mild’, and there is an intermediate category ‘moderate’, we can form some idea of how major that departure has to be.

Moreover, it’s in regulatory testing that the largest numbers of specially protected animal species appear (“animal species appear”! you see how numbers and tables push the mind towards abstractions): for instance, 3002 dogs (85% of the year’s total) and 2426 monkeys (71% of the total). Not that mice aren’t the most numerous species here as elsewhere: 437,124 of them were used in 2019.

Protection of the natural environment:

Most classes of animal research have shared to a greater or lesser degree in the reduction of numbers last year; even the breeding of GA animals, which has been mainly responsible for the increase since 2001, shrank by that same 3%. One class which noticeably did not shrink was ‘Protection of the natural environment’. This accounted for 13,074 animals in 2018, but for 29,343 in 2019. The animals included 5821 horses and “other ungulates”, 898 birds, and 22,079 fishes. It’s a category of research distinct (at least for statistical purposes) from regulatory testing and from general toxicology. The primary purpose is to understand the health implications of pollutants in the environment, but a common associated aim is the conservation of species and ecosystems: looking after animals, then!

An article about this sort of research, published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms earlier this year, conceded that epidemiology, the comparative study of whole populations, “can provide strong statistical inference linking chemical exposure to disease.” But that’s not enough; to understand the ‘mechanism’ of the harm being done, it has to be animal research. In fact the article is titled ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’. You’ll notice the ambivalence of that last word: what’s to be advanced is both our understanding of poisons, and the scientific discipline called toxicology. This latter aim is the real subject of the article, whose authors wish “to shift the perception of toxicology as an applied science to that of a basic science” and thereby to “enrich the field”. This, they believe, can best be done by relying less on mice and rats, and resolving instead to “utilize diverse model systems”, especially fish (so “casting a wide net” turns out to be a sort of pun; don’t forget that science can be fun!). After all, they say, “The tree of life is vast”; why confine ourselves to “a few distinct branches”?

It’s a classic instance of scientistic thinking: calling in big science to fix the effects, while leaving the causes untouched. (We see it happening also in the case of Covid-19.) More to the point here, the article reminds us that there are always strong professional interests bound up in the growth (and resistant to the contraction) of any branch of scientific research, including those that use animals. That jump to 29,343 will have been good for some.

Roadmaps to nowhere:

Yet in fact both these classes of animal research, regulatory testing and protection of the environment, as well as toxicology more generally, should be especially amenable to non-animal technologies. That was indeed the main aim of a project set up in 2015 with the publication of a document entitled A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology. It was a collaboration between various government-sponsored agencies (including the National Centre for the 3Rs), academia, and industry, whose purpose was to promote the development and marketing of ‘NATs’ (surely a good sign that it seemed worth abbreviating ‘non-animal technologies’). The thinking was frankly commercial (further evidence of real purposefulness, sad to say): “The market potential is huge”, said the ‘Executive summary’. Correspondingly, the stated objections to animal testing were pragmatic, not ethical: its failure to predict for humans had “far-reaching implications, from wasted resources . . . to large financial losses”. As the trendy word ‘roadmap’ implies, this was a programme for the future rather than a survey; it was described in business-speak as “stretching towards a 2030 vision”.

Since we’re a third of the way along that road now, you’d expect the toxicology numbers to be showing some effect; you’d at least expect them not to have grown. But then I can find no surviving trace of the NATs project among all the other ‘roadmap’ projects boosting themselves online. What’s happened to it? The NC3Rs makes the document available on its web-site, but seems to have said nothing further about it since the day of publication. Another of the collaborating agencies, the Medical Research Council, makes no mention of it at all. More eloquently, the Medical Research Council’s laboratories were second only to the huge Francis Crick Institute as users of animals in research in 2019 (Oxford University came third).

That abandoned roadmap was part of an official programme of reform devised during the period of the Coalition government in the UK – largely the effect of having, however briefly, a minister in charge of animals in science who really wished to get them out: Norman Baker. Two other substantial publications had set out the aims of the programme and the progress being made: in 2014 there was Working to reduce the use of animals in research, and this was followed a year later, as promised in its text, by a review of progress titled Delivery Report. In fact the promise had been to publish such reviews “regularly thereafter”. But no others have appeared.

The number of animals used in 2015 was 4.14 million, the largest number since the 1986 act came into force. There’s been a 17% reduction since that high point – a return, as mentioned, to 2007 levels. Perhaps we must regard that much progress as the finished legacy of the Coalition programme, and now we’re left again with optimistic reassurances and pious references to the 3Rs. God knows there was nothing radical about that programme, but it had serious intention. To have let it lapse is a shameful delinquency.

 

Notes and references:

The report for 2019 and the separate tables of numbers can be accessed from this page: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2019 .

The Ipsos Mori surveys for 2016 and 2018 are reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/animal-pains-and-human-attitudes-the-new-ipsos-mori-survey/

https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/the-magic-sound-of-figures/

The Americans for Medical Progress digital tour of animal research was briefly reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/come-see-our-worlds/

Among the various responses to the statistics, the one from Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments is especially authoritative. It talks about the Coalition publications, which were also touched on in this blog when Norman Baker was the subject, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/vero-invites-the-greatest-man-in-politics-to-speak-in-oxford/

The article ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’ was published in April of this year, and can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7132827/

These are the three Coalition documents discussed above:

Working to reduce the use of animals in research (2014: quoted above from p.9): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-to-reduce-the-use-of-animals-in-research-delivery-plan

Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research: Delivery Report (2015): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417441/Delivery_Report_2015.pdf

A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology (2015: quoted at pp. 4 & 6): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474558/Roadmap_NonAnimalTech_final_09Nov2015.pdf