Life and Times of Moscow’s Street Dogs

The first animal made to orbit the earth was the Moscow street-dog Laika, sent up in Sputnik 2 on 3rd November 1957. There was no plan to bring her back alive, and in fact she died even sooner than intended, for after a short time her capsule over-heated. The contraption with Laika’s corpse inside continued to circle the earth hundreds of times, until its scorched remnants fell to the ground in the following April. A cinematic impression of that journey is the starting-point of the film Space Dogs, conceived and directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, and just recently released. The sombre Russian voice of the narrator (very sparely used during the film) speaks of a “legend” that the ghost of Laika “has roamed the streets of Moscow ever since.”

If that seems a whimsical sweetening of an unpleasant fact, the film soon corrects it. Even for a ghost, returning to those streets wouldn’t be much of a home-coming. Not just is the life there hard and unwelcoming; the film makes painfully clear that home, for these dogs, simply means elsewhere. They are never wholly at rest, always quick to move on, always looking for something other than what’s immediately there. Even when there’s food of some sort, they seem only half-attentive, convinced that it’s not what they’re really after. They tend to congregate in pairs or groups, but their relations with one another look fragmentary and unserviceable. This life on the streets seems like a dogs’ version of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

SpaceDog in car

The point is unhappily instanced in the already-notorious scene where a dog, the one whom the camera is mainly interested in, catches a young cat. It takes more than a few moments for the dog to kill the cat, with intervals of inattention. A half-hearted attempt is made to tear and eat the body, but then the dog loses interest. (This is all very hard to witness; if you watch the film, you may like to know that it occurs between minutes 26 and 32.) He doesn’t seem to know why he caught the cat, except that the cat was trying to get away.

It’s a scene which allegorizes the street-dog situation. Elsa Kremser says, by way of justifying the inclusion of such a painful episode, “It was important to show it, to show the wildness of these animals”, but it shows rather the reverse. These dogs are only vestigially hunters; they evolved away from their wolf-genome millennia ago, choosing or being chosen to make terms instead with the human way of life. In fact they exchanged their birthright of autonomy for a mess of pottage, as Jacob persuades Esau to do in Genesis 25, and with similar simplicity of judgement and unhappy results. And now on the streets of Moscow, as in other cities across the world, we see them deprived even of the pottage. The true ghost, then, is surely the ghost of that birthright deal; that’s what haunts them. It’s the half-glimpsed thing they’re continually looking for.

Into this wreckage of domestication came the Soviet space scientists, in their military trucks, catching dogs and measuring them to see if they would fit into a capsule, for they believed that the harsh life of the streets produced animals well-hardened for the vicissitudes of space-flight. The dogs were taken, says the narrator, “to a secret place far, far from the city gates” where further selection took place. At this point we are shown hundreds of today’s dogs in a kennels of some sort – standing in, presumably, for those 1950s cohorts. These must be strays, but they appear very much more animated than the dogs on the street, barking and ramping behind their wire-netting, urgently seeking to be noticed. Perhaps the catching and penning has aroused their expectations, reviving something of that old species symbiosis.

Well, if that was how it did indeed feel to the space dogs, the film shows how wrong they were. Their situation was in fact wholly servile, obedient to “the commands of a mighty king”, as the narrator says – more simply, to the whims of a predator, who happened not to want to eat them. What he did want is shown in Soviet archive footage from the 1950s. We see the space dog in prepchosen dogs trained to endure the forces of rocket propulsion, surgically fitted with sensors and other prosthetics, and finally sent up to try out for us the horrors of the journey itself. One or two are shown shakily resuming life on earth.

Although this archive film has never been shown before, it was evidently taken for publicity purposes. Some of it shows procedures which must have caused pain and distress, but there is no obvious impatience or rough Space dog science pichandling. The shots of the journey itself look terrifying but are hard to interpret. In fact this must all be viewed as censored material. As to what happened to the unselected dogs, we don’t know. Presumably they were directed into other and less picturable bio-science researches. Perhaps that is what those modern dogs in their cages are really waiting for. A review in the Guardian reasonably complains that we should have been told more, that these “unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.” But it’s really the special motive of Space Dogs to keep human interpretation, even human comprehension, to a minimum. Elsa Kremser says of the street-dogs, “we realised we always think of them in relation to our world . . . But we don’t know their perspective! We wanted to find out what they think about our world.”

It’s this aim, unfulfilled as it’s doomed to be, that determines the visual and moral character of Space Dogs. Apart from the space-research footage, the film inspects the world at the height and bidding of the dogs, and at late or very early hours of the day (what Levin Peter calls “their time”). Humans are most immediately pairs of legs, striding off nowhere, or lounging space dogs picunpredictably, occasionally lunging out, occasionally bringing food or water. In themselves, these humans make little sense, loitering or gyrating round their garish lights and sounds, leaving their junk about (cars, balloons), but still the dogs are drawn to their vicinity; here if anywhere their own lives, it seems, will find their purpose. The film scrupulously refrains from suggesting what that might be. There’s no story-line here, no contrivance of any sort (though some editing of course there must have been). Accordingly, although there are longueurs (the Waiting for Godot effect), it’s an instructive and honourable film.

And if not a story, there is a sort of prospectus. The last scene shows some very young dogs, perhaps puppies. Someone apparently puts poison out for them, but one of them survives. Survival is all that’s required. So on it will go, the clumsy and shockingly costly re-casting of nature which has been our great gift to this world, and also, as poor Laika had to pioneer it, our absurdly hubristic proposed gift to such other parts of the universe as we can get at.

Notes and references:

For more about Laika and other animals used for space research see a former post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/.  The special element of treachery involved in research using dogs is very finely dramatized in Richard Adams’s novel The Plague Dogs, discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/the-plague-dogs/

Space Dogs has won a number of awards, as detailed on the Raumzeitfilm web-site, where there are also details of its release and distribution: https://www.raumzeitfilm.com/film/en-spacedogs.  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here: https://mubi.com/films/space-dogs-2019

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here: https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/376799/

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/10/space-dogs-review-cosmic-canine-mission-lacks-gravity

Pimping for Farmers

The feast of St Francis of Assisi on the fourth of next month will also be World Animal Day, “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. It’s good to see that this anniversary is noticed and promoted in one of the UK Parliament’s Early Day Motions, the one numbered 696. Although these EDMs rarely turn into actual parliamentary debates, they usefully publicize the concerns and special interests of the groups of MPs who sign them. So far, just 23 MPs have signed this EDM 696, but it was only posted in July, immediately before Parliament’s summer recess. In its final words, the EDM “encourages everyone to show their support for animals in the lead up to and on World Animal Day itself.”

Quite puzzlingly, six of these same MPs have also signed EDM 686, titled ‘Pig genomes decoded’, which takes a wholly opposite view of how we should relate to animals. The purpose of this EDM is to congratulate Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute on its part in establishing “the whole genetic make-up of pigs”. This is an achievement which will “enable more accurate use of gene-editing technologies to develop pigs with desired characteristics”; it will also “enhance biomedical research in which pigs are used as models to study human health”: two new ways of not showing support for pigs, then. The work was a collaboration involving “40 scientists from 15 laboratories in the UK and US”. It was led by Roslin in the UK and, in the US, by the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska, part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS for short: readers may enjoy recalling that the research establishment featured in Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs has the initials ARSE).

Roslin itself is a ‘meat-animal research centre’, but it avoids the crudely definite  word ‘meat’ in its publicity. Habitually it uses some variety of the collocation “animal and human”, as if we’re all in this together. Thus its declared mission is “to enhance the lives of animals and humans through world-class research in animal biology”. MARC isn’t nearly so tactful: its more expansive mission statement speaks of “high priority problems for the US beef, sheep, and swine industries . . . efficiency of production . . . a lean, high quality, safe product . . . the production and agri-business sectors . . . improving animal production.” There is no mention of animal welfare or animal health, still less any reference to that dangerously evocative theme “the lives of animals”. And this establishment, with which Roslin has been collaborating for at least ten years, has indeed no tradition of interest in animal welfare. As one of its scientists said in response to a complaint that the pigs were being over-crowded, it’s a “non-issue”.

The implications of this attitude were thoroughly exposed a few years ago in the New York Times by Michael Moss (the journalist who had made public in 2009 the true nature of ‘pink slime’ as a constituent in processed meat). He described in particular the various MARC projects aimed at increasing the profitability of cows, pigs, and sheep as procreators, and the consequences in animal suffering. There was the failed Twinning Project for cows, which force-raised the incidence of twin births, even triplets, but also dramatically raised the proportion of frail, deformed, or dead offspring, and created nightmare scenes at parturition, a hard enough business when only one calf has to be brought out (the Center pursued this project for 30 years before giving up). Then there was “pasture lambing”, a project to breed ewes who would produce and care for their lambs alone and unaided (no costly husbandry required!) wherever in the widespread Center lands they happened to be. Deaths of these purposely neglected new-borns – from starvation, hypothermia, predation – were up to three times the normally expected number. In the case of pigs, various gruesome operations on the wombs and ovaries of sows were tried, as a means to increase the numbers of piglets born and the frequency of pregnancy; for, as the pig-research company Agriness says by way of cajoling insufficiently ruthless farmers, “The difference between what could have been produced by every sow and what was actually produced means money lost . . . What about you? Do you know the productive potential of the sows on your farm?”

It may be that animal welfare at the Meat Animal Research Center has improved a little since 2015, the year of the New York Times exposé. There is now at least an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in line with other research establishments, though farm animal research is largely exempted from the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act which governs research practices in the USA, a fact of which the MARC has for years been taking full advantage. There is new accommodation for the pigs, albeit a grim concrete-floored barn with no sign of straw or of anything for the pigs to do except loiter. But a photograph on the MARC web-site proudly shows 13 or 14 piglets suckling a sow (the natural number in a litter would be about ten). They’re all on a metal grid.

In short, there’s been no change to the conception of science as force which animates this institution. After all, as its sponsor-establishment ARS says, food-production is “a continual evolutionary battle of humans versus insects, mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes and contaminants.” So it’s a war, and science is our weaponry. (Aptly enough, the land on which MARC operates formerly belonged to the military, which mainly used it as an ammunition storage site.)

Accordingly the research on reproduction being conducted there is altogether invasive in its thinking and practice. It includes the study of “factors that influence puberty, estrus, sexual behaviour, ovulation, fertilization, implantation, embryonic and fetal mortality, parturition, and early post-natal mortality”. The hands-on, or hands-in, “research efforts”, we’re further told, “involve regulation of follicular and testicular development, ovulation rate and sperm production, embryo and fetal relationships with uterine function, and identification of quantitative trait loci in both cattle and swine.”

This grotesque rummaging in the generative organs of animals makes the old-fashioned trade of pimping seem a healthy and life-enhancing activity. MARC says that its research into reproduction “includes both sexes”, and this is true of the practitioners as well as the practised-upon. Both men and women do this work: it’s hard to know which is the uglier concept.

Anyway, supposing one needed enlightening on this point, it’s clear that the attitude towards farm animals which Ruth Harrison challenged all those years ago in her book Animal Machines (1964) lives on in good health and funds. More than that, its scope is constantly expanding. In the UK there is going to be a Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock, which will provide funds from government and industry for “state-of-the-art facilities” at several research institutions. For Roslin this will make possible a new Large Animal [note, not ‘meat animal’] Research and Imaging Facility. This will represent (so its media staff say in their PR frenzy) “a quantum leap in infrastructure available to the animal sciences innovation pipeline in the UK”. Roslin will also be able to set up an Informatics Hub, which will propagandize and train farmers and others “in their delivery of genomic improvement”. The ARS publication Transforming Agriculture (2018) shows equivalently grandiose ambitions for the USA.

It’s a common defence of animal research that it accounts for a very small number of animal lives compared to meat-eating. For instance, the organisation Speaking of Research, by way of introduction to the recently published 2019 UK statistics, puts chicken and fishes at 90% of the total, cattle, sheep, and pigs at 1%, and medical research at 0% – meaning, I suppose, invisibly few. (Most of the remainder is wild-life killed by cats, another frequently cited point of comparison, though how it helps to justify animal research is unclear.) But that 91% has itself been a product of animal research. As Ruth Harrison wrote in Animal Machines, her 1964 study of industrial farming, “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.”

Nor can it be said that the research is merely corrective of problems, making an existing unpleasant practice more efficient; as we’ve seen, it’s much more ambitious than that. The leader of the pig genome project at Roslin, Professor Alan Archibald, is quoted in Farmers Weekly (4 July) as follows: “Pork is the most popular of all meats [really?] and, with a growing global population, we need to improve the sustainability of food production.” In so far as this non-sequitur means anything, it expresses the intention of promoting pork in the world’s diet. And in other projects Roslin likewise promotes other meats, including chicken and fish (as aquaculture).

To claim that animal research uses comparatively few animals is therefore humbug. It is present and instrumental at the conception, birth, expedited growth, and premature death of all the billions of animals accounted for by industrialized agriculture. I know that it’s been said in this blog often before, but this is one of the most culpable tragedies of animal research, that it is thus constantly and aggressively shoring up a diet which we now know very well is bad for the health of humans, bad for the planet, and bad for the animals, wild as well as confined, who have to pay for it with their lives.

I wish that EDM 696 had mentioned some of this (EDMs are allowed up to 250 words). It should at least have included the word ‘vegan’, last used with ethical purpose in an EDM twelve years ago. Still, such as it is, please write and tell your MP to sign it!

Notes and references:

The aims and events of World Animal Day this year are described here: https://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/. The Early Day Motions can be seen at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57220/world-animal-day and at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57211/pig-genomes-decoded.

The Roslin Institute mission, and information about its new facilities, are quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin. The cloned sheep Dolly was another Roslin achievement, featured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

MARC (full name the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/. Its research into reproduction is featured at https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/rru/

The New York Times article of 19 January 2015, titled ‘U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit’, can be read online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?_r=0

Agriness is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.agriness.com/en/piglets-2/

The Agricultural Research Service’s publication Transforming Agriculture was published in 2018 as its ‘2018-20 Strategic Plan’. The quotation about “a continual evolutionary battle” is taken from p.6, and the whole thing can be read here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/00000000/Plans/2018-2020%20ARS%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines is quoted from the 2013 edition (CAB International), pp.37-8.

The article in Farmers Weekly about the pig genome project can be accessed here: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/pigs/medical-breakthrough-could-help-farmers-breed-healthier-pigs.