The Horse Misused

On Monday 19 July, the BBC documentary programme Panorama took a view of one wholly unglamorous aspect of horse-racing – the fate of the many thousands of thoroughbred horses that ‘leave’ racing each year (about 7000 in UK alone), or that never show the capacity for it. Some hundreds die on the track. Others die in training, for it’s an unnaturally demanding life, and the horses are bred for speed not strength or stamina; one such was the horse Morgan, a seven-year old whose corpse the trainer Gordon Elliot was recently photographed using as a convenient seat while making a phone call. Some horses are lucky enough to be placed by the industry’s own Retraining of Racehorses scheme, though they make problematic companion animals and nervy riding. Then there are the thousands, not publicly spoken about, that are simply destroyed.

Horses at Drurys

Much of the material for Panorama’s ‘The Dark Side of Horse Racing’ came from investigative work done by Animal Aid, including film secretly taken at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse in Swindon, which specializes in equines (destined for human or animal food). Astonishingly there were indeed race-horses finishing their lives of service there. They included three that had at one time been in Gordon Elliott’s stables in Ireland, and had raced successfully for him, now trucked over to Swindon to die. The contrast between the moneyed and showy world of racing as publicly visible, and these sordid, uncared-for and violent endings, seems especially treacherous and shameful, but the film showed all varieties of horse and pony suffering in that place. There were former pets, special breeds, and wild ponies, some being shot ‘correctly’ (muzzle of the gun against the forehead), some illegally from a distance (“as if you’re on safari”, said Panorama’s presenter). Also illegally, some horses were being shot while others stood next to them. The handling was rough and impatient, the language foul. So “Welcome to F. Drury and Sons” where “all welfare and processing are done to the highest standards”.

At the very end of Animal Aid’s newly published leaflet on the subject, Horse Slaughter in the UK, comes the moving and very proper statement, “we do not think that horses are more important than any other poor animal who enters a slaughterhouse. We campaign for all of them – including horses.” Someone who shared this point of view about the animals, but for a more or less opposite reason – in that he wished them all to share the lower standard of respect – was by chance the subject of another BBC programme a few days after ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’. Radio 4’s weekly obituary programme ‘Last Words’ reviewed the life and work of William ‘Twink’ Allen, a pioneer of research into equine reproduction. Professor Allen considered that racing was being deprived by the Home Office of the rewarding possibilities of reproductive science (for instance, it wouldn’t allow him to clone horses) for purely “political” reasons, simply “because the horse is an emotive species.”

Not that Professor Allen didn’t like horses: “I would not have become a vet if I did not like animals”, he has said. (No doubt the vet supervising the massacre at Drury and Sons would say the same.) In one of the many obituaries published in professional journals, a colleague calls Allen “a genuine horse-lover”, illustrating the sincerity by citing his enthusiasm for hunting. Indeed, Allen was co-founder of Vets for Hunting, a lobby group since re-named with less tally-ho as the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. But whatever may have been his personal feelings for horses and other animals, the moral context for his relations with them, and in particular for his research, was severely practical, not to say rudimentary: “a domestic animal”, he told a House of Lords committee in 2002, “is man’s product, essentially for man’s use. It would not be there unless man had decided to produce it. We either eat it, have entertainment with it, ride it, use it for sport, or whatever.” That committee included the distinguished ethical philosopher Baroness Warnock, but Professor Allen was not seriously challenged on this or any other aspect of his ethics or practices.

And certainly, in the case of the horse, he had “decided to produce it” in every possible way, with or without the natural co-operation of the animals. His various obituarists seem particularly to relish the story of a two-day car journey which he made from Cambridge to Krakow in 1976, transporting six Welsh pony embryos stored in the oviducts of a pair of rabbits. On arrival the embryos were extracted again and introduced into ‘recipient mares’. As far as I can understand the account published at the time in the Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, three of the Krakow mares became normally pregnant, though what became of them or the embryos after this success (or of the rabbits, for that matter) is not stated. Who cared, after all? The point is that “the ligated rabbit oviduct would seem to provide an eminently suitable means of temporarily storing and transporting horse embryos.”

Of course ‘normally pregnant’ is not quite the right wording. The report of this research is crowded with drugs, and with surgical and other interventions, necessary to induce synchronized oestrus (sexual receptivity) and ovulation in the mares, and to effect the transfers: injections of synthetic prostaglandin, “daily teasing with a stallion”, blood sampling, “palpation of the ovaries per rectum, flushing out of the embryos with “Dulbecco’s phosphate-buffered saline”, ligating of the rabbits’ oviducts – all this before we’ve even left Cambridge. It’s not such a fun story after all, then.

A great deal has happened in horse-reproduction research since 1976, much of it carried through by Professor Allen. But the wastefulness, the gruesome interventions, and the grotesque impropriety of the Krakow project have lived on in what came after. Even the names given with bluff facetiousness to the ‘donor’ ponies at the Cambridge end – Choc-Ice, Dairy Cream, Iced Lolly, etc. – seem to have been part of a tradition: when Allen created the first-ever identical twins, by “bisection and reconstruction” of a horse embryo, the names given to them were Quickzee and Eezee – ‘man’s products’ indeed, being clearly branded as such. Incidentally, Allen’s own persisting nick-name ‘Twink’ had been conferred on him in childhood, as a corruption of Rip Van Winkle, although ‘Twink’ himself was wholly unlike the amiably indolent and laissez-aller character of that story. Professor Allen was not just highly industrious but, as the radio obituary said, and as his research career vividly evidenced, “endlessly curious”.

He was fascinated in particular by the possibilities of embryo transfer between different species. Ten years after the Krakow report, for instance, he was transferring embryos from two Przewalski’s horses (a Mongolian wild horse species) and two Grant’s zebras, kept at London Zoo, into various ponies and donkeys at Cambridge. That didn’t mean four embryos in all: eleven early-stage embryos were taken from the Przewalski’s horses (after 18 “collection attempts”) and fourteen from the zebras (after 25 attempts). Following the transfers, there were twelve pregnancies, of which six reached natural term, producing four live foals, three of which survived. That’s the maths summary. Behind it was a year-long story of drugs and surgery, forced waste, and suffering: still-births, abortions, and premature deaths of foals, involving for the recipient mares “abdominal discomfort . . . non-infective polyarthritis . . . pregnancy toxaemia syndrome . . . acute painful polyarthritis”, and so on.

This particular project was presented by Professor Allen and his co-authors as evidence that “extra-specific embryo transfer may be a useful aid to breeding exotic equids in captivity.” Well, that’s always been a declared aim of the big zoos, to breed for conservation, and a large part also of their official justification for mass-confining animals for show, though it deals with exactly the wrong end of the problem of species decline. Accordingly, the research was supported by the London Zoological Society.

More surprisingly, that same research was part-funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association. But in fact the interests which these two organisations stand for have provided the principal motive and most of the funds for all of Allen’s research into ARTs (assisted reproductive techniques). They were indeed the sponsors for Allen’s Equine Fertility Unit at Newmarket, set up in 1989 and the place where much of his work was done. And of course what they wanted and still want from such research is not conservation of zebras, not even (except incidentally) improved health in race-horses, but a better return on the money invested in horse-racing: winners, in short. For as Professor Allen told the House of Lords committee, “you are paying very large sums of money to have a particularly valuable mare covered by an even more valuable stallion, and you lose that money when the pregnancy is lost.” But it’s not just a case of ensuring pregnancies. Moving embryos between animals can free up valuable mares for racing or for further breeding; it can multiply progeny and improve the chances of raising a winner. Other ARTs, such as artificial insemination and cloning, offer similar scope for the thorough exploitation of winning genes.

But strangely, since the racing industry funded so much of Allen’s research, it still does not allow horses that have been force-bred in any of these ways to be registered for either breeding or competition. In fact, the Equine Reproduction Unit was closed down in 2007. Of course Professor Allen was exasperated by this conservatism. He often pointed out that traditional breeding is wasteful and inhumane. It certainly is inhumane, but not because copulation is inherently unpleasant for horses. The cruelty comes from hard-driving it for commercial purposes, in order to mass-produce winning potential. Allen’s researched alternatives simply shifted the burdens of this unnatural demand onto a different set of horses, with different sorts of imposed suffering. That the racing establishment has not after all accepted these alternatives, whose cruel rehearsals it has been funding for all these years, is just another variation on the industry’s habit of squandering life.

In fact the logo for horse-racing organizations should be, not the horse’s head so much favoured, but the whip, representative image of the force which characterizes the industry’s relation to its breadwinner from start to finish. It may be said that Professor Allen’s hubristic researches at the one end, and Drury and Sons’ bloody work at the other, don’t fairly summarize the whole enterprise. For many years I lived next to a National Hunt training stable, and there, far from the race-courses and breeding establishments, it was easy to admire the beauty of the horses, the skill and courage of the riders – especially of the stable lads, who do generally respect and understand their allotted horses – and in fact the whole picturesque ensemble. But it is indeed an industry, and the horses have to make it pay. Human selfishness, impatience, and cruelty are therefore not accidents but systemic to it. The whole unhappy truth has been brilliantly presented in Animal Aid’s various reports over the years. I urge you in particular to watch its new four-minute film about horse slaughter, linked below, and to sign its current parliamentary petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/585547.

horse corpse

Notes and references:

The title phrase comes from William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’: “A horse misused upon the road / Calls to Heaven for human blood.”

Animal Aid’s ‘Horse Slaughter in the UK’ can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/571718345. Warning: it’s a record of scarcely credible callousness, including scenes which the Panorama programme considered too distressing to show on television. Other reports on Animal Aid’s web-site include ‘Bred to Death’ (https://www.animalaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/bred.pdf) and a summary of its various race-horse campaigns here: https://www.animalaid.org.uk/the-issues/our-campaigns/horse-racing/

Panorama’s ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’ can be viewed (at time of writing, anyway) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai44cpAVI5M

The quotation promoting Drury and Sons comes from their web-site at https://www.fdruryandsons.co.uk/

The account by Allen and others of the Krakow project was published in the journal Reproduction and Fertility in August 1976, and can be read online here: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/387.pdf  The twin foals are spoken of in a brief account of his own career by Professor Allen here: https://srf-reproduction.org/professor-w-r-twink-allen-cbe-scd-frcvs/. Other quotations are taken from the evidence which he gave, on 5 February 2002, to the House of Lords select committee convened to examine the workings of the 1986 Act: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldselect/ldanimal/999/2020505.htm. The report on ‘extra-specific’ embryo transfer was published in the journal Reproduction in May 1987, and can be read online here: https://rep.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/rep/80/1/jrf_80_1_002.xml

The obituary quoted on Allen’s love of hunting was published by the British Equine Veterinary Association here: https://www.beva.org.uk/Home/News-and-Views/Latest-News/Details/Professor-William-Twink-Allen—6-June-2021

The first photograph is from Animal Aid’s film, and shows three horses arriving at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse. The second is the one referred to in the opening paragraph.

Killing Our Way towards Immortality

In a TEDx talk given in 2017, the neurosurgeon Sergio Carnavero asserts that the time for head transplantation “is now.” The special problems of such an operation have been solved, he says, notably by his own “head anastomosis venture” – deliberately thus named, no doubt, to produce the tasteful acronym HEAVEN. With a cowboy swagger in his movements and indeed in his talk, he informs the audience that this development will have “changed your lives forever . . . the world will never be the same again.”

Demikhove dogs, 1954

The idea of head transplantation has interested and exercised some few surgeons for over a hundred years, the exercise part being carried through, of course, upon animals. A celebrated instance was Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dog of 1954 – made celebrated by the Soviet Union authorities, that is, though the dogs survived wretchedly for a few days only (Demikhov went on to do more of the same). But the surgeon so far best known for this type of research is the one whom Carnavero speaks of at the beginning of his talk: Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and scientist working at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio. This man is now the subject of a biography written by the medical historian Brandy Schillace, and titled Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (page references to this book are in square brackets).

Schillace cover

Previous operations of this kind had really been upper body transplants, as the pathetic image of Demikhov’s dogs shows. Dr White, however, was aiming at a reconstituted human, and he therefore worked with severed heads and decapitated bodies. In 1965 he re-made six dogs in this way, using six donors and six recipients. The results ‘lived’ from 6 to 36 hours after the surgery. Meanwhile he had practised isolating the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys and servicing these brains from the blood supply of their detached bodies or of intact fellow-monkeys. (At this period of rehearsal, there were apparently 300 heads of monkeys, “frozen or floating in alcohol”, stored in his laboratory [104].) Then in 1970 he took the next step, completely transplanting the heads of four macaques onto the bodies of four others. One of these operations is fully described by Dr Schillace on her book. The reconstituted monkey in this case survived “for almost nine days before the body rejected the head” [126]. During that time, the monkey was completely paralyzed, because there was no way to re-connect the spinal cord.

So here is another research-scape of mutilated and short-lived animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and monkeys have all been made to serve this cause. And what really has the cause been? In 1989, Ingrid Newkirk, of the recently founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, publicly debated the matter with Robert White in his home town, Cleveland. She accused him of exploiting the animals “only to prove what you have the skill and the power to do” [185]. In reply, White very reasonably instanced the patients whom his more conventional work as a neurosurgeon had saved. Characteristically, for he enjoyed showmanship, he brought one of them along to illustrate his case: “I would like to introduce a guest. Carla, could you stand?” (Sensation!) [187]. But he couldn’t bring along anyone saved by head-transplantation, because there hadn’t yet been such a person (nor has there been now). Moreover, he could not envisage an operation which would leave the head in control of its alien body; it would be using that paralyzed body only as a life-support system, just as those macaques in their brief new lives had been. But then even the fully integrated human body was properly understood, so White asserted, as “a machine for the brain” [69]. (Is this how one would like one’s doctor, or indeed anyone else, to think?)

Dr Schillace reckons that White prevailed in that debate, but there is evidence in the book that supports Ingrid Newkirk’s accusation against him. White was fascinated by the surgical technology of the operation, and proud of what he and the teams of professionals he led could do (the Humble in the book’s title refers to a sobriquet he used for himself as a joke: ‘Humble Bob’). When the monkey whose operation is described in the book showed returning signs of intelligent life (intelligent enough to try to bite Professor White’s hand), we’re told that “the operating room erupted in cheers. Several team members danced; one of them screamed.” [125] But the book’s photograph of the monkey’s suffering face does not seem to warrant that triumphalism, and one of those present has more recently said of the experience, “It was just awful . . . I don’t think it should ever be done again.” [220]

Although Dr Schillace puts, in the course of her book, some of the ethical and even spiritual questions raised by Robert White’s research, he himself does not seem to have been greatly interested in them. That may partly have been because White was a comfortably orthodox Catholic, not inclined to re-think ethics. True, he was an advisor to the Pope on medical ethics, as chairman of the Vatican’s commission on the subject, but that meant strictly human-related ethics; above all it meant the rather pragmatic question, what counted as dying and what didn’t? White insisted that it was in the brain that the soul resided or at least made its earthly connection; as long as the brain worked, the soul had not departed, and so personal life continued. The heart, formerly viewed as the core of personhood, was part of the “machine” only. You can see why this way of looking at the human body, now well-established, would help to justify White’s research project. For otherwise, taking the functioning body of a vegetating person, and using it to service the head of a person whose own body had been failing, might be viewed as premature or even criminal.

I don’t know that Professor White ever more than hinted at the idea that head-transplantation might be a means to everlasting life (Carnavero does distinctly say so, and the absurd acronym HEAVEN must be taken to imply as much). That would surely involve an orthodox Christian in serious difficulties. But the nature of the operation does at least suggest a clinging to earthly life at all costs – and the costs would certainly be enormous, not just in professional resources but also in the engrossing, on behalf of one patient, of a complete set of donor organs which might individually save several lives. I don’t mean to trip up his theology in this matter – what would be the point? – but here was a man who believed that our “God-created immortality”, so Shillace tells us, was what “differentiated humans from all other animals.” [197] You’d suppose, then, that those dogs and monkeys had a lot more to lose by premature death than we humans, who will apparently be going on to much better things. And it would surely be the animal in us, rather than the immortal soul, which shrinks from death. Why devote such riches to that secular motive, then?

But for White the soul privileged us just as much in this world as in the next. He called himself “an elitist”, and his outlook was indeed elitist through and through: the natural world served humans, and the human body served the brain, and the brain served the soul, and the soul served God. For all the advanced science, it’s a ruthlessly traditional supernaturalist outlook. In such a scheme, the bulk of animated life on earth is just a serviceable context; it has no status of its own.

Even in 1990, when he’d had some experience of the animal rights argument, and some practice in responding to it, White could see nothing there: “Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue”, he wrote in an essay for an academic journal of bio-ethics [171]. He also actively promoted this point of view (if one can call it that) to a more general audience too, as the debate with Ingrid Newkirk illustrates. In fact the simplicity of his thinking suited Reader’s Digest rather better than it did a highbrow publication like the one just quoted, the Hastings Center Report (he published in both). In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer describes White’s ethical arguments as “comparable to maintaining that the earth is flat”. It’s characteristic of those arguments that his knock-down point in that Cleveland debate, after which he felt entitled to rest his case (“I really don’t know what else to say” [187]), was to associate anti-vivisection with Adolf Hitler.

However, Professor White did not anyway consider that such questions were properly decided by argument, philosophical or not. In ethical matters, he said, “there are no navigation maps” or, as Dr Schillace paraphrases it, “The only lodestone is a man’s conscience.” [219]  One must surely respect a conscience which has been exercised or at least informed by the constant practice of life-saving surgery such as Professor White’s clinical work required of him. Or is that naïve and even sentimental? It’s one of the sad effects of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher that it seems to answer ‘yes’ to that question. An untroubled conscience surely ought to be a contradiction in terms, outside gangland anyway, but it’s the primary mark of White’s ethical simpletonism that he seemed to possess one. About those monkeys, for instance, Schillace says of him, “He had no qualms whatsoever.” [231] A producer for the film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, for which White was employed as medical consultant because the plot involved some gruesome transplanting of heads, found him “supremely untroubled by the implications of his work.” [231]

Well, perhaps he had fought his way to that serenity, through all the trials and agonies of medical practice, including a period as a trauma surgeon, as well as the gruesome demands of his chosen research? But no, serenity isn’t quite what we see in him; self-assurance certainly, impatience of scruple, a disconcerting flippancy. As to this last, we’re told that he was “well-known for practical jokes” [67]. The immediate illustration of this trait is an elaborate jape involving a road accident and the brain of a cow collected from a slaughterhouse – too elaborate to retell here, even supposing I wanted to. On another occasion, he provided a sandwich lunch for himself and some others, including a priest present on ethical business, at an operating table on which there also lay the ex-sanguinated and apparently dead body of a dog. After lunch, the professor revived the dog, thereby showing that since he had kept the brain alive (by cooling it, a technique pioneered by White himself), he could make the rest live again too: ‘Maybe like Christ?’ suggests White to the priest “with a mischievous wink”. [189]

I doubt the complete veracity of both these stories, but probably only because I’d much prefer that they weren’t true. They do fit his personality; otherwise Dr Schillace herself surely wouldn’t have believed them. That wink certainly is all too credible, and there are in the book many other instances of White’s taste for tricks and facetiousness. For Schillace, these boyish moments help to humanize her subject, and in fact she goes in for homely touches of all kinds for the same reason: brief glimpses of “unflappable” wife Patricia, of the kids (one “soon to be driving”, another “would soon be out of diapers”), of White’s pipes and cups of coffee. But such evidences that White was just as human as you or I are rather beside the point. This was a man who enjoyed being referred to as “the new Modern Prometheus” (The Modern Prometheus being the sub-title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein), and who told a symposium of transplant scientists that, with head transplantation, we had reached and crossed “the last frontier”. “We venture into the void” he grandly said, “and we will go on.” [158] It’s not practical jokes, ten children, and addiction to pipe and caffeine, that will convince us that such a man is entitled to lead us into the void (if someone must, which is altogether doubtful). Some very much larger-minded person is required: for a start, one who won’t assume it right to hustle weaker animals into it first.

And now a new man is forcing the pace into that void. Sergio Carnavero has a more unorthodox and perhaps more apt cosmology to go with it (he regards the brain as the “filter” for a world-consciousness). He has even more of the bumptious showman in him than Robert White had. He firmly believes that he and his colleagues have solved the problem of the severed spine – solved it in animals, of course, for behind his research too there’s a trail of ruined animals. It may be that head-transplantation is indeed possible, even imminent, though most neuro-scientists deny one or both. It may be that it’s a legitimate project, for all its gothically transgressive implications; just as likely, it’s a hugely expensive fantasy. Either way, it will never have justified the animal mayhem which has serviced it.

Notes and references:

A Tedx talk is one that uses the TED format but is organised independently of the TED organisation. Carnavero’s talk is actually “flagged” by TED as “speculative” and raising “practical and ethical concerns”. It can be viewed here:    

https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/videos/head-transplantation-the-future-is-now-tedx-talk-by-drsergio-canavero-295184

Most of the information about Robert White is of course taken from the book Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (Simon and Schuster, 2021). I should add that the author is naturally much more aware of animal-related ethics than Professor White was, and in fact shows that White’s research did much to galvanize the animal rights movement of the time. ‘Dr Butcher’ was a name given to White by animal rights activists.

Other historical and technical information comes from a 2016 article in Acta Chirurgica, online here – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116034/ – and from a 2019 article in Maedica: a Journal of Clinical Medicine, online here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6511668/

In Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, pp.75-6, White is quoted calling himself an elitist during a press interview; his point there is that decisions about animal research should be made by medical professionals and not by outsiders. In addressing lay audiences on the subject, he always urged them to deplore and resist federal or state regulation of the practice.

The familiar ‘Hitler argument’ is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/a-troubling-and-unsavoury-contradiction/

The photograph of the dogs shows the results of Demikhov’s 1954 operation.