Anti-Vivisection Forty Years On: a Conversation with Mel Broughton

Last Thursday there was a demonstration with banners and leaflets outside Oxford University’s animal research laboratory in South Parks Road, as there is every Thursday and has been for many years. Of course Mel Broughton was there, the man who led the campaign against the building of the Oxford lab, and (successfully) against the primate research centre earlier proposed at Cambridge. Mel’s experience of arrest and imprisonment for arson during the Oxford campaign was described in this blog four years ago, shortly after the conclusion of his ten-year sentence. When he was free of his sentence, and had returned to South Parks Road (“I promised myself that as soon as I got off licence I’d come straight back here, and I did.”) and to the animal rights movement in general, it was a scene very much changed from the one he had known. On Thursday, he spoke about the changes and about the present and future of the animal rights movement.

Mel 2

Mel’s own prison sentence, and similarly severe ones passed against a number of other activists, were part of an increasingly resolute intervention on the part of government and police authorities to support animal-research institutions. Almost certainly both Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University’s new laboratory would have been defeated without this intervention. It involved both financial backing and stricter legal and policing controls. Demonstrations and marches, and even those Thursday afternoon vigils, were so conspicuously policed that they had a quasi-criminal appearance. All this had, as Mel says, “a chilling effect” on the movement, as it was intended to do: not just making direct action a much more hazardous option, but also alienating many who would otherwise have given active support at events.

Two developments which should have been beneficial – the rise of social media and the increasing popularity of veganism – have in fact, so Mel believes, rather compounded the problem. In the case of social media, the will to support a cause can too easily be satisfied by online ‘action’:

They go on their smart-phone and they look at a post about a demonstration, and they go ‘O.K.’ and click on it, and that’s it, they think it’s done. The responsibility for everyone to do something themselves, for everyone to act, has been largely taken away. It’s almost like ‘follow us on Twitter, or ‘like’ us, and we’ll do the work for you.

Veganism has, of course, been an excellent thing in itself, in so far as it lessens animal suffering. Mel himself has been vegan for forty years:

I’m all for it. But veganism doesn’t guarantee animal rights. ‘Go vegan!’ they say, but for many animals it makes no difference. Their status remains exactly the same.

Unless veganism is taken on as a necessary implication of the belief that animals have rights to life and freedom, then it’s likely to be a life-style choice, more about the person than about the animals, and therefore to lead nowhere.

That was indeed the view of it taken by Stephen Clark in his remarkable book The Moral Status of Animals (1984). Throughout that book, he insists that veganism, or vegetarianism at the least, is a minimum commitment, a starting-point. He says, “All those who believe that animals are not utterly beyond moral consideration, that they should be spared all avoidable pain, are duty-bound to abstain from meat, and to campaign against vivisection.” You’ll notice the connection of the diet to the campaigning – specifically, campaigning against vivisection. It’s the point Mel Broughton was making, and Mel recalled that vivisection was indeed a crucial interest in the early days of modern animal rights in the 1970s: “Vivisection was the issue which gave birth to the animal rights movement, that and hunt sabbing.” He himself came into the movement in the early 80s, involved in the campaign of that time against animal research at Oxford University. The policy then was “direct action to save lives”, notably the lives of laboratory animals.

These are still Mel’s priorities. During a hunt event three years ago, Mel was ridden down by a huntsman, and very seriously injured; after a long delay, the man is now facing a charge of ‘wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm’. But animals in laboratories remain Mel’s priority: “I do think that vivisection is the darkest crime of all . . . I don’t think anything comes close to the laboratory in terms of complete violation of rights.”

In those earlier days, the research institutions themselves largely relied for their freedom of action on the ignorance of the public. They would close ranks and increase their security after each public scandal. Since then they have learnt to be more sophisticated. In particular they have created the ‘Concordat on Openness’ to advertise, at one and the same time, pride and confidence in their animal research and commitment to doing less of it. Has all the publicity arising from this Concordat – the countless web-pages about animal research, the ‘virtual tours’ of laboratories, the open days and other such initiatives often recounted in this blog – helped to baffle the anti-vivisection movement? Mel Broughton concedes that it “placates people who want to think the animals don’t suffer.” It enables them to think so, by judiciously selecting what’s shown (even the Concordat organizers admit this): “It’s a snapshot, that’s all it is; it’s dishonest.”

More positively, all this publicity, in common with the now elaborate bureaucracy that regulates animal research, is evidence of the effectiveness of all the years of opposition: “You could argue that they were forced to do it because we were exposing them; they had little choice but to do it.” But of course the essential character of vivisection has not changed, and it has come clearly into light again at MBR Acres, the establishment at Wyton near Cambridge that breeds beagle dogs, at the rate of about two thousand a year, for research-use in the UK and beyond. When the American company Marshall Bio-Resources first took over this breeding enterprise from Harlan Interfauna, all the dogs then being kept there were destroyed. This sort of ruthlessness, says Mel, is “the reality of vivisection”.

Mel speaking

Mel Broughton and others started to make MBR Acres the target of attention two years ago. Making visits at night, they placed cameras at the perimeter fence. These cameras recorded the boxing and transporting of the beagles, ugly and sinister images which gained national coverage in the Daily Mirror and other places in April and May of 2021. The small group of activists that had been making regular visits there now swelled in number, some began to stay overnight, and today there’s a permanent Camp Beagle at the gates of the establishment. Mel says that it’s “one of those campaigns that theoretically we could win; they could be closed down.”

So MBR Acres has become the focus for activist anti-vivisection, as Oxford once was. And the ordeal of radical dissent – the confrontations, the policing, the arrests – is renewed there. The company hopes to secure an injunction limiting the scope of the protest, just as Oxford University did. And Mel Broughton is once more the principal name in the injunction: “I find myself in the High Court, going through the whole process again.”

Many individuals have taken their part in the anti-vivisection protests over the forty years since those 1980s protests in Oxford; most have passed through and gone, replaced by others with their own periods of commitment. A very few have been there throughout, and Mel is one of them. He has paid very heavily for his purposefulness and leadership, but he is wholly steadfast:

I’m not defeated, and there’s a lot still to be done. I’m not going to stop. 

Notes and references:

Mel Broughton was speaking on Thursday, 5 May, during one of the weekly demonstrations in Oxford organised by SPEAK campaigns. His account of arrest and life in prison can be read in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/an-animal-rights-activist-in-prison/

The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen R. L. Clark, was published by Oxford University Press in 1984; the quotation is from pp.169-70. This is the most impassioned and uncompromising of the academic accounts of the subject that I have encountered.

The photographs show Mel Broughton in South Parks Road and speaking at an event in London.

Remembering the Millions in the Global Lab

This coming Sunday, April 24th, will be World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s the first time since the Covid pandemic began that the anniversary can be properly observed with a collective event. The venue will be Cambridge, whose university was second only to the giant Crick Institute as a user of lab animals at the last national count in 2020. The 177,219 animals that Cambridge University used included 84 sheep, 16 pigs, and 41 non-human primates (nearly three times Oxford’s number). Those primates – rhesus macaques and marmosets – were (and others still are) being used in the study of human psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

wdail-2022

Here on the right are details of the Cambridge event.

The previous WDAIL event, in 2019, was at Oxford. I was among those who spoke on that occasion, and I post a transcript of my speech here – not because it was anything so great in itself, but because I tried to make it a concise summary of the moral and spiritual meaning of the World Day, and I don’t have anything much to add to it now. I began by quoting an estimate of the total of animals used annually across the world. That total, 118 million, referred to the year 2012. A more recent calculation, for the year 2015, suggests that the total of animals killed in laboratories may then have been 192.1 million. So the matter has not become any less urgent.

Speech given at Oxpens Meadow, Oxford, 27 April 2019:

We can’t know how many animals it is that we’re remembering today in all the world’s laboratories. A calculation made back in 2014 suggested 118 million. No doubt it’s far more now, and anyway that was only the vertebrates, the animals we choose to count: the mice, birds, fishes, cats, dogs, monkeys. It’s a big enough list, but many other sorts of animal are slaves to science, unregistered animals, species whose names we may hardly recognise. But there is this one thing that we do know about all of them, the thing they all do have in common: they were all born with the will to live and to flourish in their own ways, just as we were in ours.

It’s what that ancient Sanskrit teaching means when it says ‘Tat twam asi’, “Where you see life, that is you.” Well, that’s a spiritual way of putting the matter, no doubt, but it’s a plain fact also, and the great scientist Charles Darwin presented it as such in the mid-nineteenth century, when he showed that all life is one great multifarious will to flourish. In the mid-nineteenth century! Therefore the whole filthy modern history of vivisection, beginning as it did in Europe at about that same time, has been carried on in full awareness of that fact.

“All life is one”. That’s how it was stated by the man whose birthday on 24th April is commemorated by this World Day for Animals in Laboratories: Hugh Dowding. And I would like to say something about that most remarkable man: Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, the man who directed the RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the man who is therefore to be credited with preventing the defeat and invasion of this country at that time.

Here was a man answerable for the fate of countless humans at a critical moment in human history, answerable in particular for the young fighter pilots who risked dreadful injury or death in the sky. And it was known that he did feel very great care and concern for the welfare of these men. After all, one of them was his own son.

So did he therefore come out of that war believing that there was a special sanctity in our human life, some special entitlement, that obliged all the other animals to serve our interests? No, on the contrary. He expressly objected to the use of animals in defence research, at Porton Down and at Harwell. Not just was it cruel and futile; he thought it actually promoted war. This is what he said:

failure to recognise our responsibilities towards the animal kingdom is the cause of many of the calamities which now beset the nations of the world. Nearly all of us have a deep-rooted wish for peace—peace on earth; but we shall never attain to true peace until we recognise the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.

He said that in the House of Lords, because he had been made Baron Dowding in 1943. And he used his time in the House of Lords again and again to present the case for animals: animals in circuses, in slaughterhouses, on farms, but especially animals in laboratories.

And probably the House of Lords has never before or since heard such plain-speaking on that subject. He began one debate by saying, The process of preparing this Motion has been a most painful one to me, because it has compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty.” And he went on to describe some of those cases to their lordships: cats at the Royal Naval Laboratory made to breathe 100% oxygen until they convulsed and died; monkeys at the Lister Institute infected with rabies; the joining together of rats as Siamese twins. That last experiment was being carried out at Oxford University, where Dowding was astonished by what he called “the callous attitude of the people . . . and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.”

Well, no doubt things have changed. Perhaps there are fewer ‘useless’ experiments nowadays, here at least. But it was never Dowding’s aim to make animal research more strictly useful. Here’s what he said about that:

I want to make clear at the outset my own personal position. It is this: that even should it be conclusively proved that human beings benefit directly from the suffering of animals, its infliction would nevertheless be unethical and wrong.

Yes, “Unethical and wrong”. And not because we’re animal-lovers. We may or may not love animals: so very much the better if we do, but it’s beside the point. What we know is that they are life as we are life, they value their part in life as we value ours, and they have as much right to it as we have to ours. That’s what it means to say all life is one. We know it to be a factual truth. Science itself has told us so. Well, let science practise what it teaches and give our fellow-creatures their own lives back!

Notes and references:

The 2019 WDAIL event at Oxford was described and pictured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/wdail-2019/

The estimate of animals used in global science during 2015 was published in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals in 2019, and can be viewed online here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0261192919899853

Five Hundred and Sixty Seven to Be Taken Daily

Oxford University has now published statistics for the ‘procedures’ conducted upon animals in its research laboratories during 2021. The total count was 207,192. Of these, 95% were procedures on mice, though also in use were rats (1,188) and ‘other rodents’ (159), non-human primates (13), guinea pigs (55), birds (unspecified, but presumably domestic fowl, 7), many fish, a few ferrets, and one frog. The total is up by about a quarter on the 2020 number (169,511). That was a year when Covid-19 impeded laboratory activity, but that same difficulty continued throughout 2021, so that this latest total too must be supposed artificially low. For all the talk in university publicity about the 3Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement), the numbers of animals being used has remained pretty steady for several years, after a notable jolt upwards in 2014 (the 2011 figure was 156,215).

These latest statistics are posted in the University’s ‘News and Events’ web-pages, where they are said to show “numbers of animals that completed procedures”. The phrase “completed procedures” is a collectible euphemism, with its suggestion of animals moving purposefully forward in their training, rather as students and researchers do, but it means, of course, ‘completed their lives’ or rather had their lives completed for them. In fact all these numbers are tiny obituaries.

Then there is the term ’procedure’ itself, frequently complained about in this blog. It’s the Home Office’s basic unit for computations (rather than animals themselves, as implied in Oxford’s introductory wording), but it has no standard value. It is defined by the Home Office as “An act of commission, deliberate omission or permission applied to, or having any effect on, an animal”, which must by law be recorded when that effect is such as to cause the animal “a level of pain, suffering or distress equivalent to or greater than the introduction of a hypodermic needle.” It’s true that the severity of the pain caused by a procedure is roughly measured in the statistics, as demanded by the Home Office and shown in these from Oxford: thus, it may be ‘mild’ (the seven birds), ‘moderate’ (ten of the primates) or ‘severe’ (two of the primates, the one frog, and 1,877 others). But to call it ‘an act’ is quite wrong; it’s a course of action, possibly brief, possibly extended over the whole of a research project – and the standard research project lasts five years.

Even apart from this essential obscurity, how little one really learns from these numbers! No context is offered for them: they are simply inserted annually into the appropriate space in an otherwise unchanging text: ‘News and Events’ is a strange misnomer for these ossified animal research pages. Yes, there are several ‘research case studies’, but these too have been unchanged for some years. Elsewhere (in the university’s Gazette) the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, which supervises the whole vivisection enterprise, publishes an annual report, but even this is mostly repetition year by year. It’s an extended account of the impressive bureaucracy of management systems, training courses, and other constants of the modern laboratory scene, but it rarely strays into particulars, and never lingers there. Thus, in last year’s report,

We have had non-compliances that resulted in a focus by the Home Office. This focus has resulted in close monitoring and an action plan initially commissioned by the Establishment Licence Holder that has been extended as part of the overall review of animal related activity.

That’s all that was said, properly muffled in university-office prose, about something which must in fact have been a significant lapse or series of lapses.

What’s patently needed is a brief commentary by a senior scientist, perhaps by the Head of the Biomedical Services Division, saying what the annual numbers imply, what changes in types or methods of research they reflect or conceal, or even that there has been no change of any sort. Failing that illumination, a table showing what all these animals were being used for would be of some help. The annual Home Office statistics, collecting together all the institutional returns, do indeed show this: for example, what aspects of physiology, or disease, or behaviour, were being studied, and whether for basic knowledge or for therapeutic purpose. Therefore the university must have its own annual numbers already prepared in this way.

That single frog – conspicuously real as it seems in the upside-down way of statistics (the smaller the number, the more convincing the contents), conspicuous also as suffering in the ‘severe’ category – may be taken as an example. What sort of research uses this one frog? It appears to be the last of a tradition, for there were 322 frogs in the university’s 2015 research, 226 the next year, then 155, then 89, and none in 2019 or 2020. Are we to welcome this as an instance of successful replacement of animals in research, with one last savage experiment, or is it simply that other species are now being preferred to the frogs?

Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog) isolated on white

There may be a simpler explanation. This variety of frog, of the genus Xenopus (we aren’t told what species), is commonly used in developmental biology, the science of growth in health and disease. It is therefore most studied as eggs and embryos – in other words, too early in its life-cycle to enjoy the protection of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act or be counted for Home Office purposes. Certainly there’s no obvious decline in such research; a European Xenopus Resource Centre is located in Portsmouth, and a recent journal article promoting such research speaks breezily of “the international Xenopus community”. For some reason, then, this Oxford Xenopus may just have outgrown its anonymity and accordingly had to be counted. At any rate, this one individual probably represents a fully-exploited population of frogs, labouring for science at Oxford beneath the Home Office radar. But that’s just speculation, of course.

In the past, this blog has noted mis-statements in the university’s animal research pages (and had them corrected). I’ve deduced from those errors that the scientists themselves neither compose nor even read the pages. They should be doing both, so that the knowledge published there could be up to date and usefully informative to outsiders.

Notes and references:

Oxford University’s latest statistics appear some way down the page here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

The Home Office’s definition of ‘procedure’ is taken from its Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO, 2014, pp. 7 & 10.

The Oxford University Gazette is quoted from the issue of 17 February 2021, Supplement (2), p.267, online at file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/University%20of%20Oxford%20Gazette%202020-2021%20-%20Vol%20151%20(redacted).pdf

The illustration shows Xenopus laevis, or African clawed frog, which is probably the species being used in Oxford laboratories. Outside Africa, it is regarded as an ‘invasive species’, much like Homo sapiens, to whom it also has some physiological similarities which favour it for research purposes. Illustration credit: Shuttlecock, at yourgenome.org, a site which also gives more details about this frog’s utility in research.  

Neither Wise nor God-like: the Inglorious Story of Mankind

Among the many voices offering to interpret world affairs as they stumble from bad to worse is that of Yuval Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On such things as climate change, Covid-19, the invasion of Ukraine, he gives his thoughts in the press, in interviews, at international conferences, through his own online platforms, and even by means of a limited company called Sapienship. He seems less like an individual academic, more a sort of international enterprise, and in fact he is an enterprise of sorts, or at least a team – which is the word he frequently uses for the group of people that manages him and his works. No wonder, then, that the modest few lines of acknowledgements that went with his first foray into popular history, Sapiens: a Brief History of Mankind (originally published in Hebrew in 2011, English edition 2015) had expanded to a fulsome two pages by the time of Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (English edition 2016).

It’s on the very great success of those two books, with help from a more recent collection of essays titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (“a thrilling journey through today’s most urgent issues”, says the publisher), that Harari’s celebrity is founded. Sapiens and Homo Deus are large and ambitious works, covering the past, present, and future of our species in about 450 pages each. The first of them shows how Homo sapiens broke away from the other human species, and from fellow-animals at large, and came to dominate the world. Our crucial advantage, Harari argues, was co-operation: not merely of the herd or tribal type already practised by other species, but on a huge pyramid-building or Manhatten-project scale. This sort of co-operation was made possible by language, and made effective by shared myths or “stories” (a favourite word of Harari’s), which have been able to bind even far-distant strangers together into collaborative or at least compatible effort: not just ideological stories like Christianity or liberalism, but social constructs like states, corporations, and above all money. The second book, Homo Deus, follows the species into the future, where he makes a try at divinity and immortality (I say ‘he’ because, as world-subjugator, sapiens feels like a ‘he’, though Harari writes ‘she’), but then comes up against a new and less vulnerable contender for supremacy: artificial intelligence.

Sapiens cover

These are not celebrations of Home sapiens. In fact both titles come to feel bitterly ironic as the narratives progress. The species appears at its modest best in the conditions provided for it by nature, as hunter-gatherer tribes. The agricultural revolution, which turned humans into stationary owners of land and animals, is seen by Harari as a disaster, not just for the animals (of whose part in it, more later) but for the humans too. The chapter that recounts it is titled ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’, and Harari derives from it one of his major generalisations, characteristically illustrating it not just with the invention of farming but also with the coming of e-mail: “Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.”

For although humans in some sense invented history when they used their large brains to emancipate themselves from mere biology, they have always been more its victims than its managers. Harari shows (though he doesn’t expressly say) that the term ‘sapiens’, coined for us in the eighteenth century by the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, is a laughable misnomer. A much more accurate word would be ‘habilis’ (clever, dexterous), except that it’s now unavailable, having been appropriated for one of the extinct or conjectural Homo species. As for Homo deus, into which sapiens may hope to transform himself, Harari foresees that human god-likeness would almost certainly be an accomplishment within reach of an elite only, a matter of “upgrading a handful of superhumans” (and we can guess the sort of people they’d be). But anyway, the project will become irrelevant, because the “tremendous religious revolution” already now taking place is set to apotheosize not man but the data handled by artificial intelligence (the final chapter of this second book is titled ‘The Data Religion’). “Once this mission is accomplished,” suggests Harari, Homo sapiens will vanish.”

Homo Deus cover

Neither wise nor god-like, then, and of course the delinquencies and blunders of sapiens have been most steadily and consistently felt by his fellow-animals. Early on in Homo Deus, Harari says “Some readers may wonder why animals receive so much attention in a book about the future.” His answer, a slightly disingenuous one, is that our relations with the other animals “is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.” Disingenuous because it’s very clear that he minds what’s happened to the animals not so much as a caution to our self-interest, but rather as a terrible wrong in itself, and he minds that wrong a lot more than he seems to mind “how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans”. That’s partly because his great sweep across human history suggests that subduing and even extirpating this “deadliest species ever in the 4-billion-year history of life on earth” would be quite a planet-friendly and well-justified next step, whomever it’s taken by. More obviously, the wrong to animals has really happened and shows no signs of abatement.

In both the books, Harari devotes many pages to descriptions of the ruthlessness of animal husbandry. It was bad enough in its first days, but even in the early chapters of Sapiens, when we’re still deep in the past, he shows in some detail what it has now come to in the mass cruelties of modern factory farming. By page 425, when we’ve had time to notice how much of human advancement in health, comfort, and mere numbers, has been plundered from the life-potential of these animals, he concludes that “industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” He has by this point reviewed the Spanish destruction of the Inca and Aztec peoples, the slave trade of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the aggressive Europeanization of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, and many other horrors. Recall also that Harari is himself Jewish, and his first audience were Israeli students (Sapiens started life as a lecture series). It is, then, a bold and determined statement to make, and one, incidentally, which he has repeated in at least one recent interview.

Harari does include laboratory animals in this record of exploitation, but he makes no equivalent survey or complaint of their experience. Rather, he uses results from animal research to support a larger theme of the books, that animals have more sentience, more talent, more value than humans have found it convenient to recognise. Thus Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments in maternal deprivation, evidencing the passion of the maternal bond in mammal nature, are accepted as science, and used to condemn the violation of that bond in dairy farming. The swim-test, which puts rats in a tube of water and times their willingness, with and without anti-depressant medication, to struggle in the hope of escape, is reported by Harari as showing that rodents must be supposed to have “human-like emotions”. He does not conclude that in these cases the findings themselves show the experiments should never have been undertaken (though he does call Harlow’s “shockingly cruel”). Reviewing some less intrusive research into the intelligence of pigs, carried out at Pennsylvania State University in the 1990s, he mentions without comment, perhaps even as an entertaining detail, that the pigs were christened Hamlet and Omelette – a patronizing vulgarity which ought surely to be derided. The animals, notably the monkeys, that are being used in the cause of cyborgism (enhancements of human mental and physical powers, a major theme in Homo Deus) go unmentioned.

In short, these books are disappointing on the subject of animal research. (Oddly enough, Harari is also disappointingly equivocal, in his interviews, on the merits of veganism, a subject not touched on at all in either of the books, unless I’ve missed it.) Still, he clearly means to promote animals in human estimation, and these various research instances, showing as they do the quality of non-human animal minds and emotions, cumulatively enforce what Harari says in a late chapter of Sapiens about the pursuit of happiness:

When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

That, however, is what history – as piloted, or at least fronted, by humans – has consistently done. For of course the special importance and indeed sanctity of sapiens himself is another of those ‘stories’ that he tells. But it seems that the coming of Dataism, even if it never does quite subvert humanity, will not do the other animals any good either. Since, as imagined by Harari, it countenances only whatever can create the data it grows by, then “value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.” Animals cannot do this, and therefore, for instance, “all the experiences of wolves – as deep and complex as they may be – are worthless.”

In fact, those formerly dominant ‘-isms’ – theism, capitalism, humanism – have already gone a long way to make animal experience “worthless”, except in special condescensions (don’t muzzle your ox when he’s treading out the corn, don’t cause ‘unnecessary’ suffering, etc.). And as you’ll have noticed, Harari’s ‘Dataism’, sinister as it sounds, is not an easy thing to envisage, not very convincing or even intelligible (perhaps that’s its secret weapon). But then he doesn’t ask us to believe in it, only to think about it or to worry about whatever else we may think is preparing to supplant us. And supposing we can imagine something worse than sapiens in charge of the world, at least Harari’s account of the human regime makes it just as easy to imagine something a whole lot better.

You’ll feel that these two books don’t say anything new about the plight of animals. Certainly they aren’t works of research or innovative philosophy. (Harari’s academic speciality is, or was, military history; academic reviewers tend to think he should have stuck with what he knows best.) Their novelty consists in shrewd summaries, speculations, and insights. It consists also in their very sombre and corrective version of that familiar theme, what it means or has meant to be human (compare, for instance, the treatments by Steven Pinker and Rutger Bregman, discussed elsewhere in this blog). The first section or sub-chapter of Sapiens is titled ‘An Animal of No Significance’, and the last, almost with a sneer, ‘The Animal that Became a God’. The book’s penultimate sentence summarizes humanity as “wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” So this is human history not just as it affects sapiens himself but as it has been felt by the other animals and by the rest of the planet. We have good reason to want everyone else to read these books, even if we don’t get round to it ourselves.

And the great thing is that everyone else is reading them. Some of the front covers have been introducing their titles as “The million copy bestseller”, but by now that’s patently an underestimate. There can be few mainstream languages into which the books haven’t been translated. Nor is it just low-life readers like me and passengers at airports ingesting them. Interviewers and other promoters like to dazzle us with names of the books’ eminent admirers: Obama, Gates (“I knew it would spark great conversations round the dinner table”, his blog brightly exclaims about Sapiens: I wonder why that’s such a counter-inducement), Zuckerberg, Netanyahu, Macron. This list of names may not prove anything about the books, but it does show their reach. And since they are books which are surely capable of doing some good, we can take satisfaction in their success and in Harari’s rise to international notice.

Notes and references:

Quotations are taken from Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind (Vintage Books, 2015) and Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (Vintage Books, 2017; first edition in Hebrew, 2015). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, advertised as “an exploration of what it means to be human”, is published by Jonathan Cape, 2018. Rather typically, they are now available as a boxed set of three. I should add that all three books are easy and enjoyable to read: one reviewer, rather unkindly, calls them “infotainment”. Interviews with Yuval Harari in the New Yorker, Guardian, and other publications can easily be found online.

This Coward Cruelty: the Activist Art of William Hogarth

As promised in the previous post, here are some comments on William Hogarth’s series of engravings published in 1751 and titled The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pictures have some topicality anyway, because the exhibition Hogarth and Europe is in its last few days of presenting Tate Britain’s “new ways of looking” at the great man’s work.

You might expect those “new ways” to involve relating this most English of artists to his European fellow-practitioners, and something of that sort is indeed attempted, but it’s not the main theme of the show as signposted in the running commentaries. These are much more interested in the contemporary “inequalities around class, race and gender” which can be found illustrated by the pictures, sometimes with evident purpose on Hogarth’s part, more usually without. The continual nagging on these subjects has keenly irritated the exhibition’s reviewers, who have spoken variously of “pious captions”, “sanctimonious wall-texts”, “self-righteous sociological lectures” and “wokeish nonsense”.

Of course there is good reason for reading morals in or even into Hogarth’s art, if rather less for reading politics there. Many of the pictures – and those the best known and most original to Hogarth – are indeed presented as moral tales, told in sequences of images, with their consequentialist morality announced or at least hinted at in their titles: The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, Industry and Idleness. But ruthless as the moral justice is that punishes vice in these paintings, there is much more fecklessness than vice to be seen in them, and more largely a generous and boisterous acceptance of what a near-contemporary critic and biographer of Hogarth, Allan Cunningham, called “the follies and frivolities of the passing scene”. While the central characters are contriving their own personal ruins, there goes on around them a vulgar confusion of human life which Hogarth does not seem particularly indignant about: drinking, petty thieving, snogging, urinating, larking of all kinds.

Only in one of these moral series that Hogarth created, namely The Four Stages of Cruelty, is there something like the strict and concentrated censoriousness that the Tate’s wall-texts are looking for, and ironically enough it’s on a theme in which the Tate commentators seem to have no interest at all. Indeed the series itself is not shown in the exhibition or, as far as I could find, even mentioned. And yet Hogarth himself spoke with unusual earnestness of it, saying that he created the engravings “in the hope of, in some degree, correcting that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind”.

Accordingly,his approach to them had a single-mindedness of purpose nearly unique in his work (Gin Lane has it too). Most of the other series began as paintings, from which engravings were made for more popular sales; the Four Stages were engravings from the start, and were made and sold as cheaply as possible, so as not to be “too expensive for the persons to whom they were intended to be useful”. Stylistically Hogarth wanted “a strong bold stroke” rather than “delicate engraving”: not just as cheaper to make, but as more immediately eloquent of the ugly scenes (“expressing them as I felt them”), and also because, since these images “were addressed to hard hearts”, he “preferred leaving them hard”. It’s exactly what the artist Sue Coe means by her phrase “activist art”, and in fact she based her own illustrated narrative of animal cruelty, Pit’s Letter (published in 2000), on these engravings.

Probably it’s an essential feature of such art that it’s distressing to view. Sue Coe says that when people weep in front of her prints of animal suffering, “That, to me, is great – it’s like,You’ve got it!’ ” No doubt that’s why Allan Cunningham, who saw in the Cruelty series “great skill in the grouping, and profound knowledge of character”,none the less wrote “I wish it never had been painted [i.e. engraved].” Better, of course, to say, as Hogarth himself would surely have done, ‘I wish the subject had never been there to paint.’

Hogarth plate 1

Here is the narrative sequence. In Plate 1, as shown, we see boys in a street variously tormenting cats, dogs, and birds. In the centre, the series protagonist Tom Nero (his name being chalked on a wall by a neighbour, with a scrawled gallows above it) hideously maltreats a dog. In Plate 2 we find Nero at work as a hackney coachman. His horse has collapsed with a broken leg, and Nero, now habituated to cruelty, tries to beat the horse back to work. Elsewhere in the street, a donkey is being similarly worked toward death, a sheep beaten, an escaped bull being chased. In Plate 3, Nero’s savagery, thus rehearsed upon animals, has been directed against his pregnant lover. In a lurid moonlit scene, she lies dead with her throat cut, while Nero himself is taken into custody. A discarded letter shows her pathetic loyalty to the man. And lastly, we see in Plate 4 the end foretold by the boy with the chalk: Nero has been hanged, and, in line with the Murder Act of that same year (1751), his body has been made available for dissection. The discarded heart of the corpse (for what’s going on seems to be half-science, half-butchery) is being eaten by a dog.

So the argument of the Four Stages is – partly, at least – that cruelty to animals naturally passes into cruelty to fellow-humans, and thence into crime, disgrace and degradation. That is the human story to it, one that continues to be told in police files and reports today. Thus far, the ethics might be as the contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Kant had them: one should be kind to animals because it’s good practice for treating humans well.

But that detail of the dog in Plate 4 puts the matter rather differently. Hogarth is giving the animal a kind of come-back (it happens also in Plate 2, where the escaped bull tosses a human into the air, and a nearby dog seems to be entering into the fun). For although the stage-by-stage ‘progress’ in cruelty may be a purely human matter (the downfall of a man habituated to violence), the wrong to animals is of the same character and the same weight as the wrong to humans. Nero’s crime against the woman is shown by that love-note as a cruel betrayal; just so, the dog in Plate 1 licks the hand of the bully tying a bone to his tail. The real difference pictured in the Four Stages is not in the importance of the wrongs, but in the instituted sanctions. The humane man in that hackney coach notes down Nero’s name and number, and perhaps Nero will lose his licence (though I can find no mention in the licensing regulations of the time that horses had to be well treated). But in 1751 the criminal law gave no protection to animals; it is only for violence against the person that Nero is finally punished. The implication of the Four Stages is clear: sanctions ought to begin where cruelty itself does. It took another seventy years for that to start to happen.

Under each of the four pictures there’s a set of verses commenting on the action (written by a poet friend of the artist). One such verse addresses Tom Nero thus:

Inhuman Wretch! say whence proceeds
This coward Cruelty?
What Int’rest springs from barb’rous deeds?
What Joy from Misery?

These questions actually appear under Plate 2, but by that stage there’s a reasonable answer to them: these men have a use for the animals, and mean to effect it. Violence has become a routine of work to them. The stanza really belongs under Plate 1, where the cruelty of the boys is quite gratuitous, practised as something enjoyable in itself, as their gleeful expressions show. One might despairingly answer that the “barb’rous deeds”, far from being ‘inhuman’, derive from a trait or flaw peculiar to the species: the restless ego and its search for acknowledgement. But a more particular explanation seems also to be offered.

In the top left corner, at a high window, two boys have tied bladders to a cat and launch the poor animal into the air. It’s a type of experiment: will the cat float or fall? Something of the same depraved curiosity is present in the other acts of cruelty. In all of them, humans are trying things out on animals to see what will happen. One or two of these cruelties distinctly call to mind more formalized animal researches: the two cats induced to fight (see Roger Ulrich’s experiments in the 1960s, featured in this blog), a bird blinded (see any of the countless experiments that have involved depriving animals of sight, hearing, etc.?). And therefore perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in Plate 4 that goes beyond Tom Nero’s case.

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That scene of dissection is apparently set in the premises of the Company of Surgeons, just then being established as a separate and learned profession (separate, that is, from the traditional barber-surgeons): hence the royal arms set up above the president’s chair, and other signs of professional dignity. It may be that what Hogarth’s first biographer John Ireland calls “disgusting and nauseous objects” are unsurprising, if still deplorable, in such a context. More concerning is that these medical men, as Hogarth depicts them, “seem to have just as much feeling as the subject [i.e. Tom Nero] now under their inspection” – that is, none at all.  Ireland concludes that “frequent contemplation of sanguinary scenes hardens the heart, deadens sensibility, and destroys every tender sensation.” Worse still, Hogarth leaves us unsure whether Nero himself, fixed to a pulley and eviscerated, really is without feeling. He seems to be crying out, as if suffering vivisection rather than dissection at the hands of these unfeeling men.

It may be the end of Nero’s career, then, but this shocking final act of the series doesn’t wrap up the story. It looks into the future, and warns that what Hogarth calls “hard hearts” may need correcting in professional places as well as in the streets – may in fact be more intractable there, for these are not powerless urchins satisfying idle curiosity, but members of a proud and established collective, whose curiosity had the honourable name of ‘natural philosophy’ or, as it would come to be called, science.

William_Hogarth_006

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William Hogarth especially liked dogs. They appear in odd corners of many of his pictures, pursuing their own interests. He put one of his own admired pugs into a self-portrait, as if to take pride in their similar personalities. But in his garden at Chiswick, the pets’ cemetery seems to have accommodated other deceased animal friends too. Everything about his Four Stages engravings was aimed at making them not profitable or liked but “useful” in the service of animals, and he said of them, “If they have had this effect, and checked the progress of cruelty, I am more proud of having been the author, than I should be of having painted Raphael’s Cartoons.”

Notes and references:

The exhibition Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain until 20 March. Quotations are from the pages of the gallery’s web-site devoted to it. The reviews appeared in various papers and journals, and seem to have been unanimous in admiring the pictures but ridiculing or at least deprecating the Tate’s commentary on them.

Contemporary quotations from Allan Cunningham, John Ireland, and Hogarth himself are taken from the compilation Anecdotes of William Hogarth, edited and published by John Nichols in 1833, pp. 64-5 and 233-7.

Sue Coe is quoted from two interviews, one in 2012, now online here, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/drawing-attention-sue-coe/ , and one in 2017 for the online journal Animal Liberation Currents here: https://animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/

Her own activist art for animals is reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The post in this blog about Roger Ulrich’s research into the origins of violence is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/fighting-for-peace/

Other information and ideas about Hogarth come from Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding, Profile Books 2021, and this article in The Eighteenth Century, vol.42, Spring 2001: ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, by James A. Steintrager.

The illustrations show Plates 1 and 4 of the Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and Self-Portrait with Pug, painted in 1745.

Vivotecnia Redivivus: a Disgraced Company Rides Again

Last April, in a post about maltreatment of animals at the Vivotecnia contract research company in Madrid, I wrote that “the public and official response is certain to ruin it” [see ‘Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business’, linked in the notes below]. A correction is now necessary to that naïve assessment of the situation. Vivotecnia is not at all ruined. Among the contracts continuing to keep it busy are four with public institutions. The most recent of these has been agreed with the University of Barcelona and its partners at the Barcelona Science Park (a University venture); 38 beagle puppies are being used to test a therapy for hepatic fibrosis (more about this project later). Altogether, these four contracts are worth over a million euros, comfortably mopping up the cash penalty that Vivotecnia has been required to pay to the Comunidad de Madrid, which is the licensing authority for its animal research.

dogs at vivotecnia-06

For yes, Vivotecnia was indeed punished. The fine for two “very serious” and 23 “serious” infractions of Spanish law 32/2007 (on the “exploitación, transporte, experimentación y sacrificio” of kept animals) was set at €37,827, about one third of the maximum possible. Vivotecnia’s licence to use animals was suspended, but for a few weeks only, and no animals were removed even temporarily from the company’s perfunctory care. The restoring of the licence is said to have been conditional upon certain “corrective and preventive measures”, including CCTV in the labs and a veterinary team responsible for the animals’ welfare (was there not one before?).

That seems to be the new situation at Vivotecnia, then, though in fact there is little certainty about it, rather less than there was when at least someone inside the lab was recording what went on. The company itself has naturally kept quiet about the whole business, and official statements have been only modestly informative. One of the Spanish government’s own ministers has complained of an “information wall” blocking visibility to the public and to the national government. As this suggests, there is a much greater delegation of laboratory supervision and discipline in Spain than obtains, for instance, in the UK. Most of the responsibility is vested in the sites themselves, with accordingly more scope for institutional delinquencies of the sort filmed at Vivotecnia.

An information wall, certainly, but no lack of uplifting wordage aimed at calming the commotion. As an instance, the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE) published a statement a few weeks ago, deploring the various hostile and inaccurate “news items” in circulation. It sketches out, instead, the “reality of research with animal models in Spain”. This research, it seems, is not only “essential” for human and animal health, but is also “strictly regulated and supervised”, with a commitment to “transparency” supported by more public institutions than any such agreements in other countries can boast. (Vivotecnia is not signed up to it, of course, and indeed is not named or even hinted at in COSCE’s far-from-transparent statement.) As part of its reassurances, COSCE puts special emphasis on the efficacy of two varieties of ethical machinery for safeguarding animal welfare and driving down the number of animals used: the 3Rs principles (reduction, refinement, replacement) and the local ethics committees.

On Vivotecnia’s own web-site there is a very similar account of the necessity and efficient regulation of animal research, with likewise no allusion to the recent scandal. But that scandal has highlighted the weaknesses of the much-flourished 3Rs. Most of the testing carried out by such contract research organizations as Vivotecnia is mandated by law; there can be no question of ‘replacement’, then. Besides, even at their best these principles only govern the design of an experiment or trial; they have nothing to say about the treatment of animals once the experiment starts, still less about the general husbandry of them. I suspect, anyway, that because so much of the work done at CROs is necessarily routine in design – dosing with a substance in such and such quantities, over such and such a period of time – the 3Rs are appreciated more as a PR point than as a prompt to good science and ethics.

That suspicion is surely confirmed by the one item posted, on 19 July 2019, under ‘Latest News’ on Vivotecnia’s web-site. This announces an exciting collaboration with Spain’s Centre for Cancer Research in “the complex task of developing animal models of lung cancer induced by the same inducing agent as in humans, that is tobacco smoke, and with a molecular biology and histology as close as possible to that found in smoking lung cancer patients.” Vivotecnia, with its “ample experience . . . of exposing different animal species to toxic agents such as tobacco” will do that part of the work, and also the subsequent testing of different therapies. The point is that “To date, there are no animal models of lung cancer induced by tobacco”. This project to create them is, then, the precise opposite of ‘replacement’. As to whether such research is “essential”, I need say nothing.

The ethics committees are not, any more than the 3Rs, the controlling force they’re claimed to be – at least, if Vivotecnia’s example is in any way representative. As I’ve mentioned, these local bodies carry much of the responsibility for ensuring animal welfare in Spanish laboratories, and they are themselves little supervised from above. Vivotecnia’s own committee, it emerges, included in its membership three of the company’s managers, including its founder and CEO, Andrés König. These are people whose primary interest would presumably be the commercial success of the company rather than the welfare of its animals, and who would have, also, the authority to insist on their point of view at committee meetings. König himself is not a vet by training, as those who set up these animal research businesses often are. His special expertise, we’re told on Linkedin (told, presumably, by the man himself), is in “company start-up, business model definition and implementation, strategic design and execution, as well as funding and exiting of financial investors”: vital skills, no doubt, but not likely to do the animals any good.

However, perhaps the composition of the committee did not matter very much, for there is some doubt whether it was holding meetings at all. An account of the situation, published in the Spanish paper El Pais, calls it “el comité ‘zombie’ “ and reports that many of the 177 employees at Vivotecnia, notably those of them doing the actual handling of the animals during tests, were unaware of its existence.

That fine of €37,827 was an institutional matter, imposed upon Vivotecnia by the regional authority. There is also a judicial proceeding under way, the prosecution of some individuals for animal cruelty. This will take much longer to reach conclusions, if it does so at all, but already the employee who secretly filmed the place – a veterinary technician called, perhaps pseudonymously, Carlotta Saorsa – has been giving preliminary evidence to a judge. It’s this evidence that has provided much of what’s now known about Vivotecnia’s way of working, and that has been keeping the scandal in the public eye, in Spain at least. The newspaper El Pais has been especially vigorous in reporting it all.

ub-graffiti

In such circumstances, you may wonder why the University of Barcelona and its other research partners should take this short cut to notoriety of inviting Vivotecnia to collaborate in the studies of hepatic fibrosis. The university has recently defended its action in a public statement, insisting that it has “exhaustively reviewed” the terms of the project to make sure it will conform to all regulations. The contract, we’re told, went through a “scrupulous process of tender”, and Vivotecnia’s was the winning bid. Poor university, now harried by demonstrations, its walls daubed with ‘Stop Vivotecnia’ and similar advice! The simplest explanation at present suggested in the Spanish media for what seems a wilful blunder is that Vivotecnia’s winning bid was in fact the only one received. But anyway, what has embarrassed the university will very likely have helped in the brisk rehabilitation of Vivotecnia.

It’s a very unpleasant story. And the scenes of careless maltreatment and deliberate cruelty in the video are now substantiated by that evidence given by Carlotta Saorsa about the lab culture at Vivotecnia. Expressing concern for the animals was apparently regarded as foolishness: the senior staff were uninterested, and the others (such as those seen in the film) ridiculed it. By the way, Vivotecnia claims in its web-site that care for the animals is not only “of paramount importance” as a matter of “our moral responsibility”, but also essential to “research excellence”; no surprise, then, to hear that test results were being falsified when things went wrong. Even the science, for which these animals suffered, was unsound.

william hogarth the four stages of cruelty_ second stage of cruelty

All this information has come to us through the bravery and dedication of one person. It’s the situation so vividly represented in the series of prints which the artist William Hogarth published in 1751 under the title The Four Stages of Cruelty. The scenes of cruelty to animals that Hogarth pictured in them show callousness as a catching disease, entailing misery upon larger and larger animals as the sick persons grow into adulthood, until humans too become the victims. But in each of the four pictures there is one humane person, hardly noticeable but remonstrating or at least unhardened, who keeps the way open to moral rescue. (Hogarth himself was one such; more about him next time.) Then the rest of us can do our numerous and much easier bit to make that way broad and permanent. In the present case, it can include signing the petitions linked immediately below, one of them to save and re-home the 38 beagles (if that’s still possible), the other a more general appeal to the European Commission to confirm and expedite its declared course toward a scientific research scene with no animals in it. Please sign if you can!

Notes and references:

The Change.org petition ‘Salvar a los 38 cachorros Beagle’ (Save the 38 beagle puppies) can be signed here: https://www.change.org/p/universidad-de-barcelona-salvar-a-los-38-cachorros-beagle-del-laboratorio-vivotecnia-de-su-ejecuci%C3%B3n?redirect=false. There’s a separate English version here: https://www.change.org/p/unibarcelona-detengamos-el-asesinato-de-38-beagles-2?redirect=false. And Humane Society International’s petition to the European Commission can be signed here: https://www.hsi.org/news-media/hsi-petition-to-european-commission-on-animal-testing/

The original post in this blog about Vivotecnia is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/

The complaint from Spain’s Minister for Social Rights is reported here, with also some insight into the way powers over animal research are distributed in Spain: https://then24.com/2021/06/23/letter-from-ione-belarra-to-ayuso-for-the-opening-of-vivotecnia-coordination-attempts-have-been-unsuccessful/

The COSCE statement, issued last month, can be seen here: https://www.eara.eu/post/the-reality-of-research-with-animal-models-in-spain-cosce-statement

Vivotecnia’s ‘latest news’ about the smoking research is featured here: https://www.vivotecnia.com/programa-retos-colaboracion/

The ‘zombie’ piece in El Pais, one of several excellent reports on the Vivotecnia subject, is online here: https://elpais.com/espana/madrid/2021-06-25/el-comite-zombie-que-no-velo-por-la-etica-animal-en-vivotecnia.html#?rel=mas

The University of Barcelona’s defensive statement about the beagle research is here: https://www.ub.edu/web/ub/es/menu_eines/noticies/2022/02/004.html

The illustrations show (1) beagle dogs at Vivotecnia, (2) writing on a wall at the University of Barcelona, and (3) a detail from the second of Hogarth’s series of prints, showing the coachman Tom Nero (whose career of violence the prints primarily narrate) thrashing his collapsed horse, while some lawyers riding in the vehicle look to their own safety, and one man takes a note of Nero’s identity.

Members of Parliament Talk Sentience

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was discussed in this blog during its passage through the House of Lords last October. Now it has arrived at the House of Commons, where it had its Second Reading on the afternoon of 18 January, led by George Eustice, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). None of the amendments proposed in the Lords have been successful, but the government itself has amended the Bill to include, in its protective scope, cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish) and decapods (crabs, lobsters, crayfish). So after the many hours of attention given to the Bill in the House of Lords, here are nearly three more hours of debate to open its career in the Commons (Committee Stage, Report Stage, and Third Reading are yet to come). Meanwhile there has been a steady accumulation of published material, both official and factional, to inform, persuade, or frighten these legislators and other interested parties.

The background to this Bill is that, among all the EU laws and regulations which were carried over into UK law during Brexit, the government strangely left out the 2007 Lisbon Treaty’s classification of animals as “sentient beings”. There was justifiable puzzlement and protest about this at the time. But whatever may have been the reason, it now seems a most happy oversight, productive of all this extra attention to the animal subject. And the brevity of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which wisely (but controversially) refrains from defining either ‘sentience’ or the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee created to speak for the animals possessing it, means that almost no aspect or principle of animal welfare can be considered irrelevant to the debate. The distresses of farm animals, hunted animals, exhibits in zoos, pets, and lab animals were all spoken of in the House of Commons, sometimes in angry detail.

It was, then, a comprehensive symposium on the subject, and naturally prompted the summarizing question, “what we want our relationship with the animal kingdom to be” (Kerry McCarthy). Or as the Scottish MP Deidre Brock said at the end of her speech, “The more we understand animals’ sentience, capabilities and emotions, the more the idea of granting rights to animals is worth taking seriously and urgently.” Of course that’s an idea already taken seriously and urgently far and wide outside Parliament, but hitherto it has found very little support inside, has indeed been regarded by many as dangerous. The title of the Bill itself reflects the way MPs have always wished to deal with the subject: that is, as a welfare matter, concessions made in their kindness by a “nation of animal-lovers”. So it’s a most promising sign that Deidre Brock’s words aroused no commotion, no cries of “Oh!” (the official way of recording non-verbal remonstrations in parliamentary debate).

In keeping with this strong (though certainly not unanimous) wish to make the Bill a really progressive one, several speakers criticized the wording of the Animal Sentience Committee’s remit, which is to ensure that policies developed by government departments shall pay “all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” The case was well put by Luke Pollard:

It is quite a dated concept to use the word ‘adverse’, with its negative connotation in respect of animal welfare. It suggests that the job of animal welfare legislation is just to stop humans doing bad things to animals. It fails to consider the welfare agenda of the 21st century: what is a life well lived for an animal?

That last is a radical question, important not just for its ethical force but also because it’s a question which might be asked with equal sense ‘for a human’ – or more simply asked for any “sentient being”. It’s a reminder, then, of the power of that formulation being introduced to UK law in this Bill, erasing as it does the border which we habitually impute between humans and ‘animals’. As sentient beings, we’re all of one kind. (More importantly, as lives we are, but I’m afraid that animals not yet regarded as sentient, but certainly alive and with a keen wish to go on living, have no part in this Bill.)

That speech given by Luke Pollard was a highlight of the Commons debate. Even an important debate with strongly opposing views, as this one was (though it was quite poorly attended), can take the shine off its subject with a succession of talking or rather reading heads, working through their print-outs, while other MPs fiddle with their smart-phones in the background. Pollard did have papers in hand, but for brief prompts only, it seemed. He was fully animated as he spoke, as a reader-aloud cannot be. He smiled engagingly and sometimes mockingly, obviously enjoying the business of public speaking, as well as that of putting something that mattered right.

To return to the substance of the Bill: its opponents in the debate complained that although the Bill does specify the animals being offered its protection – namely, vertebrates and the marine creatures just now added – it does not limit their claims in any other way. Here indeed is another happy result of not transposing the Lisbon Treaty’s version. For that Treaty not only specified the areas of government action where animal sentience was to be respected; it also allowed this obligation to be trumped by “the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” (for instance, ritual slaughter or bull-fighting). In neither of these ways does the UK Bill limit the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee’s attentions.

Accordingly, one of the interventions during the Secretary of State’s opening speech to the House was made in order to ask him, “Can my right honourable Friend confirm whether the Bill as drafted contains birds?” To this, George Eustice replied, with some slight impatience,

The Bill does include birds, since they are vertebrates, and it includes fish, since they are vertebrates. I point out that those particular animals have been recognized in our law as sentient since at least 1911.

But the questioner, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, will hardly have been satisfied by this historical reference. That 1911 Protection of Animals Act was concerned with domestic or captive animals only, and was signed into law by one of Britain’s most sanguinary monarchs in his relations to the animal kingdom: that almost crazed bird-blaster, King George V. There was no question in 1911 of the rights of game-birds, except that one should not shoot them when they’re sitting down, but there is now. Sir Geoffrey is Vice-President of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, an organisation whose comical name neatly summarizes an attitude to wild animals which the Sentience Bill at last challenges: i.e. that provided the supply of them is kept up (the BASC calls it “sustainable shooting”), our duties towards them are satisfied. The proposed Act will obtain for these birds proper attention as sentient individuals rather than as conserved numbers, and it will do so without any Lisbon-style concessions to what Kerry McCarthy called “the right to be cruel to animals just because that has been traditional in this country”.

Fishing interests have similarly been feeling uneasy about the Bill. The Angling Trade Association (“the voice of the British tackle industry”) spoke up during the period of consultation for the Bill, not without good reason. The government body responsible for waterways and fishing is the Defra’s own Environment Agency, whose policy on fishing as a sport may be judged from its recent “let’s get one million to fish” campaign. Its promotion of “the wellbeing benefits that the sport has to offer” may be good for the tackle industry, but clearly hasn’t taken fish-sentience into account. True, the Agency is not itself a government department; it may therefore not be directly liable to the Sentience Committee’s attention (Luke Pollard wants an extension of the Committee’s purview to include non-departmental public bodies like the Agency, and that surely will come). But the Agency’s policy is presumably a part of Defra’s own more general objectives, and may therefore be challenged as such by the Committee. And we know that fish are sentient; George Eustice himself has just told us so.

Before briefly considering the concerns of animal research groups, we should notice with gratitude one more point about the term sentience. It’s a good, clear, unspoiled word. Although (as MPs noted) it comes from the Latin word sentire, ‘to feel’, it’s a larger and less humanized word than ‘feelings’. See how the ramifications of that word are exploited in this angry warning against the Bill by Sir Bill Wiggin:

All this will do is prevent things. Want to plant more trees, build more houses, improve infrastructure, or open a new power station? None of that will be straightforward, just in case we might hurt the feelings of a mouse or a cuttlefish in the process.

In addition, sentience contains some idea of a state of awareness quite independent of good or bad emotion (“a level of conscious awareness”, the MP and vet Neil Hudson suggested, and he ought to know). It therefore implies that merely the presence of such an animal must be taken into account, as it naturally would be in the case of a human. What else it may imply is – so the Secretary of State insisted – for the Committee to discover as experience and science inform it. As I’ve said, this is, or ought to prove to be, a progressive law.

The last distinct topic in the debate was animal research. Jo Churchill, winding up the debate as Under-Secretary of State at Defra (she was wearing – symbolically, I hope – a fine dragonfly brooch), was asked to comment on the use of non-human primates in defence research. Although she did not comply, it’s significant that this theme did get attention during the afternoon. Since the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, lab animals have been excepted from other welfare law – as they are excepted, for instance, from the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. But perhaps things are changing now. Certainly the Bill entitles the proposed Animal Sentience Committee to publish comment on any government policy that “is being or has been formulated or implemented”: policy not legislation, then, but of course policy is very commonly a continuation or even a consequence of existing law. A huge library of Home Office advice and other directions has been piling up on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) since it became law in 1986. Such secondary material may well become subject to the Committee’s attention.

At any rate, defenders of animal research seem to fear so. Among the amendments attempted during the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords was one proposed by Lord Moylan which would have inserted, after that phrase “formulated or implemented”, the words “other than a policy intended to advance the understanding of medical science.” The organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) has been similarly suspicious of the Bill. In its submission to the consultation, it proposed a strictly negative definition of sentience, as the ability and intention to escape adversity, “and, if treated adversely, to demonstrate adverse physiological changes and behavioural suffering”. The onus of proof, it seems, should be on the animal: if it’s not knowingly on the run, or providing evidence of damage, it must be all right. UAR’s  more general warning was the same one put in Lord Moylan’s amendment (which may indeed have been proposed with UAR advice): “It is essential to the scientific community, and to potential medical progress, that any new animal welfare legislation does not conflict with, but supports ASPA.”

The fact that shooting, fishing, and research interests, as well as some farming and slaughterhouse businesses, don’t like the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is evidence of real efficacy in it. Of course the Sentience Committee will not be taking decisions about government policies, only drawing attention to their implications for animals; government ministers will be required to respond to what the Committee says, but not necessarily to act upon it. Besides, the Bill has some way yet to go in the Commons. But the debate on 18 January showed that there’s plentiful parliamentary interest in making a success of it. And then, in case there may have been some wishful-thinking in this post, even the Better Deal for Animals Coalition, specially formed among animal rights groups to secure the recognition of animal sentience in UK law (see illustration), has declared “our strong support for the Animal Sentience Bill”. Surely it must be as good as it seems.  

Better Deal for Animals

Notes and references:

The text of the Bill as it stands at present can be read here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-02/0219/210219.pdf

An account in this blog of the Bill’s reception in the House of Lords was posted on October 4 2021, and can be seen here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2021/10/04/putting-sentience-back-into-law/

The Hansard text of the Second Reading debate is online here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2022-01-18/debates/33984457-F036-4329-B701-FC4F71A26E62/AnimalWelfare(Sentience)Bill(Lords)  The TV record can be viewed here: https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/bedf5521-3dfe-471b-9e3c-ba77488214db?in=15:01:34  Luke Pollard’s speech is at 15.42. The also excellent speech given by Neil Hudson is at 16.21. You’ll notice, as mentioned, that the debate was not well-attended. All the quotations in this post are from the debate, unless otherwise stated and referenced.

A thorough account of the Bill and its fortunes so far was provided to MPs before the Second Reading in this House of Commons Research Briefing: https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9423/CBP-9423.pdf  This includes, on p.6, the text from the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007, which deals with animal sentience and the customs which will be allowed to trump it in the policies of member states.

The shooting and fishing organisations, and the Environment Agency, are quoted from their web-sites.

Lord Moylan’s amendment, with all the others proposed during the Bill’s passage through the Lords, is listed at no.19 here: https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/42074/documents/470

Understanding Animal Research’s submission during the period of public consultation can be read here (note that at the time of the consultation, the Bill included provisions to increase sentences for animal cruelty, but these were later separated and are now enacted in the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act, 2021): https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/files/7915/1869/4298/UAR_response_to_DEFRA.pdf

The latest commentary on the Bill by the Better Deal for Animals Coalition was published just before the Second Reading in the Commons, and can be read here: https://www.wcl.org.uk/assets/uploads/files/Better%20Deal%20for%20Animals%20Briefing%20-%20Second%20Reading%20of%20Animal%20Welfare%20(Sentience)%20Bill%2013.01.22.pdf

Hearts and Minds

The final topic debated in the UK House of Commons before its Christmas recess was ‘Animal Testing’. Present in the Chamber for this “important debate”, as its sponsor Margaret Ferrier wistfully called it, were Ferrier herself, a Home Office minister to respond, and one other MP. I could find no mention of the occasion anywhere in the press or broadcasting media. By contrast, the transplantation of a pig’s heart into the body of a man at the University of Maryland Medical Center three weeks later has been given world-wide media coverage. Well of course, because it’s a first-of-its-kind news story, a will-he-survive yarn, and a this-is-the-future drama, all rolled into one. No doubt it would also be a bravely-battling-patient story too, except that this particular patient was unfitted for the role by his conviction for a very violent crime and his history of medical non-cooperation.

6016

But principally it’s a human-testing story, with ethical problems which affect us. Should a human patient, even one already in mortal danger as this patient had been, be subjected, however willingly consenting, to such hazardous surgery and the associated novel drugs, neither of them yet brought to the stage of clinical trials? Then, even if the operation and its likely successors prove safe to the patients, it’s quite likely that viruses harmless to the animal species may cross to human populations with much more serious effects, of a sort with which we’ve become familiar. Particularly worrying in the case of pigs is the porcine endogenous retrovirus, whose acronym PERV might be regarded as a moral summary of this whole subject.

So much for the human ethics. As to the animals, their claims in the matter were implicitly decided upon years ago. For the Maryland operation is just a moment of sudden visibility in a long history of trying out these Dr Moreau-like possibilities on different animal species. As one of the Maryland scientists has said, by way of justifying the operation, “We’ve done this for decades in the lab, in primates, trying to get to the point where we think it is safe to offer this to a human recipient.” Just that word “trying” has a chronicle of suffering implicit in it.

The nature of that suffering, as it occurred in the UK at the laboratories of Huntingdon Life Sciences from 1994 to 2000, was courageously uncovered by Dan Lyons of Uncaged Campaigns. The web-site Diaries of Despair recounts these experiments and Lyons’ campaign to publicize them (as linked in the notes below). But these cruel and disgusting experiments have continued in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, and of course they’ll go on into the future. “We really need to do more science,” a specialist in transplant immunology tells the journal Science in its article about the Maryland operation, but it hardly needs saying; even if it hadn’t already been the motto of all scientific research, there are commercial interests making sure that it’s acted upon in this case. Even in that short Science article, we encounter five of them: Revivicor, Makana Therapeutics, Recombinetics Inc., XVIVO, Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

Certainly there has been some official attention paid, over the years, to the welfare of the animals miserably caught up in this research, from the report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 1996 (Animal-to-Human Transplants: the ethics of transplantation), through to the academic bio-ethicists offering their comments this month. In the Nuffield report, only two of the ten chapters were devoted to the animals, but they contained serious and well-intentioned discussion. Still, we have to understand what such pronouncements are really aiming to do. A few phrases from the report will illustrate it: “It can be argued . . . It might be held . . . Those who favour . . . As an alternative, critics advocate . . . For some people . . . for others.” Likewise Oxford University’s Professor of Practical Ethics, lending his weight to the BBC’s report on the Maryland operation: “Some people might say . . . others would say.” His judicious conclusion is that “Those are just positions we are going to have to reconcile.” The momentum of these authoritative voices is always towards a common ground, a sort of pop utilitarianism: what ethics will content the maximum number or offend the fewest?

The argument (repeatedly used) that taking out the organs of pigs in this way will be ethically no worse, and numerically much better, than eating pigs, is really of that same type. What do most people think about eating pigs? They think that it’s all right. There you are then. And that would explain why another Oxford bio-ethicist thinks it worth saying that we should only use gene-edited pigs if we can “ensure they do not suffer unnecessary harm”. I’m not certain when that would last have been a keen point of ethics (1822?), but it’s certainly common-ground thinking in Western society now (however violated in practice). The question being put is not ‘what matters?’ but ‘what do most people think matters?’ Perhaps indeed that’s what ‘bio-ethics’ is: a branch of sociology.

At one point in the Nuffield report, the authors ask “what sort of people do our social and technical practices reveal us to be? If we do not like what we see when we look honestly in the mirror, then there is cause for thought at least.” It’s a disappointingly weak conclusion in that last clause (wasn’t the whole point of the study that “thought” was required?), but the proposition is otherwise an important one. It shifts the ethics, if only for the moment, from utilitarianism to what’s usually termed virtue ethics: what sort of conduct would characterize the sort of humans we wish to be? In this conception of ethics there is always some idealism and therefore some momentum towards moral growth – with some promise, then, of keeping up with the growth in our technical capacities and ambitions, as instanced by the Maryland operation.

Accordingly, when the transplant surgeon in Malorie Blackman’s teen-novel Pig-Heart Boy (1997) says “I have no trouble looking in the mirror”, it confirms that he’s just a stationary character, a datum of the situation (as summarized in the title). The boy himself, in contrast, feels all the ups and downs of the choice facing him. Still, we discover that choosing to go ahead is the brave decision: indeed, going in for it twice (for the first operation fails) makes him positively heroic. He says to his yet unborn brother, “I hope one day you’ll be as proud of me as I am of you.” So even in virtue ethics we remain in the world of opinion, and we find that exploiting animals can be cast in a form complimentary to humans. Accordingly, one science journalist reports the Maryland operation as “The latest promising update in humans’ quest to harvest life-saving organs from our four-legged, porcine friends”. A quest! Yes, that’s a fine thing to be engaged in, as is saving (human) life, and even the not-quite-serious animals seem to cheering us on. As Blackman’s surgeon drearily says, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”

Is there no way out of this fog of opinionation? Yes, of course there is. Where this operation raised a question of human ethics – is it right to put a human patient through a still experimental procedure? – the ethics professor provides an unequivocal answer (though still, note, a vicarious one): “As long as the individual understands the full range of risks, I think people should be able to consent to these radical experiments.” Then why should the animal ethics be different? That a pig cannot formally consent or withhold consent should put an end to the matter. But anyway we’re fully aware of their preferences, for they express their pleasure in good things, and they make piercingly clear their dislike of being harmed. We can therefore know as a fact that no pig, allowed to understand “the full range of risks”, would consent to be killed in this or any other way. Therefore to speak of animal ethics in connection with xenotransplantation is humbug. If we “look honestly in the mirror”, as the Nuffield report suggests, what we see in this case is a brilliantly clever, cowardly, dishonest gangster: “cause for thought”, perhaps; more importantly cause for a complete change of mentality.

Notes and references:

The BBC’s online account of this operation, which quotes the Oxford bio-ethicists, as well as the Maryland University scientist, can be seen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59951264

The Diaries of Despair web-site is here: https://www.xenodiaries.org/summary.htm

The report in Science can be seen here: https://www.science.org/content/article/here-s-how-scientists-pulled-first-pig-human-heart-transplant

The 1996 report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a very thorough 142pp study, can be read online or downloaded here (the mirror quotation comes from p.44): https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/publications/xenotransplantation

Pig-Heart Boy was first published by Doubleday in 1997. Quotations are from the Corgi Books edition of 2011, at pp.33-4, and 255.

The “humans’ quest” quotation comes from an online news journal called Fierce Biotech; the whole article can be read here: https://www.fiercebiotech.com/medtech/revivicor-s-genetically-modified-pig-heart-first-successfully-transplanted-human-patient

Escaping the Human Condition at Polperro

Russell Hoban’s 1975 book Turtle Diary has now been added to the Penguin Modern Classics list, a very proper honour (if it is one). This most original and poignant novel tells the story, in their own alternating diaries, of two solitary Londoners, identified only as William G. and Neaera H., both somehow stranded in mid-life. They are brought together by an urge to free the sea turtles being displayed at London Zoo in “their little bed-sitter of ocean”. Since the keeper himself agrees with them that the turtles shouldn’t be there, the liberation is not as difficult to accomplish as might have been expected. In fact the first paperback edition (1977) makes no prior secret of its success: the front cover shows the turtles heading out to sea from their launching-point at Polperro in Cornwall.

Turtle cover 1

Perhaps then it’s going to be a story of the type commonly called ‘heart-warming’, with two lonely people finding happiness together, the turtles merely the submissive means? Perhaps even, as one online commentator records having to explain to his mother, the turtles are “but a metaphor”, a charming way to show that human beings have the power to liberate themselves? More formal critical discussions of the novel tend to assume so, treating the turtles as story-line, and the humans as the real plot (they’re persons, after all). But that’s not true to the book.

William G. and Neaera H. do indeed seem to be, in different ways, renewed by what they’ve done for the turtles, but there’s no confidence about it: as the zoo-keeper says to William, “Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” And certainly they don’t find happiness together; the last page has them going separate ways (a finality which the film version of 1985, generally faithful to the text, couldn’t quite agree to: for more about the film, see the notes).

Besides, the book insists, in so far as a fiction can, on the self-sufficient reality of the turtles. It’s their characterizing feature:

They may be headed for extinction, but they’re real, they work. When we put them in the sea, they’ll do real turtle work.

This reality is not a scientific matter; there’s little documentary zoology in the book, though the extraordinary migration-journeys of the turtles are much wondered about. Rather, it’s an existential reality, showing up as authentic all the more movingly in the context of that poor de-natured and tourist-dependent village in Cornwall: “When I think of the turtles going into the ocean,” Neaera writes,“I think of it happening in that place that so badly needs new reality.”

In fact an impatience with human unrealities is felt throughout the book. Both William and Neaera are caught up in fictions, he as working in a bookshop, she as a writer of “cosy, cheerful” children’s books about humanized animals: Gillian Vole’s Christmas, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, and so on. (Hoban is evidently making some fun of himself here, not just as a writer of this fiction, but as one who began his own literary career with a series of children’s stories about Frances the Badger.) But now, in their reaction to all this, they seem inclined to abjure the humanizing business altogether: “Anything is whatever it happens to be, why on earth make up stories?” An escape for the animals is implied in this vision of human forbearance. Thinking of kestrels, as pictured in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Windhover’, Neaera writes “they don’t want mannered words but only the simplest and fewest . . . preferably no words at all.” And accordingly she abandons her own project of making a publishable story out of the water-beetle which she has ordered by post and installed in an aquarium for that purpose:

Who am I to use the mystery of her in that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to be paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of?

No, the author of this book is not thinking of the turtles as metaphors. It’s the poor humans whose reality is equivocal, as that quotation suggests. And although the story-line of Turtle Diary shows turtles being set free by humans, the cumulative evidence of the book is the other way round: it is the animals who must save us. “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation,” Neaera thinks, “is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” Or at any rate, finding our proper place in the animal world must save us. As William says, “we’re all swimmers, we’ve all come from the ocean. Some of us are trying to find it again.” This rediscovery, so he reads in a book by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade, is what the shaman is able to experience on behalf of humanity. He quotes from the book:

While preparing for his ecstasy and during it, the shaman abolishes the present human condition and, for the time being, recovers the situation as it was in the beginning. Friendship with animals, knowledge of their language, transformation into an animal are so many signs that the shaman has re-established the ‘paradisal’ situation lost at the dawn of time.

“That’s the crux of it,” William thinks: “abolishing the present human condition.” And as he reflects upon this in relation to his own life, he shows where the turtles fit in:

Could I abolish the human condition? Could I swim, experience swimming, finding, navigating, fearlessness, unlostness? Could I come back with an answer? The unlostness itself would be the answer, I shouldn’t need to come back.

Described here is the answer as instanced in the turtles, but of course there are many other animals to think about, and the book does think about them. It begins in the zoo, and after that it touches upon spiders (being studied on space flights), birds, whales, animals in films and fictions (King Kong, Peter Rabbit), animals in the news. All of them are more or less caught up in the “human condition” – insulted by human vulgarity (“sharks . . . the ultimate challenge”, a documentary film-maker brags) or in other ways harried by our human refusal, restless as we are in our own unsettled identity, to let other things be themselves (“Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.”

It’s this conspectus of harassed animal life that gives the freeing of the turtles a significance beyond itself. For although, as I’ve said, that action is not as complicated as Hoban might easily have made it (this story isn’t a ‘caper’ any more than a ‘romantic comedy’), it’s manifestly an important one. The two agents of it feel it not as an adventure but as a portentous obligation, “a massive chain welded to leg irons on both of us”. Neaera thinks, “I feel a gathering-up in me as if I’m going to die soon, I await a Day of Judgement.”

When the turtles have indeed been launched, just before dawn in Polperro, there’s a moment of exhilaration, of shaman-like re-unity: “it seemed all at once that I didn’t need answers to anything,” William writes. “Where the moon ended and I began and which was which was of no consequence. Everything was what it was and the awareness of it was part of it.” But this ecstasy is quickly borne down by the pains and puzzlements of ordinary life which Hoban so sympathetically describes. And when Neaera, suffering this reaction, re-visits the keeper at his aquarium, he offers a more resigned, perhaps more forgiving, summary of it all:

‘There’s nothing you can do about this, you know,’ he said. ‘Nothing to be done really about the animals. Anything you do looks foolish. The answer isn’t in us. It’s almost as if we’re put here on earth to show how silly they aren’t.’

The mixture of kindness and surrender in this consolation makes Neaera cry. “It’s all right,” the keeper says, tenderly. “You needn’t hold back, these are all salt-water tanks.”

Penguin turtle cover

Notes and references:

The film Turtle Diary, 1985, stars Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, and Michael Gambon. It is mostly faithful to the book, though necessarily missing out much of the wit and brilliance of Russell Hoban’s writing, as well as much of the thinking. Also, with uncomfortable irony, it relied on public zoos to provide the turtles to be liberated – and then presumably put back in their tanks for public viewing. Still, it’s an excellent film, and although not available as a DVD it can at present be viewed online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iyHEmeGbc4

As a book, Turtle Diary was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1975. Quotations are from the Picador paperback edition of 1977, as shown in the illustration along with the new, more post-modern, Penguin Classics cover (2021). There have been several other editions in between.

Attitudes at zoos like London Zoo have of course changed since the 1970s. At least some of the turtles kept there at present are themselves rescued (from smugglers), and the emphasis is all on ‘conservation’. However, looking at London Zoo’s web-site, I don’t find that the consumerist outlook has changed, or that the human clamour is in any way restrained (“the must-do experience! . . . your chance to get up-close to some of our most popular animals” etc.). If anything, the knowledge of animal scarcity has given the animals more exhibition value. Besides, looking at animals is fun!

Another Concordat Christmas

It’s an Advent phenomenon religiously studied each year in this blog: the awards ceremony and annual report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. Must Christmas entail this duty of attention, among all its other demands? In earlier years, the portentous title (Concordat!) and the atmosphere of inter-house competition at a school did provide some slight comic relief, but now the relentless expansion of its missionary activities, and in fact the Concordat’s patent effectiveness, have worn that fun away. Reading through it all is merely hard work. Still, this is the animal-research profession talking to itself about how to address the rest of us. That alone makes it important. And then, the Concordat has, within its few years, transformed the public management of this subject, from 150 years of strenuous secrecy to a quite unnatural effusiveness, even bumptiousness (I’m thinking, for instance, of the llamas at Reading University – “our Fifi” and others – tirelessly boosted for “helping scientists”). It’s a revolution of a kind, and we have to wonder what its consequences are going to be.

Of course events like open days, science fairs, and laboratory tours have been cut back in 2021. As one university put the point in fine higher-education prose, “Due to the pandemic there have been restrictions on public engagement activities that have been possible regarding animal research.” Therefore the emphasis has been upon online publicity and communications within the research institutions. These are easier, less challengeable PR functions. They are also more completely within the grip of PR professionals, whose influence seems accordingly more conspicuous this year. 

It’s not just that the costs to the animals – i.e. the bad news, which the PR people are not in a position to know much about anyway – are going unspecified or even unnoticed among the vivid and exciting prospects of discovery and cures. That omission is something which the Concordat’s annual reports habitually ask signatories to address. More insidiously the published ‘information’ is slanted or spun, so that what is called transparency is really propaganda. For instance, Bath University (one of the Concordat’s ‘Leaders in Openness’) is specially featured in the report this year for promoting awareness of its animal work “across campus”; as a result, we’re told, “staff felt better informed about the necessity of animals in research.” Of course it’s an axiom in the profession that hostility to animal research is the product of ignorance. To be “better informed” is to see “the necessity”, then. But information and persuasion are distinct things, and wouldn’t be confused like this if ‘openness’ were really a primary purpose.

Besides, such deliberate management of the information easily strays into actual falsehood. Sampling the publicity of the 122 signatories to the Concordat (by now a mighty symposium of material), I find the Physiological Society strangely mis-telling the history of its part in the run-up to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Apparently the Society, founded by happy coincidence in that same year, joined the British Medical Association in a “campaign” which “led to the incorporation of additional protections for experimental animals.” Eh? In fact, the Society was founded largely in order to resist the proposed legislation. It included in its original number several of those who, during the Royal Commission on the subject, had given evidence hostile to the mere idea of “protections for experimental animals”, interpreting it as an attack upon their professional honour. The Society’s first chairman, Professor Burdon Sanderson, was one such. So was his colleague Emmanuel Klein, who had notoriously declared himself “entirely indifferent” to the sufferings of experimental animals. It was these Physiological Society men, together with the BMA, whose lobbying turned the proposed Act from a measure really capable of protecting the animals (for instance, the original draft prohibited experiments on dogs, cats, and horses) into an Act which was instead aimed (so the anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe declared) at “protecting their tormentors”.

Well, that’s history, or story anyway. But it’s worth mentioning that the Physiological Society subsequently delegated its more propagandist activities to an Association for the Advancement of Medical Research, specially created for that purpose. This in turn became the Research Defence Society, which was itself re-formed a few years ago as Understanding Animal Research, the organisation which now supervises the Concordat. And the story told on the Physiological Society’s web-site, wrong as it is, reflects a notable change in the outlook of this promotional dynasty. From militant defence of the professional interest, it has come to regard itself as owner-manager of the whole dispute – much in the way the Concordat urges institutions to originate (to “own”) news stories, rather than respond defensively to ones published by journalists and others. It’s in this context that one should understand Bath University’s action (cited in this year’s Concordat report) of inviting the Animal Justice Project to set up its protest on campus rather than out on the streets during Open Day 2018. ‘The Concordat, your one-stop reference for everything to do with animal research: we even manage the argument against it!’

Of course it isn’t really ‘everything’, even on the research side. Those signatory institutions that do some of the harshest experimenting, and often on the larger animals, namely the Contract Research Organisations, are permitted greater secrecy (for “business reasons around competitiveness and confidentiality”). They aren’t expected to identify particular research projects on their web-sites, or even to declare their animal numbers. Signatories which don’t do their own research (medical charities, for instance, or professional societies) likewise have less to say, though for different reasons. But all of these are encouraged to spread the word in other ways: in annual reports, in staff newsletters, on notice-boards, and, more ominously, when recruiting staff or funding awards. In these latter cases, they are advised to make it clear, even where the position or grant has no connection with animal research, that the institution is committed to such work. In fact we’re told that it’s now considered “good practice”, for all Concordat institutions, “to include interview questions highlighting that the organisation carries out animal research as part of the recruitment process for all staff regardless of their role.” So if you accept the job, or the award, you implicitly – or perhaps expressly (depending on what form those “questions” take) – endorse the animal research.

One signatory apparently doing an especially fine job in this respect is the Pirbright Institute. At any rate, it received a Concordat award this year for its “internal engagement practices”. Apparently Pirbright’s staff have been so thoroughly engaged that “no one in the organisation is unaware of the research which goes on there.” But then Pirbright is a research laboratory whose declared mission is “To be the world’s most innovative centre for preventing and controlling viral diseases of livestock”. This, we’re told, will be achieved by “the development of vaccines, antivirals, diagnostics, genetic selection, genetically modified animals and arthropod vectors [insect carriers or similar], and the modelling of disease outbreaks.” Surely the staff must already have deduced for themselves that Pirbright’s research involved animals? I suspect that here again the providing of information has been confused with the celebrating of institutional values and successes – with in-house boasting, in short. 

By the way, you’ll notice the rationale of research implied here: using high-tech force to sustain industrialized animal farming and its various pernicious effects on human and planetary health. Among Pirbright’s research themes is avian flu, one of whose regular visitations is, at this moment, causing many thousands of poultry and ducks in the UK to be prematurely destroyed. Avian flu is endemic in wild bird populations, but it seems to do limited harm there. It’s in so-called ‘commercial’ flocks, over-crowded and stationary, that it flourishes most ruinously – flocks like the 22,000 ducks destroyed this month on a ‘farm’ in Northern Ireland. Of course being prematurely killed was the ducks’ destiny anyway, but such culls highlight the perversity of this roundabout of animal disease and animal research. Pirbright’s tonic internal PR may create a loyal and committed staff, but that has nothing to do with the real value of the work.

The same is true more generally of the whole Concordat push. It’s a most smooth operation, in its way brilliantly conceived and carried through, worlds away in technique from the clumsy and defensive indignation of the old Physiological Society or the Research Defence Society. But its purpose is not essentially different. When the report notes that 97% of its signatories agree with the statement “the Concordat is an important step forward for biomedical research”, we know what sort of progress they mean. They mean what the Physiological Society meant: allowing the professionals to know best and carry on their work in peace. They believe that the Concordat’s managed publicity will accomplish this. And yet the authors of the report note with concern that, “Despite openness”, Concordat signatories “are seeing increasing protests from organized groups”. They sound puzzled by this, but we needn’t be. Openness is certainly a great improvement on secrecy, and perhaps has a reassuring effect upon those wishing to feel reassured, but it leaves the substance of the trouble, the ethical wrong, completely untouched. Until “an important step forward” in that respect too becomes part of its mission, the Concordat will go on making (no doubt) a lot of noise, but not much difference.

Notes and references:

The Concordat awards ceremony, held on 6 December at the Royal College of Physicians in London, is reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/openness-awards-and-paget-lecture-2021/  The annual report is here: https://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Concordat-Report-2021.pdf  All quotations not otherwise referenced are from that text, including statements made by signatory institutions.

The Physiological Society account of its own history is online here: https://www.physoc.org/about-us/history-archives/historicalhighlights/foundation-of-the-society/  Klein’s evidence to the Royal Commission appears on pp.182-6 of Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876. Frances Power Cobbe is quoted from an earlier post in this blog, in which there is more detailed discussion of the passing of the 1876 Act: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/in-defence-of-frances-power-cobbe/

The Pirbright Institute’s web-site, where its mission is posted, is here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/  Incidentally, Pirbright carried out some of the animal testing for Oxford University’s vaccine research, on mouse and pig ‘models’, as reported here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/news/2021/01/early-animal-studies-pirbright-and-oxford-yield-promising-results-new-potential-covid Avian flu in Northern Ireland is reported here: https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/uks-largest-ever-bird-flu-outbreak-reported-in-northern-ireland/ar-AARJuy8?ocid=mailsignout&li=BBoPWjQ