The Plague Dogs

The author Richard Adams, who wrote a series of highly original novels with non-human animals as their leading characters, died on Christmas Eve of 2016. Watership Down was his most successful book, both commercially and as literature, but The Plague Dogs, his novel about vivisection, is in its way just as remarkable.

It opens with a scene from experimental psychology: “survival expectation conditioning (water immersion)” – in plain words, seeing how long a dog will go on trying not to drown. Adams states in his preface that he has not made up any of the experiments which he instances: unfortunately, he had no need to. And this particular sordid performance hints at what we already know, that such experiments say as much about the species which devises them as they do about the animals who endure them. The setting of the experiment is an imagined government institution at Lawson Park in Cumbria. Its official name, ‘Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental’ (A.R.S.E.), concisely suggests the importance of well-judged politics and PR to make such enterprises acceptable, and Adams sketches in, for Lawson Park, just such a background of human negotiation and legerdemain.

So much for the human activity. Then we’re taken inside the accommodation sheds as night falls, and from now on the story is told primarily in the voices and experiences of two dogs, the half-drowned mongrel Rowf and the brain-tampered fox-terrier Snitter. It’s  the story of their escape from Lawson Park, and of their subsequent attempt to hide and plague-dogs-coverto survive in the inhospitable autumn landscape of the Lake District.

In their search for these missing dogs, the humans are variously clumsy, dishonest, and ruthless, with rare moments of kindness. The ‘plague’ element itself is a hysterical absurdity, a press-promoted chimera which the title continuingly satirizes: there are no such plague-carrying dogs. And yet Rowf and Snitter, in their struggles to avoid capture, and bearing as they do the injuries of mind and body which are their Lawson Park heritage, remain fundamentally loyal to these unworthy and unpredictable beings that claim mastery over them.

It’s true that the dogs have escaped human authority, and human care such as it was, and accordingly have had to make a resolution to “change … into wild animals!” [62]. It’s true also that they have with them for a time, as their guide and exemplar, a fox whose uncompromisingly feral nature Adams makes brilliantly convincing. And indeed Rowf comes to declare with profound good reason “I hate all humans: I hate them!” [241]. Even so, they find they cannot abrogate the human lordship written into their breeds: “he was no wild animal”, Rowf has to recognize, “nor, after all, had it proved possible for him to become one.” [231] It’s a fact in their making, lyrically re-iterated from time to time in the poignant refrain of a song heard in Snitter’s mangled brain: “A lost dog seeks a vanished man.”

And that’s the immediate tragedy of The Plague Dogs, a tragedy of betrayal. The dogs are loyal by breeding, so that even Rowf, who has never known a proper master, feels ashamed that he has disappointed the expectations of the ‘whitecoats’: “I really wanted to be a good dog. I’d have done anything for them.” But as Snitter devastatingly replies, “They didn’t particularly want you to be a good dog. They didn’t care what sort of dog you were.” [355] This is the moral context of all the experiments which we glimpse from time to time at Lawson Park – rabbits testing hairspray, a monkey in sensory deprivation, sheep in battlefield trauma trials, and the rest. The animals are domesticated exactly in order that fatal advantage may be taken of their trust. And of course that’s the moral context of all vivisection, well-illustrated as it is in those pitiful images that research institutions publish (by way of reassurance) of animals enjoying the attentions of lab staff. The struggle has been bred out of them. Otherwise every laboratory would be the bedlam scene which its adversarial set-up properly implies.

In fact there is, in The Plague Dogs, a recollection of something like such a scene, “when they took Kiff away, and we all barked the place down singing his song” [116].  Kiff the dog’s song, suitably unpolished and anarchic, is sung again as they shelter now among the rocks:

When I’ve gone up in smoke don’t grieve for me,
(Taboo, taboo)
For a little pink cloud I’m going to be.
(Taboo, taboo, taboo)
I’ll lift my leg as I’m drifting by
And pee right into a whitecoat’s eye.
(Taboo, tabye, ta-bollocky-ay, we’re all for up the chimney.)  …

But such moments of defiance are rare: more characteristic is a painful sense of homesickness in the unintelligible landscape: “an hour later the two got up and wandered away together, refugees without destination or purpose.”

Not that the book is only concerned with domesticated animals. There’s a much wider tragedy involved. This is where the fox, a finely imagined animal personality, comes in. Given no proper name or even known gender, simply spoken of as ‘the tod’, it’s a sort of folk hero with mere survival as its skill and wisdom. Being a “wanderer” from further north in Upper Tyneside it speaks in broad Geordie dialect, but it speaks for all wild life: “Ca’ canny, else yer fer th’ Dark” (Be watchful, or you’ve had it.) The tod itself doesn’t survive, however; it’s hunted down. And near the end of the book, Snitter has a vision or hallucination of the world, seen as if he were spiralling down towards it from the aether and observing all animal life on earth (the more slowly you read the passage, the better: it’s beautifully written):

The world, he now perceived, was in fact a great, flat wheel with a myriad spokes of water, trees and grass, for ever turning and turning beneath the sun and moon. At each spoke was an animal – all the animals and birds he had ever known – horses, dogs, chaffinches, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, cows, sheep, rooks and many more which he did not recognize – a huge, striped cat, and a monstrous fish spurting water in a fountain to the sky. At the centre, on the axle itself, stood a man, who ceaselessly lashed and lashed the creatures with a whip to make them drive the wheel round. Some shrieked aloud as they bled and struggled, others silently toppled and were trodden down beneath their comrades’ stumbling feet. [382-3]

Falling towards this terrifying scene, Snitter feels himself called “to fellowship with the dead”. And the ending to the novel, as Richard Adams originally wrote it, did indeed have the dogs swimming despairingly out into the Irish Sea, as if headed to that fellowship. A less sombre but perhaps also less convincing end was urged upon Adams by his editors, and that’s the one which survives (though the 1982 film of the novel restored the original one).

And of course the humans too are victims of this tragedy they’ve made. Richard Adams uses as the epigraph to The Plague Dogs that passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which was the subject for this blog on 6 December (‘What Shakespeare Would Have Said’). It’s the moment when the doctor warns the Queen about her proposed animal researches: “Your Highness / Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.”  One very familiar extenuation of animal research is that it benefits animals as well as humans; Dr Boycott, the Chief Scientist at Lawson Park, routinely uses it. What is more certainly true is that it harms both parties, though in the case of humans the harm is both less immediately painful and more far-reaching.

The point is implied in one particularly hair-raising episode involving the gents’ outfitter Mr Ephraim, who has organised a shooting party to destroy the dogs. It starts to go wrong (ending in his own violent death) when he sights the pathetically injured Snitter (“to his own surprise he found the lenses of his binoculars blurred by tears”), and his family memory is turned back to the “night and fog” of the European holocaust [140-43]. Who can doubt that there is such a connection? But the point is more simply put by Dr Boycott’s assistant, Stephen Powell. He’s a man who trusts the science of Lawson Park, or at least science of that sort. He believes, in particular, that there is promise in it for his sick daughter. Yet he finally realises that he cannot be part of it, cannot even let it be. He steals the monkey whose days in the sensory deprivation tank he has been professionally ticking off as the story goes by, and he takes it home. When his wife remonstrates (“it’s only one animal, dear, out of thousands. I mean, what’s the good?”), he tells her “It’s not for the monkey’s good, it’s for my good.” [343]

The Plague Dogs isn’t always easy to read, being written in a strange mixed mood of anger, satirical sarcasm, and jocularity. Adams was a lover of English literature, and has a rather pedantic habit of working in quotations from the classics at every opportunity. But he knew animals, and he writes with love and accuracy about them. In the risky enterprise of giving them language he succeeds because we know, with his help, that animals must indeed have the life of mind and feeling out of which he has them speak. He writes beautifully and unsentimentally also about natural scenery. As for the humans, he isn’t in general favourable towards them, but then it’s a story told with keen attention to factual detail of all sorts, and the facts themselves aren’t very complimentary either. And anyway, as Ronald Lockley says (he’s one of the two real-life naturalists who step into the story right at the end, the other being Peter Scott): “in the total, real world we and our intellects are superficial. The birds and animals are the real world, actually, tens of thousands of years of instinctive living, in the past; and in the future they’ll outlive our artificial civilization.” [376]

The book makes us content to think so.


Notes and references:

The Plague Dogs was first published by Allen Lane in 1977, during the peak period so far in U.K. vivisection (over 5 million animals used in that year), though the numbers have been re-approaching that figure in recent years. The page references given above are to the Ballantine Books edition (New York 2007), only because I happened to have that edition to hand.

Richard Adams (Worcester College 1938) was one of VERO’s patrons. We feel very grateful to him for what he achieved for animals, both by his writing and in his campaigning work on their behalf.


What Shall be Done for these Innocents?

A common feature of the nativity scenes which have been heralding Christmas in churches and elsewhere, and which, now the feast is more or less over, are looking (but perhaps this is just a secular view) touchingly forlorn and ineffectual, is the small audience of animals. These animals aren’t scriptural. That is, they aren’t mentioned in the gospels, although the talk of a “manger” implies them, and the subsequent long journey suggests the presence of a beast of burden. It’s understandable that the gospels don’t mention them, because Christ came into the world, so Paul says in his letter to Timothy, in order to save sinners, and there’s no suggestion in the Bible, or in reason, that animals are capable of sin. Rather, they are in a necessary state of grace or, in secular terms, of propriety: absolutely dutiful to their species patterns, in a way that we don’t know how to be to ours, if there even is one. Perhaps this is in fact why the animals are there, dignifying all those cribs: in their calm sagacity they instance the redeemed state which the nativity of Jesus is said to promise to humans.

I’ve often felt as much when looking at the painting of that scene by Veronese, which hangs in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It’s a beautiful picture, full of animation and portent. veroneseThe composition surges down from left to lower right, from the lamb in a shepherd’s arms down to the dog keeping the doorway. And this sweep of life is anchored by the great ox in the foreground, watching the child and tolerating the shepherd who half-reclines upon him as if this ox was a sofa. Right in front, a recumbent lamb lifts its head in acknowledgement of all this activity.

Veronese had a particular feeling for animals. He liked to have them in his pictures; especially he liked to have dogs there, whether it was their proper place or not. One of the reasons why the Inquisition summoned him, in 1573, to explain his painting The Last Supper was that he’d put a dog right in the foreground. Rather than remove the dog, Veronese changed the picture’s ostensible subject to Feast in the House of Levi. And so in the great stonework frieze of artists, composers and writers which surrounds the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London, Veronese is shown, among his busy fellow-professionals, looking downwards at a dog, upon whose upraised head his hand affectionately rests.gblo102D1

But recently I’ve realised that the lamb in the foreground of Veronese’s painting must in fact be trussed, and the one at the back too. In fact one can just make out the cord. Their presence must therefore be of the sort suggested in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (now familiar as a carol): “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.” These lambs are sacrificial gifts, then; pastoral care is at an end for them. No doubt their presence in the picture is partly a reference to the sacrifice Jesus is to make of himself as the ‘Lamb of God’. At any rate, the Peaceable Kingdom element of this and other such nativity scenes is illusory. Rather, we’re reminded that although animals don’t need saving from sins of their own, they do need saving all the same. And who is to do it for them? Or as C.S.Lewis asks in his book The Problem of Pain (1940), “what shall be done for these innocents?”

No doubt it’s legitimate to see animals (in the way some Christian writers now do) as implicated in the ranks of the poor who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. And in so far as Jesus urged the powerful not to abuse their power over such people, or not to use it at all (“go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor!” Matthew 19:21), he did all vulnerable subjects good, including the animals. So the animals round the crib might indeed have been looking to him in some hope, even if his help were to come collaterally, a by-product only of his given mission to humans as described by Paul.

The trouble is that a sizeable part of animal suffering has nothing to do with humans, and cannot therefore be put right merely by human forbearance. As C.S.Lewis says in that same book, “The intrinsic [i.e. as opposed to gratuitously added] evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other.” It’s true that in pre-scientific times this evil could be seen as part of the human Fall. So John Milton wrote that, following the lapse of Adam and Eve,

Beast now with beast ‘gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish. To graze the herb all leaving
Devoured each other … 
[Paradise Lost, X.710-12]

But we can hardly take that view now, knowing that strife was a characteristic of the natural world long before humans came onto the scene and made it worse. (This is to say nothing of the sufferings arising from the struggle for limited food and space, which have similarly predated humans but been immeasurably aggravated by them.)

Like Veronese, C.S.Lewis had a strong feeling for animals (he was especially vocal against vivisection). He could not be satisfied with any picture of the world which did not accommodate them. This is obvious enough in all his fiction, but it was true also of his theology. And therefore he proposed a most moving and ambitious extension to the orthodox Christian theology of the human Fall and Redemption. He presents it mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis says, there must have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or at least a corruption of “the animal world” in which the beasts had to live. From then on, violence and the squandering of life characterized nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has called “natural hell”. When humanity first came into this scene, suggests Lewis, it had “a redemptive function to perform”: that is, part of its special commission in the world was to be the “Christ” (= messiah) to these earlier animals, and to rescue them from their fall and its consequences, just as the Christ whom the animals made room for in their stable was sent to do for humans. But so far from redeeming nature, of course, humanity itself fell, and has subsequently taken a clear lead in predation, so that now, as Lewis wrote in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis could not be dogmatic about this improvised theology. He offers it as “guesswork … a reasonable supposition” – “reasonable” in that he himself accepted the scriptural story upon which he builds it, at least as having the sort of provisional truth that mythology provides. But if we accept it for the moment in that spirit, see what an extraordinary flood of light it casts upon both the promise and the delinquency of man: on one hand, the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”, for surely if all had gone right “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”; on the other hand, the treachery of one who must now be understood not simply to have casually misused and exploited the fellow-creatures he found himself among, but in doing so to have broken a divine trust and made a holocaust out of the civil dissension which he was sent to remedy. (You can see Lewis telling this same story, and putting right the tragedy, in his Narnia stories, with – not by chance – a lion for his divinity.)

But you don’t need to accept the Christian setting in order to recognize this picture. It’s there as fact in the world’s history. That “corruption of the beasts”, when the carnivorous short-cut to protein was first taken, is certainly somewhere there in the record. The palaeontologist Richard Fortey, in his Life: an Unauthorised History, dates it “a geological second” into the Cambrian era, and sees it (like Milton and Lewis in their different schemes) as the loss of the world’s innocence: “The era of … peaceful coexistence among bacteria and algae had passed from the Earth, and the hierarchy of power has never subsequently been forgotten.” And whatever we may think the Bible means by giving man “dominion” over the other animals [Genesis 1.26], it’s certain that we do have dominion in fact. We have both the mind and the power to know and to do better than fallen nature. Our history, especially in the last four hundred years or so of technical progress, shows us energetically using these faculties to serve our private interest as a species. Meanwhile all the other denizens of the living world, except the few we choose to pet or admire, wait for help which doesn’t come.

This is the true poignancy of those animal onlookers round the crib.


Notes and References:

A  more elaborate account of these ideas, as they appear in the poetry and fiction of C.S.Lewis, and in the present-day ethical philosophy of Oscar Horta, is published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read on VERO’s web-site at

Quotations from The Problem of Pain are taken from the 1996 edition (Touchstone, New York), pp. 120-21 and 69, and the one from Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Harper Collins, 1998) is at p.104. The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, well worth reading, is reprinted in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. Walter Hooper (Fount, 1998): the quotation is from p.74.

The photograph of the Frieze of Parnassus is used by permission of René and Peter van der Krogt ( The sculptor of that part of the frieze was Henry Hugh Armstead. No image of Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds is available at the Ashmolean, and I have therefore used my own, which probably breaks copyright – for which I apologize.



Prize Day with the Concordat folk

Advent! – and on the U.K. vivisection scene that means above all the Annual Openness Awards and Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture, held this year on December 5th at the Royal College of Physicians in London. The main purpose of the event is to review the progress of the profession’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. It has something of the character of a school speech-day, with its prizes, speeches, and atmosphere of excitability and self-congratulation, reflected in many exclamatory tweets. The element of retrospect (‘our achievements’) was provided this year by a 46-page Annual Report, and the distinguished speaker for the occasion was the Government’s Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport. In his Memorial Lecture, titled ‘Animal Research – Then and Now’, Professor Walport naturally enough praised Stephen Paget, the man who founded the Research Defence Society in the early twentieth century to promote the interests of animal research and its practitioners. It’s the RDS, now renamed Understanding Animal Research, that sponsors this annual ceremony, among other ways of continuing Paget’s work.

But there was a predecessor even to the RDS, called the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, which Professor Walport didn’t speak about. It was formed shortly after the passing of the first law to regulate vivisection in the U.K., the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876). The AAMR’s purpose – so one committee member informed readers of the British Medical Journal in 1882 – was to establish itself as the unofficial expert adviser to successive Home Secretaries, and by this means to make sure that the 1876 Act would be “harmlessly administered”. And in fact it achieved its aim with great success and secrecy for about twenty years, until it was finally hauled into public attention in 1907. In that year the anti-vivisectionist Stephen Coleridge told a Royal Commission on Vivisection that the Home Office officials, charged with administering the Act impartially and democratically, had in fact “constituted themselves the mere spokesmen of the vivisectors.”

The AAMR having thus been outed, and its privileged position discredited, Paget set up the Research Defence Society in the following year, 1908. As its name suggests, and as Paget had already showed at length in his book Experiments on Animals (1900), he and most of the professionals he represented saw animal research as a work of philanthropy ignorantly pestered, not just by campaigning groups like Coleridge’s, but also by ill-conceived regulations. After all, Paget had been for some years honorary secretary of the AAMR. Incidentally, one of the AAMR’s founders, the man in whose house it had its earliest meetings, was John Scott Burdon Sanderson, who was about to become Oxford’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology [see post for 21 November 2015].

So that’s the history of the vivisection push until recent years. But the Concordat has introduced a very different way of promoting animal research. So far from resisting unwanted attentions, the policy is now to advertise and take conspicuous pride in what’s being done. The key word is “pro-active”. On the face of it, this just means a whole lot more PR; in fact the Concordat’s name is itself a piece of PR showmanship. And probably that increase is enough in itself to have an effect. I don’t wish to make improper connections, but one thing which emerged very clearly from the Nuremberg Medical Trials of 1946-7 was that human scruples are very easily habituated away. One of the doctors on trial at Nuremberg told the court how human vivisection had come upon him and his colleagues as a “wholly new” idea: they “had to get used to the idea”. But, as the trials showed, they did get used to it. Not getting used to things which at first seem wrong or even merely distasteful is the bulwark of morality, but it’s not a very durable one. It’s easily worn away.

Anyway, the Concordat ambition goes beyond that traditional PR. It was very noticeable at this recent speech-day that signatories to the Concordat (universities, medical charities, biomedical businesses, contract laboratories) are being pressed to provide a more rounded account of their work: not just the fun and progress side of working with animals, but also the suffering and failure. This was something which Professor Walport touched on in his lecture (a good lecture, by the way) when he urged scientists to use the same habit of dis-interested truthfulness in their defence of animal research that they presumably use in reporting the research itself. Likewise, the Annual Report says, “Signatories need to place greater emphasis on the communication of the harms and suffering of animals in research.”

I haven’t seen any such “emphasis” at all in the animal research web-sites which I’ve viewed, but then I haven’t attempted a thorough survey. One web-site I did study was that of Leicester University, this year’s winner of the Media Engagement Award. It won the prize by making accessible, to journalists from the Sun newspaper, its animal researches into the modern scourge of obesity. I make no comment on the ethics of using animals to research that particular human problem, and anyway the material does not seem to be publicly available on the University’s web-site. What I do find there is a ‘Policy Statement’. The University is “guided” in its animal research, we are told, by eight “principles”. Seven of these flourished principles, as it must be aware, are actually statutory requirements, but of course it’s good to know that Leicester University means to obey the law. The eighth principle is that the results of its research should be “regularly published”: this, I thought, was what all scientists wish to do – indeed have to do if they are to get any more funding.

But then even the Report itself seems to have difficulty living up to its ambition (I say “its” because no authors are specified). One of the opportunities it suggests for the new “greater emphasis” is that web-sites might use “more images of realistic research” rather than library pictures of the merely reassuring sort [p.13]. The Report itself uses about twenty images, nearly all of them belonging to the ‘kindly staff and contented animal’ category. Starting with two cheerful girls exhibiting baby mice, there are then some pigs in straw, some hens being carried about, calves looking interested, rats with a positive excess of ‘enrichments’, and so on. Two or three pictures show animals calmly receiving injections. All seem in excellent health, except that one baby chick looks slightly hung-over, but I can’t tell whether that’s “realistic” or just a torpid moment. There are no pictures of animals evidently suffering, nor any of dead animals. Perhaps the Report’s Concordat readers don’t themselves want or need realism: presumably they already know the reality, being persons who (in Professor Burdon Sanderson’s phrase) “belong to our craft”.

But in fact even the very basic Concordat principle of ‘openness’ still causes unease among the signatories. And here you get a sense of the long tradition of secrecy in this business. Some of these organisations, it seems, “have concerns that staff will be shocked to learn that animal research takes place at their institutions.” [p.13] This appears to be an anxiety even in those institutions which one had assumed were the nation’s centres of free intellectual exchange: “A particular worry for universities has been the large proportion of staff and students who were previously unaware that animals were being used for research.” [p.43]

And of course the same worry must affect communications with the public at large. Before the Concordat went live in 2014, its managers commissioned Ipsos MORI to do some market research into what lay-people might expect ‘openness’ to imply (see the notes below for the methodology of this research). The result, published in November 2013 as Openness in Animal Research, showed how far such people do indeed differ in their ethics, scruples, sense of justice, and of course knowledge of what’s going on, from those who do the animal research.

A notable instance of this divide concerns the killing of animals. That which, to laboratory staff, is a daily or even hourly routine (the daily average of animal deaths at Oxford University is over 620), came as an unpleasant surprise to Ipsos MORI’s public:

One key issue across all groups was what happens to the animals after the experiments are carried out … they assumed that the animals would be ‘retired’, though there was no fixed conception of how this would work in practice. When told that most animals cosmetic-testing-equipment[‘almost all’ would be more accurate] were killed after the procedures, there was concern; despite being told that this was done humanely, many were still adamant that it was a very serious harm to shorten an animal’s life unnecessarily … They saw death as the most serious harm which could be caused to an animal … A sense of natural justice meant that, for many, killing animals at all after experiments (except where the procedure required a post-mortem assessment of the animals) seemed very unfair … “Breeding them just to kill them off – that’s cruelty!” [pp.19 and 34-5]

How different these morals are from those in use among practitioners, and at the Home Office, will be especially well appreciated when we recall that the professionals don’t think death worth recording at all in the case of animals who, for one reason or another, haven’t been used in experiments. Oxford University, for instance, keeps no central account of these numbers, and cannot provide them on request.

There’s no doubt that the Concordat has improved communications, albeit on the profession’s own terms. Much of the above material, for instance, comes from documents made available online. And the policy of going beyond merely favourable PR may well be an honest and even honourable one. However, even if the signatories can bring themselves to act upon it, I don’t see how it can work. Why should their concessions as to harm and failure be regarded as conclusive any more than their boasting is?

The point was emphatically made during that Ipsos MORI consultation. One thing which shocked the participants was the slightness of the inspection regime: “Participants in all three locations were surprised and disappointed to learn that the number of inspectors is in the 20s rather than in the hundreds, as they had assumed.” [p.39] They were puzzled, too, by the mildness of the sanctions for misconduct: “participants assumed that the Home Office regularly gives very severe punishments, such as projects and institutions being shut down.” [p.41] Openness of the Concordat kind – consisting mainly of words, selected images, and calculated hospitality – is unlikely to bridge this gap in attitudes and expectations. Many of the participants took the view that the animal research profession would only deserve the trust which it aims for if it “’puts its money where its mouth is’ and funds an enhanced inspectorate” [p.42]. And they didn’t just mean more inspectors from the Home Office; they had in mind inspections by animal protection groups too. It was one of the consultation’s ‘Key Findings’ that “participants wanted the sector to subject itself to external scrutiny on animal welfare from groups who did not have a vested interest in the research process. This was felt to be the best guarantee of a genuine desire for openness.” [p.16]

Deeds not words, in short  ̶  the exact opposite of PR.


Notes and references:

An account of the Openness Awards event, including film of Professor Walport’s lecture and the prize-giving, can be seen on the web-site of Understanding Animals in Research at

The Concordat’s Annual Report 2016 can be read here:

An account of the AAMR’s high-jacking of the inspection regime, including the two quotations, can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971) at pp.70-77.

The quotation from the Nuremberg Medical Trial comes in Mitscherlich & Mielke, The Medical Case (Elek Books, 1962) pp.46-7.

Professor Burdon Sanderson used the phrase “belonging to our craft” during his evidence to the 1875 Royal Commission: see Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876) p.75.

Ipsos MORI did its research with three groups of about 18 persons each, chosen to exclude experts, activists, and researchers, but otherwise to represent a cross-section of the U.K. population. Two workshops for each group, with an interval for ‘homework’ in between, were held in London, Cardiff, and Manchester. These were full-day events and included presentations and films (including BUAV undercover film) from different sides of the subject, discussions, questionnaires, etc. The whole report can read at

The photograph is by Brian Gunn (

What Shakespeare Would Have Said

In a few days’ time, a wreath will be placed at the the monument to Samuel Johnson in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, to mark the anniversary of his death on 13 December 1783256px-samuel_johnson_by_joseph_nollekens_1777. It’s a little ceremony that occurs every year, acknowledging Dr Johnson’s continuing authoritative presence in English literary culture. The bust used for the monument was made by Joseph Nollekens when Johnson was sixty eight. It expresses very clearly his great moral and intellectual force.

Outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square, there’s another and more recent monument, this one imaging his cat Hodge. Johnson was very fond of Hodge. James Boswell recalls, in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), watching the cat “scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying “Why, yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then, as if Hodge.JPGperceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

Boswell writes the Life as a friend, but also as a self-consciously cosmopolitan Scot, and he calls Johnson “much of a John Bull; much of a true-born Englishman”. That Englishness has been a lasting element in Johnson’s reputation: he appears, for instance, as one of the images of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s satirical novel England, England (1998). And I suppose that the monument to Hodge might be thought to record another aspect of Englishness: the love of animals. But of course the idea that England, or for that matter Britain, is or ever has been a nation of animal-lovers (it’s a cliché much-loved by journalists and politicians) is humbug – useful, I suppose, as a myth tending to obscure our actual pitiless subjugation of most of them. Nor did Boswell himself (though he had an aversion to cats) relate this fondness to Johnson’s nationality. He recounts it as evidence, along with Johnson’s considerateness to children and to his household servants, of “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”. In this respect, therefore, he modifies his biographical portrait of an otherwise extraordinarily downright and dogmatic mind, a man pugnacious in argument with his peers and impatient of anything sentimental.

So Johnson’s care for Hodge, although it must certainly have involved pure affection, was of a piece with the rooted concern he felt for all who were especially liable to maltreatment, injustice, or disregard – whether animals or people. “Upon one occasion,” says Boswell, “when in the company of some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies!’” Neither on that occasion at Oxford (his own university, from which he had his honorary doctorate), nor when he spoke playfully to Boswell over Hodge’s head, were “humanity and gentleness” strictly required of him; it was in his nature to feel them and to express them gratuitously.

And that’s why also, in his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, he suddenly breaks off from making learned notes in order to voice his disgust at vivisection. He has reached Act I, scene v, line 23 of Cymbeline. The Queen, stepmother to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is just making plans to … but why retail this elaborate plot, which Johnson himself found tiresome? The point is that the Queen has commissioned a selection of “most poisonous compounds” from the physician Cornelius. He somewhat diffidently asks her what she wants them for. Basic research, is her reply:

                        I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging – but none human –
To try the vigour of them and apply
Allayments to their act, and by them gather
Their several virtues and effects.

To see what happens, in short, using (so Cornelius guesses) cats and dogs for the purpose. In this, the Queen speaks for a long line of future scientists. I wish that Cornelius could be said to be doing the same for his profession, when he tells her

         Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

“Shall … but ..”: he means that the only certain result of the Queen’s studies will be to diminish her humanity (‘shall’ being used in the common Shakespearean sense of ‘must’ or ‘will necessarily’, and ‘but’ in the sense ‘only’). So Cornelius, like Boswell, puts animals into the same moral space as humans, where indeed they belong: as we treat the one, so may we be expected to treat the other. The Queen impatiently dismisses his scruples: “O, content thee!” – in other words, ‘Dry up!’ And although such a research project would be characteristic of her (she’s of the wicked step-mother class), the Queen is not really engaged in it at all. Rather than knowledge, her mind is on her career, or her son’s career. (How far she’s in this way anticipating that long line of scientists again here, I can’t say.) Her intention is to clear his path to the throne with poison.

Samuel Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare are in general aimed at clarifying obscurities in the text, or suggesting emendations, but what Cornelius says moves him so much that he puts aside the textual critic and speaks as a moralist or simply as a man:

There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

It’s a case which he had argued more discursively in one of his weekly Idler essays (5 August, 1758), but now, in the little space proper to a textual note, he puts it with extraordinary conciseness and anger. So strongly does he believe these men to have compromised their humanity by what they do, that in his last few words he separates them from the class “human beings” altogether. It’s a strange and sinister image: the men standing upright, as amoral aliens, among gatherings of ordinarily decent people.

This, Johnson implies, is what “our author” himself would have felt, had he lived into the science-crazed eighteenth century. He brings the huge moral authority of Shakespeare as a testimonial to his case, as I do that of Samuel Johnson. Meanwhile, Cornelius spoils the Queen’s supposed researches by substituting harmless soporifics for the wished-for poisons. In this way he sets an early example of peaceable sabotage, and ensures that the story has a happy ending. All four of us can be content with that.



The quotations from Boswell’s Life of Johnson come from the years 1783 and 1777: in the Oxford University Press edition of 1953, they’re at pp.1217 and 876.

For Dr Johnson in England, England (Vintage Books 2012), see p.142: in the ghastly simulacrum of England which Sir Jack Pitman (a vainglorious businessman of the Donald Trump variety) creates on the Isle of Wight, Dr Johnson is seen introducing visitors to “the Dining Experience at the Cheshire Cheese”.

The bust by Nollekens as shown is from the Yale Center for British Art. The statue of Hodge was made by Jon Bickley, and placed in Gough Square in 1997.

Tony Benn

“I dreamed last night that the house was covered in green slime and fungus, and I went upstairs and in the bedroom was Caroline lying on the bed, and the bed was a complete mess of papers and things. She was absolutely white, her eyes were red, and a fattish woman was cutting huge chunks of bloody meat and giving it to her to eat. I said something and the woman replied, and I said, ‘Never speak to me like that again – get out!’ And she shouted at me. There was Caroline, with all this meat around her … and I woke up and Caroline was gone. Strange!”

It may be that lurid meat-dreams like this one are a common feature of the vegetarian/vegan life – or, more generally, that dreams of misused animals are recurrent in the sleep of anyone properly alive to their sufferings in the real world. I notice, for instance, a series of such dreams in the diaries of John Ruskin, the art critic and professor who resigned his chair at Oxford University in 1885 when a vivisection laboratory was first built there. But this particular meat-dream was recorded on 2 March 2009 by a more recent Oxford alumnus, the politician Tony Benn. Those who know of his remarkable life (those for instance who have seen the stage play titled Tony’s Last Tape which has been on tour this year, or who have seen the 2014 documentary film about his life, Will and Testament) will recognize some of its characterizing elements in the dream: the huge archive of papers (and tapes) recording day by day his long political career; the big old house in Holland Park Avenue, West London, which habitually let in the rain; his devotion to his wife Caroline, whom he had married in 1948 and whose loss from cancer in 2000 the dream makes him relive, in the ruthless way dreams have (how did Freud ever suppose that dreams were wish-fulfilments?).

But yes, the meat. Tony Benn had stopped eating meat in 1970. He had been persuaded by his young son Hilary (who later became the U.K.’s first vegetarian cabinet minister instarvation-text charge of food and environment) that the crops which should have been feeding the world’s poor were being fed to cattle to produce meat for the affluent. But it wasn’t a matter only of inter-human injustice to him; it was morally shocking in itself: “I am particularly revolted by religious slaughter but the slaughter of all animals is barbaric. Why breed animals simply to kill and eat them. How is it different to killing people?”

A little background to explain Tony Benn’s thoughts about animals. Although his reputation is that of a politician and political diarist, passionately involved in some of the most acute political controversies of his time in the U.K., Tony Benn should really be classified as a moralist. Bismark’s famous and worldly saying about politics as the art of the possible would have repelled him. Politics for him was a moral cause: “Is it right or is it wrong? You can argue about it, but that is really the key question to ask.” He did not call himself a Christian, but he inherited from his devout mother at least her faith in “prophets as against kings”: that is, ideas and ideals challenging and subverting authorities and powers, just as the Old Testament prophets challenged their kings. He himself was exactly a prophet, in the sense a moral teacher and visionary. He was, accordingly, too absolute in his convictions to appeal to his party’s pragmatic kings and king-makers. A successful minister in the 1960s and 70s, Benn was at one time regarded as a probable prime minister, but in fact he never again served in government after the 1979 election.

When he finally left parliament in 2001, he explained that he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was Caroline Benn’s joke, but it was founded on a serious conviction that the House of Commons was no longer where political power resided, or where the important decisions were made. All his working life, Benn had for his purpose “the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society”. Instead, he had had to watch power migrate ever further away from the people and their representatives in the House of Commons and into the hands of financiers, media owners, unelected global agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and president-like prime ministers and their cliques.

So, more and more, Benn came to trust only the radical and unmediated expressions of democracy. He told a ‘Stop the War’ rally in Trafalgar Square, “Parliament belongs to the past; the streets belong to the future.” (“They really liked that”, he adds in his diary.) He loved the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, with its brass bands, embroidered banners (at least two of them picturing Tony Benn himself), and vehement political speeches, all indeed there on the streets: “It’s a tremendously moral event really.” Latterly he was a regular speaker at the Glastonbury Festival: “Glastonbury’s always fantastic … it’s really the recreation of the old folk-festival atmosphere, so I love going.” He admired these radical scenes not as something nostalgic or touching, though they did move him very much, but as confirmations and promises of what he believed: “everything comes from underneath”. They were his hope for the future.

Therefore the following scene, recorded in Tony Benn’s diary, was wholly characteristic. In June of 2007 he was attending former American president Jimmy Carter’s honorary degree ceremony in the grand Sheldonian building in Oxford (elaborate robes, the Chancellor reading the award in Latin, etc.: “institutions love all that ceremonial stuff”). At that time, the University was in the middle of building its new vivisection laboratory, and outside the Sheldonian could be heard, as habitually at the such events, “a lot of animal-rights protesters shouting”. The University had been doing all it could, with limited success, to prevent these protests against the laboratory, or at least to move them to more manageable times and places; its recourse meanwhile was to pretend they weren’t there. Of course Tony Benn would have nothing to do with that: “when it was all over, I thought I’d go and have a word with the animal-rights protesters. I walked up and down and shook hands with quite a few of them …” From ex-presidents and other establishment tony-benn-at-demodignitaries congratulating each other, then, he came out into the street among the placards and passions – the “underneath” from which the future must come – and showed his approval publicly with that most egalitarian of ceremonies, the hand-shake. A photograph of the occasion catches him at no loss for words or commitment.

Vivisection had dismayed Tony Benn since early childhood. During family walks in London, he had seen one of those window-displays which were a feature of earlier anti-vivisection campaigns, showing a model monkey among gruesome equipment (a street-show again). When Oxford University began to build its new laboratory, and the controversy was at its height, he chaired a debate on the subject, doing his best as chairman to redress the imbalance of rank and numbers, there in the University, against the dissenting side. He was a patron of Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford, and when the laboratory was formally opened, he helped publicize VERO’s objection by joining us at Nuffield College, and speaking to the press: “Vero is one of the courageous organisations challenging outdated orthodoxy.” tony-benn-with-othersFor him, again, it was a matter of morality: as he asked  the science-publicist Richard Dawkins, during a television discussion at about this same time, “where is your moral teaching in science?”    

Tony Benn was (notoriously to some) a socialist. There may well be other political philosophies capable of accommodating the interests of animals: let’s hope there are many. (I see there’s an argument about this in the web-pages of the new online forum called Animal Justice Currents.) But more essentially Benn was a radical democrat, restlessly arguing for political powers to be passed downwards to the people – or more plausibly, as we’ve noticed, for the people to reach upward and take them (take them back, as he would have said). Perhaps he romanticized ‘the people’. Certainly he was a romantic, but then prophets have to be: “All real progress throughout history has been made by those who did find it possible to lift themselves above the hardship of the present and see beyond it to an ideal world.”

In recent years, Tony Benn became less of the public bogeyman which he had been, at least for cropped-tony-benn-17-11-08-img_3737the right-wing press, in the 1970s and 80s (“The most dangerous man in Britain?” asked the Sun newspaper). Now instead he was sometimes called, rather patronizingly, a ‘national treasure’. He was bemused by this, but quite unassimilated: “To my surprise and delight I am rediscovering idealism as I enter my eighty-fifth year.”

Animals were increasingly a part of this latter idealism. They can, after all, be viewed politically as the most ancient of the ‘folk’, battered and dispossessed even more ruthlessly than the rest of their kind by capitalist modernity. Watching his garden birds taking their immemorial part in the common pursuit of food and security, Benn indeed felt them to be “a scaled down version of humanity” (a ‘more modest’ or ‘less rapacious’ version might say it better). And since they can have no money and no votes of their own, one must suppose that the only kind of democracy which will adequately provide for the lives and interests of the non-human animals is exactly the folk-minded kind which Tony Benn prized: one that seeks the common good not primarily through the spread of individual affluence and consumerist power, urged and promised by vote-seeking politicians at successive elections, but rather by promoting the sense of mutuality and life-solidarity. As the banners at the 2008 Durham Gala declared, while the 83-year old Tony Benn stood watching them pass by from his hotel balcony (“there were moments when I was in tears”): “Fellowship is Life”, “Fellowship is All”. Yes, there’s surely a place in that scheme for all of us, human and other.



Tony Benn’s comments on animal slaughter come from an interview he gave to Tony Wardle for Viva!LIFE (issue 31, Spring 2006).

The phrase about democratic reform, and what Benn says about progress through idealism and about his own renewed idealism, are quoted from The Best of Benn, ed. Ruth Winstone, Arrow Books 2014, pp.73 and 323-4.

“Is it right or is it wrong?” and “prophets as against kings” come from the rather oddly titled but excellent Skip Kite film, Will and Testament (released in 2014).

Other quotations are from The Last Diaries: a Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, ed. Ruth Winstone, Hutchinson, 2013: the meat dream from p.225, the Stop the War rally p.109, Durham Gala p.150 and Glastonbury p.18, his question to Dawkins p.162, and the Oxford degree ceremony, where he talked with members of the SPEAK campaign, p.15.

Other material comes from a talk given for Animal Aid in December 2007 and from personal conversations. The discussion in Animal Justice Currents can be read at

The photograph of Tony Benn at the demonstration is kindly provided by SPEAK campaigns. The other photographs are by Paul Freestone.


For not quite all of the Fallen

Next Sunday, November 13th, a few hours after the remembrance services have ended in Whitehall and elsewhere in the UK and far beyond, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane. The Memorial was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making blog memorialwere a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its pale Portland stone, the Memorial declares, “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time. Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise induced to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial, rather than (like the Brown Dog statue shown in the post for 7 August 2015) a statement of dissent.

But at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown: burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they war_horse_bannerpress towards a gap in the curving stone stockade, and out into the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by a great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief but eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been ‘They have no choice’, reminding the visitor to this monument that ‘they’ are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First World War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals have been most visibly used: not just the ubiquitous horses but, as the Memorial shows, mules, dsc04737camels, goats, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals … Oh, my horses.”

And that too was the war which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the Memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles crowding past on either side (the Memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war by other means.

There is one aspect of that war, however, about which the memorial says nothing. It was the First World War, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research, which for the UK began in 1916 at Porton Down with the study of poison gas.

This is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of animal ‘war service’, lacking any scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the Memorial, and unlikely to earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal inscribed “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason to give it this much recognition, a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, or their continuing service at Porton Down testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”)

Nor are there any pigs shown on the Memorial, to record the service of their species in the training of British military surgeons. The gruesome nature of that service, and its needlessness, were the subject of an open letter addressed to the Ministry of Defence a while ago by a group of vets led by VERO’s science advisor André Ménache. It has been taking place for some years mainly at Jaegerspris, Denmark: courtesy, then, of other ‘allied forces’, though a Ministry of Defence enterprise. Until recently, it was code-named ‘Exercise Danish Bacon’, a helpful insight into the Porton Down mentality.

The exigencies of battle may impose cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to take part. The Park Lane Memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war is an even more pitiless taskmaster. One witness speaking on behalf of Porton Down to a House of Lords committee a few years ago said, of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.” He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps provides an explanation of why this aspect of animals’ war-work was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.


‘For the Fallen’ is the title of Laurence Binyon’s famous poem about remembrance (“At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”

Edward Elgar’s letter (“Concerning the war …”) is quoted by Andrew Neill in ‘The Great War: Elgar and the Creative challenge’, The Elgar Journal, vol.11 no.1, March 1999, pp.9-41 (at p.12).

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Maria Dickin. The first recipients of it were three pigeons.  

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995) pp.25-29, and those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975) pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted.

Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date instances are not easily available, but an example of the use to which Porton Down’s colony of marmoset monkeys is presently being put can be read here:

The open letter to the Ministry of Defence was reported in the Daily Mail for 6 May 2014: a link to the article can be found on the VERO web-site under that date (see ).

The quotation “For an agent like that …” comes from evidence given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002.

This post is a revised version of the one posted on 4 November last year.

How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him (or pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived).

Scepticism about own assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.


[References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.]