Life and Times of Moscow’s Street Dogs

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

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

SpaceDog in car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

For more about Laika and other animals used for space research see a former post in this blog here:  The special element of treachery involved in research using dogs is very finely dramatized in Richard Adams’s novel The Plague Dogs, discussed in this blog here:

Space Dogs has won a number of awards, as detailed on the Raumzeitfilm web-site, where there are also details of its release and distribution:  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here:

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here:

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here:

Life on Mars

The four rhesus macaque monkeys mentioned in this blog a few months ago, as in training to make the journey to Mars (‘To Boldly Make Them Go’, 25 July), are due to be launched some time this year. Or were due: I can find no publicity about the matter since the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology made its proud announcement to the world’s press back in 2015. Perhaps the response on that occasion was not as favourable as expected. However, a petition of objection set up by PETA is still in effect (there’s a link to it in the notes below), so I guess that the work itself continues.

Meanwhile, research goes forward into the viability on Mars of simpler terrestrial Hubble's Sharpest View Of Marsorganisms: lichens at the Mars Simulation Facility at Berlin, potatoes at NASA. And at the other end of the journey, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Orbiter, a co-operative venture with Russia’s Roscosmos agency, continues its observations, looking (among other things) for signs of life, at least of life at some time in the planet’s past. (The ‘Exo-‘ part of the name refers to ‘exobiology’, or life beyond earth.)

Those are only a few of the schemes of Martian research at present under way. All of them, I think it can be said, have the question of viability somewhere in mind: that is, could Mars be made habitable to humans? So it’s reassuring to know that agreements already exist as to our good behaviour should we ever get there. In fact the basic legal instrument governing activities in space, generally called the Outer Space Treaty, is now exactly fifty years old. This is a fascinating document, high-minded and even utopian. The aim seems to have been to learn from worldly history, and to secure something better than that for outer space (a term which includes “the moon and other celestial bodies”, as the text reiterates every time, with a strange mixture of the lawyer and the poet).

“Outer space,” the Treaty announces in Article I, “including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.” I’m glad to note that it goes on to confirm something suggested in that earlier VERO post about space travel (“whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity”): “States Parties to the Treaty,” says Article V, “shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space.” The original “States Parties” were the U.S.A, U.S.S.R., and Britain, but there are now 105 governments signed up to that model of conduct.

However, it’s doubtful what sort of impression four bewildered monkeys – if it’s not four dead monkeys – might make, as envoys, upon alien minds. Such minds might wonder how the brilliantly sophisticated science which had brought the space-vehicle their way had got mixed up with the physical and moral squalor of forcing weaker lives to take the risks of the journey. And even as a set of principles, the Outer Space Treaty may not read as well at a distance as it does on earth. The airy munificence with which it makes a common human property of the whole universe is hardly good envoyism; in fact it’s species-arrogance on a comically grand scale.

You may feel confident (as perhaps the people who framed the Treaty did) that there won’t be any aliens to do the reading. But then we’re told by Article V of the Treaty at least to behave as if there are. And certainly there’s already a whole lot of reading matter provided for them on Mars, courtesy of the 2008 Phoenix Lander’s DVD, a “multi-media” collection titled Visions of Mars. Among the texts selected for it, in this case with a curious tactlessness, is the 1897 novel by H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds.

There’s a familiar challenge sometimes put to proponents of vivisection, ‘What would you say if aliens (typically, Martians) were to arrive here and set about experimenting on humans?’ It may be rather a worn-out trope these days; I recall that Professor Colin Blakemore said as much when someone put it to him during a talk he gave in Oxford University a few years ago. That doesn’t make it any easier to answer; nor was the Professor’s own answer very convincing. In fact I’ve yet to hear a convincing one. (“Show me a Martian!” one scientist said by way of knock-down answer on a television programme.) Anyway, this question, in a more inclusive formulation, was very much on H.G.Wells’ mind when he wrote War of the Worlds.

Accordingly he begins, “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s … that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water … Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

As we are to the other animals on earth, so these Martians are to ourselves: it’s a point which Wells makes over and over again. At first, the humans view the arriving Martians Alvim-correa12with the same complacent curiosity that the dodo must have felt at the arrival on Mauritius of “that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food”. The Martian fighting-contraptions seem as mysterious to the people of Surrey as “an ironclad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.” When their destructive power shows itself, the humans are scattered like ants, smoked out like wasps, have their homes casually destroyed as a rabbit’s burrow might be destroyed for the making of a human dwelling. These are experiences “that the poor brutes we dominate know all too well”. In fact from now on “With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide.” A panicked young clergyman exclaims “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? … What are these Martians?” To which the narrator answers, concisely summing Wells’ argument, “What are we?” [I’ve added the italics.]

Although the novel imagines a time when the Martians will have settled the human question, by domesticating some (“picking the best and storing us in cages and things”) and hunting the feral remainder, in fact they don’t have time to get that far. Their unresistant bodies abruptly succumb to earth’s bacteria. What their own medical science might have been, had it had time to work, is not discussed, but it’s sufficiently implied in the mentality pictured in that opening paragraph, especially in the chilling word “unsympathetic”.

Not that Wells himself was in any way hostile to the science project. He was even a keen defender of vivisection, though he wrote a frightening fantasy of its temptations and pathologies in The Island of Dr Moreau. (The perverted Moreau himself is surely based on the celebrated French vivisector Claude Bernard: see the previous post, ‘Meditation on a Stick’.) Nor, for that matter, was Wells a vegetarian, despite all that he says and shows in War of the Worlds of the fundamental wrong of human predation, or in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, whose narrator “can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house.” But then these stories are indeed told by particular narrators, not in Wells’s own voice. And the narrator of War of the Worlds is a writer on philosophical subjects, whose current project is “a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed”. Wells himself is merely of the present (1897, that is), but this is a man of the near future looking onward, as an ethicist, into a future beyond that, and he believes (as Wells himself also did) that moral ideas may, perhaps must, develop. In particular he says, “Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.” The implication of the book is that if we don’t improve our “moral ideas”, we shall fully deserve, in one shape or another, the coming of an enemy no better than ourselves.

Of course we now know, as Wells could not, that there is no such enemy, or for that matter any friend, on Mars. But that doesn’t affect his warning, for he makes quite clear in his own way what Ray Bradbury was later to say in his Martian Chronicles: We are the Martians.” It has become evident, certainly since 1945, that we don’t have to hypothesize or search space for that ‘enemy no better than ourselves’ which will destroy us if we don’t learn peaceable manners. The Space Treaty, perhaps despairing of the prospects on earth, hopes we may at least adopt such manners on our way to other worlds. But we’ve seen the attitude towards those worlds which even the Treaty takes for granted. Humans seem to be incurably supremacist. I conclude that the Director of the Mars Simulation Facility spoke a greater truth than he knew when he said, “We must be extremely careful not to transport any terrestrial life forms to Mars. Otherwise they might contaminate the planet.”

Perhaps, therefore, we might develop a new moral idea from a much more recent science fiction story, ‘Homo Floresiensis’ by Ken Liu. Here, a young researcher of bird life on one of the Spice Islands comes across a hitherto unreported tribe of hominids. Fearing for their future, he looks for something in their way of life which might qualify them as humans and thereby enlist on their behalf the “moral prohibition against treating them as inferior”. He knows well, as a zoologist, what such ‘inferiority’ would entail. Finding nothing reliable, he and his associate make what for such scientists would be a heroic decision: they leave the tribe alone. “We often celebrate the discoverers,” says one of the two, as they quietly abandon the island; “But maybe it’s the undiscoverers that we should be proud of.”


Notes and references:

The earlier post about space travel can be viewed here:

PETA’s petition can be signed at

The studies of lichen at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin are reported at , from where also the quotation about contamination of Mars is taken. The NASA potato studies are reported in the Times, 10 March, p.11.

For the text of the Outer Space Treaty see

Quotations from War of the Worlds are in the Penguin 2012 edition, pp. 3, 32, 51, 151, 70, 161, 8, 156. The quotation from A Modern Utopia is taken from an essay ‘H.G.Wells and Animals: a Troubling Legacy’, which can be read on the excellent web-site of the Animal People Forum at

Ray Bradbury was quoted during a BBC Radio 4 programme Seeing is Believing, on 6 March – part of its current ‘Mars Season’, which has included a dramatization of War of the Worlds. ‘Homo Floresiensis’ appears in the anthology Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates and published by the Oxford firm Rebellion Publishing in 2014: quotations from pp.57 and 60.

The photograph of Mars is from NASA’s online gallery of images, where it’s titled ‘Hubble’s Sharpest View of Mars’. The illustration from a French edition of War of the Worlds (Brussels, 1906) is by Henrique Correa.


To Boldly Make Them Go

“The International Space Station (ISS) is about to get some new crew members – 20 mousetronauts!” announced the Science Explorer web-site recently. Motherboard, a more general news site, likewise found the episode appealing, or tried to make it so: “Once they arrive on station, the all-female rodent crew will get to work … etc. etc.” I suppose that humanizing the mice in this way (a version of dressing animals up to entertain) is part of a journalist’s duty: turning inert material into a recognizable story – in this case, the ‘smart animals’ story. After all, the sort of research which the mice are in fact to be used for is not really news at all; it’s simply a routine of life on the ISS. But this spinning of the facts is also a variety of euphemism, because of course there’s nothing cute in practice about the “work” the mice will be doing. Such mice don’t always “arrive on station” alive; certainly they never survive their stay. Their status on the ISS is a lot more accurately expressed by NASA’s own dispassionate term “biological payload”.

The particular mice in the story were additions to on-going research into the effects and possible mitigations of micro-gravity. Health benefits to humans in general are sketchily promised from this sort of space research, but its essential purpose has of course always been to understand and treat the special stresses and ailments arising from space travel. And, so far from being news, it has been part of ‘man’s conquest of space’ from the earliest days. The U.S.A. was testing g-force and microgravity stresses on non-human primates (including chimpanzees) on the ground, and subsequently sending such animals into space, from the 1940s up until the 1990s. The U.S.S.R. sent up dogs from 1951, and is laikaeven now preparing four rhesus macaques for a journey to Mars in 2017. Other countries have had similar programmes of animal research, and many other animal species have been involved, including mice, rabbits, insects, and at least one cat. These animals have been the real ‘pioneers’ in space. The majority of them (of the larger ones, at least) have not survived the experience.

There’s something peculiarly base and cowardly about using animals in this way, especially as the heroism of the human crews – real enough, no doubt – has been so much trumpeted by the media and by their own institutions. (I notice that popular fictions on the subject of space exploration generally prefer not to take the shine off their heroes by showing them trying it all out on their inferiors first.) And what makes it especially shameful is that whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity (to ourselves, if to nobody else we know of). The professionals themselves evidently feel this. Two of their space-craft – Voyagers 1 and 2 – are even now traversing outer space equipped not only to send information back to earth, but also to present mankind and his planet to such other life forms as they may conceivably find beyond our solar system.

These Voyagers were launched by NASA in 1977. Their predecessors in deep space, Pioneers 10 and 11, had contented themselves by way of self-introduction with plaques showing a man and a woman, the man’s hand said to be “raised in a gesture of good will” (no laughter, please). The Voyagers make a much more extensive trawl into that mixture of hubris and sentimentality which seems to infect humans once they start thinking about ‘mankind’. The general motto chosen for their presentation to strangers was the “inspirational message” Per Aspera ad Astra (‘through hardships to the stars’): a touch of humbug already, given how the hardships were distributed, and rather ominously it’s a motto also used by a number of national air forces. Jimmy Carter’s presidential greeting was more wisely tentative, as well as characteristically wistful: “We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilization.”

Meanwhile, the sounds and images that form the main content of the archive, called the Golden Record, attempt a summary of our world and its occupants, including the non-human animals. Here and there the humans are shown cooking and eating the others: rather tactless, perhaps, but then it must have been assumed that whoever finally studies this archive will be highly sophisticated, which to us of course implies predator rather than prey. They might therefore be expected to be permissive about such things. Too much so, perhaps:  I notice that under one Youtube video of the Golden Record someone has wittily commented “mmm … these earthlings look DELICIOUS!”

One of the images is titled ‘English City’, and shows Oxford High Street. The photograph comes from a pictorial biography of C.S.Lewis published in 1973, but it shows the High Street as Lewis would have known it, in about 1950. I don’t know why this Lewis connection was so deliberately made, though of course he has always been very popular in America, especially as a writer on Christianity. He also wrote novels and essays about space travel. However, I can’t think that, if the selectors had read any of these, they would have wished Lewis to feature, even as obliquely as this, in their Golden Record. For Lewis felt none of the species-pride suggested in the motto Per Aspera ad Astra. He contemplated with dread the human arrival upon other planets, and pictured it in his fiction as essentially baleful. “We know what our race does to strangers”, he writes in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’. “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps.” So the testing of enslaved animals in preparation for inter-planetary travel is indicative of the sort of beings who will be organising and making these visits, and accordingly ominous for whomever their hosts may turn out to be: hardly the message which the Voyagers had wanted to haul through space for countless millenia.

Lewis elaborates the message in his fiction. Although the trio of men journeying to ‘Malacandra’ in Out of the Silent Planet includes one humane character, Edwin Ransom, who learns to love and admire the strange beings they find there, this man does not travel voluntarily. He has stumbled upon the secretive preparations for the voyage mainly because the dog who should have been keeping strangers away has been destroyed during preliminary experiments. Ransom is then drugged and taken into the space-craft as “payload” (they hope to trade him). The point Lewis makes is that people like Ransom “are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassadors to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert.” Just such men are Ransom’s abductors. And their treatment of the dog presages their attitude to the non-human creatures – the Sorns, Hrossa, and Pfifltriggs – whom they meet on Malacandra.

But Lewis shows elsewhere that there’s more to it than that. Misusing non-human animals actually corrupts our perceptions of them and their like. Another space-scientist and vivisector, Uncle Matthew in the Narnia books, has used guinea-pigs, and even the girl Polly, to effect landings in other worlds: “you’ve behaved like a coward, sending a girl to a place you’re afraid to go to yourself”, his nephew Diggory priggishly but quite rightly tells him. (Note that Laika, the Russian dog pictured above who died in orbit, was female, as indeed were the ISS mice, and perhaps most of the other ‘space’ animals. Or is that beside the point?) When Uncle Matthew finds himself in Narnia, he is unreasonably afraid of the innocent creatures there; Lewis explains that the man had never much liked animals, but that “years of doing cruel experiments on animals had made him hate and fear them far more.” So the suggestion is that humans will come to new worlds expecting ill-will, partly as having habitually dealt in it themselves, partly as knowing that they merit it.

No wonder Lewis wrote in his preface to the novel Perelandra (the sequel to Out of the Silent Planet) that inter-planetary travel would “open a new chapter of misery for the 3.24am DSC_0180Universe”. In ‘Religion and Rocketry’, he forsees a time when “the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt.” Already now, with those starry heavens littered by discarded junk, the beauty of the moon insulted by national flags, the ether resounding to the chatter of our telecommunications, and implicit in it all a history of pitilessly forcing upon non-human animals the greatest share of the cost in flesh and blood for all this astonishing accomplishment, only Lewis’s “ruthless technical expert” could look upward with much satisfaction in what we’ve done.


Notes and references:

The Science Explorer report is dated April 7, and the Motherboard one April 4.

The story of the Golden Record is recounted in Murmurs of Earth (Random House, 1978) by Carl Sagan, the astronomer who led the committee appointed to select its contents, and there are many Youtube clips showing the contents.

For a fuller account of C.S.Lewis and animals, see The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ was first published in 1958, and is re-printed in Fern-seed and Elephants (Fontana, 1975), pp.69-77, and in various other Lewis collections. The character called Uncle Matthew appears in The Magician’s Nephew (Bodley Head, 1955).

For an account of Laika’s suffering and death in space, see

The photograph of the moon is by Paul Freestone.