Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

Among the various attempts to persuade chimpanzees or other great apes to use a human language, the most famous or notorious, certainly the most written-about, has been ‘Project Nim’ – the attempt, from 1973 to 1977, by Herbert Terrace at the University of Columbia, to teach the animal whom he originally named Neam Chimpsky to use American Sign Language (ASL).

That name itself was ominous. True, it wasn’t a senseless joke. Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, wished to test Noam Chomsky’s claim that language, as humans used it, was a unique and innate capacity of the human brain. If a chimpanzee, brought up in human society, could learn to converse in some way with humans, that much language at least would be shown to be the product of culture, a learned behaviour. So Terrace named the chimpanzee to show that the project was a challenge to Noam Chomsky. But unfortunately the name also expresses an estimate of value. Like the name ‘Dolly’ for the cloned sheep (see the VERO blog on 29 August, 2016), it makes a joke of the animal’s participation in human affairs. In fact it belongs with the mock-dignity of a chimpanzees’ tea-party. An animal not to be much respected in itself, then, but made over to a human purpose: that was the implication of the name.

Accordingly, it was Neam Chimpsky’s fate to be snatched with unceremonious violence from his captive mother (a ‘breeding’ chimpanzee at Dr William Lemmon’s Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma), pitched into a more or less unprepared human family in New York, and wholly subject for the next four years to the chaotic professional and private interests of whatever people Terrace could find to run the Nim_Chimpskychimpanzee’s education and home life. Most of those people proved devoted and loyal to Nim (as he came to be called) while they stayed with him. It was not so much the difficulties of looking after Nim, though these were great enough, as the instability of the human relationships that caused what Terrace himself calls “the necessity of introducing more and more teachers into his life … The revolving-door manner in which caretakers cycled through Project Nim”. Nim’s so-called “socialization” in fact consisted in a succession of broken homes: a training in delinquency.

Yet during this time Nim rose above his slighting name and its moral implications, and re-characterized it in his own true image, as vital things do (poor Dolly was too unassertive to discredit the joky etymology of her name, as it deserved). The ‘Chimpsky’ disappeared from ordinary use, and the ‘Noam’ reference was forgotten. In fact, discovering Nim as a real and enduring being is the most interesting lesson that Herbert Terrace can be seen to learn during his own account of the project, the 1979 book Nim. Accustomed to pigeons and rats as subjects, creatures which he could with impunity put away in cages and forget when not in use, he found that Nim was a 24-hour phenomenon: “Even more than a human infant [of which Terrace had no experience either], Nim needed constant contact and attention.” More urgently, chimpanzees mature quickly, so that any “unseized opportunity to teach Nim to sign seemed to be an opportunity lost forever.” In practice, Terrace mostly delegated these demands, but even delegating them required time and understanding.

A theme for a comedy, perhaps: harassed scientist taught to live and love by warm-hearted monkey. But in fact the story of Nim was a tragedy. There came a time, unprepared-for like most of what happened during the project, when Nim’s growing strength started to make his vagarious moods a physical danger to his carers (there were several trips to hospital). Both man-hours and funds for the research were becoming scarce, and anyway Terrace now had plentiful results in notes and film of Nim’s communications during nearly four years on which to base his research conclusions. So Nim was indeed put back in his cage: that is, he was sedated, as his mother had been when he was stolen from her, and taken to the place which one writer about Nim (Elizabeth Hess) describes as “a dreary, crowded, woefully inadequate cement prison” – the Institute for Primate Studies from which he had come. Having been taught to regard himself as a human (when asked to sort photographs of chimpanzees and humans, he had put his own picture among the humans), he was thrown back among his own kind and left to start again.

Terrace himself, a more sympathetic man than Dr Lemmon, devoted a chapter of his book to this miserable event. The chapter is somewhat disingenuously titled ‘Nim Leaves’, but it doesn’t shirk the pain and violence involved. After all, such ASL as Nim had learned did not encompass explanations or persuasions. The parting had to be done with a trick:

Nim didn’t realize what had happened until I got up and padlocked the door. He then began to scream and tried to force the door open … Without further ceremony we all walked out of the building. I will never forget Nim’s incessant ear-piercing screams and his look of fear and anger when I abandoned him in his cage.

In the recent documentary film Project Nim (2011) one of Nim’s household who had been present on that occasion still seems tearful when she remembers it: “a nasty thing to do … We coaxed him down there because he trusted us … We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.”

But Terrace had in preparation what many of his co-adjutors regarded as a further betrayal, this one strictly as a scientist. In his report on the research published in the journal Science in 1979, he argued that Nim had not been using ASL as a proper language at all. Nim had learnt to use many individual word-signs (125 of them by the end), and could use them in combinations of up to four, but there was no good evidence that he was using a syntax to make variable sense of them, still less that he was generating altogether new meanings in such a way. Not just Nim, either. Terrace rejected also the more positive conclusions of previous studies (for instance, the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner with the chimpanzee Washoe). The title of the article was ‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ The answer which Terrace gave was this: “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other non-human species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.” In short, no.

Terrace did not altogether abjure the romantic possibilities of inter-species communication which his own research seemed thus to have closed off. At the very end of his book, he writes that such communication would be “as exhilarating as receiving a message from outer space”, while to introduce language into the culture of a group of chimpanzees “might provide a priceless glimpse of what life was like at the dawn of human civilization.” But this may have been the licensed rhetoric of a book’s last lines. The question with which he starts the book, whether “humans could take comfort in the assurance that our language made us unique”, had been emphatically answered. Terrace told the New York Times, “Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.”

So it turns out that Nim was not teaching humans to understand a different animal; he was just helping us to take another admiring look at ourselves in the mirror: as Terrace more recently said of Nim, with familiar speciesist condescension, “he should be greatly respected for sharing himself and his abilities in the pursuit of what it means to be human.” No surprise that this last quotation comes from a piece published on a pro-vivisection web-site.

Terrace’s much-publicized conclusions from his research certainly had a baleful effect on other such projects and their chances of getting funds. We may not regret that in itself, but more importantly his conclusions have also helped to keep chimpanzees and the other great apes, and in a queue behind them all the other animals, for that much longer outside the circle of our moral fellowship. And thus a quarter of a century later Oxford’s Professor Colin Blakemore could still be defending the use of great apes in experiments on the grounds that “there is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.” Nim’s return to prison was, in this sense, wholly emblematic.

As I said, there have been many tellings of the Nim story. The most thorough, apart Nim books copyfrom Terrace’s own account, would be Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp who would be Human (2008), the book on which James Marsh’s film Project Nim was based. One of the briefest and most poignant versions was published in the New Yorker in 1976, while Nim was still in ‘education’ at Columbia. The author, Mark Helprin, doesn’t in fact mention Nim by name; it’s possible he had no knowledge of him (though Terrace was good at generating publicity for his research in the media). Rather, Helprin tells the larger story of which poor Nim’s career is an illustration. The title is ‘Letters from the Samantha’.

The captain of “an iron-hulled sailing ship” is reporting to his superiors a typhoon and its troublesome consequences. From that sudden violence in nature, the ship has come into possession of “a large monkey”. The presence of an animal on board is a serious breach of regulations, but unlike lesser creatures, which the captain has from time to time found on the ship and promptly dispatched, this one makes special claims, being “like a man”. Indeed, it was the captain himself who had him rescued. And once he has been fed, the monkey becomes biddable, even friendly. A special “throne” is made for him. But his presence produces disciplinary problems among the crew, and the captain feels that he’s losing his own authority on the ship. Still, he cannot bring himself to order the monkey to be thrown back into the sea: “I brought him on board in the first place.” More than that: the monkey’s personality has had a powerful effect upon the captain: so far from his dominating the animal, “it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know.” But finally, disregarding the various opinions of his crew (just as Terrace suddenly announced to his staff the end of ‘Project Nim’), and more significantly violating what he himself has learnt, the captain grasps the monkey, subdues his struggles, and throws him overboard to drown. And now he must restore a proper attitude on board the ship. Accordingly, he addresses the crew on the subject of the ape thus:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going … He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone.



Notes and references:

The book written by Terrace himself is Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Knopf 1979). Quotations are from the U.K. edition (Eyre Methuen, 1980) pp.97, 108, 5, 127, 202, 226-7, 4.

Quotations from Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess (Bantam, 2008), are from the 2009 paperback edition, pp.46 and 242 (which quotes Terrace speaking to the New York Times).

‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ appeared in Science, 23 November 1979, vol.206, no.4421, pp.891-902. The full authorship was H.S.Terrace, L.A.Petitto, R.J.Sanders, and T.G.Bever. The recent comment from Terrace (“… what it means to be human”) appeared on the website Speaking of Research, in a ‘guest’ post, 15 August 2011.

Colin Blakemore was quoted in the Independent, 2 June 2006, introducing a Medical Research Council publication which promoted the benefits of experimentation on non-human primates – including, when “necessary”, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos).

Among other discussions of the Nim story, these two are especially interesting: (1) Peter Singer’s review of the film Project Nim, and the unfriendly exchange between Singer and Terrace which followed it, in the New York Review of Books for 13 October and 24 November 2011; (2) another review of the film, this one a really fine and impassioned piece of writing (it starts with an attack on the name Nim Chimpsky) in the journal Dissent, 17 August 2011, by Benjamin Hale. The Dissent article can be read here:

The short story ‘Letters from the Samantha’, by Mark Helprin, was first published in the New Yorker, 5 January 1976. It has been re-published in Helprin’s Ellis Island and Other Stories (Dell, 1981), and also in the excellent American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Dell, 1987), pp.271-82.

The illustrations show Nim washing up, and two book covers: the front of Hess’s book, and the back cover of Terrace’s book Nim, picturing the author and the chimpanzee.

As to Nim’s later life: he stayed at the IPS until 1982, when it began to fail as a paying concern. He was then sold on to somewhere very much worse, New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, with its grotesquely inappropriate acronym LEMSIP. After a very public controversy, in which Terrace took a part arguing for special treatment in Nim’s case (other chimpanzees were sold to LEMSIP at the same time and stayed), Nim was taken back to the IPS. In 1983, Nim was sold again, this time to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, property of the animal activist Cleveland Amory. This was a wholly benevolent animal sanctuary, but it was primarily for equines, and for a year or so Nim lived a wretched life alone in a cage, a period vividly recorded in the film Project Nim. Then other chimpanzees were brought to Black Beauty, and we can hope that Nim lived a reasonably contented life until his premature death at 26 years of age in 2000.





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.


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, when vivisection was at approximately its high-point in the U.K. (over 5 million animals used in that year), though the numbers have been steadily 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.


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.





Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MRCVS, part 2

In part 1 of this post, I mentioned the books written  by the vet James Herriot. His reminiscences are no doubt coloured up for better entertainment, but they’re also authentic records of veterinary life and of the changes, good and bad, brought to it during the later 20th Century. In fact librarians, undeceived by the slapstick elements, shelve them under ‘Animal Husbandry’ (Dewey Decimal 636). So it’s worth having a look at one such book, The Lord God Made Them All, before returning to today’s veterinary scene.

The book was published in 1981, but is set in the years following the Second World War, when veterinary medicine was just starting to take advantage of the antibiotics whose development had been hurried forward by the needs of that war. Herriot astonishes some of his farming clients, and himself also, with the new therapies, and at the end of the book, his partner Siegfried Farnon contemplates the changing scene with characteristic optimism:

Look at all the new advances since the war. Drugs and procedures we never dreamed of. We can look after our animals in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago and the farmers realise this. You’ve seen them crowding into the surgery on market day to ask advice – they’ve gained a new respect for the profession and they know it pays to call the vet now … There are great days ahead!

The suggestion is that the interests of animal, vet, and farmer (the client) would in future be more nearly at one. And certainly the problems of a three-way pull – what the modern British Veterinary Association calls the “veterinary surgeon’s trilemma” – has been well illustrated in the earlier parts of the book. In Chapter Ten, Herriot injects a cow for ‘foul of the foot’ (Fusiformis necrophorus) with one of the new drugs. The foot is miraculously healed, but the site of the injection, the cow’s jugular vein, develops phlebitis, and shortly afterwards the cow dies. Herriot is painfully upset about the cow, of course: “To any conscientious veterinary surgeon, killing a patient is a terrible thought”. Then there is the loss to the farmer, severe enough to raise “the possibility that he might be going to sue me”. Finally, “I had lost the practice a good client, and that was not a pleasant thought either.”

It happens that the farmer in this case is a very sympathetic character, and the disaster stops with the cow, so that the story simply shows two humane people doing their best for an animal – the standard model, one might hope and suppose, of the veterinary scene. But not all the Dales farmers are so humane. One of the cartoons by Larry which illustrate the earlier editions of these books shows Herriot attending to another sick cow, while a farmer gloomily watches, a thought bubble above his head picturing a cash register with money falling out cows on Port Meadowof it. Even the vet, says Herriot, “must always have the farmer’s commercial interest in mind”, and tell him or her “when treatment is obviously unprofitable”. It must be so, while animals are traded goods.

And then there is the larger conflict or contradiction, unaffected by the humanity or otherwise of the farmer or vet. Herriot calls it “the fundamental sadness of a country vet’s work – that so many of our patients are ultimately destined for the butcher’s hook”. He himself, for all his obvious kindness, is necessarily reconciled to this sadness, and is, besides, himself a ‘mighty trougher’, to use his own phrase. When that cow with phlebitis dies, it’s an index of Herriot’s dismay that he can’t face the “nice slice of home-fed ham” laid out for his breakfast, but there seems to be no ironic intention in that phrase: the conscientious man has simply lost his appetite.

However, he surely does feel and intend the irony in those words of Siegfried Farnon’s about looking after our animals in a way that would previously have been impossible. For what, among other things, those new “drugs and procedures” turned out to have made possible were the progressive de-naturing of the life of the farm-animal and the kind of “looking after” which is practised on the modern factory farm – that cruel and squalid scene which vets today find themselves servicing.

And now at last, as I said at the end of the previous post, the veterinary profession seems to be hoping to get some ethical grip on this development, and more generally on the human/animal relation as mediated by the vet. In the BVA’s document Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare, published in February, the three-way pull is given a proper ethical formulation. In future, it says, the interests of the animals will be

our explicit aim and motivator … working with our clients and being economically viable are enablers for us to improve animal welfare … The veterinary surgeon’s trilemma (arising from our duties to animals, clients and our employers) will never be far away but the BVA, in considering veterinary surgeons’ primary motivation, will provide leadership on the principle of the veterinary profession being animal welfare-focused. [Here and in subsequent quotations, I have added the italics]

Specifically in relation to farming, here are some of the BVA’s intentions, as summarised in the document:

Develop a position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture that includes the importance of animal welfare in sustainable development, defines stakeholders that the veterinary profession should consistently account for (those whose interests would be affected by decisions made) and considers how their interests should be weighed by an animal welfare-focused profession • Review BVA’s own food procurement policy in light of an agreed position on humane, sustainable animal agriculture • Link advocacy on priority animal welfare problems to increased consumer awareness of assurance schemes that seek to address these problems.

The civil service prose makes this all sound rather abstract and office-bound, but the intention is clear enough, that vets should occupy at last their proper role as animal advocates, both individually in their daily work and as a profession. In fact the BVA has already been campaigning alongside – though not, as far as I know, in collaboration with – Animal Aid on the subjects of CCTV in slaughterhouses and non-stun slaughter (see the Times, 12 May, p.22). Before the recent national and local elections, the BVA sent a “manifesto” to all the candidates, putting its concerns on these and other matters. And although the new policy is evidently being purposefully directed by the current President of the BVA, Sean Wensley, it has been based on extensive consultation, during which the profession’s members have made clear that this is what they wish their profession to be like. In fact the policy builds on a slightly earlier publication issued jointly by the BVA and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and entitled Vet Futures, where similar intentions were expressed:

We need to clarify the expectations we have of ourselves – and the public has of us – in terms of challenging any practice that undermines animal health and welfare. Vets and veterinary nurses need to feel confident that they have the authority and expertise to speak out, and will be supported by their peers when they do so. 

The crucial anomaly, Herriot’s “fundamental sadness”, remains, that a vet’s work with farm animals will entail keeping them fit to be killed and eaten before they reach maturity – as children, in fact – just as a research vet’s work means fitting animals for premature death in the laboratory. But it’s significant that the BVA document itself makes the comparison with child-care: “We [i.e. the public] expect a paediatrician to prioritise the best interests of their young patients, enabled by the child’s parents/guardians and the doctor’s skills and resource.” And it’s certain that we don’t expect a paediatrician to prepare children for the table, or for the laboratory bench and incinerator. True, the word ‘interests’ is used there, rather than ‘rights’, a word which does not appear in the BVA document. Still, the concept of rights is plainly implied, and perhaps most plainly of all where the document speaks of animal welfare as “a rapidly evolving social concern, following on from moral progress towards women, minority groups, people with disabilities, children and others”. That sequence has been habitually and convincingly put forward as part of the animal rights argument. Now at last the veterinary profession has acknowledged it, and means to act accordingly.

Of course Mr Hyde is meanwhile still busily at work in the profession, notably in the research world (which unfortunately the BVA does not even mention). The Royal Veterinary College, for instance, seems to have taken no part in the new vision. The Animal Health Trust (the “pre-eminent” charity studying and treating ill-health in animals) is a licensee with the Home Office, and joins the RVC among the signatories to the vivisectors’ ‘Concordat’. Veterinary journals still publish gruesome laboratory research, and their solemn cautions to prospective authors, as to the welfare of the animals used, turn out to be no more than reminders of the 1986 Act. And so on. In fact readers of Robert Louis Stevenson will recall that the savage Mr Hyde does finally prevail over Dr Jekyll, though at the prompt cost of his own life. Since March of last year, UK vets have (quite rightly) been permitted to title themselves ‘Dr’: let’s hope it’s a prognosis of their increasing commitment to the more civilized of those two models of the human being, the one that doesn’t start by destroying its fellows and end by destroying itself.


[References: the BVA’s Vets Speaking up for Animal Welfare: BVA Animal Welfare Strategy (2016) and the joint BVA/RCVS Vet Futures: a Vision for the Veterinary Profession for 2030 (2015) can both be read online. The quotations from The Lord God Made Them All (Michael Joseph 1981) are taken from the BCA edition of the same year, pp.348, 84-5, and 234.]




Revenge on the Farm

The previous post featured a Teach Yourself title of 1965, Modern Poultry Keeping, championing the new factory model for British chicken-farming nearly new, anyway, for already the toll of chickens eaten in the U.K. had increased from 1 million in 1950 to about 150 million in the year of that book’s publication. Today, it’s approaching 1 billion. And of course biotechnology has been backing or pushing the progress all the way.

Accordingly, most of the 139,000 birds which appear in the Home Office’s statistics for animal research in 2014 were so-called ‘domestic fowl (Gallus domesticus)’. These were chosen to pioneer, test, or otherwise provide information about farm-animal disease (6,512 birds), drugs and poisons (11,045) feed safety (8,553), GM possibilities (798), etc. etc.  Really the word ‘domestic’ is now a sad misnomer for this animal which research and development have done so much to evict from its own or anyone else’s home-life. As the novelist Patricia Highsmith notes, when she sets the scene for her chicken-farm story ‘The Day of Reckoning’, “not a chicken in sight!” This is a fine come-uppance story which I shall, in a moment, add to the category discussed last month under the heading ‘Animal Revenges’ (15 February). But first a little more about science on the farm.

I also mentioned in the previous post Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, which at that same mid-60s time made public the immorality of the new farming. There was a very welcome re-issue of this book in 2013, and in the new introductory pages we are told that although ‘improving animal welfare’ has now become “one of the key ways a scientist can demonstrate the importance and impact of their work”, still “Ruth’s work is not yet done”.

Not indeed, and surely not even as well on the way as those words seem rather complacently to imply. As to ‘improving animal welfare’: that it has become a respectable scientific discipline is certainly a good thing (although 1,509 domestic fowl apparently had to be sacrificed for it in 2014); that it took so long to do so is something which the Royal Veterinary College might reasonably be asked to explain, if it wasn’t for the fact that, being itself a vivisector, that organisation is also itself part of the explanation. For to relegate ‘animal welfare’ (as opposed to mere animal health) for as long as possible to the realm of the ‘sentimental’ amateur has been very helpful to all such institutions. But anyway, even this celebrated advance is partly, perhaps largely, Feather coverage is greatly reduced on the birds, AFPhumbug. Most technical or biomedical innovations in the process of turning animals into food can also, with a little thought and PR, be presented as good for the animals, if that’s also good for their own “importance and impact”. Even the recent grotesque experiment in featherlessness turned out to be altruistic: with their feathers on, it was said, chickens “suffer tremendously” from over-heating in broiler sheds, at any rate in hot countries.

As to Ruth Harrison’s work being “not yet done”, it’s rather the point of that story of Patricia Highsmith’s to show that there’s only one way to get that work done, if we really do want it done, so I shall now turn to ‘The Day of Reckoning’.

The story is set in North America in the early 1970s, but like all good cautionary tales it will do for anywhere, any time a point which I shall illustrate in square brackets here and there. John Hanshaw, a young politics student, is paying a visit to his uncle Ernie’s farm or rather to Hanshaw Chickens, Inc., as it’s proudly called now that Ernie has made the change of farming method urged by our Teach Yourself title. So now there’s a “long grey barn … huge, covering the whole area where the cow barn and pigpens had been”. Ernie Hanshaw himself has turned from husbandman into the sort of engineer that Teach Yourself prefers: “Machine farming”, he exclaims to his nephew; “just imagine, one man – me – can run the whole show!” At meals, his talk is “of vitamins and antibiotics in his chicken feed, and his produce of one and a quarter eggs per day per hen.” [Title of paper to be read at the forthcoming World’s Poultry Science Association meeting at Chester University: ‘The effect of high levels of whole barley with enzyme supplementation on laying hen performance’]

What this change means for the animals, Patrician Highsmith makes plain enough. A modern reader will not be taken by surprise, except perhaps by the so-far modest scale of Hanshaw’s one shed, holding perhaps a few thousand birds. [Application at present before York City Council: plan for a broiler ‘farm’ at Rufforth accommodating 288,000 birds at any one time, with six ‘crops’ a year] The lighting system deludes these young birds into behaving as if it’s Spring, and therefore into wearing themselves out laying eggs steadily for ten months. This and their close confinement (they “couldn’t turn around in their coops”) has so disturbed them that, as Hanshaw’s wife Helen unhappily says, “Our chickens are insane”. But Patricia Highsmith also makes it clear that they have not lost the urge to live according to their nature. They are either trying to do so (“Much of the flurry in the barn was caused by chickens trying to fly upward”), or expressing their frustration at the impossibility, through neurotic behaviour which is in its turn frustrated: “They’re de-beaked. They’d peck each other through the wire, if they weren’t … ever hear of cannibalism among chickens, John?” [Advice from the Virginia Tech Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty: “Don’t take chances! Make cannibalism control part of your management program and you will save a great deal of time and money.”]

By contrast there is, not far away from Hanshaw Chickens Inc., one of those unreconstructed farms of the mixed and under-automated variety so much deplored by Teach Yourself (although, as that book’s author says, “thankfully the numbers become fewer each year”). On this farm, the hens live a more or less natural life: “They can see the sun! They can fly! … And scratch for worms – and eat watermelon!” Those cries of sympathetic pleasure are human, but not therefore necessarily more complex than the pleasures which they respond to. Still, implicit in them there is this much more, an idea of freedom which may turn into something more thought-out and purposeful. So Helen adds, “Sometimes I want to open all the coops in the barn and open the doors and let ours loose, just to see them walking on the grass for a few minutes.” And the same idea is more powerfully represented in a dream which John has that night:

He was flying like Superman in Ernie’s chicken barn, and the lights were all blazing brightly. Many of the imprisoned chickens looked up at him, their eyes flashed silver, and they were struck blind. The noise they made was fantastic. They wanted to escape, but could no longer see, and the whole barn heaved with their efforts to fly upward. John flew about frantically, trying to find the lever to open the coops, the doors, anything, but he couldn’t.

In this brilliantly imagined episode, John Hanshaw, airborne but struggling ineffectually with the man-made machinery, becomes physiologically identified with the chickens and their urge to freedom. At the same time, as a super-man, he is the one active and practical possibility to which they look for its realisation.

And at this point I go back to the comment which Stephen Eisenman added to that post ‘Revenges of the Animals’, mentioning his recent article entitled ‘The Real “Swinish Multitude”’. In that article, he has proposed a way of understanding and acknowledging, as political history, the liberation efforts of animals: a “history from below” of the kind which E. P. Thompson so notably pioneered in his Making of the English Working Class (1963). Without such a history, a resistance or liberation movement lacks the self-awareness and coherent vision which it needs if it is to be cumulative in what it achieves, and if it is to be finally respected and given the place it claims: in short, if it’s to win. As Jason Hribal’s African saying goes, “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero” (see again ‘Revenges of the Animals’). And this is where even the lion must look upward, like Hanshaw’s hens, to higher (or let’s say, different) faculties than he or they possess. But not just in the writing: “All political resistance requires collaboration, mutual aid, and action in common”, says Stephen Eisenman: “… This is how animal protest occurs – sympathy and collaboration between humans and animals striving for liberty.”

Even purely human revolt is driven by a full spectrum of motive, from the most deeply buried collective instinct to flourish (“the whole barn heaved with their efforts”), through to the intellectually formulated insistence on the right to do so. Anyone who has ever been part of an impassioned demonstration will have felt this. All of the less verbalised region of motive we can share with the animals: but it is up to us, as specialised thinkers, to supply what Eisenman calls “higher level executive function”, our capacity to deal with the man-made world and its machinery, political and material. It’s what John Hanshaw tries to supply in his dream, sharing but also rising out of the common urgency of the barn to do so.

Stephen Eisenman summarises thus: “animals live in a political and not simply a biological arena; … they communicate to each other and to us their desires for safety, companionship, and love; and … their aspirations for freedom cannot be easily separated from the project of human emancipation.” It’s the meaning of Patricia Highsmith’s story too. The hens are a pathetic few months old, hardly more than children, but they have an insistent collective interest, clearly communicated, and as clearly refused by force. It’s a political situation. And bound into it is a human bafflement only slightly less poignant. For the farm is an inhuman place for the people as well as for the animals: seed sack bleak and dangerous. [See label, right, from a sack of dressed seed.] The sort of thing that happens to the Hanshaws’ kitten, run over by one of the huge service-vehicles (its flattened corpse is the first and emblematic sign of ‘life’ that John sees when he first arrives on his visit), might equally happen to one of the family and indeed does. The young daughter is caught and killed under a descending grain-container. And it’s this shock that precipitates the “reckoning” of the title. What John only attempted in a dream, Helen, the bereaved mother, gets done. The hens, themselves bereaved mothers though they haven’t ‘known’ it, come pouring out of the sabotaged barn and, though scarcely able to walk (“staggering, falling on their sides … falling backwards”), begin to reclaim their species-life, their birthright: “Look! … They don’t know what grass is! But they like it!” And John and Helen share in this liberation: they and the chickens are equally described as “mad”, a revolutionary madness perhaps.

As for poor Ernie, obsessed and (not unlike his hens) wretchedly depreciated by the mechanisation he thinks so highly of … well, the “reckoning” itself is between him and the hens, and readers of Patricia Highsmith will guess that it’s surprisingly unpleasant.

‘The Day of Reckoning’ was published in 1975, part of a collection of stories called The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. All but one are come-uppance stories, mostly told from within the mind of the animals (“history from below”, in fact): elephant, camel, truffle-pig, rat, goat, and others. The exception is a fine study, likewise from within, of a fastidious cockroach, though even he (it is a he), by making his way in a hostile man-made world, triumphs. That punning title, Beastly Murder, may initially seem to mean ‘horrible murders by animals’. But as you read the stories, the libellously pejorative sense of ‘beastly’ is worn away, and the title comes rather to mean the murders which animals might be driven to commit  in pursuit of, and within the means of, their proper nature: beast-like bids to live beast-like lives.

“Agriculture”, says the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “is applied biology, and it’s where a lot of today’s cutting edge science is getting done.” No; freedom is applied biology, and it’s in accordance with that principle that we must re-write animal history, in words and in their lives and our own.


[References: the 2013 edition of Animal Machines is published by CABI, and Beastly Murder (1975) by Heinemann; Stephen Eisenman’s article appears in Critical Inquiry, vol.42, no.2 (Winter 2016), pp.339-373; the quotations from research institutions and the Home Office animal research analysis can be found on the relevant web-sites; featherless chicken report from BBC Online News, 21 May 2002.]

Revenges of the Animals

There’s a showy funeral in chapter 19 of Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, expressive of the selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy which drive the plot of that gloomy book. The centre-piece, naturally enough, is the hearse itself and its fine team of horses, and here for a most surprising moment Dickens takes a view past the individual human vices on parade, towards a great collective wrong:

The four hearse-horses especially, reared and pranced, and showed their highest action, as if they knew a man was dead, and triumphed in it. “They break us, drive us, ride us; ill-treat, abuse and maim us for their pleasure – But they die: Hurrah, they die!”

It’s an astonishingly eloquent passage, readable as poetry in the way many of Dickens’s most passionate utterances are. The moral challenge in it was of course far more immediate at the time of writing (1840s), when horses were essential to the nation’s daily life, and accordingly ubiquitous. But even now, who could read it without a shock or thrill?

Of course it’s only fantasy: a rhetorician would call it personification, a scientist anthropomorphism. Still, it’s a way of telling the truth. And that charge of anthropomorphism, belittling our native capacity to understand the world beyond humans, is anyway a dangerous and suspect taboo. For, as the historian Jason Hribal has said, if we have to distrust our reading of animal minds, then sympathy is a delusion, and science and industry will be able to “continue their exploitation of other animals in a completely unquestioned and unmolested fashion.” The quotation comes from his book Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch, 2010), which is exactly an attempt upon that taboo. It’s a collection of evidences – mainly from zoos and circuses – to the effect that animals do feel rational resentment, of the sort imputed by Dickens to the hearse-horses, and that they do act upon it. For instance, he tells the story of the elephant Sue, a performer for the Jordan Circus in North America, who turned upon her two handlers in 1994 (both of whom survived the experience). Having “beaten up” one of them, she “turned her attention to the other employee. Sue ran down the woman and kicked the crap out of her.”

The impassioned language there recalls the “Hurrah” of the hearse-horses: equally the writer’s rather than the animal’s – of course, since the language is ours. But Hribal reports the incident in enough detail to justify insisting that the attack was not an irrational frenzy (Jordan Circus claimed that Sue had simply been “spooked” by a nearby horse) but a targeted resentment such as humans might feel. And this he does likewise for any number of escapes and retaliations, whose circumstances show them to have been (so he believes) not the unmeaning struggles of instinct, as habitually characterised afterwards by their ‘owners’, but purposeful efforts at freedom and redress. As the introduction (by Jeffrey St. Clair) says, this is “the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view … history written from the end of the chain, from inside the cage, from the depths of the tank.”

Hribal cites an African proverb: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.” And Hribal himself has wished to be such a historian. But history of that kind is hard to research and authenticate; the lion keeps no records of the hunt, and most or all of the people who do keep them are partisans of the hunter. We should therefore be especially grateful for those more speculative or notional forms of history which artists and writers practise, and in which, like Dickens in the passage above, they have long been honouring the lion and the lion’s maltreated kind, and reprobating the hunter and all his kind. So much so, that it really constitutes a genre of its own, a genre which I would entitle ‘Man’s Come-Uppance’. Perhaps there is already a proper anthology of the genre; if not, there ought to be. I shall mention five or six instances chosen more or less at random, but I would be very glad to be reminded of or introduced to others, and to talk further about them all later.

Tipu’s Tiger: This life-size model was made on the instructions of Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, in the late 18th century. Although it primarily expressed Tipu’s hatred of the British East India Company, it probably records more particularly the unfortunate death in the manner shown of a member of the Company who had been out hunting. An organ within the model makes roaring and groaning sounds appropriate to the shocking incident. Tipu’s Tiger is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Struwwelpeter: Heinrich Hoffmann’s picture of the hare getting her (note that it is a female) own back on the hunter comes from his remarkable book for children which was first published under the title Lustige Geschichten (= Merry Stories) in 1844, the year after Martin Chuzzlewit. In this particular story, the hunter takes a nap, during which the hare steals his gun. The man’s spectacles, worn in mockery by the hare, show up his reliance on prosthetics – gun and glasses – to assert his mastery. Without these, he ceases to be a hero even to himself. The hare’s aim is inaccurate, and the chase ends with the hunter falling down a well. The picture will stand as an image for this whole subject. 

The Terror: The novelist Arthur Machen wrote this story during the First World War, when humanity seemed to be turning upon and disgracing its own species. It’s a mystery-cum-horror story, in which a succession of strange and violent deaths across Britain, at first attributed to some secret weaponry or fifth column of the German enemy, is finally seen to be the work of insurrectionary animals, including even moths (there! I’ve given away the mystery, but the story is rather wearisomely told, I’m afraid, and is really more interesting without it). At the end, the narrator suggests that humanity was nearly deposed (the insurrection comes to nothing in the end) because, no longer respecting itself, it had forfeited the respect of its fellow-creatures. Accordingly his last words are “They have risen once – they may rise again.”

The Birds: Daphne du Maurier’s famous story of bird turning upon man, published in 1952, is set just after the Second World War, and it may likewise have been partly the product of unease and diffidence about the human species prompted by that second lapse into mass self-destruction. But I would suggest that both these stories have their effect because, knowing as we do the long history of wrong done by humans to other animals, we must feel that such a retaliation, whether possible or not, is our due.

I’ll end for now with a writer who gave the subject much more sustained and coherent attention than either Arthur Machen or Daphne du Maurier did: that is, C. S. Lewis. His poem ‘Pan’s Purge’  imagines a time when “peremptory humanity” seems to have defeated the natural world; then gradually the animals (C. S. Lewis enjoys listing them) realise their remaining strength and turn upon their oppressor:  Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, / Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man. (But note that “saints and savages” are exempted from retribution, and optimistically allowed to make a new and better start.) It’s a short poem only, but there’s space in it for a gathering tragic relish in the spectacle of right being vindicated. That same sentiment gathers strength likewise in the novels of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and culminates, towards the end of That Hideous Strength, in a similar catastrophic revenge of the animals. This time it’s a mass break-out from a large-scale vivisection laboratory, and the animals burst in upon a showy and hubristic dinner intended to celebrate the achievements of a science institution. Certainly there’s plenty of “Hurrah, they die!” again here. (For more about this element in the trilogy, see )

As I said, I’d be glad to hear of any other such ‘come-uppance’ stories, episodes, pictures, poetry, etc.