Dog on a Lilo

The author William Trevor has been generally acknowledged as a master of the short story form, often likened in this to Anton Chekhov. One of the last of the stories published in his life-time (he died in 2016) was ‘Folie a Deux’, coming at the end of his 2007 collection Cheating at Canasta. The story’s title refers to shared madness or aberration, a phenomenon in psychopathology with quite a clinical literature of its own. The aberration in this case is shared by two young boys, who together cause a dog to drown in the sea.

Boys are notoriously cruel. Chekhov himself, in his story ‘Kashtanka’, shows one of them tormenting his father’s dog by feeding her a piece of meat on a string and then gleefully pulling it back out again. But Trevor’s two boys are not cruel. They are pleasant well-brought-up boys, and the old limping dog Jericho is their liked companion in seaside explorations. Inquisitive is what they are, the less conventional boy Anthony especially so. Much of what he says takes the form of questions: “Why’re you called that?” he asks when they first meet. “Am I older than you?” “Do you know what an orphan is?” Not that Anthony himself is an orphan; in fact it’s evident that his father has a continuing part in this habit of enquiry. “Information was everything, Anthony’s father maintained”, and at lunchtimes particularly he imparts it: “Why aeroplanes flew, how clocks kept time, why spiders spun their webs and how they did it.”

The boys meet each year at Anthony’s house by the sea during the summer holidays. The questions asked by Anthony become more practical and scientific. “‘What would happen if you didn’t eat?’ Anthony wondered.” (For the grown-up version of this question, asked and tried out on animals with similar simplicity of mind, see the post ‘Starvation Street’ at 5 June 2017 in this blog.) The boys experiment with a water hose to create a rainbow. “A jellyfish was scooped into a shrimp net to see if it would perish or survive when it was tipped out onto the sand” (but they are told to put it back into the sea).

“What would happen if . . . to see if . . .” Among professionals, it’s called basic research: “to see what happens” was indeed a phrase used by the pioneering experimental physiologist Claude Bernard. And as Anthony progresses at school, he is noted as clever at science and maths subjects. The way things unhappily turn out, however, he doesn’t progress far.

One summer, the boys find a bright yellow Lilo washed up on the beach. With their inducement and assistance, the dog Jericho willingly climbs on to it, and they launch him out to sea: “He played his part, going with the Lilo when it floated out, a deep black shadow, sharp against the garish yellow.” (As William Rutherford, Professor of Physiology at Edinburgh University, told the Royal Commission in 1876, “it is wonderful what one may do to a sheep-dog without the animal making any commotion”, and Jericho is a black Labrador, an equally biddable breed of dog.) No ugly force or Buccleuch_Avon_(1885)excitement, then. It’s all done in the merely inquisitive manner of their other researches: “They watched as they had watched the hosepipe rainbow gathering colour . . . they wondered what would happen, what the dog would do.” And yet they know that a primal wrong is being done. Their knowledge and their shame is expressed by the silence which falls between them even as they do it, and which endures: “Nothing was said as they watched the drowning of the dog . . . They did not ever speak to one another about the drowning of the dog.” As time passes, this silence grows and alienates the boys from each other.

In Seamus Heaney’s famous poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’, a boy fascinated by frogspawn, and devoted to collecting it, has a curative shock when he witnesses the mass mating of the frogs themselves, and imagines in it an avenging motive against himself. ‘Folie a Deux’ pictures likewise the ‘death’ of an experimental physiologist, but the revulsion here is both less dramatic and more profound. The story makes clear that the transgression is not something imagined in the childish mind: it has a real presence and meaning of its own. The folie or act of madness consists in drowning the dog; the shame and the silence that follow are its rational and proper consequence.

As the story presents them, these seaside days are being recalled in adult life by the second participant, whom we only know by his surname ‘Wilby’. This is a man comfortably placed in life, and indeed attached to comfort, material and mental. He has a good income from the sale of his family wine business, and in a gentlemanly way he now deals in rare stamps. The Jericho incident is something which he has almost forgotten, the more easily because he heard, long ago, that Anthony was dead. We are told, “He has lived easily with an aberration, then shaken it off: what happened was almost nothing.”

But now he has to learn otherwise. Pursuing his philately in Paris, Wilby takes a meal in an unaspiring little brasserie, and he sees Anthony there. The schoolboy whom he knew, clever at science and maths, now works in the brasserie’s kitchen as cleaner and washer-up. Although Wilby resists the idea, he knows that this menial work which Anthony does with evident thoroughness, and often enough (as we learn) without taking even the small wage owed for it – in fact Anthony’s whole austere and solitary way of life – is a response to the death of the dog. Nothing so purposeful as expiation or redemption is being attempted, Wilby realizes. The durability of the memory and of the silence (they do not mention the incident, or indeed converse much at all) implies anyway that there can be no expiation. Simply the drowning of the dog is something that Anthony “honours because it matters still.” And although Wilby, more conventional and more selfish, will recover peace of mind among the stamps of the Paris sale, he finds that “he likes himself less than he likes his friend.”

That last line of the story, characteristically unemphatic, is the only comment which Trevor makes, even indirectly, on this brief tragedy (twenty pages long). Nor does he expressly relate the story to anything beyond the two boys and their glimpsed adulthoods. But it’s easy enough for the reader to do so, because the story catches the subject at its source, showing the spirit of scientific enquiry at the moment of its tragic over-reach: the whole history of vivisection is therefore implied in it. When John Vyvyan nears the end of his account of twentieth-century animal research, The Dark Face of Science, he concludes that while such things as he has recounted are done, “the human race has no right to happiness.” That, scaled to the personal, is the moral also of Trevor’s fable. It’s what has brought Anthony to the brasserie kitchen.


Notes and references:

‘Folie à Deux’ was first published in the New Yorker, and then in Cheating at Canasta (Viking, 2007).

The post ‘Starvation Street’ can be read here:

Claude Bernard is quoted (in translation) by John Vyvyan, In Pity and in Anger (Micah Publications,1988, first publication 1969), p.47. Professor Rutherford was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, as recorded in the Commission’s Report (HMSO, 1876), p.150.

The final quotation is from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971), p.183.

The photograph is of a noted labrador called Bucchleuch Avon in old age (photo from the 1890s and now in the public domain).


A Period Piece

In addition to the very well-known stories about Sherlock Holmes, and all sorts of other stories about soldiers, pirates, pugilists and ghosts, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories about doctors and medicine. This last was his profession, after all, at least until literary success released him from the struggle to earn his living as an oculist in Harley Street. Perhaps because he had this background of personal knowledge and experience, his medical stories often have more realistic plots, and engage with more serious contemporary or perennial problems, than the others do. In fact when these stories were first collected, in a volume entitled Round the Red Lamp (1894), Doyle wrote a preface warning his readers that the contents dealt with the graver side of life” red lamp and might be “bitter to the taste”.

Number eight of the fifteen stories in Round the Red Lamp was ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’, which had first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1890. As its title suggests, the focus of the story is upon the domestic scene, but that scene is strictly conditioned by the professional character of the man in question, Professor Ainslie Grey. Here, in fact, is a careful portrait of what was then still a relatively new figure in the history of medicine, the full-time experimental scientist. We see him only briefly in his laboratory, but already in the story’s second sentence we are told all we need to know about what must be happening there. Either side of the clock on the mantel-piece of the dining room, there are busts of his mentors: John Hunter, the eighteenth-century surgeon and pioneer of experimental research in medicine; and, more significantly, Claude Bernard, the nineteenth-century champion of the use of animals in such research. In real life at this same time, a bust of Bernard supervised the study of Bernard medalOxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, whom one Oxford newspaper called “the high priest of vivisection”.

Similarly expressive are the three academic institutions which Doyle tells us have been the scenes of Grey’s training and early practice hitherto. First of them is Edinburgh, which at about the time when Grey is imagined to have been there (and when Doyle himself was there in reality) had caused a public outcry by advertising for dogs and cats in the Scotsman newspaper (the British Medical Journal urged that “the doings within the walls of the Edinburgh University Physiology Laboratory” should be “kept publicly quiet” in future). Then followed Cambridge, professional scene of Michael Foster, one of the three or four founding British physiologists, co-editor with Burdon Sanderson of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), and author of A Textbook of Physiology (1876: sample from p.262: “Newly born and young animals need much longer immersion in water before death by asphyxia occurs than do adults”). Finally Vienna, a continental centre for vivisection under Professor Stricker, whose one-time assistant Emanuel Klein it was who electrified the Royal Commissioners of 1875-6 with his dogmatic indifference to animal welfare (question 3539: ‘do you mean that you have no regard at all to the sufferings of the animals?’ – ‘No regard at all.’)

In short, Ainslie Grey belongs to that new branch of the medical profession whose members, as one of the Commissioners said, “devote the whole of their time to the study of the laws of life upon animals.” More, he represents it, for his own profession is said to regard him as “the very type and embodiment of all that was best in modern science”. But we’re now to find this paragon of the laboratory briskly turning his attention to the domestic life, and more or less willingly yielding himself, as he says, to “the great evolutionary instinct which makes either sex the complement of the other”.

Natural enough, but for contemporary readers at least this wooing would have had some sinister associations. At that time, the medical profession as a whole was strictly masculine. No woman might belong to the BMA (though one, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, had got in before a ban could be formalized). To Professor Grey, as to Burdon Sanderson himself, such a prohibition seemed soundly based: “It is a question of avoirdupois … The female cerebrum averages two ounces less in weight than the male.” And there was the character weakness too: “It is because women by virtue of their organization are more liable than men to be handicapped by emotion that they will always fail in the race.” [first speaker Professor Grey, second one Professor Burdon Sanderson] In the particular case of the physiologist, this general background of assured superiority and command seems to have taken on a more ominous character, at any rate in some popular representations of his work and personality. The moral domination of the woman, and the physical intrusion into the helpless animal, were assimilated or confused, so that vivisection became associated with sexual violence and perversion. It was an idea somewhat encouraged by the unappealing but current image of nature itself as a woman subject to the researcher’s curiosity: “It has been said,” Bernard himself observed, “that the experimenter must force nature to unveil herself, and indeed he does …”

Among the fictions of the period which worked on this idea of the research animal as symbolic of the woman, or exchangeable with her, were Leonard Graham’s novel The Professor’s Wife (1881), the 1883 novel Heart and Science, discussed elsewhere in this blog, and The Beth Book, Sarah Grand’s novel of 1897, in which, again, the heroine marries a vivisector. Later it strayed into pornography, and it can be found also in rumours that Jack the Ripper’s 1880s murders were the work of a deranged vivisector. Doyle’s story treats such implications very obliquely, perhaps even involuntarily, but in his readers the very title he chose would probably have caused an uncomfortable frisson.

And certainly, when the professor visits the young widow Mrs O’James, whom he proposes to marry, there’s a disturbing contrast between his own personality and manner – “cold and impassive” – and hers, characterised by suggestions of vitality: “quick”, “sensitive”, “wilful”, “strongly feminine”. These suggestions are interpreted by Ainslie Grey with dismal professionalism. When Mrs O’James accepts his proposal of marriage “with a sharp, quick gesture which had in it something of abandon and recklessness”, she can’t help showing her inward stresses in her face: noticing these signs, Grey observes “Your nerves are shaken. Some little congestion of the medulla and pons.” Teasing the man, she calls this reductivism “dreadfully unromantic”, to which Grey solemnly answers, “Romance is the offspring of imagination and of ignorance.”

The professor soon discovers that Mrs O’James has been reading “Hale’s Matter and Life”. It’s a book title which (as far as I can find) Doyle made up for the occasion, rather in the way he used to enjoy referring to unwritten Sherlock Holmes adventures (“the Conk-Singleton forgery case”, “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family”, etc.). But we can supply the philosophy of the book from its title. Making a dualism of the world, it must be imagined putting the case for some variety of ‘vitalism’, the idea that there is a property peculiar to living things which will never be explained in the material terms of physics and chemistry. The professor shies at this insight into Mrs O’James’s thinking: “a feeble reasoner … I should not recommend you to found your conclusions upon ‘Hale’.” Not that Doyle himself, or many other science-trained minds of his time, would have subscribed to vitalism either. The book is really there to ask the more general question: is life a special category, requiring more than reason and observation to know it and to assess its value?

Doyle’s narrative seems to urge that it is. For although this unhappily ill-matched pair do indeed marry, it turns out that the physiologist nevertheless has no wife (I shall not explain why, though the plot is familiar from the Sherlock Holmes canon). It’s a shocking discovery whose cruelty to himself the professor characteristically (and at his best here) refuses to acknowledge, though we’re told that he “had found out at last how hard it is to rise above one’s humanity.” In fact he cannot do so, and the blow gradually kills him. The two doctors who have to certify Grey’s death feel “some slight embarrassment” at identifying its cause. Confident that it’s “what the vulgar would call a broken heart”, they daren’t offend Grey’s memory with such a suggestion. They therefore leave the Hale question unresolved: “Let us call it cardiac, anyhow.”

Compared to the Wilkie Collins novel, Heart and Science, ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ is a plain, unmelodramatic account of the vivisector and his implications for modern culture (though the discovery which wrecks the marriage makes for a sensational turning-point). More to the point, Doyle does not set out to censure vivisection itself, as Collins had done. True, he had been dismayed by the practices of his own professor of Physiology at Edinburgh, William Rutherford: “He was, I fear, a rather ruthless vivisector … I am glad that the law was made more stringent so as to restrain such men as he.” Anyone who has read Doyle’s fictions about the impatient and furiously aggressive Professor Challenger, a character based on Rutherford, will be able to imagine that ruthlessness all too well, nor are we likely to be much impressed by Rutherford’s own claim to be “extremely sensitive” to the sufferings of animals. (He made that claim in a characteristically aggressive letter to the press, and backed it in the same spirit with an evident readiness to go to law against his detractors in the matter). However, as his comment on Rutherford suggests, Doyle did not oppose vivisection in principle. He had even vigorously defended it in public debate only a few years before he wrote ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’. What then to make of the story?

Certainly it’s a cautionary tale. The ‘other man’ in the story is also a scientist, in fact another physiologist (Grey’s former prize student), but one in whom the professional mind has not taken the whole man prisoner. This is a man of quick sympathy and impulsive emotion. As he admits in conversation with Ainslie Grey, “Either my brain is too small or my heart is too big.” And the story endorses his humanity, rewarding him with the woman of whom it has deprived the other man. The lesson might thus far be applied to any person subject to the temptations of ‘scientism’, an overgrowth of confidence in the scientific method and corresponding disparagement of the kinds of truth and value which science cannot deal with or authenticate. In fact it’s one of the merits imputed to the scientist-subject of John Betjeman’s touching obituary poem ‘In Memoriam Walter Ramsden’, where he speaks of  “That old head so full of knowledge, that good heart that kept the brains / All right.”

But Arthur Conan Doyle’s story goes further than that, whether he meant it to or not. After all, it’s specifically as a physiologist that Ainslie Grey attempts “to rise above one’s humanity”, with those European centres of animal research behind him, and Claude Bernard’s image on his mantel-piece. Bernard himself had famously described, in his introduction to the subject of experimental physiology, his ideal worker in the physiological laboratory: “A physiologist is not an ordinary man, he is a savant, a man fascinated by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that is shed, he sees only his idea and perceives only organisms hiding from him the secrets which he intends to uncover.” For Bernard, the “no longer” means that the man of science has gone beyond the lay sensibilities of the ordinary contemporary man, risen above them indeed: in just that respect is he “modern” in his work, as Professor Grey is noted for being. Doyle shows that it is rather a case of leaving behind something essential to the complete human: how essential, Ainslie Grey, or at least his doctors, have to discover. But in a man both modern and representative, the loss must have much more than personal or momentary implications.

So this is indeed a period piece, a study of a man peculiarly of his time. Unfortunately the moral flaw or misconstruction that defeats him personally is one that he and his kind bequeathed to succeeding generations of their fellow-professionals.


Notes and references:

The “high priest” sobriquet comes in the Oxford University Herald, 27 October 1883. The British Medical Journal comment is quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.47.

The question to Emanuel Klein was put by the Chair of the Royal Commission, Lord Cardwell, and appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, p.183. The second quotation from one of the commissioners is from p.107.

Burdon Sanderson’s observation about women comes in the Memoir edited by Lady Burdon Sanderson, Oxford, 1911, p.157. I know that the paragraph about the relation between research animals and the Victorian woman is a very perfunctory summary of a complex subject. It’s treated at adequate length (among other places) in Coral Lansbury’s The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, and also by Mary Ann Elston in ‘Women and Anti-Vivisection in Victorian England, 1870-1900’, which is chapter 11 of Nicolaas A. Rupke, Vivisection in Historical Perspective, Croom Helm, 1987.

Doyle’s observations on Rutherford as vivisector are quoted in Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, Florida, 1984, p.70, having appeared originally in Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). The debate about vivisection in which Doyle took part is mentioned in Rodin and Key, p.46.

Claude Bernard quotations are from his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris, 1965), pp.99 and 29, as accessed online at (translation by the writer of this post).

The illustrations show a modern edition of Round the Red Lamp, published by Valancourt Books in 2007, and a 1913 plaque of Claude Bernard (image from the digital collection of Tulane University Library).

Two Merlins and their Tasks

The non-technical summaries of research projects accepted by the Home Office in 2016 were published just before Christmas. There are 31 categories (‘gastrointestinal: basic research’, ‘human sensory organ disorders: translational research’, ‘regulatory purposes’ [the worst, I think], and so on); they comprise a total of 530 projects. Taking part in all this will be mice, rats, voles, bats, ferrets, dogs (one toxicity-testing project proposes to use 1500 dogs), non-human primates, zebra-fishes, sticklebacks, farmed animals of all kinds: “will be”, because of course these are not, as usually with the vivisection numbers one encounters, used and deceased animals, but fated ones only, due to re-appear in the statistics as their ‘procedures’ are completed over the next few years. There’s something additionally poignant about that.

Most of the summaries are about three pages long, so that the 31 ‘volumes’ take up about 1500 pages of reading. It’s very instructive reading, but one sickens of these numbers, these casually listed menageries. It all reminds me (and I’m very glad to think of something else) of Merlyn’s outburst in T.H.White’s Book of Merlyn, when he justifies his suggested alternative name for the human species, Homo ferox:

‘Why,’ cried the old fellow suddenly, flaming out with a peculiar, ancient indignation, ‘there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory. Not a mammal … not a bird … the very fish will dart away. It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.’ [62]

This last book in T.H.White’s Arthurian sequence was written during the Second World War, and war is its main preoccupation. The time is late in the evening, and the aged King Arthur is to encounter his illegitimate son Mordred on the morrow, to settle their differences in treaty or more probably in battle. Merlyn arrives in the King’s tent, and Merlyn cover.JPGtakes him away to join the small fellowship of animals with whom Merlyn keeps company in a badger’s set in Cornwall. There, in a confusion of books, papers, charts, and specimens, they are attempting to make sense of the human addiction to war (another suggested name is Homo impoliticus, man the unruly, man the opposite of what Aristotle flatteringly called him). And since they have the education of a King to complete (“there had been some gaps in your education” [37]), the question is what sort of government will induce men to live peaceably. And the answer is to be reached by “learning from the beasts” [72]: animal research, in fact (Merlyn does call it an “experiment”), but not on the laboratory pattern where, as one practitioner has said, “the lowly rodent” serves the will of “his laboratory master”. Merlyn angrily dismisses such “condescending to the other animals” [57]:

This miserable nonentity among two hundred and forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine others [other species of animal, that is], goes drivelling along his tragic political groove, without ever lifting his eyes to the quarter million examples which surround him. What makes it still more extraordinary is that man is a parvenu among the rest, nearly all of which had already solved his problem in one way or another, many thousand years before he was created. [52-3]

And it’s in order to establish the proper modesty in King Arthur’s image of humanity, and thereby fit him to learn from these examples, that Merlyn so eloquently savages the reputation of his own species in this book (“There are a great many more worms than men, and they do a great deal more good.” [58]). He and his retinue of badger, owl, Trevor Stubleygreyhound, hedgehog and others, drive poor Arthur out of one familiar speciesist defence after another (we know them all): man’s fine material works, his intelligence, his heroism, his love. There’s nothing unique to man in any of these, Merlyn insists. (Rather quaintly, his one hesitant concession is the human affection for pet animals in spite of their “uselessness or even trouble. I cannot help thinking that any traffic in love, which is platonic and not given in exchange for other commodities, must be remarkable.” [69])

To learn more directly than by example from the beasts, King Arthur is first transformed into an ant – a cautionary lesson in totalitarianism. Then, more illuminatingly, he is turned into a goose of the species Anser albifrons, “beautiful creatures, who migrate freely over the whole surface of the globe [the King for a time goes with them] without making claim to any part of it” and who “have never fought a war”. [134] From this seemingly perfected form of loose community, passionately evoked by White, Arthur is reluctantly recalled, still clutching a feather, “his fragment of beauty”. [139]

Merlyn, always impetuously intellectual, formulates the political lessons of all this, but for Arthur, still on the eve of his momentous encounter with Mordred, it has made possible a more visionary understanding: “He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right.” [144] And with this sense of the beauty and self-sufficiency of life merely as such, Arthur looks out over the moon-lit land, his own land as King, admiring and loving it “because it was”, thence loving also its plant life and animals, and finally even its people, in spite of all that Merlyn has truly said about them: “All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness.” [144-5] Exactly not, then, by pre-supposing the superiority of humans, but by coming at them, as nature itself did, by way of all their animal predecessors and relations, is it perhaps possible to accept what they are.

Still, it’s a vision only. The morning  comes. Arthur and Mordred, at the head of their armies, meet and make a treaty. This leaves Arthur quite contented with half his former kingdom, in which he now has hopes of introducing “the germs of that good sense which he had learned from geese and other animals.” [167] But no: a grass-snake, like the one which forms part of Merlyn’s retinue, happens to pass in its proper element among the feet of the soldiers; with human instinct to destroy, a sword is drawn and the snake is pointlessly killed. The abrupt action is mistaken for treachery, “the tumult rose, the war-yell sounded”, and the battle is joined which takes the life, among others, of the King himself. [168]

The second Merlin, spelt thus and presented just a year or two later in the novel That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis, has lain torpid in something like that badger’s set for about fifteen centuries, and is now exhumed suddenly into the light of the twentieth. Both Merlins are in some sense voices of, or for, pre-human or at least pre-Renaissance nature, but whereas T.H.White’s Merlyn has moved as a free observing intelligence through all the possibilities of the organic world, Lewis’s Merlin is a life force hardly distinct from it: “a strangely animal appearance … full of the patient, unarguing sagacity of a beast” with “the voice of a tree”. But he too has the task of correcting somehow the stupidity of mere humanistic power (Homo stultus is another title suggested in White’s book) and of socializing delinquent humanity.

For this Merlin, however, the power-problem is not war but science, a hubristic science escaped from the restraint of humane thought and from the loyalties to nature on which much of that thought has been founded: Lewis speaks of an ideal of scientific progress premised on “the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies”. Although such science has risen out of the study of nature, its aim now, as Lewis pictures it, is to raise humanity above and away from nature, for there is, says his science administrator Lord Feverstone, “far too much of every kind of life about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.” A caricature, no doubt, but Lewis bases it on much that is uncomfortably familiar. For instance, some of what the great and admirable Stephen Hawking says about moving humanity to a new planet would be well-received at Lewis’s National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE). And, of course, entailed in NICE’s project is “an immense programme of vivisection”.

So now we’re back with the fated menageries. These NICE animals (“hundreds of pounds’ worth [1945 values] of living animality, which the Institute could afford to cut up like paper”) have been heard as muffled sounds from time to time in the book, but at last, in the crisis scene of the novel, they escape their fate – among them a tiger, a wolf, snakes, a gorilla, finally an elephant – and gate-crash NICE’s annual self-congratulatory dinner, bringing that and the whole NICE project to a violent end. But not just these animal prisoners are free; there were human ones too. And when, briefly, we learn how they all got out – “Merlin … had liberated beasts and men” – the clear implication is that the salvation of humanity, as well as of the other animals, depends on finding that right place for this “parvenu” in the ancient, imperfect commonwealth of life for which these Merlins speak: not, that is, as a tyrant numbering off the other animals to serve him, preying upon them and also upon his own kind, but as a peaceable member of the community, making it, if not better, at least not immeasurably worse.

Or is that just sentimental new-dawnism? And after all, if humanity is unsaveably ferox, there’s always the consolation which Merlyn mentions, “the suggestion which would probably be made by every other animal on the face of the earth, except man, namely that war is an inestimable boon to creation as a whole, because it does offer some faint hope of exterminating the human race.” [156] Not quite as faint now as when T.H.White wrote that, in 1941, but let’s hope for a better solution, and meanwhile very best wishes for 2018 to all who read this, and to the animals!


Notes and references:

The non-technical summaries of animal research projects are accessible at

The Book of Merlyn was first published in 1977, some years after T.H.White’s death. It was intended as the fifth volume in his Arthurian series, the first four having been published between 1938 and 1958, and collectively in that year as The Once and Future King. The page numbers shown are from the Collins Fontana edition of 1978, which has apt and evocative illustrations by Trevor Stubley (one of which is shown), though the cover is by Stephen Lavis.

The quotation about “lowly rat” and “laboratory master” comes from The Science of Animal Behaviour by P.L.Broadhurst (Penguin Books, 1963), p.135.

That Hideous Strength was published by Bodley Head in 1945; the quotations are from the same publisher’s edition of 1969, pp. 355, 334, 249, 46, 122-3, 436




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.