Cutting out a Path to Knowledge: a Poet’s Vivisector

The poet John Davidson, who enjoyed a period of literary success in the 1890s but then fell out of fashion, is still sometimes to be found in anthologies. Most usually it’s with his fine poem ‘The Last Journey’ – actually the epilogue to a much longer piece – in which the speaker sets out on a walk toward his death (for Davidson believed in rightly timed suicide, and showed that he did in 1909):

I knew it in my heart my days were done.
I took my staff in hand; I took the road,
And wandered out to seek my last abode.

Or sometimes it’ll be ‘A Runnable Stag’. This is the ballad of a hunt on the North Somerset coast, starting with the hunters and their thrills, but gradually preferring the experience of the animal, who finally takes to the “sheltering ocean”, so that his disappointed pursuers

Beheld him escape on the evening tide,
Far out till he sank in the
Severn Sea.

Incidentally, that phrase ‘runnable stag’, meaning an animal of the right ageDavidson photo and size to make a good hunt out of, belongs with ‘research monkey’, ‘ornamental fish’, ‘heritage cattle’, and a myriad other fictitious species in the un-Linnaean system of classifying animals by their usefulness to ourselves. Davidson’s poem movingly corrects that way of thinking.

A much harder poem of his to enjoy – indeed to read at all, so harrowing is it – has the title The Testament of a Vivisector. It’s about 230 lines long, and was published as a volume of its own in 1901. This is the story of a single ruthless vivisection, told as a dramatic monologue by the practitioner himself. As we’ll see, it’s as much about his world-view as it is about his chosen work, but his work is the foreground of it.

Here is a man gripped by the “zest of inquisition”waiting_for_death (the unpleasant historical associations of that word are deliberate). The victim of his research is a broken-down horse just reaching the cat’s-meat end of his downward spiral of servitude to humans. The vivisector rescues this animal from “a raw-faced knacker”, and upon the horse’s living body he then starts “cutting out / A path to knowledge”, apparently in solitude and on his own premises. The whole thing would have been a completely illegal procedure, of course, even in 1901, but then Davidson exactly wished to picture an antinomian, a rebel against the pressures of conscience or of conventional decencies. In short, this is a man who “reveres / Himself, and with superb [i.e. proud] despite / Maltreats the loving-kindnesses of men.

I suppose that such a man might be called ‘Nietzschean’, and certainly Davidson was impressed by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he called “the most powerful mind of recent times”.

To dramatize such a man with such an outlook, Davidson thought vivisection an appropriate activity – with very good reason. For although there is histrionic exaggeration here, this man’s attitude is essentially the same one actually boasted of by the pioneers of modern vivisection a few decades before (they mostly learned to be more discreet about it after the outcries of the 1870s and 80s). Thus Davidson’s vivisector, driven as he is by “headstrong passion and austerity”, and “purged”, so he says,

Of vulgar tenderness in diligent
Delighted tormentry of bird and beast,

is echoing the words of the practitioner Claude Bernard, in his standard introduction to experimental physiology:

The physiologist is not a common man (‘vulgar’ is Davidson’s word), he’s a man seized and engrossed by the scientific idea which he pursues; he hears no more the cries of the animals, he sees no more the blood which flows, he sees only his idea and is aware only that these organisms are hiding the secret workings which he wishes to uncover. [from Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale, Paris, 1865, p.180: for the original French, see the notes below.]

Claude Bernard’s wife and daughters were repelled by this demonic single-mindedness, and apparently deserted him (they became campaigners against vivisection). Just so is it for Davidson’s vivisector:

I live alone: my wife
Forsook me, and my daughters.

Going further into the dark of his profession, this man’s specialism in physiology is one of the most unpleasant and most productive of ingenious cruelty in the vivisector’s catalogue: pain itself.

I study pain – pain only: I broach and tap
The agony of Matter.

The topic, we know, is perennial and boundless, or limited only by the ingenuity of researchers (a paper in the journal Science Advances last month describes how mice respond to the neurotoxic venom of the Australian stinging tree Dendrocnide excelsa). And here, for all his unsavoury hermitism, Davidson’s vivisector knows that he has “compeers”. There are, for instance, “those / Who tortured fourscore solipeds to carve / A scale of feeling on the spinal cord.” This must be a reference to actual research, but I can’t identify it: perhaps, since so many horses or other ‘solipeds’ were available there, it was part of the work being done at the notorious Alfort Veterinary College near Paris.

It’s to such “compeers”, then, that this vivisector feels related, not at all to society as a whole. The trajectory of his work reflects this professional self-commitment. We’re told that when he first practised his craft (“began to hew the living flesh”), his aim was “mitigation of disease”. Others like him were perhaps initially doing it “shrewdly as a livelihood, / Or to delight or help mankind, or make a name”. However,

                 in the end, to know –
Merely to know was the consuming fire
Of these strong minds, delivered and elect.
(a very Nietzschean company)

The vivisector seems then to travel beyond even that stage of merely inquisitive research. In his isolation, or rather his wretched partnership with the suffering horse, his own specialism loses human reference altogether, and becomes for him a model or instance of the way the universe works. The horse comes to stand for all material things, living or inert: “It may be matter in itself is pain”, he speculates, and that

                 systems, constellations, galaxies
That strew the ethereal waste are whirling there
In agony unutterable

He himself, meanwhile, is simply an instrument used by the universe to come to an understanding of itself – “In me accomplishing its useless aim.”

One often hears the phrase ‘what it means to be human’ as the claimed insight from some neuro-scientific investigation, or indeed from all sorts of intellectual and artistic endeavour. In this poem, what it means to be the universe pushes that anthropocentric will-o’-the wisp aside: preoccupied as we may be only with ourselves, we’re in fact steadily working for the equally unfeeling and selfish purpose of the universe,

          the infinite vanity
Of the Universe, being evermore

Such are the last lines of the poem.

The Testament of a Vivisector was published during a period of very active controversy. The newly founded British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was running a vigorous campaign against the Brown Institution, a place founded and endowed fifty years back as an infirmary for sick animals but transformed by the University of London into what BUAV’s Frances Power Cobbe called “the headquarters of vivisection in England. In that same publication year, 1901, Stephen Coleridge, secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, publicly identified the London hospitals that ran vivisection laboratories (in his pamphlet The Metropolitan Hospitals and Vivisection). A dedicated alternative hospital, ‘the Antiviv’, was about to open in Battersea (as described elsewhere in this blog). These and other protests, projects, and scandals were to culminate in the second Royal Commission on the subject in 1906.

John Davidson warned his readers in a preliminary note to the poem that it would not please either side in this controversy. Certainly the story of the vivisector marking down the weary horse and putting it to pitiless use (without anaesthetics, of course) would be horrible for zoophiles to read. But after all, that was and is the main objection to the practice – that it causes pain to helpless animals. Davidson therefore puts a strong case against it as his very premise and story-line.

The case for it, at least as it is shown practised in the poem, depends upon our accepting the remarkable world-view proposed by the vivisector, that the story of the universe – or of ‘Matter’, as he sometimes calls it, for he doesn’t attribute mind of any sort to it, except via mankind – has been one of gradual and strenuous self-discovery, in which scientific humanity is the final and successful means. As to the pain caused, why should the universe mind? And isn’t he suffering too: “Have I no pain?” he rhetorically appeals. He even wonders, as we’ve seen, whether pain is not the universal condition, constituting indeed the grand discovery now being made through human agency.

If this seems an almost pathological condition of mind, a perilous mixture of self-mortification and human-supremacism, it may be taken as a fair caricature of the state of mind in which vivisection has made its case and found its justification. As I’ve already said, the vivisector fits naturally into it, and dramatizes it for us. It wasn’t, however, a mere fiction for Davidson himself. In his last substantial poem, titled The Testament of John Davidson, he presents the idea again more plainly: “Men are the Universe / Aware at last.” And then he takes it a step further into a terrifying simplicity:

It may be that the Universe attains
Self-knowledge only once; and when I cease
To see and hear, imagine, think and feel,
The end may come, and Matter, satisfied,
Devolve once more . . .
Back to ethereal oblivion

Here the idea emerges in all its megalomania, and the wilful alienation entailed in it leads naturally and tragically on to that last expedition taken by the poet in the epilogue quoted at the start of this post.

Megalomania, alienation, self-destruction: who could say that Davidson doesn’t carry his whole species with him on that ruinous journey? Often one feels that only a complex madness of that kind can explain mankind’s treatment of fellow-creatures and the world-habitat shared with them. I’ve said that Davidson admired the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (though with some reservations). It’s plainly recognisable in his portrait of the vivisector: the rejection of conventional (or any) morality, the trust in an “elect”, the proud willingness to take and to cause pain, the hubristic over-estimate of the human, the vaunting of solitude. In fact The Testament of a Vivisector may be read as a cautionary fable for that philosophy.

Nietzsche himself suffered, in his middle age, a mental collapse from which he didn’t recover, though he lived for another ten years. Leading up to it there had been a period of increasing megalomania; one biographer calls it “self-infatuation” [541]. But the immediate occasion of his collapse, the so-called ‘incident in Turin’, was the sight of a worn-out horse much like the vivisector’s being beaten and goaded by its master. It seems that Nietzsche intervened and tearfully embraced the animal, before being detached from it and led away by friends.

It may be impertinent, even in some way impious, to look for meanings in something done in a state of derangement. Not indeed that there’s anything obviously deranged about pitying a distressed horse (rather a sign of mental health, one would say); it’s the contrast of that tender-hearted action with Nietzsche’s declared philosophy that makes a puzzle of it – and it has indeed been puzzled over by critics and biographers. In the next post, I hope to say more about it and suggest a meaning to it which will help to make sense also of John Davidson’s poem.

Notes and references:

The poem was originally published by Grant Richards. I don’t know of any more recent edition, but the text is available in the Internet Archive, at

Davidson’s description of Nietzsche comes in his preface to The Testament of John Davidson, Grant Richards, 1908, p.18. The later quotations from that remarkable poem are at pp. 47 and 142.

The original French of Claude Bernard’s remarks is this: “Le physiologiste n’est pas un homme du monde . . . c’est un homme qui est saisi et absorbé par une idée scientifique qu’il poursuit; il n’entend plus les cris des animaux, il ne voit plus le sang qui coule, il ne voit que son idée et n’aperçoit que des organismes qui lui cachent des problèmes qu’il veut découvrir.”

The paper in Science Advances is titled ‘Neurotoxic peptides from the venom of the giant Australian stinging tree’, and was published on 16 September 2020. I don’t mean to imply that therapies against the very painful results of a sting from this source aren’t worth devising; let’s indeed avoid pain, but not by making other animals suffer it for us.

The story of the ‘Antiviv’ is told in this blog here:

The term “self-infatuation” is used about Nietzsche at that time in Curtis Cate’s biography Friedrich Nietzsche, Hutchinson, 2002, p. 546.

John Davidson is shown from a photograph of 1896. The wood-engraving is a detail from Waiting for Death by Thomas Bewick; it was published in 1832.

Two Franciscan Texts and the Worm in a Wild Apple

Today is World Animal Day, an event currently sponsored by Naturewatch Foundation as a contribution towards making the world “a fairer place for all animals”. This year it has more or less coincided with the publication of a survey showing exactly how fair the world has been, at least for undomesticated animals, over the last fifty years. According to Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, there has been “an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016”. This makes the World Day emblem, high-WAD_logo_2016_RGBmindedly aimed as it rightly is at promoting a sense of human responsibility, seem more than ever a wistful phantasm.

The date for World Day, chosen by its founder Heinrich Zimmermann in the 1920s, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Even in his time, the early thirteenth century, St Francis was preaching the need, as Living Planet Report puts it, “to heal our relationship with nature”. Centuries later, just as humans were beginning to use the world up at a faster rate than it could regenerate itself (the Report makes 1970 the tipping-point), a latter-day disciple of his was telling an audience of scientists that we would not escape ecological ruin unless we took St Francis for our guide to sustainable living. Lynn White, a history professor at UCLA and a committed Christian, was addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a gathering in Washington on the day after Christmas, 1966 (his talk was published soon afterwards in their journal Science). He spoke of St Francis as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”, in that “he tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” In order to fit humans to give up that fantasy of cosmic favouritism enjoyed by them under orthodox Christianity (“the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”), St Francis had preached “the virtue of humility not merely for the individual but for man as a species”. In fact St Francis would surely have had that World Day emblem with the hand of God underneath, and man himself a silhouette among the others.

It was this heretical saint’s most remarkable miracle, Professor White said, that he didn’t “end at the stake”. All the same, “He failed.” Christianity held on to its conception of man as world-monarch. And that same conception, so White argued, was therefore inherited by Western science, which was, until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, practised as a branch of Christian thinking called ‘natural theology’, or the study of God’s mind in nature. Christianity declined, but that convenient self-image did not decline with it. Science and technology, “so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature”, have indeed been able to turn the image into a matter of blatant fact. White therefore concluded that “More science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis . . . We must re-think and re-feel our nature and destiny.”

Professor White’s paper is quoted by Esther Woolfson in her book published last month, Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species. The book is a comprehensive tour of our history and present days of divine-right monarchizing over the other animals: hunting them, eating them, showing them off, experimenting upon them, dressing in them, compulsively trading in them and in their images, corrupting them as fancy pets, and theologizing to keep them in their places (where Professor White comes in).

In short, the familiar pageant of misery and wrong: need we see it going by again? Of course, because the real thing itself is going round in an everlasting circuit, and besides, there are always new things to be made to see in it. And Esther Woolfson has a sharp eye for the humanly or psycho-pathologically expressive instance, being both an anthropologist and a person of imagination and sensibility. Her account of taxidermy and its grotesque byways (“a badly stuffed mouse in spectacles”, “birds and squirrels acting out faux-human weddings”) is a notably horrid example woolfson bookof her acuteness in this respect (I can’t believe that she was happy to see one of taxidermy’s “sorry memorials” used to illustrate her book’s cover). So also is her study of the hideous vanity-culture of hunting. She quotes Ortega y Gasset from a greetings card intended for the hunting man in your life: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted”. For she’s clever with vivid quotations; in his own words she pins down the crooked human nature of Harry Harlow (he of the maternal deprivation experiments). That comes in the chapter titled ‘Rights’, which is mainly devoted to the subject of vivisection, a word she does use in the text and the index. It’s a word that rarely appears in indexes these days (they prefer the polite ‘animal research’). When it does, I take it for a sign of candour, and this is indeed a candid, un-euphemistic book.

Esther Woolfson is also the author of Corvus, a vivid and fascinating history of her relationships with a number of crows living en famille at her house in Aberdeen (Corvus is discussed elsewhere in this blog). Perhaps by preference, perhaps on the advice of her publishers, she has used a similarly personal style in Between Light and Storm. The book is therefore as much a memoir of her encounters with places, books, and ideas, as an account of these things in themselves: “beautifully observed experiences”, as one testimonial on the back cover calls them (quite accurately). This format worked in Corvus brilliantly well, but then that was a book about her bird-companions and what she learned from them over the years. In face of the great disaster of human misuse of other species, which is her subject in this new book, the personal element ought surely to be purged away. Instead, it’s very much in the foreground, and produces a meditative, even whimsical, effect:

Questions stay with me – what can be inferred about us from what we choose to eat? [she asks in the chapter titled ‘Blood’] Do vegetarianism and veganism necessarily indicate anything about our propensities for virtue? If they do, which and what and how? They may, but then again, they may not.

Moments like this need the kindly editor’s blue pencil through them, but as I have said, I suspect that the publishers felt that this book would be more attractive to the general reader, its horrors more willingly beheld, if presented in this ‘innocent abroad’ style. Good, if they’re right, because while nobody can tell the whole wretched story, a large part of it really is well and unflinchingly told here.

The worst part of the story, namely that humans have in no essential way changed, is made clear throughout. The author writes on page 4 that the complex of beliefs which supports our assumption and practice of “dominion over everyone else on earth” has endured for three thousand or so years “like some lost-cause corpse hovering in cryonic vitrification”.  Two hundred and seventy pages later, having thoroughly illustrated the assertion, she says it again: “The ancient religious-philosophical arguments about human supremacy on which our lives and economies are founded seem as entrenched as they ever were, as damaging and expedient.” The book’s sub-title should really have been ‘How We Still Live with Other Species’.

World Day for Animals is an occasion for optimistic and purposeful actions in the manner of St Francis, and for the celebration of animal-friendly projects round the globe. All the same, reading Esther Woolfson’s book, and looking back at what we’ve failed to do in the fifty years since Lynn White made that address to America’s scientists, it’s hard not to feel restless in one’s own human skin. Here again, one of Esther Woolfson’s quotations fits the case very well. It comes from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, published in a collection of 1948 and titled ‘Original Sin’. Jeffers pictures the human species in its earliest days:

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world.

These pioneering humans discover how to trap a mammoth in a pit and cook it alive in situ. Around them, as they enjoy their disgusting triumph, is “the intense colour and nobility of sunrise”. Contemplating this paradox of beauty and delinquency, the poet says

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.


Notes and references:

Living Planet Report 2020 is published online here: Quotations are from pp.4 and 6. It’s a very well-presented and authoritative document, though not of course quite Franciscan in philosophy: that is, it has the conservationist mind-set of viewing by species rather than by lives.

Professor Lynn White’s paper, titled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, was published in Science, 10 March 1967 (vol.155, pp.1203-7).

Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species is published by Granta. The book Corvus is spoken of in this blog here:

The poem ‘Original Sin’ appeared in the collection The Double Axe (Random House, 1948).

A Belgian Artist Admonishes his Nation

Among the countries engaged in work on Covid-19 is the Kingdom of Belgium. “Research in Belgium uses animals to find effective treatments for Covid-19”, announces the European Animal Research Association (EARA), an organisation which promotes awareness and acceptance of vivisection in EU member states, much as UAR does in Britain. The animals in question include mice, rabbits, and llamas. Monkeys too, although the Belgian institution that has been using them in its work, VIB-UGhent (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie at the University of Ghent), manages to publicize its “important milestone in the development of a Covid-19 drug”, and specifically “the moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments”, without mentioning animals at all.

The EARA aims to induce such organisations to be less bashful. In fact a few years ago, when it wished to counter unfavourable publicity on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, the EARA published on that day a collective declaration of intent by Belgian science institutions to be more open (or at least publicity-conscious), on the model of the UK’s Concordat on Openness. VIB was a participant, perhaps without much enthusiasm. At the time (2016), the EARA said it had chosen Belgium for the purpose because “if we could successfully carry out this project in Belgium, then it could be reproduced anywhere.” That sounds like a chauvinist jest, but the thinking was that Belgium, with its strong regional identities and three official languages, would be unusually resistant to collective action.

Perhaps also in mind was the fact that the country does not have a strong tradition of concern for animals to make sense of such distractions from the business of research. It had no dedicated animal welfare law until the 1929 Protection of Animals Act, in which vivisection occupied just one article. Yet already Belgium was notable enough for its practice of animal research to be apostrophized by one of its most famous citizens, the artist James Ensor (more of him in a moment), as a “tormenteur d’animaux”. Even now there is no dedicated anti-vivisection grouping in Belgium, though since 1992 the excellent organisation GAIA has included animal research in its campaigning. But as a practitioner of animal research Belgium is not much less active than the UK in proportion to its population. And with about 2.5 % of the EU’s population, Belgium accounts for about 5% of the animals used in EU research.

Anyway, that 1929 Act had been preceded by several years of contention, to which, as we’ve seen, James Ensor had vigorously contributed. As a highly unorthodox artist, a pioneer of expressionism, Ensor had suffered many years of rejection and neglect, but finally he had become a figure of national celebrity, had even been created a Baron by King Albert. This recognition to some extent tamed Ensor; in particular, he destroyed all the copies he could recover of his savagely satirical print featuring Albert’s predecessor Leopold II as Roi Dindon (i.e. ‘King Dolt’). But his rage against disrespect of nature, and in particular against animal research, was never mollified, or gentrified as to its expression. In an interview at that period, one of those formulaic interviews which set the celebrity to fill in their favourite this and most regretted that, Ensor’s answer to “Ce que je deteste le plus” [what I hate most] included among other things “les vivisecteurs gavés de cruauté, bouffis de suffisance et d’insensibilité profitable” [vivisectors stuffed full of cruelty, bumptiousness and lucrative insensibility.] Incidentally, that French verb gaver, when used about animals, means to force-feed; it’s borrowed into the English of the animal-research world as ‘gavage’, presumably to help camouflage a very ugly procedure.

But Ensor’s most dramatic intervention in the controversy was his painting of 1925 titled Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs (usually translated as ‘The Vile Vivisectors’, but ‘shameful’ might be more apt). He was now in his sixties, and had generally turned away from painting in favour of writing and music. His greatest works were done, and it’s an indication of his earnestness that he not only undertook this sizeable picture (62 by 80 cm), but made a second version of it four years later, eloquently unaltered by the disappointing law of 1929.

With its chinoiserie patterns, grotesque and masked figures (including skeletons), and crudities in the tradition of the satirical cartoon, Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is wholly characteristic of its artist. Even the presence of the artist himself (top right in hat) is a familiar trope: in one gruesome painting, The Dangerous Cooks (1896), Ensor’s own head is being served up to a group of critics, two of whom are spitting or perhaps being sick. But whereas these various elements often create baffling results – one modern critic has justly called Ensor’s art “always compelling and often utterly mystifying”Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs has a strong, even blatant programme.

Reading from the left, a skeleton, on whose cranium a bird is spitting, bribes a compliant priest to endorse the practice which is dramatized under their hands by the convulsed James Ensor The Vivisectorsfrogs. The priest, upon whose head the same bird seems to be defecating, is with his other hand gripping the arm of a woman, presumably one of his browbeaten flock, herself consequently being spat upon. Her other arm is held by a skeleton doctor preparing a syringe. Next comes an even more obviously unhappy woman (or is she wearing a mask?), whose wrist is being held by a second skeleton.

These five figures seem to be ranged in contemplation of something out of the picture, so perhaps the roundel at the top is being imagined as a mirror reflecting what they watch. Here, anyway, a physiologist is giving a class, showing the inner workings of a dog whom his assistant is helpfully disembowelling. Ensor was not a believer, but he frequently used the crucifix as an image of unjust suffering, sometimes putting himself there, sometimes Christ; here it’s the lab animal.

Finally, at the top right, Ensor himself and three masked heads express their indignation by spitting at the repellent scene or its mirror image. “Infâmes vivisecteurs,” Ensor is saying with characteristic vehemence; “je vous crache tout mon mépris à la face” [I spit with all my scorn into your face].

Skeletons have always been seen, naturally enough, as disagreeable reminders of mortality. They frequent Ensor’s pictures as mockers of human pretensions and comforts. They are present at the fun of carnivals, or lounge in bourgeois sitting rooms. One of them waits patiently, with scythe to hand, for some doctors to finish treating their Ensor's human herdpatient. Perhaps most eloquently of Ensor’s outlook, in Death Pursuing the Human Herd the skeletons stampede an endless crowd of panicking humanity along the narrow streets of Belgium. In Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs the skeletons appear as sinister sponsors of vivisection, and at the same time reminders that medicine cannot, whatever sacrifices are imposed in its cause, save humans from death, though it may postpone death, a point that is perhaps being hinted at in the doctor’s time-piece.

Well, why not at least endeavour to postpone it, then, at any cost (to others)? Ensor’s answer is implied in the mood of shame, anxiety and defeat created in the painting. That mood is all the more poignant for the futile gaiety of the clothing, with its forlorn celebration of colour and natural forms. These are fallen people, a fallen society.

It’s an answer which, in its heroic form, was famously incorporated by Homer (if it was Homer) in the Iliad, millennia ago. Sarpedon, the king of Lycia, is urging his friend and fellow-warrior Glaucus into battle against the Greeks, and he gives two reasons for them to hazard their lives in this way. One is that to behave high-mindedly is the proper counterpart of their privileged status in the world; the one vindicates the other. They had an obligation to be, as Alexander Pope translated it, “The first in valour, as the first in place.” And the second reason is that to duck the battle doesn’t after all mean getting to live for ever; otherwise, as Sarpedon candidly admits, he himself would forgo the fame and stay safe at home. The best, the only wise, course is therefore to act reputably, “Brave though we fall, and honour’d if we live”.

A species could do worse than make that its motto. Certainly we may hope, and indeed strive, to stay alive, knowing as we do that eventually we must fail; what we mustn’t do is gain time dishonourably by making others endure the strife for us. That’s the infamy which Sarpedon exhorts Glaucus to spurn, and which Ensor angrily showed that his own contemporaries, so far from spurning, were thoroughly implicated in, as their successors still are.


Notes and references:

The EARA press release about Belgian research, which incidentally also provides a link to a map showing all such Covid-related animal research in the world, can be read here:  Its account of the World Day counter-publicity is here: VIB’s own announcement is here:

The EU Commission issued, earlier this year, comparative tables of animal research in the various member states for the period 2015-17. From those numbers I’ve made a rough estimate of Belgium’s position. See

Quotations from Ensor himself are taken from the Les écrits de James Ensor (Brussels, 1921) p.131, and Ecrits de James Ensor de 1921 à 1926 (Ostende-Bruges, 1926) p.6. This second reference is for the interview, which may have been a device of Ensor’s own, rather than a genuine exchange. Some of the answers and indeed the questions are eccentric and fanciful, though the answer quoted is serious enough.

The quotation about Ensor’s art comes from a piece in the Royal Academy’s RA Magazine for Autumn 2016 by Michael Prodger, titled ‘James Ensor: a man of many masks’, and accessible here: Ensor’s later pictures are generally not much discussed, but Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is reproduced and briefly spoken about in Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s Ensor (Tashcen 2016) pp.87 and 89. She also mentions the second version of the picture. But of course there are very many books about Ensor, who is now considered one of the greatest and most original of the modernists.

The Homeric episode of Sarpedon and Glaucus comes in Book 12, lines 310-28.

A Troubling and Unsavoury Contradiction

Among the reasons not to be vegan which vegans habitually encounter (Aren’t plants sentient too? What will happen to all the cows? Where do you get your protein?), is the Adolf Hitler connection: Wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian? Rynn Berry, the author of Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes, says “I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler’s vegetarianism has not been raised”. Perhaps it’s reasonable, when notabilities of history or in modern public life are offered as models for the diet, to ask what influence in the matter a blatant counter-exemplar should have. Anyway, Berry wrote a book which provided an answer to the question even in its title: Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (2004). It’s a short, readable, and well-researched account of the matter, finally stating “that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer [that’s Isaac Bashevis] were vegetarians, but that Mr Hitler – who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted – was not.”

Still, the ugly association, false as it may be, persists. It crops up, for instance, in two books reviewed elsewhere in this blog: Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat (2010: “animal activists don’t relish the idea that Adolf Hitler was a fellow traveller”) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature (2011: “any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism.”) In both cases, the Hitler connection is thought to compromise the animal rights cause, and is accordingly used as part of a more general deprecation of the values and ambitions that go with it.

It’s not just Hitler’s diet that’s being used in evidence. As the quotation from Better Angels shows, there’s a more general contrariety to face: that the whole Nazi administration from 1933 to 1945 combined its infamous and savage repudiation of ethics in the treatment of fellow-humans with what may seem to be an enlightened concern for the welfare of other animals. A succession of laws, passed in regional and national parliaments, regulated slaughterhouses, the care of pet animals, conservation, farriery, and other practices affecting animals; they banned pâté de foie gras, hunting with dogs, the harming of animals in film-making; they even specified, and required public kitchens to employ, the least inhumane method for killing crabs and lobsters (plunging them individually into boiling water was what a civil service report had recommended, though you may think that not eating them at all would have been more in line with “vegetarianism . . . under Nazism”). As to vivisection there was, initially at least, an intention to prohibit absolutely what Hermann Göring called, in a speech broadcast on radio in 1933, “torture and suffering in animal experiments”.

Where did this apparent commitment to animal interests come from? Certainly pressure had been building over many years for animal protection laws in Germany. Therefore, much of what was now accomplished only brought Germany up to basic standards already achieved in the UK. That would explain why the legislation came so promptly with the inception of the Third Reich; it was already waiting and pushing for authorization. But in a symposium on this subject published some years ago in the journal Anthrozoos, Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax argue that “personal interest in or affection for animals by key Nazi figures” must be a large part of the explanation. What is the evidence for this?

We come back to Hitler himself. Yes, Hitler was fond of his own dogs. Hitler’s architect and then armaments minister, Albert Speer, who wrote the most intelligent and perspicacious of the contemporary portraits of the man, notes that on the short but dreary walks that were taken by Hitler and his entourage when he was at his country retreat in Bavaria, his “interest was usually focused not on his companions but on his Alsatian dog Blondi . . . he meant more to his master than Fuehrer’s closest associates.”  Presumably there was sincere affection in this, but Speer also says, when he describes the feeding of Blondi as supervised by the Fuehrer, “Hitler knew, of course, that a dog regards the man who feeds him as his master.” Absolute loyalty of the animal, secure mastery for the man: these were what really mattered. Guests had to make sure that they didn’t encourage “any feelings of friendship in the dog”, because such signs of “disloyalty” in Blondi would put Hitler out of temper. It’s significant that Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, the man whom Speer calls a “servile flatterer” and who was derisively nick-naked ‘Ja-Keitel’, was prized by Hitler exactly because he was, in Hitler’s own words, “loyal as a dog”.

Hermann Göring felt this same preference in favour of his own dog: “The only real friend one has in the end is the dog . . . The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno.” Well, who hasn’t felt something like this sometimes, or even at all times, whether for an individual animal or for non-human animals in general? It’s embarrassing to find oneself sharing any sentiment with that poisonous and decadent personality, but it may also be a useful prompt for us to examine the sentiment, and see what it’s worth.

When the narrator in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) complains to the local police about the shooting of a wild boar, they say to her by way of rebuke, “You have more compassion for animals than for people.” It’s another familiar charge. Her reply is “That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people.” (Well, there is at least a consensus that it’s wrong when they do.) This woman’s preoccupation with wild and domestic animals throughout the story is founded on her sense of duty to them, her desire to give them some sort of parity in the enjoyment of life; in fact what most directly drives the narrative is her wish to avenge her own pet dogs. So yes, the unconditional love shown by a dog is a beautiful thing in itself, but the whole relationship is good only if the human has deserved the loyalty, rather than got it for nothing.

Poor Benno, on the contrary, was innocently ministering to the self-regard and power-instinct of his master (it’s the right word here), much as Göring’s absurd mansions, uniforms and grand titles were also doing. Moreover, the immediate occasion for that declaration of Göring’s was the vicious intrigue of Third Reich politics, to which he himself was very largely contributing. That political scene was summarized by Speer as “a thicket of deceptions, intrigues, baseness and killing.” Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich chronicles the unpredictable and dangerous variations in the status of everyone who had a part in the administration, including himself. Neither Hitler nor Göring trusted Speer or anyone else for long at a time; nor could they inspire rational trust in others. In such a human murk, how could the innocent dog not honourably shine, misguided as his fealty might be?

Still, however selfish it was, perhaps this regard for their pet animals as preferable to humans was generalized, by Hitler, Göring, and their associates, to non-human animals at large, and therefore may account to some extent for the favourable treatment of these under the Third Reich?

That there was indeed some deliberate moral re-ordering as between humans and other animals is notoriously evident in Third Reich propaganda. As to the humans, whole classes and races of them were relegated to the status of “Untermenschen . . . mentally and emotionally on a far lower level than any animals” (the quotation is from a Nazi text). In fact Arluke and Sax, in that Anthrozoos symposium, make this their essential explanation of the “troubling and unsavoury contradiction”. Their premise is the anthropological one, that all peoples or cultures “seek to protect what is perceived to be pure from that which is seen to be dangerous and polluting”, and they draw their moral lines accordingly. Whereas the Western tradition has always drawn its most emphatic line at the supposed species border, the Nazis, being devoted to the protection of nation and race, allied themselves with at least some other species of animal, especially the ‘nobler’ animals, and put the condemned classes of human outside that pale.

There is something too neat and academical about this scheme, given the ethical chaos of the political scene it aims to interpret, and the evidence for it is sometimes far-fetched: in fact one of the contributors to the symposium calls it “a collection of contradictions, surmises, and innuendoes”. That there was a purposeful policy as against the “untermenschen”, with horrifying practical consequences, is painfully well-known. Whether the non-human animals really benefited is much less clear. Their importance was publicly asserted, and deliberately implicated in the racial polemics: “You will find this respect for animals”, said Himmler, “in all Indo-Germanic peoples.” In a public text of 1933, Göring spoke of “the spirit of close contact, which all Aryan people possess, with the animals”. Himmler’s part in directing animal research will be illustrated shortly. Göring’s “close contact” with animals included shooting them, for he was a keen hunter; among the grandiose titles which he collected was Reich Marshal of the Hunt. These animals which were raised in order to be experimented upon or shot cannot be regarded as having enjoyed any very meaningful moral promotion.

It’s very difficult to know, in fact, how sincere the Nazi administration was about animal protection, just because the propaganda on the subject had a life of its own. (It was said at the time, only partly in jest, that the Third Reich was really just a department of its own Ministry of Propaganda.) Speer shows how much even of Hitler’s private life, such of that as there was, had for its aim the creation of a particular image of Germany’s leader. Thus although he very much enjoyed caviare, he felt that he had to abjure it, believing that it contradicted this image; he wanted “simplicity” in his diet, because, so Speer says, he “could count on its being talked about in Germany.” But of course what he ate was certain to be noticed. In other instances, such as the taking of elaborate therapeutic concoctions, including some “obtained from the testicles and intestines of animals”, he could rely on medical confidentiality to keep the matter quiet.

On a much larger scale, the practice of vivisection followed suit. Even in that public speech of 1933, Göring had conceded that animals might be used when considered “necessary . . . to advance the knowledge of disease in humans, to produce medicines, and generally to further scientific knowledge”.  In fact their exploitation in science went well beyond even such generous limits, particularly once the regime was at war. An experimental pesticide code-named 9/91, which proved so violently poisonous that it was subsequently manufactured as a biological weapon (called ‘Tabun’, but never in fact used) had been tested on non-human primates during 1936-7. Another proposed weapon was cattle plague, the idea being to destroy the enemy’s supply of meat: under the direction of Himmler (“respect for animals” Himmler) the rinderpest virus was accordingly tested on German cows in 1944.

Even the notorious experiments on human subjects in the concentration camps were not intended as replacements for animal research. Trials of a typhoid vaccine at Buchenwald, and of resuscitation after time spent in freezing water at Dachau, had both begun with animal studies. At Dachau, Dr Rascher applied for Himmler’s permission to use prisoners for his studies into survival at low air-pressures, explaining that he had done the work with monkeys, but that they “react altogether differently”. Such experiments on humans were kept secret even in the camps themselves, perhaps an indication that some notion of morality yet endured. On the other hand, part of the concealment consisted in disguising them, in the records, as experiments on cattle and pigs; little, then, had survived of the official disapproval of vivisection, if indeed it had ever been more than a political stunt.

How indeed can it well be known that any of the measures taken to improve the status of animals were not stunts of some kind, or that serious values of any sort lay behind them? As Alan Bullock says in his classic biography Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, falsehood was itself a policy with the Nazis: “Hitler and Ribbentrop deceived their allies, even when there was no need.” In one of his last speeches, as heard by Albert Speer, Hitler summed up what he had learnt from his political career: “There can be only one single rule, and this rule, put succinctly, is: That is correct which is useful in itself.” Therefore to speak of “the Nazi animal protection movement”, as Hal Herzog does in the Anthrozoos discussion, is surely to impose order and direction upon it which it never did possess.

In so far as Nazism itself was a “movement”, its aim was to revive Germany’s confidence as a people, and to use that confidence to enforce the nation’s claim to supreme power in Europe and beyond. It was, obviously enough, a nationalist movement, and the sense of national identity necessary to it was created partly by rejecting the cosmopolitan, industrialized, and urbanized civilization which Germany had hitherto shared with other Western democracies. A contributor to the Anthrozoos discussion quotes Göring, one of the principal spokesmen for this “tribal mentality”, as saying “we are barbarians, and we think with our blood.” The malign absurdities and perils of the project are all too familiar, but it has to be conceded that some sensible and positive ideas were involved as well. There was, for instance, a determined campaign to improve the nation’s health. This included measures to promote better diet (using fewer processed foods) and to discourage drinking of alcohol, improvements to health and safety at work (including protections for those working with asbestos, years ahead of anything similar in the UK), and, most notably, public campaigns against tobacco, with bans on smoking in public places, restrictions on advertising, and other such measures that have been profitably taken up elsewhere in more recent times. One historian of health policy in the Third Reich has said that the “it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link [between tobacco and cancer] was originally established. German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world.”

The efforts to protect public health from the more baleful consequences of industrialization and from other life-style illnesses show that even in that vicious political regime some wise and even pioneering values could arise and become active. All the health measures just mentioned have long afterwards been taken up in the UK; it’s obvious in their case that they were only accidentally the product of a corrupt anti-democratic politics. The measures to improve respect for non-human animals, where they had any reality apart from propaganda, had a less pragmatic character, and so remain more of a mystery. But some of them were already in force in the UK, and this fact, as well as their adoption (however gradual) in other countries in later times, shows likewise that they had no necessary connection with that one notorious time and place; they can and should be judged and approved on their own merits. Yes, they were once unhappily caught up in a nexus of moral horrors, but that no more discredits the case for animal rights than it makes smoking or building with asbestos sensible things to do.


Notes and references:

Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a very good introduction by the publisher Martin Rowe) is published by Pythagorean Publishers, 2004; quotations from pp. 29 and 73-4.

The books by Hal Herzog and Steven Pinker are reviewed in this blog at  and

Texts of the Third Reich animal protection laws of 1933 can be found here:

‘Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust’ by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax was published in Anthrozoos, January 1992, vol.V, pp.6-31. The follow-up discussion was published in vol.VI, pp.72-114. Where not otherwise attributed, historical quotations come from the Arluke and Sax article. The discussion is quoted at pp. 86 (Roberta Kalechofsky), 82 (Hal Herzog), and 75 (Paul Bookbinder). The whole symposium is accessible online at

Boria Sax has studied the subject at much greater length in Animals in the Third Reich, Continuum Books, 2000.

Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, was first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1970; quotations are from their 1995 edition, pp. 409-12 and 339 (about Blondi), 575 (Nazi politics), 179 (Hitler’s diet), 161 (Hitler’s medicines) and 486 (the “single rule”).

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk was published in the Polish in 2009; as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.

The ‘joke’ about propaganda is noted in Louis Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p.273.

The experiments on prisoners at concentration camps are discussed by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, pp. 128 (the secrecy), 147 (Tabun), and 163 (rinderpest). Other instances are recounted by Paul Hoedman in Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich, English edition published by the Book Guild, 1991, pp. 125 and 152 (the request to Himmler).

Hitler: a Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock was first published in 1952. The quotation is from the 1990 edition by Penguin Books, p. 630.

The quotation about cancer epidemiology is from Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, 1999), here quoted from John Cornwell, Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War and the Devil’s Pact, Viking, 2003, p. 171. Other public health measures are discussed by Cornwell at pp. 167-73.


We Will Remember Some of Them

This is a revised and updated version of a post first published on 4 November 2015. Nothing much has changed, you see.

On Sunday, November 10th, after the remembrance services have ended in London’s Whitehall and elsewhere, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane (at 3 p.m.). The event is organized by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, but there will also be members of Catholic Concern for Animals there, and of Quaker Concern for Animals – and for that matter adherents of other faiths or of no faith, since the wickedness of involving other species in our wars is self-sufficiently plain, regardless of what else we may believe. Therefore it is an occasion for anyone to attend who can: religion may be its language, but its sentiment is universal decency.

The memorial itself was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making were a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its white Portland stone, the memorial declares “This monument blog memorialis dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise induced to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial. Unlike the Brown Dog memorial to vivisected animals, located a few miles away in Battersea Park, it is not a statement of dissent.

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

Better still would have been ‘They have no choice’, reminding the visitor to this monument that ‘they’ are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First World War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals were most visibly used: not just the ubiquitous horses but, as the memorial shows, mules, camels, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals . . . Oh, my horses.” About 1 million of the horses used by Britain and its allies on the Western Front are said to have lost their lives. Some of these horses belonged to cavalry regiments, but most had been requisitioned from farms, haulage companies, livery stables, and private owners. They knew, therefore, even less of war than the conscripted men whom they “served and died alongside”. Across the whole war, perhaps 8 million horses lost their lives.

But despite this profligate use of horses, the First World War was the one which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the memorial is unpleasantly apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles hustling past on either side (the memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war in other forms and with other sorts of casualty.

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

Such research is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of war service for animals to participate and die in. It offers no scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the memorial. It won’t earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, with its inscription “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason, then, to give it this much recognition: a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys by which to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, as described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, or their continuing service at Porton Down, testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”) Nor are any pigs shown on the memorial, to record the use of their deliberately injured bodies in the training of British military surgeons – a practice which still goes on, as a minister of defence recently confirmed (in July 2019): “live but fully anaesthetised pigs are given bullet and blast wounds which are then treated in real-time exercises by surgical teams.”

Likewise absent is any word or image to recall the hecatombs of animals put to use during and after the Second World War in research for the newly developed atomic weaponry. Even before the first test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the scientists preparing for it had enjoyed the use of “an animal farm” for research into radiation. When two atomic bombs were tested at Bikini Atoll immediately after the war, a number of the so-called “ghost ships”, placed in the target area to evidence the effects of the bombs, had animals on board: pigs, goats, rats, mice. Some of the animals were shaved “so that the effects of heat and radiation on their skins could be observed.”  All of them died as a result, either at once or soon after. By the 1960s, about 5 million animals were being used every year just in research sponsored by the USA’s Atomic Energy Commission. And of course such research didn’t stop when the habit of testing bombs did. In the year before the Park Lane memorial was completed, an article in the journal Radiation Research had confirmed the continuing usefulness of such research; it was titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors Predicted from Laboratory Animals’.

The exigencies of battle itself may impose cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to take part. The Park Lane memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war, which is what has driven the atomic research and other research into weapons of mass destruction, is an even more pitiless taskmaster. At a House of Lords committee hearing on animal research some years ago, one witness (backing the work being done at Porton Down) spoke of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war: “For an agent like that there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.” He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps explains why this aspect of the war-work of non-human animals was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.


Notes and references:

An account of the Brown Dog memorial and its significance can be found in this blog at

For a short but excellent and well-illustrated account of the part horses were made to take in the First War, see Simon Butler, The War Horses: the Tragic Fate of a Million Horses Sacrificed in the First World War, Halsgrove, 2011. The numbers given above are from Butler’s book, pp.48 and 118.

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

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

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995; first published 1975) pp.25-29; those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975), pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted. Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date information is not easily available, but some examples of work done for military purposes at Porton Down and also at British universities can be seen on the Animal Justice Project web-site at The statement about pigs used in surgical training was made on 23 July 2019 by Minister of Defence Tobias Ellwood as part of a written answer to a question put to the government, at the request of Animal Aid, by Ben Lake MP.

As to the nuclear research: a fuller account of its history and present practice is given in this blog, together with references, here:

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

Not mentioned in the above text is research being carried forward now, sponsored by the US Department for Veterans Affairs, in which dogs are used as models for the study of paralyzing injuries sustained in battle. These ruthless experiments are the subject of a ForceChange petition which you can sign here:

He that has Humanity

One of the reasons for the great increase in experiments on animals after the Second World War (five times as many in 1971 as in 1946) was the thorough-going institutionalization of the LD50 toxicity test. That disgusting method of finding what dose of a drug, or other substance of use to humans, will kill half of the test animals – a technique which merely by itself should have been enough to discredit the whole animal-research project – is not, you’ll be relieved to know, the subject of this post. But it seems that one of the assistants to Dr J.W. Trevan, the scientist who devised the method in the 1920s, subsequently celebrated the achievement by acquiring for his car the number-plate LD50. Here’s a showy instance, then, of science failing to rise to the ethical occasion, or even to notice it, and this at least fifty years after the Royal Commission of 1876 had spoken feelingly (for a government publication, anyway) of “the claim of the lower animals to be treated with humane consideration, and . . . the right of the community to be assured that this claim shall not be forgotten amid the triumphs of advancing science.”

That number-plate is mentioned in a recent history of the vivisection controversy, Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain by A.W.H. Bates. A part of the book’s theme is exactly that failure of science to rise to the ethical problem set to it by bates covervivisection – the failure of science or the science establishment rather than scientists in general, because Bates shows (what is evident also in the evidence put before the 1876 Royal Commission) that many of the opponents of vivisection in its earlier days were individual doctors. Bates himself is a medical doctor and professor of pathology, and can therefore feel, from within medical practice, the perplexity or even indignation of the healer who has to give with one hand what he’s stolen with the other.

Or if not stolen, at least been accessory to the theft of: not many doctors have themselves been vivisectors, because laboratory research was an occupation distinct from healing well before animals had become a common part of the equipment for it. But since the 1870s, vivisection has been the premise of orthodox medical science and training. Every British doctor has therefore been implicated in it. Writing of the period up to 1970 (but the situation has not noticeably changed since then), Bates says

all were taught in medical schools that it was indispensable for knowledge, and that those who opposed it were enemies of science. To speak out was disloyalty, and medical students and young researchers (as I know from experience) went along with the culture of animal experimentation because to dissent was heresy. [200]

As to those early days of vivisection in the UK, Bates does not picture a doctor’s dilemma, a painful choice between two hard positions, for he believes that the medical profession had an established ethic which ought to have made its way clear. The clue is in that word used by the Commissioners, ‘humane’. For Bates (and for the Commissioners too, I hope), it’s not a vague term of moral approval. He gets out the Oxford Dictionary and insists on the word’s proper definition: “such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man” (the medical scene at that time was indeed populated almost exclusively by men). What behaviour or disposition, then, particularly befits a doctor? If compassion and the will to heal, or at least – translating from the original Hippocratic Oath – to ‘abstain from all intentional wrong or harm’, are to be part of it, then, so it seemed to many doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, “vivisection was not something that a doctor ought to do”. More largely it was “incompatible with the humane ethos of their profession.” (These two quotations come from the first and the second-to-last pages of the book, and the whole story in between is told with reference to this conviction.)

That sort of moral thinking, based on the idea of what “befits” a human, would now be called ‘virtue ethics’. Dr Bates rightly traces it to the philosophy of Aristotle, but whether academically codified or used by a sort of informal instinct, it has always been the standard moral reference in life and in literature. “I dare do all that may become a man,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, defending himself from his wife’s accusation of cowardice; “Who dares do more is none.” And as the story of Macbeth shows, human character has this dynamic quality to it, that it is revised by its own choices, so that virtue becomes steadily less or more natural, less or more possible, to it. And likewise this was always the principal reference in the case against vivisection, until well into the twentieth century: as Samuel Johnson had said, its “horrid operations” would “tend to harden the heart and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or the stone.” [21]

And not just the medical profession would be affected; opponents argued that society as a whole would be corrupted by the practice. It was this latter conviction which, so the courts decided in 1895, entitled the anti-vivisection Victoria Street Society to its charitable status: the Society’s aim was, or at least included, the good of humanity. And the Society did indeed state that its primary inspiration was “a conviction that the spread of mercy was the great cause of civilization.” [46]

Dr Bates shows how well-established the ‘virtue’ tradition of thought was when vivisection first came to the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. He quotes the British Medical Journal itself endorsing it: “Let there be no mistake about it: the man who habituates himself to the shedding of blood, and who is insensible to the sufferings of animals, is led on into the path of baseness.” [21] And of course the proponents of vivisection attempted often enough to defend their case on that same ground. They insisted on the fine character of the practitioner in general (“the best people in the country”, said Sir William Gull) and of each other’s in particular (“I do not anywhere know a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, one of his colleagues told the Royal Commissioners, speaking of the editor of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory of 1873). Conversely, they disparaged the characters of their opponents, notably for their want of manliness (“old ladies of both sexes” [21]). For of course what constitutes virtue is always a contestable matter, even though the consensus seems to have changed surprisingly little since Aristotle’s days.

Anyway, those attempts at virtue ethics were improvisations only. After all, animal research had come about for purely technical reasons, as a means of research; it had not been ethically argued into being, nor much questioned within the profession thereafter. In fact, as the controversy over Professor Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook showed, the professionals were wholly unprepared for the moral indignation aroused by their work: he himself admitted, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft.”

But an ethic of sorts, or a substitute for it, was at hand, and was soon fixed into law by the Cruelty to Animals Act, passed immediately after the Royal Commission had reported. What looked like cruelty would be all right provided it produced or might produce some commensurate benefit: the more “horrid” the operation (vivisection of dogs, for instance, or absence of anaesthesia), the more attention had to be paid to this notional benefit (that is, special certificates would be required). So the problem of what people ought to do, as doctors, as Christians, as humans, which was how the anti-vivisectionists put the matter, was countered with a sort of calculus: indeed, utilitarianism has sometimes been called ‘the felicific calculus’ (counting happiness). Of course, only the scientist can say what the benefit will or may be: he or she owns the crucial half of the computation. So when the Oxford professor and champion of vivisection Ray Lankester promised in a public lecture of 1905 that eventually, through bioscience, “man can get rid of pain and unhappiness”, such an enormous and alluring benefit made almost any cost acceptable, and nobody could say that it wasn’t possible.

Utilitarianism remains the core ethical principle in modern medicine: “Bioethics as currently taught in British medical schools is unlikely to stress the importance of the physician’s humane character; as anyone who works in a teaching hospital will know, medical students and junior doctors are trained to seek the greatest benefit for the largest number; and to their utilitarian hammer, everything looks like a nail.” [2] By that last image, I think Dr Bates means that there is nothing that has to be regarded as falling outside the calculus, no absolute yes or no in conduct. The implications of this had been noticed by C.S. Lewis when he was writing on the subject in 1947: “the victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as the animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements.” 1947 was the year, incidentally, in which the courts, conforming to the spirit of the age, revised their 1895 decision, and took charitable status away from the anti-vivisection organisations.

Dr Bates shows how thoroughly this “materialistic utilitarianism” did indeed represent “an ethical break with the past” [199]. In fact he argues that the term ‘anti-vivisection’ is an unfortunate misnomer. It implies “protest, negativity and perhaps even rejection of progress”, whereas the movement was really a defence of positive human values against a sudden and novel assault. And it wasn’t the voice of a non-conformist minority: There was never a time in Britain when there were more people active in support of vivisection than against it, and in the nineteenth century the antis raised petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures, more than for any other cause of the time.” [14]

Nor were they simply appealing to an old moral orthodoxy. Against the obduracy, even bumptiousness, of the utilitarian, with his LD50 number-plate, they brought a flourishing moral idealism. They not only made sure of a continual argument (repetitive certainly, but philosophically fertile too); they also showed, as many of their successors have since discovered for themselves, that thinking or being made to think about our proper relations to other animals is the best, perhaps the only, way to make sense of our own place in the world. Dr Bates shows it happening: for instance in the thought of Josiah Oldfield, founder of anti-vivisection hospitals and other like-minded projects, who wrote rhapsodically in 1898, “The higher the man, . . . the more reverence he has for his fellow traveller – a true brother in the eyes of science – on the same spiral pathway of vitality, towards a perfection of evolution.” [86] All of us animals “on the same spiral pathway of vitality”! It’s a dream, perhaps, but an inspiring guide also, and there’s certainly nothing ‘anti’ about it.

Bates’s history shows, in fact, that anti-vivisection continually won the argument, but that the science establishment, working in particular through the British Medical Association and the Research Defence Society, had the influence and therefore won the politics. But he ends his account in 1970, just before the argument re-blossomed in the most astonishing way, with the publication of Animals, Men and Morals, and all that came after it. The subsequent ascendancy of the ‘rights’ idea, supported by the new science of animal sentience, has given anti-vivisection very great additional authority, if not much additional success.

However, Bates believes that the ‘virtue’ argument shouldn’t be let go. He points out that the five decisive objections to vivisection put forward by the Animals’ Friends Society (set up in 1833 by the saintly Lewis Gompertz) “did not mention animals at all.” [197] It was enough, even for that pioneering vegan who refused to travel in horse-drawn vehicles, to insist that the practice was bad for humans. And Dr Bates concludes that “For ethicists, the most important lesson from history is that it is possible to construct a coherent and effective case against vivisection in which neither utilitarianism nor animal rights needs feature prominently!” [200]

It’s an unconventional, perhaps perverse, conclusion but, as I’ve mentioned, this is a practising doctor speaking, with an ideal of the healer in mind. And we might all agree with him to this extent, that a line of moral thinking which has kept human savagery intermittently in check for millennia should indeed be held on to for the animals’ sake as well as our own. “I would not enter on my list of friends,” says William Cowper in his long meditative poem The Task (1785, Book VI, l.560),

                                                . . . the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush a snail,
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarn’d,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.

We don’t need, then, to argue whether worms or snails (‘reptiles’ for Cowper, from the Latin repere, meaning ‘to creep’) can feel pain, nor to set up experiments to find out for sure. All those researches into the intelligence or sentience of our fellow-animals are beside the point. An ideal of ‘humanity’ will by itself teach us how to treat them – better still (a point on which utilitarianism is silent) why to want to treat them well, supposing we need a reason for that.


Notes and references:

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the magnificent Animal Ethics series edited by Andrew Linzey. There are 37 titles in the series to date, but this volume is only the second of them to deal just with vivisection. Note also that the book is free to read online at

Quotations from the book here, including instances where the author is quoting others, are given page numbers in square brackets. Other quotations are referenced below.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO, 1876) is quoted at pp. xxi, 266 (Gull), 75 (character of Dr Sanderson), 118 (lay criticism of the Handbook).

Ray Lankester is quoted in E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern Biology, Joe Lester, British Society for the History of Science, 1995, p.175.

The essay Vivisection by C.S. Lewis was first published as a pamphlet by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in 1947, but can be found re-printed in various selections of his essays and lectures.

The interesting cover illustration is credited to “Peter Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo”. Evidently it wasn’t commissioned for this book, and it has its own take on vivisection in the early twentieth century, noticeably different from the author’s.


Remembering John Ruskin Rightly, part 2

Here’s a characteristically Ruskinian scene, recorded by his friend and secretary William Collingwood during a summer excursion which they were making in Switzerland in 1883, just before Ruskin went back to his work at Oxford. They had stopped for a meal at a wayside inn, and were eating at a table outdoors:

To this lunch there came a little dog, two cats, and a pet sheep, and shared our wine, bread, and Savoy sponge-cakes. The sheep at last got to putting its feet on the table, and the landlady rushed out and carried him off in her arms into the house; but Ruskin, I think, would as soon have let the creature stay.

It’s not that animals needed to petition charmingly, as they happened to do here, in order to engage Ruskin’s attention. In fact Collingwood specifically says that Ruskin felt “a sympathy with them which goes much deeper than benevolent sentiment”. But the scene is typical of the way animals thronged Ruskin’s life: they turn up in his conversation, lectures, and writing, in his dreams, in his own paintings and in his art criticism. And, as we know, they were the occasion of that crisis in his working life, the resignation from Oxford University.

The scene at the Swiss inn may be taken, besides, as a sort of emblem of the animal kingdom (the whole of it, humans included) as Ruskin envisioned it. In one of his early Oxford lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a lecture in which he was typically combining a study in natural history with his ideas about the point of university education (the formal subject of the lecture was the halcyon or kingfisher), he put to his audience “my main theorem – that reading and writing are in no sense education, unless they contribute to this end of making us feel kindly towards all creatures”. And again, not ‘kindly’ in a merely cerebral or sentimental sense: rather, in the etymological sense of feeling kinship. He wanted the future landowners in his audience (many of the undergraduates would indeed have been from the landed gentry and aristocracy) to be educated out of their corrupt taste for hunting and shooting animals. He wanted them to devote themselves instead to maintaining their land in its “native wildness”, so as “to let every animal live upon it in peace that chose to come there.” A lot of meaning is bound up in that word ‘chose’.

He had the same scheme in mind for Oxford itself. The authorities, he hoped (or dreamed), would “so far recognize what education means as to surround this university with the loveliest park in England, twenty miles square”, within which “every English wild flower that can bloom in lowland will be suffered to grow in luxuriance, and every living creature that haunts wood and stream know that it has a happy refuge.” And it was much more than a conservation scheme. Ruskin believed that the essential relation between humans and other animals could be transformed – restored to innocence, perhaps – if only the humans themselves would change: “There is peacable kingdom.JPGscarcely any conception left of the character which animals and birds might have if kindly treated in a wild state.” He was teaching, in fact, the way towards the peaceable kingdom.

Nor was this just a picturesque ideal for Ruskin. It was founded on his absolute conviction of nature’s entirety: that in fact was a key word in his vocabulary. Wisdom itself, he told his Oxford students, was “the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life, in the entire sum of life that we know, bestial and human”. There could therefore be nothing narrow or pedestrian about drawing a small bird, or for that matter a stone or twig, as he often directed his students in the art school to do (and as he himself did with brilliant fidelity and feeling), for “the system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” Writing about Venice, Ruskin improvised a special function here for the patron saint of that city, St Theodore. He should represent “Divine life in nature; Divine life in the flesh of the animal, and in the substance of the wood and of the stone, contending with poison and death in the animal, with rottenness in the tree and in the stone.” [C&W 29.62] This St Theodore champions the life-wish, and Ruskin sensed that wish far into areas of nature conventionally regarded as inanimate or at least as involuntary. In another Oxford lecture, he spoke of crystals as “living stones”. He used to get the girls at Winnington School, where he was a sort of visiting professor, to get their own sense of that stone-life by acting out the different crystal formations.

But there was nothing mild and consolatory about this notion of a ubiquitous shared life, for Ruskin had also an acute feeling for the perils faced by the life-urge in all its variety. We’ve seen these perils contended with in the labour of St Theodore. Ruskin himself was viscerally affected by the sight or even idea of disease, of physical suffering and harm. The dreams show it: “a green leaf which was an animal, and was drowning in a basin of water, and putting its green point up, trying to get out”; “I had a nice black dog with me, and trod on it, and half broke its leg; then it gradually got better and limped after us about the town”; “a fit of great distress and self-reproach because I Ruskin_Self_Portrait_1875.jpghad starved a hermit crab whom I had packed away in his shell … looking at the starved creature and wondering if I could revive it.” This sense of life’s ordeal – and his intense sympathy for it, as suffered by animals especially – amounted to a personal engagement, which the dreams cruelly dramatize by making him the cause of harm. The sympathy was always vivid in his imagination and directive of his thought. “There is no wealth but life” he wrote, by way of summarizing his economics in Unto This Last (1860), but it summarizes his thinking in all of its many directions.

And it was here that science came to seem in Ruskin’s mind essentially hostile. That was a tragic estrangement, for Ruskin loved and never did cease to study the natural sciences. He had a strong talent for it. In that same black dog dream, he observes a tourist “staring” at his surroundings, and the two men agree that “to stare was the right thing; to look only was no use.” The scientific skill of concentrated and selfless attention Ruskin had to a very high degree, and the practice of art as he taught it at Oxford was a means into that discipline; in fact he insisted that art was itself a science, “the science of aspects”. He even, during that inaugural lecture of 1870, proposed that art and “our now authoritative science of physiology” should collaborate in making a complete record of the world’s animal life. (“now authoritative”! It was an ominous misconception; Ruskin didn’t then realize that British physiology was only just starting to discover itself and its characteristic techniques as a science.)

But always the art depended on moral engagement and sympathy; the artist was to feel “rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part. He told his Oxford students during that kingfisher lecture, “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature, you can see it: no otherwise.” It was this sympathetic delight which, during the 1870s, Ruskin came to think had been cut out of modern science, of biology in particular. This part of science was now consciously shaking off its amateurish past as ‘natural history’, so much associated as that had been with personal observation in the field and with anecdotes of particular living animals. This was the tradition to which Ruskin himself belonged (something of it has since been recovered and re-valued as ethology).

Oxford’s future Physiology professor, the one who would be sharing the University Museum with Ruskin during his last two years as Slade Professor, was a leader in this modernization of biology. At just about the same time that Ruskin was telling his audience about delight as a condition of seeing anything at all, John Scott Burdon Sanderson had been telling a different audience that “the study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.” In other words, biology was to be incorporated into the world as defined by physics and chemistry – the world of “mechanism”, as Ruskin called it. And the organic part of that world, like the rest of it, was to be explored primarily through experimentation, conducted by scientists acting as disengaged technicians. For these modern pioneers, so different from the ones Ruskin had pictured in that inaugural lecture lovingly recording the world’s wild-life, he used a harsh and sinister image: they were, he said, “mostly blind, and proud of finding their way always with a stick.”

For two more immediate reasons Ruskin felt driven to contest this innovation. One was the glaring importance of science. Its rapid growth in prestige was everywhere obvious, not least in Oxford, where the Museum itself was built evidence of it. In fact one of the critical moments in this cultural triumph of science had recently taken place there: the famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, on the subject of evolution. If science was to replace religion as the primary force in British culture, and thus perhaps become the conditioning sub-text of the British mind, which Huxley himself frequently argued that it should do and Ruskin feared it already had, then it mattered very much what sort of mind and culture that entailed. And for Ruskin, modern science, and the technology which was its most conspicuous product, entailed a maiming alienation of mankind from the rest of the world. Years earlier he had defined what he regarded as man’s “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things”: it was to “know them all and love them, as made for him, and he for them.” And he had warned against that alienation: “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation.” And now “fatalest ruin” was what he believed he was seeing in the 1870s. Speaking of the spoliation of land and wild-life in Europe, he told Oxford students in 1872, “we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth.”

And here, as the second reason for Ruskin’s preoccupation with the character of modern science, was the Museum’s own collection encircling him as he lectured. For he found that the building which he had hoped would be a celebration of the beauty and unity of life was filled with the stuffed skins and bottled parts of multitudes of imported corpses. Ruskin angrily called it “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”, and he told his (no doubt astonished) audience, “I could fill all this Museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.” More useful because these un-showy and familiar birds were animals whose lives students could in some sense share, whereas the dead animals in the Museum were an object lesson in selfish ambition and violence. And the Victorian collecting mania which had assembled them was itself a part of a larger corrupt and dangerous notion that man had triumphed over nature, and should consequently enjoy rights of ownership there.

I’ve said here only a part of what I wanted to say about Ruskin and animals: nothing, for instance, about his wonderful descriptions of their behaviour, his enactments of bird flight in lectures, his love and respect for the individual animals which he encountered (even ants and shrimps); perhaps most importantly I’ve said nothing about his sense of the mystery of animal consciousness, and the poignancy of the clouded understanding on both sides which thus conditioned all such encounters. I think that it was this mystery which he had in mind when, in one of his later lectures of the 1880s, he spoke of modern animal research as “depriving the animal under investigation first of its soul within, and secondly of its skin without.” Ruskin had no conventionally Christian faith, but he regarded as a kind of blasphemy this crude objectification of an inaccessibly mysterious individual life.

Anyway, during those last two years of his professorship, while the newly appointed Physiology professor, Burdon Sanderson, was moving equipment into his temporary quarters in the University Museum just downstairs from where Ruskin lectured, the contest of values reached a crisis. I’ve mentioned in the previous post the University’s plan to build a new laboratory for Burdon Sanderson, and the campaign which was mounted against it, or at least against its use for vivisection. Ruskin signed up to that campaign, but he also conducted his own personal campaign in lectures and beyond. “The scientists slink out of my way as if I were a mad dog”, he said in a letter written at this time (there are many shadowy arcades and showcases to slink behind in that neo-Gothic Museum). He planned to end the Michaelmas term of 1884 with a lecture entitled ‘Mechanism: the Pleasures of Nonsense’, which would be a passionate and last-ditch statement of his case against the new biology in general, and vivisection in particular. What a text that might have been, and what an event! But it didn’t occur; Ruskin was persuaded to postpone the lecture, and when the Michaelmas term ended and Ruskin left town for the Lake District where he had his home, it was to be a permanent departure.

Without that mechanism lecture, without in fact any single organised statement of his thinking about animals (he said in a letter that he wanted to write one, but hadn’t enough time), it has no doubt been easier than it would otherwise have been to treat Ruskin’s given reason for resigning his post – the decision to fund the new laboratory – as an excuse only. The real reason, it was commonly said at the time and frequently has been said since, was his mental ill-health. He certainly was unwell (the stress of those last Oxford weeks played a large part in that), but he, at any rate, believed in the reason which he gave, and indeed insisted upon it, as the previous post in this blog has recorded. I hope that this brief account of his thinking about animals has at least shown that there was quite enough strength of feeling and expressed commitment there to account for his action. We can and should remember that action, then, as Ruskin himself experienced it and as he wished it to be remembered.


Notes and references:

Instead of a long list of citations, these are the main texts quoted or referenced above:

William Collingwood’s Life and Works of John Ruskin, 2 vols, Methuen, 1893, is a fine and sympathetic account by someone who had been a student of Ruskin, and became his friend and helper.

‘The Story of the Halcyon’ was the ninth lecture in the series delivered by Ruskin in the Lent term of 1872, and published by George Allen in the same year under the title The Eagle’s Nest. Several of the quotations here come from that series, in which Ruskin was at his most well-organized and optimistic. His comments on the Museum collection come from a much more improvised and therefore exciting series delivered before very large audiences in the Michaelmas term of 1877, and titled ‘Readings in Modern Painters’. These were published from Ruskin’s notes in vol. 22 of Cook and Wedderburn’s great ‘Library Edition’ of Ruskin’s writings (39 vols, George Allen and Unwin, 1903-12). The last series of lectures, delivered in Michaelmas term of 1884, were titled ‘The Pleasures of England’ (the intended ‘mechanism’ lecture would have been the final one), and it’s from the first of these that he spoke of scientific research depriving the animal of its soul. The letter about scientists slinking out of Ruskin’s way is re-printed in Cook and Wedderburn, vol.37, p.501.

The quotation about “the system of the world” comes from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, where also he wrote about our “due relation to other creatures”. Here too, he uses the phrase “science of aspects” – in connection with the works of J.M.Turner (whose reputation was the originating subject of this great book), but the idea was one which he subsequently insisted on in his Oxford lectures.

Ruskin wrote about St Theodore in one of his ‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ titled Fors Clavigera and published in the 1870s, while he was also working at Oxford. This particular issue was numbered 75. The image of the blind scientist comes from that same letter. Ruskin’s dreams are recorded in his diaries: they were edited by Joan Evans and J.H.Whitehouse, and published by Oxford University Press in 3 vols, 1956-9.

The quotation about “rational and disciplined delight” comes from the first sentence of Ruskin’s book of instruction in the principles of drawing and painting, The Laws of Fésole, published in parts from 1877-79.

On the study of biology: Professor Burdon Sanderson was addressing an audience at a professional event, and his speech was published in the journal Nature, 1 June, 1876.

Th illustrations show a detail from one of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ series painted by the American artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 1820s to 1840s, and a self-portrait in water-colour by John Ruskin, painted in 1875. Both images are in the public domain.




Remembering John Ruskin Rightly

Next Wednesday, 6th February, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest of the Victorians, John Ruskin. His reputation took a tumble with the rest of them when there came a reaction against the Victorian model of the great man, soon after the end of the century – rather unreasonably in Ruskin’s case, since he had been notoriously a scourge of Victorian values and ambitions. Even the magnificent complete edition of his works in 39 volumes, which came out in 1903 -12, seemed to confirm him as a forbiddingly earnest heavyweight rather than revive his influence. “I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie”, says one of the intellectual girls who attempt to marry P.G.Wodehouse’s rattle-brained hero Bertram Wooster, and her first step is to read Ruskin to him in the drawing-room.

But Ruskin’s reputation recovered and he is now properly accepted as a NPG 1336; John Ruskin by Sir Hubert von Herkomersupreme interrogator of modern Western culture. The revival really began with the inaugural lecture given in 1947 by his most eminent successor as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Kenneth Clark – a man who shared, incidentally, Ruskin’s love and admiration for non-human animals, in life and in art (see his book, Animals and Men, 1977). Clark’s lecture remains one of the best and most sympathetic short accounts, and the anthology which he edited in 1964, Ruskin Today, remains likewise the best of short tours. Then, among the countless subsequent books and exhibitions which have helped to confirm Ruskin’s re-acknowledged stature, there is the superb and definitive biography by Tim Hilton (published in 2000).

Still, time alone would surely have restored Ruskin to proper attention, so illuminatingly and enduringly sound was his charge against industrial society: that the joint rule of commerce and science has been turning modern man into a universal predator. In a lecture to an Oxford audience, he thus characterized the new human: “consumer of all things consumable, producer of nothing but darkness and abomination . . . a god to himself, and to all the world an incarnate calamity.”

Pollution of land and water, perversion of the weather (Ruskin called this the “plague-cloud” of industrialization, and some thought him deranged on the subject, but we now know it as climate change), and Western humanity’s own social sickness, these were part of the “calamity”. And always Ruskin had in mind the non-human animals, and what our way of life entailed for them. During his career as a professor at Oxford, animals appear again and again in his lectures and other writings (and in his dreams), and it was indeed this aspect of the “calamity” which eventually put an abrupt end to his work there.

To understand this story, one has to appreciate the unusual relationship between the man and the institution. So far from being the solemn pedagogue implied in Bertram Wooster’s drawing-room ordeal, Ruskin was a brilliant and engaging personality. “I never saw or heard anyone laugh with such abandonment of enjoyment”, says one memoir of him in his professorial days. As a speaker, he fascinated audiences. His inaugural lecture at Oxford, in the Hilary term of 1870, was fixed to take place in the University Museum, which contained Oxford’s newest and largest lecture theatre, seating more than 500, but long before the time of starting it became obvious that the room wouldn’t be big enough for the demand. The audience had to be herded out, joining the crowds in the street outside and forming one tumultuous procession around Ruskin himself, which then headed for the University’s great ceremonial hall, the Sheldonian, and filled that place from floor to galleries. Fourteen years later, his last lectures (now back in the Museum) were still attracting so many from town and university that he had to deliver each one twice, and a notice was posted requesting people not to attend both sessions.

Probably there has never been at Oxford University any other single personality who has commanded attention and enthusiasm there in the way Ruskin did. As professor of Fine Art, an extra-curricular subject not implicated in exams, he didn’t have a defined audience, and he always spoke as one addressing the whole university, for indeed he believed that his subject had no academic bounds: “The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things.” As one contemporary exclaimed sardonically, “What more entrancing than the new Art-Professor, and the wonderful fireworks which throw their magical light over every subject on earth but the subject of his chair?” For of course Ruskin’s free-minded critique of university life and practice didn’t please everyone. Certainly it made the official University uneasy, sometimes indignant, but then as Kenneth Clark has said, “in studying the nineteenth century, we shall be astonished at the tolerance of academic circles compared to those of our own day.” That’s a sad truth.

So Ruskin strayed brilliantly across all the topics he thought his audiences should mind about, challenging what they carelessly took for granted: new university buildings, student sports (rowing he particularly disliked, for disturbing river-life), how to study birds, the Oxford countryside, mountaineering, materialism, science. But yes, increasingly science, and in particular science’s attitude to animals. For in the 1880s that had suddenly became an acutely controversial subject at Oxford. The University was proposing to build a dedicated physiology laboratory, and to have it directed by Oxford’s first professor of Physiology, a man well-known as a pioneer of vivisection in the U.K., John Scott Burdon Sanderson [see this blog for 21 November 2015: ‘The Real Benjulia?’] An impassioned campaign against this innovation was organized by the head of the Bodleian Library, Edward Nicholson. Ruskin signed his name to Nicholson’s campaign, and spoke freely on the subject in public and private. In fact his last public words in Oxford, in December of 1884, were addressed to an anti-vivisection meeting in the Town Hall. But they were his last because the campaign failed: Convocation (the University’s parliament) voted to finance the new laboratory and to attach no conditions to the work that might be done there, and as a consequence Ruskin resigned.

At least, he said that was why, but since then the question has always been (improperly, as I believe) whether to accept what he said about what he was doing, or to substitute more conventionally common-sense explanations.

Ruskin was at home – Brantwood, in the Lake District – when he received the news of Convocation’s decision. He had been enjoying, so he said in his diary for March 15th, “a lovely and delightful day . . . doing quantities of good work”, work that included revising one of his recent Oxford lectures for the press. But the news scattered his equanimity: that night he “slept ill . . . waking at two, to think whether I would resign the professorship on it.” For it was a most distressing decision to take. I’ve said something about Ruskin’s extraordinary reception and continuing glamour in the University. He felt a fully reciprocal attachment to “my own Oxford – so he had called it in his inaugural lecture. It was a place which he had known, worked in, had a hand in, ever since he had first arrived there as a student in 1837. The very building in which he usually gave his lectures, the DSC05094.JPGUniversity Museum (completed in about 1860), had been a product of his aesthetic philosophy and of his practical advice and collaboration. As Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art, he had always had high ambitions for what he could achieve: “I really think the time has come for me to be of some use”, said this man already famous in the world as an art critic and social critic when he started the work at Oxford. And still in the early 1880s he had “all sorts of useful notions for Oxford, it was his “proper task”, there was “a great deal to be done there now”. He said subsequently that he had “meant to die in my harness there”.

But that very attachment, which would make severance so drastic, also made it imperative: for as his close friend Henry Acland, then Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, recognized, Ruskin must have felt himself “personally responsible for that which his whole nature abhorred”. And so he did indeed resign, sending a letter to the Vice-Chancellor a few days later, and never, in fact, re-visiting the place which had meant so much to him.

Ruskin asked that his reason for resigning should be made public in the University, but it wasn’t. In London the Pall Mall Gazette announced the decision to the nation, but with the explanation that the professor, now 66 years old, felt unequal to the demands of lecturing. He wrote to correct this explanation: he had resigned “solely in consequence . . . of the vote endowing vivisection in the university”. But some version of the Pall Mall Gazette account has lived on ever since. And Tim Hilton’s biography now standardizes it, seeing in the vivisection defeat a cover for his departure rather than the true reason; it provided, says Hilton, “the perfect opportunity to leave Oxford.

Certainly Ruskin was entitled to resign: he had been professor at Oxford, with some intervals, for nearly fifteen years; he was tending to get behind-hand with preparation for lectures, and consequently had to improvise more and more, breaking at times into fantastic digressions (which the undergraduates appreciated a lot, but the dons didn’t); he had a history of mental collapses, and was in precarious health. But as he himself noted in his diary on that March day, he could still work well, and he wanted to work. His very fine last book Praeterita, yet to come, would prove as much. In his own mind at least, there was no doubt why he was resigning: it was because vivisection was too great a wrong to live with at Oxford – or, as he put it in a private letter, because he refused to lecture to the sound of “shrieking cats” (he meant that more or less literally, for while the new laboratory was being built, Professor Burdon Sanderson was at work in the same University Museum that Ruskin lectured in). He meant his resignation to be a clear and practical statement of the ethical fact – as if to say, I dedicate this rupture, of a unique and treasured relationship, to the value of animal lives.

It is surely owed to Ruskin, in this year when he will be more than usually talked about and fêted, to remember his act of resignation rightly. In the next post of this blog there will be more about animals in Ruskin’s life and thought, and why it was, as he believed, that his obligations towards them made Oxford impossible for him.


Notes and references:

The Wodehouse story ‘Scoring Off Jeeves’ originally appeared in the Strand Magazine, February 1922.

The anthology of Ruskin’s writings edited by Kenneth Clark and published by John Murray and Penguin Books, who later issued it as John Ruskin: Selected Writings (1991). The “incarnate calamity” passage is from a lecture given in 1884 and recorded by Edward Cook in Studies in Ruskin, Geo. Allen, 1890, p.293.

Ruskin’s laughter is remembered in a memoir by ‘Peter’ (Edwin Barrow) published in St George, VI, no.22, April 1903, pp.103-15, at p.111

Ruskin wrote about art as the teaching of all things in his series of papers called Fors Clavigera, no. 76, April 1877. The comment on his lectures was made by the historian J.R.Green in Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901, p.265. Kenneth Clark’s observation about academic freedom comes in his 1947 lecture, published as Ruskin at Oxford, OUP, 1947.

The discussion of J.S.Burdon Sanderson in this blog is at

Ruskin’s diaries have been edited by Joan Evans and John Whitehouse (3 vols, Clarendon Press, 1956-9). The letters from which Ruskin’s views on his Oxford work are quoted are published in The Brantwood Diary, ed. Helen Gill Viljoen, Yale UP, 1971, pp.271, 313, 487.

Henry Acland’s discussion of Ruskin’s resignation appeared in The Oxford Museum, 1893, reprinted in Cook and Wedderburn, Works, vol.16, pp.235-40. Ruskin’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette (including the statement about dying in harness) was reprinted in the Oxford Review, April 29th, 1885. Tim Hilton’s account of the resignation is in John Ruskin, Yale UP, 2002, pp.791-2. Ruskin speaks of “shrieking cats” in an unpublished letter to his friend Joan Severn, dated 22nd March 1885, and held in the Bodleian Library’s English Letters collection.

The watercolour portrait of Ruskin in 1879 is by Hubert von Herkomer, Ruskin’s immediate successor as Slade Professor (image used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London). The picture of the University Museum shows the building, designed by Benjamin Woodward in ‘Ruskinian Gothic’ style, in 1860 (image originally made for the Oxford Almanac, here reproduced from a Blackwell’s Bookshop Christmas card of 1979).

Scenes from the Dawn of the Atomic Age

An advertisement published in 1952 by the National Society for Medical thanksBigResearch shows the towering cloud of an atomic explosion with attendant dog, who calmly turns her head back as if to deliver or at least endorse the message posted at her feet: “We must thank animals if good comes from the atomic bomb”. Yes, the dog must be a she because it surely can’t be by chance that this is a Rough Collie, the same breed as Lassie, who had by then become famous in print and film for her imagined loyalty and sagacity. So she’s thought a suitable intermediary between us humans and the animals whom we’re invited to thank for helping us to make a good thing out of the bomb. Later on, Lassie tended to advertise dog foods, but here she (or at least the breed which she made famous for its useful virtues) is being made to advertise vivisection. And the giant mushroom cloud reminds us that we’re in a hurry; we need to be in a position to thank the animals pretty soon, or there won’t be anything left to thank them for.

At the front of the picture, some palm trees bend and flap in the unnatural gale. Evidently, then, the immediate reference is to the atom bomb tests which had been carried out by the US government at the tropical Bikini Atoll in 1946 (and which would be resumed in 1954). The tests had been titled ‘Operation Crossroads’, the crossroads in question being the ones mankind had arrived at in his war-making: which direction was he to go in next? Three bombs in turn were to be exploded over or under a miscellaneous fleet of about ninety warships – either obsolete US vessels or ones captured from the recent enemy – to test, in particular, the continuing relevance of the navy in battles transformed by nuclear science. The ships were realistically loaded with equipment and stores: planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, even food. But of course there were the personnel to think about too, and that’s where the animals came in, or rather were put in.

Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, pigs, about 3,500 of them in all for the first test, were put on board selected ships, in cages or pens, or tied to individual restraint devices which were bolted to the decks, or just shut into the ships’ accommodation. Some of the animals were shaved, and sun-cream and other such ointments were tried out for their protective powers against radiation. Pigs and goats were put into naval uniforms or other clothing, to see what difference that might make. The ships with these grotesque involuntary crews were anchored at various distances from the expected epicentre of the coming first explosion, code-named ‘Able’. (A note on names: after ‘Able’, the next two tests were to be ‘Baker’ and ‘Charlie’, but the bomb itself was named and sign-painted ‘Gilda’, after a character played by Rita Hayworth in the newly released film of that title: “There never was a woman like Gilda!” said the posters. The laddish frivolity of the name is highly characteristic of such enterprises; it re-surfaces, for instance, in the ‘Dolly’ project, as commented on in this blog on 29 August 2016.)

Operation Crossroads was not a secretive affair, except in technical matters. Part of its purpose was to show that the United States was uniquely there at the world’s crossroads, determining the new direction. It was a staged event, and a very large audience, estimated at 42,000, was assembled to experience it: service personnel of course, but also members of Congress, UN representatives, observers from other nations, including the USSR, and many journalists, who had their own dedicated press ship, with “specially prepared media packets, lectures, and tours”. More than 150 ships were needed to accommodate these people. In fact it was said at the time that Operation Crossroads was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted”.

In particular, great quantities of moving film were used to record the event – mainly the explosions themselves, of course, but also the preparations and the aftermaths. Some of the film was edited for official use, and a commentary was added. One such sequence shows pre-test tours of the fleet, the hurried making-ready (the whole project seems to have been conducted in haste), then the moment for the humans to make themselves scarce: “Preparations are now complete, and crews abandon their ships . . . Military and scientific personnel leave the target area.” The target ships recede from our view. That representative collection of the world’s Able testhumans re-assembles at a safe distance of 15 or so miles away, while the animals remain behind to endure the bomb. It’s a summary of vivisection: the humans taking cover and watching (in this case through protective goggles) to see what happens to their more expendable fellow-creatures.

In the event, the ‘Able’ test was rather less destructive than expected, perhaps partly because the bomb missed its aim by about half a mile. In the official film, the camera cruises again around the now blasted fleet noting the damage. It spots some of the animals just visible in a huddle within the ruined superstructure of one of the ships: “These animals,” explains the voice-over, “survived the blast but died later from the effect of radioactivity.” In fact one or two did survive more lastingly. A pig (no. 311) which had been shut into the officers’ ‘heads’ or lavatories on the Japanese cruiser Sarawak, anchored about 500 yards from the centre of the explosion, was discovered some hours later “swimming gamely in the radiation-polluted waters of the Bikini Lagoon”. “gamely”! One would think it was a sporting event, but then the title of the Time magazine article from which that quotation is taken was ‘This Little Pig Came Home’: once you conspire in the misuse of animals, it’s impossible to speak in a straight and honourable way about them. Pig 311 died in 1950 at the Smithsonian Institution Zoo.

The second test, ‘Baker’, was detonated underwater and proved much more sensational. The giant column of sea-water, hurled 6000 feet into the air, came back down in a spray of radioactivity which clung to the surviving ships so tenaciously that they could not safely be re-occupied. (For that reason, the third test, ‘Charlie’, was abandoned.) An official report described the ships as “radioactive stoves”. There seems to be less information available about the animals used in this second test, but one history of Operation Crossroads says that “All of the pigs and most of the rats used during the Baker test were either killed by the initial blast or died shortly thereafter from radiological exposure.”

That was of course neither the beginning nor the end of the part which animals have been made to play in atomic weapons research (some more details are provided in this blog at 9 November 2018). In 1964, a cow patronizingly called ‘Granny’ – and if I was naming farm animals, I’d avoid the theme of family life – appeared in the news as a survival story, rather as pig no.311 had done. The cow had just died twenty or so years after the very first atomic bomb test (New Mexico, July 1945) by which she and her fellows had been sprinkled with radioactive dust. The herd had at once been collected and taken away for tests. ‘Granny’ herself was, when she died, under observation at an agricultural research laboratory, for as a 1960s booklet on the subject noted, “Not only does man benefit from radiation research on animals, but animals do also”: for instance, we can “improve the quality of farm animals by determining, with the help of radioisotopes, the most efficient methods of feeding, breeding, and maintaining good nutrition.” So Granny didn’t survive in vain.

Still, deciding how to fight and win wars in the new atomic age was the primary motivation of the early animal research, and it remains, after all this time, a continuing laboratory theme. Thus a study from 2003 titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors’ argues that “accurate predictions of age-specific radiation-induced mortality in beagles and the atomic bomb survivors can be obtained from a dose-response model for comparably exposed mice.” Or, from 2010, the report of a ‘workshop’ on the subject, titled ‘Animal Models for Medical Countermeasures to Radiation Exposure’, speaks of its mission “to identify and develop mitigating agents that can be used to treat the civilian population after a radiological event”.

A “radiological event”: it’s a horrible prospect even when part-disguised by euphemism, and no doubt we’d all be glad to learn that there did indeed exist “mitigating agents” against it. That, of course, is the thinking behind the Lassie advert. The National Society for Medical Research had been founded in 1945 to promote animal research in general, and how better to promote it than by shaking the mushroom cloud at us?

Many unappealing human sentiments and qualities have been involved in the practice and the reporting of atomic weapons research – in that part of it, at least, for which we “must thank animals”: callousness, bumptious levity, hubris, amoral curiosity. But cowardice is perhaps the most shameful of them. That workshop report claims that “Radiation research has a glorious history of sound animal models.” I’ve only offered a sketch or two of that history here, but I’ve perused a very great deal more, and I can’t find anything glorious there. It has been inherently a cowardly enterprise. A suitable New Year’s resolution for the human species would be to face up to our future with honourable self-reliance, instead of trying to make the other animals solve our troubles for us.


Notes and references:

The Lassie advert is in the archive of the US National Library of Medicine, and can be seen here:

There is any amount of material documenting the Crossroads tests, including notably the web-site of de-classified documents from the US National Security Archive, at The quotation about publicity, and the phrase “radioactive stoves”, come from that page, as well as the photograph of test Able and the report on the animals used in the Baker test. The quotation about amenities for journalists comes from James P.Delgado, Nuclear Dawn: the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, Osprey, 2009, p.147. See also The Effects of Atomic Weapons, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, McGraw-Hill, 1950.

As for film, links to official documentary films can be found on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation: Some of that footage appears also in the compelling 1988 film by Robert Stone, Radio Bikini.

The quoted article in Time magazine was published in the issue for 11 April 1949. The 1960s booklet is Animals in Atomic Research, published in 1969 by the US Atomic Energy Commission, quoted at p.37.

Both of the recent research articles quoted were published in Radiation Research: the first is dated August 2003, vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67, the quotation being from the preliminary abstract; the second is  from April 2010, vol.173, no.4, pp.557-78, the quotations being from pp.557 and 573.

Love Talk

A radio presenter, referring last week to Brian May’s book about Victorian photography, described him as a “badger-lover”. Naturally enough: it’s how his campaign against the culling of badgers in Britain is habitually summarized. Even a quite serious interview in the Guardian newspaper speaks of May’s “love of animals”. This is a convenient shorthand, no doubt. And besides, the question in both cases, radio and newspaper, was really ‘What’s he like?’ The badgers and other animals just help us to chew over that question, if we wish to. However, it’s noticeable in the interview that May himself does his best to refuse the personalization of the topic: “I just care about the animals”, he says, adding “This concerns us all.”

The word for such a person and such a point of view used to be ‘zoophilist’ or ‘zoophilite’. In fact the journal of the first British anti-vivisection organisation, the Victoria Street Society, was titled The Zoophilist (first published, 1881). Of course that’s just a more classical version of ‘animal-lover’, a phrase already in use at that time, but the classical form is exactly what knocks out the homely personal associations. It helped, too, that the word came into currency during the vivisection controversy of the 1870s (though it had been in occasional use for some years before that), giving it a purposeful and even political character. A zoophilist was someone whose interest in animals could not safely be supposed a matter of merely personal sentiment. Accordingly, one of the pioneers of animal rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939), spoke of “the zoophilist movement”.

Salt tried to save that movement from its association with the concept of the animal-lover, an association which its opponents deliberately used against it. For this purpose he wrote a short play titled ‘A Lover of Animals’. One of its characters says “if we are to fight vivisection, we must rid ourselves of this false ‘love of animals’, this pampering of pets and lap-dogs by people who care nothing for the real welfare of animals . . . and must aim at the redress of all needless suffering, human and animal alike – the stupid cruelties of social tyranny, of the criminal code, of fashion, of science, of flesh-eating.”

Unfortunately the word ‘zoophilist’ fell out of use (though Salt himself was still using it in the 1930s). It’s true that there are now various specific words and phrases for those who might formerly have been called zoophilists (‘animal activist’, ‘animal advocate’), but ‘animal-lover’ survives as the only general term, still carrying with it the associations to which Salt objected. Most damagingly, perhaps, it locates the relationship firmly in the person. It’s what the person is like, not the situation; it’s all subjective, in short.

And therefore, when Peter Singer came to renew the “zoophilist movement” in his book Animal Liberation, his first necessity was to dissociate it from the image of the ‘animal-lover’, just as Salt had tried to do. He starts the preface with a story of being invited to tea by two old-style animal-lovers who knew about the book he was writing and therefore supposed him one of themselves. They discovered, to their bewilderment, that Singer had no pets, “didn’t ‘love’ animals”, was not even “especially ‘interested’ in animals”. There’s some pathos in this situation, though I don’t think that Singer, a resolute young man at the time of the tea and the writing, was much affected by it. Anyway, the story dramatizes the idea which Singer wishes to establish as a premise of the book:

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an ‘animal-lover’ is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals . . . The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of non-humans from serious political and moral discussion. [pp. x-xi]

It was a radical and powerful statement in 1975, even though it was what Henry Salt had been saying eighty years before.

And the habit of siting the interests of animals in the mind and sentiment of the people who speak for or about them lives on, as we’ve seen. It’s what the people are like. And from there we move on to what the whole nation is like. Britain is a nation of animal-lovers”, says a Member of Parliament, leading a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter (26 February 2018). Members of Parliament habitually say it whenever questions of animal welfare arise there: “We’re a nation of animal-lovers . . . ,” their speeches begin. Perhaps the formula does have some value, because it usually implies that we ought to demonstrate our ‘love’ in the particular instance under review. But of course it goes with merely corrective improvements (e.g. slaughtering the animals in the UK instead), rather than radical change. After all, since we ‘love’ animals, we must already be doing the right thing by them in general; any problems are likely to be anomalies rather than symptoms of an essential wrong.

This national version of the formula has been as durable as the personal one. The valiant zoophilist Hugh Dowding (see this blog on 26 June 2016) did all he could to expose its falsehood during debates in the House of Lords. This is what Dowding said there in 1956:

We English people pride ourselves upon being a nation of animal lovers, and we tend to be righteously critical of the lower standards of other nations. In point of fact, as a nation we are not animal lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals. It is true that we cherish our domestic pets and that we have qualms about the condition of old and worn-out horses; but where the interests of animals run counter to our sports, our amusements or our pockets, the animals receive scant consideration at our hands.

And he listed “examples of the general callousness of the nation towards animals’ suffering”, including “the vivisection laboratory”.

Unfortunately Dowding was no more successful in this case than Henry Salt or Peter Singer in theirs. The nonsensical saying seems to rise above all evidences against it, and of course it has a currency far beyond the Houses of Parliament. For instance, and puzzlingly, it’s a saying much liked by Cruelty Free International (CFI), an organisation which campaigns very effectively against the use of animals in research. Here too the formula seems to have some practical use as moral leverage: for instance, “As a nation of animal lovers, the UK should lead the way in ending dog experiments.” Perhaps it also has a consolatory purpose. The CFI style favours puns and sobriquets of a cute or warm-hearted kind: “our feline friends”, “sharing our homes with a pooch”, “five facts that will make you barking mad for animals”. Like “nation of animal-lovers”, these tropes are presumably intended to sweeten an unpleasant subject. They do so, if at all, at some expense of seriousness, but at least they’re harmless flourishes rather than untruths. The claim that Britain is a nation of animal-lovers, however, is both harmful and untrue.

And the badger cull itself has shown that it’s not becoming any less untrue. In fact even before that started, the naturalist Richard Mabey wrote about what he called “the New Vermin Panic”: “With a sense of disgust and outrage that seems borrowed from the Dark Ages, wildlife is increasingly being demonised for the slightest intrusion into human affairs.” Among the examples he gave was the “farcical commotion” recently caused by a fox that had strayed into a boutique in the Portobello Road. The manager reported that “people started shrieking and ran out into the street in their socks . . . We shut the shop because we couldn’t tell if it would make our customers sick.” This was in the capital city of a nation of animal-lovers.

The phrase is a foolish one, and should be disused everywhere. Probably ‘animal-lover’ itself should be discarded too, at any rate in all public discourse. The case for the animals has nothing to do with the love which some of us have for some of them – a love very often real and honourable, of course, but also fickle and partial, and in any case beside the point. What the animals need from their human fellow-creatures is not love-talk from their special friends, agreeable though that must be, but the sympathy and active respect of society as a whole. In short, ‘animal-lovers’ or not, “This concerns us all”.


Notes and references:

The interview with Brian May was in the Guardian of 4 May 2011.

Henry Salt used the term ‘zoophilist’ throughout his writing on animal rights, but the particular quotation comes from The Creed of Kinship (1935). His play ‘A Lover of Animals’ was not separately published, but appeared in The Vegetarian Review, February 1895. Both texts are quoted here from extracts published in The Savour of Salt: a Henry Salt Anthology, ed. George and Willene Hendrick, Centaur Press, 1989, pp. 199 and 56.

The preface to Peter Singer’s 1975 edition of Animal Liberation is quoted from the 1995 Pimlico edition, pp. x-xi.

The debate in the House of Lords on the use of wild animals in circus performances took place on 31 January 1956.

The quotations from Cruelty Free International appear on its web-site at

Richard Mabey is quoted from A Brush with Nature, BBC Books, 2010, p. 217.