Fun on the Farm

A press release entitled ‘Positive farm animal welfare: something in it for everyone’ was recently issued jointly by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh University. Hitherto, the announcement says, the welfare of farm animals has been mainly defined in negative terms: thus, four of the so-called ‘five freedoms’ (first formulated in the Brambell Report of 1965 as the basic entitlement for farm animals, and since revised and adopted by various agencies and charities) are freedoms from suffering – from thirst, fear, pain, and so on. By contrast, ‘positive animal welfare’ is a “relatively new idea which brings attention to animals having a good life”. And something’s “in it for everyone” because there’s “growing evidence” that this positive welfare running otmoor pigmay improve animal health and growth, reduce therapeutic costs (including antibiotic treatment), make farming accordingly more sustainable and profitable, and in sum provide benefits not just to the animals but also to “suppliers and consumers of animal products”.

Not a very good life for the animals, then, since it remains essentially life-for-use and ends prematurely as food, but better while it lasts. Or rather, not to run ahead of ourselves, ‘positive animal welfare’ is an “idea” which acknowledges the possibility that animals might actively enjoy their lives, if allowed to; there’s a need, as always, for “further research” to make things more certain.

What such research may involve is suggested in the one piece of completed work mentioned in the press release. Scientists at the SRUC and the Roslin Institute “found that litters of pigs that play the most also grow the fastest.” This brief description makes the research sound like fun and profit all round, but the title of the actual paper (published, ominously, in the journal Physiology and Behaviour) is rather more hard-boiled: ‘Up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex of piglets exposed to an environmentally enriched arena’. In fact the growth in question was (to put it less technically) in brain-matter, and the “play” was made available to the piglets for only a quarter of an hour on each of a few successive days. As to their subsequent careers, we’re told in the paragraph headed ‘ethical review’ that “All piglets were returned to commercial stock at the end of the study.” If you’re wondering how up-regulation of IGF-1 in the frontal cortex can be measured consistently with the survival of the animal, the answer is that it can’t. In fact, the test piglets (aged approximately 8 weeks) were “euthanized” for “brain collection” very soon after their last 15 minutes of fun. Lower down the paper, the narrative is slightly revised to read “remaining piglets were returned to commercial farm stock.” But anyway, who knows which piglets really got the happier deal?

Incidentally, the same Professor Alistair Lawrence who issued the press release and led the research on piglet welfare was co-author of a 2014 paper in the same journal entitled ‘Prenatal stress produces anxiety-prone female offspring and impaired maternal behaviour in the domestic pig’ – another study which claims to have “direct relevance for farm animal welfare”, and no doubt it has. I won’t provide its details.

To return to the press release: one of the reasons it gives to explain “why the idea of positive animal welfare has emerged at this time” is that “people in general are interested in positive aspects of animals’ lives”. These ‘general’ people and their amateurish ‘interest’ are to be distinguished, it seems, from scientific people, among whom a more judicious and sceptical view is taken of the subject. After all, nearly 150 years of zoology have gone by since Charles Darwin enforced the lesson already implicit in his Origin of Species with his research into states of mind and their visibility published under the title The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). And yet we ‘general people’ are only now being told, with wonderful condescension, that “there’s growing scientific acceptance of animals experiencing positive experiences or emotions.”

Results in science are nothing if they’re not precise or at least open to precision, and of course precision takes time: there’s no point in complaining that science moves slowly (though of course it doesn’t always do that). Besides, since Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), we have to realise that there’s no such thing as finality even in science: ‘not yet disproved’ is the nearest we can get to scientific truth. What it is right to complain of is any disparagement by science of other means and forms of truth than this cautious and dispassionate one of its own – the refusal, as Bryan Appleyard puts it in Understanding the Present, “to co-exist with anything”. In one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the knowledgeable and self-assured boy Eustace, a keen entomologist of the type that prefers beetles “dead and pinned on a card”, neatly illustrates this point. When he meets the old man Ramandu, who claims to be a retired celestial star (these are fantasy stories, after all), he makes the pert classroom comment, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas”. Ramandu kindly corrects him thus: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The clever school-boyish assurance which characterises some versions of the scientific mind needs that same correction. It’s the one thing that mars, I would say, the otherwise brilliant and witty assertion of science’s authority in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I see it also in the comment which an Ohio State University physiologist has made on proposals to provide laboratory animals, specifically rodents, with enrichments of the sort briefly enjoyed by Professor Lawrence’s piglets: “You don’t need an amusement park to keep them happy.” Because, yes, this same argument about ‘positive animal welfare’ is going on in the laboratory, the North American laboratory anyway. And it’s being formulated in much the same terms – as a recent article in the American journal Science has shown.

Research has indicated, so we’re told in the article, that rats and mice “can experience a range of emotions once only attributed to people” (by scientists, at any rate). These emotions affect their health just as they do in humans. An oncologist is reported as saying, “there’s a hard science behind enrichment … You can’t just treat the body – you have to treat the mind.” Stressed and unhappy animals make bad models of disease, since their immune systems are already weakened. “If we want animals to tell us about stuff that’s going to happen to people, we need to treat them more like people.” This better treatment might involve providing such life-pleasures as “toys, companions, and opportunities to exercise and explore”. So it’s good for the science, and also good for the animals: as on the farm, there’s “something in it for everyone”.

It’s the toys which especially seem to have annoyed the physiologist already quoted. This Professor Godbout (a name C.S.Lewis might have enjoyed and put to use) studies ageing and stress in mice. Another reported opponent of the enrichment project is a student of alcoholism in mice. Neither man might be expected to have much sympathy, then, for efforts to improve the quality of life of their animals, since the essential aim of their research is to reduce it. But a part of their argument is that, so far from making animals better scientific models, enrichment will introduce unquantifiable variations between different studies, and so make them local and unreproducible. This all makes for an interesting debate, and forms the basis also for further research, as in the case of farm animals: so again, something in it for everyone.

As for toys: I would suggest that anyone who can see that word or the things themselves in the context of suffering without a serious pang needs to review their humanity (if we can trust that term). It’s true that journalists like to exploit the trope, spotting toys at crash sites and such, but that only suggests that it’s a reliably human appeal. To be told of a toy sewing machine in the ruins of a wrecked city (Mosul? Damascus?) and not to be moved by it would surely be inhuman. And I would say the same for “toys” in laboratories. The word reminds us, too, that animals, once fallen under human authority and control, have the character and situation of children. Not by chance did C.S.Lewis make children the objects of scientific research in his unfinished science fiction novel ‘The Dark Tower’: it’s the true relation. And dismissing these toys as an “amusement park” is indeed just what the boy Eustace would be doing. Whatever important and useful conclusions Professor Godbout comes to about aging and stress, we can be sure they’ll be a small part of what those conditions really mean to humans and to other animals.

And that’s the moral of all this. The Science article ends, more or less happily, with the words of a vet in charge of the enrichment project at the University of Michigan: “We owe it to these creatures to give them the best lives possible … We should be doing the best we can.” Science can have nothing to say, of course, about what we “owe” or “should be doing”. But all except the most fanatical of scientists would recognise that there’s no vice versa here: science itself must be subject to moral constraints, to such concepts as “owe” and “should”. This is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch meant when she wrote “There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous [agreed, in both cases], is now an important part.”

The concept of ‘positive animal welfare’, and the enrichment project at the University of Michigan, are welcome developments, and we must hope that the researches of such as Professor Lawrence in the matter of animal emotions and susceptibilities will indeed do something to improve the treatment of animals. Still, it’s perverse to rely on the maltreatment of some animals in order to help others, and it’s anyway not necessary. By the phrase “one culture”, Iris Murdoch meant the whole human mind and its history of communications in language and art. Over the centuries this mind has built a great tradition of sympathy and understanding for life beyond the human. We don’t need the particular sub-set of thought called science to authorize our trust in this achievement. Still less should we allow science to relegate or belittle it, or to postpone appropriate action while yet further research is done into what we already have every reason to treat as true: namely, that all life contains the urge to flourish, and accordingly that non-human varieties have just as much right to do so in their own ways as we have in ours.


Notes and references:

The press release about ‘positive animal welfare’ was issued in January 2018, and can be read here:

It was reported online in the journal FarmingUK, and the quotation summarizing the research comes from there:

The research paper on play and growth in piglets by Alistair Lawrence et al is published in Physiology and Behaviour, vol.173, 1 May 2017, pp.285-92.

The Science article – David Grimm, ‘The Happiness Project: advocates are pushing to enrich the lives of rodents and fish in the lab, but critics worry about the impact on research’ – is at pp.624-27 of the issue for 9 February 2018 (vol.359). All the quotations on the subject of laboratory animals are taken from there.

The quotation from Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Pan Books, 1992) is from p.9.

Eustace Scrubb appears first in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, published in 1952 but quoted here from the HarperCollins edition of 1997, pp. 1 and 159. It should be added that Eustace improves greatly in character during this and the later books in the series.

The Iris Murdoch quotation is from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34.


Advent, PR-style

The gathering time of year has come round again for signatories to the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. In the setting of the Wellcome Collection in London (the medical museum and library “that encourages everyone to reflect on what it means to be human”), it’s a time for mutual congratulation, distributing of awards, chivvying of the less motivated, and general reflection and retrospect. Among the prize-winners this year was Oxford University, sharing the Award for Public Engagement Activity with three other institutions which all now offer ‘digital tours’ of their laboratories (as reviewed in this blog on 28 August). Other awards were given for ‘Media Engagement’, ‘Use of New Media’, and ‘Outstanding Contribution to Openness in Animal Research’, this latter won by Fergus Walsh for his “balanced reporting at a time when ‘animal research’ evoked a knee-jerk response from much of the public and media”. The judges had in mind Fergus Walsh’s “exclusive” BBC tour of Oxford’s new Biomedical Sciences Building early in 2014, much admired at the time by both of the institutions concerned.

That was the year also in which the Concordat itself was officially launched, and its Annual Report for 2017, issued to coincide with the awards ceremony on 4th December, is partly a review of its career since then. Fifty pages or so, but there’s no need to read it to know that there has been a great change. The institutions which sign up to the Concordat (there are now at least 113 of them) are required to ‘show and tell’ on their web-sites, and they do, some of them at considerable length: statements of policy, disquisitions on their commitment to the 3Rs (not always remembering to mention that this is a necessity in law), accounts of research projects, slide shows, and videos of caring technicians and sapient professors. The Report recalls that the Concordat had set out to “change an endemic culture of secrecy around the use of animals that was present in UK life-sciences research” [p.5], and its success in this quite proper purpose is evident. At Oxford, for instance: here, the routine publication of statistics of animal research, including severity levels, in the University Gazette and on the OU web-site, together with a sort of school-year record of open days, 3Rs training courses, and other worthy Laboratory, South Parks Road.JPGinitiatives, makes a striking contrast with the Biomedical Sciences Building itself, planned and built in the old days (about ten years ago) and constituting an assertion of secrecy in concrete and brick: no visible way in, counterfeit windows, railings all round, security cameras.

But is this change anything more than hitching animal research to the already blazing star of modern public relations? Perhaps the Concordat is simply to be understood as one of those “unique hubs of PR excellence all round the country, all powering forward” which PR’s own professional body, the PRCA, has recently acclaimed as moving us all towards “an even larger, even more vibrant, and even more future-proofed PR industry”. Certainly much of what appears on the animal research web-sites is ordinary self-promotion, however judicious-sounding. As the Concordat acknowledges, “It is the role of all organisations and their communications teams to highlight publicly appealing aspects of their work, and to avoid more difficult topics” (a pretty good summary of PR). And even when not merely conforming to this model of communications, what the signatories do and say is necessarily one-way. The Report talks about the “development of public-facing communication tools” [11]; whatever exactly that means, it doesn’t suggest a progressive exchange of views. Even the manipulable digital tours, such as the Oxford one, only make available what the institutions choose to show; you aren’t going to stumble upon anything they didn’t mean you to see. And supposing you can find the way in to the real Oxford building, you won’t be let through the barrier without a very good reason (I know this), let alone be invited to take a look round.

An introductory video about Imperial College London’s animal research makes the situation unexpectedly clear. The Concordat Report specially praises ICL for its web-site, and certainly it’s the only one I’ve seen where animal research is mentioned and linked on the front page. The video itself touches on some of ICL’s “great biomedical research”, and showcases (to use a favourite Concordat word) the cleanness, good order, and superior welfare of its animal-management. But as well as appearing on the web-site, the video is posted on YouTube, and its immediate neighbour there under ‘Imperial animal research’, tagging along like a bad conscience, is a filmed record of squalor, cruelty, and malpractice in that same institution, part of the exposé published in 2013 by the British Union Against Vivisection. “Look here, upon this picture and upon this!” as Hamlet exclaims. Only two years separate the two representations. It’s a bewildering difference.

The Concordat earnestly advises that research should be “presented openly rather than sanitized” [36], with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” [10]. It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” [1]. In fact it unwittingly illustrates the point, since it doesn’t follow its own advice to include images of animals “undergoing research” as well as the usual stock pictures of animals enjoying rest or play. The Report does have pictures, but the nearest they come to ‘balancing’ the several at-home pigs and playful rodents is one image of a rat receiving an injection. Likewise, we can feel pretty certain that ICL will never, for all its “sector-leading” communications, showcase the table-guillotine which appears in the BUAV footage, still less the rats which we see undergoing ‘endpoints’ by that and other similar means, with mixed success (“Oh, its eyes are still moving!”, someone exclaims in the film). We must assume that ICL’s standards really have risen since then (all of four years ago), but its PR isn’t how we’ll expect to know one way or the other.

Unfortunately there’s something more to all this than the harmlessly increased clamour of self-advertisement, for corresponding to it is a decline in authentic reporting. It’s a quite reasonable principle of PR to get your client’s story in first, and leave as little as possible for more impartial commentators to make a story out of. You aim to sap their professional scope and interest. Thus, the opportunities for a journalist to base a story on things found out about animal research, perhaps merely through Freedom of Information requests, and then to quiz the practitioners and thereby keep the subject stirred, are now very much harder to come by. The information is already public, in ready-to-consume form, with follow-up comment prepared by experts (the institutions’ own “media-trained champions”, as the Report calls them). Investigations are still possible, of course, and needed, but they will demand more in time, motive, and initiative. The consequence is noted with satisfaction in the Report: “The accessibility of information about the use of animals in research has notably reduced media interest in this subject over the past three years … there have been only a handful of significant stories … Animal research per se is a non-story.” [37, 46]

It’s not just a problem in animal research, of course. That 2016 census conducted by the Public Relations Consultants Association (from which the quotation about “hubs of PR excellence” is gratefully taken) assessed the number of people working in its profession at 83,000 and bullishly rising. The equivalent number for journalism is about 64,000. Commenting on these numbers in the Guardian newspaper at the time, Roy Greenslade (a professor of Journalism) called it a “disproportionate ratio”, one which has ominous implications for public awareness in the future.

In the case of the Concordat project, this pre-empting of media curiosity and critical supervision has been achieved without any necessary alteration in the ethics or practice of animal research. But perhaps it does nevertheless entail or at least promote improvement there? I think that there are two things to say about that.

The first is that, yes, there must surely be some positive effect on animal welfare. The films may only show scenes chosen for their tonic effect, but such scenes, and the reassurances which are voiced over them, must set a noticeable standard within an institution and beyond, promoting what the Report calls “understanding of what represents current best practice” [37]. Then, because the animal care staff always co-star in these shows with the research side, the increased attention must boost the status of their contribution, to the benefit of the animals who depend on it. In fact this effect is mentioned in the Report [6].

But the second point is that an equivalent boost must be profiting animal research in general, and the departments and people that do it. Signatories are quoted in the Report as saying that the Concordat has “created increased awareness of animal research, and given it profile and standing” [45]. Profile and standing in whose eyes is not specified: perhaps only in the eyes of funding managers or other science departments, but that alone will have an important bearing on the growth or decline of animal studies. As to the general public, certainly there’s no confident assertion in the Report that opinion there has yet been affected. But of course that’s the aim. When vivisection was first given official attention, in the Royal Commission of 1875-6, the commissioners noted that “a large and very estimable portion of the public” viewed physiologists and their work with “a feeling of suspicion, and even of abhorrence” [xvii]. Has that ever not been so during the intervening years? The Concordat’s project is to liberate the profession from that odium for the first time, and to do it without ever needing to win the argument or even to continue having it.

Well, there’s more to Advent than the Concordat and its awards, I’m glad to say. And indeed, as a more general contribution to seasonal celebrations and portents, Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency which runs the Concordat) has posted on Facebook its own Advent calendar. With an Xmas sparkle and jingling, each door opens upon a different animal, with a short account of its ‘contribution’ to research. The doors won’t open ahead of time, so we can’t yet know what will arrive on the 25th, but at least it won’t find itself alone: these days, coming into the world to save mankind is a crowded avocation.


Notes and references:

The digital tours of laboratories are reviewed in this blog at

The Concordat Annual Report can be read at

The Imperial College video is on YouTube at  and the BUAV film, here following a few minutes of a BBC Radio 4 news report on the exposé, is at

The quotation from the PRCA Census 2016 comes from the introduction, p.4. Roy Greenslade’s comments on the rise of PR were published in the Guardian, 10 June 2016, and can be read online here:

The quotation about suspicion and abhorrence comes from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO 1876, p.xvii.



Keeping Them in their Places

At the top of Time Out’s list of recommended museum destinations in London this autumn is University College’s Grant Museum of Zoology and its exhibition ‘The Museum of Ordinary Animals’. The theme of the exhibition is “the mundane creatures in our everyday lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice”, and how these animals have, through their relationship with humans, “changed the world”: a very important theme, especially at the start of an academic year, when it may help to advise a new body of zoology students how to view their subject. Whether the advice implied in the exhibition is altogether good advice is another matter.

The Museum itself comprises one fine galleried room in the enormous 1920s Rockefeller Building, part of University College London’s medical school in Gower Street. Most of the room is taken up by a permanent collection: skeletons, whole and partial animals showcase 3 preserved in jars, and other remnants of the world’s zoology, themselves part of a much larger collection made by former administrations but still in use for teaching purposes. Being mostly (and very wisely) unmodernized, the room is a period piece. It looks, on its smaller scale, much as Oxford University’s Museum must have looked in the 1870s when John Ruskin gave his lectures there and angrily spoke against that collection as “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”. Ruskin hated its emphasis on the exotic and the dead, and he told the students “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.”

So the Grant Museum’s current exhibition, fitted in among these more traditional exhibits, may be thought of as making, at least temporarily, just the correction that Ruskin had proposed. There’s a showcase about chickens (illustrated with a stuffed hen) and other farmed animals. Another one follows the human-related migrations of feral rats. There’s a sad account of the imported domestic cat and its destruction of Australia’s wild-life. And two or three videos, as well as a display of snails inhabiting a log, show animals in the live state.

One showcase is labelled ‘Ordinary animals and medicine: the Brown Dog Affair’, and tells that story, illustrated with a picture of the original “very contentious statue” [see post for 7 August 2015]. Inside the case is a respirator for keeping such dogs alive “during vivisection”. It’s an ugly exhibit, or perhaps just an ugly idea; at any rate, here and elsewhere, the exhibition strives to be candid and impartial, positivist in the scientific sense, neither giving nor taking ground on the subject of what we’re entitled to do to these “ordinary” animals. Thus a case showing examples of dissection acknowledges that the practice is becoming less popular in schools “because of changing perceptions by many students and teachers about whether dissection is right”, but the word perceptions (being nowadays used to mean thinking rather than seeing) indicates that it’s a sociological rather than a moral point that’s being made.

All the same, illuminating as it is, the exhibition doesn’t really present a dis-interested account of the subject. In details, and in more general ways, its world-view is plainly and conservatively anthropocentric. That stuffed henstuffed hen, for instance (incidentally a modern piece of work), is glowingly clean and alert-looking, with a roomy glass case to itself. The plinth is simply labelled ‘chicken’, as if this glossy hen stands for all her kind, but the theme of the case is given as ‘The genetics of battery farming’. It amounts to a consoling lie. No battery-farmed chicken could look like this. A single photograph of ‘battery farming’ would have shown what in practice it means to a chicken’s health and appearance to “yield” (that’s the verb used in the exhibition) eggs or meat on the scale required.

And there’s a larger and stranger misrepresentation. Of these species that we “encounter every day on our plates, on our laps and on our streets”, by far the most familiar and ubiquitous, on our streets at any rate, is simply omitted, except as the reference-point for everything else. Anyone visiting the exhibition must feel this anomaly, having just been part of the herds of humans surging this way and that between UCL’s different buildings, and hunted off the roads by competing surges of the motorized sub-species. What the cat has done to Australia is a little thing compared to what humans have done there and everywhere else in the world. But I could find no confirmation in the exhibition that humans are even animals at all. In this room where the names of UCL life-science worthies are inscribed in gold on the ceiling brackets, the exhibition discourses as if the evolution of species has yet to be accepted in the university.

Then there’s the humour. Time Out’s review of the Grant Museum show is predictably flippant: “They’re playing a cat-and-mouse game with a show dedicated to all creatures ‘mundane’.” That’s how some journalists like to write. More dismaying is that the several curators of the show, some or all of whom are academic scientists, are infected with the same waggishness. “Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not”, they announce on the more or less scholarly web-site ‘The Conversation’. And it’s there in the exhibition too. The text about cats in Australia is headed ‘CATastrophe’. The one about rats following human settlements is headed ‘Rat race’. Professor Steve Jones enlivens his display of Cepaea snails with a quip about the science of genetics having until recently moved at a snail’s pace.

This is fun science, I suppose (one of the associated events is a ‘comedy night’), but it’s instructive to compare the ‘Ordinary Animals’ show with another UCL exhibition a short distance away in the main building, entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL’. This is a straight and wholly unjocular review of its subject, which is human attitudes and practices in relation to human death and the dead human body. It includes the preserved head of Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of UCL. Bentham Benthamfirst bequeathed his own body to medical study in a will made when he was aged 21. Later he specified that it should afterwards be preserved and set up as an ‘auto-icon’ in the college – where indeed it may still be seen, in a cabinet stationed a few yards from this exhibition, though with a wax model for the head. Partly, Bentham wished to support scientific education, but he also, as a secularist, wished to de-mystify the human body, to rank it thus with the thousands of deserted casings of other species later to be kept in the college and visible in the Grant Museum. (For the ethical dimension to this egalitarianism, see the quotation from Bentham on the banner shown at the top of this page.) But evidently UCL hasn’t yet caught up with Bentham’s serene impartiality: the quite properly respectful, even wary, tone in the wordage to this exhibition is very different from the jauntiness at the Grant Museum. This, after all, is about us; over the road, it’s only about them.

UCL isn’t alone in this, of course. When the Oxford University Museum hosted a conference earlier this year with a similar theme, ‘Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future’, it did have a definite ideological aim: to consider “the consequences of our consumer demands [i.e. for “cheap protein”] on global human and animal health”. It hoped also to recover or at least recall, on the chickens’ behalf, something of the prestige which the species enjoyed in pre-modern times as one of the “special animals”. Even so, the event was presented with the same familiar winks and puns. “Why did the chicken cross the globe?” asked the University’s News and Events web-page, introducing the conference. The running narrative of the event on twitter was tirelessly joky: “Registration table ready!” “Flocking to take seats at the chicken conference.” “Cracking!” Someone tweeted a sign which they’d noticed outside an Oxford fast-food restaurant, advertising “our latest special Cluckosaurus Rex: it’s a clucking beast of a burger!” Noticed it with indignation and sorrow? Not at all, for in fact a highlight of the conference scene was a giant model chicken, placed alongside the Museum’s skeleton-cast of Tyrannosaurus rex and itself named ‘Dinnersaurus rex’. As the University’s web-site explains, “With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.” It’s true that this model was part of a school project linked to the conference, and led by an official artist/comedian (wearing, hilariously, a papier-mâché chicken head), but that just makes the remorseless jocularity authoritative and prescribed. It would have been more in accord with the expressed purpose of the conference to teach or show children how to take animals seriously. I feel sure that most children would naturally prefer to do so.

The question is whether these adults take animals seriously. Perhaps they can’t really afford to, except as academic raw material; it would make using them for that or any other purpose so much more problematic. In her novel Hackenfeller’s Ape [see post for 11 October 2015], Brigid Brophy writes about a research monkey called Percy, and “the facetious spirit which had given the animal its name”. Mocking animals in this way, however mildly, has a function; it keeps them at a distance, makes their status more malleable. For after all, at the same time as boosting the chicken’s proper dignity with this conference, or proposing to do so, Oxford University had been conducting ‘procedures’ on real chickens as part of an extended study of their mating and reproductive characteristics (using red junglefowl or Gallus gallus, chief ancestor of the farmed chicken). This was partly a study in evolution, but it also aimed to illuminate “reductions in performance amongst domestic chickens and resultant impact on the poultry industry”. Such work presupposes and accepts the complete subjugation of the species, and supports it. I won’t detail the devices and techniques used to intervene in the animals’ sex acts, but neither they nor their commercial reference will have done anything to advance the status of this wretchedly abused species.

Like Oxford, UCL is always somewhere in the top three or four consumers of research animals among British universities. The uncertainty of attitude characterizing the events  at these two institutions, their unscientific speciesism, the habitual smirk with which the non-human animals are patronized, all these are symptoms of a divided mentality. As humans, we know that these animals are fellow-creatures, homogeneous with us in origin and mode of being, but so long as in practice we exploit them as objects, we cannot think and speak of them with the rationality of a good conscience, and it shows.


Notes and references:

The Grant Museum exhibition (on until 22 December) is introduced online at

Quotations about it are from the online text, or from the booklet issued at the Museum, unless otherwise stated. The exhibition is free, and the place is hospitable and well worth visiting anyway. The photograph of the hen is made available on the Grant Museum web-site. I should add that the taxidermist in this instance, Jazmine Miles-Long, quite reasonably calls her taxidermy “ethical”, in that she does not accept work upon animals which have been killed for that purpose.

The piece in Time Out, selecting London’s top ten museum exhibitions, was posted on 25 September here:

The exhibition ‘What Does it Mean to be Human?’ (on until 28 February 2018) is in the Octagon of the main Wilkins Building of UCL.

John Ruskin’s words come from lecture 4 in the series ‘Readings in Modern Painters’, delivered in the University Museum in Michaelmas Term 1877 (see Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, vol.22, p.520).

The Oxford conference took place on 27-8 January 2017, as presented on the University’s web-site here: and as variously reported on @Chicken_project.

The particular junglefowl study quoted is Borziac, K., et al, ‘The seminal fluid proteome of the polyandrous Red junglefowl offers insights into the molecular basis of fertility, reproductive ageing and domestication’, published in Scientific Reports 6, 2016. This was one of several publications arising from a research project at the University’s John Krebs Field Station.


Come See Our Worlds

A new public relations venture from Understanding Animal Research (UAR) provides ‘360° digital tours’ of four animal research laboratories in the U.K. One of them is Oxford University. Two others – MRC Harwell and the Pirbright Institute – have likewise featured in this blog before. The fourth is Bristol University, where the main event shown is heart surgery being pioneered on a pig.

The tours consist of all-round views, navigable and magnifiable, of different rooms and activities (60 such views in all), with brief explanatory texts and some video clips (35 of these, up to six minutes in length). The model for this venture seems to have been an unidentified primate facility presented online in 2015 by France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, but these new tours are quite a lot more sophisticated. In fact technically it’s a remarkable show, very smoothly done, almost mesmerizingly so. Nor is it crudely assertive or defensive. Animal care staff show what they’re doing with convincing sympathy; scientists in casual clothes speak with reassuring authority about important work. Such as it is, you can’t fault it.

No doubt it’s pleasant for them to talk about how well they care for animals, and to show the animals enjoying their strange stylized and minimalist habitats, if that’s what the animals are doing (I can’t tell). Talking about the suffering and death is harder, and there’s accordingly much less of that. The suffering, in fact, is hardly touched on at all, except as something conscientiously minimised; there’s nothing to indicate, for instance, why the U.K. law should bother with a ‘severe’ category for experiments. The killing is necessarily mentioned from time to time, and it’s done with some uneasiness, not so much visible (though I think it is noticeable) as verbal – that is, in the resort to various genteelisms. The word ‘kill’ is used once only that I heard; otherwise it’s ‘euthanize’ and its strange variant ‘euthanaze’, or a selection of circumlocutions, such as ‘put to sleep as at the vet’s’ (just like our own pets, in fact), ‘culled at the end of their lives’ (the ingeniously evasive formula pioneered at Oxford University: see post for 28 October 2015), or, the most scrupulously oblique of all, “How long they stay with us depends on … etc.”

These are fairly transparent euphemisms; we know well what’s meant. Some of the strictly scientific narratives contain terms which more seriously cloud the meaning: for instance, in accounts of neurosurgery on (or, more companionably, “with”) monkeys at Oxford, there is talk about “manipulation”, of the need to “intervene in their brain and change a little part of it”, and of injecting “a very small amount [of what?] precisely into the brain”. Here, most of us don’t know what’s being meant, and are left to guess.

UAR’s news-piece about these tours says “Watch the videos to see technicians talking about how they look after their animals and to find out from scientists why animals are being used.” You notice what’s missing: the middle term in this scene, what really happens to the animals in between the being looked after in caring confinements (we see a lot of this) and the goal or “why” of it all. The “why”, as spoken of in these tours, is of course not product-testing or mere knowledge-garnering, but the feared sicknesses of affluent societies or ailments which affect children. So if we aren’t adequately reassured by the scenes of animal comfort at the one end, at least our concern about the middle part will be frightened away by mention of those natural cruelties against us which are about to be cured by these means.

But of course the whole show must itself be a sort of euphemism. Its aim is indeed to ‘speak well’ of its subject, and to miss out what can’t be spoken well of. And even if the tours were altogether impartial, mere good taste would steer them away from anything unpleasant to see, particularly because one of their declared aims is to be of use to school students as young as eleven (so there’s a preliminary warning about the pig surgery). You can navigate all those rooms, then, without stumbling upon anything disagreeable like the fridge for animal corpses pictured elsewhere in this blog (“For dead animals. Please put in plastic bags.”). But some such equipment must be on the premises somewhere, presumably in rooms shown blank on the plans provided. At MRC Harwell, for instance, I calculate from inadequate evidence that mice must be dispatched on the premises at a rate of about one per minute. That amounts to a fair proportion of the work. It ought to be shown, in good taste or not.

At about the same time that this set of laboratory tours was put online by UAR, its equivalent organisation in the U.S.A., Americans for Medical Progress, put up their version, entitled Come See Our World. As the cheery showbooth-style title suggests, this is much more blatantly a public relations push, and what it intends to accomplish is plainly stated in brand-manager’s terms: “to replace outdated, inaccurate images of animal research with current accurate views.”

With this in mind, an album of photographic “views” of contented animals, many of them with pet names, has been assembled, with brief texts explaining their role in research, and some links to further details. The animals are grouped by species. Among the felines, there’s ‘Sadie the Research Cat’, the kitten Midnight (“likes to kiss her special person”), and Sophie, who kindly “helps” researchers study heart failure. Sadie, of the sinister title, is shown sitting on a sort of metal-framed shelf behind bars. Among the dogs, Blake is enjoying a bathe in a paddling pool. ‘Beagle playing with Kong’ shows a dog in a cage with a wire grille floor. Among the monkeys, there’s ‘Mom and baby rhesus on hammock’, in a grim tiled room.

I would upload one or two of the views here, but they’re only made available to those who support the “mission of the Come See Our World project”. This mission, in so far as it goes beyond replacing one set of images with another, is evidently to persuade the public that the patent kindness and sound judgement of scientists is quite sufficient to ensure good practice, with no further intervention from the law, still less from ill-informed public indignation. As one professor of psychology recently said, “each scientist has to make his or her own moral decision”. This dubious assertion (even in the U.S.A. there are some external controls over what researchers may do) was made by Richard Davidson, with reference to the work presently being done in his own department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Ned Kalin. Dr Kalin’s “own moral decision” is that it’s quite all right to take new-born monkeys away from their mothers, in order to study anxiety by inducing it in them. For many years he has been building upon the research notoriously done in this line by Harry Harlow (see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How Not to Treat Babies’). In fact the photo of the two rhesus monkeys with their ugly modernistic hammock comes from that same university. So may God help that ‘Mom and baby’ and all the others they represent!

I don’t know whether Kalin’s work is mentioned in Come See Our World; I can’t find it anywhere. The picture of ‘Mom and baby’ has a text about the life-cycle of the species – a sad irrelevance here, I would have thought – and a list of research areas, but nothing more particular. At any rate, the site is not apologetic about the use of the various monkey species. In fact, those “outdated, inaccurate images”, which apparently need replacing in you or me, turn out to constitute, when rightly understood, something to be proud of, for we’re told that “Nonhuman primates have a rich history of contributing to significant medical advances.” “rich history”! So speaks the ad-man.

It’s hard to know what one has really learnt from these tours, since there’s no knowing about what one hasn’t been shown. (The French tour seems to have been filmed on a general holiday: I only spotted one member of staff and, more puzzlingly, one animal, a solitary monkey somewhere in a whole cage-scape of bars.) The institutions themselves, which thus ration the knowledge, must know it all, however; perhaps one merit of these exercises in publicity might therefore be to draw their attention to any differences which exist between what they’re doing and what they wish the public to suppose that they’re doing.


Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at Come See Our World is at The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at, and the Pirbright Institute at

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.




Moral Maze

After 27 years on air, BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme The Moral Maze has at last got round to the animals, with an episode titled ‘Veganism and Animal Rights’. The advertised formula for this programme is “combative, provocative and engaging debate”. The journey not the arrival, then: that is, it aims to make a showy fight of things amongst the four panelists, not to reach a finished position – as, for instance, Radio 4’s more intellectual Agree to Differ does. But a position of some sort may be reached all the same, and it certainly was in this episode: “We’re all riddled with inconsistency”; “Most of us haven’t got a leg to stand on”; “Human beings are all over the place, aren’t they?” In this case, then, it turned out not to be a maze at all. Faced, for instance, with the acknowledged “unspeakably disgusting” practice of industrial farming, the panelists knew the way out (it was in their title anyway); they just haven’t yet taken it.

That “all over the place” was the voice of Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of Arts and also the excellent chair of Agree to Differ – accordingly an intelligent and judicious contributor. Not speaking very elegantly here, perhaps, but then the discussion is a hustled one: “shouty talking over each other”, someone on Twitter calls it. Ideally the more or less expert ‘witnesses’, whom the programme invites along each week, would bring order and, even more usefully, knowledge to the scene, but this is not quite how it happens. Probably the programme is “engaging” (at least in the sense ‘harassing’ or ‘tormenting’) partly because of this absence of controlling information: “No mention of … !” seems to be a common exasperated complaint online.

Thus the first witness on the present occasion, the self-styled ‘Angry Chef’ Anthony Warner, was presumably invited as an expert on the rights and wrongs of food. But although strongly opinionated he had no moral or other case to offer. In fact his repeated assertion (there’s a lot of repetition in The Moral Maze, a disheartening indication of how we commonly do think and argue) was that this primary business of eating, which conditions all we are and do, is a non-moral activity: “guilt and shame have no place in starvation-textthe world of food.” I recall Ronald Sider’s eloquently titled book of 1978, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. There’s morality enough there, and it would have been helpful to have had someone on The Moral Maze to point out the contribution which the meat and dairy diet, as pioneered in the West, makes towards that continuing age of hunger in other parts of the world.

At the other end of the programme, the fourth witness was an animal rights philosopher, Professor Mark Rowlands. Wouldn’t he bring some intellectual order? No: he got cornered and harried by the programme’s least articulate but most belligerent panelist, Claire Fox, brandishing that weakest of all intellectual enforcers of animal-abuse, ‘contractarianism’. The notion is that animals have no moral claim on us because they aren’t themselves ‘moral beings’: i.e. that morality is a contract, and only contract-makers like ourselves, who bring moral responsibility to the table, can participate. This most reductive and unconvincing thesis, straying into ethics from its proper home in political theory (where the philosopher Thomas Hobbes originated it), could surely be shot down by a professional philosopher? Or rather, in this case, put right, because in fact there is an improved version of contractarianism for which Rowlands himself is a leading spokesman. He even regards it as “a strong – and perhaps the best – case for the moral claims of non-human animals” (see his book Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice, 2009, p.118).  He twice called the unreformed contractarianist argument “strange”, which I suspect is a professorial hint to a student to try again, but there’s no time for such gentilities in The Moral Maze, least of all with Claire Fox. And the professor’s mild academic joke, querying whether humans are right to think even themselves morally responsible, was simply trampled by her.

Vivisection had come onto the scene with the third witness, Dr Bella Williams from Understanding Animal Research. In Dr Williams, the new ‘Concordat’ style of PR – conciliatory, un-strident – was very much in evidence, impressing chairman Michael Buerk (“absolutely splendid”), but exasperating Claire Fox (“a disaster for medical research if that was the strongest proponent”). But the fact is (or “is is”, as Claire Fox habitually says) that a moral case for vivisection is impossible to put well, since the actual and originating rationale for the practice is simple expediency. Giles Fraser – “priest and polemicist”, as the chairman introduces him – put the familiar but effective Martian question to Dr Williams: would it be right for superior aliens to experiment on us? There was a fascinating silence of two seconds or so, but the vivisector’s answer has to be yes, and Dr Williams reluctantly gave it. Giles Fraser, for whom perhaps this trope was new, expressed astonishment: “A big wow!” And he said of her evidence “I don’t think you agree with your own position [i.e. that it’s morally right to use animals in research] … You’re basically saying there’s no morality in it at all.”

And yet animal research is, so Michael Buerk said when he introduced Dr Williams, “the ultimate example of prioritizing our interests over those of animals”: he meant, and she agreed, that all the other abuses are patently unnecessary, and accordingly indefensible, whereas this one at least claims to respond to an authentic need. If this case fails, there’s nothing left.

Though introduced as a priest, Giles Fraser was not putting an explicitly Christian point of view. Claire Fox, however, did claim to be putting what might be regarded as religion’s philosophical opposite: “As a humanist, I think animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, she said; “I am a humanist, and animals are beneath us.”

Humanism, then: traditionally it has been aimed at severing humans from gods, dogmatic religions, and all the other means and excuses by which we might evade the responsibility for our own situation and future. In particular, it asks humans to give up the privileged status provided for us by supernatural fictions (as humanists consider them), and to come to terms with what our best guide to knowledge, i.e. science, has shown: that we are part and product of the natural world, homogeneous with all the other life in it. Humanism ought, therefore, to be an animal rights position, though certainly not the only one. At any rate, one of the originators of modern animal rights thinking, the novelist Brigid Brophy, was a signatory to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto. In fact she considered anthropocentrism to be one of the superstitions from which humans urgently needed to free themselves; she mockingly called it a “special revelation”.

Claire Fox’s version of humanism severs us not from gods and their like, or not only from them, but also from the rest of nature. Another word for it, which Ms Fox threw in at one point, is ‘exceptionalism’, a most dangerous and unpleasant concept which one would suppose had been permanently discredited by the twentieth century. To substantiate her vision of man as the solitary value in the world she used a curiously politicized and unscientific zoology, habitually speaking of the other animals as “a species”: “an animal is a completely different species … an inferior species.”

I thought at first that Claire Fox’s pugnacious contempt even for welfarism in our relations with other animals (she called factory farming “a wonderful step forward for humanity”) might be a role gamely adopted by her in order to keep up the programme’s “combative” format. But having learned a little about the Institute of Ideas, of which she is the director, and its hostile attitude to environmental values in general, I see that she meant it all. From her point of view, the violence of factory farming is not just permissible; it’s desirable, as evidence and actuation of human ascendancy. To think animal suffering important in the way our own is, and in fact to see our own suffering as a useful guide to what they feel, “reduces us to lumps of meat”. More generally, to concede rights to animals is “anti-humanist”.

This is a very ugly version of humanism, for which happily I can find no authority in the statements of the main humanist organisations. The International Humanist and Ethical [nota bene] Union, for instance, which regards itself as the “umbrella group” for the national organisations, speaks in its foundational statement of “an ethic based on human and other natural values”. It specifically reminds humanists that “other animals deserve moral consideration too!” I think that the exclamation mark is probably a sign of recognition that humanism has been slow to come to terms with nature, and is still uneasily disorganised on the subject, just because its vis-a-vis has traditionally been the supernatural. But that phrase “other animals”, acknowledging our proper context as humans, is by itself sufficient to put Claire Fox’s version outside the mainstream. Her ideology is not really humanism at all: it’s simply speciesism, raised from a convenient wrong into an ideology. The best name for it would be human-racism.

All the same, this episode of The Moral Maze was a welcome (at times even entertaining) broadcast. It did not bring anything new to the subject; in fact I think that everything in it, good and bad, had already been accounted for in Brigid Brophy’s momentous Sunday Times article of 1965, ‘The Rights of Animals’. But at least it evidenced that the vegan case “has traction”, as Michael Buerk (not known as a friend to animal rights) admitted in his opening remarks. The very great importance of the vegan case, both as a work of moral reasoning and as a growing presence in contemporary attitudes, was plainly shown. True, most human beings are still “all over the place”, hypocrites in the matter, as Giles Fraser said of himself. Animals will continue to pay a terrible price for that. But morality is always further along the road than practice, and at least this programme suggested that the majority of us are on the way or know we ought to be.


Notes and References:

The episode of Moral Maze was broadcast on Wednesday, 2 August. It can be heard again here: For more about The Moral Maze, see the VERO post for 10 May 2016. The episode of Agree to Differ which treated vivisection, and brought together VERO’s patron Richard Ryder and Professor Tipu Aziz, is available for hearing again here (though I couldn’t get it to work this time):

The “special revelation” quotation is from Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Godlovitch and Harris, Gollancz, 1971, pp.126, in Brigid Brophy’s chapter entitled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’. There’s more about Brigid Brophy and the Sunday Times article in the VERO post for 11 October 2015.

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto (there have been other more recent formulations, of course) can be read at The International Humanist and Ethical Union statement is online at

The Institute of Ideas and its background is featured in a long but quite entertaining article by Jenny Turner in London Review of Books, 8 July 2010, here:




Let My People Go! Animals and the Law

Last week, BBC Radio 4’s legal affairs programme Unreliable Evidence, in its 47th episode, finally got round to the non-human animals. Given the numbers of these animals, vastly greater than the human population, and their vulnerability (a key concept in law) to cruel and fatal interferences by humans, this figure 47 is itself suggestive of the law’s complacent speciesism. However, the presenter, Clive Anderson, conceded at the start that animals “suffer in much the same way as we do”, and he invited four lawyers practising in this area to say whether the law was doing enough to recognize and address this fact.

Two of the lawyers act for organisations that promote field sports, farming, and other varieties of animal-use (the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association). Naturally enough, then, they approve of the present law, based as it is on the principle that animals should be protected only from “unnecessary” suffering – that is, suffering which isn’t “proportionate to the purpose” to which humans are lawfully putting them (quotations from the Animal Welfare Act 2006). In such law, animals have no rights of their own; the question is only how absolute the rights of human beings over them shall be. “The idea that animals have a right to liberty”, said Jamie primate-psychology-brain-animal-experimentation-picture-1Foster, the lawyer from Countryside Alliance, “is fundamentally absurd”. Besides (he added, straying for his supporting evidence into Buddhist philosophy), “all life is suffering.”

The other two lawyers argued for a radical change in the law’s thinking: it should start conceding, to non-human animals, rights that are founded on their own interests, rather than simply reliefs from the more unreasonably demanding interests of humans. One of these two, Steven Wise, described the desired change for animals as a move from among “the things of the world” into their proper company among “the persons of the world”, and he is even now trying to achieve this change for chimpanzees, in the courts of the United States. His voice was coming to the programme by telephone from the U.S.A., and it had something of the feel of a voice from the future. In fact when Clive Anderson wound up the discussion by asking him whether we might really be going to see chimpanzees and other animals winning, through the courts, that ‘right to liberty’ which Foster had ridiculed on their behalf, Wise’s voice enthusiastically replied “It’ll come! It’ll come!”

Two of the four chimpanzees which Wise is at present representing in the courts are called Hercules and Leo. They ‘belong’ to the University of Louisiana, but have been on loan (for one does lend “things”) to Stony Brook University for research purposes. The “proportionate” suffering of Hercules and Leo in that institution has consisted, during a period of six years, in repeated operations to insert electrodes into their muscles in pursuit of anatomical knowledge about early human locomotion. More essentially their suffering has involved near-solitary confinement throughout these years, and it’s this imprisonment which Wise has been asking the New York Supreme Court to declare unlawful. (Incidentally, the chimpanzees have recently been moved out of the New York jurisdiction and back to incarceration at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, perhaps with a view to frustrating Wise’s case. His proposed destination for them is the Project Chimps sanctuary in Fannin County, Georgia.)

In statutory law, American or British, such imprisonment for non-humans is of course wholly permissible. They have no presumed right to liberty – rather the reverse, as Mr Foster confirms in the quoted comment. The claim for Hercules and Leo is therefore founded in so-called common law, whose terms of reference are much wider and more liberal. They do not only consist in a body of case-law – decisions and reasonings recorded in previous cases. They consist also in general principles of equity, derived from what the nineteenth-century American judge Lemuel Shaw summarized as reason, natural justice, and enlightened public policy, modified and adapted to the circumstances of all the particular cases which fall within it.” “Natural justice and enlightened public policy”: animals might well hope that their claims to liberty would not seem “absurd” in such contexts. And the crucial instrument of liberation in the common law is the writ of habeas corpus, by which a person being detained by private or public force, or others acting on his behalf, may petition the courts to declare the detention unlawful. (The phrase habeas corpus means ‘produce the body’ – i.e. the writ directs the captor to bring their prisoner into court, at least figuratively, and show reason for the situation.)

It is with a writ of habeas corpus, then, that Steven Wise is even now before the courts on behalf of Hercules and Leo. And his key supporting reference is the decision made at Westminster in 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the case Somerset versus Stewart. Charles Stewart ‘owned’ a slave, James Somerset, whom he brought with him on a trip to England in 1771. Having made a break for freedom, Somerset was recaptured and chained up ready for return to Jamaica. But a writ of habeas corpus was issued on his behalf by a group of London citizens, and Lord Mansfield determined that Somerset’s slavery was “so odious” that the common law could not countenance it. Effectively he made slavery illegal in Britain on the grounds that it was morally objectionable, the very reason for which you or I might even then (we hope) have deplored it, and for which we certainly ought to do so now.

There was no precedent in law for Lord Mansfield’s decision; there was, indeed, a strong presumption against it, urgently represented to him by Stewart’s counsel in court. But as Steven Wise said to the Supreme Court of New York last year, speaking of Lord Mansfield and hoping to instil in the court something of that man’s independence and courage, “one of the reasons he’s such a great judge is that he understood that there’s a first time for everything.”

The writ of habeas corpus is the best hope for the unjustly imprisoned, and therefore pre-eminently for the slave. It must also then be the best hope for the non-human animal, because, so Wise re-iterated during the radio discussion, our relation to other animals at present is exactly a master-slave relation. Jamie Foster objected to this “constant use of the word slavery, on the curiously pre-Darwinian grounds that “it’s offensive to anyone who comes from any population that ever was enslaved to suggest it’s simply another version of the same thing.” He thereby illustrated the advocate’s maxim that you should never put a point to a witness which you don’t already know his or her answer to. Wise’s reply came back from America, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” 

It is a part of Steven Wise’s case in the American courts to show, through the testimony of stevewise-tekoexperts in chimpanzee mind and culture, that Hercules, Leo, and the others have what he calls ‘autonomy’, and it is upon this autonomy that he bases their title to legal personhood: “They are self-conscious,” he told the New York court; “they have a theory of mind. They can understand what others are thinking. They understand that they are individuals, that they existed yesterday, that they are going to exist tomorrow, that their lives mean something to them. They plan what their life is going to be like.” This sort of autonomy is not, of course, something that can be claimed for all other species of animal, although it very likely can be said of the elephants, orcas, and African parrots, who are next on Wise’s list of proposed clients. Therefore it’s true what his fellow animal-rights lawyer on the programme, David Thomas, pointed out: the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) which Wise has founded to promote and staff the legal campaign seems likely to help only a few animal species, if perhaps many individuals.

However, Steven Wise argued that although ‘autonomy’ was a sufficient condition for personhood in law of the sort he was seeking to establish, it was not a necessary condition: “We don’t know what other sufficient conditions may exist.” He hoped and expected the common law to proceed case by case, conceding rights to such fundamental interests as could be shown by science and reason to exist in any other species. On the NhRP web-site he again quotes Lord Mansfield: “The common law is a step-by-step process that, in Mansfield’s words, ceaselessly ‘works itself pure’. It rights the most egregious wrongs first. Then it turns to the harder questions.” Besides, once the breach in legal personhood is made, and lets in even one non-human species, or a single non-human animal, our collective assumptions about the human relation to other animals must be transformed. It’s indeed this fact which must explain the angry hostility and near-irrational alarm which the NhRP seems to evoke, in the courts and in such airings as the BBC discussion. We are seeing, in fact, a most interesting reprise of the sort of indignation which Charles Darwin’s science encountered about a century and a half ago. And that, I suppose, is because we’re at last beginning to appreciate what that science implies, morally and socially, and to act upon it.  Unlocking The Cage - Synopsis Image

But isn’t all this court-bothering “a very long-winded way of going about it?” asked the fourth of the lawyers, essentially putting that familiar objection ‘why not start somewhere else?’ (i.e. ‘Why not go away?’) And he added helpfully, “there are other ways of making things better for animals.” Good; then let’s get on with those other ways too, and meanwhile celebrate Steven Wise and his fellow-workers at the Nonhuman Rights Project for their heroic attempt upon the antiquated and ignorant human-freemasonry of the law. Certainly there’s a very long story ahead, but as Wise says in the documentary film Unlocking the Cage“It’s time to begin.”



The episode of Unreliable Evidence can be heard again at

The quotation from Judge Shaw is from Steven Wise, Rattling the Cage, Profile Books 2000 (p.90), published in the U.S.A. by Perseus Books (1999). The Nonhuman Rights Project web-site is at , where you can find the transcript of the case recently heard in the New York Supreme Court, and other details of past and pending cases.

The film Unlocking the Cage was released earlier this year. A trailer and other details for it can be viewed at .The still of Steve Wise with Teko, and the poster for the film, are by courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

The photograph of caged mother and child is by Brian Gunn, copyright IAAPFA.


Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see ; for the article in Scientific Reports, ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, .]