Unlocking the Cage

cage-portraitUnlocking the Cage is a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker, film-makers known best for Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K., and The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It follows the advocate Steven Wise as he attempts to make non-human animals, specifically chimpanzees, ‘visible’ to the U.S. courts: that is, to have them recognized as legal persons with a right to freedom. It’s a sort of court drama, then. An early scene shows Steven Wise passing under the giant architectural lettering ROBERT ABRAMS BUILDING FOR LAW AND JUSTICE. Law and justice: a giant institution and the giant ideal fruit of it, and, attempting to get the one to yield the other, this small (but not slight) David-figure, Steven Wise.

The law-question is certainly a momentous and fascinating one: for more on this aspect of Wise’s project, see an earlier VERO post, ‘Let my people go! Animals and the Law’ (linked in the first of the notes below). But the film humanizes it as a sort of quest or modern pilgrimage, in which the court appearances are only the brief though cumulative crises. In between is the journeying: on freeways and country tracks, to and from airports, up and down courtroom stairs, along pavements and corridors, often with weighty boxes of documentation, like the “great burden” of sin that John Bunyan has his pilgrim carry.

These journeys join up the elements of Wise’s campaign: the courts and the chimpanzees. One set of chimpanzees he has to search out at their various lock-ups: a remote trailer-park, a shabby zoo, a home menagerie (“kind of creepy”), a smart and secretive university research lab. “We’re all ready to cry”, Wise says after one of theseMerlin.jpg excursions. And it’s not just a dismal present and uncertain future weighing on these animals: they’re adults, aging nearly as slowly as humans do, and they drag behind them strange and shocking histories of misuse, mainly as ‘entertainment’. Some die in the course of the film (“Captivity is killing these guys”). The other set of chimpanzees is found in dedicated sanctuaries, enjoying what can be afforded to them in America of freedom, and it’s this sort of freedom that Wise claims as a right in law for the imprisoned ones. Corresponding to these different situations, and responsible for them, there’s a range of distinctive human primate types, from shifty deal-makers to pioneering ethologists.

The third element in Wise’s journeying is the courts, to which these clips of heaven and hell are to be brought for consideration. The judges are attentive, quizzical, suspicious of a proposition so new to the law. Wise tells them it isn’t new: it’s there, implicit in the hundreds-of-years old writ of habeas corpus, a writ which orders the detainer to ‘produce the body’ of the detainee in court and justify the detention. At any rate it certainly isn’t new for Wise himself. As he treads the pavement towards yet another courtroom, and a colleague asks him what he’s thinking about, he says, “stuff I’ve been thinking about for thirty years”.

Those thirty years show in Wise’s face not as professional polish (even his suit and tie never make him look unhomely), but as a history of moral and intellectual activity: pocked stevewise-tekoand striated, but full of indefeasible humour and goodwill – morally a profoundly reassuring face. He’s likewise plain-speaking and unrhetorical both in court and outside it, as ready to summarize a case in the short minutes allowed by a judge, as to field challenges in a news studio, or to steer a joke genially his way on a TV comedy show.

As I said, all his “petitioners” are chimpanzees, but this is only the start of the campaign: “There’s going to be a lot of battles in the war. But it’s time to begin.” And at this stage, Wise’s key concept is autonomy: the capacity to know and direct one’s own life, a capacity which the writ of habeas corpus is especially fitted to address. This is a capacity which one might argue all animals possess in some form as their natural birthright (except perhaps ants and social bees), and Wise himself makes no exclusions. But chimpanzees show it with special clarity, and in fact Wise’s case is backed by affidavits on the subject provided by renowned primatologists: that’s some of what’s in the boxes.

In the film, we see aspects of that expert evidence, notably the easy communications between chimpanzees and their human students or carers. If these seem artificial (as indeed they must be), there’s the unprompted and astonishing sight of Koko the gorilla turning away from his favourite video, plainly moved and unable to watch a painful scene in which a mother says goodbye to her child at a railway station. The gorilla compassionates the humans. Am I dreaming, or is this a glimpse of a squandered moral kingdom? As the poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, and it is this one.”

Back in Wise’s untidy office, the book-spines indicate the ethical background to his quest: Free Men All, Lincoln, The Dred Scott Case, Slave Nation. His key precedent for the use he means to make of habeas corpus is the decision of Lord Justice Mansfield, in London in 1772, on just such a writ served on behalf of the slave James Somerset. Mansfield’s ruling fixed, from then on, the illegality of slavery in England. But this ‘dreaded comparison’ (the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s short book about animal and human slaveries) is not liked by the judges when Wise uses it: “move in a different direction”, Justice Karen Peters warningly advises him. This same advice to keep off the slavery theme was given Wise during a BBC radio discussion, on which occasion he imperturbably replied, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” It’s a conclusive answer, but not one that can be used to correct judges, many of whom are evidently still uneasy about Darwin’s theory.

In fact this film shows how superstitiously entrenched speciesism is in the U.S. courts, as elsewhere. New York’s assistant attorney-general, whom Wise faces as opposing counsel in the final court scene, really has nothing but that to make his argument out of: the chimpanzees are a “different species”; to dignify them with the rights attaching to personhood would mean a “diminishment of those rights”; it would mean “opening the possible floodgates”, and “could affect our society in a negative way.” Fortunately this is not quite enough for Justice Barbara Jaffe. Without recounting this last critical event in the story as filmed, I can say at least that it marks, as Steven Wise says, “the end of the beginning”. And in the final scene, where an elephant, with a history of hardship in its eye and its gait, is directed by a ‘master’ to give rides to American families, there is Steven Wise, like any tourist, watching and taking photographic evidence. The elephants come next.

When the credits roll onto the screen, and lists of the non-human primates and of the judges pass by among the rest, the voice of Bob Dylan (earliest subject of a Hegedus and Pennebaker film) is allowed to give, to all that has been shown in the film, for the first time an outlet in impassioned eloquence:

I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east;
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.



Notes and references:

Steven Wise discussed the legal implications of his campaign on the BBC Radio 4 programme Unreliable Evidence, as reported in the VERO blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/let-my-people-go-animals-and-the-law/  All the details of Steven Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project can be found at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/

Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animals Slavery was published in the U.K. by Heretic Books in 1988.

The quotation from Paul Eluard is translated thus and used by Patrick White as the epigraph to his 1966 novel The Solid Mandala. That’s the only form in which I know it, but I gather that a more accurate if less forceful translation of Eluard’s words would be “There is certainly another world, but it’s within this one.”

A trailer and other details for Unlocking the Cage can be found at https://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/   There will be a showing of the film, sponsored by VERO, in the University during the coming Trinity term: see VERO’s facebook page nearer the time, at https://www.facebook.com/Voice-for-Ethical-Research-at-Oxford-VERO-734691993224030/


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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07qbcbq.

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 http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/ , 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 http://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/ .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.


Home Office statistics: numbers, words, and euphemisms

The Home Office has now published its statistical report on the animal research done in Great Britain (i.e. omitting Northern Ireland) during 2015. It shows that 4.14 million ‘procedures’ were completed last year. This is the largest number ever recorded under the 1986 Act, and tends to confirm that the promising drop in the numbers during 2014 (3.87 million) was the result of under-reporting in that year, rather than a sudden change of direction. The new system had just been introduced, whereby the research projects are counted when they finish rather than when they begin, and not everyone seems to have understood it. So the Home Office advises that the new figures should be compared with 2013 rather than 2014 (for VERO’s comment on the 2014 figures, see http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp.). In that case, there has been a slight increase of 1% or 21 thousand in these ‘procedures’. This in turn means that the real numbers have been rising in every year since 2001, except 2009, which came after a notable jump the year before. During this whole period, the numbers have increased by about 58%.

This new Home Office report makes an exhaustive summary of every countable aspect of the nation’s work as vivisector in 2015. Its own two-page précis can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538556/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015snr.pdf. There are other useful and more critical summaries to be found on the web-sites of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and Cruelty Free International. These notice, for instance, the rise in numbers of primates used in research (from 3,220 to 3,600), and the continuing use of dogs in toxicology studies, one of the most unpleasant areas of research. There’s also a review on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, which is the promotional arm of the animal research industry. At the end of it the Chief Executive, Dr Wendy Jarrett, is quoted as saying “today’s statistics will help people to find out more about the reality of animal research in the 21st century.”

Yes, on the face of it the statistics ought to help in that way, but I doubt that they will help much. Quite apart from the varying interpretations which statistics notoriously allow, they address a part of the mind (the numerate) which is completely unrelated to the part where ethics or empathy live. What can one feel about this great torrent of numbers? It’s a crowd scene with no foreground. Every now and then, a detail will catch the dazzled attention. For instance, under the category ‘regulatory testing’ (p.49), the astonishing fact emerges that the LD50 and LC50 tests (= the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills 50% of the test animals) are still in use. These true products of the mind as computer, giving a specious accuracy to toxicology tests at the cost of human decency, accounted for 8898 animals in 2015 (mice, rats, and fish).

Nearby, now that one’s eye is adjusted to such detail, it seems that something very like the Draize test (listed as “eye irritation/corrosion”) also survives: 173 rabbits went that way. But what: only 173? In most of the categories, that number would simply have disappeared in the ‘rounding down’ of untidy decimals (see User Guide to Annual Statistics, pp.9-10). On the other hand, you’d certainly hate to see the test done to a rabbit you knew, and you’d be quite properly liable to prosecution for cruelty if you did it yourself. And by the way, that’s a useful reminder that the Home Office is wrong to define the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in its preamble as “an animal protection measure” (p.5): the Act is also, and much more successfully, an animal-user’s protection measure.

Anyway, such details as the ones mentioned are generally invisible in the glare of the huge numbers. The whole dazzling parade of facts, so competently put together by the Home Office’s statisticians, is therefore a kind of euphemism, tending as much to hide as to show the “reality of animal research in the 21st century”.

A rather more informative source, and a necessary complement to the Annual Statistics, are the ‘non-technical summaries’ of proposed research which the Home Office also publishes (at https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/animal-research-and-testing). There you can see the research in detail, admittedly as presented by its partisans, but in the format required by the Home Office, with answers to questions about purpose, method, the 3Rs, and so on. The animals appear in more comprehensible numbers (150 pigs, 200 chickens), and their kind is more accurately identified (crows, rainbow trout, opossums, voles). What happens to them is more or less picturable, and the scene can be bloody and squalid, even where no suffering is involved: “In parallel to in vivo experiments, we will also carry out in vitro experiments using sheep uteri and ovaries collected from an abattoir” [God, what have we become?]. You get some idea of how scientists may have judged the pain levels which are later to be recorded in the statistics: “The expected adverse effects are the development of skin wounds, inflammation and cancer. In most cases the severity will be mild. However, in some situations, such as tumour development, the severity will be moderate.” [Excellent! Cancer is evidently not as bad as we feared.]

And now, with these and other Home Office publications about animal research to hand, you begin to realize that the word ‘procedure’, the key word in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) and the one on which you have to rely if the statistics are to make any sense, is itself a euphemism. Having myself been misled by this word, I shall try to show what’s wrong with it.

For the purposes of the Act, a “regulated procedure” is defined (see the User Guide, p.10) as “any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for any educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice.” The breeding of a genetically altered (GA) animal is quite properly counted as one such procedure under the Act, and we’re told in the 2-page summary that about half of those 4.14 million procedures “related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further procedures.” That seems to make good sense. The breeding would be one procedure. Those GA animals for whom that turned out not to be a sufficient contribution to science would become part of other (“further”) procedures, counted as such.

But in fact we know that this isn’t what’s being done. It would mean that there’d be many more procedures than animals in the total count, whereas we’re specifically told that the two numbers are always more or less the same, and that in the rare cases where the number of procedures is higher than the number of animals used “this is due to a re-use of animals” (User Guide, p.9). ‘Re-use’ is a term always meaning ‘used in a different project of research’, which is actually by no means a common practice. And for this purpose, GA breeding apparently doesn’t count as a different project. So the real situation is this: animals which have undergone the GA procedure, and are then used in “further procedures”, still count for only one procedure each.

All right, but even apart from the GA question, ‘procedure’ has a very elastic meaning, which seems to include its own plural. It may just mean an injection, such as the one which is the model for what minimally constitutes a regulated procedure as defined in the Act. On the other hand, it can mean a whole “series of regulated procedures”: that’s the phrase which the Home Office Use, Keeping Alive, and Re-use Advice Note (p.9) uses when reviewing the experience of an animal during one research project, and advising on its suitability for ‘re-use’. The User Guide explains (also p.9): “Each procedure (which may consist of several stages) for a given purpose on an animal is counted as one returnable procedure.” ‘Procedure’, it emerges, is a collective noun, but what exactly it may have collected in any particular instance there’s no way at all of discovering from the statistics.

I don’t know whether I’ve been able to make things clear; probably not, because this key-word in ASPA is not used clearly and consistently even in the official documentation. To summarise, then. A ‘procedure’ is an animal’s whole career of procedures within one research project. If it’s a GA animal, that career will include the procedure which brought it into being, and may or may not include others. In short ‘procedure’ is a term so elastic as to be almost meaningless. The number 4.14 million, therefore, really means 4.14 million multiplied by an unknowable n.

This ambiguity must affect every aspect of the published statistics. For instance, the rule for deciding the painfulness or severity of a ‘procedure’ is that it should be put in the severest of the four classes (sub-threshold, mild, moderate, or severe) which it reaches at any point during the research. But you will see that the meaning of a severity class is itself obscured by the vagueness of the term ‘procedure’. A procedure classed as ‘severe’ may have been a brief torment constituting the whole of an animal’s part in modern science, or it may have entailed that ‘severe’ pain together with a succession of other ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘mild’ interventions covering the full period of a research project. It makes a great difference to our understanding and (lest we forget) to the animal concerned, but the difference cannot be indicated in the Home Office statistics.

It’s no wonder, now I come to think of it, that Understanding Animal Research has been content to present the Home Office statistics on its web-site as the “reality” of animal research. In truth, they’re a mixture of understatement, euphemism, and unintelligibility. Despite all the varieties of show and tell that the animal research industry now agrees to, the essential secrecy remains. And I should say that outsiders will never really know what’s going on until we get the number of ‘procedures’ down to nought.



For Oxford University’s part in the 2015 numbers, see ‘Multitudes, multitudes’ in this blog (posted 24 April).

The Home Office’s Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2015 can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf 

Its User Guide to Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals  is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538549/guide-animal-procedures.pdf

Use, Keeping Alive and Re-use (dated October 2015) is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470008/Use__Keeping_Alive_and_Re-use_Advice_Note.pdf .

Other references are to be found on the relevant web-sites.




In Prison, and You Visited Me

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The moderate antivivisection and animal rights groups,” says the Understanding Animal Research web-site, giving such groups as VERO its undesired blessing, “campaign within the law – by leafletting, peaceful demonstrations, lobbying, etc – and society must protect their right to do so.” How revealing that “etc” is! a patrician wafture of the hand towards the various other harmless pursuits of the law-abiders, not even staying with them long enough to see to the full stop. However, there’s “a small minority of radical animal rights extremists who attempt to force their views on others with illegal actions”, and to these, Understanding Animal Research devotes more sincere attention; indeed, it runs a separate web-site on the subject, at www.animalrightsextremism.info.

Illegality seems to work, then – if only to the extent of attracting attention of a kind authenticated by self-interest. Such was in fact the larger or even sole reason for what the suffragettes did in the way of illegality: as Christabel Pankhurst wrote, “Women will never get the vote except by creating an intolerable situation for all the selfish and apathetic people who stand in their way.” And of course from this safe historical distance, and given their success, even UAR has to admire what they did: you can read on its web-site a little about “the suffragette movement and its heroic struggle to win the vote for women”.

I guess that the UAR would likewise approve of what the American rebels achieved by forcing their views on Britain in the 1770s, or of what Henry David Thoreau did in 1846 when he refused to pay taxes to a government which countenanced slavery, preferring to go to prison. For there is, fortunately, a populous tradition behind the sort of “illegal actions” which UAR selectively deplores. Most, perhaps all, of the really elementary reforms have had their share of it. And of course we acknowledge it with enthusiasm in the legends of high-minded outlaws like Robin Hood and William Tell.

Needless to say, breaking the law doesn’t prove anyone right, any more than leafletting does; it just makes being right that much more crucial, and being wrong more deplorable and tragic. (There’s a finely sardonic song by Georges Brassens on this theme, entitled ‘Mourir pour des Idées’.) Either way, the activist takes that risk and, if caught, endures the penalty. And the penalty is commonly a much more severe one than society imposes upon those more routine criminals who abide by its more general principles of greed and selfishness, and offend only its rules, not its mind-set. Certainly it has been so for animal rights activists. One such has written, from prison, “They’ve arrested us, made sure we got totally disproportionate and excessive sentences, and separated a lot of us into different jails across the country in a vain attempt to isolate us and break our spirits.” In fact the few things which I’d like to say about breaking the law for a political cause, and paying the penalty, I shall say as far as possible in the words of those who have known what it means from experience, especially words written in prison, which surely have an almost hieratic claim on our attention. (True, Mein Kampf was written in a sort of prison – though an extremely comfortable one, more of a political salon – and it’s a great pity that it wasn’t taken more seriously outside Germany at the time.)

The first thing to acknowledge is that the law as it stands is always the principal obstacle to reform; after all, it’s what any really important reform has to start by altering. Hence what the anarchist/pacifist Emma Goldman, charged with inducing others to resist conscription, said to a U.S. court in 1917:  “no new faith – not even the most humane and peaceable – has ever been considered ‘within the law’ by those who were in power. The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside the law.” Accordingly she got two years, followed by deportation to Russia.

Henry Thoreau was more fortunate, spending less than 24 hours in prison (someone paid his fine for him, much against his will). Even that brief sojourn had a profound effect upon his thinking (It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.”). Out of the experience came his celebrated essay Civil Disobedience, in which he put the question, very much as Emma Goldman was to do, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

You note the word “do”. Thoreau, for different reasons, shared UAR’s low estimation of the politer campaigning arts, and its practitioners: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” And later he says, “Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”

Yes, “the perception and the performance of right”: here we begin to see that breaking the law may after all be its own kind of demonstration, aimed not at making a noise and nuisance about a desired change, but rather at instancing that change. Probably there was some element of that in the suffragette campaigns, conclusively demonstrating, as they did, that women have more than home-making powers: strength of will, bravery, daring, ability to organise, all the powers which had been traditionally cornered by men.

Most of the animal rights illegality has indeed been of this kind (although less well-judged or downright wrong-headed stunts have often been given more media attention): that is, they have demonstrated the justice and beauty of animal freedom by effecting it. An early example was set in 1977, when the so-called ‘Undersea Railroad’ liberated two dolphins from their barren tanks in a Hawaii University laboratory. A note left on site said simply “Gone Surfing”. When right is performed in this way, we don’t need a leaflet to explain it: the life within ourselves, which we share with all the other animals, recognises it at once, and rejoices in it. So must it also at the sight of dog-animal-testing-research-picturewrecked hunting-towers, broken cages, smashed traps and the like: every one of these is an appeal to the moral imagination, an emblem of freedom.

The two students who freed the dolphins in Hawaii made no attempt to avoid detection; on the contrary, they signed that note and made their reasoning public at a press conference, and they were in fact subsequently charged and convicted. But even if the intention is to evade the law, such actions are necessarily a test of earnestness, and therefore constitute a tribute, paid in public (that is, in the sphere of criminal law), to the importance of a cause. So Emma Goldman said in court, “Your verdict may, of course, affect us temporarily, in a physical sense – it can have no effect whatever upon our spirit. For even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty were that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther: ‘Here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise’.”

Is this ‘forcing views on others’? No, it’s showing what having a ‘view’ ought to imply: that is, doing “what I think right” and enduring the consequences with as good a cheer and undimmed a spirit as one can bring for testimonial to the cause. Emma Goldman illustrated the point with the story of Thoreau being visited in prison by his friend, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Emerson said: ‘David, what are you doing in jail?’ And Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?’” I suspect that this charming set-piece didn’t really happen, monkey-cages-lab-animal-testing-picturebut it accurately dramatizes something which Thoreau does say in Civil Disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” And who can be less justly imprisoned than animals?

I have not, of course, been talking about terrorism properly so-called, though the judiciary, in moments of hysteria, has occasionally used that term about animal rights activists. As the Observer said in 1992, “It’s a strange sort of terrorist campaign to say the least that is waged for 20 years without killing anybody.” In fact they are no more terrorists than Emma Goldman was, or Thoreau, or Emily Pankhurst. One of them has said, “I object so greatly to the use of violence that I joined the ALF. I separate violence against the individual from damage done to inanimate objects. The latter moves me not a jot, the other always will.” That doesn’t mean that they’ve always or even ever been right in what they’ve done. On the other hand, that they have been selfless, idealistic, motivated by compassion, and courageous, is certain, and those, after all, are the qualities which more or less define heroism.

From time to time, the animal rights groups which have been set up to look after the interests of imprisoned activists have published their letters from prison. I shall end with some quotations from these letters. To find oneself in prison is necessarily a painful shock, except perhaps to the habitual recidivist. The place itself is oppressive, ugly, sometimes frightening. The time spent there is not intended to be pleasant. I’ve spoken of good cheer and undimmed spirit: these letters show them not just surviving in those hard circumstances, but downright shining there.

All in all I’m in the shape of my life and very strong.

There is so much to laugh about in jail and we all do, often!

Having the privilege of being a United States prisoner, I still have it better than most 3rd World people do in their homelands. And nothing they do to me could even come close to the plight of animals.

I think humans are obsessed with the pursuit of selfish happiness, and animals live in the joy of now. It’s up to us to ensure they get the chance.

My personal ethical and moral beliefs haven’t changed one iota, nor will they.

It’s very similar to being back at my old boarding school!

They really must believe that caring for animals is the worst crime possible. I’m sure they are trying to send us a message, although I don’t understand what that message is because their dirty tactics only serve to make us stronger.

Everything here is great. I’ve kept busy while in prison at the gym, doing art and pottery and gaining a Btec qualification in Media Production.

I’ve had some wonderful visits this month and feel so loved and supported, for which I am so grateful – many women in here literally have no one and I wonder what prison life must feel like for them.

I may be in prison but I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else in the world. I am so glad I am who I am and feel the way I feel.



The Pankhurst quotation comes from Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts, Allen Lane 2001, p.256.

Emma Goldman’s fine speech can be found in The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, ed. Brian MacArthur, 1996, pp.448-453.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849; it’s a short essay and is readily available, including online at http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html.

For a highly readable account of direct action and the animal liberation movement, mostly (and very well) written in prison, see Keith Mann’s From Dusk till Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press 2007, from which the quotations in the paragraph about terrorism are taken (pp.16 and 21): this is a remarkable and important book, strongly recommended. See also Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Reaktion Books 2002.

Photographs are by Brian Gunn, Secretary General of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals (www.iaapea.com).