A Servant of the State of Nature

Among the images of national self-sufficiency called up during the recent referendum debate was, if I heard correctly, the Battle of Britain. That was a victory which Winston Churchill (himself also hauled into the debate) fixed into national memory with his “finest hour” speech. It’s true that he promptly sacked the man who did most to create the victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, but soon afterwards, in 1943, he made amends by putting Dowding into the House of Lords as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the home of Fighter Command). House of Lords etiquette requires a serviceman of high rank to be referred to as “the noble and gallant lord”, as if expected to coast his way through the remainder of life on the strength of his war record. And that’s certainly the character in


which Dowding is now memorialized outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London: a towering uniform, with a text below it quite rightly reminding us that to this man “the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”

In fact, like many distinguished soldiers, Dowding had no great admiration for the business of war, or for the sort of nation-state politics which create the conditions for it. And so far from resting content after the war as a British soldier-hero, he had his vision set on a far wider community even than the United Nations, and a far more ambitious conception of what would constitute peace than even the U.N. had in mind. He told the House of Lords in 1952, “we shall never attain to true peace – the peace of love, and not the uneasy equilibrium of fear – until we recognize the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.”

The “scheme of things” which Dowding meant was one he wrote about in several books from 1942 onwards, the one rather loosely termed spiritualism. At the centre of spiritualism is the belief that life and death are not opposites but alternating states, in continuing contact with each other, leading each soul on a path towards perfection, “back to the ultimate source from which it originated”. I can’t speak with confidence about this; I don’t find it convincing or even appealing. But he did, and he was a man who had to hazard the lives of hundreds of young men, and answer for the violent deaths of very many of them, not just as a personal burden but in the literal sense of speaking to their families. One must feel respect and even awe for the conclusions, on the subject of life and death, of such a man.

Anyway, so far from the stealthy dabbling in posthumous domestic relationships which the word ‘spiritualism’ sometimes suggests, Dowding’s “scheme” was panoramically inclusive (as one might expect from an aviator). He felt a “life chain” joining all nature, “from the mineral through the vegetable and the animal to the human”. The animal part of it he became especially aware of under the influence of the woman he married in 1951 (at age 69), Muriel Albini. He became vegetarian, and was actively involved in her pioneering campaigns against the abuse of animals by the fur and cosmetics industries. He helped his wife to found and promote the pioneering charity and business Beauty Without Cruelty. And as a member of the House of Lords he now tried to get the legislature to take more notice of animal suffering.

The speeches which Dowding made in the House of Lords between 1948 and 1965 – on ‘humane’ slaughter, the training of circus animals, the poisoning of ‘pest’ animals, and vivisection – are surely some of the most urgent and radical which that chamber has ever heard on the animal subject. Several of these debates he himself had initiated, and he was determined that his case should be shown to be, not sentimental (by which he meant uninformed and subjective), but “justified by the facts”. His preparations for the debates on vivisection, in particular, had “compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty”, and he meant to make his fellow-peers, too, face this “traffic in flesh and blood”. He introduced to them, for instance, the “devilish device known as the Noble-Collip Drum”, then a quite new contrivance (and still used today) in which “the animal is very slowly battered to death”; he described the experiments on cats forced to breathe 100% oxygen at the Royal Naval Laboratory at Alverstoke, another wretched story of protracted execution; he spoke about the ‘siamesing’ of rats at Oxford University. This example of vivisection at Oxford (not the only one he instanced) had been reported to him by a doctor friend who had been allowed access to the laboratories of that university, of which he was an alumnus: “What particularly struck him was the callous attitude of people who were otherwise normal, decent members of society; and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.” Quizzed on this last point, the young scientist doing the siamesing had explained to the doctor what was useful about it: “It’s going to get me my degree.”

For the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which at that time was still regulating all such research in the U.K., Dowding had little respect: “merely a sop to public conscience”, “the vivisectors’ charter”, its machinery of enforcement “futile and delusive”. In 1949 a man convicted under the Protection of Animals Act (1911) of starving his dog had been imprisoned for three months and banned for life from keeping dogs; in that same year the Journal of Physiology reported on a long series of nutrition studies during which numbers of puppies had been similarly starved in order to model diseases of deficiency. “Imprisonment for the amateur in cruelty; honours and rewards for the professional wholesaler,” commented Dowding. It was “a Cruelty to Animals Act in fact as well as in name.”

Of course, other speakers in these debates reassured Dowding that, Act or no Act, scientists could be trusted to do their research humanely, that they were, just like himself, “anxious to spare the animals as much suffering as possible”, and were even “enriched by their work in love and meekness”, whatever that meant. Dowding took no notice of these complacencies, and he was contemptuous of the larger fiction associated with them – that Britain was a nation of animal-lovers: “we are not animal-lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals”. By way of illustration, he spoke of a recent outcry about 300 monkeys suffocated, through carelessness, in a B.O.A.C van at Heathrow. This public indignation, which might well have been taken as good evidence of British concern for animals, Dowding turned inside out. More than 125,000 monkeys, he said, were coming through Heathrow every year:

“Those 300 were the lucky monkeys: they experienced only about fifteen minutes of slow suffocation. What happened to the others? Here are some of their experiences …

Dowding then read out a long list of vivisection horrors. At the end of it he said, “Yet about all this there is no newspaper outcry”.

In fact the concept of the animal-lover, whether person or nation, was and is delusive and irrelevant. Dowding knew that it appealed mainly to people for whom animals have no real standing of their own and so are quite properly dependent upon the interest and kindness of their superiors. Hence, of course, the preferential treatment, in the 1876 Act, of the particular human favourites, the dogs, cats, and horses: “pure sentimentality”, Dowding called that; “All warm-blooded animals feel pain and all are equally entitled to protection.”

When Dowding spoke about the spiritualist “scheme of things”, there must have been some comical unease in that 1950s House of Lords; containing as yet no women and no life peers, it was probably even less of a ‘new age’ scene than it is now. He did admit that his speeches had sometimes sounded “rather like a sermon”. But whether one shares his beliefs or not, it’s enlightening to see how they raised this apparently conventional Englishman far above his fellow-peers in ethical vision, simply by convincing him of the unity of life. Against their moral job-lot of sentiment, custom, selfishness, and improvised kindness, he brought his serene absolute (“I speak of what I know”) that “all life is one”, and all lives “brothers and sisters”. And even when pressing for the modest particular reforms which were all he could hope politically to achieve, he always kept that larger and revolutionary truth in open view, proportioning all those timid mitigations of wrong: thus, when he argued for the captive bolt gun and the casting-pen in slaughterhouses, he nevertheless told the Lords, “sooner or later, the time will come when we shall regard the eating of animal flesh as we now regard cannibalism.”

But of course one does not have to come at this great truth that “all life is one” by the spiritualist way that Dowding followed. There are many other ways to discern and represent what is, after all, at its least a worldly fact: from Albert Schweitzer’s existentialist ‘reverence for life’, through Charles Darwin’s science of evolution, down to the single word ‘speciesism’ with which Richard Ryder nailed its delusory opposite. (That Darwin’s way, the most matter-of-fact, the most patently fitted to the understanding of a materialist society, has in practice done so little good for the animals, is sad evidence of the littleness of our scientific culture.) But just now we need reminding of it in its political character. There is only one stable and non-arbitrary jurisdiction, which did not need arguing into existence and cannot be debated out of it, and to which we unalterably belong, namely the animal kingdom (etymologically ’kin’-dom). This is the one which Hugh Dowding, having rescued the merely provisional and historical kingdom of Britain, went on to serve without reservations for the remainder of his life and, as he hoped and believed, far beyond.

Notes and references:

The statue of Hugh Dowding, by Faith Winter, was erected in 1988. The photograph is by René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net).

All the quotations above are taken from Hansard debates in which Dowding spoke: these took place on the subject of vivisection in October 1952 and July 1957, and on the other subjects in March and May 1948, Feb 49, Nov 50, Oct 53, June 54, Jan 56, Dec 57, May 58, Dec 62, and Feb 65. They can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/lords/ .

Dowding’s labours on behalf of laboratory animals are remembered in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (established in 1974 by the National Anti-Vivisection Society), and also on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, which falls on 24th April, Dowding’s birthday.

Remembering (some of) the Fallen

On Sunday 8 November, an hour or two after the remembrance services have ended in Whitehall and elsewhere in the UK, a service for the other unforgotten war-dead will take place at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane. This Memorial was designed by the blog memorialsculptor David Backhouse, and constructed there in 2004. Its commissioning and making have been a great achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its very white Portland stone, the Memorial declares, “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise persuaded to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial, rather than (like the Brown Dog statue discussed in an earlier VERO blog) a statement of dissent. But at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown: burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they press towards a gap in the curving stone stockade, and out into the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by a great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief and eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been “They have no choice”, reminding the visitor to this monument that “They” are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals have been most visibly used: not just the horses but, as the Memorial shows, mules, camels, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals … Oh, my horses.”

And that too was the war which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and these other animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the Memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles crowding past on either side (the Memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war in other forms.

About one aspect of the First World War, however, the memorial is silent. It was that war, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research, which for the UK began in 1916 at Porton Down with the study of poison gas.

This is the least glorious of all types of animal ‘service’ – lacking as it does any scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the Memorial, and not likely to earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal “For Gallantry”. It ought really to get this much recognition, a place among the representations here, but most unfortunately it does not. There are no images of monkeys to recall their service for “Allied forces” on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas; no dolphins and whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have been put to cruel and unnatural work at the Kanobe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jaques Cousteau said, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”)[1]

Nor are there any pigs shown on the Memorial, to record the service of their species in the training of British military surgeons. The gruesome nature of that service, and its needlessness, was the subject of an open letter to the Ministry of Defence last year by a group of vets led by VERO’s science advisor André Menache.[2] It has been taking place for some years mainly at Jaegerspris, Denmark: courtesy, then, of other “Allied forces”, though a Ministry of Defence enterprise. Until recently, it was code-named ‘Exercise Danish Bacon’, a helpful insight into the Porton Down mentality.

The exigencies of battle may bring down cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to ‘serve’. The Park Lane Memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war is an even more pitiless taskmaster. One witness speaking on behalf of Porton Down to a House of Lords committee a few years ago said, of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”[3] He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps provides an explanation of why this aspect of animals’ war-work was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.

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[1] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1995 edition, pp.25-9; Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, 1975, pp.79-80, where Cousteau is quoted.

[2] See www.vero.org.uk/press.asp under 6 May 2014

[3] Evidence of Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002

The Brown Dog Statues

Near the north-west corner of Battersea Park in London, to the left of what they call DSC04730the Old English Garden, a path winds through a sort of woodland. Some way along it, there’s a Portland-stone pedestal, with a sculpture of a terrier dog on it – a very good sculpture, I would say, in the naturalistic manner.

In one sense, this is a memorial to a memorial. The original Brown Dog statue, quite a lot more imposing in scale and style, was put up in a very public location nearby in 1906. It commemorated a particular dog that had been used in experiments or demonstrations over a period of some weeks in the Physiology Department of University College, London – also the 232 other dogs vivisected in the same place over the previous year. The present statue preserves the whole text of the original dedication, which is vehement in a way quite uncommon on monuments and ends with this question: “Men and women of England, how long shall these Things be?”

That’s not a simple future tense, you’ll notice, asking us to hazard a guess. The word “shall” here implies ‘must’ or ‘ought’, as in the famous phrase of defiance “They shall not pass” (i.e. we won’t allow them to). It asks how long these things are going to be permitted to happen. It’s a political verb, and this was a political statue. Accordingly it became the site of fierce political dispute, principally between the almost exclusively male medical establishment and an anti-vivisection coalition of South London working people, feminists, and humanitarians. Physical attacks on the statue were made by gangs of medical students, culminating in the ‘Brown Dog Riots’ late in 1907. A permanent police guard had to be mounted at the statue. Then in 1909 there was a change of political control in the local authority. The new Conservative administration had the monument removed and destroyed.

There was much more to the Brown Dog affair than these street disturbances. The lecture at which the dog had been re-vivisected (an offence under the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act) was attended by two female medical students who were keeping a diary of all that they saw. This diary was published in 1903 as The Shambles of Science. The chapter about the lecture was titled ‘Fun’, for the authors claimed that there was joking and laughter during the demonstration. The book led on to a libel action, where the courts came to the rescue of the UCL physiologist. More importantly, the controversy prompted a second Royal Commission on Vivisection, appointed in 1906, although not much came out of that. All these things have been very fully written about.[1]

Back to the present-day statue. This was put up in 1985, as one of the last progressivist actions the former Greater London Council was able to sponsor before Margaret Thatcher abolished it. The sculptor was Nicola Hicks. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a naturalistic work, a study in dog behaviour, whereas the former statue was more formal, monumental in fact, showing the dog high up and self-sufficiently heroic. It has been suggested that the change is for the worse, softening the message.[2] Certainly the modern statue is sequestered and unassertive, but it’s very eloquent in its own way. The dog’s tail curls a little way upward, its body is bent round self-deprecatingly, its head ducks forward to show submission: all these seem to be efforts to propitiate someone, but the dog’s wide and weary eyes suggest that it doesn’t expect to succeed. In fact its posture recalls all those reports of dogs remaining wretchedly biddable and anxious to please under the most ruthless treatment in the laboratory. As the notorious Professor Rutherford of Edinburgh told the 1875 Cardwell Commission, “It is wonderful what one may do to a sheepdog without the animal’s making any commotion.”

The modern inscription brings the story up to date for 1985. It records that 3,497,335 experiments had been performed on live animals in the previous year, and lists some of the “horrifyingly cruel” things that had been done to them. The previous monument, it says, “represented the revulsion of the people of London to vivisection”, and this new one “is dedicated to the continuing struggle to end these practices”.


[1] See particularly Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Wisconsin 1985).

[2] In ‘An Exploration of the Sculptures of Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Brown Dog, Battersea, South London, England’, by Hilda Kean, in Society and Animals, Dec. 2003 (accessible online)

Victorian Attitudes

DSC04714There was a big demonstration in London today against the proposed amending of the Hunting Act. Mostly the demonstrators looked and shouted across the road at the Houses of Parliament, to whom the message was being directed. But when some speeches were made by Brian May and others, from the steps of a statue further back from the road, this great assembly – with its placards, fox outfits, and other insignia of protest against field “sports” – turned to face none other than King George V, whose statue it is, standing high above the green there. A most ironic situation, because King George was not just a stickler for correct dress and procedure, but also a habitual killer of wild-life: principally so-called “game” birds, but also, when he got the chance as Emperor of India, more exotic creatures like tigers, rhinoceroses, and bears. For much of the time during today’s speeches, the King had a pigeon on his head, preening and scratching itself: in his lifetime, that would perhaps have been the only safe place anywhere near him for a bird to be.

In John Betjeman’s poem of 1936, ‘Death of King George V’, there is mention of this hunting and shooting, but King George is presented as rather poignantly old-fashioned in his tastes and standards. In the last line, by contrast, his successor Edward VIII is a modern figure, turning up casually dressed for the time and occasion, and by aeroplane: “A young man lands hatless from the air.” This more modern king did indeed pursue less rural and destructive hobbies than his father had, but, as we know, it was not the end of hunting and shooting as royal pastimes. Even the present Prince of Wales, for all his earnest promotion of green causes, seems to have no particular feeling for wild animals as individual lives, deserving of respect as ours are.

It seems that the royal family refuses to modernize in this matter. The one British monarch who has had a really powerful and personal hatred of cruelty to animals was George V’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. Admittedly she seems to have accepted her consort Albert’s hunting and shooting. Perhaps also, like the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to which she gave royal approval in 1840, she was readier to mind cruelty to animals among the working people than among their superiors. If so, she made an exception to that in her plain-spoken indignation against what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection [her own underlining]. In a letter she wrote to the Home Secretary, whose office had been made responsible by the 1876 Act for overseeing the practice, she called it “a disgrace to a civilized country.”

That Act, incidentally, was not euphemistically titled, as the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is; it was bluntly named the Cruelty to Animals Act. Everyone knew what they were talking about. However, at the time of the Queen’s letter, the early 1880s, the Act was in the hands of Sir William Harcourt, and so far from agreeing with Queen Victoria, or paying attention to her complaint, he did more perhaps than any other Home Secretary before or since to give the scientists what they wanted: that is, the power to administer the Act themselves, and to enjoy its professional protections without being troubled by its restrictions.

The quotations from Queen Victoria’s letters can be found in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s magnificent anthology of anti-speciesist writings, The Extended Circle (Centaur Press, 1985: revised edition 2009). This book is a sort of permanent demonstration, a great collective statement to the effect that we cannot call ourselves civilized until we cease to tyrannize over our fellow-animals. It ought to be the bedside reading of every politician and monarch.