Vivotecnia Redivivus: a Disgraced Company Rides Again

Last April, in a post about maltreatment of animals at the Vivotecnia contract research company in Madrid, I wrote that “the public and official response is certain to ruin it” [see ‘Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business’, linked in the notes below]. A correction is now necessary to that naïve assessment of the situation. Vivotecnia is not at all ruined. Among the contracts continuing to keep it busy are four with public institutions. The most recent of these has been agreed with the University of Barcelona and its partners at the Barcelona Science Park (a University venture); 38 beagle puppies are being used to test a therapy for hepatic fibrosis (more about this project later). Altogether, these four contracts are worth over a million euros, comfortably mopping up the cash penalty that Vivotecnia has been required to pay to the Comunidad de Madrid, which is the licensing authority for its animal research.

dogs at vivotecnia-06

For yes, Vivotecnia was indeed punished. The fine for two “very serious” and 23 “serious” infractions of Spanish law 32/2007 (on the “exploitación, transporte, experimentación y sacrificio” of kept animals) was set at €37,827, about one third of the maximum possible. Vivotecnia’s licence to use animals was suspended, but for a few weeks only, and no animals were removed even temporarily from the company’s perfunctory care. The restoring of the licence is said to have been conditional upon certain “corrective and preventive measures”, including CCTV in the labs and a veterinary team responsible for the animals’ welfare (was there not one before?).

That seems to be the new situation at Vivotecnia, then, though in fact there is little certainty about it, rather less than there was when at least someone inside the lab was recording what went on. The company itself has naturally kept quiet about the whole business, and official statements have been only modestly informative. One of the Spanish government’s own ministers has complained of an “information wall” blocking visibility to the public and to the national government. As this suggests, there is a much greater delegation of laboratory supervision and discipline in Spain than obtains, for instance, in the UK. Most of the responsibility is vested in the sites themselves, with accordingly more scope for institutional delinquencies of the sort filmed at Vivotecnia.

An information wall, certainly, but no lack of uplifting wordage aimed at calming the commotion. As an instance, the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE) published a statement a few weeks ago, deploring the various hostile and inaccurate “news items” in circulation. It sketches out, instead, the “reality of research with animal models in Spain”. This research, it seems, is not only “essential” for human and animal health, but is also “strictly regulated and supervised”, with a commitment to “transparency” supported by more public institutions than any such agreements in other countries can boast. (Vivotecnia is not signed up to it, of course, and indeed is not named or even hinted at in COSCE’s far-from-transparent statement.) As part of its reassurances, COSCE puts special emphasis on the efficacy of two varieties of ethical machinery for safeguarding animal welfare and driving down the number of animals used: the 3Rs principles (reduction, refinement, replacement) and the local ethics committees.

On Vivotecnia’s own web-site there is a very similar account of the necessity and efficient regulation of animal research, with likewise no allusion to the recent scandal. But that scandal has highlighted the weaknesses of the much-flourished 3Rs. Most of the testing carried out by such contract research organizations as Vivotecnia is mandated by law; there can be no question of ‘replacement’, then. Besides, even at their best these principles only govern the design of an experiment or trial; they have nothing to say about the treatment of animals once the experiment starts, still less about the general husbandry of them. I suspect, anyway, that because so much of the work done at CROs is necessarily routine in design – dosing with a substance in such and such quantities, over such and such a period of time – the 3Rs are appreciated more as a PR point than as a prompt to good science and ethics.

That suspicion is surely confirmed by the one item posted, on 19 July 2019, under ‘Latest News’ on Vivotecnia’s web-site. This announces an exciting collaboration with Spain’s Centre for Cancer Research in “the complex task of developing animal models of lung cancer induced by the same inducing agent as in humans, that is tobacco smoke, and with a molecular biology and histology as close as possible to that found in smoking lung cancer patients.” Vivotecnia, with its “ample experience . . . of exposing different animal species to toxic agents such as tobacco” will do that part of the work, and also the subsequent testing of different therapies. The point is that “To date, there are no animal models of lung cancer induced by tobacco”. This project to create them is, then, the precise opposite of ‘replacement’. As to whether such research is “essential”, I need say nothing.

The ethics committees are not, any more than the 3Rs, the controlling force they’re claimed to be – at least, if Vivotecnia’s example is in any way representative. As I’ve mentioned, these local bodies carry much of the responsibility for ensuring animal welfare in Spanish laboratories, and they are themselves little supervised from above. Vivotecnia’s own committee, it emerges, included in its membership three of the company’s managers, including its founder and CEO, Andrés König. These are people whose primary interest would presumably be the commercial success of the company rather than the welfare of its animals, and who would have, also, the authority to insist on their point of view at committee meetings. König himself is not a vet by training, as those who set up these animal research businesses often are. His special expertise, we’re told on Linkedin (told, presumably, by the man himself), is in “company start-up, business model definition and implementation, strategic design and execution, as well as funding and exiting of financial investors”: vital skills, no doubt, but not likely to do the animals any good.

However, perhaps the composition of the committee did not matter very much, for there is some doubt whether it was holding meetings at all. An account of the situation, published in the Spanish paper El Pais, calls it “el comité ‘zombie’ “ and reports that many of the 177 employees at Vivotecnia, notably those of them doing the actual handling of the animals during tests, were unaware of its existence.

That fine of €37,827 was an institutional matter, imposed upon Vivotecnia by the regional authority. There is also a judicial proceeding under way, the prosecution of some individuals for animal cruelty. This will take much longer to reach conclusions, if it does so at all, but already the employee who secretly filmed the place – a veterinary technician called, perhaps pseudonymously, Carlotta Saorsa – has been giving preliminary evidence to a judge. It’s this evidence that has provided much of what’s now known about Vivotecnia’s way of working, and that has been keeping the scandal in the public eye, in Spain at least. The newspaper El Pais has been especially vigorous in reporting it all.


In such circumstances, you may wonder why the University of Barcelona and its other research partners should take this short cut to notoriety of inviting Vivotecnia to collaborate in the studies of hepatic fibrosis. The university has recently defended its action in a public statement, insisting that it has “exhaustively reviewed” the terms of the project to make sure it will conform to all regulations. The contract, we’re told, went through a “scrupulous process of tender”, and Vivotecnia’s was the winning bid. Poor university, now harried by demonstrations, its walls daubed with ‘Stop Vivotecnia’ and similar advice! The simplest explanation at present suggested in the Spanish media for what seems a wilful blunder is that Vivotecnia’s winning bid was in fact the only one received. But anyway, what has embarrassed the university will very likely have helped in the brisk rehabilitation of Vivotecnia.

It’s a very unpleasant story. And the scenes of careless maltreatment and deliberate cruelty in the video are now substantiated by that evidence given by Carlotta Saorsa about the lab culture at Vivotecnia. Expressing concern for the animals was apparently regarded as foolishness: the senior staff were uninterested, and the others (such as those seen in the film) ridiculed it. By the way, Vivotecnia claims in its web-site that care for the animals is not only “of paramount importance” as a matter of “our moral responsibility”, but also essential to “research excellence”; no surprise, then, to hear that test results were being falsified when things went wrong. Even the science, for which these animals suffered, was unsound.

william hogarth the four stages of cruelty_ second stage of cruelty

All this information has come to us through the bravery and dedication of one person. It’s the situation so vividly represented in the series of prints which the artist William Hogarth published in 1751 under the title The Four Stages of Cruelty. The scenes of cruelty to animals that Hogarth pictured in them show callousness as a catching disease, entailing misery upon larger and larger animals as the sick persons grow into adulthood, until humans too become the victims. But in each of the four pictures there is one humane person, hardly noticeable but remonstrating or at least unhardened, who keeps the way open to moral rescue. (Hogarth himself was one such; more about him next time.) Then the rest of us can do our numerous and much easier bit to make that way broad and permanent. In the present case, it can include signing the petitions linked immediately below, one of them to save and re-home the 38 beagles (if that’s still possible), the other a more general appeal to the European Commission to confirm and expedite its declared course toward a scientific research scene with no animals in it. Please sign if you can!

Notes and references:

The petition ‘Salvar a los 38 cachorros Beagle’ (Save the 38 beagle puppies) can be signed here: There’s a separate English version here: And Humane Society International’s petition to the European Commission can be signed here:

The original post in this blog about Vivotecnia is here:

The complaint from Spain’s Minister for Social Rights is reported here, with also some insight into the way powers over animal research are distributed in Spain:

The COSCE statement, issued last month, can be seen here:

Vivotecnia’s ‘latest news’ about the smoking research is featured here:

The ‘zombie’ piece in El Pais, one of several excellent reports on the Vivotecnia subject, is online here:

The University of Barcelona’s defensive statement about the beagle research is here:

The illustrations show (1) beagle dogs at Vivotecnia, (2) writing on a wall at the University of Barcelona, and (3) a detail from the second of Hogarth’s series of prints, showing the coachman Tom Nero (whose career of violence the prints primarily narrate) thrashing his collapsed horse, while some lawyers riding in the vehicle look to their own safety, and one man takes a note of Nero’s identity.

Members of Parliament Talk Sentience

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was discussed in this blog during its passage through the House of Lords last October. Now it has arrived at the House of Commons, where it had its Second Reading on the afternoon of 18 January, led by George Eustice, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). None of the amendments proposed in the Lords have been successful, but the government itself has amended the Bill to include, in its protective scope, cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish) and decapods (crabs, lobsters, crayfish). So after the many hours of attention given to the Bill in the House of Lords, here are nearly three more hours of debate to open its career in the Commons (Committee Stage, Report Stage, and Third Reading are yet to come). Meanwhile there has been a steady accumulation of published material, both official and factional, to inform, persuade, or frighten these legislators and other interested parties.

The background to this Bill is that, among all the EU laws and regulations which were carried over into UK law during Brexit, the government strangely left out the 2007 Lisbon Treaty’s classification of animals as “sentient beings”. There was justifiable puzzlement and protest about this at the time. But whatever may have been the reason, it now seems a most happy oversight, productive of all this extra attention to the animal subject. And the brevity of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which wisely (but controversially) refrains from defining either ‘sentience’ or the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee created to speak for the animals possessing it, means that almost no aspect or principle of animal welfare can be considered irrelevant to the debate. The distresses of farm animals, hunted animals, exhibits in zoos, pets, and lab animals were all spoken of in the House of Commons, sometimes in angry detail.

It was, then, a comprehensive symposium on the subject, and naturally prompted the summarizing question, “what we want our relationship with the animal kingdom to be” (Kerry McCarthy). Or as the Scottish MP Deidre Brock said at the end of her speech, “The more we understand animals’ sentience, capabilities and emotions, the more the idea of granting rights to animals is worth taking seriously and urgently.” Of course that’s an idea already taken seriously and urgently far and wide outside Parliament, but hitherto it has found very little support inside, has indeed been regarded by many as dangerous. The title of the Bill itself reflects the way MPs have always wished to deal with the subject: that is, as a welfare matter, concessions made in their kindness by a “nation of animal-lovers”. So it’s a most promising sign that Deidre Brock’s words aroused no commotion, no cries of “Oh!” (the official way of recording non-verbal remonstrations in parliamentary debate).

In keeping with this strong (though certainly not unanimous) wish to make the Bill a really progressive one, several speakers criticized the wording of the Animal Sentience Committee’s remit, which is to ensure that policies developed by government departments shall pay “all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” The case was well put by Luke Pollard:

It is quite a dated concept to use the word ‘adverse’, with its negative connotation in respect of animal welfare. It suggests that the job of animal welfare legislation is just to stop humans doing bad things to animals. It fails to consider the welfare agenda of the 21st century: what is a life well lived for an animal?

That last is a radical question, important not just for its ethical force but also because it’s a question which might be asked with equal sense ‘for a human’ – or more simply asked for any “sentient being”. It’s a reminder, then, of the power of that formulation being introduced to UK law in this Bill, erasing as it does the border which we habitually impute between humans and ‘animals’. As sentient beings, we’re all of one kind. (More importantly, as lives we are, but I’m afraid that animals not yet regarded as sentient, but certainly alive and with a keen wish to go on living, have no part in this Bill.)

That speech given by Luke Pollard was a highlight of the Commons debate. Even an important debate with strongly opposing views, as this one was (though it was quite poorly attended), can take the shine off its subject with a succession of talking or rather reading heads, working through their print-outs, while other MPs fiddle with their smart-phones in the background. Pollard did have papers in hand, but for brief prompts only, it seemed. He was fully animated as he spoke, as a reader-aloud cannot be. He smiled engagingly and sometimes mockingly, obviously enjoying the business of public speaking, as well as that of putting something that mattered right.

To return to the substance of the Bill: its opponents in the debate complained that although the Bill does specify the animals being offered its protection – namely, vertebrates and the marine creatures just now added – it does not limit their claims in any other way. Here indeed is another happy result of not transposing the Lisbon Treaty’s version. For that Treaty not only specified the areas of government action where animal sentience was to be respected; it also allowed this obligation to be trumped by “the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” (for instance, ritual slaughter or bull-fighting). In neither of these ways does the UK Bill limit the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee’s attentions.

Accordingly, one of the interventions during the Secretary of State’s opening speech to the House was made in order to ask him, “Can my right honourable Friend confirm whether the Bill as drafted contains birds?” To this, George Eustice replied, with some slight impatience,

The Bill does include birds, since they are vertebrates, and it includes fish, since they are vertebrates. I point out that those particular animals have been recognized in our law as sentient since at least 1911.

But the questioner, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, will hardly have been satisfied by this historical reference. That 1911 Protection of Animals Act was concerned with domestic or captive animals only, and was signed into law by one of Britain’s most sanguinary monarchs in his relations to the animal kingdom: that almost crazed bird-blaster, King George V. There was no question in 1911 of the rights of game-birds, except that one should not shoot them when they’re sitting down, but there is now. Sir Geoffrey is Vice-President of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, an organisation whose comical name neatly summarizes an attitude to wild animals which the Sentience Bill at last challenges: i.e. that provided the supply of them is kept up (the BASC calls it “sustainable shooting”), our duties towards them are satisfied. The proposed Act will obtain for these birds proper attention as sentient individuals rather than as conserved numbers, and it will do so without any Lisbon-style concessions to what Kerry McCarthy called “the right to be cruel to animals just because that has been traditional in this country”.

Fishing interests have similarly been feeling uneasy about the Bill. The Angling Trade Association (“the voice of the British tackle industry”) spoke up during the period of consultation for the Bill, not without good reason. The government body responsible for waterways and fishing is the Defra’s own Environment Agency, whose policy on fishing as a sport may be judged from its recent “let’s get one million to fish” campaign. Its promotion of “the wellbeing benefits that the sport has to offer” may be good for the tackle industry, but clearly hasn’t taken fish-sentience into account. True, the Agency is not itself a government department; it may therefore not be directly liable to the Sentience Committee’s attention (Luke Pollard wants an extension of the Committee’s purview to include non-departmental public bodies like the Agency, and that surely will come). But the Agency’s policy is presumably a part of Defra’s own more general objectives, and may therefore be challenged as such by the Committee. And we know that fish are sentient; George Eustice himself has just told us so.

Before briefly considering the concerns of animal research groups, we should notice with gratitude one more point about the term sentience. It’s a good, clear, unspoiled word. Although (as MPs noted) it comes from the Latin word sentire, ‘to feel’, it’s a larger and less humanized word than ‘feelings’. See how the ramifications of that word are exploited in this angry warning against the Bill by Sir Bill Wiggin:

All this will do is prevent things. Want to plant more trees, build more houses, improve infrastructure, or open a new power station? None of that will be straightforward, just in case we might hurt the feelings of a mouse or a cuttlefish in the process.

In addition, sentience contains some idea of a state of awareness quite independent of good or bad emotion (“a level of conscious awareness”, the MP and vet Neil Hudson suggested, and he ought to know). It therefore implies that merely the presence of such an animal must be taken into account, as it naturally would be in the case of a human. What else it may imply is – so the Secretary of State insisted – for the Committee to discover as experience and science inform it. As I’ve said, this is, or ought to prove to be, a progressive law.

The last distinct topic in the debate was animal research. Jo Churchill, winding up the debate as Under-Secretary of State at Defra (she was wearing – symbolically, I hope – a fine dragonfly brooch), was asked to comment on the use of non-human primates in defence research. Although she did not comply, it’s significant that this theme did get attention during the afternoon. Since the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, lab animals have been excepted from other welfare law – as they are excepted, for instance, from the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. But perhaps things are changing now. Certainly the Bill entitles the proposed Animal Sentience Committee to publish comment on any government policy that “is being or has been formulated or implemented”: policy not legislation, then, but of course policy is very commonly a continuation or even a consequence of existing law. A huge library of Home Office advice and other directions has been piling up on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) since it became law in 1986. Such secondary material may well become subject to the Committee’s attention.

At any rate, defenders of animal research seem to fear so. Among the amendments attempted during the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords was one proposed by Lord Moylan which would have inserted, after that phrase “formulated or implemented”, the words “other than a policy intended to advance the understanding of medical science.” The organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) has been similarly suspicious of the Bill. In its submission to the consultation, it proposed a strictly negative definition of sentience, as the ability and intention to escape adversity, “and, if treated adversely, to demonstrate adverse physiological changes and behavioural suffering”. The onus of proof, it seems, should be on the animal: if it’s not knowingly on the run, or providing evidence of damage, it must be all right. UAR’s  more general warning was the same one put in Lord Moylan’s amendment (which may indeed have been proposed with UAR advice): “It is essential to the scientific community, and to potential medical progress, that any new animal welfare legislation does not conflict with, but supports ASPA.”

The fact that shooting, fishing, and research interests, as well as some farming and slaughterhouse businesses, don’t like the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is evidence of real efficacy in it. Of course the Sentience Committee will not be taking decisions about government policies, only drawing attention to their implications for animals; government ministers will be required to respond to what the Committee says, but not necessarily to act upon it. Besides, the Bill has some way yet to go in the Commons. But the debate on 18 January showed that there’s plentiful parliamentary interest in making a success of it. And then, in case there may have been some wishful-thinking in this post, even the Better Deal for Animals Coalition, specially formed among animal rights groups to secure the recognition of animal sentience in UK law (see illustration), has declared “our strong support for the Animal Sentience Bill”. Surely it must be as good as it seems.  

Better Deal for Animals

Notes and references:

The text of the Bill as it stands at present can be read here:

An account in this blog of the Bill’s reception in the House of Lords was posted on October 4 2021, and can be seen here:

The Hansard text of the Second Reading debate is online here:  The TV record can be viewed here:  Luke Pollard’s speech is at 15.42. The also excellent speech given by Neil Hudson is at 16.21. You’ll notice, as mentioned, that the debate was not well-attended. All the quotations in this post are from the debate, unless otherwise stated and referenced.

A thorough account of the Bill and its fortunes so far was provided to MPs before the Second Reading in this House of Commons Research Briefing:  This includes, on p.6, the text from the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007, which deals with animal sentience and the customs which will be allowed to trump it in the policies of member states.

The shooting and fishing organisations, and the Environment Agency, are quoted from their web-sites.

Lord Moylan’s amendment, with all the others proposed during the Bill’s passage through the Lords, is listed at no.19 here:

Understanding Animal Research’s submission during the period of public consultation can be read here (note that at the time of the consultation, the Bill included provisions to increase sentences for animal cruelty, but these were later separated and are now enacted in the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act, 2021):

The latest commentary on the Bill by the Better Deal for Animals Coalition was published just before the Second Reading in the Commons, and can be read here:

Hearts and Minds

The final topic debated in the UK House of Commons before its Christmas recess was ‘Animal Testing’. Present in the Chamber for this “important debate”, as its sponsor Margaret Ferrier wistfully called it, were Ferrier herself, a Home Office minister to respond, and one other MP. I could find no mention of the occasion anywhere in the press or broadcasting media. By contrast, the transplantation of a pig’s heart into the body of a man at the University of Maryland Medical Center three weeks later has been given world-wide media coverage. Well of course, because it’s a first-of-its-kind news story, a will-he-survive yarn, and a this-is-the-future drama, all rolled into one. No doubt it would also be a bravely-battling-patient story too, except that this particular patient was unfitted for the role by his conviction for a very violent crime and his history of medical non-cooperation.


But principally it’s a human-testing story, with ethical problems which affect us. Should a human patient, even one already in mortal danger as this patient had been, be subjected, however willingly consenting, to such hazardous surgery and the associated novel drugs, neither of them yet brought to the stage of clinical trials? Then, even if the operation and its likely successors prove safe to the patients, it’s quite likely that viruses harmless to the animal species may cross to human populations with much more serious effects, of a sort with which we’ve become familiar. Particularly worrying in the case of pigs is the porcine endogenous retrovirus, whose acronym PERV might be regarded as a moral summary of this whole subject.

So much for the human ethics. As to the animals, their claims in the matter were implicitly decided upon years ago. For the Maryland operation is just a moment of sudden visibility in a long history of trying out these Dr Moreau-like possibilities on different animal species. As one of the Maryland scientists has said, by way of justifying the operation, “We’ve done this for decades in the lab, in primates, trying to get to the point where we think it is safe to offer this to a human recipient.” Just that word “trying” has a chronicle of suffering implicit in it.

The nature of that suffering, as it occurred in the UK at the laboratories of Huntingdon Life Sciences from 1994 to 2000, was courageously uncovered by Dan Lyons of Uncaged Campaigns. The web-site Diaries of Despair recounts these experiments and Lyons’ campaign to publicize them (as linked in the notes below). But these cruel and disgusting experiments have continued in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, and of course they’ll go on into the future. “We really need to do more science,” a specialist in transplant immunology tells the journal Science in its article about the Maryland operation, but it hardly needs saying; even if it hadn’t already been the motto of all scientific research, there are commercial interests making sure that it’s acted upon in this case. Even in that short Science article, we encounter five of them: Revivicor, Makana Therapeutics, Recombinetics Inc., XVIVO, Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

Certainly there has been some official attention paid, over the years, to the welfare of the animals miserably caught up in this research, from the report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 1996 (Animal-to-Human Transplants: the ethics of transplantation), through to the academic bio-ethicists offering their comments this month. In the Nuffield report, only two of the ten chapters were devoted to the animals, but they contained serious and well-intentioned discussion. Still, we have to understand what such pronouncements are really aiming to do. A few phrases from the report will illustrate it: “It can be argued . . . It might be held . . . Those who favour . . . As an alternative, critics advocate . . . For some people . . . for others.” Likewise Oxford University’s Professor of Practical Ethics, lending his weight to the BBC’s report on the Maryland operation: “Some people might say . . . others would say.” His judicious conclusion is that “Those are just positions we are going to have to reconcile.” The momentum of these authoritative voices is always towards a common ground, a sort of pop utilitarianism: what ethics will content the maximum number or offend the fewest?

The argument (repeatedly used) that taking out the organs of pigs in this way will be ethically no worse, and numerically much better, than eating pigs, is really of that same type. What do most people think about eating pigs? They think that it’s all right. There you are then. And that would explain why another Oxford bio-ethicist thinks it worth saying that we should only use gene-edited pigs if we can “ensure they do not suffer unnecessary harm”. I’m not certain when that would last have been a keen point of ethics (1822?), but it’s certainly common-ground thinking in Western society now (however violated in practice). The question being put is not ‘what matters?’ but ‘what do most people think matters?’ Perhaps indeed that’s what ‘bio-ethics’ is: a branch of sociology.

At one point in the Nuffield report, the authors ask “what sort of people do our social and technical practices reveal us to be? If we do not like what we see when we look honestly in the mirror, then there is cause for thought at least.” It’s a disappointingly weak conclusion in that last clause (wasn’t the whole point of the study that “thought” was required?), but the proposition is otherwise an important one. It shifts the ethics, if only for the moment, from utilitarianism to what’s usually termed virtue ethics: what sort of conduct would characterize the sort of humans we wish to be? In this conception of ethics there is always some idealism and therefore some momentum towards moral growth – with some promise, then, of keeping up with the growth in our technical capacities and ambitions, as instanced by the Maryland operation.

Accordingly, when the transplant surgeon in Malorie Blackman’s teen-novel Pig-Heart Boy (1997) says “I have no trouble looking in the mirror”, it confirms that he’s just a stationary character, a datum of the situation (as summarized in the title). The boy himself, in contrast, feels all the ups and downs of the choice facing him. Still, we discover that choosing to go ahead is the brave decision: indeed, going in for it twice (for the first operation fails) makes him positively heroic. He says to his yet unborn brother, “I hope one day you’ll be as proud of me as I am of you.” So even in virtue ethics we remain in the world of opinion, and we find that exploiting animals can be cast in a form complimentary to humans. Accordingly, one science journalist reports the Maryland operation as “The latest promising update in humans’ quest to harvest life-saving organs from our four-legged, porcine friends”. A quest! Yes, that’s a fine thing to be engaged in, as is saving (human) life, and even the not-quite-serious animals seem to cheering us on. As Blackman’s surgeon drearily says, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”

Is there no way out of this fog of opinionation? Yes, of course there is. Where this operation raised a question of human ethics – is it right to put a human patient through a still experimental procedure? – the ethics professor provides an unequivocal answer (though still, note, a vicarious one): “As long as the individual understands the full range of risks, I think people should be able to consent to these radical experiments.” Then why should the animal ethics be different? That a pig cannot formally consent or withhold consent should put an end to the matter. But anyway we’re fully aware of their preferences, for they express their pleasure in good things, and they make piercingly clear their dislike of being harmed. We can therefore know as a fact that no pig, allowed to understand “the full range of risks”, would consent to be killed in this or any other way. Therefore to speak of animal ethics in connection with xenotransplantation is humbug. If we “look honestly in the mirror”, as the Nuffield report suggests, what we see in this case is a brilliantly clever, cowardly, dishonest gangster: “cause for thought”, perhaps; more importantly cause for a complete change of mentality.

Notes and references:

The BBC’s online account of this operation, which quotes the Oxford bio-ethicists, as well as the Maryland University scientist, can be seen here:

The Diaries of Despair web-site is here:

The report in Science can be seen here:

The 1996 report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a very thorough 142pp study, can be read online or downloaded here (the mirror quotation comes from p.44):

Pig-Heart Boy was first published by Doubleday in 1997. Quotations are from the Corgi Books edition of 2011, at pp.33-4, and 255.

The “humans’ quest” quotation comes from an online news journal called Fierce Biotech; the whole article can be read here:

Escaping the Human Condition at Polperro

Russell Hoban’s 1975 book Turtle Diary has now been added to the Penguin Modern Classics list, a very proper honour (if it is one). This most original and poignant novel tells the story, in their own alternating diaries, of two solitary Londoners, identified only as William G. and Neaera H., both somehow stranded in mid-life. They are brought together by an urge to free the sea turtles being displayed at London Zoo in “their little bed-sitter of ocean”. Since the keeper himself agrees with them that the turtles shouldn’t be there, the liberation is not as difficult to accomplish as might have been expected. In fact the first paperback edition (1977) makes no prior secret of its success: the front cover shows the turtles heading out to sea from their launching-point at Polperro in Cornwall.

Turtle cover 1

Perhaps then it’s going to be a story of the type commonly called ‘heart-warming’, with two lonely people finding happiness together, the turtles merely the submissive means? Perhaps even, as one online commentator records having to explain to his mother, the turtles are “but a metaphor”, a charming way to show that human beings have the power to liberate themselves? More formal critical discussions of the novel tend to assume so, treating the turtles as story-line, and the humans as the real plot (they’re persons, after all). But that’s not true to the book.

William G. and Neaera H. do indeed seem to be, in different ways, renewed by what they’ve done for the turtles, but there’s no confidence about it: as the zoo-keeper says to William, “Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” And certainly they don’t find happiness together; the last page has them going separate ways (a finality which the film version of 1985, generally faithful to the text, couldn’t quite agree to: for more about the film, see the notes).

Besides, the book insists, in so far as a fiction can, on the self-sufficient reality of the turtles. It’s their characterizing feature:

They may be headed for extinction, but they’re real, they work. When we put them in the sea, they’ll do real turtle work.

This reality is not a scientific matter; there’s little documentary zoology in the book, though the extraordinary migration-journeys of the turtles are much wondered about. Rather, it’s an existential reality, showing up as authentic all the more movingly in the context of that poor de-natured and tourist-dependent village in Cornwall: “When I think of the turtles going into the ocean,” Neaera writes,“I think of it happening in that place that so badly needs new reality.”

In fact an impatience with human unrealities is felt throughout the book. Both William and Neaera are caught up in fictions, he as working in a bookshop, she as a writer of “cosy, cheerful” children’s books about humanized animals: Gillian Vole’s Christmas, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, and so on. (Hoban is evidently making some fun of himself here, not just as a writer of this fiction, but as one who began his own literary career with a series of children’s stories about Frances the Badger.) But now, in their reaction to all this, they seem inclined to abjure the humanizing business altogether: “Anything is whatever it happens to be, why on earth make up stories?” An escape for the animals is implied in this vision of human forbearance. Thinking of kestrels, as pictured in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Windhover’, Neaera writes “they don’t want mannered words but only the simplest and fewest . . . preferably no words at all.” And accordingly she abandons her own project of making a publishable story out of the water-beetle which she has ordered by post and installed in an aquarium for that purpose:

Who am I to use the mystery of her in that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to be paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of?

No, the author of this book is not thinking of the turtles as metaphors. It’s the poor humans whose reality is equivocal, as that quotation suggests. And although the story-line of Turtle Diary shows turtles being set free by humans, the cumulative evidence of the book is the other way round: it is the animals who must save us. “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation,” Neaera thinks, “is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” Or at any rate, finding our proper place in the animal world must save us. As William says, “we’re all swimmers, we’ve all come from the ocean. Some of us are trying to find it again.” This rediscovery, so he reads in a book by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade, is what the shaman is able to experience on behalf of humanity. He quotes from the book:

While preparing for his ecstasy and during it, the shaman abolishes the present human condition and, for the time being, recovers the situation as it was in the beginning. Friendship with animals, knowledge of their language, transformation into an animal are so many signs that the shaman has re-established the ‘paradisal’ situation lost at the dawn of time.

“That’s the crux of it,” William thinks: “abolishing the present human condition.” And as he reflects upon this in relation to his own life, he shows where the turtles fit in:

Could I abolish the human condition? Could I swim, experience swimming, finding, navigating, fearlessness, unlostness? Could I come back with an answer? The unlostness itself would be the answer, I shouldn’t need to come back.

Described here is the answer as instanced in the turtles, but of course there are many other animals to think about, and the book does think about them. It begins in the zoo, and after that it touches upon spiders (being studied on space flights), birds, whales, animals in films and fictions (King Kong, Peter Rabbit), animals in the news. All of them are more or less caught up in the “human condition” – insulted by human vulgarity (“sharks . . . the ultimate challenge”, a documentary film-maker brags) or in other ways harried by our human refusal, restless as we are in our own unsettled identity, to let other things be themselves (“Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.”

It’s this conspectus of harassed animal life that gives the freeing of the turtles a significance beyond itself. For although, as I’ve said, that action is not as complicated as Hoban might easily have made it (this story isn’t a ‘caper’ any more than a ‘romantic comedy’), it’s manifestly an important one. The two agents of it feel it not as an adventure but as a portentous obligation, “a massive chain welded to leg irons on both of us”. Neaera thinks, “I feel a gathering-up in me as if I’m going to die soon, I await a Day of Judgement.”

When the turtles have indeed been launched, just before dawn in Polperro, there’s a moment of exhilaration, of shaman-like re-unity: “it seemed all at once that I didn’t need answers to anything,” William writes. “Where the moon ended and I began and which was which was of no consequence. Everything was what it was and the awareness of it was part of it.” But this ecstasy is quickly borne down by the pains and puzzlements of ordinary life which Hoban so sympathetically describes. And when Neaera, suffering this reaction, re-visits the keeper at his aquarium, he offers a more resigned, perhaps more forgiving, summary of it all:

‘There’s nothing you can do about this, you know,’ he said. ‘Nothing to be done really about the animals. Anything you do looks foolish. The answer isn’t in us. It’s almost as if we’re put here on earth to show how silly they aren’t.’

The mixture of kindness and surrender in this consolation makes Neaera cry. “It’s all right,” the keeper says, tenderly. “You needn’t hold back, these are all salt-water tanks.”

Penguin turtle cover

Notes and references:

The film Turtle Diary, 1985, stars Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, and Michael Gambon. It is mostly faithful to the book, though necessarily missing out much of the wit and brilliance of Russell Hoban’s writing, as well as much of the thinking. Also, with uncomfortable irony, it relied on public zoos to provide the turtles to be liberated – and then presumably put back in their tanks for public viewing. Still, it’s an excellent film, and although not available as a DVD it can at present be viewed online here:

As a book, Turtle Diary was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1975. Quotations are from the Picador paperback edition of 1977, as shown in the illustration along with the new, more post-modern, Penguin Classics cover (2021). There have been several other editions in between.

Attitudes at zoos like London Zoo have of course changed since the 1970s. At least some of the turtles kept there at present are themselves rescued (from smugglers), and the emphasis is all on ‘conservation’. However, looking at London Zoo’s web-site, I don’t find that the consumerist outlook has changed, or that the human clamour is in any way restrained (“the must-do experience! . . . your chance to get up-close to some of our most popular animals” etc.). If anything, the knowledge of animal scarcity has given the animals more exhibition value. Besides, looking at animals is fun!

Another Concordat Christmas

It’s an Advent phenomenon religiously studied each year in this blog: the awards ceremony and annual report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. Must Christmas entail this duty of attention, among all its other demands? In earlier years, the portentous title (Concordat!) and the atmosphere of inter-house competition at a school did provide some slight comic relief, but now the relentless expansion of its missionary activities, and in fact the Concordat’s patent effectiveness, have worn that fun away. Reading through it all is merely hard work. Still, this is the animal-research profession talking to itself about how to address the rest of us. That alone makes it important. And then, the Concordat has, within its few years, transformed the public management of this subject, from 150 years of strenuous secrecy to a quite unnatural effusiveness, even bumptiousness (I’m thinking, for instance, of the llamas at Reading University – “our Fifi” and others – tirelessly boosted for “helping scientists”). It’s a revolution of a kind, and we have to wonder what its consequences are going to be.

Of course events like open days, science fairs, and laboratory tours have been cut back in 2021. As one university put the point in fine higher-education prose, “Due to the pandemic there have been restrictions on public engagement activities that have been possible regarding animal research.” Therefore the emphasis has been upon online publicity and communications within the research institutions. These are easier, less challengeable PR functions. They are also more completely within the grip of PR professionals, whose influence seems accordingly more conspicuous this year. 

It’s not just that the costs to the animals – i.e. the bad news, which the PR people are not in a position to know much about anyway – are going unspecified or even unnoticed among the vivid and exciting prospects of discovery and cures. That omission is something which the Concordat’s annual reports habitually ask signatories to address. More insidiously the published ‘information’ is slanted or spun, so that what is called transparency is really propaganda. For instance, Bath University (one of the Concordat’s ‘Leaders in Openness’) is specially featured in the report this year for promoting awareness of its animal work “across campus”; as a result, we’re told, “staff felt better informed about the necessity of animals in research.” Of course it’s an axiom in the profession that hostility to animal research is the product of ignorance. To be “better informed” is to see “the necessity”, then. But information and persuasion are distinct things, and wouldn’t be confused like this if ‘openness’ were really a primary purpose.

Besides, such deliberate management of the information easily strays into actual falsehood. Sampling the publicity of the 122 signatories to the Concordat (by now a mighty symposium of material), I find the Physiological Society strangely mis-telling the history of its part in the run-up to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Apparently the Society, founded by happy coincidence in that same year, joined the British Medical Association in a “campaign” which “led to the incorporation of additional protections for experimental animals.” Eh? In fact, the Society was founded largely in order to resist the proposed legislation. It included in its original number several of those who, during the Royal Commission on the subject, had given evidence hostile to the mere idea of “protections for experimental animals”, interpreting it as an attack upon their professional honour. The Society’s first chairman, Professor Burdon Sanderson, was one such. So was his colleague Emmanuel Klein, who had notoriously declared himself “entirely indifferent” to the sufferings of experimental animals. It was these Physiological Society men, together with the BMA, whose lobbying turned the proposed Act from a measure really capable of protecting the animals (for instance, the original draft prohibited experiments on dogs, cats, and horses) into an Act which was instead aimed (so the anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe declared) at “protecting their tormentors”.

Well, that’s history, or story anyway. But it’s worth mentioning that the Physiological Society subsequently delegated its more propagandist activities to an Association for the Advancement of Medical Research, specially created for that purpose. This in turn became the Research Defence Society, which was itself re-formed a few years ago as Understanding Animal Research, the organisation which now supervises the Concordat. And the story told on the Physiological Society’s web-site, wrong as it is, reflects a notable change in the outlook of this promotional dynasty. From militant defence of the professional interest, it has come to regard itself as owner-manager of the whole dispute – much in the way the Concordat urges institutions to originate (to “own”) news stories, rather than respond defensively to ones published by journalists and others. It’s in this context that one should understand Bath University’s action (cited in this year’s Concordat report) of inviting the Animal Justice Project to set up its protest on campus rather than out on the streets during Open Day 2018. ‘The Concordat, your one-stop reference for everything to do with animal research: we even manage the argument against it!’

Of course it isn’t really ‘everything’, even on the research side. Those signatory institutions that do some of the harshest experimenting, and often on the larger animals, namely the Contract Research Organisations, are permitted greater secrecy (for “business reasons around competitiveness and confidentiality”). They aren’t expected to identify particular research projects on their web-sites, or even to declare their animal numbers. Signatories which don’t do their own research (medical charities, for instance, or professional societies) likewise have less to say, though for different reasons. But all of these are encouraged to spread the word in other ways: in annual reports, in staff newsletters, on notice-boards, and, more ominously, when recruiting staff or funding awards. In these latter cases, they are advised to make it clear, even where the position or grant has no connection with animal research, that the institution is committed to such work. In fact we’re told that it’s now considered “good practice”, for all Concordat institutions, “to include interview questions highlighting that the organisation carries out animal research as part of the recruitment process for all staff regardless of their role.” So if you accept the job, or the award, you implicitly – or perhaps expressly (depending on what form those “questions” take) – endorse the animal research.

One signatory apparently doing an especially fine job in this respect is the Pirbright Institute. At any rate, it received a Concordat award this year for its “internal engagement practices”. Apparently Pirbright’s staff have been so thoroughly engaged that “no one in the organisation is unaware of the research which goes on there.” But then Pirbright is a research laboratory whose declared mission is “To be the world’s most innovative centre for preventing and controlling viral diseases of livestock”. This, we’re told, will be achieved by “the development of vaccines, antivirals, diagnostics, genetic selection, genetically modified animals and arthropod vectors [insect carriers or similar], and the modelling of disease outbreaks.” Surely the staff must already have deduced for themselves that Pirbright’s research involved animals? I suspect that here again the providing of information has been confused with the celebrating of institutional values and successes – with in-house boasting, in short. 

By the way, you’ll notice the rationale of research implied here: using high-tech force to sustain industrialized animal farming and its various pernicious effects on human and planetary health. Among Pirbright’s research themes is avian flu, one of whose regular visitations is, at this moment, causing many thousands of poultry and ducks in the UK to be prematurely destroyed. Avian flu is endemic in wild bird populations, but it seems to do limited harm there. It’s in so-called ‘commercial’ flocks, over-crowded and stationary, that it flourishes most ruinously – flocks like the 22,000 ducks destroyed this month on a ‘farm’ in Northern Ireland. Of course being prematurely killed was the ducks’ destiny anyway, but such culls highlight the perversity of this roundabout of animal disease and animal research. Pirbright’s tonic internal PR may create a loyal and committed staff, but that has nothing to do with the real value of the work.

The same is true more generally of the whole Concordat push. It’s a most smooth operation, in its way brilliantly conceived and carried through, worlds away in technique from the clumsy and defensive indignation of the old Physiological Society or the Research Defence Society. But its purpose is not essentially different. When the report notes that 97% of its signatories agree with the statement “the Concordat is an important step forward for biomedical research”, we know what sort of progress they mean. They mean what the Physiological Society meant: allowing the professionals to know best and carry on their work in peace. They believe that the Concordat’s managed publicity will accomplish this. And yet the authors of the report note with concern that, “Despite openness”, Concordat signatories “are seeing increasing protests from organized groups”. They sound puzzled by this, but we needn’t be. Openness is certainly a great improvement on secrecy, and perhaps has a reassuring effect upon those wishing to feel reassured, but it leaves the substance of the trouble, the ethical wrong, completely untouched. Until “an important step forward” in that respect too becomes part of its mission, the Concordat will go on making (no doubt) a lot of noise, but not much difference.

Notes and references:

The Concordat awards ceremony, held on 6 December at the Royal College of Physicians in London, is reported here:  The annual report is here:  All quotations not otherwise referenced are from that text, including statements made by signatory institutions.

The Physiological Society account of its own history is online here:  Klein’s evidence to the Royal Commission appears on pp.182-6 of Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876. Frances Power Cobbe is quoted from an earlier post in this blog, in which there is more detailed discussion of the passing of the 1876 Act:

The Pirbright Institute’s web-site, where its mission is posted, is here:  Incidentally, Pirbright carried out some of the animal testing for Oxford University’s vaccine research, on mouse and pig ‘models’, as reported here: Avian flu in Northern Ireland is reported here:

From Electrons to Humans: a Mindful Planet

A review of the scientific evidence for the existence of feelings in squids, octopods, cuttlefish, crabs, lobsters and crayfish has just been published by the London School of Economics. It concludes thus: “We recommend that all cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans be regarded as sentient animals for the purposes of UK animal welfare law”. The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which commissioned the report, has accepted the LSE’s judgement, and accordingly these animals will now be included in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill which is currently on its way through Parliament. This doesn’t mean that the many savage cruelties to which they are presently subjected will cease when the bill becomes law. Defra expressly reassures interested parties on this point: “Existing industry practices will not be affected, and there will be no direct impact on shellfish catching or on restaurant kitchens.” What it does mean, more vaguely, is that the welfare of these species will be “well considered in future decision-making”.

Octopuses and other cephalopod molluscs (squid, cuttlefish, nautilus) are already ‘protected’ animals in UK scientific research – to the extent that a licence is required for research that uses them. But certainly they are used, here and elsewhere in the world; such research indeed provided the evidence for the LSE review, and in fact the review refers to some of these animals as “intensively studied laboratory species”. And the research of special interest to the LSE is of course that worst kind of all, research into pain and distress. The review’s list of references indicates as much, with such key phrases as “anxiety-like behaviour”, “affective-motivational aspects of pain”, “acute and chronic effect of low temperature”, “noxious shock”, and “the effect of Crustastun on nerve activity”. Crustastun, by the way, is a slaughter device manufactured in the UK, either as a “single-animal unit for the hospitality sector” or as a “large-scale stunner for processors” (this weird language, half euphemism, half let-‘em-have-it!). So, as with much of the other research cited, that particular study was aimed at improving the lot of animals being treated as food, as indeed was the whole LSE review. Cruelty for kindness’s sake, then, if they but knew it. Haeckel decapods

In a most humane study of these and other marine creatures, titled Metazoa (meaning, roughly, multi-celled animals), the zoologist and philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith comments ruefully on this perversity in his own case: “All through this book I have used information that was gained, directly or indirectly, from experiments that were cruel in various ways . . . behind the scenes is often a lot of suffering.” But in fact Godfrey-Smith was pursuing something much less measurable, but possibly more important, than the sort of sentiency studied in those experiments. The sub-title of Metazoa is Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, so the book is dealing with a theme that is commonly regarded as the most intractable mystery in both science and philosophy. Even in humans, capable as they are of reporting on their experiences, the ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ of consciousness have no agreed answers and no prospect of any. The word itself is very variously defined, and even more loosely used. In animals, of course, who don’t speak at length to us, the puzzle is yet greater, but also, I hope to suggest, more promising.

We can at least start by putting consciousness into a sort of status-position in studies of the animal mind. First to come, after the merely insentient condition of stocks and stones (if indeed they are altogether insentient, a point we shall return to), is ‘nociception’, the awareness of harm without associated sense of pain, a state sometimes attributed to insects and also to some sharks, probably quite wrongly in both cases. Then comes sentience, the feeling and minding of both pains and pleasures. And then, inclusive of sentience, comes that state of unspecific mental awareness called consciousness. Paraphrases for it, used by Godfrey-Smith and others, include ‘presence’, ‘sense of self’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘lived experience’, and ‘having a point of view’. But perhaps the most favoured formulation is still the one which Thomas Nagel used in an essay which more or less launched philosophical study of the subject in 1974, titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ An organism has consciousness, said Nagel, “if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism [his emphasis].” It’s this formulation which the Oxford academic Charles Foster uses for the first line of his book of practical researches into the subject, Being a Beast (2016): “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.”

In Nagel’s essay, the bat was more of a thought experiment than a zoological subject: for him, the mystery of bat-experience illuminated the possibly insuperable difficulty of using science – that is, objective impersonal testable enquiry – to get at an inward and subjective condition. Still, he was convinced that there was a real experience called ‘being a bat’, however unimaginable to us. He nicely pointed out that a bat would surely find the experience of being a human similarly unimaginable, but would be wrong to conclude that there was no such thing. But it’s an indication of the uncertainties of the subject how very much opinions vary even among specialists: from denying consciousness to all except humans (though “Great apes come close” – Ramachandran), to stopping short at crustaceans (Edelman), right on or in to termites (“probably” – Searle). Petra Stoerig, a professor of biological psychology, goes beyond this sort of prize-day thinking. She argues (as indeed Godfrey-Smith does) that consciousness should be looked for not just in the mind, where humans have been hoarding it hitherto, but in the whole body of an animal. For instance, in elegance and control of movement many other species show “a basic form of self-awareness of which they may have more than we do”, and “there are plenty of other instances where they actually have more.”

This is indeed the necessary step, to disengage the study of consciousness from the human standard. For even the momentous Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness of 2012, in which some distinguished scientists stated that non-human animals possessed cerebral equipment capable of giving them conscious awareness, couldn’t help picturing humans as the central store and paradigm of this property, rather honourably sharing some of it with some of the others: “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” And with that disengagement will come, as Petra Stoerig shows, a better appreciation of different animal conditions. She has said “there are very many aspects to self-recognition and self-awareness . . . if you want to test them in different types of species you had better adjust your question to the species.”

Some of these many aspects are what Godfrey-Smith describes in Metazoa. His general aim is “to make sense of how experience came to exist on earth”, and he both reasons and shows that it had to come about when animals acted in and on their environments. Not just a feeling for what was going on around them became necessary to their welfare, but a distinction between their own bodies and the outside world. Thus the banded shrimp, having a variously-limbed body (“like a Swiss army knife”), needs to distinguish between its own complex parts and the external lives and surfaces that may bear upon them. In doing so, it is “sensing the world in a way that tracks the divide between self and other. Insects, part of the same arthropod phylum, must have something of this sense of self too, Godfrey-Smith says, because their flying is “a behaviour featuring especially complex feedback between action and the senses, the sort of feedback that contributes to a point of view.”

The octopus, with much more manoeuvrable limbs than the shrimp’s, and limbs which have their own nervous systems, is possibly “a being with multiple selves”, or at least a self that can divide and re-unite as required. And again Godfrey-Smith rejects the old human-centred style of assessment; the octopus is not so much ‘smart’, a term suggestive of ability to pass human tests, as “behaviourally complex”, “sensitive”, “exploratory”, terms relating to the inner life. He says of octopuses, with a respectful diffidence characteristic of his attitude to all the animals he encounters, “I think they experience their lives in a rich way.”

I should add that these are indeed encounters rather than generalizations, as you’d expect in what is partly a work of ethology (though of course there are generalizations too). Thus, a particular banded shrimp, one with a missing fore-limb, is a recurring presence in the book, last observed missing also a second fore-limb and looking “tired, very much on his own, and probably near the end of his days.” One octopus goes on a sort of “rampage”, as if showing off (“she certainly raised hell along the way”); another moves “in an unusual, stylized-looking way . . . winding his arms over his head and backward for no apparent reason, coiling an arm into a wheel.”

This is a helpful reminder of two things we know. One is that every ‘self’ is a true individual, however conditioned by its species-design (though collectives of ants and social bees may be an exception here). To speak in a general way of ‘the octopus’ or ‘a bat’ is a convenient fiction only. And then, such encounters as Godfrey-Smith describes are reciprocal; the animals are observers in their turn. He sees them looking at him. It’s a meeting of consciousnesses, a mysterious communion of alien beings.

So we come back to the questions, where and how in the story of life did consciousness enter into the material world? Of course there are many suggested answers, variously plausible, but one of them neatly and most appealingly makes the questions themselves unnecessary. This is the theory called ‘panpsychism’, which proposes that mind or awareness in some form was part of the story from the beginning, that so far from being a rare and elite property, consciousness (as the philosopher Philip Goff has said) “pervades the universe and is a fundamental part of it.” More specifically put by another proponent, “An electron . . . is a primitive experiential entity.” Primitive in the sense of coming first, certainly, but capable of combining and developing to create more complex selves and more acute awareness, until it reaches the hypertrophic condition that makes of the human mind a Babel of real and imagined voices.

Though it may have a somewhat outlandish sound, panpsychism is an established and serious philosophical (perhaps in time also scientific) position. Back in 1979 Thomas Nagel (subsequent to the ‘bat’ essay) argued that it was at least as plausible as any refutation of it, and that therefore “it should be added to the current list of mutually incompatible and hopelessly unacceptable solutions to the mind-body problem”. Since then the theory has gathered considerable academic support and substance. And as well as being attractive in itself, panpsychism has one great educational merit: it teaches us at last to look at the world, and at animal life in particular, not as their detached managers but (to use Frans de Waal’s image) as fellow-swimmers in the waters of consciousness.

Ever since René Descartes, in the seventeenth century, divided matter and mind as distinct creations, and gave the mind to humans alone (identifying it with the soul), zoologists and ethicists have had to chip their way back into the animal kingdom finding mind bit by bit. The situation is instanced in all those ‘smarter than you thought’ researches reported in the press. It’s evident again in the laborious species-by-species concession of sentience, just now reaching squids, crabs, shrimps and their kind, as we’ve seen. Panpsychism starts us at the other end, the right end. Our assumption will be that mind (or awareness or experience, however we name it) is as universal as matter. Now let researches prove, for instance, that a fly or a snail doesn’t have it. Until they do (if they ever can), we must concede, to all the animals, awareness and appreciation of their own worlds, and allow them to experience those worlds unimpeded and especially unkilled by humans. conscousness books

Notes and references:

Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans, by Jonathan Birch et al, was published by LSE Consulting Ltd in November 2021. It includes a survey of current practices in the fishing, farming, and slaughtering of these animals. It can be read online here:

The government’s response is here:

Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness is published by William Collins, 2021.

Thomas Nagel’s essay is reprinted in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979. The quotation about panpsychism comes from an essay of that title published for the first time in that same collection.

Being a Beast is published by Profile Books, 2016. In this most remarkable book, Charles Foster attempts to live the characteristic lives, each in turn, of a badger, otter, fox, red deer, and swift. The result is a comic-heroic story of honourable failure.

The brief citations of specialist opinions (Ramachandran and others) are taken from interviews conducted by Susan Blackmore and published as Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2005). The quotations from Petra Stoerig come from the same book. Susan Blackmore has also written an excellent summary of the subject in Consciousness, a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2017). She believes, incidentally, that human consciousness, in particular our sense of a persisting self, is a language-bound illusion.

Philip Goff is quoted from an interview in Scientific American (14 January 2020) titled ‘Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?’, which can be read online here:  The quotation about the electron is from Peter Ells, Panpsychism, O-Books, 2011, p.115.

Frans de Waal’s image comes from the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?(2016), discussed in this blog here:

The fly and the snail: Godfrey-Smith provides various evidences for the self-hood of flies, and the snail is the subject of a very clear account of the whole question in an essay by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, titled ‘Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail?’ and published online here:

The illustration showing various decapods comes from the 1904 book Kunstformen der Natur (immediate source Wikipedia), written and illustrated by Ernst Haeckel, the great marine biologist and evolutionist. Haeckel was an early proponent of panpsychism, though he didn’t call it that, and he was also a pioneer of the science of ecology (a word he himself invented).

Memories, Consolations, and Truths

Last Sunday being Remembrance Day, there was a gathering at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane, London, a few hours after the grander ceremony in Whitehall a short distance away. A service of hymns, prayers, and readings was conducted by ministers from the Anglican Society for Animal Welfare, and modest wreaths were laid against the great stone walls. Not that the Memorial was conceived as a specifically Christian place (though Heaven knows, Park Lane could do with a holy landmark of some description to offset the worship of money and cars which is daily practised there with fanatical devotion). In fact the Memorial is not really a spiritual conception at all: it’s a plain, life-sized representation of the animal species which have been induced into human wars, with just the simplest visionary touch where a horse and dog escape through the wall and into a freedom beyond. There is not even, I would say, the consolation of beauty, except in so far as animals themselves, and therefore faithful images of them also, are inherently beautiful. It’s just a plain and highly visible statement: this is what we’ve done (and are doing).

memorial wall

I noticed a few purple poppies at the ceremony, as well as red ones, in the wreaths or on lapels. This token of remembrance was introduced by Animal Aid some years ago, as a way of bringing the animals into proper attention at the same time as the human casualties of war. It corresponds, of course, to the British Legion’s red poppy, a token of remembrance that was inspired by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. That’s a fine poem, but its message is that the dead should be honoured by the finishing of their work: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Go on with the war, in short. It’s a very understandable demand for a poet to have made on behalf of his killed comrades in 1915, but not one well suited to remembrance in peace-time. Therefore nowadays it’s Laurence Binyon’s more philosophical poem ‘For the Fallen’ which is usually recalled; indeed, some lines from it are read at most or all remembrance services across the land (including the one in Park Lane). And it’s a poem which can’t be heard without a thrill of emotion, for it assuages our painful debt to the war-dead by generously immortalizing their heroic youth:

            They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old:

            Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

            At the going down of the sun and in the morning

            We will remember them.

This I take to be the sort of memory symbolized by the red poppy – bereavement qualified by pride and admiration, as summarized in Binyon’s phrase “a glory that shines upon our tears”.

War Memorial Horse

And naturally enough the purple poppies have become assimilated to that consolatory version of war-memory. The making and distribution of them is nowadays managed by the War Horse Memorial, which gives the proceeds to various horse-related charities. As its name suggests, the WHM’s first cause was the making of a memorial, which can now be seen near the race-course at Ascot. This impressive and touching monument, created by the Sculptor Susan Leyland, is a more traditional image than the Park Lane one: the horse stands on a plinth high above the observer, nobly waiting to serve. And this is indeed how the WHM views the animal part in war, speaking on its web-site of “the nobility, courage, unyielding loyalty and immeasurable contribution these animals played in giving us the freedom of democracy we all enjoy today”.

The purple poppies have been recommended in similar terms to those dog-lovers who use the services of Hugo and Hudson, suppliers of fashionable collars, leads, coats, and other accessories of dog-ownership (though not the poppies themselves, of course). The firm’s blog says that the poppies “come in a variety of styles” (which will you choose?), but that they “all show solidarity in allowing us to remember fallen heroes whether they be human or animal.” It’s surely a sincere sentiment (and I should mention that Hugo and Hudson don’t seem to use leather in their products). It has, in fact, something of the same magnanimous purpose to it that prompts Binyon’s poem and all such efforts to repay the debts of war with extravagant praise. Well, it’s the least we can do.

But even during the First War itself, the poet Siegfried Sassoon (himself a notably courageous soldier) was famously mocking such “laurelled memories”, and juxtaposing them with ignobler realities of scene and conduct. And of course there have always been the best and the worst of humanity on show in wars; humans are free, in so far as their personalities permit the freedom, to feature anywhere on that moral spectrum. But other animals are in a different case. They may indeed have often shown a most moving and beautiful loyalty to particular riders, handlers, or others whom they “served and died alongside”, to use the consolatory words of the Animals in War Memorial. But mostly there has been no such opportunity for them: not so much conscripts as living equipment, they have not so much “served” as been put to use in whatever theatre of war chance and species characteristics have chosen for them. That includes, of course, the wholly unglorious defence-research laboratory, where serving and dying are completely stripped of thanks and laurels, indeed of remembrance of any kind. All this, we know, still goes on.

Therefore Animal Aid dissociated itself from the purple poppy in 2015. As its director at that time, the much-missed Andrew Tyler, said, Animal Aid’s original purpose had been

to make it clear that animals used in warfare are indeed victims, not heroes. They do not give their lives; their lives are taken from them. But too often, the narrative promoted by the media has been one of animals as the valiant servants of people in violent conflict. This is precisely the opposite message to that which we intended . . . the dominant narrative (animal victims of war are heroes who died for us) is so deeply embedded that only a huge effort (costly in every way) can uproot it and lay down something that will benefit the animals.

I think that the Animals in War Memorial does not quite make up its mind what attitude to take. The imposed suffering, the herding, the careless profligacy, and the force (“They had no choice”, it rightly announces) are well expressed. But then so also is the patience, amounting to willingness. This may well be true to actual life, but it’s not true in the moral and spiritual dimensions. No animal knowingly agrees to death in war or to war itself, nor should any animal be tricked into participating. It’s here that the Memorial falls short, fine and moving as it is. Some sculptural equivalent of Pablo Picasso’s great indignant painting from the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, is needed; look at the horse and the bull in that painting, for instance. Or something modelled on the woodcuts of Sue Coe (as shown elsewhere in this blog).

memorial night-view

Still, we should be grateful for the Memorial, presenting its conspicuous message, day and night, to passers-by in central London. And that remembrance ceremony itself on Sunday, with none of the ordered brilliance and massed emotion of the Whitehall show, was just right: informal, slightly ragged, nearly drowned out by the din of Park Lane’s insane momentum, an occasion where not glory, but sorrow, awkwardness, and even shame, could be properly felt.

Notes and references:

The Animals in War Memorial was designed by David Backhouse, and inaugurated in 2004. More about it can be found on its own web-site, which also features the night-time photograph: see Other aspects of the Memorial and of remembrance are discussed in this blog on previous November anniversaries.

The War Horse Memorial itself, and the work of the organisation, are described and illustrated on its web-site here: The photograph shown above is from the same source.

Hugo and Hudson’s blog is quoted from their web-site here:

Siegfried Sassoon’s phrase “laurelled memories” is quoted from his poem ‘Glory of Women’.

Andrew Tyler’s statement on the discontinuation of the purple poppy is on Animal Aid’s web-site here:

Horses and Thinkers: a Poet’s Vivisector, part 2

The previous post ended with Friedrich Nietzsche in Turin, his arms round the neck of an abused horse, and at that same moment falling decisively into the mental catastrophe which silenced him for the remaining ten or so years of his life (1889-1900). As I said before, it seems insensitive to go looking for meaning in what turned out to be the onset of insanity. But then the action itself was wholly right and reasonable. There was, besides, something emblematic about it, as if staged for a public enactment of the German word mitleid (= shared suffering, for which English has the less expressive equivalents ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, or ‘fellow-feeling’, or the still less satisfactory ‘pity’). And on account of this emblematic character, writers about Nietzsche have indeed attempted to make sense of the incident – asking, as one of them has said, “what it means for Nietzsche to embrace a horse”.

The puzzle is that Nietzsche had been so consistent in challenging the value and authenticity of mitleid, especially in so far as it was a part of the Christian moral heritage. In some of the last words he wrote, Nietzsche had said “That which defines me, that which makes me stand apart from the whole of the rest of humanity, is the fact that I unmasked Christian morality.” And in this attack on Christianity it had always been his principle charge that it promoted the anti-heroic qualities, the values that suited the weak and defeated, “all those who suffer from life as from an illness”. Correspondingly, it impeded the rise towards perfection, towards Munch's Nietzschein fact the ‘superman’, of their antithesis, “the proud, well-constituted man . . . who says ‘yea’ to life”. These quotations come from the autobiography whose very title, Ecce Homo (‘Behold the man!’, the words with which Pontius Pilate is said to have presented Jesus to the crowd), announces the anti-moral coup which the author claims to have effected. And the most prized human quality represented by Jesus, at least in his posthumous career, the quality which Nietzsche scathingly refers to as Christianity’s moral value per se, is selfless “love of neighbour (neighbouritis!)”. In fact it’s a “religion of pity”. But as Nietzsche wrote in The Joyous Science (1882), “to live – that means: to be cruel and implacable to all that is old and feeble in us, and not only in us . . . our greatness is also our ruthlessness.”

In his earlier days, Nietzsche’s philosophical hero had been Arthur Schopenhauer, of whom he said, in an essay of 1874, “The joy of living on this earth is increased by the existence of such a man.” (Schopenhauer had died in 1860, but even today one might say the same, as I hope to have shown in the post about him titled ‘Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog’, which is linked in the notes below.) It was Schopenhauer’s plain-spoken atheism that had first impressed Nietzsche. But as well as being the first modern Western philosopher to leave no place for Christianity in his world-view, Schopenhauer had been the first to insist on a place for animals – and not just spare or concessionary accommodation (as if to say, they can tag along too), but a place in no essential way distinct from or secondary to our own. And it’s clear that in his admiration for Schopenhauer’s intellectual achievements, Nietzsche had been influenced by that aspect of his thought. In this “strong and masterful spirit”, he wrote, “we see a sufferer and a kinsman to suffering”, and he had generalized thus: “The deeper minds of all ages have had pity for animals, because they suffer from life and have not the power to . . . understand their being metaphysically.”

But Nietzsche did not follow up this line of thinking, nor did he maintain his whole-hearted admiration for Schopenhauer. Often enough he did speak of animals, especially in his greatest work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5), but not as beings of interest in themselves. Those animals that surround and indeed speak to the prophet in the final scenes of that book – eagle, lion, small birds – are really just aspects of his own thought or state of mind (another use we put them to). And now in this same work Schopenhauer himself is re-introduced, anonymously as the “prophet of the great weariness” (a reference to his supposed pessimism). This caricatured Schopenhauer warns Zarathustra “I come to seduce you to your ultimate sin”, and the sin in question – so he tells Zarathustra “from an overflowing heart” (Nietzsche knowingly libels his old hero in this sentimental image) – is Mitleid!Of course Zarathustra is not seduced. Indeed, it is part of the gift of wisdom which he is said to be bringing to mankind that humans have a destiny which will entail leaving the animals behind: “I teach you the Superman . . . Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss.”

That ‘abyss’ is presumably the absence in the universe of any moral or other meaning except such as mankind himself brings to it as part of his own chosen mission. Therefore when Nietzsche turned most explicitly against his former hero, which he did in The Joyous Science, it was not just the mitleid (“the nonsense about compassion”) that he repudiated, but Schopenhauer’s ambition “to be the unriddler of the world”. He dismissed all that as “mysterious pomp”.

I’ve sketched out that ‘unriddling’ in the post already mentioned, but to provide an even more perfunctory sketch of it here I can say the following. Schopenhauer argued (as had his mentor Emmanuel Kant) that we live in a world of appearances only, a partial reality, because as dwellers in time and space that is all we are equipped to perceive. Behind what we can perceive is reality itself, what Schopenhauer calls “the inner nature of things”. But then he shows that we can, by personal introspection, at least indirectly glimpse what it is that constitutes this reality, namely ‘will’: not a purposeful or well-intentioned will, like God’s, not even a conscious will, but a blindly creative push, of which everything in the world of time and space, everything material, is a helpless product and phenomenon, notably (but not exclusively) every living thing. Nietzsche mocked this theory for its “mystical embarrassments”, one of which was the implication that “the will to life is present in every being, even the slightest, wholly and undivided . . . the multiplicity of individuals is an illusion.” He was actually quoting Schopenhauer there, and it was indeed in this “metaphysical unity of life . . . the ultimate truth that we are all one and the same entity” that Schopenhauer claimed to have found the basis of all morality. Mitleid was not just a generous sentiment; it was a fact about the world.

Back to Nietzsche in Turin, then. This man who had not only repudiated the morality of compassion, but saw himself as the unique embodiment of that emancipation (“I am not a man, I am dynamite”, he had just said in the last pages of his last book, Ecce Homo), flings himself upon the neck of a suffering work-horse and shares its sorrow in a flood of tears. What can be made of this scene, supposing one is entitled to make anything of it?

The biographer Curtis Cate interprets it as a purely personal reaction: Nietzsche recognized in the horse’s ordeal, he says, all the many “humiliating slights and physical sufferings” of his own life. But such a reading introduces an element of self-pity, a sentiment which had at all times been completely alien to Nietzsche’s personality as well as to his philosophy.

A more convincing account is given by Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Near the end of that story, the woman Tereza sits comforting a loved dog who is dying of cancer, and she thinks about the terrible history of human relations with animals. In particular she thinks about the “dominion” so dangerously vouchsafed to man in the Book of Genesis, and that concept of animals as machines with which the philosopher Rene Descartes helped to weaponize it. Kundera contemplates this image of the woman turning against her kind in sympathy with the animals, and says “Another image also comes to mind: Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin.” He describes the incident and then says, “I feel his gesture has broad implications.” Firstly, “Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes.” But more generally it signalled “his final break with mankind”.

And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature’ [so Descartes called us], marches onward.

It’s a beautiful and sympathetic exposition. I shall just add to it that in a letter of 1880 Nietzsche spoke to a friend about the isolation which his “path in life and thought” had entailed for him, and he said that “even now the whole of my philosophy totters after one hour’s sympathetic intercourse even with total strangers!” If his chosen path in life asked too much of him, so too did his philosophy, at least that part of it which made ruthless mastery of self and world, against every odds of pain and scruple, the measure of human success. More importantly (and one might say fortunately) it asked too much of humanity. In fact I would say that the Turin incident stands as a vivid repudiation of every philosophy or ethic which fails to take into account the clamouring presence in the world of all those beings who inhabited it for so many countless millennia before humans put in their appearance.

And that same impossible demand conditions John Davidson’s Testament of a Vivisector, the poem which I wrote about in the previous post and unfortunately undertook to make some sense of now. As I said there, this poem has a lot of Nietzsche-thinking in it, notably the strained contempt for “vulgar tenderness” and the self-punishing enthusiasm for “Discomfort, pain, affliction, agony” as creative media – in this case, creative of scientific discovery. But as the vivisector sets about experimenting upon his subject, an abused horse of the Turin kind, he faces a preliminary “riddle”: how is it that this ruined animal, “gelded, bitted, scourged, starved, dying”, actually persists in living – is in fact “Laden with lust of life”?

The answer he finds is straight out of Schopenhauer. The horse, just like the man, is driven forward by “Matter’s stolid will”: that is, by the will which animates all material phenomena. Neither has choice in the matter. Horse and man are in every essential way equals in suffering – for it’s made very clear that the vivisector is suffering. But then he imputes a purpose or at least a direction to this unfeeling will (something Schopenhauer expressly denied): that is, to become gloriously aware of itself at last through human intelligence. And so committed is he to this fantasy of a momentous culmination – his equivalent for Nietzsche’s goal of the ‘superman’ – that he blinds himself to the real and certain truth of that solidarity in suffering, the mitleid. The poem leaves him fixed there, with all the data but not the intuition for the Turin revelation – where vivisection itself still is, in fact.

Incidentally, in his essay titled The Basis of Morality, where Schopenhauer shows that mitleid is indeed that ‘basis’, he lists among the “odious and revolting” practices which violate it both vivisection and the beating of draught-horses.

schopenhauer engraving

Notes and references:

The quotation “what it means . . .” comes from the book Nietzsche in Italy, ed. Thomas Harrison, ANMA Libri, 1988, p.124. Actually the words there are “What it means for a Nietzsche to embrace a horse”, but I excised that rather pretentious ‘a’.

Quotations in para 2 are from Ecce Homo (Nietzshe’s last book, written in 1888 and first published in 1908) in the Wordsworth Classics edition titled Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony Ludovici, p.258-60; Beyond Good and Evil, transl. Helen Zimmern, Modern Library (n.d., first published 1886), p.69; and The Joyous Science, transl. R. Kevin Hill, Penguin Books, 2018, pp.217 and 275.

Quotations in para 3 are from the essay ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, which in its German form was originally published as part 2 of Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen in 1874, but in this case come from an English edition, Thoughts out of Season, transl. Adrian Collins, published by T.N.Foulis, 1909, pp. 116, 128, and 149.

The earlier post about Schopenhauer is here:

Quotations in para 4 are from Thus Spake Zarathustra, transl. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 255, 41, and 43.

Nietzsche’s attack on Schopenhauer’s philosophy comes in The Joyous Science, as cited above, pp. 107-8. Schopenhauer himself is quoted from The World as Will and Representation, transl. E.F.J Payne, Dover Publications, 1969, vol.1, p. 274; also from The Basis of Morality, transl. Arthur Bullock, Allen and Unwin, 1915, pp. 274-5. The original German editions were first published in 1819 and 1840 respectively.

The fine biography Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate (Hutchinson, 2002), describes and interprets the Turin incident on p.550. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber, 1984) is quoted at p. 282.

Nietzsche’s letter is quoted from Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, transl. Anthony Ludovici, Heinemann, 1921, p. 131.

The quotation from Schopenhauer’s The Basis of Morality (text already cited above) is at pp. 94-5.

The portrait of Nietzsche was painted in 1906 by Edvard Munch (Thiel Gallery, Stockholm). Schopenhauer is shown in a detail from an engraving made from the painting of 1815 by Ludwig Ruhl (collection of the Frankfurt University Library).

Free as a Bird

In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust. cup of tea art.JPG

A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.

liberty figureFor instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.

One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.

The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.

In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.

So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.

There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.

Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” [309]. But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”

Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.” [61] It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).

This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.

That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”   

One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”

The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical 68408684_1332946016860747_7385333270633775104_o.jpgslavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.




Notes and references:

The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here:

Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here:

Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.

The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here:

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’:

Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for non-human animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.


Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here:  I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here:

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here:

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.