Unliberated Creatures of the European Union

The European Union’s Directive of 2010 “on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes” laid down the rules and standards for animal research in all the member states. Its Article 58 required a review of the Directive’s own success to be issued no later than 10 November, 2017. So here it now is, or rather they are:  the summary Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, etc., of 10 pages or so, and the rather opaquely titled Staff Working Document, containing “more detailed analysis of the different consultation activities and other information sources used”, and covering about 145 pages.

Another mighty deposit of conscientious bureaucracy, then: important, because this represents the progressive front for animals in laboratories, setting and monitoring standards which practitioners in Europe will be expected to keep and will therefore have a professional interest in persuading institutions in other countries to adopt (and this does happen, to a modest extent); not very important, on the other hand, because the review comes too soon to be useful. The Directive itself came into force back in 2013, but the last of the transpositions into national law was not completed until 2015. Besides, compliance with some important parts of the Directive (notably “common standards for accommodation and care”) was not obligatory until January 2017. In short, the Report concludes that “trends in animal use at EU level will not be known before 2019.” And the most that can be deduced from all the “consultation activities” deployed in the Staff Working Document is that the Directive “is generally considered to be a sound foundation for the regulation of animals used in scientific research.” 

So these texts make a disappointing and laborious read. There’s a great mass of comment from nations and institutions, but most of it is digested into generalities, and all of it is anonymized. Occasional details do suddenly remind the dazed reader that behind all this de-personalized discourse are real places and experiences, and real animals. See under ‘Sharing organs and tissues’, for instance: the 2010 Directive (Article 18) stated that “Member States shall facilitate, where appropriate [every bureaucrat’s get-out-of-jail-free word], the establishment of programmes for the sharing of organs and tissues of animals killed”; so now we’re told, by way of compliance, that “announcing planned animal killing in one establishment by an internal calendar assists planning. Through the fog of abstract style you can descry a strange and telling bit of laboratory life there.

Or see under ‘Re-homing’. This is a practice authorized by the Directive (Article 19) provided that “appropriate measures” have been taken to safeguard the welfare of the animals. Yet it seems that out of all the many millions of animals that have passed through Europe’s laboratories during the review period of four years or so, this one possible way of coming out alive has been granted to “only a few dogs and even fewer rabbits”.

It’s a miserable picture, and it reminds me of a poignant scene in the 1883 novel Heart and Science by Wilkie Collins which I shall quote as a digression (also as a very fine piece of writing). It comes near the end of the story, when the vivisector Dr Benjulia, defeated as a scientist and despairing as a man, has gone into his laboratory for the last time, watched at a distance by one of his servants:

The door was opened again; the flood of light streamed out on the darkness. Suddenly the yellow glow was spotted by the black figures of small swiftly-running creatures—perhaps cats, perhaps rabbits—escaping from the laboratory. The tall form of the master followed slowly, and stood revealed watching the flight of the animals. In a moment more, the last of the liberated creatures came out—a large dog, limping as if one of its legs was injured. It stopped as it passed the master, and tried to fawn on him. He threatened it with his hand. “Be off with you, like the rest!” he said. The dog slowly crossed the flow of light, and was swallowed up in darkness.

The last of them that could move was gone.

As Collins says in his preface to the novel, “I leave the picture to speak for itself.”

Returning to the report: there are positive things to find in these documents. One reason for the delays in putting the Directive into effect is that some of the member states started off far behind the new standards. In such countries there may have been “no previous requirements or formal structures for project evaluation”. For them, even partial compliance with the EU rules for training and supervision will have meant “better animal welfare, better recognition of pain, distress and suffering, and better understanding of animal behaviours and needs.” The change effected by the EU Directive may have been slight in the United Kingdom, but its effect upon the sum total of EU animal research has been very beneficial.

Good evidence is provided, too, for the report’s claim that “the level of challenge to animal studies has increased” – i.e. that research projects and the laboratories themselves really are subject to stricter assessments – even though, as the animal rights groups quoted in the report (they do get a say in it) rightly protest, there is no record of projects failing altogether to pass the test. The evidence comes in the form of complaints from some of the institutions: “delays to projects have been observed”, “scientists try to avoid doing animal experiments because of the administrative burden”, “the process [of ethical review, etc.] has limited some research at their institutes”, and “The directive has necessitated closure of some animal units as they did not comply with the requirements.” These grievances, assuming them to be sincere, are surely significant and welcome.

In its preamble, paragraph 10, the Directive calls itself “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so”. But as the Staff Working Document admits, so far during the period of the Directive’s authority there has been “no apparent reduction in animal use”. (And perhaps even that phrase is really a euphemism for ‘increase’, such as there has indeed been in the U.K.) Nor, even in the case of non-human primates, the most officially controversial of the animal research victims, does a reduction seem likely in the near future, for the report accepts the advice of the SCHEER ‘Opinion’ (reported in this blog on 17 July), and accordingly states that “no phasing-out timetable for the use of non-human primates is proposed.” So the Directive’s paragraph 10 optimism reappears now with a subtle re-direction: “The scientific community need to continue and improve efforts to explain why at this stage the use of animals in scientific procedures is still necessary.” Settle it with PR, then, and indeed one of the respondents (from the U.K. I would guess) mentions “significant progress in this area” on the part of the U.K.’s ‘Concordat on Openness’. Britain showing the way in modern vivisection, as usual; that it’s not yet the way forward is what one evidently has to learn from this 2017 review.


Notes and references:

The Report can be read here:   http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1510252227435&uri=COM:2017:631:FIN

and the Staff Working Document here:   http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1510252227435&uri=SWD:2017:353:FIN

and the EU Directive 2010/63 here:     http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2010:276:0033:0079:en:PDF

The passage from Heart and Science, a Story of the Present Time (1883) comes in Chapter 62. The novel was discussed in this blog on 21 November 2015 at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/the-real-benjulia/

The SCHEER report is reviewed in this blog at



The Real Benjulia?

The election of Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology in the autumn of 1882 started two and a half years of progressively angry controversy there. The new professor, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, had to make his first public appearance at Oxford not in a lecture room but in the University’s Convocation, to attend a crucial vote on the allocation of money for the new physiology laboratory in which he would do his work. He was there to explain and defend the sort of work it was to be. Or rather, since the ‘sort’ was sufficiently made known merely by his own name – for this man was, as a local paper said, “the high priest of vivisection” – he was there to reassure Convocation that there would be limits to what he felt free to do. Mainly, he wouldn’t be demonstrating experiments in his lectures. As to other limits – so a record of the event reported him as saying – “he must appeal to the University to have confidence in his character”.   Burdon Sanderson bust

This was in June 1883, when only a few members of the University were aware of the appointment and its implications. There were not present in Convocation, therefore, the furious hundreds that would attend later on, when other votes had to be taken on the same project. Even so, it was a close thing: the funds were approved by 88 votes to 85, hardly an emphatic statement of confidence in Burdon Sanderson’s character as put before the house.

Perhaps it had been an unwise “appeal” for him to make, though it was one which apologists for vivisection habitually did make on behalf of each other or, as in this case, about themselves. They meant, of course, that since physiologists were, as Professor Ferrier told the Royal Commission of 1875, “the most humane kind-hearted men that I know” (he was one of them), external rules and supervision were wholly unnecessary. Burdon Sanderson did indeed have a distinguished character among these kind-hearted men, but by the laity he was much less admired. He had edited the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), which introduced to students many techniques and standard experiments but in all its more than 400 pages said nothing about the care of the animals subjected to them. He had been Superintendent of the Brown Institute, a clinic and research establishment founded for the welfare of animals but turned into a centre of vivisection with demonstrably careless ethical standards. His own published accounts of suffocation in dogs (part of his research into drowning and resuscitation) showed a scarcely human insouciance. These and other reasons to wonder about Burdon Sanderson’s character had been made full use of in evidence against him by opponents of vivisection, notably by their formidable leader Frances Power Cobbe.

So it was an unfortunate coincidence that, in the very month in which Burdon Sanderson made that appeal to Convocation, there appeared the final episode of the hair-raising study of a vivisector by Wilkie Collins, his ‘sensation’ novel Heart and Science. The story had been running as a serial since the previous summer in a well-known periodical called the Belgravia, and it had been noted and reviewed in at least one Oxford University paper, as also of course in the London journals. Collins, famous since the 1860s as the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, wanted this new story to make a serious protest against vivisection, and he had taken advice from Frances Power Cobbe herself on the subject. His intention was not just to question the science and morality of the practice, but also to diagnose its psychology, which he did in the personality of one of the most remarkable and exotic of all his creations, Dr Nathan Benjulia.  DSC04778

This man Benjulia is a consultant specializing in diseases of the brain, but most of his time is devoted to researches in the private laboratory which he has had built “in an isolated field” near his house. What these researches are, he refuses to discuss; they have to be guessed at from sinister hints and symptoms – blood-stains on his walking-stick, his appearance at London Zoo to hustle away a sick monkey, the instant dismissal of a servant who tries to look into the windowless laboratory from the skylight – or from the character and behaviour of the man himself. And this character and behaviour are certainly the most compelling thing in the book.

Collins makes Benjulia “almost tall enough to be shown as a giant”, and so thin as to be nick-named “the living skeleton”. Aloof and preoccupied, he is contemptuous of most other people, the one exception being a quaint little girl called Zoe. Between these two there is an unexplained mutual fascination. A kind of custom or ritual with them when they meet is that he tickles her, but there is no fun about this: she participates with “reluctant submission”, he “as if he had been conducting a medical experiment”. The relationship is creepy, certainly, but also wholly convincing; at the very end – and Benjulia comes to a violent and tragic end – it even does something to redeem him. But, taking the hint in Zoe’s name, we must suppose that the scientist’s obsessive and illicit interest in the little girl, separated as it is from any conscious warmth or responsibility, and the girl’s naïve susceptibility to his power, are to be understood as an image of his relation to the life that is the subject of his studies – in short, as a palatable version of what goes on in his laboratory. What really does go on there, what Collins calls “the hideous secrets of vivisection”, his readers have been promised in the preface that they will not be shown.

Benjulia is a grotesque character, certainly, but Collins meant him to be also a representative one, illustrating what effect “the habitual practice of cruelty” had upon “the nature of man”. Among his fellow-professionals, accordingly, Benjulia is not regarded as an embarrassment; on the contrary, his funeral brings them out in large numbers to honour a “martyr who had fallen in their cause”. Could this portrait of a vivisector, then, have been modelled upon the real “high priest of vivisection”, Burdon Sanderson? There’s certainly some physical resemblance. A report from one of the Convocation votes shows the professor leaning against the wall, “gaunt, grim, notable”.  The portrait bust in the University Museum, done by Henry Pinker in 1884 (and pictured above), confirms that impression, with its aloof and austere physiognomy. His manner of speech and writing seems to correspond. Commenting on the public indignation caused by the Handbook, he told the Cardwell Commission, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft“: remote and unbending, with its hint of patrician irony, this might be Benjulia speaking. And if Benjulia is indeed grotesque, with all the licence in such a portrait which the author of a high-coloured novel enjoys, Burdon Sanderson himself was, though real, by no means a comfortable character: Dean Liddell (father of Alice), who was one of his backers for the Waynflete chair and supporters in Convocation, called him, in a letter written to Henry Acland, “a d—-d queer fellow”.

Of course Burdon Sanderson didn’t tickle girls. Nor, I feel certain, did he allow his laboratory practice of putting animals through disease and distress to stray into the human sphere, as Benjulia does. In fact he was, by his own lights, a severely conscientious man, tenacious and methodical rather than erratically brilliant. But he acquired, more or less by accident, the leading part in a controversy which, as Wilkie Collins recognised, was inherently sensational in the literary sense, as well as nationally portentous. When Burdon Sanderson came forward to speak at a Convocation in 1884, he was “received with a storm of applause and hisses” as if he were equally the hero and the villain of a melodrama. I suspect, therefore, that Collins took something of the real man, as communicated to him by Frances Power Cobbe, and worked it up into a personality more adequate to such scenes and to the moral crisis implied in them. And since Collins was convinced, and insisted throughout his novel, that “no asserted usefulness in the end, can justify deliberate cruelty in the means”, he made his vivisector unequivocally the villain of his novel.

Benjulia’s laboratory is destroyed in the novel’s catastrophe; Burdon Sanderson’s, by contrast, was successfully funded and built. But I don’t doubt that Collins took the same view of the one as of the other.

*                *                *

Collins quotations are from Heart and Science: a Story of the Present Time, ed. Steve Farmer, Broadview Press, Ontario, 1996. Other quotations are from various contemporary Oxford journals, including the Oxford Magazine and the Oxford University Herald.