Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business

The first of the animal-research proposals granted permission by the Home Office in 2020, and now published in its non-technical summaries for that year, is a standard ADME project: that is, testing various products for their absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion by, in, and from the bodies of live animals. In this case the products are mainly agro-chemicals, and the purpose is to assess “the composition of the terminal residue in the animal products (meat, milk and eggs) that will be consumed by humans”. Administration of the chemicals will be “by injection, dermal application, or gavage [direct into the stomach by tube]. The ‘dermal application’ is to provide information for “operator exposure assessments”: after all, when you’re out enjoying the fresh air and tending the fields, you want to be well-informed of “your crop-care product’s toxicological profile”. That last phrase is from among the offers of the company Vivotecnia, one of those which provide these ADME services (more about Vivotecnia later).

Most of this type of animal research is done in order to satisfy regulations in the countries where the products are to be used. Such ‘regulatory testing’ accounts for about one quarter of the experimental procedures conducted each year in UK laboratories, and a much higher proportion of the nastiest of them, the so-called ‘severe’ procedures. The practitioners of it are usually the CRO’s (Contract Research Organisations), which gather their work into great 5-year testing projects for Home Office approval, as in the case above. Some of these CRO’s have been founded by vets, putting their expertise to good use. In fact the UK’s Royal Veterinary College (“The world’s leading vet school”) advertises its own CRO facility, providing “large as well as small animal models” for use in “All stages of pre-clinical and clinical product development . . . within the regulatory and non-regulatory environment.” The illustration to go with this offer of ‘Biotechnical Research and Development’ shows men in suits at a reception; this is business, after all, but, reassuringly, it’s “underpinned by the RVC’s reputation for animal welfare” – a fine thing for a veterinary school to have.

CoeEdenBiotechnologies

But yes, these CRO’s are businesses, and speed and efficiency are what they characteristically promise their clients, rather than the uncertainties and scepticisms of research-science proper or indeed such personal commitment as might go with that. This character of a mass-produced technical service is what the artist Sue Coe suggests with her image of ‘Eden Technologies’ (motto: “Getting it Right from the Start”) in the fiction Pit’s Letter. Eden Technologies! It’s a very well-judged name, being one that’s ever-popular with real biotech businesses or at least their PR agents. In fact only a few weeks ago JHL Biotech (“a global front-runner in biological drug development”) declared itself “excited to announce” a change of name to ‘Eden Biologics’. Sue Coe’s Eden is where Pit, the dog-narrator of the story, has ended up, literally so, along with countless other unfortunate animals. So far from being a Paradise, it’s a hellish place of squalor and cruelty, and indeed Pit says at one point “if we believed in their God, the Devil would look like a human being.” That’s been said before, of course, but some of the more horrifyingly visionary scenes in Pit’s Letter remind us of the many reasons which the twentieth century has provided for saying it yet again (the book was published in 2000). “I walked through past and future, rotten with killing,” says Pit, the ghost who can review it all.

But the grotesque compounding, in Coe’s laboratory scenes, of high technology with filth and slovenly violence, that’s artist’s hyperbole, isn’t it, or at any rate distant history? Apart from anything else, the science would be nearly worthless. Nevertheless, we have to know that it’s both true-to-life and up-to-date. Undercover film, taken between 2018 and 2020 in the Madrid laboratories of Vivotecnia (they of “your crop’s toxicology profile”), has now been published, showing just that same mixture of expensive equipment and physical and moral squalor.

Vivotecnia is a CRO (“researching for you”) that boasts online of its commitment to the “highest standards of animal welfare”. The film shows how little truth there is in that. It’s a sickening thing to watch, rightly classified online as suitable for over-eighteens only. The animals are seen roughly handled, struck, thrown back into their wholly barren cages (“we foster environmental enrichment”, says the Vivotecnia web-site). Individuals are crudely identified with marker pen on forehead or body. Invasive procedures like gavage are conducted with clumsy impatience. Rats are shaken and swung through the air to make them quiescent. There’s blood on the floors. The staff habitually swear at the animals. A background of barking and squealing vocalizes the distress of unseen animals. Worse, there’s deliberate and enjoyed cruelty. Someone draws with marker pen on the genitals of a young monkey being held down for some procedure: “a moustache!” he laughs (the comments of staff are translated in sub-titles). Animals are mocked and taunted, held up for ridicule: “Ha ha ha!” say the sub-titles. It’s scarcely believable, a demonic anarchy.

Vivotecnia is not some rogue company pulled out from the shadows. It was founded in 2000, and is signed up to a whole array of acronymic lab standards and supervisory bodies, both Spanish and international: COSCE, Felasa, OECD, GLP (Good Laboratory Practice!), and of course EU 2010/63. It’s right in the middle of the contract research scene. Therefore Vivotecnia’s disgrace – for even in the few days since the film was released, the public and official response is certain to ruin it – also discredits all those worthy institutional controllers and protectors of this sort of vivisection. It discredits too all those familiar PR phrases about “state of the art facilities”, “paramount” concern for animal well-being, and “highly qualified” management teams (to use more of Vivotecnia’s examples). The whole collective has had a fall and deserved it. For the truth is that forcing animals to take our risks for us like this, in whatever scientific manner, cannot be done ‘humanely’. It necessarily calls out the worst in human beings. It’s incompatible with human decency to do it or to profit from it in any way.

The film has been published online, with an English commentary, by Cruelty Free International, which also sponsors a petition for the closure of Vivotecnia (at present the company’s licence to trade has been suspended). Please sign it! Both film and petition can be seen here: https://crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/toxicity-testing-animals-vivotecnia-spain. Please also note that there are other petitions against animal research on the facebook page of World Day for Animals in Laboratories, as well as information about this year’s events, such of them as are possible, on Saturday 24 April.

Notes and references:

Volume 1 of the Home Office’s Non-technical summaries granted in 2020, published in December, has 235 entries, the first being the one described above. The collection can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2020

The Royal Veterinary College (not to be confused with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, an organisation which really does promote and pioneer animal interests) is quoted from its web-site, in particular the pages about contract work: https://www.rvc.ac.uk/business/services-and-facilities/contract-research-services

Pit’s Letter, by the artist Sue Coe, was published in 2000 by Four Walls Eight Windows.

The Vivotecnia web-site (https://www.vivotecnia.com/about-us/), from which the quotations were taken, is now unavailable, owing to “maintenance”.

The Guardian has featured the exposure in two articles, this month, both available to read online: on 8 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/undercover-footage-shows-gratuitous-cruelty-at-spanish-animal-testing-facility-madrid-vivotecnia, and 12 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/12/animal-testing-suspended-at-spanish-lab-after-gratuitous-cruelty-footage

The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by Sue Coe

Picture 59 in Sue Coe’s new book shows a city at night, where men with clubs beat an

56. cow escapes city

Cow escapes city © Sue Coe

escaped cow, coercing it back to be slaughtered. The incident is illuminated by a stark white light, as by a flash of lightning. The buildings jerk and sway in this electric charge, their windows momentary witnesses to the savagery which belongs to the city’s way of life but which  it prefers to keep as a secret from itself. Silhouetted, another cow (or the same cow?) seems to curvet into the white distance. Perhaps it’s the cow Freddie “who escaped from a slaughterhouse twice”, and to whom, now enjoying a sanctuary in New Jersey, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is dedicated.

This is a woodcut, like all the more than a hundred other pictures in the book. That’s the oldest form of print-making and the simplest: a piece of fruit-wood, a gouge or other sharp edge, ink and paper. (The wood in the present case is wild cherry from trees cut down to make way for the Millennium Pipeline, so the medium really is part of the message here.) The unsophisticated technology is visible in the coarse textures and stark contrasts of its results, apt for drastic events and elementary passions: for instance, war, bereavement, torment, fear, shame, and that particular composite of them all which characterises what we do to the other animals.

It helps to remember that a woodcut is a relief print, so the cutting works from black to white; the knife cuts light into the scene. These woodcuts report places and practices which are normally out of view, metaphorically in darkness. But Sue Coe has been present at them, sketching them from life. In an interview, she mentions Goya, who wrote in his sketch books of inquisition torture, “I saw this.” She has seen these modern horrors, and her woodcuts now bring them out of their darkness, and shed bright light upon them so that all may see.

The style plainly belongs to the expressionist tradition, especially as raised to its highest possibilities by the German artists of the early twentieth century (including Max Beckmann, whose terrifying Night is referenced in the previous post). Expressionism is often described as a mode of art that distorts appearances “in order to express the artist’s emotions or inner vision”: that’s how my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists describes it, for instance. So the art is about the artist, a personality-tour, which is indeed what is very commonly looked for and talked about in art. With such aesthetics Sue Coe has nothing to do: “It’s not about me and my emotional reactions. It’s about the chick being ground up or a calf being punched and kicked.” In her woodcuts, the distortions, rough finishes, and directness of appeal express not inner vision but the true and objective urgency of the subject. That flash of light, and the lives which it shows being grasped or struck or thrown: they may last a moment only. There isn’t time for fine art. In fact Sue Coe prefers to speak of “reportage” or “propaganda”. But all the same, there is woodcut art of the very highest character in this book.

The men at work or other exertion in these scenes of manifold predation – reaching for

45. abattoir

Abattoir © Sue Coe

the doomed calf in the dairy cow’s womb, injecting the piglet with Ractopamine, slaughtering, hunting, eating – are portrayed as such actions truly and tragically make them (the expressionist truth): that is, coarse, ill-formed, gross of prehensile hand and mouth. But these are only the instruments after all, half-victims  themselves. The directing power is glimpsed in the men in suits, the businessmen and financiers – the grinning one shown feeding a pig to a fat child while another child (African?) correspondingly starves, the ranting politicians of the ‘Humans Only Party’, the money-men on Capitol Hill standing on heaped dead animals and picking each others’ pockets. “The crime is economics,” Sue Coe says. And in fact the cost, to all except those to whom this wealth-at-all-costs accrues, is shown even in the faces of the thuggish agents, which grimace equivocally with ferocity and horror.

As Sue Coe has said, “Our unique contradiction as animal activists is that the most

53. glimpse of freedom

Glimpse of freedom © Sue Coe

oppressed are not leading their own resistance.” Art has to lend them the acts of resistance which in real life only the very few, such as the cow Freddie, can convert their passive suffering into (though we can know that all of them would). And gradually in this book, subversively, the animal-dreams of nature and freedom do turn into acts: a lobster, a cow, a goat, each in turn snips the barbed wire; a pig bursts its chains; four species co-operate to see over a prison wall. And now the light which the artist has been blazing upon scenes of violence and cruelty becomes a life-promising sunburst, glorifying the later images as the book moves towards the manifesto itself. That’s the story in the book, an expressionist story, for it acts out the inner urge of the animals, and it acts out also the sympathetic urge of all who remember (as Sue Coe makes us remember from the start) what razor wire, bars, poison gas, and systematized slaughter, have meant in our human history, and who now see that incomprehensible wrong perpetuated upon these other innocents.

Although The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto touches also on the plight of zoo and circus animals, it doesn’t picture the ones in laboratories. To those, Sue Coe has already devoted a whole remarkable book, Pit’s Letter (2000). Here are recorded the experiences of a dog adopted from the street, abandoned again, captured for laboratory use, and then tragically re-united with his human in that fright-filled setting. The illustrations are not woodcuts, but part-coloured images in (I think) charcoal, crayon, and wash. They are even more astonishing and hellish, as a collection, than those in the Manifesto, being unrelieved by any of the Manifesto’s positive and delightful images of free animal life. But like the woodcuts of the Manifesto, they show with brilliant insight what our part in the living world looks like when it appears as it truthfully is, inside and out.

Notes and references:

I apologise for oddities of layout/paragraphing in this post, which I’ve been unable to Vegan Manifestocorrect.

The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is published by OR Books, New York and London, www.orbooks.com.  The illustrations above are used by courtesy of OR Books. In the book itself, the pictures are untitled.

Images from Pit’s Letter, as well as many other art-works by Sue Coe, can be seen on the Graphic Witness web-site at http://www.graphicwitness.org/coe/enter.htm.

The quotations from Sue Coe are taken from an interview which she gave earlier this year to Animal Liberation Currents, at https://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/#more-1804. Other interviews which she has given are linked on the Graphic Witness page referenced above.