The Plague Dogs

The author Richard Adams, who wrote a series of highly original novels with non-human animals as their leading characters, died on Christmas Eve of 2016. Watership Down was his most successful book, both commercially and as literature, but The Plague Dogs, his novel about vivisection, is in its way just as remarkable.

It opens with a scene from experimental psychology: “survival expectation conditioning (water immersion)” – in plain words, seeing how long a dog will go on trying not to drown. Adams states in his preface that he has not made up any of the experiments which he instances: unfortunately, he had no need to. And this particular sordid performance hints at what we already know, that such experiments say as much about the species which devises them as they do about the animals who endure them. The setting of the experiment is an imagined government institution at Lawson Park in Cumbria. Its official name, ‘Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental’ (A.R.S.E.), concisely suggests the importance of well-judged politics and PR to make such enterprises acceptable, and Adams sketches in, for Lawson Park, just such a background of human negotiation and legerdemain.

So much for the human activity. Then we’re taken inside the accommodation sheds as night falls, and from now on the story is told primarily in the voices and experiences of two dogs, the half-drowned mongrel Rowf and the brain-tampered fox-terrier Snitter. It’s  the story of their escape from Lawson Park, and of their subsequent attempt to hide and plague-dogs-coverto survive in the inhospitable autumn landscape of the Lake District.

In their search for these missing dogs, the humans are variously clumsy, dishonest, and ruthless, with rare moments of kindness. The ‘plague’ element itself is a hysterical absurdity, a press-promoted chimera which the title continuingly satirizes: there are no such plague-carrying dogs. And yet Rowf and Snitter, in their struggles to avoid capture, and bearing as they do the injuries of mind and body which are their Lawson Park heritage, remain fundamentally loyal to these unworthy and unpredictable beings that claim mastery over them.

It’s true that the dogs have escaped human authority, and human care such as it was, and accordingly have had to make a resolution to “change … into wild animals!” [62]. It’s true also that they have with them for a time, as their guide and exemplar, a fox whose uncompromisingly feral nature Adams makes brilliantly convincing. And indeed Rowf comes to declare with profound good reason “I hate all humans: I hate them!” [241]. Even so, they find they cannot abrogate the human lordship written into their breeds: “he was no wild animal”, Rowf has to recognize, “nor, after all, had it proved possible for him to become one.” [231] It’s a fact in their making, lyrically re-iterated from time to time in the poignant refrain of a song heard in Snitter’s mangled brain: “A lost dog seeks a vanished man.”

And that’s the immediate tragedy of The Plague Dogs, a tragedy of betrayal. The dogs are loyal by breeding, so that even Rowf, who has never known a proper master, feels ashamed that he has disappointed the expectations of the ‘whitecoats’: “I really wanted to be a good dog. I’d have done anything for them.” But as Snitter devastatingly replies, “They didn’t particularly want you to be a good dog. They didn’t care what sort of dog you were.” [355] This is the moral context of all the experiments which we glimpse from time to time at Lawson Park – rabbits testing hairspray, a monkey in sensory deprivation, sheep in battlefield trauma trials, and the rest. The animals are domesticated exactly in order that fatal advantage may be taken of their trust. And of course that’s the moral context of all vivisection, well-illustrated as it is in those pitiful images that research institutions publish (by way of reassurance) of animals enjoying the attentions of lab staff. The struggle has been bred out of them. Otherwise every laboratory would be the bedlam scene which its adversarial set-up properly implies.

In fact there is, in The Plague Dogs, a recollection of something like such a scene, “when they took Kiff away, and we all barked the place down singing his song” [116].  Kiff the dog’s song, suitably unpolished and anarchic, is sung again as they shelter now among the rocks:

When I’ve gone up in smoke don’t grieve for me,
(Taboo, taboo)
For a little pink cloud I’m going to be.
(Taboo, taboo, taboo)
I’ll lift my leg as I’m drifting by
And pee right into a whitecoat’s eye.
(Taboo, tabye, ta-bollocky-ay, we’re all for up the chimney.)  …

But such moments of defiance are rare: more characteristic is a painful sense of homesickness in the unintelligible landscape: “an hour later the two got up and wandered away together, refugees without destination or purpose.”

Not that the book is only concerned with domesticated animals. There’s a much wider tragedy involved. This is where the fox, a finely imagined animal personality, comes in. Given no proper name or even known gender, simply spoken of as ‘the tod’, it’s a sort of folk hero with mere survival as its skill and wisdom. Being a “wanderer” from further north in Upper Tyneside it speaks in broad Geordie dialect, but it speaks for all wild life: “Ca’ canny, else yer fer th’ Dark” (Be watchful, or you’ve had it.) The tod itself doesn’t survive, however; it’s hunted down. And near the end of the book, Snitter has a vision or hallucination of the world, seen as if he were spiralling down towards it from the aether and observing all animal life on earth (the more slowly you read the passage, the better: it’s beautifully written):

The world, he now perceived, was in fact a great, flat wheel with a myriad spokes of water, trees and grass, for ever turning and turning beneath the sun and moon. At each spoke was an animal – all the animals and birds he had ever known – horses, dogs, chaffinches, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, cows, sheep, rooks and many more which he did not recognize – a huge, striped cat, and a monstrous fish spurting water in a fountain to the sky. At the centre, on the axle itself, stood a man, who ceaselessly lashed and lashed the creatures with a whip to make them drive the wheel round. Some shrieked aloud as they bled and struggled, others silently toppled and were trodden down beneath their comrades’ stumbling feet. [382-3]

Falling towards this terrifying scene, Snitter feels himself called “to fellowship with the dead”. And the ending to the novel, as Richard Adams originally wrote it, did indeed have the dogs swimming despairingly out into the Irish Sea, as if headed to that fellowship. A less sombre but perhaps also less convincing end was urged upon Adams by his editors, and that’s the one which survives (though the 1982 film of the novel restored the original one).

And of course the humans too are victims of this tragedy they’ve made. Richard Adams uses as the epigraph to The Plague Dogs that passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which was the subject for this blog on 6 December (‘What Shakespeare Would Have Said’). It’s the moment when the doctor warns the Queen about her proposed animal researches: “Your Highness / Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.”  One very familiar extenuation of animal research is that it benefits animals as well as humans; Dr Boycott, the Chief Scientist at Lawson Park, routinely uses it. What is more certainly true is that it harms both parties, though in the case of humans the harm is both less immediately painful and more far-reaching.

The point is implied in one particularly hair-raising episode involving the gents’ outfitter Mr Ephraim, who has organised a shooting party to destroy the dogs. It starts to go wrong (ending in his own violent death) when he sights the pathetically injured Snitter (“to his own surprise he found the lenses of his binoculars blurred by tears”), and his family memory is turned back to the “night and fog” of the European holocaust [140-43]. Who can doubt that there is such a connection? But the point is more simply put by Dr Boycott’s assistant, Stephen Powell. He’s a man who trusts the science of Lawson Park, or at least science of that sort. He believes, in particular, that there is promise in it for his sick daughter. Yet he finally realises that he cannot be part of it, cannot even let it be. He steals the monkey whose days in the sensory deprivation tank he has been professionally ticking off as the story goes by, and he takes it home. When his wife remonstrates (“it’s only one animal, dear, out of thousands. I mean, what’s the good?”), he tells her “It’s not for the monkey’s good, it’s for my good.” [343]

The Plague Dogs isn’t always easy to read, being written in a strange mixed mood of anger, satirical sarcasm, and jocularity. Adams was a lover of English literature, and has a rather pedantic habit of working in quotations from the classics at every opportunity. But he knew animals, and he writes with love and accuracy about them. In the risky enterprise of giving them language he succeeds because we know, with his help, that animals must indeed have the life of mind and feeling out of which he has them speak. He writes beautifully and unsentimentally also about natural scenery. As for the humans, he isn’t in general favourable towards them, but then it’s a story told with keen attention to factual detail of all sorts, and the facts themselves aren’t very complimentary either. And anyway, as Ronald Lockley says (he’s one of the two real-life naturalists who step into the story right at the end, the other being Peter Scott): “in the total, real world we and our intellects are superficial. The birds and animals are the real world, actually, tens of thousands of years of instinctive living, in the past; and in the future they’ll outlive our artificial civilization.” [376]

The book makes us content to think so.


Notes and references:

The Plague Dogs was first published by Allen Lane in 1977, during the peak period so far in U.K. vivisection (over 5 million animals used in that year), though the numbers have been re-approaching that figure in recent years. The page references given above are to the Ballantine Books edition (New York 2007), only because I happened to have that edition to hand.

Richard Adams (Worcester College 1938) was one of VERO’s patrons. We feel very grateful to him for what he achieved for animals, both by his writing and in his campaigning work on their behalf.