Starvation Street

As one considers the wonderful diversity of animal life – my Standard Natural History speaks of “an almost awe-inspiring variety of form and size and coloration” – one naturally asks how long it takes all of these different animals to die of hunger. Happily, physiologists have been gathering experimental answers to this question for some 150 years. To start at the smaller end of things, for instance, hawk moth larvae (Manduca sexta) tend to die after 3 days without food, the house cricket (Achetes domesticus) after 5 days, and the Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) after 52 days. These numbers, I should say, are measures of LT50: that is, the “lethal time” at which 50% of the individuals participating in the experiment are dead. Not that LT50 simply increases with size. Among bumble bees (Bombus impatiens), for instance, the smaller nursing bees apparently last longer than their larger foraging sisters.

Of course there is still a great deal to learn. Even the modest puzzle thrown up by the differential death-rates of those 1,432 bees that starved in the last-mentioned experiment shows that “there is a need for additional comparative studies of starvation physiology among many key groups of vertebrates and insects”. The trouble is, as the author of the multi-insect study says, there are “ethical concerns” associated with “starving vertebrate animals to death”. In general, therefore, the experiments have to be based on “sub-lethal periods of fasting”. His own study of various snakes, for instance (vipers, boa constrictors, pythons, rattlesnakes and others, a hundred in all), had them fasting for “sub-lethal periods” of 56, 112, and 168 days. Not that they survived the research – as we know, almost no animals in laboratories do – but they didn’t suffer what the author calls “starvation-induced mortality”. They died in some more “ethical” way.

The limitations imposed on research nowadays by these scruples may partly explain why the less inhibited work done in this subject a long time ago is still regularly cited: for instance, the pioneering work of Charles Chossat (published in 1843 as Recherches expérimentales sur l’inanition). Those, after all, were the days when it could safely be assumed that “no student of science would, as a student of science, do that which was not worthy of him”: so said Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria, adding that cruelty laws were “made for the ignorant, and not for the best people in the country”. If a scientist was doing it, it was ipso facto ethical. And besides, as another waiting for the endmedical scientist of the period said, being starved by Chossat or by any other agency involved “very little suffering”. (Being frozen to death was even better – “the reverse of painful”, he said – so that’s evidently the way to go.)

Generations of cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, pigeons, frogs, and others went on testing this claim, and their miserable experiences are still drawn on in modern studies, now that some better reason than merely finding things out has to be produced to justify “total fasting”, at least for the larger animals. Not that such reasons can’t readily be found or at least evoked: I note, for instance, a 1975 paper on the differential fasting to death of fat and thin mice, which modestly but crucially claims for itself “the potential of applicability of [these] findings to man”.  

But it’s doubtful whether the starving of other animals has ever been of very significant ‘applicability to man’. After all, this is a branch of medical science in which there has always been plentiful human data available. Another classic of the subject, Francis Benedict’s A Study of Prolonged Fasting (1915), follows one human volunteer through a 31-day fast in minutest detail for over 400 pages. The clarity of its analysis is, of course, greatly assisted by the voluble co-operation of the volunteer. In fact the book, though replete with measurements of various kinds, reads at times like a novel, the starver himself being a distinct individual (as indeed all animals necessarily are, whether we happen to notice it or not).

In Benedict’s time, fasting was even being practised as a form of entertainment. One of the short stories of Franz Kafka describes the experiences of one such ‘hunger artist’ (‘Ein Hungerkünstler’, 1922). The most famous of these practitioners was Giovanni Succi, whom Benedict had actually considered employing (but he cost too much). Although, in his capacity as a research subject, Succi was primarily the property of a Florentine scientist, Professor Luigi Luciani, he performed internationally, and during a fast in London, so the Times reported in 1890, “he has been visited by many gentlemen of the Succimedical profession, by whom his feat is regarded with much interest … important physiological deductions may be made from the experiment.” (The illustration shows Succi being visited by scientists during an earlier American tour.)

Another performer at the same London venue (the Westminster Aquarium) was called ‘Monsieur Jaques’, and he brought along his own applied research in the form of a herbal powder. This powder, he claimed, even in tiny quantities could on its own sustain life, and had indeed done so at the town of Belfort while it was besieged during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. If there was some charlatanism mixed up in all this, then it was the business of physiologists to separate the science from the show business (as indeed some of them did), for there was knowledge to be found here of much more immediate importance “to man” than could be supplied by making pigeons or rabbits starve.

Fasting as a performance has long since gone out of fashion (though there was a reprise of sorts by the magician David Blaine in 2003). But human starvation, endured purposefully or not, has continued to provide its own data. Death by starvation in the U.K. usually entails an inquest and post-mortem: invariably so if it happens in prison – through hunger strike, in other words. There must therefore exist very many records of this sort. I notice a United Nations University report on starvation from the 1990s which makes use of just this sort of data, including information about hunger strikes of prisoners in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Such a report to the U.N. would necessarily be aiming to provide thoroughly usable conclusions. (Even here, Chossat and his disciples put in an appearance, with their species mortality lists, as some sort of comparative back-up to the human material.)

However, starvation research of the kind instanced at the start of this piece has very little reference to medical usefulness: it’s a branch of zoology, a contribution to our knowledge of nature, answering the question I started with. Conditional on the ethical restraints mentioned, it’s free to grow as it will, and it does indeed demonstrate how growth works in such academic subjects. Each study raises new questions and calls for further research. Revisions, polite controversies, and synoptic reviews accumulate (already in 2010, a review of starvation studies had hundreds of papers to encompass). In time the subject becomes a sort of profession in itself, with its own conferences, authorities, jargon, journals, and honoured history (enter Chossat again). For you’ve scarcely broken ground when you simply starve a Madagascar hissing cockroach or a rattlesnake: you must go on to complicate the scene with other types of stress, add or withhold water, make the fast sustained or intermittent, start with fat or thin subjects or both (we’ve already noticed that). As a witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection once remarked, “you’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up”.

But a hawk moth larva, at least, or a house cricket, these don’t feel pain? Lest the question itself should sound like an invitation to fascinating new research, I shall put it another way: do they mind starving? To this we already have the answer because, as experimenters in starvation know well, precautions have to be taken against cheating, even among such innocents: they’ll eat their own excrement, or bedding, or each other, rather than starve honourably in the cause. So yes, even these have the urge to go on living, as we do, as all animal life does.

When a scientist alludes to “the ethical concerns of starving vertebrate animals to death”, he makes even morality sound like a technical matter, another aspect of the laboratory scene, something checked by glancing over one’s shoulder. No doubt it usually is just that, but it ought rather to be part of his or her own mentality. It would be much more convincing if the scientist said “we wouldn’t want to do that.” They might then set themselves to thinking up ways of studying life which don’t involve destroying its denizens, even these slightest of them. That would begin to answer Tony Benn’s question “Where is your moral teaching in science?” [see blog for 21 November, 2016] Meanwhile the moral teaching, the ethical motive, have to be urged upon the life sciences in the way they always have been over the last 150 years: that is, from outside. And in this particular case, one small thing which can be done now is to sign the following petition remonstrating against the starvation studies presently conducted at St Mary’s University of San Antonio in Texas:

Notes and references:

The insect study: Marshall D. McCue et al, ‘How and why do insects rely on endogenous protein and lipid resources during lethal bouts of starvation? A new application for C-breath testing’, PLoS One, 2015, 10(10). The bumble-bee study: M.J.Couvillon and A.Dornhaus, ‘Small worker bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are hardier against starvation than their larger sisters’, Insectes Soc., May 2010, 57(2). The snake study: Marshall D. McCue, ‘Fatty acid analyses may provide insight into the progression of starvation among squamate reptiles’, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A: Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Oct. 2008, 151(2) The mouse study: G.S.Cuendet et al, ‘Hormone-substrate responses to total fasting in lean and obese mice’, American Journal of Physiology, Jan.1975, 228(1). The 2010 review: Marshall D. McCue, ‘Starvation physiology: reviewing the different strategies animals use to survive a common challenge’, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A: Molecular and Integrative Physiology, May 2010, 156(1)

Sir William Gull and Dr Francis Sibson are quoted from their evidence to the Cardwell Commission in 1876: Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.265-7, and 237.

Quotation and other details about the hunger artists are taken from reports in the London Times on 24 March, 12 April, and 23 June 1890.

The UN report: M.Elia, ‘Effect of starvation and very low calorie diets on protein-energy relationships in lean and obese subjects’, published in Protein-Energy Interactions, ed. Scrimshaw and Schürch, 1992, accessible online at

The evidence to the House of Representatives committee investigating the treatment of animals used in research, 1962, is quoted by John Vyvyan in The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph), 1971, p.188.

The two wood-engravings: ‘Waiting for Death’ (1832), by Thomas Bewick, shows a horse at the end of its career of usefulness to humans, turned out, as Bewick notes, “to starve of hunger and of cold”; the picture of Succi and medical company is from the Christian Herald (New York 1886), courtesy of Internet Archive.

Tony Benn

“I dreamed last night that the house was covered in green slime and fungus, and I went upstairs and in the bedroom was Caroline lying on the bed, and the bed was a complete mess of papers and things. She was absolutely white, her eyes were red, and a fattish woman was cutting huge chunks of bloody meat and giving it to her to eat. I said something and the woman replied, and I said, ‘Never speak to me like that again – get out!’ And she shouted at me. There was Caroline, with all this meat around her … and I woke up and Caroline was gone. Strange!”

It may be that lurid meat-dreams like this one are a common feature of the vegetarian/vegan life – or, more generally, that dreams of misused animals are recurrent in the sleep of anyone properly alive to their sufferings in the real world. I notice, for instance, a series of such dreams in the diaries of John Ruskin, the art critic and professor who resigned his chair at Oxford University in 1885 when a vivisection laboratory was first built there. But this particular meat-dream was recorded on 2 March 2009 by a more recent Oxford alumnus, the politician Tony Benn. Those who know of his remarkable life (those for instance who have seen the stage play titled Tony’s Last Tape which has been on tour this year, or who have seen the 2014 documentary film about his life, Will and Testament) will recognize some of its characterizing elements in the dream: the huge archive of papers (and tapes) recording day by day his long political career; the big old house in Holland Park Avenue, West London, which habitually let in the rain; his devotion to his wife Caroline, whom he had married in 1948 and whose loss from cancer in 2000 the dream makes him relive, in the ruthless way dreams have (how did Freud ever suppose that dreams were wish-fulfilments?).

But yes, the meat. Tony Benn had stopped eating meat in 1970. He had been persuaded by his young son Hilary (who later became the U.K.’s first vegetarian cabinet minister instarvation-text charge of food and environment) that the crops which should have been feeding the world’s poor were being fed to cattle to produce meat for the affluent. But it wasn’t a matter only of inter-human injustice to him; it was morally shocking in itself: “I am particularly revolted by religious slaughter but the slaughter of all animals is barbaric. Why breed animals simply to kill and eat them. How is it different to killing people?”

A little background to explain Tony Benn’s thoughts about animals. Although his reputation is that of a politician and political diarist, passionately involved in some of the most acute political controversies of his time in the U.K., Tony Benn should really be classified as a moralist. Bismark’s famous and worldly saying about politics as the art of the possible would have repelled him. Politics for him was a moral cause: “Is it right or is it wrong? You can argue about it, but that is really the key question to ask.” He did not call himself a Christian, but he inherited from his devout mother at least her faith in “prophets as against kings”: that is, ideas and ideals challenging and subverting authorities and powers, just as the Old Testament prophets challenged their kings. He himself was exactly a prophet, in the sense a moral teacher and visionary. He was, accordingly, too absolute in his convictions to appeal to his party’s pragmatic kings and king-makers. A successful minister in the 1960s and 70s, Benn was at one time regarded as a probable prime minister, but in fact he never again served in government after the 1979 election.

When he finally left parliament in 2001, he explained that he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was Caroline Benn’s joke, but it was founded on a serious conviction that the House of Commons was no longer where political power resided, or where the important decisions were made. All his working life, Benn had for his purpose “the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society”. Instead, he had had to watch power migrate ever further away from the people and their representatives in the House of Commons and into the hands of financiers, media owners, unelected global agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and president-like prime ministers and their cliques.

So, more and more, Benn came to trust only the radical and unmediated expressions of democracy. He told a ‘Stop the War’ rally in Trafalgar Square, “Parliament belongs to the past; the streets belong to the future.” (“They really liked that”, he adds in his diary.) He loved the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, with its brass bands, embroidered banners (at least two of them picturing Tony Benn himself), and vehement political speeches, all indeed there on the streets: “It’s a tremendously moral event really.” Latterly he was a regular speaker at the Glastonbury Festival: “Glastonbury’s always fantastic … it’s really the recreation of the old folk-festival atmosphere, so I love going.” He admired these radical scenes not as something nostalgic or touching, though they did move him very much, but as confirmations and promises of what he believed: “everything comes from underneath”. They were his hope for the future.

Therefore the following scene, recorded in Tony Benn’s diary, was wholly characteristic. In June of 2007 he was attending former American president Jimmy Carter’s honorary degree ceremony in the grand Sheldonian building in Oxford (elaborate robes, the Chancellor reading the award in Latin, etc.: “institutions love all that ceremonial stuff”). At that time, the University was in the middle of building its new vivisection laboratory, and outside the Sheldonian could be heard, as habitually at the such events, “a lot of animal-rights protesters shouting”. The University had been doing all it could, with limited success, to prevent these protests against the laboratory, or at least to move them to more manageable times and places; its recourse meanwhile was to pretend they weren’t there. Of course Tony Benn would have nothing to do with that: “when it was all over, I thought I’d go and have a word with the animal-rights protesters. I walked up and down and shook hands with quite a few of them …” From ex-presidents and other establishment tony-benn-at-demodignitaries congratulating each other, then, he came out into the street among the placards and passions – the “underneath” from which the future must come – and showed his approval publicly with that most egalitarian of ceremonies, the hand-shake. A photograph of the occasion catches him at no loss for words or commitment.

Vivisection had dismayed Tony Benn since early childhood. During family walks in London, he had seen one of those window-displays which were a feature of earlier anti-vivisection campaigns, showing a model monkey among gruesome equipment (a street-show again). When Oxford University began to build its new laboratory, and the controversy was at its height, he chaired a debate on the subject, doing his best as chairman to redress the imbalance of rank and numbers, there in the University, against the dissenting side. He was a patron of Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford, and when the laboratory was formally opened, he helped publicize VERO’s objection by joining us at Nuffield College, and speaking to the press: “Vero is one of the courageous organisations challenging outdated orthodoxy.” tony-benn-with-othersFor him, again, it was a matter of morality: as he asked  the science-publicist Richard Dawkins, during a television discussion at about this same time, “where is your moral teaching in science?”    

Tony Benn was (notoriously to some) a socialist. There may well be other political philosophies capable of accommodating the interests of animals: let’s hope there are many. (I see there’s an argument about this in the web-pages of the new online forum called Animal Justice Currents.) But more essentially Benn was a radical democrat, restlessly arguing for political powers to be passed downwards to the people – or more plausibly, as we’ve noticed, for the people to reach upward and take them (take them back, as he would have said). Perhaps he romanticized ‘the people’. Certainly he was a romantic, but then prophets have to be: “All real progress throughout history has been made by those who did find it possible to lift themselves above the hardship of the present and see beyond it to an ideal world.”

In recent years, Tony Benn became less of the public bogeyman which he had been, at least for cropped-tony-benn-17-11-08-img_3737the right-wing press, in the 1970s and 80s (“The most dangerous man in Britain?” asked the Sun newspaper). Now instead he was sometimes called, rather patronizingly, a ‘national treasure’. He was bemused by this, but quite unassimilated: “To my surprise and delight I am rediscovering idealism as I enter my eighty-fifth year.”

Animals were increasingly a part of this latter idealism. They can, after all, be viewed politically as the most ancient of the ‘folk’, battered and dispossessed even more ruthlessly than the rest of their kind by capitalist modernity. Watching his garden birds taking their immemorial part in the common pursuit of food and security, Benn indeed felt them to be “a scaled down version of humanity” (a ‘more modest’ or ‘less rapacious’ version might say it better). And since they can have no money and no votes of their own, one must suppose that the only kind of democracy which will adequately provide for the lives and interests of the non-human animals is exactly the folk-minded kind which Tony Benn prized: one that seeks the common good not primarily through the spread of individual affluence and consumerist power, urged and promised by vote-seeking politicians at successive elections, but rather by promoting the sense of mutuality and life-solidarity. As the banners at the 2008 Durham Gala declared, while the 83-year old Tony Benn stood watching them pass by from his hotel balcony (“there were moments when I was in tears”): “Fellowship is Life”, “Fellowship is All”. Yes, there’s surely a place in that scheme for all of us, human and other.



Tony Benn’s comments on animal slaughter come from an interview he gave to Tony Wardle for Viva!LIFE (issue 31, Spring 2006).

The phrase about democratic reform, and what Benn says about progress through idealism and about his own renewed idealism, are taken from The Best of Benn, ed. Ruth Winstone, Arrow Books 2014, pp.73 and 323-4.

“Is it right or is it wrong?” and “prophets as against kings” come from the rather oddly titled but excellent Skip Kite film about Tony Benn, titled Will and Testament and released in 2014.

Other quotations are from The Last Diaries: a Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, ed. Ruth Winstone, Hutchinson, 2013: the meat dream from p.225, the Stop the War rally p.109, Durham Gala p.150, Glastonbury p.18, his question to Dawkins p.162, and the Oxford degree ceremony, where he talked with members of the SPEAK campaign, p.15.

Other material comes from a talk given for Animal Aid in December 2007 and from personal conversations. The discussion in Animal Justice Currents can be read at

The photograph of Tony Benn at the demonstration is kindly provided by SPEAK campaigns. The other photographs are by Paul Freestone.