Cruelty to Animals

Brigid Brophy

  • Reckoning with the Beast by James Turner
    Johns Hopkins, 190 pp, £7.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 8018 2399 4
  • The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes by S. Zuckerman
    Routledge, 511 pp, £17.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0691 8

William Blake is surely the locus classicus for human sympathy with other-than-human animals. Anyone who is, as I am, seared by the cruelty and injustice humans inflict on their fellow animals will recognise in Blake his own perceptions expressed with unsurpassed accuracy and poignancy.

Blake died a decade before Victoria came to the throne. I am bound therefore to think that James Turner (who ‘teaches history’, the back flap says, ‘at the University of Massachusetts, Boston’) is mistaken in his central thesis that the Victorians witnessed ‘the emergence of a new, distinctively modern sensibility’ about animals. His time-slip is illustrated by his jacket. Like the jacket of the recent reissue of a novel of my own, it reproduces the Liverpool Stubbs, ‘The Green Monkey’. But Mr Turner’s subtitle is ‘Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind’ (in which the superfluous comma after ‘pain’ might pass, if one is being polite, for pastiche of Victorian punctuation). It sits ill on a picture not merely pre-Victorian in fact (painted 20 years before the future queen was begotten) but profoundly un-Victorian in sensibility.

Mr Turner calls the ‘sensibility’ he has in mind ‘kindness’, which in this context is mushy at best, resting, not on respect, but on a caprice that might be withdrawn, and which may even imply the fascist notion that the lives of animals are somehow forfeit to humans but can be redeemed by an act of clemency or leniency on the part of the boss species. His very terminology does violence to the pro-animal arguments of such Victorians as Henry Salt and Bernard Shaw (born in, respectively, 1851 and 1856), whose rational and essentially political thinking on the subject was grounded in the recognition that animals have rights. Neither does Mr Turner emphasise the essential point that sensibility, old or new, co-exists with an old insensibility that treats animals as things. It was the insensibility that was taken up by industrialisation and magnified into huge and organised structures. Animals are now imprisoned by the million in factory farms, prisoners on whom humans have passed both a life sentence and sentence of death, and tortured by the million in laboratories. When humans torture humans, there is usually information or compliance the prisoner can give that will make the torture stop. There is nothing the laboratory animal can do to stop it. He is treated as a tool to be used until the experimenter thinks a new one would serve better, whereupon he is killed or, as vivisectors prefer to call it, thinking it classier, perhaps, to play the priest than the butcher, ‘sacrificed’.

The bulk of Mr Turner’s not very bulky (and not very intellectually weighty, either) book concentrates on the Victorian period and on Britain and the USA. There are chapters on early legislation in defence of animals, the formation of the animal protection societies (where he draws on the minute-books preserved by the RSPCA), Darwinism, vivisection and the first ecological stirrings. He remarks that, at some pre-Victorian period which he does not name but which context and notes suggest may be the Renaissance, imaginative literature employed animals ‘mainly as symbols of human vices and virtues’. He doesn’t, however, take the analogy with or the warning for his own writing of history. He shows little confidence that his Victorians are worth studying in their own right. He is for ever giving them small tugs in the direction of relevance to the present day. Indeed, he finishes with the admonition: ‘We tend now, with good reason, to smile at the sentimentality and anthropomorphism of Victorian animal lovers. But we cannot afford to let our amusement turn to condescension. We are their children.’

In reality, he gives surprisingly few examples of sentimentality or anthropomorphism and virtually nothing to smile at, much of his material inevitably being of the kind that a fibre from the brain does tear, and one of his illustrations being as horrible as the Stubbs is sympathetic.

Set on establishing a special relationship between us and the Victorians, he treats almost everything pre-Victorian with a large high-handedness. Though conceding that it was adumbrated by ‘the 18th-century cult of benevolence’, he claims that the Victorians originated an ‘obsession with pain’ which we are still pursuing. This he contrasts with unspecified ‘earlier centuries’. ‘Pain,’ he asserts, ‘had not always inspired such loathing.’ It is to the Victorian ‘revulsion from suffering’ that he ascribes ‘kindness’ to animals. ‘What did people sympathise with in animals?’ he asks. ‘Pain. What ... gave animals a right to human consideration? Their ability to feel pain.’ And he goes on to credit the Victorian ‘revulsion from pain’ with ‘a major role, far transcending the narrow question of kindness to animals, in reshaping prevailing visions of the “good life” and the good society’. Indeed, it is to the same source that he attributes the present-day ‘pervasiveness of the so-called pornography of violence’, on the grounds that ‘it is precisely our reaction to pain that makes violence titillating.’

There probably have been cultural changes in attitudes to pain, and they may well include one in Victorian times that went beyond what you would expect to accompany the change from a society where anyone might need at any moment to be stoical to a society that had readier access than many (though not necessarily all) previous societies to analgesics and anaesthetics. But Mr Turner’s unsubtle Great Victorian Divide won’t do. After all, Socrates’s ‘vision of the “good life” ’ was calibrated on the pleasure-pain axis. The Utilitarians proposed to measure good and evil on a philosophical pleasure-and-pain weighing machine. Mr Turner’s own rhetorical questions and answers about animals were (as he must know, since he quotes him) put with more elegance by Jeremy Bentham, who wrote in 1780: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ For the matter of that, what does he suppose Blake was in revulsion from, if not the pain suffered by animals?

Mr Turner’s assertion that only in the 19th century ‘did the growing distaste for pain in the abstract or in others rise to the level of horror’ is given the lie by Samuel Johnson’s anti-vivisectionist essay of 1758: ‘If such cruelties were not practised it were to be desired that they should not be conceived; but, since they are published every day with ostentation, let me be allowed once to mention them, since I mention them with abhorrence.’

Pursuing, however, his own train of thought and apparently blind to things pre-Victorian, Mr Turner argues himself into the speculation that ‘possibly, too, the weakening of traditional religion focused greater attention on pain. When one’s hope and true home lay in heaven, earthly sufferings paled into insignificance.’ When you recover from stubbing your toe on the cliché, this looks so deeply questionable as not to be worth the speculating. ‘Traditional religion’ probably underwent more ‘weakening’ in the 18th century than it did in the Victorian period. And in any case, ‘traditional religion’ by no means tended or intended to play down all ‘earthly sufferings’. The Stations of the Cross and the Good Friday service were not devised as exercises to take the mind off pain. Any representative gallery of Western painting shows the iconographical deposit of four or five centuries of ‘traditional religion’. The bloody crucifixions and the other, often ingeniously sadistic martyrdoms are the opposite of ‘pale’. Indeed, that is where Mr Turner might have looked for a pre-Victorian and truly dwelt-on, finger-licking example of ‘the so-called pornography of violence’.

His blind spot is a great handicap in his first chapter, which, relying chiefly on secondary sources, touches in pre-Victorian attitudes to animals in a quickie world tour. (Or perhaps it is only a highlights-of-Europe tour. The generalisations are too large to make it clear.) He begins with Lascaux. The ambivalence of animal sacrifice as a religious ritual gets a sentence, though not one that discloses which religion he has in mind. The Old Testament gets barely a mention. There is not a word on such relevant matters as its totemistic rules for flesh-eating, the conservationist actions of Noah and Isaiah’s moving vision of ecological peace between predator and prey, in which ‘the leopard shall lie down with the kid,’ ‘the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ and ‘they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ The vegetarian strand in Ancient Greek philosophy-religion is utterly suppressed. So is Greek or any other belief in metempsychosis. The notion that (in Malvolio’s account of the opinion of Pythagoras) the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird is a fanciful and perhaps in the long run self-interested reason for behaving decently to birds, but it is highly germane to Mr Turner’s subject. It may even be an intuitive shot at a theory of evolution. And it must in practice be more conducive to ‘kindness’ than the Christian myth that non-human animals had no immortal souls, with its contradictory corollary that there was nothing wrong in depriving them of the one, mortal life they have.

In the twinkling of a page Mr Turner has reached ‘around 1600’, when ‘a few adventurous (or perverse) writers ... Montaigne the best known, went so far as to question the vanity that separated man from “his fellow members and companions”, the animals. Such eccentricity,’ Mr Turner goes on, ‘was rare.’ Eccentricity and perversity are dicey concepts. Does perversity imply a defiance of the evidence, as in a ‘perverse verdict’? Mr Turner shows no grounds for thinking Montaigne perverse in that sense. Is eccentricity to be judged numerically or by rationality? People concerned with justice to animals have probably been outnumbered at all periods, but then, so, probably, have people concerned with justice to humans. Is it perverse or eccentric to be the first to arrive at a conclusion others take longer to reach? Was Galileo perverse or was he eccentric in insisting that eppur si muove? Perhaps Montaigne is just being labelled a ‘premature anti-fascist’.

By my standards Mr Turner is himself eccentric in his choice of (by his standards) eccentrics. Montaigne gets that mention. Thomson’s Seasons gets a mention. But there is no mention of Blake or of the anti-vivisectionist views of Dr Johnson or of those of Voltaire. There is no reference to Shakespeare. Yet he is much to the point, having put into Cymbeline the queen’s proposal to test drugs by vivisection, to which the doctor replies with the subsidiary but still valid anti-vivisection argument that

                                       Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

And nothing is said of Leonardo da Vinci, who was a vegetarian and given to buying caged birds in order to set them free.

Do those omissions indicate that Mr Turner thinks the arts don’t count? The suspicion does not vanish as you proceed through the book. It is strange enough that he seems to have written an outline of the vivisection controversy in Victorian Britain without reference to the superb and painful full-length history of it that the late John Vyvyan published in 1969, In Pity and in Anger. (His notes refer, however, to the sequel, though that carries him beyond his chosen period.) It is flabbergasting that he should do so without mentioning that, when the University of Oxford built a vivisection laboratory, John Ruskin resigned his Slade Professorship, ‘in flaming wrath and sick at heart’.

Mr Turner’s gravest failure is, in fact, with the present day, to which he is so anxious to link the Victorians. A small symptom of his sheer lack of acquaintance with the pro-animals movement is his treatment of Lewis Gompertz, who in 1826 became honorary secretary of what was then the SPCA. (It got its R from Queen Victoria.) He reports that Gompertz thought it ‘wrong to put an animal to any use not directly beneficial to the beast itself and, in keeping with this tenet, refused to eat animal food (including eggs and milk) or to ride in a carriage’. As Blake had written,

A horse misus’d upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.

He goes on to write repeatedly of Gompertz as a vegetarian, having failed to recognise him as an early (indeed, perhaps the first) vegan.

His most disabling defect is his failure to understand what the anti-vivisection argument is about. He is under the misapprehension that the anti-vivisection movement effectively ended in 1900, though he thinks it persisted faintly for a few years thereafter under leadership he considers eccentric, whose convictions, he says, ‘ranged from the respectably unusual ... to the baldly peculiar: “a furious opponent of all vaccination, a vegetarian, and a believer in the danger of premature burial” ’. (His quotation seems to be about Walter Hadwen: it would be infinitely more ‘baldly peculiar’ to disbelieve that premature burial is dangerous – or even, which I suppose is what the quotation meant to refer to, to disbelieve that there is a danger of it.) Mr Turner can scarcely hope to attain an undistorted historical perspective on the Victorian controversy when he does not know that the controversy is still going on; and his ignorance cuts him off from sources that might have explained the issues.

In the first four months of 1981, as the Spring issue of The Beast reports, the Animal Liberation Front freed dogs from a vivisection laboratory, damaged property belonging to a breeder of hamsters for vivisection and sprayed anti-vivisection slogans on the cars or homes of 40 vivisectors. My experience of the same short space of time, unrepresentative but symptomatic, included corresponding with the maker of an anti-vivisection film in the USA, going with a group marshalled by the National Anti-Vivisection Society to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister, and watching the most unbearable full-length film I have ever seen, a not yet finally edited documentary by Victor Schonfeld that exhibits the intensity, extent and varieties, including vivisection, of current cruelty to animals.

The year 1900, in which Mr Turner supposes anti-vivisection to have clinically died, was in fact the year when Bernard Shaw (another artist he doesn’t mention) filled the Queen’s Hall with a speech to the National Anti-Vivisection Society in which he outlined the anti-vivisection case that he argued classically and in full eight years later in the Preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma.

Mr Turner has in fact recorded not what did happen but what he assumes must have happened. By 1900 the apologists of vivisection could at last point to some specific cases where scientists using vivisection had arrived at treatments for human diseases. They were thus in a position to claim that the animals’ pain could be offset against alleviation of human pain. Mr Turner assumes, wrongly, that everyone is a simple utilitarian and a speciesist, and that those positions are incontrovertible. He does not conceive that the agony of the animals may not be morally fair exchange for some benefit to humans, and so he rushes to the astoundingly complacent conclusion that, by 1900, scientists and ‘even animal lovers’ were agreed that ‘people had primacy over animals.’ He doesn’t quite say the animals agreed too. But he does pronounce the perverse verdict that, by 1900, ‘the weight of medical progress had crushed anti-vivisection.’

The depth of his misunderstanding is exposed in his passing remark that the Victorian anti-vivisection campaign was ‘perhaps the last major controversy in which lay people pretended to the competence to argue with scientists on their own grounds’, and he adds: ‘After Hiroshima, it was atomic scientists who denounced the atomic bomb.’

But it was not only scientists who denounced the bomb, and scientists did not denounce it on the scientific grounds that it didn’t work. Dropping the bomb and licensing vivisection are political acts. Victorian anti-vivisectionists, including scientists, sometimes argued on scientific grounds by disputing the scientific usefulness of vivisection, but that was never the whole of their case. Present-day anti-vivisectionists, whether lay or, like Richard Ryder, scientists themselves, put their case on the moral and political grounds that are common to all citizens.

Of the four and a half million vivisections nowadays executed annually in Britain, many have little or no connection with the alleviation of human pain. Some vivisections that could make some such claim are, particularly in the USA, performed not in pursuit of common-property medicine but in quest of private and patentable, and thus privately profitable, methods of medical treatment. In putting forward the alleviation of human pain as a defence for experiments and tests that are really matters of routine, careerism, spectacularism or profiteering, vivisectionists place their own sincerity in doubt and suggest that they merely hold animal pain and animal lives cheap. A vivisectionist would earn respect for his sincerity (though, even so, he wouldn’t, of course, prove himself right) only if he campaigned ardently against all animal experimentation that does not have a high chance of resulting in the alleviation of human pain.

It is about the small core of experiments that might (no one can in good scientific conscience say ‘will’) lead to medical progress that anti-vivisectionists must, and sincere vivisectionists would, pursue the argument. Would it be justifiable to torture, say, a thousand animals if, by doing so, you stood a reasonable chance of finding a treatment for a hundred diseased humans? Mr Turner could have learnt the answer from Shaw. If you want to treat or even understand human disease, you are much more likely to succeed by experimenting on humans than on animals of other species. Is it justifiable, then, to torture a hundred humans (babies, perhaps, who, as Bentham pointed out, are much less rational and conversable than adult dogs and horses, or idiots or convicted murderers or the socially superfluous and costly old or the unemployed or the unemployable) in order to discover a treatment for thousands of humans?

The queen in Cymbeline draws or says she draws the line at drug-testing on humans. But chauvinism is no better founded when it exclaims ‘My species’ than when it exclaims ‘My race’. It is an arbitrary barrier, which takes easily to the appropriate seemingly scientific trappings, for the exclusion of beings essentially similar to oneself from the rights one claims for oneself. The trick of thought that now condemns animals to torture has at various times condemned black humans to slavery and Jewish or Gypsy humans to extermination.

There are no solid grounds, moral or evolutionary, to support any barrier less inclusive than a protective barrier round all sentient, individual animals. The propagandist for vivisection who maintains that it would be irresponsible to abandon experimentation on animals must suffer appalling guilt for his far grosser irresponsibility in failing to break the law, kidnap a group of humans and carry out much more scientifically useful experiments on them.

The vivisection lobby has, so far, imposed itself on legislators not by argument but by intimidation. It has persuaded MPs that, were they to forbid vivisection, they would impair their chances of being healed by medical science in the event of their falling mortally sick. The question the vivisector always seeks to put to anti-vivisectionists is ‘Would you condone the torture of animals if your (or, which may be the tougher question, your neighbour’s) chances of an extra five years of life were thereby improved?’ To this the anti-vivisectionist has to reply ‘No, no more than you would or actually do condone the torture of babies on the same terms.’

The failure (a fairly narrow one) of the Victorian anti-vivisectionists to get vivisection outlawed was a tragedy, and John Vyvyan’s book treats it, with dignity, as such. The opportunity was missed to divert the progress of experimental techniques into morally permissible channels early on in its career. A century of vivisection has now made vivisection the accepted and expected method, and humanitarian scientists are left to run along after, trying to match each technique with a humane alternative that will produce results as good, instead of being able to rely on a natural scientific progress starting from a humane square one. Once vivisection found it could continue unimpeded, though it never won the argument, it romped away, condemning ever greater numbers of animals and building an industry that is now kept in being by huge forces of capital and of habit, whitewashed by academic respectability and perpetuated by national and international legislation that in some cases not merely permits but exacts it.

Against the massive vested interests of capital, prestige and bureaucracy there is no counter-force except public opinion (which has just succeeded, via a referendum, in introducing a local ban on vivisection in one Swiss canton). Funding non-vivisection research is left to private donors. Informing the public is left to donors and activists. Even the task of informing scientists where ‘alternative techniques’ already exist is left to donors to FRAME (Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Yet the campaigns against slavery and for women’s suffrage were also up against strong financial and emotional vested interests and long traditions of injustice.

One of Mr Turner’s passing remarks that is of genuine interest is that ‘the creation of “social sciences” testified to the strength of science’s hold on the Victorian mind.’ Lord Zuckerman is, though he might disdain the label, a social scientist inasmuch as his book is a study of the ‘social life’ of some species belonging to the monkey and ape families of the Order of Primates. It was first published in 1932 and he now reissues it with the appendage of some articles he has written in the meantime and with a new preface in which he records that some writers consider the book out of date but others deem it ‘a “classic” ’.

It is hard to guess why the comprehensiveness and impartiality of the study have been prejudiced by the omission from it of one important primate species, Homo sapiens. Here, however, is an example of Lord Zuckerman’s method of studying the ‘life’ of baboons: ‘My periods of observation in the gorge of prickly pears were usually curtailed by unsuccessful attempts to shoot females for anatomical purposes.’ Here is another:

Beaters surround a pack and by shouting and shooting drive the animals so that at nightfall they find themselves near some particular rocks in which they settle. This outcrop has been previously girdled with heaps of dried wood. The animals are surrounded next morning before dawn ... and the wood is fired. The flames light up the rocks and apparently frighten the animals, which normally would not stir until daybreak. As soon as they move they are fired upon ... I took part in two hunts ... About three of the ambushed animals tried to escape when it became light, but they were met by a volley of shots which brought down one, an adult female. Shortly afterwards an adult male, followed by two females, tried to escape. The females were killed ... and only a few females and immature males succeeded in escaping subsequently. The morning’s bag consisted of 12 adult and two immature females, and one immature male. Three of the 12 adults were nursing, and in each case the baby was pulled, protesting, from its mother’s fur, to which it was still clinging after her death.

Lord Zuckerman, as clearly the most suitable person, was recently appointed to report on whether the badgers living in Britain should continue to live or be gassed. He reported against the badgers. Scientists and others are contesting his finding, but badgers are being gassed.