Testing for humanity – The Plague Dogs revisited DEREK TURNER

Richard Adams, 2008

Testing for humanity

The Plague Dogs (book 1977, film 1982)

DEREK TURNER revisits an animal rights classic

I came across by chance recently a DVD of The Plague Dogs, a 1982 animation of Richard Adams’ bestselling 1977 novel. I was catapulted immediately back to childhood, when I had read the book shortly after publication, with a sense of distress and anger I can still taste. It had seemed to me an unusually powerful story, and I was surprised I had not known of the film’s existence. In fact, the film seems to have been unduly neglected, notwithstanding a notable voice cast – including John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, James Bolam, Warren Mitchell and Bernard Hepton – and superb painting and animation. I accordingly purchased a copy of the book to remind myself why it is considered an anthropomorphic classic, on a par with Bambi (the book – although the Disney travesty has probably been more influential), Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, and Adams’ own Watership Down.

For most of their respective lengths, book and film follow the same storyline. Two dogs – Rowf, a large and fierce Labrador cross, and Snitter, a fox terrier – escape from a government animal research establishment in the Lake District. Rowf has been used to study physical endurance, and to this senseless end has been forced to swim daily in a water tank, while scientists monitor his functions and time his staying power. They always leave him in the tank until he starts to drown, only retrieving him when he sinks to the bottom. Snitter has been used for complex brain surgery, designed to make him confuse the objective and the subjective – and this has been all too successful.

Snitter is especially pitiable, because unlike Rowf he has known security and kindness from humans, and he is only here because he was responsible for his master being knocked down by a lorry, and was subsequently sold to the institution by his master’s loathsome sister. He has frequent flashbacks to his old life, and this sharpens his confusion and sense of hurt at the latex-gloved hands of the ‘whitecoats’.

Nevertheless, Snitter has retained sufficient acuity to be able to spot an opportunity for he and Rowf to escape, and the two animals pass fearfully and uncomprehendingly at night through seemingly endless, Moreau-esque laboratories silent except for the subdued whimpering and fidgeting of animals deprived of one or other senses or body parts. They escape at last through a vent in the wall of the establishment’s incinerator, after resting for a time among the sharp bones of even less lucky inmates.

They find themselves at large in one of the very few places in England escaped dogs could hope to remain at large for lengthy periods – the sparsely-populated and barren Lake District, with winter coming on. Both book and film convey the spirit of this locale extremely effectively, the film unusually beautiful with its muted North Country palette, the novel featuring drawings by the renowned Alfred Wainwright, and both strewn with regionally-specific topography, nomenclature, flora, fauna, dialect and history. The fells, screes, becks, tarns and abandoned mines form a magnificent, merciless backdrop, and the animators shot most of the action from low-level, so that one gets the sense of painful progress along unyielding contours. Director Martin Rosen – who also directed the film of Watership Down – opted for a dog’s-eye view of the action, with human faces and expressions usually obscured or out of shot, adding to the meaningless nightmarishness.

Snitter is unusually intelligent and Rowf unusually strong, but they are also unaccustomed to fending for themselves, and with understandable behavioural problems – Rowf terrified of bodies of water, clearly at a disadvantage in this District, Snitter spasmodically hallucinating. The dogs nearly starve, but eventually contrive to kill and eat a sheep. They then fall in with a fox – the choice of James Bolam as “the tod’s”  voice was inspired – who offers survival tips if they share further “yows” with him, and for a while the uneasy alliance works. But farmers quickly notice their depredations, and the connection is soon made to the research establishment, despite bland official denials. A publicity stunt hunt for the sheep-killers is organized by a local businessman, but he is a kindly man haunted by the Holocaust, and when he sees the hideously scarred Snitter takes pity on the delighted dog, only to be killed by terrible accident when Snitter gets tangled in the trigger of his gun.

An irresponsible newspaperman (a woman in the film) discovers that the establishment has a secret military section, where a former Buchenwald doctor is researching germ warfare – and in true tabloid fashion suggests that the dogs could have come into contact with bubonic plague fleas. Of course the dogs had not, but the suggestion naturally causes a frenzy. When the gaunt dogs devour the corpse of a fallen man (this scene was cut from most original releases of the film), public revulsion wells up. Soldiers are sent to the area to exterminate the dogs, and the wily fox’s luck runs out when he is killed by hounds.

The dogs manage one last lucky escape, by stowing away on a tourist train that carries them unseen through the military cordon, all the way down to the sea at Ravenglass. Here they are trapped between the terrifying and icy Irish Sea and the advancing soldiers, and eventually strike out to sea in a panicky attempt to find Snitter’s mythical “Isle of Dog”.

At this stage, the book and film diverge, but unusually the film is truer to the author’s intentions than the book – because the publishers prevailed upon Adams to alter his original ending. The film ends with the dogs still just afloat as Rowf’s strength ebbs for the last time and cold chews into their bones, while far out in front flickers a mirage of the green land they will never reach. This lump-swallowing outcome would probably be upsetting for most adults as well as children, and must be why the film never really caught on.

By contrast, in the book as redacted by the publisher, it transpires that Snitter’s master is not dead after all, but merely seriously injured. Recognizing one of the fugitives as his beloved terrier, he contacts the newspaperman, who had in any case been hoping for an uplifting end to the saga. The journalist castigates the master’s sister, and rushes Snitter’s owner to the beach at Ravenglass. Real-life naturalist Sir Peter Scott sails providentially into the bay, with just enough time to haul the foundering beasts aboard. Snitter is reunited with his owner, who also gives Rowf his first home. In both book and film, there is redemption for a young scientist who realises the awfulness of his employment and quits, liberating a test monkey and taking it home.

Reading it again now, this last chapter feels highly contrived, and tacked-on – but one can easily understand why a publisher in this (to use a tabloid cliché) “nation of dog-lovers” would have wanted such a conclusion to so unrelenting a story. Some earlier segments also seem heavy-handed – especially those to do with the media and politicians – and there are even a few Victorian-style examples of “Dear Reader…” But these things are amply compensated for by the moral and social significance of the subject, and Adams’ evocations of sensate animality – as the dogs wander and chase down prey or talk to the shrewd tod, they seem to transmute at times into the wolves that loped up and down Lakeland as recently as the 14th century. (There is a tradition that the last English wolf was killed in 1390 on Humphrey Head, an outlying fell of the District.)

As Adams notes in his introduction, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (with its ponderously jocose acronym) is unlike real establishments, because too many different kinds of experiments on too many different species are carried on there. Yet all the experiments described in the book were or are still carried out on real animals, and the sheer superfluity of many of these experiments shock and sicken now as they shocked and sickened in 1977. That the two central characters are dogs makes the story particularly poignant, because dogs have the closest relationship with men of any animal, and are bywords for trust and loyalty.

In the UK, vivisection has been pared back in recent decades, largely in response to hostile public opinion as formed by Adams and others, with companies that had carried out non-medical research often being pressurized into discontinuing (sometimes through violent direct action). This public opinion is fickle and at times hypocritical, because many who detest vivisection yet benefit from the medical advances that stem in part from these practices. In 2009 3.6 million procedures were carried out on live animals in British laboratories (1). While these things may make us “sick with horror” (to use Darwin’s words about animal experiments), it seems clear that sometimes there is no alternative, and that animal testing will be with us into the foreseeable future. Always in the background, powering our guilty emotions will be Adams’ story of harried innocents in one of England’s last wildernesses, which even if dated in specifics, still adds something to great, ongoing questions – about what it means to be an animal and, even more importantly, human.

DEREK TURNER is editor of the Quarterly Review


1. The official UK figures for 2009 may be found by following this link. The global figure is estimated as anything between 50 and 100 million vertebrates. The number of animals used is expected to rise again across the EU, in order to comply with ever more stringent food and medicine safety laws




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