Yeah, I did this to myself.
When Richard Adams died, I wanted to put one of his books on my list. I read Watership Down as a teen, and though it was all about nature being hard there was a pleasing amount of worldbuilding around the rabbits that scratched my fantasy itch, and I enjoyed it greatly.
I knew people talked about The Plague Dogs in the reverent tones reserved for the British tradition of traumatising kids with beloved media, and I kind of wanted in. Surely it couldn’t be that b-
Reader, it’s harrowing. Spoilers and cruelty to animals follow.
The Plague Dogs are Snitter and Rowf, who have escaped from an animal research lab. It’s about the harshness of life in the wild, about the human relationship to nature and the natural world and how we have changed it, about politics and the media (and science reporting!) and how a crisis is created and steered. And it’s about dogs.
Adams excels at nature writing in general, and Snitter and Rowf are written superbly. Adams is an expert at writing the world from an animal point of view (yes, yes, totally unfounded. He is at any rate an expert at writing a point of view consistent with what we know or believe we know about animals and sufficiently non-human) and his dogs are no exception. Snitter was a pet before his time in the lab, and he has that extra knowledge of the outside world, though scrambled from the experiments he’s undergone. Rowf’s experience of humanity is entirely lab-centric. A certain measure of obedience and the ancient relationship of human and dog has been bred into him, but is in constant dissonance with his actual experience.
As Snitter’s experiments were concerned with a type of brain surgery to confuse the perception of the subjective and objective (Golding’s Pincher Martin is invoked, which might have to go on my list too now…) he falls into a sort of Fiver-from-Watership-Down-like character archetype, speaking in nonsense and visions, though a lot less mystical and a LOT less helpful. Rowf was used in a series of experiments to measure endurance and survival conditioning which involved being repeatedly drowned, and now, also unhelpful in the wilds of the Lake District, is left with a furious terror of large bodies of water.
They meet a fox who’s drawn to them for their ability to attack sheep and guides them through the hard, messy business of survival, and has there ever been a fox in literature who isn’t immediately your favourite? There has not.
I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, because there’s a lot, and you wouldn’t get much from me as opposed to reading the book.
There’s just so much to talk about, and, as with some other books, what I would mostly be doing is pointing at things and going, “Look what he did!!!” Snitter’s rationalising of his first sight of the world outside an urban environment, that it can’t possibly be natural and humans must have taken the houses away, at first sight might look a bit glib, but Snitter and Rowf are not wild animals, they’re long descendants of a domesticated species who have neither evolved the adaptations to live in this environment, nor been taught how to live here. This is not their natural environment.
And to look at the humans for a second, Adams goes all out in delving into that can of worms. Farmers and pet owners and animal lovers and animal haters, politicians and animal researchers and journalists all get their say. Farmers who see animals as tools or income, journalists who see them as slants and weapons, and Ephraim… well, the bit with Ephraim fairly punched me in the face, so it did.
Something I’m not going to go hugely into because everyone would find it tedious but I’d like to mention for myself is the accents and dialect. I have a complicated relationship with it. On one hand, Adams writes it so well I could hear it, both Lake District and the tod’s Geordie (yes, random Goodreads reviewer, he is Geordie and not Scottish, give me strength) voices. On the other, I hate how such accent notation is inevitably aimed towards a certain kind of southerner, writing things as they would phonetically read and say them, which makes it harder for those of us who are closer to the accents in question to get a hold of the pronunciation. None of this is Adams’s fault or creation though, it’s a long tradition of writing the incomprehensible “oop” for “up” and whatnot that’s become almost standardised.
Something very small that niggled me that was Adams’s doing was the mysterious vanishing of the phonetic writing from the mouths of female locals. That struck me as a little… I’m not sure. Paternalistic maybe? It seemed to be almost saying (admittedly with zero proof) that it would be impolite to imply that a woman would speak with a thick accent, and that’s a bit. Hmm. Yeah. Less of that, please. Still, a small niggle in the vast scope of the book.
One of the big criticisms I saw in the Goodreads reviews is that it’s too emotional, that it beats the reader over the head with cruelty to animals. I think that’s kind of an interesting response to have, and one worth looking into.
Some people complained that lab conditions aren’t like that anymore, which is irrelevant. The Plague Dogs was written in the 70s and is under no obligation to magically update itself with every progression in ethics or legislation.
Some people complained that Snitter and Rowf were too anthropomorphised, a criticism Adams pre-empts by having characters near the end discuss Watership Down and the accuracy or inaccuracy of its portrayal of rabbit life. Even assuming Snitter and Rowf are too humanised for one’s taste, there are plenty of other experiments and subjects discussed in the absolutely dispassionate tones of a scientist who is like a representation of neutral, amoral science in human form, and all the experiments are real ones, as Adams assures us in the introduction.
And some people believe that animal research is vital no matter what. It’s a valid view. There are no right answers at this point; we’re too deep in for that. So many things that are lifesaving and life-changing have been developed using animal research that we can’t simply excise animal testing from our history. But if you do believe that animal research will always be with us and is necessary, you have to own that belief. You can’t just look away from the animals involved.
At the end of the book, Animal Research is still there, and its experiments resumed or ongoing.