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The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

The Plague Dogs

by Richard Adams

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I had an argument with a co-worker this afternoon. This is something I try to avoid at all costs, because usually arguments are tiresome and boring, because neither side is willing to give any ground and mostly just want an excuse to air their own ideas, to hell with listening or hearing what the opposition have to say. I can be guilty of that, absolutely, but usually I'm willing to hear out an opening line before I realize the other person is an idiot.

But, what can I say, I am a terribly earnest person sometimes and my co-worker is who internet trolls model themselves after. And furthermore, even with a circular argument, being forced to explicate an abstract idea to an audience (even a hostile one) allows one to refine and understand that idea even better, right? So I'm not a complete masochist. I don't think....

We ranged over several subjects, but, as you may have guessed, what really concerned me was the idea of animal rights. He thinks the whole idea is ridiculous. According to him animals are things, sometimes they are useful or good eating, but they don't inherently deserve any better treatment then what they physically need before the axe comes down. Me and my sentimental attachments were scorned. "See how long that pet is your friend if you don't feed it."

Uh-huh. Can't argue with that. Readers remember that line as I further talk about this coworker: not bright. Maybe I am a masochist, because I could not bring myself to stop the conversation for a long time.

That line of thinking, about animals being useful tools and nothing more, is what the people of the Lakelands and the people in the laboratory thought in 'The Plague Dogs'. And there’s a certain rightness to that. Adams' being a similarly earnest person to myself highlighted the crueler aspects of testing facilities in his representation, which also wasn’t wrong. I don't think anybody reading the book should believe that anyplace like A.R.S.E. actually exists, but as a caricature to satirize the empty research that has been promoted in the past and to broadly raise the ethical questions about animal research it served its purpose. My problem with the book was less in how blunt it sometimes was, but in how the narrative never seemed to come together.

On further questioning, my co-worker admitted to never possessing any particularly feelings of affection for numerous pets his family had growing up. In an eerie parallel to Rowf in 'The Plague Dogs', he used to take his hamster in its exercise ball and place it in a full bathtub. Seriously? Apparently so, and why, you may ask? He just wanted to see how long the hamster would last underwater and how many times it could take it. It could take a lot. I was laughing in a "oh my God you crazy piece of shit, stop breathing my air" kind of way when I told him I would have had him institutionalized, but I really wish someone had noticed that kind of behavior when he was younger. I think all of us had a phase or have a streak of childlike curiosity that's cruel but that? So much for kids taking wings off flies. He thinks bullfighting is awesome, too. Also: dogs, roosters, beta. If it will fight to the death, that's tits.

'The Plague Dogs' doesn't work on the narrative level that 'Watership Down' did probably because this project came straight from the heart. Adams read some upsetting reports and wanted to get why he was upset down on paper. Here in black and white were descriptions of isolation experiments, mutilations, poisonings and the ubiquitous spraying of aerosol products into rabbit's eyes. What Adams' had a problem with, and what I have a problem with when it comes down to it, is the idea that because research doesn't necessarily have to justify itself to anyone there are those who will poke and incise and eviscerate without any introspection or any silly treehugging notion about the lack of humanity in their actions. Adams was going for black humor sometimes but the satire elements, especially concerning government, never got off the ground for me, all I wanted was for the narrative to go back to what the dogs or even the reporter were up to.

In a condescending tone I was told that after bullfights, after being poked and spouted and hamstrung for several hours, the bull is served to needy people. Such largess! I wasn't suitably impressed, which led to my eating habits being challenged. It never ended. After the usual back and forth he came out with the fact that my cow being rendered unconscious by electrical current before being efficiently bled out was too clinical? I'm a hypocrite unless I kill it myself? He then tried to console me that his girlfriend thought the same way I did so I didn't have to feel bad about it. I don’t get upset easily, and even that level of patronizing validation didn’t provoke me to saying something that would make the workday awkward, but damn. I checked out at the point.

'The Plague Dogs' was piecemeal, with not enough satire to make it work as satire and not enough animal shenanigans to qualify as a real adventure, his attentions were good but it never felt focused to me. And I am not one of those people who think that Adams is only good with animals - I really enjoyed his horror-suspense novel 'The Girl in a Swing'. What saved the book was the ending, schmaltz and yanked heartstrings and all, I ate it up.

I failed to get my position across to my co-worker, not that he cared to begin with. Animal rights are not about treating animals "better" than humans or anything like that. I may not like the idea of some animal research, but I will never argue that it isn't necessary. Sometimes the pragmatic person euthanizing an unwanted litter is doing the right thing. I also have larger, softer ideas, that are more about our responsibility to those creatures, domesticated or not, that provide us with valuable services, from the something as intangible as companionship or a brief sighting of a wild anything on a walk to that very real patty on a sesame seed bun. People like my co-worker are not the majority of course, but it unnerved me to come across someone who at the most fundamental level could not understand that obligation, slight as it is. Adams must have felt similarly when he began work on this book. You can go all your life thinking a certain way, holding certain beliefs, but when you’re suddenly confronted with a perplexed stare and a why do you care, well, sometimes the words just don’t come out right. I'm glad he made the attempt.

I did warn you that I could get terribly earnest. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Rowf, a big, shaggy, black mongrel dog, and Snitter, a black and white fox terrier, are experimental animals at the Animal Research Station--Scientific & Experimental (A.R.S.E.) Rowf was born there, but Snitter once had a loving master and a happy home, until his master was struck by a lorry in an accident that Snitter blames himself for. The two dogs, living in adjoining pens, have become friends, and share their experiences: Rowf is daily nearly drowned in a tank of water, while Snitter has had brain surgery that breaks down the barrier between conscious and unconscious minds, and consequently has mad waking dreams. When carelessness by the animal care man gives them an opportunity, they break out of their pens and subsequently out of the facility via the heating system.

That's when life gets really hard for them.

Rowf and Snitter are not equipped to live as wild animals. They struggle along, trying to understand the unfamiliar world of the English lake district countryside, for a time with the help of a fox they call The Tod. Meanwhile, in the human world, the scientists' initial attempts to simply ignore the escape of the dogs breaks down and makes the situation even worse when the dogs' sheep killing angers the farmers and a muckraking reporter seizes on the story to create public outrage and sell newspapers. The dogs are soon fleeing active pursuit by people who believe them to be carrying bubonic plague.

[Note 1. Dogs can't carry bubonic plague. Note 2. Despite its ravages in the 14th century, and the death grip it apparently still has on the fear centers of the British brain, bubonic plague is now easily treated with penicillin. It's endemic in the rodent population of the American west, and every year there are a few human cases. It's a really, really bad year when even one person dies. But as recently as the 1990s, the British were driven to impressive heights of hysteria by a few human cases of plague in India, during what was a really bad year for it there.]

Adams is of course sounding a warning note about the moral issues of animal experimentation. Rowf's torment seems impossible to defend; if there is a real purpose to Snitter's brain surgery, we never receive it. Nor are these the most horrific experiments being conducted at A.R.S.E. At the same time, Adams is not setting up cardboard villains, and we see other research at A.R.S.E. stopping the release of truly dangerous products to the unsuspecting public.

But this is,profoundly, the case for the animals, and for their lives to be valued, and not wasted carelessly or for shallow reasons. I was totally captivated by the dogs, and deeply moved by their story.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
I'm a bit torn on what rating to give this book. Portions of it I absolutely despised, as they just felt rather contrived and redundant... other portions I absolutely adored, and three parts were downright beautiful. I enjoyed the style of the book itself, and the newspaper clippings interspersed throughout were used just as well as they were in say, [b:Carrie|10592|Carrie|Stephen King|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166254258s/10592.jpg|1552134] or [b:Dracula|17245|Dracula|Bram Stoker|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347251549s/17245.jpg|3165724]. The moralistic conversations, while a bit jarring, were still used rather well to the purpose that the book served.

All in all, a three star for me with a potential for change. The movie, on the other hand, is a solid five star endeavor. ( )
  Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
Richard Adams is of course best known as the author of Watership Down, but that was not the only book he wrote featuring somewhat anthropomorphized animals. There was also this 1977 novel about two dogs who escape from a research facility where horrible things were done to them.

To be honest, I can see why this isn't nearly as well-known as Watership Down. I remember that being a really good book. This one... Well, it's one of those odd novels that feels to me like a good book and a bad one have been somehow fused inextricably together.

To begin with, it is perhaps almost more of an anti-animal research or anti-animal cruelty statement than it is a novel. Not that taking a stand against animal cruelty is a bad thing, but Adams clearly really doesn't care if you think his message is heavy-handed. (Which is is. It so, so is.) Personally, as a lover of both science and animals, I find the whole subject of animal experimentation distressingly difficult and complex, but it became clear to me when we were told the experimental facility in this story goes by the acronym A.R.S.E. that we weren't exactly going to get a nuanced examination of scientists and their motives. Well, all right, to be fair, there are some small hints of nuance on the subject at the very end, but mostly it's all horror and cynicism. Deep, deep cynicism, which extends to politics and the press, as well as to science. Sometimes that cynicism feels like well-placed criticism, but more often it just feels like way too much.

I have similar feelings about the writing itself. There are long, often tedious sections that are overdone, overwritten, pretentious, even purple. But then, scattered there and there, are little moments of succinctly brilliant prose. It made for a weird reading experience. Kind of an interesting one, admittedly, but weird and a little frustrating.

On the positive side, the dogs themselves are good characters, especially poor, mad Snitter, a fox terrier with artificially induced brain damage and terrible, terrible luck. There are moments with him that are genuinely moving. Adams, unsurprisingly for the author of Watership Down, also does a really good job of imagining what the world might look and seem like to dogs who had something of the faculties of humans while still being dogs. (Although he is either unaware of or chooses to ignore the fact that dogs don't have color vision as good as that of humans.) And their survival story is reasonably interesting.

But then there's the ending, which not only features a deus ex machina (or possibly two), but actually stops the narrative cold at what should have been an affecting moment for a long, fourth-wall breaking lecture about animals and environmentalism. The fact that it is, perhaps, a pretty good lecture does not make this any less annoying.

Ultimately, I can't say I'm sorry I read this. Despite all these issues I had with it, large portions of it work much better than it feels like they really should, and, as I said, reading it was at least an interesting experience. But I don't think I'd recommend it to most people. And I particularly wouldn't recommend it to people who can't handle reading about upsetting things happening to animals, because this is basically Upsetting Things Happening to Animals: The Novel. ( )
1 vote bragan | Nov 29, 2017 |
“The Plague Dogs” was the first book I read in 2016, after having read “Shardik” and (re-read) “Watership Down” in 2015. I love Adams’ style of writing: it’s beautiful, poignant, dark, and often interspersed with the mythical and fantastical. “Plague Dogs” was a wonderful read, though I would put it in second place as far as my favorite Adams books, because “Watership Down” probably remains one of my top 10 books ever. I read it as a kid, and it really affected me, so of course I have differing opinions on his books in terms of how it stacks up to “The Plague Dogs.”

What I love about his books is that he takes ideas that are often beloved by children, and crafts them into something wholly beautiful and a little bit wild and dark that is perfect for the well-read adult. This tale follows two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, on their adventures in escaping a government research facility and trying to find their place in the world. They find friend and foes on their adventure, naturally, but the book often goes into the very core of existence. What is the saying, looking into the void, and the void stares back at you? These protagonists are dogs, but they are as well-written and well-rounded as any properly crafted human in other stories. More so than many other books, to be perfectly honest.

Rowf was very much the stoic, cynical, plodding type of character be-fitting his large bread. Snitter, on the other hand, was a bit more complex; good-natured and optimistic, and even a little bit crazed because of the experiments done to him. I would say that Snitter is the Fiver character in this book, with the occasional fantastical vision, and the wonderful way he has of telling stories.

Adams does what he does so well in many of his books: he creates a word with their own gods and myths, and he writes them convincingly. I’d love to read a book he wrote just about these unique creation myths. Sure, his writing is a bit wordy, but he writes so poignantly that the words easily bleed into imagery. This book is definitely not for everyone, and it is a bit dense at times. Those who are easily bored with prose and poetry would probably not find this book to their taste. But for those into a little darkness (often, more than a little..), and who can easily imagine the words they read happening in front of them, I’d say that they should definitely give this book a chance. ( )
1 vote Lauraborealis | Dec 22, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Adamsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Butler, JohnCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Piet EggenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wainwright, A.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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QUEEN: I will try the forces

Of these thy compounds on such creatures as

We count not worth the hanging, but none human . . .

CORNELIUS: Your Highness

Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

--Shakespeare, Cymbeline
There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

--Dr. Johnson
To Elizabeth, with whom I first discovered the Lake District.
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The water in the metal tank slopped sideways and a treacly ripple ran along the edge, reached the corner and died away.
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Book description
With the same warm sensitivity that made a bestseller of Watership Down, Richard Adams creates a lyrical and engrossing tale, a remarkable journey into the hearts and minds of two canine heroes, Snitter and Rowf, fugitives from the horrors of the animal research center.

The escape from man's cruelty is only the beginning of their chilling experiences as the flee to the isolation - and terror - of the wilderness.

First, they strike an unlikely bargain with a fox who will teach them to live by instinct alone if they agree to hunt with him. Then they find enemies springing up all around them - excitement seekers of all kinds - incited by an ambitious young reporter who calls the dogs carriers of a deadly plague.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345494024, Paperback)

"Thousands and thousands of people will love this book!"
A lyrical, engrossing tale, by the author of WATERSHIP DOWN, Richard Adams creates a lyrical and engrossing tale, a remarkable journey into the hearts and minds of two canine heroes, Snitter and Rowf, fugitives from the horrors of an animal research center who escape into the isolation--and terror--of the wilderness.

From the Paperback edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:20 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A large black mongrel named Rowf and a white terrier named Snitter escape from an animal experiment center in England's Lake District and may be carriers of bubonic plague.

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