The descriptive tasks which the notion of a sensitizing device entails invite the researcher to make a clear analytical distinction between, on the one hand, the emotions that this device was intended to provoke and, on the other hand, the emotional reactions actually generated, some of which were not anticipated by the promoters of the cause. Such a distinction seems indispensable for the analysis of the interactions and, to an even greater extent, the knock-on effects, between the various protagonists capable of influencing the course of a given series of mobilizations. From this perspective, the successive phases which characterize the antivivisection movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries allow the impact and the varying nature of the effects induced by the emotional register of exposure to be observed.
Opponents of the practice considered that the legislation should have included provisions for independent monitoring of vivisectionists, while members of the scientific community saw the act as putting up “obstacles to scientific research,” as well as being an intolerable “humiliation of scientists”. Antivivisectionists were also accused of quoting physiologists out of context and twisting their words, as well as falsifying illustrations taken from their manuals, in order to horrify and shock. Each anatomical illustration was accompanied by a caption which was made to appear to be a quotation from the text.
Most dishonest and misleading of all, one poster included an illustration that did not feature in the physiologist’s book. It represented a monkey attached to the vivisection table, its eyes looking up at the sky and its paws making a begging gesture, as the vivisectionist, depicted with the face of a fierce old man covered in warts, sniggered as he approached his victim. Agitation should have been met with counter agitation, petitions with counterpetitions, in short, the weapons that the enemies of sciences used so skillfully and perfidiously should have been taken up and used against them. We had been attacked by virulent personalities: why did we not reply using ad hominem attacks which would have confounded our crafty opponents, ridiculed the fanatics, ripped from one agitator his mask of humaneness, and exposed as bogus the scientific prestige of another? The scientists had seen their doctrines and experiments hatefully misrepresented in public meetings: why did they not write pamphlets to enlighten the masses, who had been tricked by slanderers?
Statements like these kinds are a striking demonstration of the range of different effects produced by the emotional register of unmasking, mobilized by antivivisectionists. At the very moment when this register was facilitating the mobilization of growing numbers of – mostly women – supporters, it also created a sentiment of outrage among scientists and convinced them of the need to mount a countermobilization with a view to restoring their unfairly undermined dignity. First of all, they would argue that the criticisms of detractors of vivisection were undermined by the fact that their condemnations of brutality toward animals were very selective. While quick to denounce the fate of laboratory animals, supporters of the antivivisection cause could be strangely unaffected by other acts of violence, which they condoned, or even committed themselves. The list of signatures at the end of documents makes for strange reading.
Individuals who ban scientists from sacrificing a few animals in order to further the progress of science and to save the lives of innumerable sick people, regard it as perfectly normal to sacrifice thousands of human lives in colonial wars, which are really just about commercial gain! The lives of frogs and rabbits are sacred, there is no scientific progress that can excuse a physiological experiment. But slay soldiers in their tens of thousands, destroy cities, provoke the tears of widows, mothers, and orphans, just to be sure that bondholders will be paid their coupons, which, on the other hand, is quite legitimate and shocks nobody.
The only purpose of horseracing is to make money for those lords who, while they are discussing the antivivisection bill, are delaying the passage of the agricultural bill intended to stop the most disgraceful of vivisections: that of the Irish peasantry. There is one thing which has always struck me about members of the English race: their profound hypocrisy, as well as their boundless selfishness […]. I would like to see the banning of hunting with hounds, where horses, dogs, foxes, deer, and trackers are subjected to completely pointless torture. If an experiment on an animal could save her son’s life, she says, she would still be totally opposed to it, as she would not want to owe her son’s life to the life of an animal. Besides, human pain bothers her very little, whereas she finds the sight and the idea of an animal suffering most upsetting. Drawing on their knowledge of human nature, scientists went to some lengths to demonstrate that having antivivisectionist tendencies – far from simply resulting from a debatable philosophical choice – was purely and simply pathological.
In fact, the above extract comes at the end of a long passage that offers an account of the behavior of three “sick people”: one of whom was a vegetarian and the other two antivivisectionists. For each of them, the psychiatrist notes examples of their eccentric behavior, provoked by their constant concern for the suffering of animals: feeding stray dogs, taking in large numbers of cats, going into abattoirs to plead with butchers to stop their killing, collecting pieces of glass which could injure a horse if it fell, hurling abuse at coachmen who use a whip, remonstrating with passengers who do not allow animals the time they need to rest, etc.
The doctor’s examination equally takes into account the “other kinds of strangeness” experienced by the three individuals: superstitions, hallucinations, ideas that they are being persecuted, fear of being touched, lack of “the reserve appropriate to their sex,” etc. Then the theorist of the hereditary madness of degenerates goes even further, revealing the family medical histories behind these remarkable clinical cases. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis is clear and unequivocal: This strange contrast between a constant concern for animals and indifference to people is an anomaly which could come as a surprise, given the mental lucidity which these sick people display, but which becomes clinically unsurprising, when one takes into account the strange and unusual character of their intellectual degeneration.
In this body of ideas which they are captivated by, creatures who are oversensitive, have unbalanced minds or are mentally defective find many issues in which they take a great interest. These matters take on such exaggerated importance that eventually delirium ensues […]. Of course, this is not a new kind of pathology, simply an episodic syndrome, one of the various ways in which hereditary madness can manifest itself. All these changes had a profound impact on the cause of animal protection. In fact, at the very moment when powerful emotional registers allowed more activists – most of them women – to be recruited, certain elites, who had previously supported the cause, left it and as a result, the movement’s reputation suffered. It would take many long decades before the animal welfare cause, often scoffed at for being the hobbyhorse of “little old ladies with their doggies,” recovered from the loss of legitimacy it suffered, from the last quarter of the 19th century onward. In fact, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that the cause found other sources of legitimacy thanks, firstly, to the success of various campaigns to sensitize the public to the fate of wild animals and, secondly, the rise of the discipline of animal ethics in universities throughout the English-speaking world.