Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down, creates a lyrical and engrossing tale, a remarkable journey into the hearts and minds of two canine heroes, Snitter and Rowf. After being horribly mistreated at a government animal-research facility, Snitter and Rowf escape into the isolation—and terror—of the wilderness. Aided only by a fox they call “the tod,” the two dogs must struggle to survive in their new environment. When the starving dogs attack some sheep, they are labeled ferocious man-eating monsters, setting off a great dog hunt that is later intensified by the fear that the dogs could be carriers of the bubonic plague.
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A dog drowning in a tank full of water is pulled out by researchers just in time to be revived in order to undergo future such "experiments" to determine how long he can swim before drowning. After detachedly agreeing on the proper time at which to fish the dog out of the tank, Mr. Powell and his chief Dr. Boycott discuss a monkey who is to be indefinitely subjected to sensory deprivation in a cylinder. Business as usual at the Animal Research Scientific and Experimental (ARSE) complex situated in a national park in the Lake District in England in The Plague Dogs (1977) by Richard Adams.
The drowning dog, Rowf, regains consciousness in his pen when his neighbor, a fox terrier named Snitter, wakes him up by saying something like "Rowf? They've taken away all the rhododendrons and replaced them with maggots." Snitter has received experimental brain surgery, leaving him with a "rakish" bandage cap, periodic nightmarish fits, and the belief that either everything is happening inside his own head or that everything he imagines comes true in the world. Snitter is by turns a sensitive and thoughtful dog or a mad canine seer in the line of Lear's Fool. In the beginning of the novel, the dogs manage to escape from their pens and embark on a Dantean journey through the circles of hell, a series of experiment rooms populated by cats with covered ears and eyes, guinea pigs with amputated limbs, homing pigeons with damaged sensory organs and brains, mice who've been injected with the urine of potentially pregnant women, rats who've been given cancer and then dissected, and so on. (Many more horrible experiments are described later in the novel, and probably no single real world laboratory complex could perform all the experiments undertaken by ARSE, and for that matter no research institute would ever name itself ARSE, but all of the experiments mentioned in The Plague Dogs have been and or are being done to animals.) Much more than in Adams' Watership Down (1972), we are here in the fearsomely human-dominated world experienced by animals.
After Rowf and Snitter escape from ARSE, they struggle to survive among the farms, fells, tarns, and mountains of the Lake District. Should they try to find a good master like Snitter's recently deceased man? Should they go wild and live by a kill or be killed code? Or should they return to the "white coats" (researchers) like obedient dogs?
In addition to the unempathic white coats, Adams introduces a cast of human characters affected by the escape of the "plague dogs," an unethical investigative newspaper reporter, no-nonsense local farmers and shop keepers, and some self-serving politicians. None of them care about the dogs as fellow living beings. As Rowf repeatedly tells Snitter, "The world is a bad place for animals." The dogs want to believe that the world is like that due to some unknown human motivation, that men must have a good reason to "destroy the natural world and replace it with a wilderness" and to hurt so many animals. The novel depicts dogs (like most animals) as slaves or holocaust victims of humanity.
The Plague Dogs would be unbearably grim were it not for two balancing virtues, Adams' humor and varied style. The book is often very funny, even amid the grueling suspense of Rowf and Snitter's attempts to survive outside ARSE and the horrible experiments going on inside ARSE. And Adams writes in a variety of registers and styles for a variety of purposes, among them caustic satire (targeting scientific research, the media, and politicians), existential comedy, surreal madness, scatological humor, sublime natural beauty (especially of the Lake District), Lake District dialects, doggy songs and poetry, and allusions to literature by the likes of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Adams even pokes fun at himself when some naturalist animal experts debate the virtues of enthusiasts like Adams who over-anthropomorphize animals like rabbits (in Watership Down).
Snitter often utters a Fool-like patter like this: "Perhaps you're not out at all. You're drowned. We're dead. We haven't been born. There's a mouse—a mouse that sings—I'm bitten to the brains and it never stops raining—not in this eye anyway." And when excited, he may indulge in a cracked canine rap like this:
"The white coats dyed a mouse bright blue And stuffed his ears with sneezing glue. They shone a biscuit in his eye To see what lay beyond the sky."
And he's often given to canine idiom, like this: "That remark's in very poor smell."
If Rowf and Snitter are too articulate for dogs, they have appealingly canine perspectives. They tend to think that every mysterious thing that happens is a result of some man doing something somewhere, from turning on a light in a lab room to cutting away pieces of the moon each night. They even tell tales of a benevolent Star Dog who created all the animals and then the world to give them a home and then made man to take care of the animals while He was away on other business and who cursed man with never being able to live in the moment after he began abusing his charges.
Ralph Cosham gives his usual unassuming and perfect reading of the novel, handling the northern dialects so smoothly that it's easier to listen to them than to read them, making his Rowf speak slightly deeper and his Snitter slightly higher, and generally enhancing the novel in all the right ways.
Adams's anger with animal experimentation burns through his satiric riffs and sarcastic asides. He pulls no punches about how awfully we treat animals. Proponents of experiments on animals for the supposed future benefits to science, humanity, and animals might feel defensive and resentful reading this novel, while opponents of such experiments might become enraged and nauseated. At times Adams lays it on too thickly, with a bit more sarcasm or satire than the truth requires, and some of the parts devoted to unpleasant people last a bit too long and repeat too much information. And I love and worry about Rowf and Snitter so much that I nearly thought about putting the book down when their plight becomes unbearable, but finally I am glad to have read this novel.
I owned this book, the paperback version for about 20 years and never read it. Now that I have listened to the story of these two dogs I'm happy I did. I love dogs and this truely is a dog lovers book. Highly recommend.