Book review: The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Updated: Apr 29
Photo credits: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals, Ben Hunt / Vegan Night School
From the first page, the reader is submerged into a world they have likely never imagined before. I encourage you to hold your breath, keep treading water and hear what the hounds have to say.
Accidently finding themselves setting paw in a land untamed by humankind, Snitter and Rowf spend the early winter months roaming the sparsely populated fells, tarns and mountain ranges of the stunning, yet brutal, Lake District. In an experience far from any reader’s hiking trip to the Lakes with their family and friends, Richard Adams requires the reader to step into the world of mentally ill fugitive animals on a quest to either find ‘proper’ masters or become feral. This story blurs the lines of fiction and reality, finding a ridge from which the reader can question our anthropocentric view of the world through the dialogues of both animal and human. Filled to the brim with real places, people and practices (along with a fictitiously placed laboratory). The book will leave you desperate to follow in the snowy pawprints of the dogs and follow the scent of this emotional and morally challenging mountain trail that uses anthropomorphism as a key to understand the plight of the individual non-human animal.
Snitter, a fox terrier, after spending the majority of his life in a different kind of world, finds himself in unfortunate circumstances. He awakens in a research laboratory, with not much more than a plaster covering a gaping hole in his head. The origin of which the reader learns about very quickly, yet every human character who meets Snitter cannot fathom the source of such a head wound. He is a character I grew to love. He knew a world of lampposts, letterboxes and love beforehand but cannot figure out how to return to that world, until, an opportunity arises for Snitter to temporarily share a cage with a large and fierce black mongrel known as ‘Rowf’. We first meet Rowf in deep water and this proves to be a challenge for him throughout the story (skimming the edge of deep cold tarns of the Lake District), until his fear subsides in search of a better world for animals. Action before forethought is how Rowf lives his life; he is a fighter, only ever knowing the touch of evil hands. He manages to keep the companionship of the two hounds strong through adopting an unexpected patience for Snitter’s powerful seizures and loud nightmares. This loyalty is stretched when a third animal enters the trail.
Throughout their late-night trekking they meet many animals, some become prey, others turn out to heed indirect messages of importance, but none spend as much time with the wannabe feral animals as their Geordie Lake District guide: The Tod. The Tod is cunning and clever yet hard to understand, which leads both dogs and reader in a position of distrust. Only ever knowing a feral life spent with a bounty on his head, wanted by the red coats and their hounds, the Tod proves to be a valuable asset in the quest to defeat the necessity of hunger and avoid the searching eyes of man. But how long is a fox’s tale? Will trust between the dogs and the fox solidify in time to get away from the angry search parties of farmers? Or will buzzard and crow come to pick the remains of the three in the cold wintery sunrise?
The human characters’ narratives are interweaved in a linear form with the dogs’ tale. We meet a resourceful journalist Digby Driver, a man who both helps and hinders the dogs’ chances through sensationalist newspaper articles and the manipulation of public opinion. Driver proves to be an asset to the reader; teasing out the details we need to complete the full picture, though using these same details to highlight a profitable story for the ‘London Orator’. Similar to the real world in which the majority of animals are only known to us through the perspectives of humans, both defenceless Snitter and Rowf have no awareness of a man creating their (hi)story. Will he hinder the dogs’ chances of survival or will his story assist their quest for a different life?
Another man, Stephen Powell, battles with the dichotomy of human progress through animal experimentation and the plight of animals in order to gain freedom from unnecessary harm. Innocent, timid and caring in every aspect of his home life and thorough, disciplined and rigorous in every part of his job as a scientist, he finds himself weeks away from becoming an established scientific officer. As in every morally challenging book, an unexpected situation occurs, and the research station is put under pressure from the public eye. Powell is thrown into a position which puts his career on the line and tests his moral flexibility, helping the reader to understand what it is like to be an animal researcher. We are thrown into a babbling brook of morality when Digby Driver manages to tease information out of Powell over a few pints at a local pub. What impact will Powell’s words and actions have on the dogs and what impact will the dogs have on Powell? (N.B. The experiments described in this book have all been real experiments carried out on animals throughout the world. One widely known from the study of psychology: Harry Harlow and the Rhesus Macaques – The social isolation experiment).
The book intensifies towards the end with multiple climaxes that will have your heart squelching with hope and pain as if you were watching a live theatrical version with real animals. An ever present question forms in the readers’ mind which is hinted throughout the book and is encapsulated by Major Awdry: ‘…It occurs to me that creatures living entirely in the immediate present, through their physical senses, may suffer more rather than less intensely than we do.’ What of a dog’s life then? Stumbling into an empty vintage train carriage which has been deserted by humans in the winter off season, Rowf tells Snitter of his desire to have been a ‘good dog’ for the whitecoats and Snitter tells Rowf that the whitecoat masters didn’t want Rowf ‘…to be a good dog…’ for he says: ‘I don’t know what they did want. I don’t believe they know themselves.’ Will Rowf find a master without a white coat who keeps him away from the metal water?
This book has been an incredible journey for me. I endeavour to trek the same paths as The Plague Dogs with Ben, Oscar and Freya (man, dog and dog) at some point in the future. Adams’ critical view of our anthropocentrism is hashed out on the peaks of the Helvellyn range for all who are willing to read, and read, I suggest you do! Delve into the animal world and find out why Snitter and Rowf think: ‘It’s a bad world for animals.’