“It’s a bad world for animals.” That’s the opinion of Rowf, one of the two escaped laboratory dogs of the title, and well it might be, with what’s been done to him. Snitter, the other dog, finds it harder to form coherent thoughts due to the experiments done on him.
The Plague Dogs, along with, in their various ways, books by Rachel Carson, Farley Mowat, Gerald Durrell, James Herriott, and Gavin Maxwell, no doubt contributed to opening my eyes to just how bad this world can be for animals, and, not long later, becoming a vegan. It’s a clear-eyed, insightful indictment of man’s inhumanity to just about every other species, though with a focus on animal experimentation.
Adams takes pains to consider the arguments for animal experimentation. He goes so far as to insert a character, real world ornithologist Peter Scott, who, in conversation with real world naturalist Ronald Lockley (and Adams’ friend) mocks Adams and his talking rabbits. But it is clear where Adams’ heart is, and that he has done his research thoroughly.
The book is far from perfect – it’s very slow to get started, hampered by long and seemingly irrelevant philosophical passages. But once it does get going, it’s a fast and moving read. Those same philosophical passages, which later come a little more on point, keep the book from being a tearjerker. Bad things happen, and worse things are referred to, but even as we see Rowf and Snitter in desperate states, there’s relatively little sentiment until late in the book.
Many readers have heard of Watership Down. Some of those will know Richard Adams was its author. Very few will know anything of him beyond that book and its companion, Tales from Watership Down. But there’s a lot more to Adams than talking rabbits, effective as they are. If Watership Down is his most sentimental book, The Plague Dogs is his most heartfelt. Shardik and Maia are his most complex – grand epic fantasies both (and Adams makes a point in this book that he’s well aware of the genre – he mentions Saruman and Orthanc, among others).
If you care about animals and about good writing, this book is worth your time. Keep on past the slow start, toil away at the thick accent of the tod (fox) that helps the dogs out, and suddenly you’ll find the pages flying by. There’s dark matter in here, to be sure, but if you’re not moved by the tenacity of Rowf and the crooked imagination of Snitter, you’re reading this wrong. Perhaps a 4/5 for execution, I give this 5/5 for effect.