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.