Archive for December 2008


December 29, 2008

The holidays have brought on a spot of brain fog. I’ve taken a vacation from everything requiring mental effort and concentration, in spite of all my best intentions I haven’t even been catching up on the reading I wanted and needed to do.

Today, the real reason for this brain fog hit me: I’m back in Winnipeg, and have become a sleepwalker again. In Winnipeg in December, the sun does not come up in the morning until past 8 o’clock, then it makes a low arc in the sky before dipping back under the horizon sometime around 4:30. The temperature has not climbed above -20 Celsius, except for one day, but that was Christmas Day and it went by too quickly and the mercury dipped back down again that night. I went for a walk on Christmas Eve day, and by the time I realised I’d gone too far, my legs had started to freeze and the walk back was more urgent. When I finally made it back inside and started thawing out, my legs turned red and were violently itchy for at least an hour; I think the small veins and capillaries at the surface of my skin were re-dilating after some cold-induced vasoconstriction and were releasing histamine in a panic.

Anyways, back to the sleepwalking. I saw Guy Maddin’s weirdy-weird but wonderful movie My Winnipeg last summer at the Polo Park movieplex, and I have to thank him for explaining some dark and funny mysteries about this place where I was born and raised. Winnipeg is a city of sleepwalkers, according to Maddin. I’ve thought about this in the months since I saw the movie, since I didn’t know whether or not I agreed. In more recent years, Winnipeg has become a city of drivers; not many people walk anymore, except in the malls. But when you start walking outdoors in Winnipeg, you easily fall into a trance-like state, where time stands still and you simply walk endlessly on flat ground covered by crunchy-squeaky snow. You want to believe that the walking helps you to think, but really you’re past thinking, you’re simply surviving and repeating thoughts to yourself, ones you’ve already had, and you’re certainly not coming up with anything revolutionary. Time doesn’t stand still, you just don’t notice how it’s passing. One thing is certain: trancewalking is an excellent way of ignoring or avoiding conflict.

I loved Maddin’s exaggerations and embellishments, and I’m sure that everything he put in that movie happened – just not exactly the way he says it did. My theory about the frozen horses in the river is that one horse may have escaped from a stable and plunged into the icy river, but in Maddin’s childhood memory, one horse morphed into an entire stable, and they froze instantly. In any case, Winnipeg constantly produces outrageous news stories – just read the papers! said Maddin himself, in today’s paper in fact.

So the cold and dark would explain the brain fog, or laziness, as I prefer to call it when it happens to me. A funny thing about the sleepiness that afflicts me when I’m here is that I didn’t notice it when I was growing up, and in fact I’m convinced it doesn’t affect children. It hits you at puberty, and by the time you really notice how heavy and sleepy you’ve become, you’ve already made plans to leave – if only temporarily – to make it go away. I moved away when I was 18, I now know it was because I was especially in danger of becoming a dedicated sleepwalker. I spent years away from Winnipeg trying to shake myself awake, but since I keep coming back, I remain susceptible.

Of course, I have to tie this in with animals at some point, might as well go for it now. Hibernation in turtles, amphibians and fish, is my first thought. A few years ago, someone brought a toad to the clinic where I now work, an ordinary greenish brown toad in a box; he was on his way to being released. The person wanted a professional opinion on how the toad could possibly have lain immobile for an entire winter trapped in a cement wall, and then resurrected when the wall was broken down and he was inadvertently rescued. Not knowing much about toads, I tried to remember what I had learned about amphibians and what they might do during the winter. Toads can dig, so they can reach deep ground that does not freeze. The part of the concrete wall in which he was encased likely didn’t freeze, according to the rescuer, and it was actually quite damp, so that might have helped it survive.Frogs, on the other hand, can’t dig, so they have a more complex challenge to avoid freezing or dehydrating during the winter. Adaptive evolution is a delightfully complex process, and I applaud the frogs and other cold-blooded survivors of the Ice Age for their sleepy resourcefulness.

Other animals don’t hibernate, and while Winnipeg isn’t a place where you will find an abundant variety of wildlife, you will reliably find great numbers of a few single species. Deer, for instance, have flourished. Particularly around here in the suburbs reclaimed from farmers’ fields, where people have taken pity on them and set out hay or other types of feed to get them through the long winter months. Really, you wouldn’t know how they ever survived without us, as they hang around the feeding stations nearly all day long, and don’t run away unless you try to approach close enough for a chat. Some people have taken feeding wildlife to ridiculous lengths; my parents gleefully reported that one of their neighbours, on at least one occasion, cooked up a chicken that she took outside and delivered to a fox and her new litter of kits.

Then there are the insects. They spend the winter in diapause, waiting for the world to become more hospitable before they come to life again. In places like Winnipeg, it seems that only a relative few species have perfected the diapause to such a degree that they can proliferate when the days start to grow long. Mosquitoes, dragonflies, bumblebees and giant water bugs were the insects that plagued me as a kid; when summer came, they were suddenly, alarmingly, everywhere. I must have been four or five years old the day I went to visit my best friend across the street, and when it was time for me to go home, I could not cross back because in the space of a few hours the street had been invaded by an army of giant water bugs. A real nightmare, these bugs could crawl, swim AND fly, and their large pincers weren’t just for decoration. In my mind, I can still see the driveway and street littered with hundreds of them, even as my friend’s mum told me not to be such a scaredy-cat, there were only a few bugs and I was much faster than they were. Even though I begged her to drive me home, she eventually convinced me I could outrun the bugs, so I took a deep breath and ran as fast as I could; somehow I made it across those 50 metres from door to door in one piece. A scene like that would have featured in my version of My Winnipeg, with no (conscious) exaggeration.

So here we all are, several species of animal, stuck in the depths of an Ice Age winter, each doing our best to make it through until the better days arrive, as they always do. Some of us do it best by giving in to the sleep, while others find it easier to stay awake. For the ones who won’t give in to sleep, their job is to take care of the ones who can’t get by alone, and to stand against the dark and cold.

Presidents, puppies and taking responsibility

December 15, 2008

Although the Obamas have not yet chosen that puppy for their girls, Joe Biden has a new German shepherd (h/t to JJ at unrepentantoldhippie via Huffpost). I was glad to know that the vice-president-elect has experience with German shepherds, because in my experience they have powerful qualities that can become liabilities with the wrong owner. They have that special combination of impressive size, strength, sensitivity and intelligence. As a vet, I have consistently found them to be, um…how I should I put this? – not the easiest dogs to deal with in clinical situations. (The fact that I was taken down by my neighbour’s German shepherd, King, when I was 8 has absolutely nothing to do with my lingering nervousness around shepherds, I swear.)

Ever since I heard that the Obamas were looking for a puppy, I had been thinking about the various options, based on my experience as a vet with a general, non-canine-expert experience with a wide variety of breeds, the fact that my kids are the same age as the Obamas, and my own struggle with various animal and dust allergies. Lately, I can’t help thinking that if I had to make a recommendation, I would point them toward a rescue dog. But not just any shelter “mutt” as Obama candidly mentioned – though of course mutts make wonderful companions and are a great alternative to popular breeds. For the Obamas, I would suggest a greyhound rescue.

Admittedly, I don’t see greyhounds very often in the clinic where I work – only twice so far in fact. The most recent was just a few weeks ago, when a client came in with Daisy, a greyhound he had rescued from Arizona the year before. She was in excellent health; she only had a small but painful superficial wound on her hind leg. Contrary to many dogs, when Daisy was put on the table, she put on a very brave face and let me do what I had to do to allow the wound to heal as quickly as possible. She did not pull her leg away or turn her head toward me to see if she could intimidate me into leaving her alone, instead she only flinched slightly when I examined the wound and applied a gentle antiseptic, noting that she had the typical thin, delicate skin of the breed. Her owner had only praise for her, and I could see why. Not only had she easily adapted to a new home at the age of 4, but she had quickly become the moral support of her new companion, a bossy 12-year-old Shih-Tzu, who now refused to leave the house without Daisy in tow.

My positive impression of the greyhound temperament has been reinforced by the research I’ve done since. Descriptors abound with terms such as “sweet” “gentle” “affectionate” “loyal” and “quiet couch potato”. Granted, the vast majority of greyhounds are not adopted as puppies, because they are specifically bred for sprint racing. Barring injury, their careers usually last between 2 and 5 years, which means they are often available for adoption between the ages of 2 and 5; more rarely, puppies or adolescents can be adopted due to injury or physical unsuitability for racing. Essentially, as with horse racing, when an animal is no longer profitable to the owner, it must be “dealt with”. In the 1980s, some dedicated dog lovers became aware of this sad business, and initiated projects to adopt spent greyhounds into homes. This has led to a rather predictable conundrum: some greyhound adopters remain viscerally opposed to greyhound racing, while others have decided to remain neutral, to avoid driving away the very people who provide them with animals to adopt out…

With the current economic downturn meaning less free-flowing cash, I’m wondering if the demand for homes for greyhounds will suddenly go up, or if this has already happened. It’s important to remember that animals will be the ones who will most suffer from any economic crisis, because they are at the bottom of the chain of concern. Rescues of all kinds will be needed in the coming months and years.

This, to my mind, is where a greyhound for the Obamas would fit in. His looming role as Rescuer-in-Chief needs a mascot: a suitably “vetted” greyhound, with its working-class background, gentle disposition, and short, (hopefully) hypoallergenic coat would make a perfect addition to a household where two young girls would have a beautiful and gentle dog to keep them company as they all adjust together to a new environment. And as we all adjust to a new economy – one that will hopefully bring out our best instincts of rescue, care and concern for people and animals whose livelihoods are all too easily exploitable, and ultimately expendable in a capitalist economy.

Although I am no expert in greyhound health and longevity, I do wish to point out that nearly every breed of dog has its characteristic problems. Greyhounds may not have a typical disease profile that results from intensive inbreeding exacerbated by sudden popularity, but concerns have been raised about a possible increased likelihood of developing osteosarcoma. While I never like to see any breed of dog suddenly become popular, it would be nice to shed some light on this business of raising dogs for gambling, only to see them discarded when they are no longer profitable.

When will police conclude that Tasers are cruel and useless? This vet wants to know.

December 12, 2008

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that the Mounties will not be charged in the death of Robert Dziekanski.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of that decision by the B.C. criminal justice branch. Even though it’s obvious that Dziekanski was murdered, and his mother should receive acknowledgement of that, and some kind of compensation (though nothing will compensate for the loss of her son); I’m not sure the most appropriate course would be to charge the Mounties who used the Taser on him. I believe that the responsibility for his death lies higher up, with the “deciders” who thought it was a good idea to introduce Tasers in the first place. Cattle prods for humans, eh. If it hadn’t been in the news for the past several years, I wouldn’t believe it – I thought these methods were only worthy of concentration camps.

The guys who introduced Taser-like devices to this poor world supposedly had experience with cattle. Well, I worked for a while as a large animal vet, mainly with beef and dairy cows. Among the many tools I was instructed to purchase when I started out was a cattle prod. It looked like this:

Essentially a low-tech Taser prototype, discharging 60-80 volts of electricity when applied directly to the skin (holy moly, Tasers discharge 50,000 volts!? Hello, human doctors? could we have a word with you on this?) Even the relatively small voltage of my cattle prod was not something I ever tried on myself, as I’m a bit of a wuss that way – I’ve been inadvertently shocked by touching electric fences, and other cow-control accoutrements in barns and trust me, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The principal use of the prod, I observed during my rotations, was to get cows to stand up when they were too “stubborn” and didn’t respond to shouts, kicks pushes or slaps on the rump. I observed that the older vets tended to use the prod more frequently than the younger ones, and that women vets almost never used them. When I entered practice, I kept the prod in my tool chest with 2 double-D Energizer batteries, but never used it, though I did once or twice as a student, under instructions, and yes, it felt wrong. At some point, I removed the batteries to use in a much more useful tool (a flashlight) and never replaced them in the prod.

The main problem with the use of the cattle prod was that, in addition to being a cruel and painful method, it didn’t address the underlying problem. If the cow did not rise upon gentle prodding or encouragement, it was because she couldn’t – due to pain, weakness, metabolic disease, a fracture or sprain, a slippery floor, or not enough headspace because the chain around her neck prevented her from moving forward. A “downer” cow cannot be ignored – if she stays down too long, then she will never get up again due to muscle damage – but the prod was never a solution to that problem, not even “for her own good”.

Another use of the cattle prod is to goad cattle to go where you want them to go, when they are balking. I don’t remember ever seeing it used that way, likely because Temple Grandin’s work on cattle had already come into vogue, and we were more interested in using gentler, more effective methods of solving problems. The cattle prod makes the animals more skittish, nervous, and prone to accidents and injury. Not in the best interest of vets or farmers.

So imagine my surprise when a “method of control” that was on the point of passing into the annals of veterinary history in the early 2000s was introduced as a method of controlling humans. Le monde à l’envers.

I don’t know how I can state it more plainly. Cattle prods, like Tasers, do not achieve the desired ends, and all too often cause “adverse events”. Once veterinarians started to realise that cows had very good medical reasons for not rising on command, the use of the prod was seen as retrograde; a tool that at best is useless, and at worst is cruel and harmful. Essentially, if you use it, it’s because you are too lazy or incompetent to figure out what the real problem is.

Yes, sometimes humans freak out and act stubbornly, violently, aggressively, and are a danger to themselves and to others. However, until Tasers entered the police arsenal, I had assumed that these professionals, dealing with with fellow humans, could come up with techniques such as, oh I don’t know, verbal communication? Judo? Physical isolation or “time-out”? Removing bystanders from the scene so they are not at risk? Or maybe other creative methods to defuse these situations; hell, it’s not my responsibility to come up with them, but I’m sure they exist.

Tasers will pass into the annals of police history, it is just a question of time. However, how cruel and stupid are these deciders and manufacturers going to look several years from now? How many humans with diabetes, mental illness, with other medical problems or under extreme duress will have to die in the meantime?

Change happens: thanks, feminism!

December 11, 2008

Over at unrepentantoldhippie, JJ has again neatly made the point that even though you don’t want feminists to speak for you as a woman, that’s OK, because it’s not about you, as an outstanding and outspoken individual, it’s about the historical fact that women once did not have the same political and social rights as men did, but that through the continuing struggle, rising, falling and rising again, of feminism over several decades and at least a few centuries, things have changed. Even though that’s apparently too complex a history for some people, it’s undeniable that feminism has had one of the most profound impacts on Western society – for good or for evil, depending on your point of view. But please, let’s be consistent, and honest with history. If you think feminism is so awful, and you don’t accept the fact that it has made momentuous and positive contributions to women’s lives, it would be really neat if you would forgo those changes and acquired rights, and live as women did 50, 70, 100, 200 years ago. But alas, you cannot. Short of dropping out of society, you can’t return to that golden age of oppression. Feminism was not a “natural” evolution of human society; it was a struggle, all the way along.

I’m reading the third edition (2002) of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. One of the cool things about this book is that the prefaces for the 1975 and 1990 editions are included. Singer expresses his humble amazement at some of the rapid developments in the animal rights movement over the past 30+ years, and how it has influenced practice – particularly in the European Union, where changes have greatly outpaced North America in terms of animal welfare laws and changes in husbandry practices (notably for chickens and pigs). For example, by 2012, European egg producers will have to provide 750 cm2 (120 sq in) per bird; in Canada the current recommendation is 450 cm2, and only 350 cm2 (52 sq in) in the United States. The changes proposed for Canada and the United States are already seen as outmoded and inacceptable by European farmers – who are starting to consider that maybe hens need a system that does without cages altogether…

In the first chapter of Singer’s book, he discusses the reaction to proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In a move reminiscent of bloggerdom, a satirical work appeared soon after: A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (i.e. animals). The author was anonymous at the time (hmm) but it is now known that it was Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher. His satire pointed out that if Wollstonecraft’s arguments held for women and children then what if we extended them to dogs, cats, and horses? (Yeah, what if we had to stop beating them to an inch of their lives for disobedience, or rounding them up off the streets and cutting them up into pieces while they still lived and breathed…) Of course, as satire, it was surely a hilarious read for literate men of the day. But still, a century later, things hadn’t changed that much for women. They still didn’t have the right to vote or own property, and they were not considered persons under the law; in addition to a thousand other humiliating details. By the 1920s, when women were finally allowed to vote in England, Canada, the US, and Australia – they still weren’t paid equal wages for similar work, or allowed equal educational and professional opportunities.

Progress continued slowly, until the incredibly rapid changes in laws and customs that occurred just before I was born, and continued at a whirlwind pace as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. Feminism has been influential to the point where even the very conservative religious culture I grew up in (evangelical Christianity) has become nearly unrecognisable in some of its aspects – the emergence of Sarah Palin would be Exhibit A, and though I really don’t wish to elaborate on her, except to mention that back in the 1980s, mainstream evangelical church leaders thought that the day they let women have political or religious authority over men meant that there were no men fit to lead and we were all heading for hell in a handbasket anyways. (Exhibit B would be pastors telling their members to have (hetero)sexual intercourse every day…. As I check this link, I realise that I attended this church briefly, about 20 years ago. They didn’t display cheesy-sexy beds anywhere near pulpits in those days.)

But of course Palin’s not exceptional. She’s simply part of a culture that has changed to the point where you are more likely than not to have a woman as your doctor or veterinarian. When I graduated from vet school as a large animal practitioner almost a decade ago, it was the turning point, when the balance tipped to a female majority of graduating vets. Yes, we had and continue to have our struggles, to obtain reasonable mat leave and time off to nurse babies and be with our young kids and return to our jobs – but I am pleased to note that in Canada at least, women (and men) vets are increasingly willing to sub in for each other in temporary locums, as women take time off to have children and then return to work on a part-time basis, until their kids are older.

But back to animals à la fin. Even though the seemingly intractable problems of humans, animals and the environment can drain us of energy and create cynicism, negativism is no help at all, and it suffocates hope. Changes in thinking about animal welfare and rights have made a difference, and continue to do so. Change doesn’t happen overnight – but sometimes it can happen with breathtaking rapidity.

Animals are persons too

December 10, 2008

They each have a face, and having a face is just another thing that we all share.

Last night in the Huffington Post I read about Edgar the cat. She (yes, Edgar is a girl) had her face reattached after an unfortunate incident with a fan belt – in winter, cats will sometimes seek refuge under the hood of a car when the engine is still warm. If they’re lucky, they get out when you open the car door, or are woken up with a start when the motor turns over and escape with minimal or no damage to their little bodies, but sometimes they are killed more or less instantly or suffer catastrophic injury. Edgar’s accident was somewhere in between: major – catastrophic, to be sure – damage to the skin of his face, but the damage wasn’t immediately life-threatening, as he made it back home on all four feet with eyes and mouth intact and no major bleeding. Of course, without treatment, infection and fever would have quickly set in and he would have died – eventually. This type of accident is only one of the neverending variety of misfortunes that happen to cats and dogs. Sometimes, vets can only speculate on what caused an injury, because the animal victim is often the only witness. Did that cat return home with only three legs because it was caught in a trap, or was it a car accident, or foul play? Etc.

Kudos to Edgar’s owner: when she regained consciousness after catching a glimpse of the face hanging off his skull, she took her straight to the vet. And félicitations to the vet, for doing such a great surgical job on Edgar’s face. Not just any vet would have been able to tackle that job successfully. I’m a vet myself, though I don’t do surgery, and I’m pretty sure only one of my colleagues at the local clinic would have the surgical guts and expertise required for this job.

Still, the mechanical skills of this type of surgery have been in practice for a long time, even hundreds of years – certain individual surgeons are on historical record as having had excellent dexterity and manual skills, but these often failed because they didn’t have the modern advantages of knowledge about how tissues heal and the techniques and medicines for control of infection – not to mention the materials, anaesthetics, and other small but vital (and sometimes expensive) details that increase the chances of a very successful outcome.

But the key element here was the owner’s immediate decision to treat. I’d be willing to bet that a majority of cat owners would make the same decision. Some, however, would or could not. Some people would take one look at a catastrophically damaged face and make the immediate decision to euthanise, just to stop the suffering, unable to imagine that it could be healed. Others, faced with terrible financial constraints and an inability to beg, borrow or steal, would opt for euthanasia when the vet pulls out the fee estimate, which would likely be in the range of a few to several hundred dollars, depending on the location and type and of clinic or hospital – not including the extra cost if Edgar was not brought in during regular clinic hours.

I wouldn’t want to judge the person who would opt for euthanasia due to an inability to pay. As for those who’d have no trouble paying, but choose not to, even when they receive assurance that the chances of complete recovery are good – that’s another story.

But what about the animals who never make it in to the clinic in the first place, for treatment or euthanasia? Animals without owners, deliberately abandoned, or temporarily lost? We don’t want to think about what happens to them, much the same way we don’t want to think about unfortunate humans. What about the animals owned by people who can’t afford to pay their own health care bills, never mind those of their animals? Here in Canada, we’re a bit more lucky that way – most of our medical needs are covered by a socialised system wherein those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to pay taxes chip in to look out for everyone else, including the ones who can’t do likewise. It’s not charity, it’s simply an application of the Golden Rule – a what-would-Jesus-do kind of thing.

But with health care costs mounting for all kinds of reasons – especially including the huge increase in the variety and quality of things we *can* do to ensure the best possible outcomes – I’m glad we’re still called upon to chip in. Because most often, the ones who need help the most are usually the ones who can’t ask and can’t pay.

I don’t think we need a different kind of health care system here in Canada. I think what we need to do is continue to work toward ensuring the best possible care for everyone, irrespective of their ability to pay.
And maybe someday, in my “socialist” utopia, animals will benefit from the same kind of consideration…