Archive for January 2009

Obama puppy from Canada?

January 23, 2009

Although I’ve already expressed my semi-professional unsolicited advice that the Obamas should adopt a greyhound, it would be a nice gesture if they adopted a puppy from this shelter in my hometown.

The Winnipeg Humane Society helped police break up an illegal puppy mill in the city in December, and seized 55 Labradoodles, including 21 puppies and two pregnant females.

One of them, named “Lilly,” has since given birth to a litter of 11 “bright and happy” puppies, the shelter’s executive director Bill MacDonald told AFP.

“When I learned that President Obama’s first official state visit would be to Canada, and that he was looking for a puppy for his daughters, I thought a shelter puppy would make a great gift from our government,” he said.

I’ve seen a few Labradoodles in my rural practice, and while I retain a bit of healthy skepticism about new-fangled crosses, I have to admit the doodles are nice-sized dogs with a good temperament – not as rambunctious as Labs, smart like…well, poodles, and hopefully the poodle genes will diminish the risks of hip dysplasia.

Of course, it’s never good to see a breed come into super-vogue, but I’m hopeful that we’re moving past that era into a new one where dogs are appreciated as mutts rather than as a specialised breed.

Abortion and the animal rights movement

January 23, 2009

I’m writing this post in honour of one of President Obama’s first acts as president: today he will or has already overturned the “global gag rule” that banned federal funds from being used in foreign family planning organisations that either offer abortions or provide information or counselling about abortion.

It is known as the “global gag rule” because it denies US taxpayer dollars to clinics that even mention abortion to women with unplanned pregnancies.

The rule was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned by Bill Clinton in 1993, and reinstated by Bush.

The gag rule was just another one of those candies, a “faith-based initiative”, that the Bush regime crafted to reward and invigorate a tightly organised mass of people that votes based on religious sentiment, particularly on a strong opposition to abortion, for their support that was instrumental in getting him elected twice, to the utter astonishment of the rest of the world.

Tightly organised as they are around the issue of abortion, I don’t think they realise that their movement was a contributing factor to the revival of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements. Six influences on the rise of the animal rights movement were identified by Harlan B. Miller in Ethics and Animals (1983), described by Richard Ryder as:

– the momentum of liberation: anti-colonialism, anti-racismt logical step was anti-speciesism
– scientific evidence that nonhumans share intellectual and perceptual faculties in common with humankind
– the decline in dualistic views separating mind from body: acknowledging that nervous systems in humans and animals are the basis for mental life and consciousness; this factor also relates to a diminished influence of conventional Western or monotheistic religion in public philosophy and politics
– the development of behavioural sciences (sociobiology and ethology) that attempt to draw conclusions about human behaviour from observations of other animals (i.e. that homo sapiens is just another species, albeit a tool-making and book-writing one)
-the rise of environmental and ecological movements
– the ethical debate over abortion, particularly when it focuses on the “person” concept in ethics and law.

Of these six influences on the animal rights debate, I find the abortion one to be the least significant, practically speaking, though it may have lent some moral crusade sentiment to activists.

I work and live with many different species of animals, and I can’t really say whether officially defining them as persons would change much about the way I treat them – which is always with respect and care for their bodies and psyches (at least the ones I get to meet up close); most of the time with love and strong attachment; sometimes with exasperation. Too often, however, I treat them with disregard – I’m not proud of that, but I do have to be honest: I still eat meat (though I try not to), wear leather gloves and use a multitude of other animal-based products that I’m probably not even aware of half the time. And yet if I do wish to consider animals (which ones?) as “persons”, it would only be to improve their overall situation in our society. It seems quite obvious that depending on the species and the context, they share our capacity for suffering, self-awareness, anticipation, fear, pleasure and many other emotions that we think makes us special as humans.

In the same way, I have no quarrel with considering the zygote/embryo/fetus to be human. I don’t see what else they could be, given the DNA involved. But that doesn’t stop me from supporting abortion rights, and from thinking that Canada has taken a wise stance with regard to abortion, that of leaving it unlegislated. To me, this means that when problems of accessing safe abortions are taken care of, it’s a matter that concerns only the woman who inhabits the body where a pregnancy is developing. In general, human zygotes/embryos/fetuses are protected by protecting the health and safety of women, so there is no systematic discrimination against these fetuses, which is one of the more specious arguments of the anti-abortion movement.

Animals on the other hand, face a systematic lack of protection of their bodies and interests simply because they are animals; different species are afforded different kinds of protection according to their status as property or objects of affection. Even though I don’t always completely agree with the focus and direction of animals rights, I am indebted to many animal rights scholars and specialists for helping me understand the status of animals in society, and how we think about them when we do what we do to them in research and in the food industry.

As for the anti-abortion movement, it does not appear to me to have the same universal moral grounding and concern for life that the animal rights/environmentalist movement has. The sole focus is human life in the womb, from the time of conception (and possibly even before that). The big idea is: human life inside the womb has absolute rights, regardless of circumstances. That’s going one further than God, imho. I continue to marvel at the way anti-abortion activists in recent times have aligned themselves with regimes that have been enthusiastic about wars, pre-emptive strikes, environmental despoilment, torture of prisoners and over-zealous military protectionism. A person really has to wonder where they got the nerve to adopt the pro-life moniker.

I think I’ll stick to following what the animal rights’ scholars and environmentalists have to say in the coming years. I find their focus to be a lot less self-serving and chauvinistic than those who want humans to overrun the earth and drag us all into a culture of death by Armageddon.

Choosing sides

January 9, 2009

I often wonder about the different reasons that make people choose one side of an debate or conflict over another. Also, what motivates us to change our minds – or admit that we see reason on the other side and therefore must grudgingly switch over. Do some people *know* that they are on the wrong side, but protecting their own interests, preserving prejudice or wilfull ignorance prevents them from admitting it? I tend to think so.

I’ve had Deborah Ellis’ courageous book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak for a few months, but finally started to read it the other night with my kids; we’ve read 10 or so of the children’s stories so far. It’s hard reading, but we’re used to it; we were very grateful for her Breadwinner (Parvana’s Journey) trilogy, and we’ve read some difficult books about animal suffering as well, such as Black Beauty.

The book is balanced and honest. Ellis mentions that she obtained parental permission to do all of her interviews, and if any of the parents ended up objecting after the fact, she did not include those interviews in the book. She also did not include interviews in which the children were “very rabidly” against the other side, because she didn’t want that to be the legacy left by those young people. Of course, she could have changed names or not used photos, but rabid partisanship was not the overall feeling she got from the children and youth she interviewed. The Israeli and Palestinian children (both Muslim and Christian) are girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 18. Their opinions and stories have not made me wince or roll my eyes; on the contrary, they all have the mark of reality – none of them appear to be overly tinged by parental, religious or cultural influence.

Still, as one would expect from these children, the sides are very well drawn: they know exactly who they are, and what and who they are up against. They speak about not knowing any Palestinian children, if they are Israeli, and vice versa. Some of the children say they don’t want to know children from the other side, while others say they do, because then they would understand that they are not the evil people they are made out to be by the other side. At least one child remarked that the children of the other side might start out being nice, but then they grow up to be just like their parents, hating them because they are Palestinian, or Israeli.

All of the children wish the conflict would just go away and leave them in peace: to not live in fear of being blown up, say the Israelis; and to not live with constant fear, harassment, indiscriminate shootings, interminable waits in lines at checkpoints and roadblocks, and cruel and unpredictable cancellations of school, jobs and activities, say the Palestinians.

My son has listened carefully to these accounts and has become convinced that the Palestinian children have it much worse, though of course he understands the chronic fears of the Israeli children, who live in fear during every normal outing you could imagine, including walking beside parked cars that might blow up at exactly the wrong moment for you. He understands the fear on all sides, probably because real and imagined fears are a normal part of every child’s existence, even when the objective reasons to fear aren’t that high on the relative scale. Still, he’s chosen his side based on a gut instinct of what is worse, and who is bearing the brunt of the violence and daily injustice.

I’m a bit troubled by that, because it wasn’t my goal to have him choose sides – after all, choosing sides will cause him grief at some point; so maybe it’s best to remain numb, or indifferent? Or to imagine that both sides are equally at fault, through historical miscalculations and power-grabs? Or, at a meta-level, to find some kind of universal self-satisfying explanation about how all humans are inherently vicious and will never get along unless they admit they are sinful and surrender to God? Certain religious currents instill us with this sense of helpless pessimism (I’m looking at you, evangelical Christians).

But I’m not sure anymore what the point is, because the war in Israel and Palestine has escalated in an appallingly lopsided fashion, either in spite of or because of the obvious pitiful circumstances to which the residents of Gaza have been reduced since 2005. The interviews from Three Wishes were carried out in 2002 – that’s ages ago, especially from the pov of an 11-year-old; but consider as well, that that is just slightly longer than all of World War II, and we’re still talking about it and learning new facts and analysis.

I wanted to write about animal and veterinary issues today and yesterday. And I probably will, but before I can get started on the pile of veterinary journals and articles on my desk, and sort out the events and issues I dealt with at work this week, I had to get this out.
If you haven’t already, please go to Amnesty International Canada’s site and sign the petition to tell our Foreign Minister to insist that civilians be protected and that unlawful attacks cease. Last I checked, it was up to 999 signatures.

And just to show that the sides are not so clearly drawn, read here about a massive Israeli protest against the Israeli government’s action in Gaza.

h/t: Creekside

On the use of force

January 4, 2009

I am co-authoring a modest book on cats with another veterinarian who, like me, has had experience with a wide variety of species in different clinical and research contexts. Of course, as Andrew is approaching 80, his experience goes well beyond mine. Recently, I reviewed his chapter on “training” cats so that they don’t behave in ways that could put strains on their relationships with humans, such as scratching furniture and jumping onto tables and countertops. His advice was to use the classic water-spray method that seems to have worked for some people, some of the time. As a use of force, it is a relatively gentle means, but it is a display of force nevertheless. (My son likes to say on behalf of all animals: curse you humans and your opposable thumbs!)

Several years ago, I tried the water-spray method of discipline, but ended up finding it messy and annoying, both to myself and to my young cat. For example, I usually didn’t reach the spray bottle in time (it was never put back in the same place), or I missed; and if I didn’t, I ended up with a wet, resentful cat who reverted to jumping on countertops when I wasn’t home just to prove he could still do it, if only to himself. Today, that same cat is 14 years old, and he still jumps on countertops, to get a drink of water from the tap in the sink or to evade harassment from the more energetic cats on the floor. In short, I gave up, and reasoned that the only way to have cats off tabletops was to gently remove them, over and over again, if necessary, until they tired of the exercise.

Of my three other cats, only one is prone to jumping on tables and countertops. I often find his footprints on the counter; of course this is annoying and mildly unsanitary, but I tolerate it because it’s not a huge issue in the scheme of things. In fact, in my experience most objectionable cat behaviour requires an intelligent use of resources to create solutions that benefit everyone, or gentle dissuasion. The use of forceful methods will usually produce unintended results, such as a different objectionable behaviour, or a neurotic and unhappy cat that never reaches his or her full potential for amiable companionship.

My mother often mentions to me that her cat doesn’t dare jump onto countertops, tables, or even certain chairs in the house, because he remembers being smacked for it back when he first moved into the house and was a very easily intimidated cat. The use of force worked for her. But the cat is clever. While my mother is the one who feeds and cleans up after the cat, she gets very little love in return. Cat is in love with my father, follows him everywhere and gives him all of his best attention and lovingest expressions. Cat knows that my father wouldn’t ever lift a hand against him, even if he wanted to; my father is just like that – even though he says the cat deserves a smack for waking him up at night, he would never dream of actually doing it. I guess that’s OK with my mother, because she doesn’t want cats following her everywhere or waking her up anyways.

The same principle applies with regard to the use of force in training dogs. It may produce certain results, if only because dogs have a hierarchical concept of social relationships that cats find abhorrent, so the use of force will go a certain way to ensuring obedience. However, most responsible dog trainers and experienced owners know that there are ways of training dogs without using force. They use consistency, fairness, and persuasive togetherness to get the best results: an obedient, non-neurotic and non-fearful canine companion.

I have no training in diplomacy, political science or even human psychology, but even so it has always been obvious to me that the use of force is nearly always a missed opportunity and a tragic mistake that produces unintended consequences. I know this is the case with kids and spankings; I have always detested the very idea of using slaps or spankings to teach them obedience or as a punishment. Humans are animals, and animals do not respond well to the use of force, in any context – even when human reason or religion proclaims that it is for their own good.

The current Israeli offensive in Gaza has reminded me of the tragic uselessness of force. Simply put, there is simply no way that the Israelis will achieve anything remotely positive from bombing and marching into Gaza, no matter how often they repeat their message that this is about subduing the threat of Hamas or ensuring future security for Israeli citizens. The use of force is always a mistake. I would’ve hoped that the accumulated experience of decades – millenia in fact – in the Middle East would have taught them otherwise.


January 3, 2009

In the eleven years since I first put baby to breast, the issue of public breastfeeding (or more specifically, breastfeeding in public spaces that are actually owned by various entities) has come into the news a few times. During the two years when I was actually breastfeeding (1998 and 2002, to be precise), I was blissfully unaware that this was all about breastfeeding rights for mothers. Naively, I had presumed it was all about eating rights for babies. Thus armed, I proceeded to feed my baby from the breast in restaurants, hotel lobbies, airplanes, parks, museums, beaches, offices, and pretty much anywhere I happened to be at the time with my hungry babies.
The thing I loved best about breastfeeding was the convenience. No bottles to heat, no worries about spoilage, nothing to store and nothing to discard, and no crying baby waiting while the bottle was prepared and heated.
Not once did I ever catch a glimpse of disapproval. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that anyone could be offended by breastfeeding; however, it often occurred to me that people might be annoyed by a squalling baby, therefore I obviously wasn’t completely insensitive to other people’s physical well-being (as infants, my kids were loud and persistent criers when they got down to it; it was best not to let them get worked up in the first place).
Some of my best memories of breastfeeding include the genuinely approving looks I got from elderly men and women as I breastfed in malls and restaurants. Seniors spend a lot of time in malls, and as a young mother, so did I – for the logical reason that we both needed a place to walk and sit out of the cold and snow (I had winter babies). We happily shared that space, and nobody ever got more than a very quick flash of breast flesh, if at all. They’d have to have been sitting nose-to-nose with my baby to get a glimpse of areola.

So eleven years later I am wondering what all the fuss is about, and why breastfeeding mothers are labelled (by some) as lactivists if they reasonably insist on their right to feed their babies in public. I would have hoped that by now, this right would have become completely uncontested.

As for Facebook and its “standards of decency”, it is apparently only photos of the entire breast with baby attached that provoke dispute and deletion. I think it should be understood that women who post these photos are doing so for some very excellent reasons. Some may live in places where public breastfeeding is not an uncontested right, which was not my experience.
In humans, breastfeeding is not an instinctive behaviour (sucking is both an instinctive and learned behaviour in babies – like all mammals, human babies are definitely hardwired to suck, but many babies have to be taught to suck in such a way that is not painful or damaging to the mother; in some babies that can take a few seconds, others – like my firstborn – need a few days to catch on, ow.) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned, cultural behaviour. In Western culture, breastfeeding was all too often an undertaking that was shifted to women of a certain class, wet nurses, who became experts at it and passed along the know-how within their own culture. Often, these wet nurses had to share their breasts with the babies of upper-class women who were breeders but not feeders. But with the democratisation of our culture, eventually breastfeeding came to be encouraged in all women. Of course, I’m skipping over a lot of history here, including the advent of formula in the 1930s, which many women , who had hung on to the old prejudices, figured would save them from having to learn to breastfeed their infants.
So all of that to say that breastfeeding can often be difficult for the average woman to learn and adapt to. It hasn’t gotten easier for women since the 70s, because each individual woman has to understand the mechanics and principles involved, plus she has to understand her own milk production in synch with her baby’s growth and appetite. It can become all-absorbing, a full-time job in fact, at least for the first few weeks and months. After about one month or so, if milk production is adequate (it isn’t in all women, a fact that complicates breastfeeding even further) breastfeeding suddenly becomes the easiest thing in the world, and if all goes well, one suddenly realises its matchless advantages.

So I can understand why women are presenting photos of their breasts on Facebook. This is the image they are projecting of themselves, at this point in time, because breastfeeding has become their world, their singular occupation, and they may even have important information or tips to share with others. It’s like an icon – there is knowledge behind that image.

I just wish the 12-year-old boys who run Facebook would grow up more quickly and realise that breastfeeding photos are neither sexual nor “disgusting”. I predict that if they don’t realise it by themselves, they will be shamed into it by some very determined mothers.

To help them on their way, I’d suggest they read Marilyn Yalom’s wonderful book, A History of the Breast. It will make them think about breasts in more interesting ways than they have yet imagined.