Archive for February 2009

Animal hoarding and other abnormal human behaviour

February 27, 2009

Animal hoarding , according to wiki, is the official term describing the abnormal human behaviour of keeping many animals while being unable to properly care for them. Rather than being deliberate cruelty toward animals, it’s more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The wiki entry also provides a lot of excellent information on this condition, and sources on how to recognise it and address it legally.

I have decided that my neighbour down the road, J-C, is not exactly an animal hoarder. Now that the weather has become milder, I walk to school in the morning with my younger son instead of having him take the bus. I’ve known J-C for 9 years now, and he is getting close to 60 now. When I moved here, he had a small herd of cattle, a few Percheron horses, some sheep and goats, rabbits, cats, and a fairly large flock of poultry and geese, none of which are ever “retired”. Over those 9 years, he’s called on my vet services at various times, and 3 out of 4 visits were to administer a remedy to a dying animal with a mystery ailment. If he had the money to investigate, we’d likely have found a combination of high egg counts in the feces (intestinal parasites), borderline nutritional deficiencies, and pneumonia or some other opportunistic organ disease that came in to finish off the poor creature. But in general, J-C means well, his animals are always fed more or less appropriately, occasionnally dewormed; they always have access to water, and social contact (maybe too much) with other animals. There is no deliberate cruelty here, in fact, there is certainly much less than what exists in the industrial system that nearly all of us participate in, in some way.

I’ve assisted one police raid in a situation where there was definite criminal neglect, and prepared the report that resulted in a conviction and confiscation. J-C is most certainly not in that category. He is also nothing like the animal hoarder I once knew. That was a woman who had over 70 dogs and was in the process of transferring them, a few at a time, from this rural area to an even more remote region in another province. During one of her trips, she had a fatal car accident. The dogs were discovered a few days later and the case made national news fleetingly as one of those spectacular cases of neglect and squalor. She was fleeing a legal process that would have removed the dogs from her property; this had happened to her before, but she just started over from scratch, as it were. Hers was a classic case of animal hoarding, because she firmly believed she was doing what was best for the animals, in spite of the graphic and smelly evidence. She had even been known to spend several hundreds of dollars on specialised vet care for dogs with conditions such as von Willebrand disease. One time, a few months before her accident, I had to convince her that the dog she brought in was on death’s doorstep, that no, I would not take X-rays or take a blood sample, and that it was more than likely her dog had parvovirus. The dog died a minute or so after I convinced her to sign the authorisation; I had just begun to fill the syringe with euthansol. I was shaken by the experience, because she was genuinely pissed off at me for not using the veterinary diagnostics at my disposal: I was unfeeling and incompetent like most vets. She did not even sound unhinged, her assessments were almost rational.

Back to my morning walk and J-C. I think I would classify him as an animal collector rather than a hoarder. Over the past few years, he has quietly reduced his herd of ruminants and workhorses, and with the participation of his new girlfriend he’s building up a collection of dogs. He’s always had a few dogs in and around the house and farm, but he seems to be going into full-dog mode lately. Besides the old-timers Mickey (a squat black dog who must be 13 by now), Belle (a boxer), Moustique (the unfortunate brother of my Principessa), Moose (a husky), and one unnamed German shepherd, in the past few weeks at various times I’ve met or seen:
– one or two beagles (not sure – one of them wears a bow, maybe it’s the same one)
– one pug
– one Esquimau-like dog
– one bulldog
– one small lab cross, possibly cocker-Lab?
– one small terrier
– one Saint-Bernard
– one Malamute

Most of them are running free around the yard, a few in the barn and some are in the house, I’m sure. The large ones are tethered. The four gigantic inflatable Christmas ornaments lie deflated in the snow; they probably met with enthusiatic dog claws at some point just before Christmas.

I’m rather worried about where these animals are coming from. For one thing, with the recession, I’m not seeing breeders at the clinic very often anymore for vaccines. Demand is obviously down, and J-C has a big heart for unwanted animals, in his own way at least, and he is known to never refuse an animal offered to him casually – partly because he knows where it will go if he doesn’t.

J-C’s presence has always left me with a dilemma. His behaviour is not (yet) reportable, but I get a sense that I should be doing something – but what? He needs dewormers, for starters. I suppose I should get on that, as a small gesture of veterinary goodwill. On the other hand, would that constitute enabling, wouldn’t it?

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Hens in peril

February 26, 2009

I was outside this afternoon, brushing my collie (colley?) Principessa with a currycomb, as she’s been looking winter-ratty. I’m planning a makeover for her in the spring, complete with a bath, trim and furstyling. It should be a Great Event: she’s 8 years old and has never experienced anything of the sort. She seems to enjoy the currycombing, as long as I don’t pull on the tangles.

In general she’s a very, very good dog. Nowhere near a Lassie standard of intelligence, but maybe that’s a lack of training on my part. She’s a responsive and trustworthy dog with no aggressive tendencies toward other dogs – and yet she won’t be intimidated. Her approach to humans is 100% friendliness.
princi-20091

Cats: not so much. Even the cats who have befriended her still have to watch their backs, and are advised to walk away slowly, never, ever run.

But you can see where I’m going with this: it’s the chickens that bring out the worst in her, and that’s only relatively recently. It was only last spring that she decided to sample chicken, and she started small: one banty hen. At the time, I figured she mistook it for a pigeon, and forgave her. But then she reduced a young rooster to a pile of fluffy white feathers, and there is of course the unexplained sudden disappearance of the gentle Polish rooster. Then there were the systematic attacks on hens who we saved just before she finished them off. I had to make the difficult choice last summer: it was either the chickens or Principessa. Who would run free, that is. I tried a few days of alternating between the two: one day of freedom for Principessa, the next she remained tethered and the hens roamed free. (Technically, both freedoms are discouraged in municipal law or federal poultry guidelines, but I’ve disregarded both as unnecessary and harmful to animal welfare.) Finally, I came to a different compromise, siding heavily with the hens: they would be free from sunrise till sunset, and then Principessa could be off her tether without supervision. Once the snows came, the hens stayed inside everyday, and Principessa was once again free as a…bird.

So as I was combing her today, I noticed a small pile of brown feathers in the snow. Upon closer inspection, it was in fact the head of one of my six (now five) hens, who must’ve slipped out while I was feeding them. Principessa must have taken note of that and returned when I went into the house.

The warm season dilemma of dog versus hens is going to come again in a few months, and I’d love to find a way to stop the poultricide. If anyone has any suggestions, please tell.

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Bella and Tara, a very odd couple

February 15, 2009

I’ve watched this video several times, trying to imagine what Bella and Tara did to make themselves more likeable to the other, and why either one would’ve wanted to like or be liked by the other in the first place. Very curious. It would’ve been interesting too see how their friendship started, though I wonder if the very start was recognisable.

It reminds me a bit of the way young children start friendships among themselves, or with an animal; it’s hard to say what makes them click at first, and what makes it stick.

Interspecies friendships that don’t involve humans happen relatively often in the artificial and controlled settings of homes and refuges. I’d bet that most animal lovers who keep more than one species can name an odd relationship between individuals of two different species. I hear about them often when people come to consult at the veterinary clinic, but they’re almost always between cats and dogs.

I had a rabbit a while ago who became smitten with my old nanny goat, but unfortunately it was a case of unrequited love. The friendly male lop-eared rabbit, Gontrand, whom I had adopted as a stray in the middle of winter, fell in love – or more likely, lust – with Clopinette, and showed it by following her around everywhere, trying to climb her legs and face, and laying down beside her every time she settled down to rest. In return, she gave him head butts and hoof stomps. It was kind of disturbing, and to top it all off, I didn’t notice that Gontrand wasn’t eating normally until he went completely off his feed and started dying – by the time we started hand feeding him it was too late. He went rather quickly in fact. Clopinette didn’t show any remorse for not loving Gontrand in return. I guess she found him irritating more than anything else.

This youtube video shows a rat who obviously loves his cat friend, though the cat looks bored and mildly annoyed.

I’ve always enjoyed being liked by animals. That’s why we give them a home, good food, treats and toys, and sometimes even let them sleep in our beds. Why else would we do it, if they didn’t like us in return?

What else do you do to make your animals (or any animal) like you? One thing I do as a vet to make them dislike me less is to give injections with the smallest possible needle gauge. Sometimes the liquid I have to inject is thick and viscous, which means I have to use a larger gauge than I’d like, but with vaccinations I use very small ones, 24 gauge. Most of the time, they don’t even notice I’m poking them with a needle in the back of the neck – except for the very sensitive ones of course. It makes for a slightly slower injection, but if I had to be injected myself, that’s what I’d prefer.

Happy Birthday Sarah Palin

February 11, 2009

I’m very happy to share my birthday, not only with chicks such as Jennifer Aniston and Sheryl Crow, but also with a sweet child of mine, born seven years ago today. I also never fail to share my birthday with a respiratory virus, but that’s what you get for coming into the world in the middle of February.

This morning I checked out my favourite blog from Alaska, The Mudflats, which I came to enjoy in the few months preceding the U.S. elections. I keep going back, because the writer is funny, informative and regularly receives visits from a wild moose named Brian. To my dismay, I found out that I also share my birthday with wildlife enemy no. 1 Sarah Palin. Like much of the world, I was first perplexed, then developed a disturbing combination of amusement and anger as she campaigned haplessly and sneeringly through the months of September and October, and was finally relieved when she (kind of) disappeared from the (inter)national political scene.

Brian the moose and I have at least one thing in common: we do not like Sarah. In particular, we do not like the policies she represents for flora and fauna. Neither Brian nor I quite understand exactly what Palin was trying to say about polar bears in this New York Times editorial from January 2008.

So far, Palin has shown casual disregard or outright cruelty to at least three wild species in Alaska: wolves, belugas and polar bears. While her war on wolves is the most direct – allowing them to be shot from low-flying airplanes for the preposterous reason that they reduce the wild caribou herds that she wants preserved for human consumption (completely ignoring the fact that wolves usually cull the old and weak animals that aren’t prizes for hunters anyways), her battle against belugas and bears is more insidious, consisting of encouraging massive habitat destruction in the quest for more oil drilling and haphazard development.

Given Palin’s ideological background as a religious conservative Republican, it is unsurprising that she is both ignorant and dismissive of science, and views animals as subordinate, disposable creatures. After all, the Bible has told her so.

As a former evangelical, I am all too familiar with the doctrines and mindsets that motivate politicians such as Palin. When Katie Couric asked her which newspapers or magazines she reads, I suspect I know why she stumbled so badly on her response. While she might read some local non-religious newspapers, she’s likely a more avid reader of end-times prophecy literature and Pentecostal publications, and perhaps some radical right wing rags as well. She knew she couldn’t come out with these on prime time because most Americans would either not know what she was talking about, or would know all too well. She was not playing to the base in that interview. If she had been, she would have mentioned some of them by name, and she would definitely have mentioned that her daily Bible readings are a great source of inspiration and guidance in making policy decisions.

In the Bible, animals are even more disposable than certain groups of unlucky humans. Parts of the Old Testament are littered with the corpses of dead animals as payment for various sins, and notables such as Abraham, Samson and David got their start by eliminating lions from the Middle East. Things start to get better with Jesus, who was born amongst the animals of the barn, and he is never portrayed as dominating animals or killing any (OK, except for the fish, but usually he was just watching or multiplying). But that was during his brief life on earth. After that was over, he returned to Peter in Acts chapter 10 as a commanding voice in a vision containing all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air, presented to Peter on a sheet. This voice of Jesus says “Get up Peter. Kill and eat!” Peter protests, because of course he is Jewish and can’t eat just anything in any random way. Jesus rebukes him, and the vision comes back three times, to make things perfectly clear. Such a handy way to pass from Old Testament attempts at restraint, and Jesus’ relatively peaceful stance towards animals, to an all-out holy war against every species on earth.

So not only does Palin have financial and political interests behind her decisions to force through laws and policies on wolf-shooting and polar bear and beluga habitat decimation, she also sleeps easy at night because the Bible told her it’s quite all right by God, in fact he commands it: Kill and eat.

Yes, I know that most of us kill and eat, at least indirectly. But it would be great if we could leave some species alone, their habitats relatively untouched, and even better if we could find leaders who will encourage preservation, conservation, ecological development. Palin is only the most obvious leader who disregards all creatures other than babies in the womb, and it’s great that she was stopped before she reached the White House. I hope that this focus on the kinds of wildlife policies she pushes will also shift attention to other cruel and questionable ones.

Palin’s Drill Baby Drill Versus the Belugas

Eye on Palin

Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

Temple Grandin is back in the news, with a new book, Animals Make us Human (the sequel to Animals in Translation). A university animal science professor and consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is also the subject of an upcoming HBO semi-biographical film with Claire Danes.

I’ve been thinking about Grandin on and off ever since I was in veterinary school in the mid-1990s, when she was starting to gain recognition for her approach to fixing problems in cattle handling facilities such as feedlots.

In 1998, I was invited to be on a committee to rank candidates for a major U.S. animal welfare award. Of the list of candidates with impressive resumés in animal welfare work, she was the only one I had heard of; the one who had made the most notable impression on veterinary education and practice. I ranked her as my first choice, based on her resumé and what I had learned about her when I was a vet student headed for large animal practice. In one of my classes, we briefly studied some corral designs by this professor from Colorado State University, designs which had rapidly replaced the old models in the space of a few short years. I had presumed Temple was a man’s name, and only found out later that not only was Grandin a woman, but she was autistic, and that she was all about a cinemascope attention and memory for sensory details plus fundamental knowledge about cattle instincts. Her novel designs for corrals and squeeze chutes meant that handling for vaccinations and other procedures went more smoothly for everyone involved.

I learned in bits and pieces that she saw the world through animals’ eyes, and translated their experience so that “neurotypical” people such as myself (I presume that’s what I am) could understand their reactions and motivations a bit better. In the end, she was awarded the prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (that’s R$ for Rockefeller, and Dodge, for the car company), along with Diane Halverson.

In 1997, I had a summer job as an assistant researcher in the bovine medicine department, and one of our projects was to study a new Big Pharma cattle dewormer. On the first day of the project, we had to put a group of jumpy dairy heifers through a corral with a squeeze chute at the end to identify each one with an ear tag, take individual manure samples, and collect a small vial of blood from the tail vein. Once we were done, we opened the squeeze chute and sent each tagged heifer into one of three study groups. Halfway through, in spite of our improvised Grandin-style corral, the remaining heifers decided as a group that they wouldn’t be cooperating with us anymore – one of the farm hands was drunk and behaving unpredictably, periodically yelling abuse and jumping at them to chase them out of the chute. About fifteen heifers backed away and galloped off to the opposite end of the field, some 500 metres away. Rounding them up looked impossible, at the very least it looked like one of those time and energy-consuming activities that I dread. Some of us wanted to call it a day, but the head researcher reminded us we’d have to start all over again at the beginning if we put it off.

Inspired by Grandin, I remembered my pre-veterinary experiences with cattle, back when I was delighted by their friendly curiosity. If you walk into a field of cattle, they won’t take their eyes off you for minutes on end, and if they are docile like dairy cattle, they’re likely to come right up and lick your boots and clothes. I walked out towards them till I was about 10 metres away from the boldest ones, and showed them a long rake I’d brought with me. Then, I turned around and dragged it behind me, hoping they would follow. I started out slow at the beginning and then faster so they’d have to pick up the pace. The long stick dragging along the ground was intriguing enough for the more dominant heifers, and the rest of the herd followed. Nobody wanted to be left behind in the field all alone.

I always thought this mix of curiosity, skittishness and attention to random detail was something more scientists and vets should think about, just as Grandin pays scientific attention to sensory details and behaviours. It would add some interest to the boring data collection we always seemed to be doing, and would contribute to animal well-being.

But when I left research and started practicing bovine medicine, the more I paid attention to behaviour, reactions, sensations and emotions of cattle, the less I was able to concentrate on doing my job. Not the jobs where I was caring or healing, relieving pain, replacing a prolapsed uterus or helping an exhausted cow during a calving – those were invigorating and rewarding; it was the job of fitting in and playing my role in the industrial-agricultural system – treating the intractable metabolic diseases and lameness that result in short lifespans and which are caused by the kind of nutrition and genetics that make cows produce incredible amounts of milk; endless infections of the mammary glands from bacterial resistance, crowding, stress, little or no time outdoors, milking machines, etc.; and most important of all, ensuring that estrus and pregnancies are properly detected and monitored so that no time is wasted between a calving and a new gestation, to keep the milk flowing. The objective of my new job as a farm vet was increasingly oriented toward figuring out ways of making dairies more efficient and profitable, and culling the non-profitable animals. It’s a system that not only wears down the animals, but it wears down everyone who’s involved with it, including me, and it wore me down quicker than most. I wasn’t in it long enough to even glimpse the rewards, but I always suspected they were driven by the evil twins of debt and profit.

As for Grandin, I am sure that she is driven by a desire to do what is right by animals. She believes it is ethical to use animals for food, and she wants it to be done right so that animals can have a decent life and a painless death. I think that’s a good and sensible approach, but I can’t help noticing that her designs and push for ethics are co-opted by a cattle industry that wants things working more smoothly for its own ends (debt and profit again), not for the animals. Still, I suppose that what she does “has to be better than simply wishing [the system] didn’t exist in the first place.”

Still. In her new book Grandin claims that it’s hard for “normal” people to think like animals, because we think in words, while the animal world is all sensory-based, all the time. Her own lifetime spent overcoming a purely sensory-based world as an autistic human supposedly places her in the unique position of identifying with and empathising with animals, and encouraging everyone else to tune into sensory experience to think more like animals.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not convinced that thinking in words is really all that easy for humans. Most people struggle to find the right words to communicate their feelings and experience, whether in speech or in writing, and a lot of the time we don’t even come close, especially if we count the part of our lives we spend as babies and small children. And yet words have been used skilfully in so many books to communicate animals’ experience, by recording observations and sometimes even imagining what they might be thinking. One of the best examples of this is Black Beauty, but there are so many others. Some of my greatest revelations about animal and human experience have come to me through reading novels; then I’ve returned to animals and humans with a different attitude that has made me more empathic and observant. In fact, my own sensory experiences haven’t always made me more empathic, sometimes they’ve even had the opposite effect.

But whether our empathy comes from sights, sounds or words, there is still the fact that we have this food-producing system that’s built on the backs of suffering animals, a system that grinds them down for as long they have something to give, after which we dispose of them callously – when it’s not with outright cruelty.

Grandin worries that there are less people all the time who are willing to go out into the field to work with cattle, to observe, to participate and to make changes that will give them decent lives. I see the same thing she does, but from the other side of the fence. I’ve crossed that field already, and I don’t wish to go back, because I’ve seen that the role of workers such as veterinarians and scientists is to find ways of making things work more smoothly, more profitably; animal well-being is only a collateral benefit. Problem is, the more we acknowledge that animals share our emotions, sensations and perceptions, the more we shy away from engaging with them in the system we’ve built.

The upshot is that the ones who stay to work with it are those who don’t think about these things, or if they do, they have no other viable choices to make about their working lives. I don’t mean to say that there is no one left who engages empathically with animals; certainly there are, but as long as they are playing the role of facilitators of an industrialised system, I’m not sure what to think about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vet students know this; every year it’s harder to get students to choose farm animal medicine.

Not that I ever got away from it myself: as long as I drink milk, and eat butter, cheese and meat, or wear leather, I’m still participating in a system that makes me shrink inside.

Here’s Temple:

My own private guinea pig

February 9, 2009

I’m still trying to get a hang of this blog thing; if I were quicker and wrote shorter entries, stuff that just flies off the brain and into the computer and goes right to the point, I’d be better at this.

OK, I’ve been busy with paid work, for which I’m duly grateful, and with keeping the house warm as it’s been hovering around -20 for the past several days – no, make that weeks.

On one of those day back in January, I went out to the barn to check on the guineas, rabbits, chickens and barn kitties, I noticed that Pigma, our chief guinea pig, was looking a little low. That’s a subjective call, because guinea pigs aren’t very expressive creatures. The range of symptoms they might show for severe illness is: “no thank-you, I won’t be having any parsley today”; and the next thing you know they’re pining for the pampas. To be honest, my son had asked me to take a look at him because he was vaguely concerned, so I can’t say I was being particularly observant.

img_0017 Pigma is the grey fellow on the right.

I had Pigma neutered by one of my colleagues back in November, mainly because the novelty of guinea babies had worn off. After something like 7 litters with anywhere between 2 and 6 babies each time, we’d seen enough. Guinea fertility is even more spectacular than rabbits, especially as their mating is that much more discreet. I never saw a single mating, but I saw the results too many times to count. Part of this was my fault: in spite of some excellent and very detailed information available on the internet, my sexing rate for young guineas before the age of two months is still only about 50%, whereas Pigma’s stands at a perfect 100%. So the young females I mistook for males ended up having litters; and a young male guinea I mistakenly placed with our two females was also remarkably precocious. We’ve also had a few logistical accidents, like last summer when the dividing wall in the temporary cage was breached, from both sides. A local pet shop has been happy to take in our accidents; since I wasn’t doing this for money, I was just happy that someone else wanted them.

I didn’t neuter Pigma myself since I don’t normally do surgery, and my colleague had carefully researched the procedure and was willing to take it on. We discussed the special risks of anaesthesia for guineas, as well as the increased risk of infection compared to other species we’re more familiar with. Pigma pulled through the very short surgery very well, and I kept him in the house for a couple of weeks before sending him out to more space with the three females in a protected space in the barn. He was doing well, or so I thought, based on his healthy appetite. But when I picked him up that day back in early January, there was a very large, firm mass hanging off his lower belly.

I brought him back inside, and observed him for a day or so – his appetite was excellent as usual, though his weight was down to 1.5 pounds from a high of 3 just before surgery. I hoped the mass wasn’t a hernia (i.e. the holes left from the castration not healing properly leaving the abdominal contents to spill out and sit there just under the skin). That would mean another surgery, more delicate this time, and the mass was so big it looked disastrous for a hernia. His ears were warmer than normal, and his eyes a bit teary, so an abscess was also a distinct possibility. Proof of that was easily obtained by siphoning out some liquid with a needle and syringe – the mass was a clementine orange-sized ball of pus.

Normally, abscesses are an extremely gratifying condition to treat, I see them regularly at the clinic in cats who don’t like other cats (bite wounds leading to abscess): you lance the mass with a small scalpel, empty it out to the last drop of evil-smelling liquid while everyone around you goes pale or leaves the room, then flush with saline and disinfect and prescribe antibiotics and a painkiller, either orally or by injection. The antibiotics in the penicillin family are usually the best because they have an excellent penetration of pus-filled capsules and they kill bacteria rather than simply prevent their spreading.

The problem with guinea pigs is that their digestive tracts are an Amazonian ecosystem of sensitive but highly specialised bacterial and protozoal life. When you give them penicillin-type antibiotics, you’re burning down the rainforest; the remedy can do more damage than the infection you’re trying to eliminate, and your guinea pig may die from malnutrition.

Armed with this knowledge – and trying not to think about how that knowledge was obtained – I gave Pigma a 10-day course of antibiotic treatment with Baytril, a common veterinary antibiotic that has been generally OKed for use in guineas and various other small mammals. Apparently, Baytril causes hallucinations in humans, which is why we don’t use it on ourselves; but I wasn’t game enough to sample any more than a few drops. The taste was not good, and apparently not improved when mixed with blueberry jam, carrot juice or any other vegetable. Pigma put up a typical guinea pig protest to the treatment, a short, ineffectual struggle followed by passive resistance and a few disgruntled chuckles while I fed him with the dropper. It’s easy to see how guinea pigs became a great favourite of scientists by the late 1960s, which was when they hit their peak in lab-room popularity: they are some of the gentlest and most placid animals you’ll ever meet, they rarely bite, though they can easily draw blood when they do; and they pretty much stay put wherever you set them down unless they spot something nearby to hide under (probably their atavistic reflex of avoiding swoop-downs from hawks). They also cohabit very peacefully, even among males, and they seem to have some kind of well-developed language that they use which reduces physical confrontation. But since the 1980s, guinea pig numbers in labs have dropped dramatically; they’ve been replaced by mice and rats, which have less tricky digestive requirements – e.g. unlike many domestic mammals, guineas can’t produce their own Vitamin C, so they can get scurvy just like us; also, many of their proteins, such as insulin, are genetically very different from both humans and mice. So they really aren’t that useful as experimental subjects after all – unless you want to know more about guinea pigs themselves, and that was never the point of the research anyways.

So the Baytril went down well with the digestive system, but it wasn’t much help in solving the problem. Ten days of force-feeding Baytril-laced blueberry jam all for nothing (I’m so sorry, Pigma 😦 ). The abscess was still there; every day I squeezed out varying quantities of cheesy pus with no sign of improvement, and Pigma kept telling me that it hurt when I squeezed.

In some domestic animals, an option to consider with an abscess that won’t heal is to place a drain in the skin so that the pus can evacuate instead of collecting and festering, though of course, you have to make sure the animal can’t tear it out and chew it up. But that won’t work in guinea pigs because the pus is often caseous (cottage cheese-y) and won’t drain properly.

I figured I had two options left. One, flush the abscess with some kind of disinfectant, hopefully something mild enough to not cause pain or irritate the tissues that help in fighting and healing the infection; or I could inject some penicillin directly into the abscess cavity and hope for the best – that little or none would be absorbed into the bloodstream and sent to the intestines. I figured number two was a less painful option, and as I had tried it once in a cow a few years ago and it worked, I figured the benefits outweighed the risk.

The penicillin itself is mild enough chemically, not painful and irritating to the tissues, so Pigma didn’t object too much to the flushing. But by the next day, I could already tell that enough of it had been absorbed into his bloodstream: for the first time in his life (except for the day we brought him home from the pet store) he refused to eat his favourite vegetables, carrots, broccoli, red pepper and lettuce. Not even parsley would bring him out of his hiding spot.

Therapeutic failure is something I always take personally. I felt bad for Pigma, down on myself for making the wrong decision, and sorry for letting my son down. Of all our animals, he’s especially attached to Pigma, who was his choice of present two years ago on his 9th birthday. I had breezily assured him back in November that Pigma’s castration would be no problem at all. Even though it had been at least two months, it was pretty obvious from the location of the abscess that the surgery was the source of the infection.

Pigma was off his food for four long days; every day at noon I cleaned out his rear end: instead of making his normal firm, tidy, thin-nuggets, he was producing a smelly mass of unfamiliar fecal matter that he couldn’t even evacuate by himself. I didn’t do this first thing in the morning, because guinea pigs, like rabbits, eat their own stool during the night: their hindgut bacteria produce vitamin B and other vitamins and nutrients that they then have to re-ingest so that it can be absorbed in the first part of the intestine. I didn’t want to interfere with that process in addition to the damage I’d already done…

But on the fourth day, Pigma quietly accepted a few celery leaves, then some spinach, and some choice pieces of red pepper. Slowly, to my relief, his appetite was returning to normal; and best of all, the abscess had suddenly started to heal properly. The penicillin had done its job, in spite of the collateral damage. I hadn’t wiped out the entire ecosystem after all.

I keep checking him to see if the abscess is coming back, but it’s been several days and no sign of the smallest bump. I probably won’t send him back outside until spring though.

In the interest of being a pedant amateur historian, I need to add a few things. First of all, guinea pigs are (of course) not remotely related to pigs. In fact, they are barely even rodents, though I see they’re still hanging off a branch that’s loosely attached to that order of mammals, along with fellow New World creatures like the capybara and the lovely mara.
mara_in_captivity1

They are usually called “cavies” by people who really know and love them well. They do not come from Guinea either; I imagine the confusion first arose when they were introduced to England in the late 1500s, during the first brutal takeover of the Americas. Introduced to England by the Dutch, the ladies in the court of Queen Elizabeth I thought they were adorable and carried them around on silk pillows. Cavies could be bought for a guinea in later centuries, and many people came to believe they were originally from Guinea (Africa) – due to the triangular slave and goods trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

Thinking about guinea pigs and their history, intertwined with the human history of enslavement, despoilation and elimination of peoples and ecosystems, awakens in me the usual pangs of guilt and sadness for what could have been, instead of what we know has happened. Guinea pigs themselves are a byword for cruel and invasive expermentation on defenceless bodies that are utterly unequipped to resist. Some of that experimentation and despoiling may have been blind and unintentional, or with a (misguided) intent to serve a greater good. Much of it though, was and is still based on greed, short-sightedness and a rapacious desire for temporary and ill-defined success. I wish we could learn better from history, but it doesn’t look like we’re all trying to learn the same lessons.

Ain’t nobody here but us chickens

February 4, 2009

Just came back from the henhouse, where the chickens are starting to go stir crazy from the long winter. They have room to walk around, various shelves and objects to perch on, and they even have a new rooster (name’s Chicken) to henpeck. I think they notice the light is returning – for one thing, they’re laying more eggs these days.

But they’ve given up trying to find new and exciting places to lay, and they seem to be walking round in circles. A highlight of their day is when I drop an egg by accident and they take that as a sign from the gods, all evidence of which must be destroyed.

They are definitely bored. No worms to scratch, no dirt for baths, no tiny pebbles to ingest, and no garden shade to enjoy. Winter sucks for them even more than it does for us humans.

At least we can sing and play to pass the time.

Here’s the original version, made popular by Louis Jordan in 1946 (strangely, the video does not include a single chicken):