Archive for March 2009

Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

March 31, 2009

Every so often at suppertime, my 7-year-old breaks into gales of laughter when he sees me eat a few bites of meat. “Mum, you’re a veterinarian, you can’t eat meat! – I’m going to tell your boss on you!!” His 11-year-old brother rolls his eyes and tries to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between veterinarian and vegetarian. But for Z, it’s a running joke – I’m pretty sure he knows the difference – the words are too similar and the idea that an animal doctor would eat her patients is a crazy kind of funny.

The fact is, I’ve never craved the taste of meat. I prepare it, cook it, serve it, and eat it more out of cultural habit, convenience and concern for getting enough protein, B12 vitamins and iron in the diet, rather than zeal for its taste and texture. Last summer I put a name to my approach to eating meat, with the word flexitarian. Basically, there is no maximum amount of meat allowed for a flexitarian, which is handy. I came across this concept in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Pollan’s writing on food has been influential for me, from The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – not because I felt he exposes information that I know nothing about; quite the contrary. It is wonderful to read someone like Pollan, an American with the travel opportunities, journalistic skills and funds to flesh out exactly what I already know about the trends and changes I’ve observed since my early days in grocery-store foraging in the late 1980s and through my nitty-gritty experience on the working end of North American agriculture. I’m gratified that he’s noticed all the things I’ve seen and thought about over the years.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s finally time for me to ramp up my flexitarianism, and shift into a completely vegetarian diet. For the past nine or so years, I’ve only eaten local meat, provided by a neighbour who took over the small cow-calf operation that I ran with pain and misery for the first few years, or else from the sheep and beef farmer down the road, who also produces chicken, turkey and various flavours of sausage. I haven’t eaten pork in years – I’m angry at the way the pork industry has polluted wide swaths of southern Quebec, and its up-and-down globalized cycles have ruined too many farmers. I came out of my visit to a pork operation in my first year of veterinary medicine thinking that there is nothing ethical or healthy about eating pigs, in any time or place. I’m with Moses on that one.

Right now, my freezer contains a one-pound bag of ground beef, a single turkey thigh, and some fish from last summer’s catch. I didn’t ration the meat at all during the winter, in fact I was relentlessly emptying the freezer and cooking all kinds of stews and meat dishes in anticipation of reaching the End of Meat. For the past few weeks, noting the coming penury, I’ve been buying and preparing cans of different bean varieties, some whole barley, lentils, falafel mix, and a package of tofu, which I breaded and baked (not bad, but could be better).

I have no idea if a steer will be slaughtered in the coming days or weeks; that would surprise me because this is the wrong time of year. Any young steer that was born too late in the 2008 season for slaughter in the fall would be too slim after a winter in the barn, and I’d like to think he’s looking forward to a summer in the fields. I certainly don’t want to deny him that pleasure after a long, dark winter in cramped conditions. Buy meat from the grocery? Ha, no. When you’ve had meat from the farm for so many years, grocery meat is not an option anymore – especially not chicken.

If it were just up to me, I’d make the shift relatively easily. I’d go by trial and error, cook up spicy and flavorful dishes with all kinds of vegetables, legumes, tofu, seitan and other items I’ve never even tasted before. But my main hurdle is the kids. Even at the best of times they don’t think much of my cooking (they still treasure fond memories of the food at their daycare babysitter’s, a real professional when it comes to making nutritious kid-friendly food). Anything too exotic, sticky, limp, fishy, colourful, chewy, spicy, or overly bland is automatically suspect. And since they’ve become a part of my life, I haven’t thought about food and cooking in the same way. For starters, I don’t think about what I would want or like to eat, instead I think about What They Will Eat Today; it’s a mindset I can’t shake, a fact of life that defines the way I move through the day, even when I try to pour myself fully into something else altogether, like work. When I buy fresh fruits or vegetables, as I do a few times a week, it’s not so much to eat them myself, it’s to make sure they have enough for their snacks and lunches at school and to ward off any searching for easy, junky food and candy, which they manage to eat enough of anyways. Their health is my quiet obsession: I think about the bodies they are growing into and the young adults they will be in a few years, and when I look at the young men in the world out there, I am frankly worried. What I see are too many dough-boys: large shapeless faces and guts that overhang trousers, oversized clothes and over-taxed joints. Guys in their early 20s! Obviously I’m getting old, because the young men I remember from 20 years ago didn’t look like that, or if they did, they were the exception. And when I look at old pictures of my dad’s contemporaries, men circa 1940 – they were all wiry and scrawny, nearly to the last man. OK – they were eating British army rations at the time, which were notoriously bad, but to me they look healthy and muscular, in spite of their small size. Kind of like the vegans and vegetarians of today – those people out there whose faces have definite shape and contour, and who have the kind of leanness and vitality you don’t see as often in young people anymore, unless you’re looking at the ones running in the Olympic triathlon.

Oh dear, it looks like the “ethics” of not eating meat is overshadowed by my concern for human health. I can’t help it – that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way I was trained as a farm animal veterinarian. One of my professors in bovine medicine and surgery proudly proclaimed, every chance he got, that he became a farm animal veterinarian “to feed the world”. After the second time my eyes would automatically roll, but the message stuck. Milk, eggs and meat: the foundations of industrial civilisation, and that’s what you are working for. Your job is to make sure they are always available, as cheaply and as abundantly as possible, in spite of what that might do to the animals who provide, in spite of how we continually betray the ancient unwritten and non-verbal contract of domestication. If I had the chance to respond now, I’d say that we’ve fed this part of the world too much, and not nearly well enough.

It’s just possible that this veterinarian has come to the end of meat. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I have a feeling there’s a whole world of food out there that I know very little about…

Veterinarians and the seal hunt

March 23, 2009

Here in southern Quebec, it’s maple syrup season. This year, the elements are in our favour: the nights are cold, and the days are (slightly) warm and sunny, which makes for perfect sugaring-off weather. There’s not too much snow left on the ground to hinder sap collection, and it hasn’t rained too much to make for a soggy and dismal harvest – but rain is forecast for next week. My son collected a large bucket of sugar water from one of our maples, and we’ve decided to use it as a beverage rather than boil it down to 1/40th of its volume to make syrup.

Maple syrup collection is a pleasant spring tradition, albeit dependent on good weather conditions.

A more nasty spring tradition in parts of eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada is the annual (baby) harp seal slaughter, which started today. I usually try to ignore the slaughter as just another one of those horrible things we do to animals that I can’t do much to counter, except to avoid purchasing items made of seal fur – though I’d have to go far out of my way to Europe to get them.

I put “baby” in parentheses, because this seems to be an important point for some people. Yes, it has been illegal since 1987 to hunt baby whitecoats (blanchons), the very sweetest of the baby seals, the ones who are as pure as the driven snow. These babies cannot be slaughtered, and I am confident that there are enough observers out there to ensure that won’t happen. However, they are fair game as soon as they lose the pure whiteness of their coat, which happens at around 13 days old – that is still “baby” in my books. At that point, they are still spending the vast majority of their time resting on the ice floes. Their furry coats do not give them the same watertightness that adult seals have. So essentially, the slaughter goes on as before; the distinction between a baby seal 10 days old and one who is 15 days old appears to me to be a political, or immaterial, distinction.

Seal hunter with hakapik

Seal hunter with hakapik


What has arisen in recent years to re-focus my attention on the seal hunt is that veterinarians have decided that this is a field of human activity that requires their unique expertise with animals (and I’d like to thank the Dolittler veterinary blog for reminding me). The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has taken an official position on the issue, and some Atlantic College of Veterinary Medicine veterinarians have recently been holding seminars to teach at least one-fourth of the seal hunters the proper techniques of bludgeoning and verifying death: I have not attended a seminar, but I have no trouble imagining the content. Anatomy, including particularities of the thinner skull of the young seal, the physiopathology of bludgeoning versus shooting or drowning, and the necessity of ensuring that death comes as quickly and “humanely” as possible.

The focus on “humanely” is unavoidable – it comes up in the CVMA position paper a few times to indicate that veterinarians are concerned that this mass slaughter be done correctly, “selon les règles de l’art” and therefore as neatly and swiftly as possible. In other words, just like Temple Grandin advocates in the seminars she conducts on humane slaughter of livestock. Temple Grandin is not a veterinarian, but she has had a lot of influence among veterinarians who work with livestock, in feedlots and in slaughterhouses. If slaughter is done with anatomical precision, and as rapidly as possible, then our righteousness : guilt ratio will go up – that is the ultimate desired result, at least as I see it. We have to kill these animals, so we might as well do right by them – that is the shorter Grandin.

I have a lot of respect for Grandin. She has taken the time to go where few of us wish to venture, she has pulled apart the different mechanisms of animal slaughter and studied them separately in their discrete parts, and re-designed it in a way that makes practical, “humane” sense. If animals are going to die for our consumption, why should we make it any more painful or protracted than it needs to be, especially when we have the science and technology that help us to know and to do better?

The involvement of veterinarians in assisting and guardedly approving wildlife slaughter highlights the cultural division that is becoming more and more pronounced within veterinary ranks. It is becoming difficult to believe that the same schools and nearly the same curriculum eventually produce high-tech surgical healers, physical rehabilitation specialists, and oncologists – as well as abattoir inspectors and researchers who give seminars on proper bludgeoning techniques. What can these professionals possibly have in common?

The CVMA walks the tightrope connecting these two approaches to animal life, as it carefully crafts a position on the seal hunt that will appear perfectly practical and neutral. “The CVMA accepts the hunting of seals only if carried out in a humane and sustainable manner.”

I am not a member of the CVMA (membership is optional, as it is not a professional licensing board), but if I were, I would definitely question my support for the association, given their position on this issue. There are many grounds for 21st century veterinarians to oppose slaughter, particularly slaughter of wildlife. I did not become a veterinarian to figure out better ways to kill animals; I enrolled in vet school because I wanted to learn better ways to heal, save and protect animal life; and hopefully, to gain a better level of empathy and understanding for all life in the process. The seal hunt is an annual bloodfest, no matter how it is “done” – much like 18th century whaling used to be. I’m rather glad there were no veterinarians around back then to assist whalers in how and where to direct the harpoons.

Pandiculation

March 20, 2009

That looks a bit like me doing the downward dog, if it weren’t for the fur, tail and claws – oh, and I don’t usually yawn while I’m at it. Yoga has become a big part of my life over the past few years, to the point where I wonder how I used to manage without it.

When I go for a few days without yoga, as per lately due to too much time at the computer, my body starts to let me know that things are starting to go awry. Protests start to emanate from my neck and shoulders, lower back, hips, knees and ankles. Even if I do other exercise, such as walking, or karate – it’s the yoga that brings everything back into harmony again. Not all at once, mind – it’s more of an ongoing process built around a regular practice that creates gradual but real results. Ya, kind of like any exercise – I know.

What intrigues me about yoga is how it resembles what my cats do every single day, at various moments and without a regular schedule (at least not one I can decipher). Sometimes, they’ll do an energetic, yang-like spinal twist movement out of the blue and hold the pose for a several seconds while they lick that itchy spot on their back or comb out the matted fur in the lumbar area. Other times they sit on their sacrum to take a bath in a movement reminscent of a spinal curl or butterfly. They lie in passive yin poses for hours as they sleep. Upon waking, they do a few stretches, yawns and shakes, and they’re ready for action – just like my yoga DVD instructor does before we start sun salutations. My cats are so beyond sun salutation; those ritual moves are for beginners – for lower beings who have forgotten, and have to be taught how to inhabit their own bodies again.

So I like to think of pandiculation as feline yoga, or for that matter, a very primitive, pre-human kind of yoga – and I’m not using “primitive” pejoratively. Primitive as in sensual, in a context where the nerves and synapses of the cerebral cortex have less influence, and sensual information gets processed more directly- whether those senses communicate pain, pleasure, proprioception, information on surroundings, and instincts on what to do, now.

Healthy cats do yoga at any time, in just about any situation. Cats who don’t pandiculate don’t feel quite like cats. I can think of at least four reasons why cats I see at the clinic pandiculate less often than the cats I don’t see. Number one on my list has always been (and I hope won’t always be) – obesity. Or as we put it more delicately in French: embonpoint. While I am willing to allow that some humans can be simultaneously very healthy and overweight, this is rarely the case for cats. Embonpoint in cats leads very early to all sorts of woes, such as feline urinary tract disease, and later in life, it is the most significant risk factor in developing diabetes. In the time it takes for a young and svelte kitten to develop into a young obese cat who is one or two years old, it has lost a lot of body awareness and comfort. Overweight cats are generally grumpier, less active and have slower reflexes than slender cats; so it’s not all about weight and appearance, it’s also about movement and suppleness. A cat is definitely carrying too much weight if she is unable to turn around and wash her back – and has the matted hair to prove it.

A second case of decreased or absent pandiculation happens in long-haired cats who have been bred to grow unnaturally long and fine hair that they can’t manage without human help. If these cats are abandoned or neglected, they develop painfully matted coats that prevent them from stretching, twisting and holding positions that should normally be very comfortable. The hair is matted to the root, and pulls on the skin as they move. These cats are also very grumpy and inactive.

Thirdly, loss of pandiculation happens in cats who are simply ill, for any reason. The ill feeling might be fever, dizziness, weakness or pain – any feeling that would prevent a human being from feeling like exercising.

A fourth reason that is really important to me to mention is that many declawed cats – not all – but many, including my own Mädchen, whom I had declawed back when I was an ill-advised vet student – don’t pandiculate as much as they would if all of their distal phalanges had not been cruelly amputated. I think that some declawed cats rightly resent the feeling of their shortened digits, and don’t feel like doing yoga because it doesn’t feel right. Others have phantom pain or are depressed.

Mädchen, in fact, is the only one of my cats who is declawed, and the only one who never joins me for yoga. Cats love being with humans while they do yoga. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but there’s youtube evidence that they are doing something cats have likely done ever since humans started doing yoga, a few thousand or so years ago in the Near East and India.


See how the kitty’s tail points straight up as he approaches – that means he’s familiar with this routine and is delighted he can participate. This guy is lucky, he can talk about staying undistracted, but I can’t – my junior cat enjoys attacking my hair when I lie back on the ground, or when it hangs down. I have to be aware of him, because I could get a claw in my eye one of these days. My senior cat generally installs himself on top of me and won’t move unless I physically dump him. He doesn’t hold it against me though – he comes right back.

Here’s a link to another long cat-human yoga session; it’s 10 minutes long and one of these days I’ll get around to watching it myself:
Stray Cat Yoga.

Rabies in Bali

March 12, 2009

Ever wonder what it’s like to live in a country where rabies is endemic? I’ve often wondered, especially on those occasions when I’ve examined an animal with symptoms that could be compatible with rabies infection. Still, I always put rabies at the bottom of my differential, because there are almost never any cases reported in my corner of the world here in Quebec, in wild or domestic animals. The only exception would be bats, who appear to be a reservoir of rabies – approximately 3% of bats who are sent to the centralised Canadian lab for rabies testing do test positive, but that is still a very, very low number, and hardly a concern unless you ever come in contact with a dead or dying bat.

Reading my favourite veterinary blog today, Dolittler, I realised yet again that rabies is a deadly, dastardly disease.

In case the terrorist travel advisories haven’t spooked the visitors yet, here’s another blow to its tourist trade: Bali’s government is currently suppressing a seven month-long outbreak of rabies with a tried and true routine. It’s baiting stray dogs with strychnine-laced meatballs.

Come on, now, we all know that nothing works like a neurotoxin to help differentiate a rabid animal from a poisoned one, right?

I can just picture it: panicked Balinese pointing to one after another seizuring dog wondering how in the world rabies got to this point on their formerly unaffected island. Next thing you know they’re killing off their neighbors’ pets along with their own children’s dogs in a frenzied act of anti-rabies desperation.

Bali’s first human rabies cases hit the news last September. Since then, a total of eight people have reportedly succumbed. This, for an island nation with no former history of rabies––and little understanding of how their rabies-free status changed, seemingly overnight––is a hard pill to swallow.

I hope that veterinary organisations will step in to advise and act. It’s disturbing that in a country where so much has been invested in tourism, so little is being done to protect the health of animals and humans…
à suivre…