Archive for the ‘animal rights’ category

Apprenticeships in kindness

January 24, 2010

The Roman poet Ovid said “cruelty toward animals is the apprenticeship of cruelty against men”. (I know this because I subscribe to a quote site that sends me a linguistic gem every day or so.) I don’t know when he said or wrote those words, but Ovid was a much older – and much less ascetic – contemporary of Christ. While the golden rule of moral behaviour was described by Jesus as doing unto other (humans) as you would have them do unto you, Ovid said it first and said it better: think about the animals because they share our world. If the Roman record of spectacular and unconcealed cruelty toward humans and animals has not been exaggerated, he had ample opportunity to observe the truth of his dictum.

From what I’ve learned in formal and informal settings, including a seminar given by a lawyer of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, physical abuse and degradation of animals is a well-documented precursor and partner crime to the physical abuse of fellow humans. So much so that it’s essentially become self-evident, and while I’m sure that there are many murderers and assaulters of humans out there who have never attacked an animal, it’s easy to see how a child could learn (most often by example, sometimes by being the victim) to inflict cruelty to animals prior to becoming a serial abuser of both humans and animals.

Still, and thankfully, I don’t have any direct experience with that kind of individual extreme. The kind of abuse I’ve had more personal experience with is the normalised and occulted type of abuse that we’ve concocted for animals in factories and slaughterhouses; the type of abuse that’s been removed as far as possible from general view so as not to disturb our consciences or appetites. And even that has become pretty much self-evident, thanks to the work of writers and activists over the past couple of decades. (I’m reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals right now, which could be the subject of so many posts…but instead I encourage everyone to read it; he really says it all and from so many different viewpoints.)

While this focus on cruelty is important, I also find it emotionally and physically draining to dwell on it passively. It is briefly horrifying, then permanently depressing, to think that as humans, we have always excelled at cruelty, whether it be through wars, unjust politics, plunder of civilisations and habitats, or the scale and efficiency of the system we have devised to raise and kill our animals.

So I’d like to turn Ovid’s clear-eyed observation around. I say that kindness toward animals is the apprenticeship of kindness toward men. Taken that way, kindness is both a learning process and an end in itself. There is no pitting of animal interests against ours, no hierarchy of concern except to observe that it is in fact easier to be kind to animals than to humans – it’s something that you would teach a child to do before he can learn the more difficult task of being kind to other humans (l’enfer, c’est nous autres…)

I have a new apprenticenship in kindness that I started last September. I’m still very excited about it, and I wish I’d had the energy to devote to writing about it as I went through the very beginning stages. In the coming days and weeks I hope to be more of a faithful scribe.

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Animal euthanasia

August 2, 2009

So I arrived at the clinic yesterday morning, it was my Saturday for the month (there are four of us, we take turns). Saturday mornings usually extend well into the afternoon, with non-stop appointments. The two young techs immediately informed me that Bad Things were waiting in the cages at the back. Namely, a very sick but still powerful and aggressive Bernese Mountain Dog, and two abandoned cats plus six kittens scheduled for euthanasia because no one would even consider taking them in: they had fleas, ear mites and cat flu.

Great. Just when I had been reflecting that the ratio of euthanasias for unwanted and generally healthy versus terminally ill patients had been noticeably decreasing over the nearly 10 years I’ve been working as a vet, this happens. I like to think I’m in a transitional position as a member of the class of 2000: I’m just old enough to remember the bad old days when the general public considered pets to be infinitely disposable, young enough to see the shift in attitude, and yet not quite young and unburdened enough by experience to act as if such disposal is completely unacceptable. I’m also in a rural region where we have only the barest of resources to take care of abandoned animals: municipalities still rely on the vet clinic to dispose of found animals, and I’m always afraid that one day we will euthanise someone’s animal before it can be traced. It’s happened, I’m sure. Everyone who works at the clinic has adopted at least one found animal in recent years. This past year, I’ve taken in two fosters, but only managed to have one of them adopted out. So besides my three house cats, there are now five cats in the barn competing for affection and warm spaces. Sometimes, too, we will let a particularly appealing stray kitten or cat wander around the offices or lie in a sunbeam in the waiting room, and if we’re lucky, someone will adopt it on the spot.

Well, by the time I’d examined the big bad sick dog and counted the cats and kittens (do not look too long, that is the rule), and called the dog’s owner with the desultory news, the waiting room was starting to fill up, so I put off the euthanasias till the end of the morning, and told the techs to call a small independent shelter about the cats, promising I would supply the flea and mite treatments.

In the middle of the morning, my boss and colleague arrived. He’s 10 years older than me, which puts him in that class of vets who are very seasoned, seen-it-all types who are adjusting like everyone else to a changing economic climate and increasing demand for sophisticated care and diagnosis. He can remember when all we had to do was say “your dog has a tumour” and that was enough for people to request euthanasia on the spot, no questions asked. Today, we have veterinary oncologists who seem to have a never-ending supply of updates for us plodding generalists on sophisticated staging techniques for tumours, MRIs, and the best combination of drugs, radiation therapy and surgical approaches to treat every single type of tumour. I really appreciate their work for many reasons, among them is that I now have more information to give people when they ask questions about prognosis, treatment and symptoms. Even though they usually request euthanasia, though maybe not right away, at least we’re all less in the dark about what we’re dealing with.

So as I waded though the usual Saturday morning caseload of major and minor crises, my boss proceeded with the euthanasia of the eight cats, and the poor sick dog. I was vaguely aware of what he was doing, and, I will admit, grateful (note to self: tell him that on Monday). Before he arrived, I had started to imagine myself responsible for at least seven of those eight lives (one of the cats was really very sick), and was trying to get my head around the impossibility of lodging them during the two months of flea and mite treatment, because the independent shelter had refused to take them right away for that reason. It didn’t compute; I don’t have the space or the inclination to become a seat-of-my-pants animal shelter.

But a day later, it still bothers me that it had to be done, and what bothers me most is that I can’t quite put words to my thoughts on how wrong it feels to erase a few lives just like that. They weren’t hurting or inconveniencing anybody, and with some efforts, or perhaps in a different place or with different people, it could have had a very different ending. Yes, I know – urban shelters struggle with this all the time, it’s their daily bread and butter. I’m considering taking on shelter work in the city, but I’m not sure I’m the right person at the right time for it, and I’m honestly not sure that I’ll be able to come to any better practices or thoughts about it all, no better than what anybody else has come up with so far.

Still, there’s been progress. After all, I’m old enough to remember a time when companion animals were disposable – that’s what they “were”, even if they were loved – but that attitude doesn’t have the same popular consensus it once did.

A few years back, I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, set in rural South Africa. Some of the best parts of that book include his philosophical descriptions of animal euthanasia and shelter work. At that time, it helped me to come to terms with euthanasias, but I think the effect has worn off. I hope to come back to that sometime, maybe I’ll have to read it again.

I.B. Singer and animals

June 21, 2009

Prior to researching a long paper I wrote for Veterinary Heritage on the history of antivivisectionism and the animal rights movement, the name Isaac Bashevis Singer barely registered for me. I was vaguely aware of his status as a renowned Yiddish storyteller, but I hadn’t read a single one of his stories, and in fact I thought he wrote only folklore that I imagined as being very similar to the Ukranian peasant tales I had read as a child.

While I was researching the darkest period in the evolution of antivivisectionism/animal rights – the Cold War era, it was as if all the lights had gone out: I couldn’t find any writers who cared about animals. Where were the Tolstoys, the Twains, the Bernard Shaws and all the other humanists who had expressed their deep concern for animals and their opposition to vivisection in the late 19th century? Instead, all I could see in the Cold War era was that the foundations were being laid for factory farming, and that animals were being used in massive, unprecendented numbers in research in just about every technological and scientific field under the sun – and very few voices were emerging in protest of animal suffering and consciousness. The ones who did speak up were treated like kooks and subversives.

And yet, it was during that time that one of the most powerful statements came through, one that did not escape the notice of the nascent animal rights movement in the early 1970s, and which can now be found on just about every AR website: the “eternal Treblinka” quote. More than a metaphor or an analogy, it really is just a straightforward description of animal experience in the hands of humans.

I.B. Singer was the author of the eternal Treblinka quote. He wrote it in a moving short story called “The Letter Writer”. Herman, the protagonist, is an aging Jewish immigrant from Kalomin (Galomin, Poland), an editor, proofreader and translator living in New York City in the 1950s. His publishing company folds, he is out of work and immediately falls ill with severe pneumonia. A woman who had previously known him only through correspondence comes to care for him and saves his life. Herman had lost all of his family to the Nazis and lived alone with a house-mouse he named Huldah. When he recovers from pneumonia, he is afraid that Huldah is dead and gone as well, due to his “negligence”. While he grieves for her, he speaks a eulogy for all animals:

What do they know – all those scholars, all those pilosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka. And yet man demands compassion from heaven.”

(Herman later finds Huldah alive, when she emerges from her hole to drink from a saucer of milk.)

Singer’s regard for animals emerges from time to time in other stories as well. In “The Slaughterer”, a man designated against his will to be the ritual slaughterer in his community ends up going mad and sees no other way out besides self-slaughter. And my favourite story ever written about chickens: “Cockadoodledoo”, a little gem of a story that gets as close to the experience of being a chicken as I have ever read.

Now that I’ve read more stories by and about I.B. Singer, I feel like I’ve discovered a bit of a link to my own family history. Although I’m not Jewish, there’s enough nominal evidence in my family tree to show that there were a lot of people drifting in and out of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox families to create quite a mix – but maybe that was just part of being Galician in the 19th and early 20th centuries: cultural tensions on one hand, and on the other, simply surviving with small hope for prosperity. My family seems to have a tradition of switching cultures and religions every generation or so, according to whatever is personally or politically expedient: we’re obviously not the most tenacious of believers. My father emigrated with his family to North America from Galicia just a few years before Singer did in the early 1930s, and I’ve come to realise that many of Singer’s stories provide the physical and geographical details of a place and way of life that was for all purposes obliterated during the Second World War. I was never given much information on Galicia, Poland or Ukraine as a child – the information was perhaps out there, but my father, aunts, cousins and grandparents mainly wanted to leave the Old Country and its bad memories behind. Stories and tales were only haphazardly translated to English, or they lacked some universal and meaningful context; they never felt very real to me, and faded into the background.

But Singer caught my attention with his attention to animals; in the barely industrialised world of Singer’s and my grandparents’ Galicia, animals lived side-by-side with humans in their yards and on their streets, and thankfully, they did not escape his notice. I’m grateful for that as much as for his descriptions of the culture and surroundings.

Dvorah Telushkin wrote a remarkable memoir of the time she spent as Singer’s assistant during the last several years of his life with her book Master of Dreams.

She was there when Singer met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the fall of 1978 in New York City, when Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had just announced that the Israeli and Egyptian leaders would meet at Camp David. Even though I was not even 10 years old at the time, I remember knowing about that meeting because a few months later I traveled with my mother and a group of evangelical tourists on one of the first Holy Land tours. We flew directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv, something that had previously been impossible; it was almost as if the agreement had been reached for the convenience of North American tourists – that’s how I saw it anyways.

According to Telushkin’s account, Singer was at first proud and impressed to meet with Begin in New York, but apparently the meeting did not go well. He voiced a meek complaint about the Israeli neglect of Yiddish in favour of Hebrew:

“you have taken the Hebrew language, vhich vas dead for these two thousand years and resurrected it. But vith Yiddish, you took a living language vhich vas alive for some eight or nine hundred years and managed to kill it.”

“With Yiddish,” Begin shouted, “we could have not created any navy; with Yiddish, we could have no army; with Yiddish, we could not defend ourselves with powerful jet planes; with Yiddish we would be nothing. We would be like animals!”

Isaac sat with his hands folded in his lap and shrugged his shoulders. “Nu,” he said sweetly to the hushed crowd, “since I am a vegetarian, for me to be like an animal is not such a terrible thing.”

I’m not sure what to make of that response, and I’m sure the small crowd of people present at that meeting didn’t either. It’s confusing and demoralising to bring the metaphor of animals into a human situation of power and conflict, but that’s an instinctive human reflex built into us from thousands of years of considering animals as prey, burnt offerings, tools, and sustenance. Still, those aren’t our only human interactions with animals, and sometimes I like to think, as Konrad Lorenz has written, that we are the missing link between hominid primates and some kind of truly moral species that for one thing doesn’t consider itself superior to other animals.

I don’t currently believe there’s a god out there leading us toward this state. I like to think it’s the thinkers and writers (and activists) on animal experience who are making the slow but necessary progress through statement, action and influence. I’m unable to decide whether to be an optimist or a pessimist on this, for now I’m just muddling through.

Analogies and abortions

June 12, 2009

Having sat through too many evangelical sermons in my younger life, I’ve developed a strong resistance to arguments that draw on analogy. Most of the sermons I endured as a teenager and young adult were heavy-laden with analogies; now I can’t help seeing them as a recourse for lazy-mindedness (not always deliberate) and tendentiousness (usually deliberate). They’re useful for when you want others to believe something for which you don’t have concrete evidence, or which may contain many different truths that are unendingly complex, and the analogy helps you to focus on a single one.

I strongly object to analogies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. Having been pregnant a couple of times in my life and not reeling anymore from the experience, I’m amused or offended, depending on my mood, when pregnancy is compared to owning a house in which you are hosting the homeless and you’re obligated to keep them overnight because there is a blizzard outside. Pregnancy is not much like organ donation; and it is certainly nothing even potentially akin to being a slave-owner or a (female supremacist) Nazi. (Seriously: those two last ones are central arguments of the anti-abortion movement’s desire to enshrine fetal rights. Anti-abortion advocates imagine that pro-choice women see fetuses as “subhuman”; therefore, much like Nazis and slave owners, they allow them to be eliminated at will. That leap of (ana)logic leads directly into the abyss of manipulativeness and dishonesty.) I’ve always seen the abortion-is-murder analogy as a shocking distortion of the reality of an unwanted pregnancy and the maternal-fetal relationship.

I’ve also considered abortion from the angle of the animal rights movement, something more of a personal and professional interest for me. While I can see a few parallels between the anti-abortion and animal rights movements, there are more divergences than similarities, and in fact the philosophical argument for animal rights is more of an evolving process with a rich philosophical framework. Most importantly to me, animal liberation/welfare/rights arguments are not based on analogies and projections; they are based on the realities of animals’ lives and the way we think about them and use them.

Because being pregnant – and being a fetus – is not like anything else or any other stage of human or animal development, analogies are inappropriate for describing what happen to a body and a mind during that time. Perhaps because I have observed and dealt with a lot of non-human animal pregnancies and deliveries, I’ve grown more sensitive to messy and complex medical realities and the risks involved for both mother and fetus, and therefore can appreciate the wide range of potential calamities that can occur. I can also appreciate the incomplete but evolving state of knowledge regarding diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and people’s varying capabilities in handling problems and catastrophes. Most of the common things that can go wrong during a pregnancy or to a fetus can be addressed and corrected, but there is a small subset of devastating problems that cannot be fixed, not even with current technology.

Since the assassination of Dr Tiller, the renowned late-term abortion doctor from Wichita, by an anti-abortion zealot, I’ve been researching and reading about some of the conditions that have resulted in women choosing to abort a pregnancy that was initially desired. I was amazed at the number of conditions I had never heard of – though I shouldn’t be, as these most serious ones never come up in veterinary medicine and may have something to do with the complexity of the human genome, fertility treatments, and other factors: twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, trisomy 13, triploidy, fragile X syndrome, severe osteogenesis imperfecta, and many others. Another one here. And here. A few others I already knew about, such as severe neural tube defects and anencephaly.

A lot of women have decided to come out with their stories in the aftermath of Dr Tiller’s murder, and that is a very good thing. The holocaust rhetoric and imagery around later-term abortion were deliberately chosen by Francis Schaeffer (for which his son has recently apologised) when he wrote his treatises lamenting the decline of traditional religion back in the 1970s. While it’s understandable that women who’ve had a later-term abortion would just want to either grieve or forget the experience and get on with their lives, it’s important that they speak out in order to bring some truth and first-hand accounts to the table. People who casually imagine that women dispose of their half-grown fetuses cavalierly or out of convenience, or who believe that they must accept even the most severe congenital defect and care for a non-viable baby until it inevitably dies, no matter the consequences to their own reproductive and mental health, or the needs of their already-born children. These people need to understand that late-term abortion involves the most intensely personal situations, which sometimes include severe depression, cancer treatments and families with children who already have multiple disabilities. These issues should never have been allowed to become the target of a movement that pretends to be pious, but which has always been intensely political.

As for the pious individuals who still insist on sticking their noses and religious morality into the most private and intimate business of others, I think they should learn the meaning of empathy, and shame. A generation or so back, it was considered shameful when a woman had a baby out of wedlock, but with the decline of traditional religions and structures, the stigma of single parenthood has been erased. I can only hope that the appropriate stigma will attach itself to people who try to interfere in these most intimate problems and decisions of others.

An event of historical proportions

May 24, 2009

Those aren’t my words – those are from Tom Regan himself, one of the Grand Old Men of the animal rights movement. (Actually, he looks and talks as if he were 50 instead of 70.)

The event he was referring to was the colloquium on animals and the law held in Montreal this past Thursday and Friday, May 21-22, 2009 and organised by GRIDA (Group de recherche international en droit animal) at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The promise of seeing Regan in person, in addition to getting an hour or so of continuing ed credits was more than enough to pry me out of my rural hideaway and launch me into the underground labyrinth of metros and interconnecting university pavillons. With my above-average sense of orientation and signage reading ability, I made it to the Thursday afternoon session right on time.

The first afternoon panel session was led off by Dana Campbell, attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF – aka “we may be the only lawyers on Earth whose clients are all innocent”), who gave a short presentation on the Connection between Human and Animal Violence. The data, mainly from the FBI, clearly shows that every serial killer on record has either participated in or was forced to witness animal cruelty as children. This includes the Columbine killers. Studies of “domestic violence” show that the abused family’s animals are usually victims of the same type of treatment. Campbell’s big message: Violence against animals is not a PRECURSOR to violence against humans, it is a PARTNER.

Campbell was followed by Ronald Sklar, professor of Criminal Law and originator of the Animal Law course at McGill University. Sklar participated in the unsuccessful 2002 attempt to overhaul the law on cruelty to animals in Canada, in which one of the changes proposed was to move animal cruelty from the category of a property crime to a morality crime. The proposed amendment was accepted in the HofC, but died in the Senate, where some of the Senators were worried that people would no longer be allowed to drown kittens or raise hens in cruelty cages without being at risk of committing a crime. Sigh. Sklar also noted that the definition of “animal” in anti-cruelty statutes does not include wild animals, nor does it include chickens (what about pigs, I wonder?) Cruelty must also be “willful” – the 2002 amendments would’ve removed the distrinction between negligence and wilful negligence.

Sklar was followed by Marsha Baum, Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico, who talked about the legal treatment of animals in times of weather disasters. Essentially, the images and reports from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina highlighted the precarious condition of animals in times of disaster, and inspired changes in the law, in which companion and service animals can now be considered for evacuations along with their humans. As Baum mentions, this is a good first step, but not a final step, because the law does not mandate anything, it only mentions that animal evacuation must be “taken into account” (ie. pet and service animal evacuation is to be taken into account…but not necessarily acted upon in the event of a disaster). As well, the law on evacuation does not even attempt to address farmed animals in confinement, captive animals, research “supplies” or wildlife…

The second afternoon session was on the extension of fundamental rights to animals. I must admit that my conception of rights isn’t very well-formulated. I get uncomfortable when people start talking about rights because from my observations, people’s assumptions as to what rights imply can be wildly different depending on their educational or cultural background or upbringing. I still don’t know what to think about animal rights and how they could possibly fit into the framework of human law and society, but I am a firm believer in the need for reforming laws – all kinds of changes are well past due in farming, research and companion animals (in that order).

The first presenter was Jean-Marie Coulon, an administrator with the Animal Rights League in France, and the first honorary President of the Appeals Court in Paris. His presentation was much as I would have expected from a Frenchman – very wordy and kind of hard to follow. Even though I’m bilingual, my French is strongly conditioned by the Quebecois, and as such I have trouble with French from France: I understand most of the words, but the meaning often escapes me. All I can say is that Mr Coulon encouraged me with words that went along the lines of “we must approach the issue of animal rights with seriousness and serenity”; and that the basis of our laws need to shift from anthropocentrism to biocentrism. I am sorry that I could not do more justice to his entire presentation, but he reminded me too much of my first year anatomy professor, another French dude I couldn’t understand very well and who did irreparable damage to my understanding of anatomy and surgery.

Tom Regan came next, with a historical perspective and update on his 1979 presentation at an international congress on legal and social philosophy; at that congress, back at the beginnings of the modern animal rights movement, he presented his philosophical arguments for animal rights to a very small audience that in his view was alternately bored and outraged at the very idea that animal might be attributed rights. His “prejudice” argument goes like this:
1- our legal system should free itself from prejudice
2- denying rights to non-humans is a product of prejudice
3- Therefore our legal system should recognise their rights.

Regan was a very affable and entertaining speaker, but he was followed by a much younger woman who to me represents what the future of the animal rights and welfare might bring.

Ani Satz is an associate professor at the Emory University School of Law, Rollins School of Public Health. Her field of study is in interest convergence, where she notes that laws on behalf of animals are only passed when there is sufficient convergence between human and animal interests. As with the other presenters, I was only able to take some handwritten notes of her presentation, but what I managed to gather was that if there is sufficient proof that cheap food (as we obtain presently from industrial agriculture) is harmful to humans as well as animals, it is only then that we will make some headway in terms of animal livestock protection in the law. She notes that currently there are too many inconsistencies with regard to definitions of “animals” (and “welfare” and other such terms), with respect to different individuals of the same species (depending on who owns them and for what purpose), and with respect to similar animals of different species (such as pigs and dogs – both omnivores, with similar cognitive abilities, lifespans, sentience, etc.) Satz advocates a radical approach to assessing animals’ needs in terms of welfare, and the implications include “no more factory farming”. Amen to that.

At the end of this session questions were taken. A zoologist, followed by a veterinarian stood up to complain that these philosophical and legal people were totally unscientific in their approach to animal welfare and human use of animals. The two men could barely contain their scorn and their fear that these radical animal rights people would be coming around to put a giant cramp in their lifestyle and livelihoods. Now, to me, this was a predictable response coming from predictable quarters. For one thing, men tend to get very emotional when it comes to questioning their activities; they don’t like to be told What They are Not Allowed to Do to Animals and What Animals Need. And for another, the question of science often comes up in these types of debates: how does science require that we proceed; just look at the benefits of science for the human race; be careful you don’t do something “unscientific” and cause more harm than good, etc. I tend to have a jaded view of science by virtue of my generation – the post-modern generation of scientific venture; while we are generally unquestioning of the benefits of science – and I would add: the scientific basis of modern hygiene – we are also more than aware of its downfalls: nuclear weapons, environmental ravages due to industrial “scientific” agriculture, mining and exploitation of other natural resources, etc.

So I stood up to speak at the microphone in an attempt to defuse some tension. I stated that I was also a veterinarian, so I could understand how large animal and regulatory vets and scientists might feel set upon because their work involves some procedures and interventions that are definitely ambiguous in terms of animal welfare. However, I pointed out, there is a persistently significant shift in veterinary graduates turning to companion animal medicine because they have no interest for farm animal, research or industrial medicine, and no stomach for it. Many large animal vets practice for a few years and opt out as I did, turning to companion animal medicine.

If vets (and animal scientists) are people who want what is good for animals, they will naturally turn to companion animal medicine, or even wildlife rehabilitation, because that is where they feel they are doing the most good. But if vets who really believed in the importance of animal welfare, and who could at least understand the argument for animal rights, were to stay in large animal practice, I think some headway could be made to improving conditions for animals, and perhaps even making some fundamental and radical changes. That however, will take a lot of time and courage – but I think that is what most people really would like to see happen.

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.

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.