Archive for the ‘animal welfare’ 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.

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.

The law of diminishing returns

April 20, 2009

Last week I got together with a childhood friend to catch up on each other’s lives. Inevitably, as we always do, we compared our childhood memories from the several years we spent together in competitive gymnastics, back in the days when we could be found in the gym up to five times a week for around 18-25 hours of practice. My friend, who was always much more supple than I could ever hope to be, is now a fantastic yoga instructor and massage therapist. Her years in gymnastics have given her some valuable insight into the different kinds of pain the body should and shouldn’t endure, and the well-being that liberty and exploration of movement can lend to the mind and soul.

We laughed, sometimes ruefully, about our experiences with coaches who often blurred the line between fostering potential and pushing too hard. Of our series of coaches over the years, many were from Germany or Eastern Europe, and while they definitely knew gymnastics, they were a special kind of strict. As girls, we were all naturally athletic, but we also self-selected for gymnastics on the basis of our slight build and well-rounded physical abilities – a combination of flexibility, strength and agility. We had another feature that helped weed out certain otherwise talented kids: we could tune out our sense of self-preservation in order to respect authority and obey commands. Attuned observers would’ve been struck by our demonstration of high energy and submissiveness.

After a year or so of training in the basics, we were rudely informed that our coaches’ grandmothers could do better splits than we could, so from then on we would spend painful minutes every day in the splits with either the front or back leg raised several inches above the floor. The “oversplits” they called it – whoever could have invented that? Also, a simple backbend wasn’t enough – it was more aesthetically pleasing (or possibly freakish, if impressive) to push it to the brink, nearly popping your shoulders out of joint as you forced your upper back into an impossible arch. Well – impossible for me, that is, as I soon became known as the one who needed extra work in the flexibility department.


The day after you discovered the joy of completing a complete somersault high and fast through the air and landing nicely on your feet again, you found out that to be really competitive, you had to do a double, or add a twist or three – eventually both. It seemed like no matter how much we were willing to do, there was always somebody, somewhere (usually in the Soviet Union or Romania) who could do more, and do it better, and theirs became the new standard. Naturally, that did not come without some kind of cost, and once in a while, the cost was enormous, exposing not only the fragility of our flesh, bones and nerves, but also the desperate folly of pushing a good thing much too far.

Elena Mukhina came to symbolise just exactly how things could be pushed too far. She was a Soviet gymnast, a rising star in the 1970s and poised to unseat Nadia Comaneci as the world’s greatest gymnast in 1980. However, it wasn’t to be. A combination of overtraining, injury, callous and abusive coaching that characterised the Soviet sports system, and a very risky tumbling move rendered Elena a quadriplegic two weeks before the start of the Moscow Olympics. Elena’s injury stayed in my mind for years, and I was sad all over again to learn of her death in 2006, at the age of 46.

A few years after Elena’s injury, I read a memorable article in International Gymnast magazine. It was an unusually wise and thoughtful piece called “The Law of Diminishing Returns”. It affected me particularly because I was struggling with a growing body and assorted injuries and chronic pains in all of my joints. The article was a reflection on how the ever-increasing demands of training could produce dramatically positive results over a period of time, but from a certain point onward, the more pressure and training a gymnast had to bear would not produce better results in competition, in fact, they would often deteriorate. Pushing training beyond that point would only continue to diminish the results – either due to injury, fatigue or loss of competitive drive.

Eventually I decided to quit gymnastics, just as puberty was setting in – like most gymnasts I at least had the benefit of late puberty. I finally acknowledged that I’d been lucky to not have ended up like Mukhina that time I landed on my head a few months earlier; also, what I’d assumed was a pulled muscle in my back was actually a broken spinal process from overuse, and if I kept training, it would never heal enough to stop causing pain. Moves I had been able to do easily only a year before cost me intense effort and pain; even rising from the floor and walking was painful.

Unlike my childhood friend who started doing yoga in her 20s, I didn’t discover the healing benefits of yoga until a few years ago, after she gave me a private lesson that revealed what I’d been missing.

On the other hand, my work in veterinary medicine in the years between had opened up a new and very different world, but one in which I sensed that the law of diminishing returns had already been at work for a long time. What I observed was even more devastating – this time however, without effects I could measure directly in terms of my own pain and well-being.

Bovine medicine, specialising in dairy cows, was my original focus in veterinary medicine. Dairy cows are a remarkable species, and in the words of an old vet: “no other species is even close to them in what they can do”. There was something about their concentrated docility, massive warm bodies, and vital importance to the human food chain that enticed me to go into bovine practice. At the same time, I always found them to be not quite all there – it’s as if they have encased their feelings and reactions into a small recess of themselves, and with that safely bottled up they can face the work they have to do, the elite level performances of milk production every single day, and the illness and injury they have to endure as part of the bargain. Much like many of the top gymnasts I knew, they endure pain without complaint, and show their fear or pain only through “balking” rather than outright dissent or aggression. Chronic lameness, mastitis, metabolic disease and digestive ailments are the lot of the dairy cow, and this is ever more the case with the highest producers, who are also called upon to provide fertilised ova, through a a hormone-soaked process called “superovulation”, so that even more high-producing cows can result. Increasingly, dairy cow farming results in reduced longevity in individuals and herds – many cows are used up and their skinny carcasses sent to make ground beef after only a year or two of lactation (it takes two years of growth and pregnancy before they can start lactating).

I have come to believe that our relationship with these animals has been badly compromised over the past decades – the demand for increased production can be traced to the post-war years, and for decades veterinary medicine and dairy science have combined to achieve the amazing technical accomplishment of the high-producing Holstein cow. But even more than with top athletes, who can choose to retire or scale down their training and go on to something else, the price is too high. There could have been another way. Medicine and science could have, and still can be used in a gentler, wiser manner. It will take adjustment, and recalibration of goals and methods, but I think it’s still time to save our bond with dairy cows and bring them back from the brink. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to breed cows that can produce prodigious amounts of milk – but how many carcasses of cows spent before their time result every day from this way of doing things? It makes little economic sense, and even more importantly – it is desperately inhumane.

Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel that the taste and enjoyment of milk and other dairy products has been diminished compared to what I have tasted in more artisanal productions; I still eat them, but they take a lot of dressing up and doctoring to give them a semblance of taste. The blandness of milk, even whole milk, is pretty obvious. Frankly, I’d rather swallow a calcium and vitamin D pill with a glass of water.

Much like gymnastics, where I did experience joy, pride of accomplishment and positive effects in my body in spite of my injuries, I’m left wondering who or what the excessive pushing, the demand for greater performance is really for, in the end. In dairy medicine, as in many other spheres, we can still heed the law of diminishing returns – a biological law and an existential law – and use our science, including our experience with it, to figure out what we could do instead.

Addendum: I forgot to add this amazing interview with gymnast Elena Mukhina, “Grown Up Games”, translated from Russian. The interview was conducted in 1998 and published in Ogonyok Magazine. It is amazing and heart-breaking.

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.

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…