Archive for the ‘Animals’ category

Thinking about Skinny

August 30, 2009

I was feeling very alone yesterday. I was trying to get some work done at the tail end of a chaotic summer while the kids spend their last weekend before school starts at the country house with their dad. I was supposed to be focused on work, but instead I could only think about myself. So alone, I felt like inviting the cat we call Skinny, one of the three black and white cats around here, inside the apartment, just for some company. The other two black and whites are fat and glossy, and run away when the kids try to make friends, but Skinny doesn’t even wait for us to come to him. It takes him forever to walk over to us, he never runs, just picks his way over the gravel and sits down for a chat and some patting. Lately, the kids have been giving him food while I pretend I know nothing about it.

Fatty and Glossy appear to have homes, but I’m not as sure about Skinny. The guy in the basement apartment has placed an old wooden chair, a blanket and a bowl for food beside the door (it’s always empty), and Skinny can often be found there, though not looking quite as if he owned the place. I don’t think he ever goes inside; and I’ve never even seen basement guy – I think he’s a hermit. Skinny is often wet, he’s no more than skin and bones – probably has chronic renal disease – and has the thick claws and appalling teeth of an elderly cat. The claws are only on his hind paws, the top of the front toes have been amputated. It’s what we still call declawing, something I deeply regret having done to one of my own cats, many years ago.

I need to find out more about Skinny. I’ll have to be the cat-home police, and go knocking on basement guy’s door to ask questions. Is this remotely any of my business, I wondered yesterday as I contemplated inviting Skinny inside. Not a great idea – he’s dirty and has a runny nose, and my three cats will come to live here soon…

When it suddenly got cool and started to rain, I figured I should make it my business, so I went outside and and downstairs to see if he was there. When I reached the basement apartment door, there was Glossy sitting on the chair. He saw me coming and ran away to hide under (his?) porch. I couldn’t find Skinny.

It’s raining again tonight, as it has been most of the summer, and I’m thinking about Skinny. If he’s homeless, he won’t last through the fall (and I don’t think he’ll last through the winter even if he does spend it inside) so I do need to at least find out if he belongs to basement hermit guy. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. It wouldn’t be right to take him to the SPA, because an elderly cat like that is not adoptable, and he never gave his consent to spend the last of his days in a 2 X 2 foot metal cage, even if the deal includes regular meals and a warm place to sleep. And that would be the best option to hope for – it’s more likely a medical evaluation would consider his chronic disease to be a motive for euthanasia.

Ah, it’s just another homeless cat…

Michaëlle Jean eats seal heart, makes a dishonest point

May 26, 2009

Yes, I’m sure I could eat raw heart too, and I imagine it would taste much like sushi – i.e. like not much at all. Fresh as it is, I’m sure just a few bites would contain your RDA in iron and B12 vitamin, in addition to all that good animal protein and blood. Probably chewy too; good for the teeth. You’re not risking much, eating fresh heart muscle – apart from the brain, it’s one of the most sterile organs you can find in the body.

OK, enough with the nutrition lesson. Yesterday in Nunavut, Michaëlle Jean recently proved that she can not only eat heart, but also bond with Northern communities over seal hunting – and I don’t really have much of a problem with that. The problem is when she (implicitly) uses that occasion as a support for the commercial seal hunt, and to protest the European ban of two weeks ago on seal fur and other products derived from seals hunted commercially.

Equating traditional seal hunting with the commercial hunt is somewhat like comparing a person who builds her own home out of wood she has cut herself from the forest using handsaws and axes, and Domtar doing a clear-cut of an entire forest stand, and shipping the timber down to the United States to build a suburb of cheap houses. You just can’t compare the two and retain a sense of honesty.

In much the same way, pro-commercial seal hunters will insist that there are no baby seals killed in the hunt. That is another dishonest argument, because seals can be killed from the age of 14 days, when they start to lose the pure white colour from their coat. They are still “babies” in my books.

And again, people will trot out the old argument that hunt protesters and the European ban itself is based on “emotion” rather than on “fact”. But it is a fact that the idea of mass seal slaughter is upsetting to a lot of people. Other people are upset at the attack on (a portion of) their livelihood. I see emotions and facts on both sides – the question is: whose emotions, and whose facts are more important?

From the seals’ point of view, I’d like to think that while they might object to being slaughtered in any kind of way, it may very well be that they adapted along with humans over a few thousand years to a small-scale slaughter that doesn’t cause them mass terror at a predictable moment every year – right when their young are at their most vulnerable. This mass commercial slaughter is not sustainable – it is simply too much, too often. And that is regardless of how a person might feel about the human-animal bond and the ethics of seal slaughter.

People complain that we treat animals like objects, but in fact we treat them as prisoners of war….We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing (Aristotle saw it clearly). That war went on for millions of years. We won it definitively only a few hundred years ago, when we invented guns. It is only since victory became absolute that we have been able to afford to cultivate compassion. But our compassion is very thinly spread. Beneath it is a more primitive attitude. The prisoner of war does not belong to our tribe. We can do what we want with him. We can sacrifice him to our gods. We can cut his throat, tear out his heart, throw him on the fire. There are no laws when it comes to prisoners of war.

(from Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee, p.104 – hardcover version, Random House)

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.

Animal hoarding and other abnormal human behaviour

February 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hens in peril

February 26, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0286

Happy Birthday Sarah Palin

February 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palin’s Drill Baby Drill Versus the Belugas

Eye on Palin