Archive for the ‘Animals’ category

Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Temple:

My own private guinea pig

February 9, 2009

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

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

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

img_0017 Pigma is the grey fellow on the right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the use of force

January 4, 2009

I am co-authoring a modest book on cats with another veterinarian who, like me, has had experience with a wide variety of species in different clinical and research contexts. Of course, as Andrew is approaching 80, his experience goes well beyond mine. Recently, I reviewed his chapter on “training” cats so that they don’t behave in ways that could put strains on their relationships with humans, such as scratching furniture and jumping onto tables and countertops. His advice was to use the classic water-spray method that seems to have worked for some people, some of the time. As a use of force, it is a relatively gentle means, but it is a display of force nevertheless. (My son likes to say on behalf of all animals: curse you humans and your opposable thumbs!)

Several years ago, I tried the water-spray method of discipline, but ended up finding it messy and annoying, both to myself and to my young cat. For example, I usually didn’t reach the spray bottle in time (it was never put back in the same place), or I missed; and if I didn’t, I ended up with a wet, resentful cat who reverted to jumping on countertops when I wasn’t home just to prove he could still do it, if only to himself. Today, that same cat is 14 years old, and he still jumps on countertops, to get a drink of water from the tap in the sink or to evade harassment from the more energetic cats on the floor. In short, I gave up, and reasoned that the only way to have cats off tabletops was to gently remove them, over and over again, if necessary, until they tired of the exercise.

Of my three other cats, only one is prone to jumping on tables and countertops. I often find his footprints on the counter; of course this is annoying and mildly unsanitary, but I tolerate it because it’s not a huge issue in the scheme of things. In fact, in my experience most objectionable cat behaviour requires an intelligent use of resources to create solutions that benefit everyone, or gentle dissuasion. The use of forceful methods will usually produce unintended results, such as a different objectionable behaviour, or a neurotic and unhappy cat that never reaches his or her full potential for amiable companionship.

My mother often mentions to me that her cat doesn’t dare jump onto countertops, tables, or even certain chairs in the house, because he remembers being smacked for it back when he first moved into the house and was a very easily intimidated cat. The use of force worked for her. But the cat is clever. While my mother is the one who feeds and cleans up after the cat, she gets very little love in return. Cat is in love with my father, follows him everywhere and gives him all of his best attention and lovingest expressions. Cat knows that my father wouldn’t ever lift a hand against him, even if he wanted to; my father is just like that – even though he says the cat deserves a smack for waking him up at night, he would never dream of actually doing it. I guess that’s OK with my mother, because she doesn’t want cats following her everywhere or waking her up anyways.

The same principle applies with regard to the use of force in training dogs. It may produce certain results, if only because dogs have a hierarchical concept of social relationships that cats find abhorrent, so the use of force will go a certain way to ensuring obedience. However, most responsible dog trainers and experienced owners know that there are ways of training dogs without using force. They use consistency, fairness, and persuasive togetherness to get the best results: an obedient, non-neurotic and non-fearful canine companion.

I have no training in diplomacy, political science or even human psychology, but even so it has always been obvious to me that the use of force is nearly always a missed opportunity and a tragic mistake that produces unintended consequences. I know this is the case with kids and spankings; I have always detested the very idea of using slaps or spankings to teach them obedience or as a punishment. Humans are animals, and animals do not respond well to the use of force, in any context – even when human reason or religion proclaims that it is for their own good.

The current Israeli offensive in Gaza has reminded me of the tragic uselessness of force. Simply put, there is simply no way that the Israelis will achieve anything remotely positive from bombing and marching into Gaza, no matter how often they repeat their message that this is about subduing the threat of Hamas or ensuring future security for Israeli citizens. The use of force is always a mistake. I would’ve hoped that the accumulated experience of decades – millenia in fact – in the Middle East would have taught them otherwise.


December 29, 2008

The holidays have brought on a spot of brain fog. I’ve taken a vacation from everything requiring mental effort and concentration, in spite of all my best intentions I haven’t even been catching up on the reading I wanted and needed to do.

Today, the real reason for this brain fog hit me: I’m back in Winnipeg, and have become a sleepwalker again. In Winnipeg in December, the sun does not come up in the morning until past 8 o’clock, then it makes a low arc in the sky before dipping back under the horizon sometime around 4:30. The temperature has not climbed above -20 Celsius, except for one day, but that was Christmas Day and it went by too quickly and the mercury dipped back down again that night. I went for a walk on Christmas Eve day, and by the time I realised I’d gone too far, my legs had started to freeze and the walk back was more urgent. When I finally made it back inside and started thawing out, my legs turned red and were violently itchy for at least an hour; I think the small veins and capillaries at the surface of my skin were re-dilating after some cold-induced vasoconstriction and were releasing histamine in a panic.

Anyways, back to the sleepwalking. I saw Guy Maddin’s weirdy-weird but wonderful movie My Winnipeg last summer at the Polo Park movieplex, and I have to thank him for explaining some dark and funny mysteries about this place where I was born and raised. Winnipeg is a city of sleepwalkers, according to Maddin. I’ve thought about this in the months since I saw the movie, since I didn’t know whether or not I agreed. In more recent years, Winnipeg has become a city of drivers; not many people walk anymore, except in the malls. But when you start walking outdoors in Winnipeg, you easily fall into a trance-like state, where time stands still and you simply walk endlessly on flat ground covered by crunchy-squeaky snow. You want to believe that the walking helps you to think, but really you’re past thinking, you’re simply surviving and repeating thoughts to yourself, ones you’ve already had, and you’re certainly not coming up with anything revolutionary. Time doesn’t stand still, you just don’t notice how it’s passing. One thing is certain: trancewalking is an excellent way of ignoring or avoiding conflict.

I loved Maddin’s exaggerations and embellishments, and I’m sure that everything he put in that movie happened – just not exactly the way he says it did. My theory about the frozen horses in the river is that one horse may have escaped from a stable and plunged into the icy river, but in Maddin’s childhood memory, one horse morphed into an entire stable, and they froze instantly. In any case, Winnipeg constantly produces outrageous news stories – just read the papers! said Maddin himself, in today’s paper in fact.

So the cold and dark would explain the brain fog, or laziness, as I prefer to call it when it happens to me. A funny thing about the sleepiness that afflicts me when I’m here is that I didn’t notice it when I was growing up, and in fact I’m convinced it doesn’t affect children. It hits you at puberty, and by the time you really notice how heavy and sleepy you’ve become, you’ve already made plans to leave – if only temporarily – to make it go away. I moved away when I was 18, I now know it was because I was especially in danger of becoming a dedicated sleepwalker. I spent years away from Winnipeg trying to shake myself awake, but since I keep coming back, I remain susceptible.

Of course, I have to tie this in with animals at some point, might as well go for it now. Hibernation in turtles, amphibians and fish, is my first thought. A few years ago, someone brought a toad to the clinic where I now work, an ordinary greenish brown toad in a box; he was on his way to being released. The person wanted a professional opinion on how the toad could possibly have lain immobile for an entire winter trapped in a cement wall, and then resurrected when the wall was broken down and he was inadvertently rescued. Not knowing much about toads, I tried to remember what I had learned about amphibians and what they might do during the winter. Toads can dig, so they can reach deep ground that does not freeze. The part of the concrete wall in which he was encased likely didn’t freeze, according to the rescuer, and it was actually quite damp, so that might have helped it survive.Frogs, on the other hand, can’t dig, so they have a more complex challenge to avoid freezing or dehydrating during the winter. Adaptive evolution is a delightfully complex process, and I applaud the frogs and other cold-blooded survivors of the Ice Age for their sleepy resourcefulness.

Other animals don’t hibernate, and while Winnipeg isn’t a place where you will find an abundant variety of wildlife, you will reliably find great numbers of a few single species. Deer, for instance, have flourished. Particularly around here in the suburbs reclaimed from farmers’ fields, where people have taken pity on them and set out hay or other types of feed to get them through the long winter months. Really, you wouldn’t know how they ever survived without us, as they hang around the feeding stations nearly all day long, and don’t run away unless you try to approach close enough for a chat. Some people have taken feeding wildlife to ridiculous lengths; my parents gleefully reported that one of their neighbours, on at least one occasion, cooked up a chicken that she took outside and delivered to a fox and her new litter of kits.

Then there are the insects. They spend the winter in diapause, waiting for the world to become more hospitable before they come to life again. In places like Winnipeg, it seems that only a relative few species have perfected the diapause to such a degree that they can proliferate when the days start to grow long. Mosquitoes, dragonflies, bumblebees and giant water bugs were the insects that plagued me as a kid; when summer came, they were suddenly, alarmingly, everywhere. I must have been four or five years old the day I went to visit my best friend across the street, and when it was time for me to go home, I could not cross back because in the space of a few hours the street had been invaded by an army of giant water bugs. A real nightmare, these bugs could crawl, swim AND fly, and their large pincers weren’t just for decoration. In my mind, I can still see the driveway and street littered with hundreds of them, even as my friend’s mum told me not to be such a scaredy-cat, there were only a few bugs and I was much faster than they were. Even though I begged her to drive me home, she eventually convinced me I could outrun the bugs, so I took a deep breath and ran as fast as I could; somehow I made it across those 50 metres from door to door in one piece. A scene like that would have featured in my version of My Winnipeg, with no (conscious) exaggeration.

So here we all are, several species of animal, stuck in the depths of an Ice Age winter, each doing our best to make it through until the better days arrive, as they always do. Some of us do it best by giving in to the sleep, while others find it easier to stay awake. For the ones who won’t give in to sleep, their job is to take care of the ones who can’t get by alone, and to stand against the dark and cold.

Presidents, puppies and taking responsibility

December 15, 2008

Although the Obamas have not yet chosen that puppy for their girls, Joe Biden has a new German shepherd (h/t to JJ at unrepentantoldhippie via Huffpost). I was glad to know that the vice-president-elect has experience with German shepherds, because in my experience they have powerful qualities that can become liabilities with the wrong owner. They have that special combination of impressive size, strength, sensitivity and intelligence. As a vet, I have consistently found them to be, um…how I should I put this? – not the easiest dogs to deal with in clinical situations. (The fact that I was taken down by my neighbour’s German shepherd, King, when I was 8 has absolutely nothing to do with my lingering nervousness around shepherds, I swear.)

Ever since I heard that the Obamas were looking for a puppy, I had been thinking about the various options, based on my experience as a vet with a general, non-canine-expert experience with a wide variety of breeds, the fact that my kids are the same age as the Obamas, and my own struggle with various animal and dust allergies. Lately, I can’t help thinking that if I had to make a recommendation, I would point them toward a rescue dog. But not just any shelter “mutt” as Obama candidly mentioned – though of course mutts make wonderful companions and are a great alternative to popular breeds. For the Obamas, I would suggest a greyhound rescue.

Admittedly, I don’t see greyhounds very often in the clinic where I work – only twice so far in fact. The most recent was just a few weeks ago, when a client came in with Daisy, a greyhound he had rescued from Arizona the year before. She was in excellent health; she only had a small but painful superficial wound on her hind leg. Contrary to many dogs, when Daisy was put on the table, she put on a very brave face and let me do what I had to do to allow the wound to heal as quickly as possible. She did not pull her leg away or turn her head toward me to see if she could intimidate me into leaving her alone, instead she only flinched slightly when I examined the wound and applied a gentle antiseptic, noting that she had the typical thin, delicate skin of the breed. Her owner had only praise for her, and I could see why. Not only had she easily adapted to a new home at the age of 4, but she had quickly become the moral support of her new companion, a bossy 12-year-old Shih-Tzu, who now refused to leave the house without Daisy in tow.

My positive impression of the greyhound temperament has been reinforced by the research I’ve done since. Descriptors abound with terms such as “sweet” “gentle” “affectionate” “loyal” and “quiet couch potato”. Granted, the vast majority of greyhounds are not adopted as puppies, because they are specifically bred for sprint racing. Barring injury, their careers usually last between 2 and 5 years, which means they are often available for adoption between the ages of 2 and 5; more rarely, puppies or adolescents can be adopted due to injury or physical unsuitability for racing. Essentially, as with horse racing, when an animal is no longer profitable to the owner, it must be “dealt with”. In the 1980s, some dedicated dog lovers became aware of this sad business, and initiated projects to adopt spent greyhounds into homes. This has led to a rather predictable conundrum: some greyhound adopters remain viscerally opposed to greyhound racing, while others have decided to remain neutral, to avoid driving away the very people who provide them with animals to adopt out…

With the current economic downturn meaning less free-flowing cash, I’m wondering if the demand for homes for greyhounds will suddenly go up, or if this has already happened. It’s important to remember that animals will be the ones who will most suffer from any economic crisis, because they are at the bottom of the chain of concern. Rescues of all kinds will be needed in the coming months and years.

This, to my mind, is where a greyhound for the Obamas would fit in. His looming role as Rescuer-in-Chief needs a mascot: a suitably “vetted” greyhound, with its working-class background, gentle disposition, and short, (hopefully) hypoallergenic coat would make a perfect addition to a household where two young girls would have a beautiful and gentle dog to keep them company as they all adjust together to a new environment. And as we all adjust to a new economy – one that will hopefully bring out our best instincts of rescue, care and concern for people and animals whose livelihoods are all too easily exploitable, and ultimately expendable in a capitalist economy.

Although I am no expert in greyhound health and longevity, I do wish to point out that nearly every breed of dog has its characteristic problems. Greyhounds may not have a typical disease profile that results from intensive inbreeding exacerbated by sudden popularity, but concerns have been raised about a possible increased likelihood of developing osteosarcoma. While I never like to see any breed of dog suddenly become popular, it would be nice to shed some light on this business of raising dogs for gambling, only to see them discarded when they are no longer profitable.

Animals are persons too

December 10, 2008

They each have a face, and having a face is just another thing that we all share.

Last night in the Huffington Post I read about Edgar the cat. She (yes, Edgar is a girl) had her face reattached after an unfortunate incident with a fan belt – in winter, cats will sometimes seek refuge under the hood of a car when the engine is still warm. If they’re lucky, they get out when you open the car door, or are woken up with a start when the motor turns over and escape with minimal or no damage to their little bodies, but sometimes they are killed more or less instantly or suffer catastrophic injury. Edgar’s accident was somewhere in between: major – catastrophic, to be sure – damage to the skin of his face, but the damage wasn’t immediately life-threatening, as he made it back home on all four feet with eyes and mouth intact and no major bleeding. Of course, without treatment, infection and fever would have quickly set in and he would have died – eventually. This type of accident is only one of the neverending variety of misfortunes that happen to cats and dogs. Sometimes, vets can only speculate on what caused an injury, because the animal victim is often the only witness. Did that cat return home with only three legs because it was caught in a trap, or was it a car accident, or foul play? Etc.

Kudos to Edgar’s owner: when she regained consciousness after catching a glimpse of the face hanging off his skull, she took her straight to the vet. And félicitations to the vet, for doing such a great surgical job on Edgar’s face. Not just any vet would have been able to tackle that job successfully. I’m a vet myself, though I don’t do surgery, and I’m pretty sure only one of my colleagues at the local clinic would have the surgical guts and expertise required for this job.

Still, the mechanical skills of this type of surgery have been in practice for a long time, even hundreds of years – certain individual surgeons are on historical record as having had excellent dexterity and manual skills, but these often failed because they didn’t have the modern advantages of knowledge about how tissues heal and the techniques and medicines for control of infection – not to mention the materials, anaesthetics, and other small but vital (and sometimes expensive) details that increase the chances of a very successful outcome.

But the key element here was the owner’s immediate decision to treat. I’d be willing to bet that a majority of cat owners would make the same decision. Some, however, would or could not. Some people would take one look at a catastrophically damaged face and make the immediate decision to euthanise, just to stop the suffering, unable to imagine that it could be healed. Others, faced with terrible financial constraints and an inability to beg, borrow or steal, would opt for euthanasia when the vet pulls out the fee estimate, which would likely be in the range of a few to several hundred dollars, depending on the location and type and of clinic or hospital – not including the extra cost if Edgar was not brought in during regular clinic hours.

I wouldn’t want to judge the person who would opt for euthanasia due to an inability to pay. As for those who’d have no trouble paying, but choose not to, even when they receive assurance that the chances of complete recovery are good – that’s another story.

But what about the animals who never make it in to the clinic in the first place, for treatment or euthanasia? Animals without owners, deliberately abandoned, or temporarily lost? We don’t want to think about what happens to them, much the same way we don’t want to think about unfortunate humans. What about the animals owned by people who can’t afford to pay their own health care bills, never mind those of their animals? Here in Canada, we’re a bit more lucky that way – most of our medical needs are covered by a socialised system wherein those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to pay taxes chip in to look out for everyone else, including the ones who can’t do likewise. It’s not charity, it’s simply an application of the Golden Rule – a what-would-Jesus-do kind of thing.

But with health care costs mounting for all kinds of reasons – especially including the huge increase in the variety and quality of things we *can* do to ensure the best possible outcomes – I’m glad we’re still called upon to chip in. Because most often, the ones who need help the most are usually the ones who can’t ask and can’t pay.

I don’t think we need a different kind of health care system here in Canada. I think what we need to do is continue to work toward ensuring the best possible care for everyone, irrespective of their ability to pay.
And maybe someday, in my “socialist” utopia, animals will benefit from the same kind of consideration…