Archive for the ‘human-animal bond’ 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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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…

Meatless Monday and vegetarianism in the Guardian

June 21, 2009

When Hadley Freeman wrote last week about how awful it was for her to be a vegetarian, I was puzzled. If it’s so awful for her, then the only thing keeping her from eating meat is that she finds it revolting. OK, I can sympathise with not wanting to be evangelical about it – having once been involved in evangelical religion, evangelical vegetarianism is not what I’d want to stand for either.

Now that I think about it, what puzzled me the most was when she mentioned she had “crap hair” and somehow related that to her vegetarian diet. Crap hair can be the result of many things, but plant eating? Not likely. Nutritional deficiencies can result in poor quality hair – but you can be a meat eater and still have nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, folic acid and beta-carotenes. Drug abuse will eventually give you crap hair. So will unfortunate hair genes. Also: post-pregnancy hair loss; extreme stress; crap shampoo; too many perms and colourings; excessive blowdrying. But not a plant-based diet. Hope I’ve cleared that up. I have a full head of thick, straight hair (thanks dad…) and my vegetarian diet has not made it thin out or go frizzy. Granted, I still eat eggs and cheese, because I think that dairy and egg farming are at least potentially redeemable enterprises in animal husbandry. My hens are very happy to leave eggs for me in return for the shelter and food I provide, and they are especially happy to have the run of the yard. If I could work around the logistics of keeping a cow and milking her twice a day, I’m confident we’d work out a good relationship too.

I was glad to see a response in today’s Guardian, by Seth Freedman, one of those rare vegetarians by upbringing. He wrote a straightforward response, in which he says : “the worst thing about being a vegetarian is that most people aren’t.” I’d say that’s true – there’s nothing like contemplating going out for a meal at a restaurant, and then realising you’ll probably be eating a chef’s salad and a bun, again.

I appreciate the way he points out that some of the animals we see as pets are seen as food by different cultures. He is more direct than I’m able to be when he says:

There is no defence of eating meat or fish that stands up to the cold light of moral scrutiny. If there was, then people wouldn’t keep animals as pets or differentiate between which species are or aren’t fair game for slaughtering and consuming. When the Venn diagrams of friends versus food inevitably overlap (dogs being eaten in Korea, horses in France, and so on), the duplicity of the meat-eating public is plain for all to see. One man’s pot roast is another’s pet, and neither side has a leg to stand on while they refuse to take an objective view of whether there is something ethically wrong with tearing the flesh off a carcass just to sate one’s appetite.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, he has made a very important point about our relationship with animals.

Hadley’s column was in response to Paul McCartney’s promotion of Meatless Monday, an effort to encourage more people to consume less meat. A great initiative.

I.B. Singer and animals

June 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

March 31, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veterinarians and the seal hunt

March 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

Seal hunter with hakapik

Seal hunter with hakapik


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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandiculation

March 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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