Archive for the ‘news’ category

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.

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Choosing sides

January 9, 2009

I often wonder about the different reasons that make people choose one side of an debate or conflict over another. Also, what motivates us to change our minds – or admit that we see reason on the other side and therefore must grudgingly switch over. Do some people *know* that they are on the wrong side, but protecting their own interests, preserving prejudice or wilfull ignorance prevents them from admitting it? I tend to think so.

I’ve had Deborah Ellis’ courageous book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak for a few months, but finally started to read it the other night with my kids; we’ve read 10 or so of the children’s stories so far. It’s hard reading, but we’re used to it; we were very grateful for her Breadwinner (Parvana’s Journey) trilogy, and we’ve read some difficult books about animal suffering as well, such as Black Beauty.

The book is balanced and honest. Ellis mentions that she obtained parental permission to do all of her interviews, and if any of the parents ended up objecting after the fact, she did not include those interviews in the book. She also did not include interviews in which the children were “very rabidly” against the other side, because she didn’t want that to be the legacy left by those young people. Of course, she could have changed names or not used photos, but rabid partisanship was not the overall feeling she got from the children and youth she interviewed. The Israeli and Palestinian children (both Muslim and Christian) are girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 18. Their opinions and stories have not made me wince or roll my eyes; on the contrary, they all have the mark of reality – none of them appear to be overly tinged by parental, religious or cultural influence.

Still, as one would expect from these children, the sides are very well drawn: they know exactly who they are, and what and who they are up against. They speak about not knowing any Palestinian children, if they are Israeli, and vice versa. Some of the children say they don’t want to know children from the other side, while others say they do, because then they would understand that they are not the evil people they are made out to be by the other side. At least one child remarked that the children of the other side might start out being nice, but then they grow up to be just like their parents, hating them because they are Palestinian, or Israeli.

All of the children wish the conflict would just go away and leave them in peace: to not live in fear of being blown up, say the Israelis; and to not live with constant fear, harassment, indiscriminate shootings, interminable waits in lines at checkpoints and roadblocks, and cruel and unpredictable cancellations of school, jobs and activities, say the Palestinians.

My son has listened carefully to these accounts and has become convinced that the Palestinian children have it much worse, though of course he understands the chronic fears of the Israeli children, who live in fear during every normal outing you could imagine, including walking beside parked cars that might blow up at exactly the wrong moment for you. He understands the fear on all sides, probably because real and imagined fears are a normal part of every child’s existence, even when the objective reasons to fear aren’t that high on the relative scale. Still, he’s chosen his side based on a gut instinct of what is worse, and who is bearing the brunt of the violence and daily injustice.

I’m a bit troubled by that, because it wasn’t my goal to have him choose sides – after all, choosing sides will cause him grief at some point; so maybe it’s best to remain numb, or indifferent? Or to imagine that both sides are equally at fault, through historical miscalculations and power-grabs? Or, at a meta-level, to find some kind of universal self-satisfying explanation about how all humans are inherently vicious and will never get along unless they admit they are sinful and surrender to God? Certain religious currents instill us with this sense of helpless pessimism (I’m looking at you, evangelical Christians).

But I’m not sure anymore what the point is, because the war in Israel and Palestine has escalated in an appallingly lopsided fashion, either in spite of or because of the obvious pitiful circumstances to which the residents of Gaza have been reduced since 2005. The interviews from Three Wishes were carried out in 2002 – that’s ages ago, especially from the pov of an 11-year-old; but consider as well, that that is just slightly longer than all of World War II, and we’re still talking about it and learning new facts and analysis.

I wanted to write about animal and veterinary issues today and yesterday. And I probably will, but before I can get started on the pile of veterinary journals and articles on my desk, and sort out the events and issues I dealt with at work this week, I had to get this out.
If you haven’t already, please go to Amnesty International Canada’s site and sign the petition to tell our Foreign Minister to insist that civilians be protected and that unlawful attacks cease. Last I checked, it was up to 999 signatures.

And just to show that the sides are not so clearly drawn, read here about a massive Israeli protest against the Israeli government’s action in Gaza.

h/t: Creekside

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.

When will police conclude that Tasers are cruel and useless? This vet wants to know.

December 12, 2008

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that the Mounties will not be charged in the death of Robert Dziekanski.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of that decision by the B.C. criminal justice branch. Even though it’s obvious that Dziekanski was murdered, and his mother should receive acknowledgement of that, and some kind of compensation (though nothing will compensate for the loss of her son); I’m not sure the most appropriate course would be to charge the Mounties who used the Taser on him. I believe that the responsibility for his death lies higher up, with the “deciders” who thought it was a good idea to introduce Tasers in the first place. Cattle prods for humans, eh. If it hadn’t been in the news for the past several years, I wouldn’t believe it – I thought these methods were only worthy of concentration camps.

The guys who introduced Taser-like devices to this poor world supposedly had experience with cattle. Well, I worked for a while as a large animal vet, mainly with beef and dairy cows. Among the many tools I was instructed to purchase when I started out was a cattle prod. It looked like this:

Essentially a low-tech Taser prototype, discharging 60-80 volts of electricity when applied directly to the skin (holy moly, Tasers discharge 50,000 volts!? Hello, human doctors? could we have a word with you on this?) Even the relatively small voltage of my cattle prod was not something I ever tried on myself, as I’m a bit of a wuss that way – I’ve been inadvertently shocked by touching electric fences, and other cow-control accoutrements in barns and trust me, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The principal use of the prod, I observed during my rotations, was to get cows to stand up when they were too “stubborn” and didn’t respond to shouts, kicks pushes or slaps on the rump. I observed that the older vets tended to use the prod more frequently than the younger ones, and that women vets almost never used them. When I entered practice, I kept the prod in my tool chest with 2 double-D Energizer batteries, but never used it, though I did once or twice as a student, under instructions, and yes, it felt wrong. At some point, I removed the batteries to use in a much more useful tool (a flashlight) and never replaced them in the prod.

The main problem with the use of the cattle prod was that, in addition to being a cruel and painful method, it didn’t address the underlying problem. If the cow did not rise upon gentle prodding or encouragement, it was because she couldn’t – due to pain, weakness, metabolic disease, a fracture or sprain, a slippery floor, or not enough headspace because the chain around her neck prevented her from moving forward. A “downer” cow cannot be ignored – if she stays down too long, then she will never get up again due to muscle damage – but the prod was never a solution to that problem, not even “for her own good”.

Another use of the cattle prod is to goad cattle to go where you want them to go, when they are balking. I don’t remember ever seeing it used that way, likely because Temple Grandin’s work on cattle had already come into vogue, and we were more interested in using gentler, more effective methods of solving problems. The cattle prod makes the animals more skittish, nervous, and prone to accidents and injury. Not in the best interest of vets or farmers.

So imagine my surprise when a “method of control” that was on the point of passing into the annals of veterinary history in the early 2000s was introduced as a method of controlling humans. Le monde à l’envers.

I don’t know how I can state it more plainly. Cattle prods, like Tasers, do not achieve the desired ends, and all too often cause “adverse events”. Once veterinarians started to realise that cows had very good medical reasons for not rising on command, the use of the prod was seen as retrograde; a tool that at best is useless, and at worst is cruel and harmful. Essentially, if you use it, it’s because you are too lazy or incompetent to figure out what the real problem is.

Yes, sometimes humans freak out and act stubbornly, violently, aggressively, and are a danger to themselves and to others. However, until Tasers entered the police arsenal, I had assumed that these professionals, dealing with with fellow humans, could come up with techniques such as, oh I don’t know, verbal communication? Judo? Physical isolation or “time-out”? Removing bystanders from the scene so they are not at risk? Or maybe other creative methods to defuse these situations; hell, it’s not my responsibility to come up with them, but I’m sure they exist.

Tasers will pass into the annals of police history, it is just a question of time. However, how cruel and stupid are these deciders and manufacturers going to look several years from now? How many humans with diabetes, mental illness, with other medical problems or under extreme duress will have to die in the meantime?