Archive for the ‘veterinary history’ category

Twenty years ago today…

December 6, 2009


I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

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.