Analogies and abortions

Posted June 12, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: abortion, animal rights, Feminism, politics, religion, Uncategorized

Having sat through too many evangelical sermons in my younger life, I’ve developed a strong resistance to arguments that draw on analogy. Most of the sermons I endured as a teenager and young adult were heavy-laden with analogies; now I can’t help seeing them as a recourse for lazy-mindedness (not always deliberate) and tendentiousness (usually deliberate). They’re useful for when you want others to believe something for which you don’t have concrete evidence, or which may contain many different truths that are unendingly complex, and the analogy helps you to focus on a single one.

I strongly object to analogies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. Having been pregnant a couple of times in my life and not reeling anymore from the experience, I’m amused or offended, depending on my mood, when pregnancy is compared to owning a house in which you are hosting the homeless and you’re obligated to keep them overnight because there is a blizzard outside. Pregnancy is not much like organ donation; and it is certainly nothing even potentially akin to being a slave-owner or a (female supremacist) Nazi. (Seriously: those two last ones are central arguments of the anti-abortion movement’s desire to enshrine fetal rights. Anti-abortion advocates imagine that pro-choice women see fetuses as “subhuman”; therefore, much like Nazis and slave owners, they allow them to be eliminated at will. That leap of (ana)logic leads directly into the abyss of manipulativeness and dishonesty.) I’ve always seen the abortion-is-murder analogy as a shocking distortion of the reality of an unwanted pregnancy and the maternal-fetal relationship.

I’ve also considered abortion from the angle of the animal rights movement, something more of a personal and professional interest for me. While I can see a few parallels between the anti-abortion and animal rights movements, there are more divergences than similarities, and in fact the philosophical argument for animal rights is more of an evolving process with a rich philosophical framework. Most importantly to me, animal liberation/welfare/rights arguments are not based on analogies and projections; they are based on the realities of animals’ lives and the way we think about them and use them.

Because being pregnant – and being a fetus – is not like anything else or any other stage of human or animal development, analogies are inappropriate for describing what happen to a body and a mind during that time. Perhaps because I have observed and dealt with a lot of non-human animal pregnancies and deliveries, I’ve grown more sensitive to messy and complex medical realities and the risks involved for both mother and fetus, and therefore can appreciate the wide range of potential calamities that can occur. I can also appreciate the incomplete but evolving state of knowledge regarding diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and people’s varying capabilities in handling problems and catastrophes. Most of the common things that can go wrong during a pregnancy or to a fetus can be addressed and corrected, but there is a small subset of devastating problems that cannot be fixed, not even with current technology.

Since the assassination of Dr Tiller, the renowned late-term abortion doctor from Wichita, by an anti-abortion zealot, I’ve been researching and reading about some of the conditions that have resulted in women choosing to abort a pregnancy that was initially desired. I was amazed at the number of conditions I had never heard of – though I shouldn’t be, as these most serious ones never come up in veterinary medicine and may have something to do with the complexity of the human genome, fertility treatments, and other factors: twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, trisomy 13, triploidy, fragile X syndrome, severe osteogenesis imperfecta, and many others. Another one here. And here. A few others I already knew about, such as severe neural tube defects and anencephaly.

A lot of women have decided to come out with their stories in the aftermath of Dr Tiller’s murder, and that is a very good thing. The holocaust rhetoric and imagery around later-term abortion were deliberately chosen by Francis Schaeffer (for which his son has recently apologised) when he wrote his treatises lamenting the decline of traditional religion back in the 1970s. While it’s understandable that women who’ve had a later-term abortion would just want to either grieve or forget the experience and get on with their lives, it’s important that they speak out in order to bring some truth and first-hand accounts to the table. People who casually imagine that women dispose of their half-grown fetuses cavalierly or out of convenience, or who believe that they must accept even the most severe congenital defect and care for a non-viable baby until it inevitably dies, no matter the consequences to their own reproductive and mental health, or the needs of their already-born children. These people need to understand that late-term abortion involves the most intensely personal situations, which sometimes include severe depression, cancer treatments and families with children who already have multiple disabilities. These issues should never have been allowed to become the target of a movement that pretends to be pious, but which has always been intensely political.

As for the pious individuals who still insist on sticking their noses and religious morality into the most private and intimate business of others, I think they should learn the meaning of empathy, and shame. A generation or so back, it was considered shameful when a woman had a baby out of wedlock, but with the decline of traditional religions and structures, the stigma of single parenthood has been erased. I can only hope that the appropriate stigma will attach itself to people who try to interfere in these most intimate problems and decisions of others.

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Michaëlle Jean eats seal heart, makes a dishonest point

Posted May 26, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: seal hunt, seals

Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An event of historical proportions

Posted May 24, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal law, animal rights, animal welfare

Tags: , ,

Those aren’t my words – those are from Tom Regan himself, one of the Grand Old Men of the animal rights movement. (Actually, he looks and talks as if he were 50 instead of 70.)

The event he was referring to was the colloquium on animals and the law held in Montreal this past Thursday and Friday, May 21-22, 2009 and organised by GRIDA (Group de recherche international en droit animal) at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The promise of seeing Regan in person, in addition to getting an hour or so of continuing ed credits was more than enough to pry me out of my rural hideaway and launch me into the underground labyrinth of metros and interconnecting university pavillons. With my above-average sense of orientation and signage reading ability, I made it to the Thursday afternoon session right on time.

The first afternoon panel session was led off by Dana Campbell, attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF – aka “we may be the only lawyers on Earth whose clients are all innocent”), who gave a short presentation on the Connection between Human and Animal Violence. The data, mainly from the FBI, clearly shows that every serial killer on record has either participated in or was forced to witness animal cruelty as children. This includes the Columbine killers. Studies of “domestic violence” show that the abused family’s animals are usually victims of the same type of treatment. Campbell’s big message: Violence against animals is not a PRECURSOR to violence against humans, it is a PARTNER.

Campbell was followed by Ronald Sklar, professor of Criminal Law and originator of the Animal Law course at McGill University. Sklar participated in the unsuccessful 2002 attempt to overhaul the law on cruelty to animals in Canada, in which one of the changes proposed was to move animal cruelty from the category of a property crime to a morality crime. The proposed amendment was accepted in the HofC, but died in the Senate, where some of the Senators were worried that people would no longer be allowed to drown kittens or raise hens in cruelty cages without being at risk of committing a crime. Sigh. Sklar also noted that the definition of “animal” in anti-cruelty statutes does not include wild animals, nor does it include chickens (what about pigs, I wonder?) Cruelty must also be “willful” – the 2002 amendments would’ve removed the distrinction between negligence and wilful negligence.

Sklar was followed by Marsha Baum, Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico, who talked about the legal treatment of animals in times of weather disasters. Essentially, the images and reports from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina highlighted the precarious condition of animals in times of disaster, and inspired changes in the law, in which companion and service animals can now be considered for evacuations along with their humans. As Baum mentions, this is a good first step, but not a final step, because the law does not mandate anything, it only mentions that animal evacuation must be “taken into account” (ie. pet and service animal evacuation is to be taken into account…but not necessarily acted upon in the event of a disaster). As well, the law on evacuation does not even attempt to address farmed animals in confinement, captive animals, research “supplies” or wildlife…

The second afternoon session was on the extension of fundamental rights to animals. I must admit that my conception of rights isn’t very well-formulated. I get uncomfortable when people start talking about rights because from my observations, people’s assumptions as to what rights imply can be wildly different depending on their educational or cultural background or upbringing. I still don’t know what to think about animal rights and how they could possibly fit into the framework of human law and society, but I am a firm believer in the need for reforming laws – all kinds of changes are well past due in farming, research and companion animals (in that order).

The first presenter was Jean-Marie Coulon, an administrator with the Animal Rights League in France, and the first honorary President of the Appeals Court in Paris. His presentation was much as I would have expected from a Frenchman – very wordy and kind of hard to follow. Even though I’m bilingual, my French is strongly conditioned by the Quebecois, and as such I have trouble with French from France: I understand most of the words, but the meaning often escapes me. All I can say is that Mr Coulon encouraged me with words that went along the lines of “we must approach the issue of animal rights with seriousness and serenity”; and that the basis of our laws need to shift from anthropocentrism to biocentrism. I am sorry that I could not do more justice to his entire presentation, but he reminded me too much of my first year anatomy professor, another French dude I couldn’t understand very well and who did irreparable damage to my understanding of anatomy and surgery.

Tom Regan came next, with a historical perspective and update on his 1979 presentation at an international congress on legal and social philosophy; at that congress, back at the beginnings of the modern animal rights movement, he presented his philosophical arguments for animal rights to a very small audience that in his view was alternately bored and outraged at the very idea that animal might be attributed rights. His “prejudice” argument goes like this:
1- our legal system should free itself from prejudice
2- denying rights to non-humans is a product of prejudice
3- Therefore our legal system should recognise their rights.

Regan was a very affable and entertaining speaker, but he was followed by a much younger woman who to me represents what the future of the animal rights and welfare might bring.

Ani Satz is an associate professor at the Emory University School of Law, Rollins School of Public Health. Her field of study is in interest convergence, where she notes that laws on behalf of animals are only passed when there is sufficient convergence between human and animal interests. As with the other presenters, I was only able to take some handwritten notes of her presentation, but what I managed to gather was that if there is sufficient proof that cheap food (as we obtain presently from industrial agriculture) is harmful to humans as well as animals, it is only then that we will make some headway in terms of animal livestock protection in the law. She notes that currently there are too many inconsistencies with regard to definitions of “animals” (and “welfare” and other such terms), with respect to different individuals of the same species (depending on who owns them and for what purpose), and with respect to similar animals of different species (such as pigs and dogs – both omnivores, with similar cognitive abilities, lifespans, sentience, etc.) Satz advocates a radical approach to assessing animals’ needs in terms of welfare, and the implications include “no more factory farming”. Amen to that.

At the end of this session questions were taken. A zoologist, followed by a veterinarian stood up to complain that these philosophical and legal people were totally unscientific in their approach to animal welfare and human use of animals. The two men could barely contain their scorn and their fear that these radical animal rights people would be coming around to put a giant cramp in their lifestyle and livelihoods. Now, to me, this was a predictable response coming from predictable quarters. For one thing, men tend to get very emotional when it comes to questioning their activities; they don’t like to be told What They are Not Allowed to Do to Animals and What Animals Need. And for another, the question of science often comes up in these types of debates: how does science require that we proceed; just look at the benefits of science for the human race; be careful you don’t do something “unscientific” and cause more harm than good, etc. I tend to have a jaded view of science by virtue of my generation – the post-modern generation of scientific venture; while we are generally unquestioning of the benefits of science – and I would add: the scientific basis of modern hygiene – we are also more than aware of its downfalls: nuclear weapons, environmental ravages due to industrial “scientific” agriculture, mining and exploitation of other natural resources, etc.

So I stood up to speak at the microphone in an attempt to defuse some tension. I stated that I was also a veterinarian, so I could understand how large animal and regulatory vets and scientists might feel set upon because their work involves some procedures and interventions that are definitely ambiguous in terms of animal welfare. However, I pointed out, there is a persistently significant shift in veterinary graduates turning to companion animal medicine because they have no interest for farm animal, research or industrial medicine, and no stomach for it. Many large animal vets practice for a few years and opt out as I did, turning to companion animal medicine.

If vets (and animal scientists) are people who want what is good for animals, they will naturally turn to companion animal medicine, or even wildlife rehabilitation, because that is where they feel they are doing the most good. But if vets who really believed in the importance of animal welfare, and who could at least understand the argument for animal rights, were to stay in large animal practice, I think some headway could be made to improving conditions for animals, and perhaps even making some fundamental and radical changes. That however, will take a lot of time and courage – but I think that is what most people really would like to see happen.

The law of diminishing returns

Posted April 20, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal welfare, gymnastics, veterinary medicine

Tags: ,

Last week I got together with a childhood friend to catch up on each other’s lives. Inevitably, as we always do, we compared our childhood memories from the several years we spent together in competitive gymnastics, back in the days when we could be found in the gym up to five times a week for around 18-25 hours of practice. My friend, who was always much more supple than I could ever hope to be, is now a fantastic yoga instructor and massage therapist. Her years in gymnastics have given her some valuable insight into the different kinds of pain the body should and shouldn’t endure, and the well-being that liberty and exploration of movement can lend to the mind and soul.

We laughed, sometimes ruefully, about our experiences with coaches who often blurred the line between fostering potential and pushing too hard. Of our series of coaches over the years, many were from Germany or Eastern Europe, and while they definitely knew gymnastics, they were a special kind of strict. As girls, we were all naturally athletic, but we also self-selected for gymnastics on the basis of our slight build and well-rounded physical abilities – a combination of flexibility, strength and agility. We had another feature that helped weed out certain otherwise talented kids: we could tune out our sense of self-preservation in order to respect authority and obey commands. Attuned observers would’ve been struck by our demonstration of high energy and submissiveness.

After a year or so of training in the basics, we were rudely informed that our coaches’ grandmothers could do better splits than we could, so from then on we would spend painful minutes every day in the splits with either the front or back leg raised several inches above the floor. The “oversplits” they called it – whoever could have invented that? Also, a simple backbend wasn’t enough – it was more aesthetically pleasing (or possibly freakish, if impressive) to push it to the brink, nearly popping your shoulders out of joint as you forced your upper back into an impossible arch. Well – impossible for me, that is, as I soon became known as the one who needed extra work in the flexibility department.


The day after you discovered the joy of completing a complete somersault high and fast through the air and landing nicely on your feet again, you found out that to be really competitive, you had to do a double, or add a twist or three – eventually both. It seemed like no matter how much we were willing to do, there was always somebody, somewhere (usually in the Soviet Union or Romania) who could do more, and do it better, and theirs became the new standard. Naturally, that did not come without some kind of cost, and once in a while, the cost was enormous, exposing not only the fragility of our flesh, bones and nerves, but also the desperate folly of pushing a good thing much too far.

Elena Mukhina came to symbolise just exactly how things could be pushed too far. She was a Soviet gymnast, a rising star in the 1970s and poised to unseat Nadia Comaneci as the world’s greatest gymnast in 1980. However, it wasn’t to be. A combination of overtraining, injury, callous and abusive coaching that characterised the Soviet sports system, and a very risky tumbling move rendered Elena a quadriplegic two weeks before the start of the Moscow Olympics. Elena’s injury stayed in my mind for years, and I was sad all over again to learn of her death in 2006, at the age of 46.

A few years after Elena’s injury, I read a memorable article in International Gymnast magazine. It was an unusually wise and thoughtful piece called “The Law of Diminishing Returns”. It affected me particularly because I was struggling with a growing body and assorted injuries and chronic pains in all of my joints. The article was a reflection on how the ever-increasing demands of training could produce dramatically positive results over a period of time, but from a certain point onward, the more pressure and training a gymnast had to bear would not produce better results in competition, in fact, they would often deteriorate. Pushing training beyond that point would only continue to diminish the results – either due to injury, fatigue or loss of competitive drive.

Eventually I decided to quit gymnastics, just as puberty was setting in – like most gymnasts I at least had the benefit of late puberty. I finally acknowledged that I’d been lucky to not have ended up like Mukhina that time I landed on my head a few months earlier; also, what I’d assumed was a pulled muscle in my back was actually a broken spinal process from overuse, and if I kept training, it would never heal enough to stop causing pain. Moves I had been able to do easily only a year before cost me intense effort and pain; even rising from the floor and walking was painful.

Unlike my childhood friend who started doing yoga in her 20s, I didn’t discover the healing benefits of yoga until a few years ago, after she gave me a private lesson that revealed what I’d been missing.

On the other hand, my work in veterinary medicine in the years between had opened up a new and very different world, but one in which I sensed that the law of diminishing returns had already been at work for a long time. What I observed was even more devastating – this time however, without effects I could measure directly in terms of my own pain and well-being.

Bovine medicine, specialising in dairy cows, was my original focus in veterinary medicine. Dairy cows are a remarkable species, and in the words of an old vet: “no other species is even close to them in what they can do”. There was something about their concentrated docility, massive warm bodies, and vital importance to the human food chain that enticed me to go into bovine practice. At the same time, I always found them to be not quite all there – it’s as if they have encased their feelings and reactions into a small recess of themselves, and with that safely bottled up they can face the work they have to do, the elite level performances of milk production every single day, and the illness and injury they have to endure as part of the bargain. Much like many of the top gymnasts I knew, they endure pain without complaint, and show their fear or pain only through “balking” rather than outright dissent or aggression. Chronic lameness, mastitis, metabolic disease and digestive ailments are the lot of the dairy cow, and this is ever more the case with the highest producers, who are also called upon to provide fertilised ova, through a a hormone-soaked process called “superovulation”, so that even more high-producing cows can result. Increasingly, dairy cow farming results in reduced longevity in individuals and herds – many cows are used up and their skinny carcasses sent to make ground beef after only a year or two of lactation (it takes two years of growth and pregnancy before they can start lactating).

I have come to believe that our relationship with these animals has been badly compromised over the past decades – the demand for increased production can be traced to the post-war years, and for decades veterinary medicine and dairy science have combined to achieve the amazing technical accomplishment of the high-producing Holstein cow. But even more than with top athletes, who can choose to retire or scale down their training and go on to something else, the price is too high. There could have been another way. Medicine and science could have, and still can be used in a gentler, wiser manner. It will take adjustment, and recalibration of goals and methods, but I think it’s still time to save our bond with dairy cows and bring them back from the brink. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to breed cows that can produce prodigious amounts of milk – but how many carcasses of cows spent before their time result every day from this way of doing things? It makes little economic sense, and even more importantly – it is desperately inhumane.

Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel that the taste and enjoyment of milk and other dairy products has been diminished compared to what I have tasted in more artisanal productions; I still eat them, but they take a lot of dressing up and doctoring to give them a semblance of taste. The blandness of milk, even whole milk, is pretty obvious. Frankly, I’d rather swallow a calcium and vitamin D pill with a glass of water.

Much like gymnastics, where I did experience joy, pride of accomplishment and positive effects in my body in spite of my injuries, I’m left wondering who or what the excessive pushing, the demand for greater performance is really for, in the end. In dairy medicine, as in many other spheres, we can still heed the law of diminishing returns – a biological law and an existential law – and use our science, including our experience with it, to figure out what we could do instead.

Addendum: I forgot to add this amazing interview with gymnast Elena Mukhina, “Grown Up Games”, translated from Russian. The interview was conducted in 1998 and published in Ogonyok Magazine. It is amazing and heart-breaking.

Vegetarian vs. veterinarian

Posted March 31, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: agriculture, animal welfare, human-animal bond, Nutrition, vegan, Vegetarian, veterinary medicine

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

Posted March 23, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal rights, animal welfare, human-animal bond, news, seal hunt, seals, Temple Grandin, veterinary medicine

Tags: , , ,

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

Posted March 20, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal behaviour, cats, human behaviour, human-animal bond, yoga

Tags: ,

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.