Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Do We Blame the Janitor?

The word "rescue" comes up very often in my line of work. In a broad sense, it refers to what happens at the end of the chain of oversupply. This is of course a very cynical way to talk about living beings, but the phenomenon itself is cynical and deserves a harsh name. What has always bothered me about the crisis of pet overpopulation is that the burden of responsibility, and the burden of weathering emotional storms, is placed on those who do the cleanup: all manner of rescue organizations, shelters, volunteers. It is somehow about them not doing enough, or not doing it properly. By comparison, very little is expected of those who are at the source of the crisis, i.e. intentional or unintentional breeders. Yes, we shake our heads at "backyard" breeders and producers of designer breeds, at careless people whose animals end up with unplanned litters, and some of us feel strongly about breeders of any ilk. But these feelings rarely translate into tangible, enforceable legislation. And no wonder. It would be no small feat to violate the sanctity of private property, even if said property are sentient beings. It is the rescue side of things that ends up in the public eye and is subject to public scrutiny as well as to a set of very strict laws and regulations.

    The purpose of this post is not to gripe about the injustice, but to highlight a phenomenon of which animal rescue is only one example. I don't have a name for this phenomenon except for the one I've reflected in the title, but I suspect such a name exists and is used by psychologists. Here is another example. When in October of last year a tugboat sank in the waters off Heiltsuk First Nation in Northwestern British Columbia, the emphasis in the news was on the inadequacy of the response to the diesel spill (which was all the more alarming given the small size of the vessel, perhaps a foreboding of what could happen if the vessel were ...large). Very little was said about what a tugboat belonging to a foreign (US) company was doing in Canadian waters and what that company's responsibility might be.

   Yet another sad example is the opiate overdose crisis in Canada. (It may not qualify as an epidemic in terms of how many people are affected, but it qualifies as a crisis in terms of how newsworthy it has become.) Again, most of the blame is placed on the inadequacy of the response, i.e. on those at least trying to respond. I admit that I care nothing for users who got hooked in an attempt to "open their mind," and save my sympathy for those in pain whose addiction started with a doctor's prescription--and probably trust in that doctor. Only once during the coverage of this crisis did an MD speak about the questionable power of opiates to relieve neurogenic pain, and the very inadequate education of doctors in pain treatment. Now there's an epidemic that truly deserves the name.

   I am sure you have examples of your own to share. So, why is it that the people cleaning up the shit are the ones who get shit? And, more importantly, why do we tread so lightly around those who are responsible in the first place?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

New Underdog in Town

I’ve never been tempted to feel deprived or offended for whatever reason. There was never any reason. I was raised in comfort if not love, given a solid education if not street wisdom, and enjoyed the opportunity to travel beyond the iron curtain when it was still bolted down tightly. I have faced challenges and threats to my chosen lifestyle and to my health, but nothing I’ve experienced deserves to be called suffering, and none of my tribulations qualify as survival. Neither of the ethnicities in my heritage has been persecuted or wronged in any major way (although one has bitter if recent grievances against the other). My only remaining ground for complaint is that I am a woman, but as a tomboy I’ve ignored even this last opportunity. I have met with crassness but not discrimination, with wolf-whistles but not abuse. All in all, being a woman has never subjected me to anything a few well-chosen words couldn’t fix. So in a world that prizes so highly the process of survival and the healing of harms, I have almost reached my fiftieth birthday with nothing survived and no wounds that haven’t healed long ago. I have nothing to share with my fellow humans except my fictional stories that explore the labyrinths of the human mind, and the joie de vivre of a feral animal perfectly content with the absence of pain. But our Western intellectual tradition looks down on such simplistic happiness. “Better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” taught the wise Socrates. I happen to agree with the verdict of corrupting the youth of Athens, although not for the same reasons as his fellow citizens had in mind. But let’s leave Socrates for now. Because for all my bitching about having no reason to feel offended, it turns out that I do have one reason.

       Poke me and I’ll defend myself and be done with it, but poke my fur child and I will raise a stink to high heaven. Ever since getting a rabbit for a pet I have been reminded of how fragile this animal’s position still is in our society. I am sick unto death of the buck-toothed idiotic grin of Easter bunny (hey, those are just overgrown incisors), as if this was the rabbit’s only useful application and as if it did anything to help its image during the rest of the year. It doesn’t, and only reinforces the stereotype of rabbits as fat little balls of fur born to be cuddled. (On a healthy rabbit that round rump is all muscle and no fat, and as a prey species most rabbits resent being picked up unless they’ve been accustomed to it since birth.)  People often condemn rabbits for the same faults (scratching, nipping, peeing on the floor or bed) that are readily forgiven in a dog or cat, and can give up on them with no attempt to understand or train them. The love rabbits give their people is not unconditional and must be earned. (For that matter, I’m still trying to understand what people mean when they claim that a dog’s love is unconditional. Does it mean you can be an a-hole and the dog will still love you? I’m not sure that’s such a great thing to aspire to.)  On pet owner forums not specifically dedicated to rabbits their owners are often ridiculed and mocked for doting on what is largely perceived as fodder for carnivores, plentiful and expendable. I have nothing in principle against raising rabbits for meat when it’s done humanely, although I would not eat them myself (I did on one occasion as a child, and it was delicious). It’s the contemptuous and dismissive attitude toward these animals that I mind. Yes, they breed with great ease, but their numbers do not make each animal any less valuable. One would think that for all the information available online for the asking, it would be easy to educate oneself on how to keep a rabbit, and keep it happy. The trouble is, much of the information is controversial. Many sources will tell new owners to feed rabbits pellets as a large part of their diet, but the reality is that pet rabbits have absolutely no need for them. This feed was designed for commercial meat rabbits who need to grow fast and do not usually reach an age where dental problems from insufficient roughage become apparent. A rabbit is amazingly similar to a horse: powerful in its muscles (and capable of a mighty kick), but fragile in its digestive, dental and respiratory health under the wrong conditions. And like the true herbivore that it is, it does not need any pellets let alone grains, although it might quite enjoy them like a kid enjoys potato chips.

    The veterinary profession has much catching up to do on this front. Currently rabbits are designated as “exotic” for the purpose of veterinary education and clinical practice, a label both outdated and silly given how common these animals are around the world. I am currently working on a pitch to Canadian veterinary schools to include rabbit medicine in the required curriculum rather than leaving it up to elective training, but such changes are neither easy nor swift. There is no insurance available to rabbits in Canada to cover the cost of veterinary bills. In the eyes of pet insurance companies, Canadian rabbits do not exist as pets. I’m tempted to say good riddance to insurance as it proves to be a headache to owners as often as a help, but in this case the principle bothers me. The choice should be available to those who might want it. On this count we are way behind the UK the US. Even in Australia, where rabbits are considered pests, the country’s Veterinary Association is calling for insurance to become available for the growing number kept as pets. But I try to look on the bright side even though I have long since drained my half-full glass of Chardonnay. Veterinary medicine is evolving constantly. It is hard to believe that small animal medicine did not even exist for most of the profession’s history, and was born little more than a century ago with doc’s quick look at Fido or Fluffy on his way to the barn. One day soon rabbits will join dogs and cats in the mainstream of pet ownership, but not without an effort on our part.    

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Exercising Dogs: the Dubious Virtue of Multitasking

Multitasking is one of the supposed virtues of modern life. The more things we do at the same time, the better we get at them, and the better we become as human beings, or so we are to believe. Even when we use the cliché "less is more," we are implying that more of anything is still better. I don't doubt that this works for many people with the right temperament for that sort of thing: feeling elated and energized by their juggling as long as balls (or whatever it is they're juggling) don't fall on the ground. Others like myself get jittery, annoyed, and frustrated when forced to shuttle between two or more tasks. But whatever the human's personality or circumstances, some multitasking practices should never be visited on the animals in our care. Here is one that makes me cringe every time: running a dog alongside a bicycle.

     At first glance it would seem like a good thing to do: the dog and the owner get exercise all at once; they are bonding, and time is being saved. But think about it from the dog's perspective. First, it cannot stop. It cannot--or will not--do this because it is geared to obey and follow its person. Animals are amazingly stoic creatures with a high capacity for ignoring their discomfort when they feel called upon to keep going. Unlike a dog running at its own pace, one trailed alongside a bicycle cannot respond to a minor ache or pain that requires a period of rest to heal, or alerts its master to a problem before it seriously injures the dog. This is especially harmful to a growing puppy who does not know its limitations and is apt to overdo it even without being prompted. Secondly, most such running takes places on an asphalt road which is hell on a dog's joints while providing a nice smooth surface for a bicycle. Have you ever wondered why professional dancers never use a cement floor but only a wooden one with give to it? Gravity is a force to be reckoned with, and I'm not thrilled about any kind of exercise on asphalt for dogs larger than toy breeds. In nature, any surface that an animal runs on has some give. Unlike humans, dogs do not wear shoes with cushioned soles, so it's not really fair of us to expect their joints to stay healthy on a surface from which we see it fit to protect ourselves.