Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Saturday, September 7, 2019

My Other Youth

This is another cross-post from my new website which is devoted to my writing.
Reading my favourite author (though not my favourite book) in the past couple of weeks has transported me to the land of my youth. Stephen King is one hell of a writer because he tells the truth about human nature, and as much as I like a good spine-tingler, I think that the element of horror is only a prop that’s all too often mistaken for the defining feature of his work. Christine is a story about a car and about teenagers growing up in roughly the same era as myself, but on the other side of the globe. Maybe because I spent part of my childhood in England where I’d been primed for a worldview so different from the Soviet one, I could see myself as one of King’s characters. Although I didn’t share their actual experiences, I can easily slip into their mindset as into well-fitting clothes. This trick of the mind is not unique to immigrants and expats. I think that with age, everyone to some extent replaces what really happened with what might have happened. It’s a universal feature of human memory.
Familiar though it can feel to me, the reality of American teenagers in the late 70s bears little resemblance to the youth that I actually lived out, although the passage of time and the shifts in my worldview have made it feel like that young life was someone else’s. I think about the experiences on which Soviet youth of my generation missed out, for better or for worse. The first thing that comes to mind in the wake of Christine is that there was no culture of driving lessons, or of getting our first car. Most people didn’t drive or own any car, first or subsequent. Related to this is freedom of travel in general. We were painfully aware of our inability to see the world beyond the Soviet bloc; in the late 70s and early 80s, travel outside the iron curtain was not yet an option for most. We were curious about the free world, envious of the people who lived in it, and hungry for any tangible evidence of life on the other side. While it wasn’t readily available in stores (except for The Beatles and artists like Mireille Mathieau), pop and rock music from Western Europe made its rounds in the form of cassette tapes privately copied in a chain reaction. The discotheques we danced at played mostly Western music. But we had our own rock heroes, my favourite being the lighthearted and melodrama-free Viktor Tsoi with his darkly honest songs. These artists weren’t ‘underground,’ they weren’t persecuted, their songs weren’t about social protest but about eternal subjects like war and love and dying and living. 

My favourite song by Tsoi is A Star Named Sun.

Everyone knows there was no sex in the USSR, right? Well, there wasn’t, and there was. Sex was the province of people much more attractive and confident and carefree than the likes of us high-schoolers. We vaguely knew, or hoped, that it would happen to each of us at some point, but it was never heralded or ushered in. There was no expectation of a sex life as part of our identity. Nobody really talked about it in a romantic sense; the sex ed classes taught by our matronly biology teacher involved separating the class into boys and girls, and instructing each group separately about the facts of life. We were naive and clumsy as hell when it came to dating, which usually didn’t even happen in high school but was put off until the university years. School was for children, even if the children were getting on in years, and children don’t date–they learn. Nobody had to worry about whom they’d pair up with for the prom: high school graduation night wasn’t about couples. And, prom king and queen? Put that out of your mind completely. Later we blamed this sexual cluelessness for being generally unprepared for relationships and married life; but later still, when we learned how surprisingly unhappy people could be in the free world, we wondered if we were actually that much worse off.
Most importantly, we missed out on this thing called teenage angst. It was simply not an expectation. And what did we have to be angsty about? How was that even possible at the beautiful dawn of our adult lives, with so much to do and everything still ahead? I think it was similar to the anticipatory panic over the allegedly hellish difficulty of learning certain skills. If you somehow missed that memo, you might just breeze right through the experience without ever suspecting that it was supposed to be hard! That’s pretty much what happened to Soviet youth of my generation with regard to this exotic beast called teenage angst. Of course we were living under the cloud of the Cold War, and of course we were afraid of the atom bomb. Terrified, in fact. The only nightmares I’ve had in my life featured that very bomb. But we were surprisingly unconcerned over what path each of our lives would take on a personal level. A proprietary blend of Russian fatalism and Soviet collectivist mentality had taken care of that. Preoccupation with one’s self was not only frowned upon, but openly shamed. We wore uniforms to school, and girls were discouraged from wearing earrings so as not to emphasize the very real distinctions in wealth and social status. Cynicism was met with stern and sincere reprimand from teachers: we simply had no business being cynical at our age and with the opportunities we’d been given. 

Here we are, graduating from 8th grade and on the threshold of high school. One of my classmates, a lucky owner of a camera, took this picture.
If we were naive and innocent in some ways, in others we had to grow up much faster than our Western brethren. There was no practice of self-searching upon graduation from high school, which was followed, without any break and during the same summer, by entrance exams to the university of one’s (or one’s parents’) choice. Right there and then, we were expected to know what we wanted to do–or didn’t terribly mind doing–for the rest of our lives. At the time, nobody suspected how much the world would change in a couple of decades and how common it would be to acquire new skills, new degrees, and new careers. There was a finality to a decision we were expected to make at the age of seventeen, and one that I appreciate only now. 
Since I opened with Christine, here’s my Soviet counterpart of literature about young adults, one that had a gentle and profound influence on me. The title of the book is Wild Dog Dingo, Or a Novel About First Love, by Ruvim Frayerman. The love story is chaste but realistic. This book was an expected summer read rather than part of the high school core curriculum, and nobody balked at it in contrast to some of the in-your-face books with conspicuous moral and social lessons. Much later, I was surprised to learn that the book was first published all the way back in 1939, although it felt like the events were taking place in our time (i.e. the late 70s and early 80s); this only means that the book is truly timeless. It’s unfortunate that this classic of Soviet young adult literature was never translated into English. (Perhaps I’ll undertake that project myself at some point.) The movie version captures the spirit of the book, so I recommend it to those who want a taste of Soviet romanticism in cinema. There’s no English soundtrack, only subtitles. If you watch it, I’d love to engage in a discussion about the movie–or Viktor Tsoi’s clip–in the comments below. 

A 1940 edition of Wild Dog Dingo. Its cover art is minimal compared to later editions.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The People's Caviar

This is a cross-post, being my very first blog post on my newly-established author website  From now on I will make most if not all of my blog posts on the new site.

On the threshold of a happy occasion, the publication of my very first novel, I devoted a sweltering summer day to a sweltering summer pursuit: canning. (Jarring, to be more precise.) I’d come into possession of two overgrown and enormous zucchinis that nobody else seemed to want, and that I decided to use for a Russian favourite called squash caviar. Yes, caviar. In a perfect example of Russian humour, the word used for fish eggs, ikra, came to denote this commoner’s delight made of the cheapest ingredients. White marrows (a type of squash) were the usual foundational ingredient of this dish; a more refined version used eggplant. During my childhood and youth, when actual fish roe was both elusive and impossibly expensive, this all-accessible vegetable caviar had taken its place in Soviet households and hearts. People lovingly poked fun of it at the time, and now it’s sought out, often in vain, by fellow Russian immigrants in the lands where we’ve settled. Using kitchen devices that didn’t exist in Soviet households, and ingredients that have come to replace the original ones, we’re making attempts to recreate the taste of our childhood.

     When I set out to write my novel, I was well aware of the rarified atmosphere of mystery and danger that surrounds all things Russian in the Western mind. Russian characters in bestsellers and movies tend to be gangsters, or spies, or gangsters turned spies, or unfortunate women turned kept women, or kept women turned spies, or exalted personages like the alleged princess Anastasia. Their sophistication and/or villainy are way larger than the kind of life most people live. The immigrants in my novel are “ordinary” Canadian Russians, people of middling means and sober aspirations. Their outlook reflects a sort of middle class of the spirit, somewhere between the downtrodden’s dejection without recourse and the insouciant arrogance of the powerful. The main character, Alexandra (Sasha), is a level-headed woman who has no use for melodrama or pathos. She likes “her potato nose for defying Mama’s aristocratic pretensions,” and can’t understand why so many modern-day Russians are nostalgic for a monarchy and entire way of life that had been rotten to the core. Even Mama, for all her prejudices and contempts, is capable of genuine simplicity. If it seems strange that so many intellectuals and aristocrats had supported the Great October Socialist Revolution, one has to remember that there was a tradition among Russian nobility of humbling themselves in the service of common people. Long before there was a rock band named The Decemberists, there was the Decembrist uprising of 1825, staged by Russian officers and noblemen who wanted to abolish serfdom and improve the lives of peasants. Several of the organizers were executed; the rest were exiled to Siberia where many settled for life even after their exile officially ended. The nobleman Sergei Volkonsky grew a long beard and wore peasant clothes as he worked the land of his Siberian farm together with his peasant associates. What he ate besides potatoes we don’t know; perhaps some early prototype of our beloved dish. 
    Now it’s time to prepare this plebeian gem of a snack. It’s usually eaten cold, as a spread or a dip, but can just as easily be warmed up and served hot. I’ve imagined a scene where Alexandra, who lives on the West coast in Vancouver, visits her parents in Thunder Bay at just that time in summer when squash are ready to harvest. At the end is the recipe I use. In reality there are as many actual recipes as there are housewives making the dish, and the same person will make it slightly differently every time.
    “The jars and lids are sterilized, Sasha? You only gave them fifteen minutes, did you? That’s not enough. Put them back in.”
     “It is enough, Mama. With this method, it’s been proven to be enough. Any longer makes no difference.”
     “Oh, you and your science. As if our grandmothers didn’t know what they were doing. Please just do as I ask, for your stupid mother’s peace of mind. At home you can do what you want. And then enjoy your preserves with mold on top.”
    “Okay, Mama.” This is not a hill Alexandra cares to climb, never mind die on. She puts the jars and lids back in the water bath and restarts the process of exorcising the demons of food contamination. Mama, meanwhile, starts peeling the onions.
    “Wait, Mama! I have ski goggles somewhere in the attic.”
    “What on earth for?”
    “To protect our eyes from the onions, of course. And why do you use these plain old angry ones when you can use sweet ones? These burn your eyes like hell, and they turn out bitter  once you’ve cooked them.”
    “There’s more flavour in them,” Mama declares. “The sweet ones have no soul. And what is this wimpy nonsense of protecting your eyes? Don’t you know it’s good for your eyes to wash them out with tears?”
    “Then we should all just pour weak sulfuric acid in our eyes, Mama. Because that’s what you get when onion fumes hit your eyes.”
    “Again with the science.”
    “Please just do as I ask, for your stupid daughter’s peace of mind.”
    Mama lets out a tortured sigh and drops her arms: Look, good people, I’m not allowed to do anything in my own house…
    Alexandra returns with two pairs of ski goggles, gets a roll of duct tape, and tapes the vents shut. Mama looks on with protective pity, as one might look at a tiny kitten or puppy struggling to its feet.
    “Happy now?” she asks her daughter.
    They look at each other and burst out laughing. Decked in their post-apocalyptic protective eyewear, the women go at the angry onions. These get chopped into tiny cubes. The carrots get grated up, and together with the onions they are browned in boiling oil.
    “Ah, now the whole house will reek of fried onions for days!” scolds Mama, but fondly.  “Just like an apartment staircase back in Leningrad.”
    Alexandra remembers the scent well. It was different back in Russia, because the oil was unrefined sunflower oil with a strong smell and flavour of its own. Fried onions, the spice of workers’ and peasants’ lives, a pervasive odour forced onto the world and inhaled second-hand by the intelligentsia. Many of whom secretly liked it even then.
    “Open the windows, Sasha. Make a cross breeze. I thought you’d already done that before we started cooking.”
    The onions and carrots browned and put aside, it’s now the other vegetables’ turn. The oversized geriatric zucchinis are cut open, gutted of seeds and cottony connective tissue, sliced up, peeled, and cubed. The sweet peppers are chopped up. The garlic is grated.
    “Mama, why don’t you have a Cuisinart? It would be so much easier to throw everything in there.”
    “Easier, yes. But it would never taste the same. When the vegetables are made to give up their juice before being cooked, the flavour is lost. They fall apart when they’re ready, so there’s no need for a blender at the end. If I need to, I just crush them with a potato masher.”
    This actually makes sense to Alexandra.
    “What about the tomatoes? she asks. “Where are those?”
    “Sasha, when is the last time you bought a tomato that was fit to eat? They’re nothing but water in the shape of a tomato. Here, open this can of diced ones, and one little can of tomato paste. You want the ikra to be rich, not watery. And if you’re lucky enough to stumble across edible tomatoes, they’re too good to waste in cooking. You should eat them fresh, with red onion and pepper and salt.” Mama nods emphatically.
    Everything is added together and stewed for a few minutes before Alexandra ventures a taste.
   “Mama, it’s bitter. I told you those onions would do that.”
    “It’s too early, it needs to cook for a lot longer. And what do you think sugar is for, Miss Professor? But don’t add a lot at once. A tablespoon at a time, then taste it. Keep adding until you get it right. And for salt, always use plain salt. None of that fancy flavoured stuff, or that sacred Himalayan rock they use to make pretty lamps.”
    Alexandra laughs and hugs Mama.
   “What’s this about, silly?” Mama melts in happy surprise at her daughter’s outburst. “Go on, add the sugar and salt.”
    At the end, the ikra tastes good to Alexandra. Not great. There’s still that echo of bitterness from the onions, not completely drowned out by the sugar. Mama has become homesick for details like plain old angry onions with their commonplace bite. And she would’ve surely cried rivers of tears while chopping the damn things if Alexandra hadn’t stepped in. Russians insist on suffering the smaller things. That’s how you bribe Fate into sparing you from more serious disasters.
♦ 3 squash, or zucchinis, of regular size. If using very large ones, you can work with slices the size of smaller vegetables.
♦ 1 or 2  28-oz cans of diced tomatoes
♦ 1  5.5-oz can of tomato paste
♦ 2 sweet peppers
♦ 2 large onions. Mama’s nostalgia notwithstanding, I do prefer sweet ones
♦ 3 carrots
♦ 5-7 tablespoons of vegetable oil
♦ 3 cloves of garlic
♦ 1-2 tablespoons of sugar
♦ salt, ground black pepper–all to taste
♦2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar–optional (if canning and not eating right away).

     Grate the carrots, and chop the onions into small cubes. Brown the two together in about 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
If the squash or zucchini are young and tender, don’t remove the skin or seeds. On more mature specimens the skin can be as tough as a shell and would have to go, and the seeds should be gutted out. Remove the seeds and spongy partitions from the sweet peppers. Chop the squash or zucchini into small pieces, and grate the sweet peppers. Brown all this in the rest of the oil.
     Combine all ingredients in a large pot, add the canned tomatoes with their juice, and stew without a lid at low heat for an hour (the stew should be bubbling lazily, but not sputtering). If more liquid is needed to keep the mixture from burning, I prefer to add another can of tomatoes, or tomato juice, instead of water. If one can of diced tomatoes was enough in terms of liquid, I add a small can of tomato paste to the stew. Add salt, black pepper, and sugar as you go.
     15 minutes before you finish cooking, add grated or chopped garlic, and the vinegar if the caviar is being preserved in jars. To give the caviar a smooth texture, you can go at it with a hand-held blender; I just use a potato masher.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Feast in a Time of Plague

Now in our back yard. And likely for years to come.

Here in Canada we are blessed with physical and emotional distance from the problems and challenges that face more densely-populated parts of the world. Our lives are spread over vast spaces where we can build houses and drive cars that are exorbitantly huge by European standards. But every now and then we are reminded that it's a small world, paradoxically all the smaller because of globalization.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease, caused by a virus deadly to domestic rabbits and European hares but so far harmless to other species, has arrived on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. How exactly it arrived nobody knows for sure, and this may remain the subject of conjecture. It may have arrived by plane through Vancouver International airport on the soles of a passenger's shoes, or on rabbit meat contaminated by the virus and fed to a family pet who then went on a walk in the area where the outbreak began among colonies of feral rabbits (the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island). The virus does get spread by other animals including people, and through inanimate objects. It is highly tenacious, difficult to kill, and downright mean. The strain identified from dead rabbits on the Island (RHD2) behaves more aggressively than the same strain in Europe, and even though a vaccine should soon arrive in BC under an emergency release, no one knows to what extent this vaccine will help rabbits fight this virus. For now, veterinarians and rabbit owners are operating under the banner "every little bit counts:" all instances of biosecurity, vigilance, caution, and all protectives measures, add up to more safety and less risk in a situation where there can no longer be absolute safety. We have now and likely forever lost that innocence. So far there have been no cases in the Sea to Sky Corridor (the highway between Vancouver and Whistler), but since there are no colonies of feral rabbits here, that is proof of nothing. The virus can travel from place to place on car tires, people's shoes and clothes, on the feet and faces of pets who run around in meadows and lawns where feral rabbits live, on insects who can travel far and wide especially when they hitch a ride in a car or ferry, on/in birds of prey who eat dead rabbits. For all we know it might already be here, with only the small number of pet rabbits and vigilance of their owners accounting for absence of cases. This enemy is invisible and silent until it hits its target.

And yet we cannot live under the psychological equivalent of a siege, or keep our pets in lifelong quarantine. There must be a reasonable balance between safety and quality of life. With the arrival of spring and exuberance of dandelions, salmonberry, oregon grape and other plants beloved by rabbits, it is hugely tempting to supplement their hay and pellets and grocery store greens with proven fresh vitamins that can boost their immune systems. It may be safe to do so if the plants are gathered away from areas frequented by animals, and thoroughly washed and washed and washed. Then again, it may not be. One viral particle delivered through the microscopic residue of droppings from an eagle who has somehow flown to Squamish after feeding on a dead rabbit in Richmond, may be all it takes. The amount of risk any owner is willing to assume is personal, and may or may not be outweighed by the benefit. Or vice versa. Ultimately we take on an emotional responsibility for our rabbits' freedom to enjoy life while keeping them as safe as possible. I would not dream of taking our rabbit out for a run in the open, but she is allowed and encouraged to go out on the balcony for her Vitamin D in the sun. That will end soon with the warm weather bringing in insects (flies, mosquitoes). By then the vaccine might be here, or not. It might give her some protection, or not. Her future is uncertain, and may be days or years long. Of all the risk factors, I myself am the greatest danger to her given where I work and despite all the biosecurity measures we take. She may be incubating the virus at this very moment. Thinking about this can drive one nuts, and has to stop at some point. I use my worry to fuel practical efforts of rallying for rabbits' rights, of educating both owners and fellow veterinarians, or of simply scrubbing the floors with disinfectant when I need physical release. With time a routine will fall into place, if time is on our rabbit's side. For now we cherish every moment with her. Yes indeed; all cliches were once newborn truths.
April 17th ADDENDUM/CORRECTION: Two dead rabbits who tested positive and were previously thought to be Eastern cottontails were confirmed to be feral domestic rabbits. 

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.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

That Rabbit is Dynamite

As a first-time owner of a rabbit I am once again a student, learning about my animal and her unique blend of wildness and docility. 

     It all started with a photo my friend, a veterinary nurse, posted on her Facebook page: she'd successfully placed an endotracheal tube in a rabbit under anesthesia for a spay surgery. Placing a tube is quite a feat in an animal with a very narrow mouth. "She's up for adoption," my friend teased when I commented on the photo. Yeah, right. No way was I going to get a rabbit. Rabbits scare me as patients because of their fragility, especially under anesthesia. As pets, they intrigued me but did not promise the kind of companionship you'd expect from a more traditional pet like a dog or cat. I have kept degus in the past and know how lovely these animals can be, but had never contemplated keeping a rabbit. Something about this rabbit caught my eye and my heart. She had an exceptionally beautiful coat (yes, I admit I fell in love with her looks before I got to know her), and even in her unconscious state she looked proud and regal. When my husband and I went to meet her at the SPCA shelter she showed polite interest, but otherwise went about her business without getting too excited. She nipped us through our clothes in a light and non-vicious way that meant she was treating us like other rabbits, a democratic and openminded attitude. On the drive home she was curious, kept trying to explore the car, and peed in my husband's lap, which I assured him was a sign of affection and acceptance. (In truth I don't know if it was a sign of anything more than peeing in his lap. This rabbit does not speak in metaphors.) 

     We wanted her to have the run of the apartment, but after a few "accidents" on the bed which were not accidents at all, and after she shorted out my Mac by biting through the cord despite a thick layer of duct tape, we decided to cordon off an area of the living room for her abode. Our crappy old futon turned out to be the best setup: there's a sort of tunnel behind it that she uses for galloping, resting, and deconstruction work. You have no idea how much foam stuffing fits into a couch until a rabbit removes it for you, over and over and over. (I'm reminded of Stephen King's story The Cookie Jar, but I'll stop before I go down that rabbit hole.) As I would sit typing on my laptop, the rabbit would work with fierce dedication, pulling and shaking and stomping as she kicked the liberated stuffing out of the way. Often it felt like she would chomp into my backside any second, or that her head would emerge from a hole right next to me. The laminate floor had to be covered in a mat to give her traction for jumping and binkying (a mid-air shimmy unique to rabbits and hares). The makeshift wall of this compound is 30 inches high, and while she's never jumped over it while we were watching, we know very well that she does this in our absence. We know this from the little puddles and caches of turds she has sometimes left in the bathroom, and from fresh toothmarks on appliances cords. Duct tape only seems to attract her attention to them; it really is one of her favourite desserts, second only to a pair of old leather boots she devoured on one of her walkabouts. (There goes the herbivore myth.) The most touching aspect of these prison breaks is that she's always back in her run in time for our return. It's as if she knows that we expect her to be there and does not wish to defy us too openly while still having her fun. Once I caught her nosing around just outside the wall, and she hurried to get back, exquisitely aware that she was in the wrong. With no traction on the laminate, she simply hopped up to the wall and did a vertical takeoff. I had trouble believing my eyes until I recalled that her short muscular legs are practically spring-loaded. We've ordered a foldable fence to replace the makeshift wall, but other than closing the rooms' doors to keep her from eating electronics, we're not terribly upset about these forays. An animal this smart deserves its moments of secret naughtiness.

     I'm aware I've been calling her "rabbit" without giving her name. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names," wrote Confucius, and while I don't pretend to be wise in this matter, I'd like to at least avoid utter silliness. I just can't think of a name for her that's not stupid, either too tame or too pompous. Officially she is Tilly, but hardly ever call her that. She's addressed as bun-bun, or by the affectionate Russian word for "hare," zaika, a word with a zing of mischief.

     Getting her accustomed to the outdoors has been a true eye-opener. Rather, she did not need to get accustomed but only reminded of what she already knew. From her behaviour I'm guessing that she grew up in a semi-feral state and learned to forage for what grows in the wild. On her hopabouts she ignores her favourite house food (timothy hay, carrots, lettuce) and goes for the seemingly blah mosses, ferns, and old dead leaves. That was when I realized that there are two natures inside her: a house pet with an array of favourite foods and a capacity for affectionate attention, and a wild animal who sees me as a threat to her freedom. She moves from one state to the other by degrees---spending more and more time under the bushes, running faster and faster along her circle routes---but once the transition is complete, it can be alarming to watch. On several occasions I found myself chasing a wererabbit, a creature frantic to get away and hide. I'm not sure how much of it is mischief and play on her part, and how much---a genuine longing to return to the wild and to be left alone. The very reason I chased her was because she'd found the resourcefulness to free herself. She doesn't mind wearing a harness and can run like a demon in it, but as soon as she realized that the nylon string attached to it was being used to gain control of her when it was time to go home, she learned to bite through the string. In fact, she showed me just how she did this by cutting through a freshly-attached string while I watched. The gesture was so contemptuous and yet so honest that it left me floored. She simply couldn't be bothered to wait, or to do it on the sly. With this new development we've decided to take a break from the outdoors until we find string she can't bite through (halibut line?) or until we get a fence set up on our recreational acreage. Even then I'll have to watch her like a hawk to make sure an eagle doesn't scoop her up. This is not conducive to writing the Great Canadian Novel, but I might manage a series of lesser Canadian short stories during my breaks.

     Our journey together has only begun, and already a few stereotypes have taken a tumble. There is nothing timid or indecisive about this animal. While there are no rabbits in Russian folklore, their close cousin the hare is fabled for cowardice. If that's not an example of old folk wisdom pulled out of the derriere, I don't know what is. Monty Python were far closer to the truth with their own exaggeration: there isn't a cowardly bone in a hare's or rabbit's body. They crouch, they go into hiding when they sense danger, they press their ears close to their head, and they sniff and watch and wait. This is not cowardice, not even shyness, and certainly not indecision. It's the extreme caution of a prey species that has to be smarter than the predator who wants to eat it. 

     Yet for all that, rabbits are vulnerable as hell. They are probably the only pet who is also an accepted food species, a duality that leaves them open to carelessness and disregard on the part of people. My husband grew up with rabbits kept as meat animals (the "poor man's pig"), and while his duty was to feed and shepherd them and clean their cages, he was implicitly discouraged from developing emotional attachments. I see a look of happy disbelief on his face when he plays with our rabbit, an animal not meant to be eaten but only to be loved. Rabbits are the most likely pet to get abandoned and simply turned out to fend for themselves, and probably the least likely to be adopted from a shelter. Much like parrots, they turn out to be far more intelligent and demanding than the unprepared person counts on, and their tantrums and misery come as a shock to those who expect a cute innocent wittle bunny. They are capable of growling, of slamming people with their hands and pounding the floor with their feet, and of ripping things to shreds. They apologize for nothing, and they look longingly at no one. Why doesn't Disney teach kids about any of this?