Monday, June 25, 2012

Where I'm coming from

In his keynote address to the second UK Conference of Science Journalists, Jay Rosen wrote, “I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows.” And proceeded to do so.

Culturally, I’m a New Englander. I grew up all over the country, but felt the most at home in New England and moved back there as soon as I was an adult. Of course, I am currently an expat living in the South. Demographically, I am the child of baby boomers. Socially, I can’t say it any better than Jay did: I’m an introvert who has learned to fake conviviality. Politically, I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, sometimes libertarianish. Musically, I am a child of the 80s. Intellectually, I am a learner and a doer. I really like learning for learning’s sake, but I am obsessed with starting new projects to change the world (and not always finishing them).

To Jay’s list, I’ll add this: professionally, I am a veterinarian; however, I suspect that after my internship I won’t be a practicing one, but one who teaches and researches and makes herself a pest about public policy. I believe we should treat our pets with as much respect as we treat each other; that our food animals should have room to walk around, and that we should be aware of where our food comes from and make thoughtful choices; and that there is a lot more going on in the brains of animals than a lot of people think, but less than some other people think.

So, other bloggers out there: what about you?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Generation Anthropocene: a review

The Generation Anthropocene podcasts, interviews of Stanford faculty by Stanford students, were published back in May. I didn’t get around to listening to them right away; I was busy finishing up veterinary school. I did listen to the compilation overview, which includes snippets of interviews from all 14 podcasts, in May, which incited me to download the whole lot onto a thumbdrive. During the 21 hour drive from Massachusetts to Florida, I stuck the drive in my car stereo and listened to it. I loved the podcast so much that when I got to Florida, I handed the thumbdrive to my husband and told him to listen to it. Of course, he has not gotten around to it, so this morning I played him the first part of the overview to get him psyched.

Listening to the overview again after listening to all the interviews has been an interesting experience. The compilation podcast originally left me feeling that humans are affecting the planet in even more ways than I had realized before, and that we are plunging towards a crisis which it may already be too late to avert. I’ve heard that before and, as with so many listeners before me, sometimes avoid the details of our imminent destruction. But there were snippets in the compilation that I really wanted to know more about, mostly from people interested in sustainable agriculture. And exploring the variety of answers to the question asked in every interview — “When do you think the Anthropocene began?” — intruiged me.

The first thing I noticed when listening to the individual interviews was the genders of the interviewers and the interviewees. The compilation mixes the interview snippets together, removes all comments from interviewers so that it appears to just be free association from a bunch of Stanford professors, and draws heavily on particular interviewees, one woman in particular. When I listened to the actual interviews, I was struck by the fact that 12 out of 14 of the interviewers (the students) were young women, while 12 out of 14 of the interviewees (the faculty) were men. The gender bias hadn’t been at all apparent in the compilation, but it was an interesting one, since one of the themes of the podcast is how the next generation will live in a world that differs so much from today’s. The next generation, apparently, will differ too: many more faculty will be women. Or, as my husband suggested, perhaps faculty gender ratios will not change, and the two male students are the only ones on track to get PhDs. (In fact, if I recall correctly, the only graduate student on the podcast was one of the men.)

The second thing I noticed was how almost universally optimistic these experts in their fields were about their future. There were exceptions, but for the most part I did not come away from the interviews feeling alarmed about our future. I felt energized: there’s lots to do! And we have lots of tools and lots of smart people with which to do it! Let’s get going! Before listening to the podcast, I felt that humans needed to back off and leave the world alone a little more. My appreciation for the value of thoughtful stewardship has increased enormously.

So when do I think the Anthropocene began? I would have answered differently before listening to these interviews, but now I will confidently say that I think it began when humans ventured out of Africa and began affecting environments which were not prepared for them. Long before the Industrial Revolution (a favorite starting point of the Anthropocene for many), we were already causing mass extinctions with new hunting methods. And we were creating new species using domestication. We’ve been changing the face of the world for a very long time.

I loved listening to these interviews. I would love to see more like this: more interviews between students and faculty at other schools, on other topics. Want to communicate science to the world, but don’t have the time to start a blog? Get interviewed by a student and let them publicize what you have to say. There’s lots to talk about, so let’s get going.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Organic standards and animal welfare

Over on Animal Science Review, Austin J. Bouck just posted his paper, Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Personally, I do tend to buy organic dairy products when I can in hopes that I’m contributing to improved animal welfare, even though deep in my heart I suspect I’m doing no such thing. In veterinary school, classmates told me they avoided buying organic because of things they had seen on organic farms. I’ve argued before that the best way to ensure the welfare of the animals whose products you consume is to make your purchases at a local farmer’s market, but of course not everyone has access to those. So this question of whether organic is good for animal welfare or not is a pressing one.

Austin starts out with a discussion of terminology. The word “organic” has a legal meaning, but many producers also use terms like “natural” and “free-range,” which don’t. What do these terms mean to producers and what do they mean to consumers? I have heard veterinarians dismiss these terms as meaningless, but Austin describes a tendency among organic producers to view their ecocentric model of farm management as a way of managing their animals “naturally.” In an ecocentric model, overall sustainability of the farm and interactions with the environment take priority over individual health.

If that’s the case, what are the consequences to individual health of prioritizing the environment over the individual? Austin uses as his examples dairy cows, focusing on the use of antibiotics to treat infected udders, and chickens, focusing on the use of medication for parasite infection. In both cases, he describes the strong incentives for organic farmers to withhold treatment for disease, as once an animal has been treated with an antibiotic or antiparasitic, its products (milk, meat, or eggs) can no longer be considered organic. Austin explores alternative treatments and concludes that none are effective. He notes that in Europe, use of antibiotics and antiparasitics to treat clinical disease is legal in organic production; only preventive use is banned. He advocates a change in U.S. regulations to imitate the European model, on the reasonable theory that if incentive to withhold treatment is removed, then more sick animals will be treated.

I agree! I would have been very interested to hear some statistics about how many animals go untreated on organic farms, or how far illness on these farms might be allowed to progress before animals are treated, compared farms using conventional methods. Austin doesn’t say, and I think this is because no one really knows. It would be an interesting line of research, and possibly a necessary one if we want to get the American public fired up to support change in the current regulations. If a video of a sick cow being moved by a forklift was invigorating to the animal welfare community, maybe some videos of untreated sick animals on organic farms would be as well.

Check out the paper. It’s an interesting read.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mobile veterinary practice and federal drug restrictions

Mostly, when I took my cats to the vet, I would cram them into a carrier while they protested and drive them to a clinic. It was a rough trip for them, so rough that at one point I called a travelling vet to come see them at home. What a difference: they were more confident in their own territory, and got to deal with the stressful physical exam without having first been stressed by a car ride and a wait in a room full of dogs. More and more small animal mobile practices are cropping up these days. Of course, a significant percentage of large animal practices have always been mobile. It is prohibitively expensive to transport cows to a clinic, hugely stressful for the animal, and may be impossible if the cow is too sick to walk. Most horses are also treated on site rather than at a clinic, except for referral cases which are seeing specialists.

So in my mind, mobile practice is good for small animals and essential for large ones. Unfortunately, the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress in 1970, limits where controlled substances can be carried. The act apparently has not been applied to mobile veterinary practices until recently, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) appears to be changing its practice this year, as mobile veterinarians in California report that they have received notices that their activities are illegal.

Mobile veterinarians, both small and large animal, routinely carry controlled substances for pain relief and euthanasia. Non-controlled alternatives do exist, but are much less effective. For example, one cow vet reported that to remove a cow’s eye, he was no longer able to use sedation or powerful systemic pain relief in the form of an opioid, but would have to rely on local anesthesia (lidocaine), which he felt was insufficient to manage the animal’s discomfort during the procedure. Another cow vet reported that he was falling back to using a .22 Magnum for euthanasia.

The regulations do allow for veterinarians to carry the amount of medication that they expect to need during the current day for a planned procedure. This does not allow for unplanned procedures (the animal who unexpectedly requires euthanasia) or unexpected increases in dosage (the animal whose pain is clearly not controlled by the expected amount of medication, or, worse, who requires more than the expected amount of euthanasia solution). Veterinarians also cannot predict how much sedation and pain relieving medications to bring for a day in a mobile spay neuter clinic, to which animals may arrive without appointments.

The DEA contends that only Congress has the power to change the wording of the Controlled Substances Act. Obviously, we can ’t expect such change to happen any time soon. In the meantime, we can wait and see how the DEA proceeds.

Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
June 15, 2012, Vol. 240, No. 12, Pages 1384-1407
doi: 10.2460/javma.240.12.1384