Fight for your pets’ rights

 

You can choose to take your child to a homeopath, chiropractor or doctor of Chinese Medicine without a referral from a doctor, but you need a referral from a veterinarian to make the same choice for your pets. And many veterinarians will not refer pets to alternative health care practitioners, effectively limiting your access to these important modalities.

If you want your pet to see a homeopath or other alternative health care practitioner, you must pay for a veterinarian to supervise the visit. This added cost makes access to qualified alternative health care impossible for most pet owners. Veterinarians need only minimal training in homeopathy, chiropractics and acupuncture – often for only a few weekends – to be “qualified” to practise these modalities on your pet.

The BC government is contemplating changes to the BC Veterinarian’s Act that may further limit or even eliminate your freedom to make choices regarding your pet’s health care. You have the power to stop this from happening. The government of BC has requested advice from the public (by December 2, 2009) regarding proposed changes to the BC Veterinarians Act that is currently under review. There is significant concern that the changes being contemplated would provide the BCVMA with greater power to regulate itself. In recent years, the BCVMA has been involved in legal proceedings that have not served the public or their animals. The BCVMA has not acted in a manner that has instilled confidence in the public and accordingly should not be given the power to change bylaws and regulations or govern itself unchecked by the public it is supposed to be protecting.

For further information, visit www2.news.gov.bc.ca/news_releases_2009-2013/2009AL0016-000551.htm or contact the Strategic Policy and Legislation Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands at P.O. Box 9303, Stn. Provincial Government, Victoria, BC, V8W 9N1send the Ministry a fax at 250-387-2410.

– Marilyn Bell, Vancouver

No safe levels of radiation

 

In a recent press release, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission claims to be expert on the subject of “junk science.” I believe it. How else could the CNSC claim there is “no risk” to health from elevated levels of radioactive materials in the environment when so many major scientific bodies say the opposite? The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) have all stressed that existing scientific evidence reveals no safe level of radiation exposure.

The CNSC knows perfectly well that atomic workers around the world have been shown to suffer from excess cancer and leukemia as a result of radiation exposures on the job. Moreover, Canadian atomic workers have shown a much higher excess of radiation-caused leukemias than atomic workers in other countries, possibly because of their exceptionally high exposure to tritium.

I have yet to see the CNSC publically correct any of the fallacious claims made routinely by the Canadian nuclear industry, yet here it is criticizing a public interest organization for daring to say that deliberate releases of radioactive carcinogens like tritium into public drinking water supplies should be stopped. In its latest press release, the CNSC has revealed itself as a defender of the industry’s right to pollute rather than as a champion of the public’s right to a hygienic environment.

– Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. www.ccnr.org.

Privatizing compassion – Squeezing a profit from HandyDART

by Dean Brown

A chilling rain falls in the Vancouver night. I sit in a bus outside St. Paul’s Hospital preparing to board a group of kidney dialysis patients and take them home. Exhausted by their ordeal of being hooked up to a machine for four hours, some of them shuffle forward on their own steam, determined and steady in their step, not too advanced in the disease. Some are slumped half asleep in a wheelchair. They are quiet, leaning on my arm, humbled by the unwanted circumstance of kidney failure.

dollar

It’s a busy and sunny afternoon at GF Strong Rehab Centre. All sorts of passengers board and unboard my bus. Some are in complicated chairs with respirators, gamely overcoming head injuries. Some wobble along with walkers while others dart around in sleek, manual wheelchairs, long recovered from that devastating back injury. There are myriad mobility aids that need to be folded, secured, tied down and belted.

My passengers include a federal civil servant, clearly a professional in his prime, who needs me to attend to that one simple but crucial detail of opening his front door; an old man, who although unsteady in his gait and sometimes incontinent, insists on attending night school; a woman, who, post-stroke, insists she is fine and then collapses weeping into the snow and must be lifted onto her porch.

Someone will fall asleep, perhaps even fall unconscious, and need step-by-step assistance to their front door. And they’ll get it, all for the price of a single zone bus ticket. In our corporatized, networked, worked-out, buffed, polished and gleaming city of glass, we can sometimes avoid the world of the imperfect and the slow or those who have been humbled by circumstance, age or something unwanted and unexpected. We might manage to bypass the people who can’t just stroll down the street and board a bus, jump into their shiny SUVs or run up a set of stairs. But there it is, that less than perfect world, and we’ll all be surprised when we arrive there too.

However, there is an effective and civilized resource that currently serves those who find themselves outside the fast paced norm. A long-standing part of the transit system, HandyDART is a Metro Vancouver-wide service that offers people a connection to movement, life, dignity, work and recovery and to being human. 

I’m a HandyDART bus driver. Driving for HandyDART is to navigate through a series of different cities within Vancouver itself – the Vancouver of schedules, appointments, heavy traffic, and of hurry. The Vancouver of the imperfect. The Vancouver of back alleyways, back entrances and of residential streets. Of passengers that need constant attention and those who can operate their own chairs, thank you very much. All these cities demand a level of care, competency and attention that remains high, every day that I drive. 

Perhaps you have heard that we are on strike. This is the reason: Translink recently privatized the operation of HandyDART, a publicly funded transit system that is, by nature, heavily subsidized. The motive is profit, a powerful force. And to generate this profit, the new, private operator, MV Canadian Bus, wants to lower labour costs.

It’s a lot to swallow. The company wants to pay HandyDART workers much less than other transit workers, reduce their benefits, and strip away a pension plan that provided some measure of security for the future. The HandyDART labour force has a sterling reputation (ask virtually any HandyDART passenger) and a high skill level and it is dispirited and dismayed by such treatment. MV Bus is a large US company and at some of its operations south of the border, staff turnover approaches 100 percent annually. What kind of future is being offered to us here?

What is the nature of our right to movement? Is it less when we are less than perfect? Look into the polished glass city and ponder the unexpected. 

I am angered that the ideology of profit is being forced upon HandyDART, to the detriment of workers and passengers. HandyDART users, vulnerable for many reasons, have the right to be attended to by a workforce that is skilled and adequately paid.

Got something to say to Translink? Email Martin Lay, director in charge of accessibility, at martin.lay@translink.ca Contact your local mayor and express your concern. Translink is ultimately accountable to a council of Metro Vancouver mayors.

David Suzuki earns Right Livelihood Honorary Award

The Right Livelihood Award was established in 1980 to honour and support those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” It has become widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize.’

The 2009 Right Livelihood Award goes to four recipients, including David Suzuki, who receives the Honorary Award “for his lifetime advocacy of the socially responsible use of science and for his massive contribution to raising awareness about the perils of climate change and building public support for policies to address it.” David Suzuki is one of the most brilliant scientists, and communicators about science, of his generation. Through his books and broadcasts, which have touched millions of people around the world, he has stressed the dangers, as well as the benefits, of scientific research and technological development. He has campaigned tirelessly for social responsibility in science. For the past 20 years, he has been informing the world about the grave threat to humanity of climate change and about how it can be reduced.

 

 

 

 

Dr Hamlin Alyn Rene Ngongo
Catherine Hamlin Alyn Ware René Ngongo

The three other recipients are René Ngongo (Democratic Republic of Congo), honoured “for his courage in confronting the forces that are destroying the Congo’s rainforests and building political support for their conservation and sustainable use;” Alyn Ware (New Zealand), recognized “for his effective and creative advocacy and initiatives over two decades to further peace education and to rid the world of nuclear weapons;” Catherine Hamlin (Ethiopia), awarded “for her 50 years dedicated to treating obstetric fistula patients, thereby restoring the health, hope and dignity of thousands of Africa’s poorest women.”

– www.rightlivelihood.org

Shaping the body – The crisis in our closest relationship

by Susie Orbac

Every day, my inbox, like most people’s, fills with invitations to enlarge the size of my penis or my breasts, to purchase the pleasure and potency booster Viagra and to try the latest herbal or pharmaceutical preparation to lose weight. The exhortations have fooled the spam filter and the popular science pages, which too sing of implants and pills to augment body or brain and new methods of reproduction, which bypass conventional biology.

 

Meanwhile, young girls can go on the Miss Bimbo website to create a virtual doll, keep it “waif” thin with diet pills and buy it breast implants and facelifts. They are being primed to be teenagers who will dream of new thighs, noses or breasts as they peruse magazines, which display page after page of a look that only 10 years ago still had the power to evoke horror in us as we recoiled at skeletal models reminiscent of famine victims. Simultaneously, government pronouncements grimly warn of an epidemic of obesity. Your body, all these phenomena shout, is your canvas to be fixed, remade and enhanced. Join in. Enjoy. Be part of it.

As a practising psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, I see the impact of calls for bodily transformations, enhancements and “perfectibility” in the consulting room. People do not necessarily come in with particular body troubles, but whatever their other emotional predicaments and conflicts, concern for the body is nearly always folded into them, as though it were perfectly commonplace to be telling a story in which body dissatisfaction is central. Like many of us, the people I work with wish to and do reshape their bodies in both small and dramatic ways. They find fault with their bodies and say it makes them feel better, more in control, to improve them. Like most of us, they do not like to believe that they are being unduly influenced by outside pressures and may disdain such an idea, with its crude sense of manipulation.

Whether followers of fashion or health trends or not, we take for granted that looking good for ourselves will make us feel good. And yet there is a subtle tracery of outside urgings, which works on us, creating a new and often dissatisfied relationship with our bodies. The sense that biology need no longer be destiny is gaining ground and so it follows that where there is a (perceived) body problem, a body solution can be found. A belief in both the perfectible body and the notion that we should relish or at least accede to improving our own body has not, however, solved the problem. On the contrary, it has exaggerated the problem and contributed to what we observe today – a progressively unstable body, a body, which, to an alarming degree, is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.

Our bodies are increasingly being experienced as objects to be honed and worked on. Men are targeted with steroids, sexual aids and specific masculine-oriented diet products. Children’s bodies, too. Photographers now offer digitally enhanced baby and child photos – correcting smiles, putting in or removing gaps between the teeth, straightening out wobbly knees, turning little girls into facsimiles of china dolls. The web addresses of these conjurors show no sense of irony since they believe that enhancing photos is a version of natural beauty, the real thing. Girlie-sexy culture now entrances more rather than fewer of us. Putting the body on show and making it appear “attractive” are presented as fun, desirable and easily accessible.

Body beautiful and the goal of perfectibility have been democratized, invitingly set out as available to everyone in any country whatever their economic situation; the right body is trumpeted as a way of belonging in our world today. This democratic call for beauty disconcertingly wears an increasingly homogenized and homogenizing form, with the images and names of the global style icons pressed on the lips and the eyes of the young and the not so young. While some people may be able to opt in and do so joyfully, a larger number cannot. For the democratic idea has not extended to aesthetic variation; instead the aesthetic has paradoxically become narrower over the last few decades. The slim aesthetic – with pecs for men and ample breasts for women – bedevils those who don’t conform, and even those who do happen to fit can carry a sorrowful insecurity about their own bodies.

A constant fretfulness and vigilance take hold for many from the moment they wake until the time they fall asleep. Their bodies are on high alert. The norm has become to worry. In another time, we would have called such anxieties an illness and seeing how many suffer, we would have called it an epidemic. But we don’t. We have become so implicated in variants of body preoccupation ourselves, and girls and women in particular so colonised by it, that the preoccupation has become second natured – almost “natural” and invisible.

If, however, we do look, we see that the preoccupation with the body is disturbing in its capacity to affect almost an entire life, from childhood through to old age. Young boys’ yearnings to emulate a great sportsman’s agility are now focused on the desire for the look of a six-pack. Girls as young as four have been made bodily self-conscious and are striking sexy poses in their mirrors, which are more chilling than charming, while greater numbers of women in old-age homes are showing signs of long-term eating disorders. Few would say that such concerns come only from outside pressures. We experience the wish for more perfect bodies as our own desire, as indeed it is, yet it is hard to separate out the ways bodies are seen, talked about and written about and the effect of that on our personal perception of our own bodies and other bodies.

In essence, this kind of focus makes the body today no longer something secure or ordinary in itself. The body has become a new focus in both women’s and men’s lives. A new rhetoric of detox, weight training, brushing, irrigation, cleansing is proposed, inclining us to watchfulness and determination where our body is concerned. Those who had previously paid little heed to fashion or health now find themselves caught up in attempts to make the best of themselves and to take responsibility for their health and well-being. The individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it. “Looking after oneself” is a moral value. The body is becoming akin to a worthy personal project.

Feature writers fill endless column inches with advice about how we should care for ourselves. Television programmes focus on the bonuses, the necessity and the moral superiority of paying attention to individual health and beauty. Politicians urge us to take personal responsibility. Meanwhile, our visual world is being transformed through an intensification of images, which represent the body and parts of the body in ways that artfully convey a sense that our own bodies are seriously in need of reshaping and updating. Without even noticing, we may willingly accept the invitation, eager to stay up-to-date.

The preoccupation with thinness and beauty, which has been eroding individual self-worth for years, has recently been joined by another fixation: the rising rate of obesity. An ordinary reliance on one’s body to signal its dietary needs appears to have evaporated, to be replaced by scrutiny and despair as one struggles to control a body now designated as rapacious. Diet companies are growing, with a newcomer, NutriSystem hitting the Fortune 500 fastest growing companies as it moved from profits of $1 million in 2004 to $85 million in just two years. New gyms and health bars keep opening. New foods keep being invented. Magazines devoted to weight, shape and health expand their circulation. A relentless desire to reshape the body is evident everywhere. Cosmetic surgical procedures are occupying more of our television screens and our purses (with a growth rate of $1 billion a year), implying that resculpting is easy and an expression of self-worth. On top of all this, reproduction is being reconfigured: young women are freezing embryos for future use, having access to IVF at ever younger ages, and a new phenomenon, the transgendered man, is reproducing.

Late capitalism has catapulted us out of centuries-old bodily practices, which were centred on survival, procreation, the provision of shelter and the satisfaction of hunger. Now, birthing, illness and ageing, while part of the ordinary cycle of life, are also events that can be interrupted or altered by personal endeavour in which one harnesses the medical advances and surgical restructurings on offer. Our body is judged as our individual production. We can fashion it through artifice, through the naturalistic routes of bio-organic products or through a combination of these, but whatever the means, our body is our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth.

Where once the body of the manual worker could be easily identified through brawn and muscle, now it is the middle-class body that must show evidence of being worked on at the gym, through yoga or any number of body practices, which aim to display what the individual has achieved through diligent exercise. For young people, it is very much a case of take care or beware. Users of social networking sites often post unflattering pictures of individuals, which are then “snarked” and negatively commented on. The rise of public bitching about the body is accompanied by the dissemination of images throughout the World Wide Web.

Commercial pressures delivered today by celebrity culture, branding and industries, which make their profits by destabilizing the late-modern body, have eradicated most of our prior feeling towards and understanding of the body. Our bodies no longer make things. In the West, robotics, mechanized farm equipment, pre-prepared goods from food to building packs, motorised transport, high-tech warfare and so on have replaced much ordinary physical activity and labour. We don’t tend to repair things either, for mass production means it is cheaper to replace them. Our relations to the physical and physical work are shifting. Where working-class bodies were shaped by the musculature of heavy physical work, low-paid jobs in the service industry and computer-based jobs across the class spectrum leave no such physical indicators. Indeed, many of us have to make an effort to move about during the day or as we work.

In an updating and democratizing of the habit of the leisured classes (who didn’t do physical labour) of decorating themselves as amusement and social marker, we are invited to take up this activity too. Thus, we can observe something new occurring. Our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.

Copyright © 2009 by Susie Orbach. All rights reserved. Susie Orbach is the co-founder of the Women’s Therapy Center in London and New York and she is the convener of www.any-body.org She is a consultant and co-originator of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

IT vs TLC – Electronic medical records? Try listening first

by Marc Ringel, MD
illustration by Steve Sedam

As far back as you look, the history of science is rife with puzzlement over the relationship between mind, spirit, consciousness, and experience on one side, and body on the other. How to reconcile the subjectivity of human life with the objectivity of science continues to be a central issue of post-modern life, especially when it comes to healthcare.

The objective scientific point of view, with its emphasis on the body, got its biggest boost in American medicine when the Flexner Report on medical education was published by the Carnegie Foundation in 1910. This book-length bulletin led to codification in the U.S. of the German graduate medical education model, with a heavy emphasis on teaching by scientific researchers, in the classroom and at the bedside.

Despite modern attempts to broaden the curriculum and the doctor’s mind, nearly a hundred years after Flexner the hegemony of research-based science has remained virtually unchallenged in medical training. Still, the personal, unquantifiable experience of health and illness stubbornly insinuates itself into the world of the physician, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, like the radiology reading room. I’d like to tell you about an amazing study, undertaken by Dr. Yehonatan Turner, a radiology resident at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He reported his findings at last December’s meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

For the purposes of his investigation, Turner attached a photo portrait to the CT-scans of some patients. He found that the interpretations of those scans that also displayed an image of the patient’s face were consistently more thorough than the interpretations of the scans without photos.

In general, the specialty of radiology attracts people who cluster toward the data-driven end of the spectrum that runs from touchy-feely to analytical. These are doctors who have chosen to spend the bulk of their professional time with images, instead of with flesh-and-blood patients. At work, radiologists mostly inhabit darkened rooms with multiple, high-definition computer monitors, a dictation gizmo, and little else. They strive to be as objective and thorough as they can. And still, having an image of the patient’s face appears to help the coolly dispassionate radiologist to do a better job.

I had this study in mind when a non-physician colleague asked me what I think about the electronic medical record (EMR). Given that the federal stimulus package includes $18 billion for development and installation of EMRs throughout the healthcare system, this is all of a sudden a more urgent question than it used to be.

Over the years I’ve been a huge proponent of harnessing information technology in service of better healthcare, having even published a couple of books about it. What we expect of the modern doctor has long been impossible without an automated system for keeping track of all the things – from drug interactions to the attributes of uncommon diseases – that ought to be at every clinician’s fingertips for every patient encounter. Yet, neither I, nor the vast majority of my colleagues, have anything like the information system we really need to provide the absolutely best care, based on the best scientific evidence, to every one of our patients at the time we see them.

I have railed for decades at the average doctor’s lack of immediate access to critically important, well-organized information. So, I surprised myself with my answer to my friend’s query about the EMR. I opined that the electronic medical record is not yet ready for universal roll-out.

First, the problem of standards must be solved so most electronic medical information systems can talk to each other. Even an institution that brags of having the best, most comprehensive EMR will be missing a large chunk of data that reside in other institutions’ computers, necessarily presenting a dangerously incomplete picture of many patients. A significant share of the $18 billion is supposed to go toward developing, disseminating and enforcing standardized ways for medical information machines to communicate with each other, which ought to help.

There is a deeper problem that makes the EMR still unready for universal application. By interposing a computer monitor between patient and doctor, so much may be lost if the result is to reduce the conversation to filling in an electronic template so as to generate quantifiable, codifiable, digital data. However badly medical training may have damaged our ability to listen, most of us doctors still do elicit and use our patients’ stories. We mine these tales for data. We also depend on conversation to develop the all-important therapeutic relationship, based on mutual understanding and trust.

Human stories are told in idiosyncratic natural language, which no computer program has yet come close to ‘understanding’ well enough to reliably turn narrative into data, let alone to support a human relationship. An EMR risks losing the story, the understanding, and the relationship when it leads doctors to use a checklist to find out what’s really bothering a patient instead of asking a few open-ended questions.

Eventually, the puzzle of EMR standards, as well as other technical issues like usability and efficiency, will be solved. It will take leadership, organization, time and money. However, nobody has a clue yet about how to fix the deeper problem of story versus data. There is no “killer app” on the horizon that will do justice to both subjective and objective.

I plan to write another book one of these days about information technology and medicine. That volume will be as much about what electronic systems cannot do as what they can. The central theme will be to examine how to employ these wonderful gizmos to do the rote things that they do best so as to free health professionals to do what we do best, which is to be healers.

Patients’ stories and their faces will always be crucial data to a healer. I expect it will be a long, long time before a machine can extract real meaning from a patient’s illness narrative, let alone appreciate what there is to learn from a picture of her face.

Marc Ringel has spent the majority of his career as a family doctor working in rural communities, including the last 12 years in Brush, Colorado. He has written extensively, for lay and professional audiences, about rural health, medical informatics and healing.

Pet connections

Finding the balance between compassion and consumption, pets and plate.

by Geoff Olson

The late American writer Kurt Vonnegut once said his greatest joy in life was rolling around with his dog in the grass. We can only imagine what Vonnegut, who lamented his species’ ecologically suicidal behaviour, would have thought about a recent study claiming that dogs have larger ecological footprints than an SUV. In Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, authors Robert and Brenda Vale argue that resources required to feed a dog, including the area of land required to produce its food, translates into twice the eco-footprint of, say, building and fuelling a Toyota Land Cruiser. And there’s no reason for cat owners to feel smug. It turns out a feline’s eco-footprint is about as great as building and fuelling a Volkswagen Golf.

Eco-estimates like this have become the middle-class equivalents of medieval hair shirts and knotted whips. Imagine how much it would take to convince people to stop having pets, much less eat them, as suggested by the Vale’s book title. By this argument’s logic, chowing down on Prince and Snowball would only be a start. You and I and all the other ‘useless eaters’ would need to take a pledge to exit the planet early, to reduce our footprints to a dimensionless point. James Lovelock’s Gaia is a vengeful God, after all.

I’ve always found pet people, the ones with a slightly unhinged enthusiasm for their furry dependents, a bit suspect. Yet a large part of the doggy daycare culture, with its organic biscuits and fashionable accoutrements, is the displaced nurturing behaviour of people without kids. What if we took to measuring the eco-footprint of raising children in the First World? I wouldn’t be surprised if raising one kid, from infancy to young adulthood, was the equivalent eco-footprint of a factory floor of Hummers.

I have no children, but I do have a dog and cat. My wife and I discovered Mica in a shelter a year ago, shivering behind wire mesh. A rescue dog from the Kootenays, she was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an animal shelter – part Black Lab and God knows what else. Possibly Border Collie and maybe some Rottweiler — and if her speed is any indication, a trace of cruise missile.

I’m fully aware of the irony of being one-half of a vegan/vegetarian couple that owns a 60-pound carnivore. In my defence, this dog-owning lifestyle snuck up on me. I had spent most of my adult life petless, killing a succession of houseplants through neglect. In contrast, my wife had never been without an animal. When we met, her two elderly dogs were preparing to shuffle off the canine coil (kindly freeing the planet from their dastardly ecological pawprint). So when they passed on, we both decided it was time to rebuild her furry fan base.

Over the centuries, human beings have bred dogs for size, stamina, speed, hunting, tracking and herding. No matter which obscure character or kink we selected for, the wilderness remained close to their hearts. Look into a dog’s eyes and there’s an ancient connection going back to the Neolithic era, when wolves shadowed the campfires of our ancestors. Two species entered into an unspoken arrangement: one would patrol the perimeter of the camps while the other left scraps in return. Their orbit grew closer and closer and over time the domesticated wolf was spun by artificial selection into dozens of shapes and sizes. The soft clay of Canis lupus was moulded into terriers, hounds, baiters and racing dogs. Today, some breeds look comic, and some just plain scary – from the rat-sized arm candy of rich socialites to the rippled hellhounds of heavily tattooed owners.

Our relationship with other living creatures has been fraught with paradox from the very beginning. Primitive, hunting-gathering people were caught in an existential bind, according to the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell. They regarded wild animals as Gods, but how can you kill a God for its flesh? Campbell believed an entire body of myth and ritual arose to reconcile this thorny situation. Before or after the hunt, animals were thanked for participating in their own death, a ritual that persists today among the globe’s last remaining pockets of hunter-gatherers.

As our hunting partners, dogs became the intermediaries between the spirits of the wild and human culture. In the stories we told, the guardians to the Otherworld were often canine. In Ancient Greek mythology, the three-headed Cerberus guards the gates of Hades. In Eskimo shamanism, a dog with bared teeth guards the entrance to the undersea land of Takakapsaluk, Mother of the Sea Beasts. Dogs are ‘psychopomps,’ greeters and guardians at the boundaries of worlds.

Sophisticated, scientific sorts like you and me are a long way from the Paleolithic past, the shaggy dog tales of mythic literature and even our childhood imaginations. (“In a curious parallel with cave art, young children, ages three to seven, dream not about humans or family members, but about animals and animal life,” observes author Morris Berman in his 1989 book Coming to Our Senses.) We have poor reception to the Otherworld, but the signal can be improved by having a pet. Domesticated animals help one to retain a connection, however frayed, with the spontaneous, sensory, side of animal life. They help reconnect the alienated ape to the garden within, and with a regimen of daily walks, the garden without.

At the close of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after many years of adventures, and discovers that only his dog Argos still recognizes him. Writing of this long awaited reunion, anthropologist Loren Eiseley writes, “The magic that gleams an instant between Argos and Odysseus is both the recognition of diversity and the need for affection across the illusions of form. It is nature’s cry to homeless, far-wandering, insatiable man: ‘Do not forget your brethren, nor the green wood from which you sprang. To do so is to invite disaster.’”

Scientists are quick to caution us about the intellectual error of anthropomorphism, the habit of projecting human qualities on to animals. But for their part, hard-core rationalists are often blind to the possibilities of “intersubjectivity,” the sharing of subjective states by two or more beings. This is not limited to people and their pets, however. Every time you open an email about a crow taking care of a kitten, a deer cuddling with a koala, or a dog and elephant that are inseparable buddies, you’re witnessing one of nature’s most playful routines, which momentarily undercuts the “illusion of form” through a spontaneous display of affection. And why not? When mammals aren’t hungry or fearful, most of them have nothing better to do than cuddle, carouse and connect with whatever is around. We do it ourselves, every time we bend down to pat a strange dog.

Intersubjectivity is a powerful thing. In his 1969 essay The Innocent Fox, Eiseley recalls sitting against an upturned boat on the beach when he saw “two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun… I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far hom of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.

“It was not a time for human dignity,” the author decided. “Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a white bone and shook it in my teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment . . .”

Some of the most important moments in life can’t be translated into scientific language. Eiseley closes his encounter with the baby fox with this observation: “It is the most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.” Kurt Vonnegut, who had some familiarity with rolling around with furry creatures, would have nodded in agreement.

Sometimes, it takes an animal to tear us open, and rip apart the mental categories that preserve our cherished notions of separation. The extraordinary 2004 film Peaceable Kingdom testifies to the buried trauma of farm workers that became involved in the killing of animals as children. Killing and butchering farm animals was a “discipline like anything else,” notes farmer Harold Brown, possible only because you “keep a certain amount of discipline emotionally… I didn’t break through that conditioning until I came to Farm Sanctuary.”

After listening to a talk at Farm Sanctuary, an American animal protection organization, Brown decided to “adopt” a cow. Why, his wife asked, did he want to adopt the biggest most expensive farm animal of all? He wasn’t sure, but he had made his decision, signing up for a cow named Snickers and its foal Rosie. A year afterwards, Brown returned to Farm Sanctuary.

“That’s when it happened. All the cows were up in the barn and Snickers was in a far corner. It’s been about year since she’s seen me. So I walked about halfway to her and I looked at her and I said,” Snickers” and put out my arms… She ran over to me, as much as a cow can run and puts her head right in my chest. She just thumps me right in the chest with her forehead. She just stands there leaning against me, and I wrapped my arms around her neck.”

Brown struggles to keep his composure as he tells the rest of the story. “She kind of opened me up to that part of me that had been closed off… because after she thumped me in the chest, it was like she hit me right in the heart. And I knew right then that’s exactly what I had shut off ever since I was a kid. I had this image in my head. The image was of a big light switch, and that light switch had been off and when she bumped me in the chest and just stayed there, I realized that I had developed the capacity as a kid to either turn it on or off. I could turn it on for my dog. I could turn it on for people, in my circle of compassion. And now I realized why I had to adopt a cow. How providence or whatever would have Snickers be the lesson giver… that’s when my life turned around, big time.”

We comfort ourselves in our schizoid treatment of animals by making a binary distinction of food and not-food. Yet, today, the world of domesticated animals mirrors the world of domesticated humans. Multimillion-dollar condos tower above the heaps of human refuse in our city streets, just as pet boutiques, pet hotel packages and doggie daycares coexist with factory farms, laboratory cages and puppy mills. We’ve created a heaven and hell for domesticated animals that reflects the human divides of privilege and privation.

A rethink of our relationship with other living things is ecologically vital, as long as it isn’t limited to white liberal guilt about our pet’s eco-pawprints. Very few of us will seriously entertain the notion of eating pets, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about how much factory-farmed meat and rendered animal remains goes into Prince’s dish. We don’t need any more New Age vision questers trying to crowbar their ways into the Otherworld through chanting and drumming. We need everyday people understanding which energy flows are sustainable in our overstressed biosphere, and which are not.

A recent UBC study found that 36 percent of the world’s total fisheries’ catch each year is ground up into fish meal and oil to feed chicken, pigs and other farm animals. “Meanwhile, 25 percent of infants in Peru, which produces half of the world’s fish meal using anchovies, are malnourished,” said UBC fisheries researcher and study co-author Daniel Pauly. Lead author Jennifer Jacquet added, “Global fisheries consume 13 billion gallons of fuel each year just to catch and land fish. That’s more gas than 22 million cars would use.”

There are more creatures trapped in the black sites of the factory farming megabiz than there are human beings alive on Earth. For billions of cattle, pigs and chickens raised to live miserable, foreshortened lives under brutal conditions, this planet is a global concentration camp. And we are emptying the oceans to keep it going. It’s obvious there is a direct connection between this karmic blight and our ecological state of affairs, if only in the form of factory farm runoff, razed rainforests, nitrate-poisoned coastal areas and our depleted oceans, to say nothing of the bio-backlash from antibiotics, bone meal, growth hormones and genetic engineering.

Yet there are signs that we are awakening to our dysfunctional relationship with other living beings. Last month in Parliament, federal MPs voted unanimously in favour of a private member’s bill for a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare. “The motion calls on Canada to support development of animal-welfare declarations at all relevant international organizations and forums,” notes a report in The Province.

“The declaration will be a key to improved animal-welfare legislation worldwide and a step closer to ending animal cruelty globally,” said MP Michelle Simson.

Canada did not spearhead this move; it’s simply becoming part of an international moment that includes all 27 members of the European Union, as well as Tanzania, the Seychelles, Bahrain, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Philippines and Thailand. Though legally nonbinding, the initiative represents a major shift in thinking. It aims to link the entire animal-welfare movement under one strategic goal: “global recognition that animals are capable of feeling pain and suffering, and that they deserve protection.”

“Life is no way to treat an animal,” said Kurt Vonnegut in one of his last interviews. “It hurts too much.” Alas, we’re all part of it for as long as we’re standing. The best we can do is to find something that somehow ennobles the sorry business of eating other creatures to survive. How about striving to reduce the suffering of all beings, and to find some middle ground in our relationship with them between the polar extremes of ritual worship and mass slaughter? That seems to me to be a noble undertaking.

Being a pet owner puts one in the same paradoxical position of being a parent – being responsible for another life, even though that extra life draws resources from life itself. It’s one of the universe’s more serious games, called ‘One More Mouth to Feed.’ If we’re going to survive as a species, we have to learn to play this game better and smarter, with all living creatures.

www.geoffolson.com

H1N1 pandemic or panic?

Dr. Tom Jefferson’s research is a powerful antidote to rampant bio-evangelism

The amount of death and disease would be less if all disease were left to itself. – (1835) Dr. Jacob Bigelow, prominent US physician and botanist

He should be one of the most famous people on the planet right now, lauded for his research and a consultant for the most powerful health policy makers and planners in the world. The immense clarity he has brought to what we know about vaccines and influenza could even launch him as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Yet Dr. Tom Jefferson, a British physician who works out of an office in Rome, lives largely in anonymity and despite the resonance his name might have in relation to the famous American who authored the Declaration of Independence, this Tom Jefferson is hardly a household name.

 

This is odd, given that, as we close a year which will be remembered as ‘The Year of the Damn Panic’ – I mean pandemic – his research would have helped stifle the fear mongers and wind back the influenza panic currently holding the world hostage. Dr. Jefferson is a member of the Cochrane Collaboration’s Acute Respiratory Infections Group, a group of researchers, epidemiologists and clinical experts who pour through the world’s evidence around influenza and respiratory infections. His group has published dozens of meta-analyses, essentially critical summaries of studies based on the world’s body of scientific evidence around the treatment of flu and flu-like illnesses, synthesizing it, and telling us what we can and cannot say with certainty about the effectiveness and safety of flu vaccines. (Check out the online resources at www.cochrane.org/influenza/)

Dr. Jefferson’s research brings some clear-headedness to the flaming bio-evangelism that has been swirling the planet since June when the World Health Organization declared the world was in the midst of an influenza pandemic. This WHO declaration, who some claim to be fraudulent as it was largely derived from a redefinition of the word ‘pandemic,’ sent national governments around the world scrambling in a frenzy of vaccine and antiviral drug stockpiling, creating pandemic preparedness plans and stoking the world’s media to print headlines announcing SOMETHING BIG was afoot.

Preparing the public to face a virus of unknown, but potentially huge, lethality evoked the spectre of the 1919 Spanish flu and heightened anxiety among public health officials who carried out a lot of hand wringing (and hand washing) about what to do.

With such high stakes, did the world’s national governments seek out the best evidence surrounding flu treatments and consult with the world’s best and most knowledgeable assessors of that evidence? After all, given our deep belief that clinical medicine (and health policy) is based on a foundation of scientific research, you might have assumed, as I did, that poring through the evidence around influenza preventative interventions would have been the highest priority in this year of the pandemic. Wouldn’t you?

Yet you’d be wrong.

In their scurrying to rush vaccines to market and otherwise construct a large-scale, multibillion dollar public health exercise, there was only one thing the public health experts forgot to do: to look at the evidence around the flu vaccines and the antiviral drugs they were so keen to promote. If they’d taken the time to understand the work of Dr. Tom Jefferson and his colleagues at Cochrane, they would have understood the evidence was on Mars and the prevailing recommendations around mass vaccinations for the flu were on Venus.

When I called him at his office in Rome, Tom Jefferson was just finishing off a review on the evidence around hand washing, which was commissioned by several national governments. He’s a busy man lately, revising and updating reviews and trying to avoid some of the weirdness that might come with being a researcher in an area of such global importance. He tells me about recently turning down an offer to appear on a talk show on US television, saying “I do reviews; I’m not exactly a ballerina.”

The current pandemic craziness that has much of the globe in its embrace clearly mystifies and engages him. He framed our discussion by referring me to a recent review he’d written for the British Medical Journal of Philip Alcabes’ book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to the Avian Flu. In his review, he poses a particularly pertinent question: “Why and how had a relatively benign disease such as influenza been turned into a fund-raising, raging monster at our door? Why had poorly performing vaccines and flopped antiflu drugs been turned into money spinners and career builders by governments?”

It’s what I was about to ask him.

Dr. Jefferson points to a central, simplistic equation that is used to fuel pandemics, drive research agendas and suck public health agencies into action: “One germ equals one disease equals one solution (pill or vaccine).” In his opinion, things aren’t that simple and from our wide-ranging discussion, I have tried to synthesize some of the key soundbites and conclusions I was left with:

If you get flu symptoms, you don’t necessarily have ‘THE’ flu.

He tells me it’s necessary to distinguish between those viruses that we can immunize against – influenza A and B) – from perhaps up to 200 other known viruses and many unknowns that circulate. All these viruses can cause similar symptoms, what the researchers call “Influenza-Like Illness” (ILI.) and the vast majority have no vaccines or proven preventative treatments. Dr. Jefferson reminds me that, through systematic reviews, his group has found that influenza is actually a relatively rare disease. Of 100 people in the population in the wintertime, approximately between seven and 10 will experience flu symptoms yet only one will actually have one of the influenza viruses A or B. So what we’re talking about here is vaccinating for a ‘disease’ that may afflict one percent of the population over the two to three months of its maximum circulation.

For whom is the flu vaccine effective?

Generally, looking at the published research, flu vaccines aren’t that effective. There is no evidence they’re effective for children under two, yet they can help prevent symptoms in older children and healthy adults; they hasten return to work by half a day, on average. There is poor evidence that the vaccines work in people with chronic conditions or that they prevent death in the elderly. There is no credible evidence that they prevent complications from bronchitis and pneumonia in all age groups and there is little evidence that they are safe to take in pregnancy. That, of course, is different from saying they cause harms as there is little hard evidence of that either. The fact that the vaccines appear to prevent what is called “all-cause mortality” may be an artifact of how they are studied and reflect research that is based on comparing the health of people who get vaccinated versus the health of those who don’t, which we call the healthy user effect. Basically, flu vaccines are shown to be more effective in people who already appear to be quite healthy.

What about antivirals like amantadine, rimantadine or oseltamivir (Tamiflu)?

The first two are relatively bad drugs; they won’t interrupt transmission and don’t prevent infection. Newer drugs like Tamiflu have fewer harms and are more effective in alleviating symptoms and reducing the length of symptoms even as there is increasing evidence that they may be linked to harms, especially psychiatric harms.

What about non-drug or non-vaccine approaches?

Some non virus-specific interventions work best and the bonus is that they can work for all viruses, not just the ones for which you can vaccinate. These include good personal hygiene, distancing, hand washing or wearing gloves and gowns, which is probably impractical for the average person. The highest quality evidence suggests that the spread of respiratory viruses can be prevented by hygienic measures around younger children – more hand washing.

What about flu vaccine safety?

As Dr. Jefferson has said, “New vaccines never behave in the way you expect them to.” It may be that there is a link to GBS (Guillain-Barré syndrome), a nervous system disorder that can cause paralysis, but it could end up being anything because some of the new additives have not been studied sufficiently or the data are inaccessible.

 

At the end of the day, Dr. Jefferson agrees that the story is fascinating and very complex. I told him I was surprised about the poor quality of the evidence given the billions being spent on vaccines alone for this pandemic and he reminded me that the quality of policymaking seemed even worse. He pointed to a piece he published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, which clearly lays out how poorly government influenza recommendations seem to adhere to the available evidence.

Having seen the poor quality of the evidence, Dr. Jefferson argues that flu shots need to be subjected to more rigorous testing so we can ensure that vaccine programs are successful at lowering rates of flu cases and deaths. There seems to be a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what we know and what has been recommended during this ‘Year of the Pandemic’ and this does nothing to instil public confidence in those who have been charged with keeping the public safe.

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria. He has maintained that on the day his local health authority announces it will vaccinate the public as part of a randomized controlled trial, he will roll up his sleeve: As he claims, “If they randomize, I’ll immunize.”

by Chris Jordan

 

Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.

This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large, intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibilities we each play as individuals in a collective that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

– Seattle, 2008

Running the Numbers II
Portraits of global mass culture

This new series looks at mass phenomena that occur on a global scale. Similarly to the first Running the Numbers series, each image portrays a specific quantity of something: the number of tuna fished from the world’s oceans every fifteen minutes, for example. But this time the statistics are global in scale, rather than specifically American.

Finding meaning in global mass phenomena can be difficult because the phenomena themselves are invisible, spread across the earth in millions of separate places. There is no Mount Everest of waste that we can make a pilgrimage to and behold the sobering aggregate of our discarded stuff, seeing and feeling it viscerally with our senses.

Instead, we are stuck with trying to comprehend the gravity of these phenomena through the anaesthetizing and emotionally barren language of statistics. Sociologists tell us that the human mind cannot meaningfully grasp numbers higher than a few thousand; yet every day we read of mass phenomena characterized by numbers in the millions, billions, even trillions.

Compounding this challenge is our sense of insignificance as individuals in a world of 6.7 billion people. And if we fully open ourselves to the horrors of our times, we also risk becoming overwhelmed, panicked, or emotionally paralyzed.

I believe it is worth connecting with these issues and allowing them to matter to us personally, despite the complex mixtures of anger, fear, grief and rage that this process can entail. Perhaps these uncomfortable feelings can become part of what connects us, serving as fuel for courageous individual and collective action as citizens of a new kind of global community. This hope continues to motivate my work.

The first few pieces below depict statistics about threats to the world’s marine ecosystems. New images on other issues will be coming soon, so please stay tuned, and thank you for visiting.

– Chris Jordan, Seattle, Feb. 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chris Jordan Photographic Arts, 6711 10th Ave NW, Seattle, WA 98117, 206-706-1550, studio@chrisjordan.com, www.chrisjordan.com.

Chris Jordan is represented in Canada by Winsor Gallery in Vancouver, 3025 Granville St.,www.winsorgallery.com, info@winsorgallery.com, 604-681-4870