The Philosophical Cow

It’s been yet another two weeks since I last wrote! Maybe it’s got something to do with the hordes of information flying in from every direction. No, it definitely has something to do with that.

But it’s what I signed up for, isn’t it? And it’s not all bad, of course.

Two weeks ago, I had a superb run of four days that finished earlier that 5pm. Absolutely magic. Did I get more done that I would have done ordinarily? Probably not, but boy did it feel good to slow down a little.

Those days, though they contained mostly bland-ish lectures, had some real gems of thought in them. For a start, they contained lectures on cell division, with the molecular basics of cancer… which in all honesty put a new spin on this famously sinister disease.

I’ve known for a long time, as many of you do, that cancer is the result of hyper-replication of otherwise fairly normal cells, but that doesn’t change the horrendous damage it does to people’s lives and how we feel about it as a society. Sitting in that theatre, though, and hearing a lecturer explain some of the molecular events involved in many cancers, the disease momentarily lost its evilness. The big bad monster I’d created as a personification of cancer kind of melted away to reveal a blind, inanimate molecule that had changed shape or put the wrong molecule in the wrong place. And the cascade of events that follow were perfectly logical and reasonable to expect. There was no monster here, just atoms.

Emotive words like ‘invades’, ‘kills’, ‘tries to spread’ and ‘unstoppable’ were not used in the lecture, because to use them would be to lend some sort of motive or malicious intent to what is in reality nothing more than a molecular mistake.

But I’m a student, sitting in a clean, safe lecture theatre learning the theory behind a cellular dysfunction. The images that roll past are colourful schematic diagrams of molecules going about their business, with arrows pointing to things that might go a bit sideways.

I’m the blind one. I know that I can rationalise this disease down to innocent, inanimate molecules, but I’ve not yet been exposed to the reality of it. There’s no distraught human, no suffering animal in my field of vision, no real-life consequences of these ‘innocent’ molecular mistakes, just theory.

So while I’ll retain my understanding of the molecular basics of cancer, I think it’s wise to resurrect that monster, for fear of becoming inhuman about it. Because emotion and humanity is what will drive us to the cure.

 

Among other lectures, there was a solid run of animal welfare lectures, which saw lecturers from the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education, a succinctly-named organisation situated at the vet school.

These lectures introduced us to the meaning of welfare, how we can assess it, how we can apply this knowledge to real animals and what the implications and compromises are, particularly in industry.

It also provided more opportunity to challenge what I had previously thought about welfare. Because what am I doing here if not earning my right to improve the welfare of every animal I work with?

I’ve recognised for a while that animals are not people, and that we should avoid assuming that they think and feel the same way we do. For a start, we’re fairly confident that the majority are not self-aware, but that the majority are sentient to varying extents. But how can we know this?

I suppose we can’t, not for sure. But institutions such as the Jeanne Marchig Centre are forefront in collating results from rigorous scientific experiments to try and determine how animals might feel about their situation. What behaviours do they show? How to these behaviours compare to those shown in any wild relatives? What do they prefer when given a choice? What are their cortisol levels, heart rates and body temperatures like?

All the while, we have to divorce ourselves, to an extent, from what we think we might feel if in their situation. Like housed dairy cows. I look at a dairy shed and can’t imagine ever being content, let alone happy, in a place like that. But I’m not a cow. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear your witty little mental comebacks from Scotland).

But in the majority of images I see, the cow is doing peacefully what she would do in her field. Except she’s better fed, warmer and drier because she’s not in the freezing horizontal rain. As far as we know, she has no capacity to sigh to herself and say, ‘Oh, how I wish I were re-chewing the contents of my stomach in the warm sunshine with the grass tickling my hooves’. You get where I’m coming from. Housing is not perfect, not by any stretch, but it’s commercial and there’s a compromise to be made.

In the UK, the welfare of animals is judged by five criteria called ‘freedoms’, which I’ve mentioned before. They are, as I recall, freedom from hunger and thirst, from pain and discomfort, from fear and distress, from injury and disease and to express normal behaviours. Apparently bad things come in twos in the animal kingdom.

If our philosophical cow has everything she needs to fulfill these criteria, she has good welfare. But the UK (I can’t speak for other countries) has organisations working to have better than minimum welfare on our farms. Instead of just having a life free from suffering, we’re after a ‘life worth living’, or even a ‘good life’. And I’m optimistic that we can do it. We’re a long way ahead of a good deal of the world already.

Something that isn’t necessarily a more challenging issue, but a different one, is the welfare of laboratory and research animals. This is of particular interest to me, as there’s been lots of backlash against the new beagle breeding facility going ahead near Hull.

Obviously, all the opinions I air on this blog are completely my own and not necessarily those of the school or the wider veterinary community. But, they are opinions everyone is entitled to hold, and I’m always very careful to be able to solidly justify my own. Not to arm myself to win a debate, but to make sure I know why I have them at all.

I understand the need for research animals, as much as I desperately, desperately wish there was an alternative. And one day, there will be. One day, we’ll have reliable computer models or entire lab-grown organs. But for now, these animals are our last alternative to save and improve the lives of humans and other animals alike. And believe me when I say they are the last alternative. The legislation (which I’ve read all the way through!) ensures that there is absolutely no other alternative. If there is, no permission is granted.

Scientists must justify their area of study, too. Testing of cosmetics on animals is banned and, as of October this year, testing of household products on animals is illegal in the UK. It’s another step forward.

But every project is monitored by independent inspectors, including vets, who ensure that a) animals must not be used if there is any alternative, b) the minimum number of animals and procedures are used, and c) only procedures that absolutely must be done should be done. This is known as the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement principle.

In addition to that, procedures on animals are graded according to their impact on the animal, and given a severity grading. This practice is used to keep things as far as possible towards the end of the scale where the animal experiences no adverse effects (there are plenty of tests that cause no or minimal suffering).

And while animals are just getting on with their daily routine, being cared for by people whose job it is solely to care for them, evidence-based research is applied to enrich the lives of the animals, from what type of bedding they prefer to what social structure they would naturally conform to.

I want an end to animal research as soon as possible. It’s receding already, and I hope to live to see it off completely. Meanwhile, it’s a huge relief to receive lectures from the people who are working day in and day out to protect these animals as much as humanly possible.

Information about animals in research can be found at: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/

I’ve been a bit of a philosophical cow myself so far. But what else occurred over the past two weeks?

Alongside these cell bio and welfare lectures, anatomy ploughed on from the limbs. Lectures on the vertebrae, biomechanics, structures of the neck, and the pharynx followed with dissections and practicals in their wake. That completes the dog up to the back of his shoulders!

Applied Clinical Anatomy was a great practical that arrived last Wednesday, and saw us working through real cases on paper, drawing up our own lists of diagnostic tests and interpreting the results to solve the mysteries. There’s nothing more satisfying, and since right now the cases are not real in the sense that they’ve already been treated, the stakes are low and it’s all great fun. Very vetty, and I like that.

My week was made by another session with the lovely Langhill dairy cows, learning to lift their legs, much to their rightful indignation, and practising the other skills we’d been taught. It’s always nice to have some furry animal time, even if I do find myself with my shoulder pressed up against her anus (not to be quoted out of context).

But the night of nights that made me feel merry was Sunday night, which I spent with the wonderful Ella at the Edinburgh Christmas market. And what a night it was. I probably ate, drank and spent a bit too much, but it was a magical and festive evening. I’ll leave you with the photos!
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