Down and Out in New York City
As I was walking out that first day, I stopped in the waiting room to look around at the clientele and the animals they had brought in. In the middle of the room sat two elderly women – one black, one white – with enormous turtles on their laps. Around each turtle’s body was a wide, satin ribbon tied into a fanciful bow – blue for one, pink for the other. Curious, I approached these two women to find out what the story was and learned that they hardly knew each other at all. They had seen each other once a year for more than twenty years, when they came to this place for the annual examination of their forty-year-old turtles. They had enjoyed each other’s company from the first time they met and, when they reunited each year, they exchanged cookies or candy and caught each other up on the adventures of their companions. Neither woman had anyone else in her life, so all of their attention went to the turtles.
I left the hospital to head to my room, which was only two blocks away in a building thirty or so floors high, as dirty as it was dilapidated. Barbed wire framed the emergency exits, the gate of the service entry, and the undersides of the lowest balconies. I knew life was cheap in some areas of New York, but in the middle of Manhattan, whose reputation is one of wealth, I was unprepared to see this landscape of war and defensive entrenchment. I figured out quickly that I would be staying in a dungeon, like an animal in a cage, but I had far from seen the worst.
My room was in the basement and I had a hard time finding it at the end of the labyrinth of somber hallways strewn with papers and trash. The stench of mildew filled the air between the sadly faded yellow walls. There was a two-inch hole in my door, close to the lock, and it was with some apprehension that I turned the handle to open it. I should add – I had traveled plenty before; I had been to third-world countries where I lived in bug-infested squalor, and that day, I was grateful for those previous experiences and the perspective they had to offer, although their effect was limited. This particular experience was made all the more revolting by the fact that it was set right at the heart of Big Money.
The gray carpet was covered in stains and full of holes. The blanket on the little bed to the right of the door was equally stained. The few pieces of cheap furniture were woebegone and the shower walls were bright green with mildew. There was a small window that I opened immediately to air out the place. I would be living in this hole for the next two weeks, so I had to make do. I hung up my shirts and organized my things before going out to eat.
The next morning, I joined my team and got busy with consultations. Starting that day, I would witness several surprising relationships with out-of-the-ordinary species at the Animal Medical Center. Like the two elderly women in the waiting room, more and more people weave emotional bonds with exotic animals, bonds as intense as those we are more accustomed to seeing with popular pets like cats and dogs.
I met a woman who lived on Fifth Avenue, one of the richest areas in New York City, who had the same kind of turtle I had seen in the waiting room. His name was Herman, he weighed around thirty pounds, and he masturbated nonstop all over their apartment. He was the only being that she had had in her life for several decades, and she had brought him in for consultation, not without a certain amount of pride, to get some vitamins for his frustrations.
Another client brought us a three-foot-long, adult iguana that she allowed to sleep with her. One night, without warning, he attacked her with extraordinary violence, drawing blood as he bit her on the face and legs. We had to explain to her that these miniature dinosaurs are known for their ability to detect pheromones secreted by menstruating women. Some go crazy with passion, to the point of attacking their distraught mistresses. Sleeping with these aggressively amorous animals indeed presents some level of danger.
A sad young woman came to see us because her giant pet toad, whose diet consisted of baby mice, was no longer able to jump. After taking x-rays, we diagnosed a fractured pelvis and prescribed rest as his treatment. Six weeks of no jumping for a toad, you have to admit, is a hardship. The woman left a little bit happier though, her companion snuggled in her purse.
One day, a concert violinist in his fifties came in on consultation for his bird, a yellow-crested cockatoo that had plucked its chest bare. Every time the musician picked up his instrument, the jealous companion ripped more bloody feathers from already-raw flesh. This type of behavior is almost impossible to correct. Extremely dependent animals do not tolerate a lack of attention well.
An observation must be stated: if conditions of captivity are trying for common pets like cats and dogs, they are completely unbearable for exotic animals. Their biological needs go unrecognized and unmet, and even veterinarians and pet stores are rarely well-informed. “Animal-lovers,” drawn to exoticism or who-knows-what, do not always know what they are getting into and eventually find themselves in impossible situations.
Exotic species, like more common pets, have become objects of consumption, trinkets, curious novelties that serve as part of the decor or to amuse children. These animals generally die soon after capture; survivors are prone to all sorts of tics and manias in reaction to the dreary, fastidious life that we have to offer, from which there is no exit other than death.
It might be helpful if I demystify the daily work of a general veterinarian. Popular literature conveys a “Herriotic” image of the veterinarian that is not entirely realistic. He does not spend most of his time – as James Herriot so well described it in his numerous books – flying to the aid of hurt animals or caring for sick ones. This aspect of the job, certainly the most interesting and gratifying one, does exist, but in a non-specialized practice, it does not make up the bulk of the workload. Specialized hospitals like New York’s Animal Medical Center and Pennsylvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, staffed with hundreds of veterinarians and technicians, are relatively rare. Rather than curative, the work of a general veterinarian is especially preventive and very routine. His social contract highlights first and foremost a duty to mankind in that it obligates him to help society better manage what it considers a natural resource. Here is the oath that a new veterinarian takes, the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath of human medicine:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.
I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence. (1)
The veterinarian is thus responsible for the transformation, repair, re-adaptation, and destruction of the sick or non-functional. He serves to soften and humanize the exploitation of animals. He plays a crucial, underestimated role because without him, the public could not use animals with as much carelessness and ease. He is, in a way, the conscience of a society that exploits animals, although not without at least some scruples, as evidenced by the existence of the profession itself. (2)
Vaccination and other maintenance work
Parallel to the practice of their art, veterinarians supplement their income and build business by selling a range of products. These include shampoos, insecticides, hygienic accessories, collars and leashes, and expensive pet foods. In addition, most clinics offer grooming and boarding services and some even provide incineration when the time comes. Finally, some veterinarians specialize in the breeding and sale of purebreds on the side.
The conventional surgeries carried out on our pets are all elective ones, including the declawing of cats, large wildlife, and sometimes rabbits; the removal of dogs’ vocal cords to keep them from barking, the cropping of their ears, the docking of their tails, and the removal of their dewclaws; the removal of ferrets’ scent glands; the extraction of teeth in large animals and monkeys; and last but not least, sterilization, or the castration of males and spaying of females.
These are not surgeries in the true sense of the term – without exception, their objective is not therapeutic – but rather mutilations aimed at rendering the pet more user-friendly. The veterinarian is called upon to carry them out to serve his client, who wishes to transform, or sculpt, his animal into a more seductive and accommodating form.
In North America, the most frequent mutilations are the declawing of cats and the sterilization of dogs and cats. In just one day, I removed the claws of seven cats and sterilized just as many, as well as two dogs. My personal record…
Population control by sterilization constitutes another major aspect of a veterinarian’s work, although to a lesser and lesser degree: in recent decades, shelters, low-cost spay/neuter clinics, and pet stores have taken a large piece of the cake. They employ veterinarians to do only that, assembly line-style, and for prices that are hard to beat. Today, it is possible to buy a two-monthold animal that has already been de-sexed, de-clawed (cats), or de-scented (ferrets) – otherwise stated, a prefab pet ready for use.
The overpopulation of pets brought on by our unbridled consumption of them makes sterilization a necessity, but this operation will never curb the overpopulation problem. The fact is that this is an unavoidable side effect of consumerism and very aggressive promotion by an unscrupulous industry. Truth be told, the main goal of spaying and neutering is to serve the owner, who would be inconvenienced by a too-overt sexuality in his pet. This operation facilitates the control of animals by eliminating annoying natural behaviors. The strong odor of tomcat urine, the innate need to explore, and the aggression of un-castrated males are not compatible with life in society. Nor are masturbation in animals that are perpetually bored and who attempt to mate with their owners, the bleeding of female dogs, and the continual vocalizations of female cats in heat. These behaviors annoy owners, who, with the blessing and help of a veterinarian, can transform their animals into a more palatable form. (4) Last but not least, having spayed and neutered pets gives owners the peace of mind that they have done all they can to help eliminate the overpopulation problem.
In the United States and Canada, some of the most pet-loving countries in the world, declawing cats is a routine operation. Clinics that have made these mutilations their specialty attract a large clientele with their competitive prices. Removing the claws of a cat, tiger, or rabbit consists of amputating an entire phalange. The human equivalent would be to amputate the last section of each finger and toe at the knuckle.
In adult cats, this operation undeniably provokes psychological trauma. It is not known whether the effects are due to the amputation itself or to the associated manipulations and recovery. Many seem to forget their litter-training after the procedure, while others become more aggressive. This is dangerous because in the absence of claws, the cat finds itself without its first line of defense and may become a hastier biter. Furthermore, its movements are hindered to varying degrees. A declawed cat is unable to use its back feet to scratch or its front feet to pull and stretch, innate behaviors for cats. While the intention is to amputate the first phalange, which harbors the claw, the second phalange, which actually supports the weight of the body, can be partially amputated or injured by an unskilled or careless surgeon (this operation is routinely performed with a simple Resco-type nail clipper). In that case, the luckier cats – for the others will just have to bear the discomfort for the rest of their lives – undergo a second operation to remove the remaining bone fragments. Complications following this surgery, such as chronic infections of the surrounding tissues and bone, are common. And chronic neuralgias and phantom pains, just like in humans who have suffered an amputation, are also possible. This is why declawed cats are often seen holding their paws up in the air. Consequently, these animals (especially the obese ones, of which there are many) are handicapped for the rest of their lives. (5)
Cropping and docking
Veterinarians still crop ears and dock tails in dogs, although officially, veterinary associations now recommend against these cosmetic procedures. To respect breed standards, some breeders even crop ears themselves, illegally, under questionable conditions of anesthesia and asepsis. Most breeders (when the breed standard calls for it) cut off their puppies’ tails and dewclaws themselves, just a few days after their birth, using a pair of scissors and, of course, no anesthesia. In fact, veterinarians do not use anesthesia for this procedure either. Uninformed dog owners are sometimes under the impression that the puppies are too young to feel pain, but if ever they witnessed tails being docked, they would know otherwise.
Removal of vocal cords
Barking is unarguably a source of noise pollution, and as a solution to the problem, dogs’ vocal cords are sometimes excised. This mutilation is commonly practiced in North America and in several European countries. Some veterinarians have even made it their specialty, but the profession generally looks down upon this type of operation. This particular mutilation is often associated with complications that the owner does not reveal or that he does not know about. The scar tissue that forms during healing at the place of the vocal cords can, in some cases, obstruct the opening of the larynx and hinder the animal’s breathing. As soon as he is just the littlest bit excited, his tongue turns blue. The anxiety felt by such animals – which is often at the origin of nuisance barking – is never taken into consideration, and the animal continues to suffer, but in silence, never to disturb his owner or neighbors again.
The repercussions of these mutilations on behavior and physiological functions (the loss of hormonal function, for instance, has several effects on the health of animals, one of the most frequent being urinary incontinence), serious postoperative complications, or the loss of a desired aesthetic effect (such as a botched ear-cropping job) sometimes leads owners to abandon their animals or have them put to death. But even when things go right, the whole medical procedure that surrounds these operations is traumatizing for the animals. Afterwards, the complications can be numerous, depending on the animal’s general state of health and on the competence of the person performing the operation. While the image would have us believe otherwise, there are plenty of veterinarians for whom expertise, sensitivity, respect towards animals, and the love of a job well done are not necessarily driving forces.
Post-surgical infections, partial re-growth of nails (which is often invisible), death associated with anesthesia, neuralgias, tendonitis, the ripping open of sutures and disembowelment following spaying, and necrosis (the death of tissue due to a lack of circulation) of the phalanx, sometimes of the entire foreleg, all add up to a fairly high rate of complications; according to an American study, they follow in approximately 19% of dogs and 12% of cats that undergo routine operations. (6)
The conscience of the public is freed by the fact that veterinarians willingly practice these mutilations; why should an owner feel guilty when the profession that most symbolizes our love of animals condones and even recommends the procedures? By his consent and cooperation, the veterinarian renders these alterations legitimate, which in turn encourages consumption: most people would not have pets if they did not have such easy access to these services, and at relatively low prices.
Little by little, performing these gratuitous and cruel mutilations began to disgust me. The day finally came when I finally understood that there was no justifying it. I started offering compromises – I would declaw kittens only, and then only their front feet. I arranged it so that I could spay or neuter them at the same time, so that they would not have to undergo the trauma of surgery more than once. Finally, I stopped declawing cats altogether. I continued to sterilize animals, but it was the only operation of this kind that I still practiced.
My clients, surprised and disconcerted by my new philosophy, went elsewhere to have the desired modifications done. Within six months, my business had taken a considerable tumble. In effect, these operations and all the care that surrounds them – vaccination, stool sample analysis, etc. – are the bread and butter of a veterinary generalist. Not to mention, it is often thanks to these tasks that a veterinarian attains new clients.
It is interesting to note that Sweden is the only country in the world to have outlawed all of the above pet mutilations with the exception of sterilization. While veterinary associations in Canada and the United States now have position statements against ear cropping and tail docking, it is not easy to abolish the procedures in reality, and veterinarians continue to perform them. In these countries, there are still plenty of dogs with cut ears and tails, and animal media around the world continue to promote those images. As long as dog organizations do not change their breed criteria, the mutilations will continue. (7)
Dr. Charles Danten is a graduate of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, who practiced veterinary medicine for eighteen years, ten of which were spent in his own veterinary clinic near Montreal, Quebec. At different times during his career, Dr. Danten cared for companion, farm, and zoo animals. A growing awareness of the undesirable aspects of human-animal relationships led him to sell his clinic and leave the profession altogether.
References and notes
1. Tannenbaum, Jerry (1989). Veterinary Ethics. Williams and Wilkins.
2. Jones, Susan D. (2003). Valuing Animals: Veterinarians and Their Patients in Modern America. The John Hopkins University Press: 141; Swabe, Joanna (1999). Animals, Disease and Human Society: Human-animal relationships and the rise of veterinary medicine. Routledge: 156.
3. Gagnon, Chantal. “Vaccination des chiens et chats: Virage difficile.” Protégez-vous. August 2006; Noël André. “La vaccination annuelle des chiens et des chats est remise en question.” La Presse. Le 20 Mars 1999; Myer, Wendy S. “Will vaccine income drop? Pet Vaccinology.” Veterinary Economics. Jan. 1998. 32; Macy, D.W. (1996). “Feline Retroviruses.” American Animal Hospital Association Proceedings: 228-30.
4. Swabe, Joanna (1996). “Animals as a Natural Resource: Ambivalence in the Human-Animal Relationship in a Veterinary Practice.” Amsterdam School for Social Science Research; (1996). “Animals, Disease, and Human Social Life: The Human-Animal Relationship Reconsidered.” Onderzoekers. University of Amsterdam Yearbook. 1996; Tuan, Yi-Fu (1984). Dominance and Affection: the making of pets. Yale university Press: 101-103.
5. “Surgical Claw Removal: An Extreme Solution.” Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR); Ellison, G.W. (1996). “Complications of Declawing the Cat.” Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC).
6. Bamsey, SC et al. “Post-operative Complications of Elective Surgeries in Dogs and Cats Determined By Examining Electronic and Paper Medical Records.” JAVMA ; 208 (1) : 1996.
7. Convention Européenne pour la protection des animaux de compagnie. Conseil de l’Europe (1987). Strasbourg 13. XI. Traité no 125 (95): 29; Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights; Kieffer, J.P. (1999). “Caudectomie et Otectomie: vers une interdiction?” Bull. Soc. Vét. Pract. de France; 79 (4): 205.
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