Chronicles of Athena – 39 Weeks

After what’s been a rough few weeks, we’re in need of some family time. So I’ve packed Athena up and brought her to mum’s. The rest of my family is distinctly more theatrical than me so I’ll be spending tonight dressed in forties gear watching their production of Allo Allo, which is very exciting.

Athena is coping very well with the temporary change in venue (and was even extremely well behaved in the car). An ulterior motive for this little bit of family time is to get Athena used to other people looking after her. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that she might have to come here for a week if I’m off at a conference (or, unlikely having just bought a flat, an actual holiday).

It’s a sign of how I overthink every little part of Athena’s care that I very carefully weighed up the pros and cons of taking Athena (who has been here before as a kitten, who has moved house three times, and who has never shown much in the way of nervousness around new environments), before I agreed to the plan. While I’m much more confident with her than I was thirty weeks ago, I still find myself second guessing sometimes.

Is she happy?

Does she have everything she needs?

Am I doing a good job?

When we arrived last night, she found herself a high spot in the kitchen to perch. When I came over she gave me a big kitty kiss, rubbing her jaw over cheek, and after five minutes she was off exploring. As ever, Athena is much more confident about life than I am.

So I take that as a compliment. Over the last thirty weeks I still haven’t irreparably broken the little life I have taken responsibility for. Gold star for me. And for Athena.

Learning Objects and Politics

I’m a big fan of learning objects, as I’m sure we can probably all agree on. They’re a great way to teach, giving the user a lot of flexibility and the ones that give a result you can share online are particularly cool.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we have a general election coming up. I’ve seen some great learning objects in the lead up:

The BBC’s Create Your Own Manifesto

What works about this one is the roleplay aspect. If you were one of these waffling politicians, how would you waffle? I love the puzzle piece aspect to it and the way you can pick and choose your key issues. Makes it a very flexible object that you can take a lot of time over, or just fly through if you want to see where various parties stand on the issues that matter to you.

Unlock Democracy’s Vote Match

This is more like a standard ‘personality test’ style quiz, and it’s the sharing aspect that really works, as well as the level of detail they’ve gone into. Splitting the quiz into the four home nations is so important in this post-devolution, post-referendum world. It immediately saves people from turning off, but still allows the full range of political views to be expressed. I particularly like the neutrality in this one (not that you’d expect anything less from Unlock Democracy). Unfortunately you are required to give an email address and they do collect data on you.

ThoughtPlay’s Who Should You Vote For?

This is like a simplified version of Unlock Democracy’s LO, and I do think it’s simplification hurts it’s appeal. It’s not as glossy or good looking as the others, and the unwieldy ‘Choose England vs Scotland’ drop down menu is an irritant. That being said, their results do reflect your personal politics (even if at the expense of any tactical voting you have in mind).

As for accuracy, I felt the pick-and-mix BBC option expressed my feelings best of all, Vote Match got something VERY wrong, or perhaps I should have added another party to the “I would never vote for this party” line up, and one thing I felt all three lacked was the element of trust. How much do you trust the politicians?

 

And then as a bonus extra, the BBC have a ‘Form Your Own Coalition

Depending on random (within a margin) election results, you can choose your own coalition government. Almost all options equally depressing!

 

All in all, though, it’s nice to see learning objects get out there. I always use the BBC as an example of good practice in producing learning objects, and if there’s any topic that needs being made accessible, it’s politics!

Anatomy of a Break – Part Two

This is a post I have tried to put off writing.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bobo, who had badly broken a leg. This was missed by a vet, and so poor Bobo had spent time in pain, and now was faced with a complicated operation to save the leg.

Almost unbelievably, Bobo died under general anaesthetic last Friday.

I wrote up a case study on the subject, and I’ve had the chance to explain it to her old owner Sophie in person, thanks to a helpfully timed genetics conference. And I’ve talked about it to mum over and over. I won’t go into the detail again here. Suffice to say, the operation to save her leg didn’t work. When she was brought back under anaesthetic to amputate her leg, she suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived.

It’s incredibly unusual to lose a cat under general anaesthetic these days, even one who has been through several with some infections. The staff were shocked, and have been very kind to my mum, sending her a card and Forget-Me-Not seeds.

In a horrible echo, Mum’s new neighbour found her own cat returning home with a half-severed tongue. It appears as though there’s something in the area attacking cats, be it another cat in the area, or a dog, or whatever.

And I have just submitted my old MSc project for publication, about how online pet obituaries can help shine a light on successful human-animal bonds. One of the interesting little results we found in that project was the preponderance of people justifying their choice to euthanise, if that’s what they did. People recite clinical information, talk about lack of pain, the need for a ‘good death’. I find myself doing this too, going over the advice I gave, analysing where I could have saved Bobo. And I know that Mum has been doing the exact same.

Some theories suggest we have companion animals because the short nature of those bonds prepare us for what happens in human-human bonds. It prepares us to look after children, it prepares us to grieve, it prepares us to have someone depending on us. The nature of our bond with our pets is unique, though.  When Athena was moaning at me this week I was able to say to her “You know, some other little cats are dead, how would you like that?” which you would never say to a human, child or adult, but you can completely say to an animal. When Athena was trying to upturn her water fountain on Friday night, I sang, to the tune of ‘Maria’, a song about a kitten who got wet paws.

The nature of the human-pet bond is such that we can be brutally honest with them, exposing a part of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally expose to other humans. The loss of a companion animal does not just encompass the loss of something you love, but a specific and unique loss – the loss of a confidant, the loss of a proxy family member, the loss of a little extension of yourself.

Hug your babies close, if they’ll let you, and tell them you love them, which they might not fully understand. What we have with our pets is special, and when it’s unexpectedly robbed from you, that is a break that is hard to heal.

Goodbye Bobo, you will be very much missed.

Why Science Probably Hates You

There was a great article on Gawker recently about the Food Babe blog, calling out her bad science.

Now I’ve never come across the Food Babe blog, as a scientist working in agriculture I don’t think our circles mix. The article is really interesting though. I do follow It’s Okay To Be Smart, though, and Joe posted a really interesting question in his reblog of the article.

Anyway, I shared the above article on my personal Facebook page yesterday, and one of my friends left a comment that really made me think. By calling her out, by trashing her ideas and shining light on her unscientific fearmongering, are we actually helping her? To paraphrase my friend Scott, by using scientific expertise as a bullying tactic and by spreading this story around in the Name of Science™, could this be the best PR she could ask for? Does this play into her hands, The Food Babe vs. The Establishment?

Misinformation like this needs to be called out. People should not be lied to and made to fear science. But do articles like this help her more than they hurt? How do we continue to battle misinformation without creating martyrs for the misinformed?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have another component of the question I want to ask. Last week, io9, Gawker’s sister site, posted an article titled “Your Pet Rabbit Hates You”. That was the title on the page, the title on Twitter, the key to making people click on the article. It certainly made me click.

The article itself is an interesting piece on tonic immobility, where some species of animals go immobile when placed on their backs. Jones (1986) describes tonic immobility as an unlearned response, e.g. instinctive, where the animal goes catatonic-like state with reduced reaction to external stimuli.  People like to show off tonic immobility, and it does have a place in animal management, but it’s also related to fear, either causing it, or caused by it (Gallup, 1977) – as a side note, I like the fact that one of the more recent studies linking tonic immobility to a personality trait uses Bayesian statistics. Consider my brain melted (Edelaar et al, 2012).

And this is really just the point the io9 article is making – that people who turn their rabbits upside down are subjecting it to unnecessary and unpleasant stress. That’s good for rabbit welfare on the whole, right? It gives people evidence to come to their own conclusions.

But that title, “Your Rabbit Probably Hates You”, immediately pits the article (and ergo the science) against the rabbit caretaker. Against the people whose behaviour your are trying to change for the good of the animal. It’s what I said last week, it’s what I said in the MOOC, it’s what I’ve been saying for ages.

If you want to improve an animal’s welfare, you have to be an ally of their owner. This smug, click-bait style reporting of scientific news innately pits the uninformed audience against the facts. Hungerford and Volk (2005) talk about the importance of empowering people when getting them to change their behaviours regarding the environment. By giving people solutions and tapping into their attention to act, you may find it easier to change their behaviours.

What if, instead of “Your Rabbit Hates You”, people saw “Your Rabbit Will Love You Even More If . . .”

What if, instead of “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Shit,” people saw: “The Evidence Behind Food Claims”.

Not as clickworthy, possibly, but would it help people change their behaviours?

Pig’s For Dinner

One of the things that was raised during the MOOC was scientists’ usage of euphemistic language (and also, my dislike of provocative language when I’m trying to promote animal welfare). It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while too.

I was browsing reddit over the weekend and came across this interesting factoid:

On a farm you see a cow, chicken, deer, sheep, etc. In a store you find beef, poultry, venison, mutton, etc.

It’s a divide between Germanic and French words in English.

nickdim

…The english speakers were the ones who raised the animals, and the normans (french speakers) were the ones who ate the meat.

roastpotatothief

I, like a lot of animal welfare people, had just generally assumed this language divide came from a sort of prissiness about naming the foods we eat. I had an idea of a 1950s housewife getting marketed to, Man Men style. In reality, I know this is silly. I have a Mrs Beeton cookbook (one of my favourite vintage books I own) that talks about poultry, mutton, beef, etc., and I have an assumption that these words were used in medieval times (based mainly on Karen Maitland and George RR Martin books). And if I think about it in more detail, I realise that my vague idea about housewives is nonsense. Another of my favourite books, Nella Last’s War, shows me that our lack of connection with our food is far more recent than the 40s or 50s.

This is a very good example of how I will start researching a problem. I start with “What do I know, and where do I know it from?”

The next question on the list is “is this the case?” and so I turned to google to explore the initial hypoethesis.

Google: etymology “pig” = old English (picbred which apparently meant acorn), middle English (pig)

Google: etymology “pork” = latin (porcus), old French (porc), middle English (pork)

Google: etymology “chicken” = Germanic, old English (cycen), English (chicken)

Google: etymology “poultry” = Old French (poulet, pouletrie), English (poultry)

So far, so interesting. There does appear to be a divide where the old French and German words are used for food, while the old English words are used for the producing. While this appeals to my inner class warrior, who is never too far from the surface, I am also aware that English is a language that “pursues other languages down dark alleys to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for spare vocabulary“. I’m also vividly aware that there are some very strange quirks in the way we name and identify animals. Did you know that cattle are the only species that do not have a non gendered singular noun? In English you can’t refer to a single member of the species Bos without implying something about gender or function (cow vs bull, ox vs steer). I wrote a 60000 word thesis on the personality of beef steers and dairy cows, I am deeply aware of how awkward this little linguistic quirk can make life.

The point is that my google exercise breaks down here. We call it beef (old French) and veal (anglo Norman French) when it’s a steer (Germanic through to Old English) or a calf (Germanic through to old English), its oxtail when it’s ox (Germanic through to Old English) and milk (Germanic to Old English) when it’s a cow (Germanic to Old English).

Assuming that Google is pretty good at etymology, and at the very least I can confidently say it knows more about etymology than I do, I am reasonably confident that at least for some foods in the English language, the division of animal and food may be down to class. Now this is far from a theory, that is to say something that we would widely accept to be true, but it’s a pretty solid hypothesis.

And it’s certainly made me think differently about my old assumption. It’s a nice hypothesis, I like it, and I think it’s interesting that from an animal welfare point of view, we’ve all moved to the landed gentry – and we use the posh language, the language that provides a line of demarcation, between us and the fields.

Anatomy of a Break – Chronicles of Bobo Part One

The black and white cat you sometimes see in the Fluffy Sciences banner is called Bobo.

I met Bobo in January 2010, back when she was called Bono, and was my friend Sophie’s cat. Only six months earlier I had sat with my little tuxedo cat, Posie, in the vet’s office while we overdosed her with pentobarbitol, and let her slip away from her days wracked with arthritic pain, liver failure and dementia. Bono was a very different cat to Posie, confident where Posie would hide . . . slightly dimmer than Posie which really said something because Posie once got a fright when she thought a tree sneaked up behind her.

Come December 2011 and life has intervened, Bobo needs somewhere to stay for Christmas. I know, as friends do, that this isn’t just somewhere to stay for Christmas really, and so I begin some political machinations.

Mum, I say, poor Sophie doesn’t know what to do with her cat over Christmas, I was wondering if I should take her . . .

Sophie, I say, poor Mum misses our old cat so much, she’s been thinking about getting a new one, I think if she looks after Bono for Christmas .

One Christmas stay later, in 2012 Bono moves to my mum’s for good and after a little while becomes Bobo. I feel like a master manipulator. In 2013, my little sister moves out and Bobo becomes surrogate daughter for someone with empty nest syndrome. She is spoiled rotten, and Athena should recognise that her Aunty Bobo was instrumental in making me realise I needed another cat.

But I’m talking about Bobo for a reason. Two weeks ago now I got a frantic phonecall from my mum, on a girly weekend in York, and panicked because Bobo had been found in the hall howling and unable to walk. My stepdad assumed she’d been hit by a car and took her to the vet’s.

A vet, late on a Friday afternoon. A vet who removed my stepdad from the examination room and returned a verdict of cat bites. Prescribed antibiotics and sent her home.

When you work in a vet school, when you work with vet students, you feel a lot of sympathy for vets. I have little sympathy for this one. I cannot understand why this vet didn’t prescribe pain meds, when behaviourally the cat was so distressed the owner had to be sent from the room, when the owner assumed a car accident because of the levels of pain being shown. I can’t understand that.

I also can’t understand how in such an examination, the vet could miss a dislocated leg and a fracture at the ankle.

This week, because Bobo was still in pain, she was taken back to the vets to see her regular vet, who immediately prescribed more antibiotics, steroids and scheduled her for a general anaesthetic for a thorough examination and x-ray. 13 days after the injury, the break was discovered. Bobo’s options were a transfer to Vet’s Now in Glasgow for a risky surgery which might save the leg, or an amputation.

Which would you do?

The surgery carries risk and a prolonged period of recovery, where Bobo will need to be caged for at least six weeks. The amputation carries long term behavioural limitation. Which would you choose?

In an attempt to give my mum the best advice I could I surveyed as many vets as I could find on Friday afternoon, and the answers are mixed. There’s no clear answer here at all, and I couldn’t help but ask for photos and videos to use in teaching. What do you do?

Bobo is currently in hospital, waiting for the surgery that might save her leg. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about her instead of Athena.

Athena’s grudgingly allowed this.

What Doesn’t Kill You . . .

In the words of Bernard Black, this is fantastic.

There’s a great article on Vox.com talking about science reporting and why most news reports claiming there’s a new cure for X, or that Z causes cancer, are wrong.

And I use Bernard Black specifically here for an important reason – he’s smoking and drinking. We [that’s the scientist we] are pretty clear that we know causes cancer. And drinking wine, which we [again, the scientist we] are less clear about.

The article includes a great visualisation for thinking about cancer risk – studies which show an increased and reduced risk of cancer.

I love this graphic so much. I think it communicates so much – but if I’ve learned anything in the last few years it’s that science literacy can’t be taken for granted.

So while I think this is a great example of science communication, I want to know from you guys – what do you think? Is this informative?

Will you remember this next week?

Just how, exactly, do our interventions work?

Chronicles of Athena – 34 Weeks

While Athena is not my first cat, she is the first cat who is wholly mine, who would absolutely not survive without me. My last family cat, Posie, was euthanised in late 2009, and I went to get Athena on a sunny September morning in 2014.

While Posie had four caretakers who loved her, and Athena has only me, these aren’t the biggest differences in my relationships between the two cats. In many ways, they’re very similar. They both get very excited by cuddle time, they both put up with my restless sleeping by taking up position on my legs, they both chirrup when they say hello and they both have a fondness for crab pate.

But I find myself saying things to Athena that I’ve never had to say to cats before, and I every time I do I can’t help but roll my eyes at how much changes in five short years. For example:

  • “No, lattes are not for kittens”
  • “Take your head out of that gin and tonic”
  • “Please don’t hit YouTube with your nose, now it has paused”
  • “No baby, you can’t text with me, you text gibberish”
  • “The phone is not your toy”
  • “Okay, well, yes, when it’s got your app on it it becomes your toy”
  • “No, kitten, I was talking to the XBox, not to you, you go back to sleep, XBOX ON!”

However, one thing I say hasn’t changed “THAT FOOD IS MINE YOU HAVE YOUR OWN AND IT’S FULL!”

The Utilitarian Suffering

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a simplistic understanding of utilitarianism – the ethical stance which we more formally say ‘maximises utility’. That is, we do what is best for the largest number of people (or animals). The greatest benefit with the smallest cost.

Utilitarians will tolerate the suffering of mice in a cancer research trial, for example, because the benefit of being a step closer to curing cancer is greater than the suffering of the mice, especially if we actively try to guarantee those animal a good quality of life through environmental enrichment, etc.

Of course life is never quite that straightforward. We call this kind of thinking ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The benefit is worth the cost. But who puts value on the cost, and who puts value on the benefit? Economics is a notoriously elastic thing – driven by motivation, need and demand. The utilitarian shopper may buy free range organic eggs at the start of the month, and barn eggs at the end of the month (and I should probably do a post on that conundrum later because the shopper, and most people, tend not to have the right welfare assumptions in these situations).

Most western societies are utilitarian, in countries where we consider animal welfare and have animal welfare laws, we allow animal use because it benefits most of us. But one of our MSc students asked a very interesting question recently that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

Does the utilitarian accept that there will always be suffering?

 

This is a philsophical, thinky kind of question. The kind that I, as a scientist, am not good at but that I, as an animal welfare scientist, need to consider.

If you are a utilitarian, like myself, and you accept that animals are used (i.e. will be farmed, etc.) for human good. You  might accept different levels of this. For example, you might accept the use of animals for cancer research, but not the use of animals for beefburgers. Or you might accept the use of cows for beefburgers but think it’s wrong to make kebabs from dogs. We all have differing ideas on what it acceptable and why.

I don’t think this is a question that can be answered by debating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead I think you need to turn to the assumptions in that statement.

 

Always Is a Very Long Time

What is ‘always’ in this statement? I expect I’ll be eating lab grown meat in my old age, and with the reduction of food animals and the increase in replacement and reduction of laboratory animals, there will be less suffering of animals in the system we currently live in. But I also foresee a future where the system we currently live in is no more, there will be other animals, unimaginable to us, and we ourselves will no longer exist in our present form. What is the ‘always’ we discuss?

If we consider it in terms of recognisable ecosystems, so a world where humans aim to maintain or improve this standard of living, but are recognisably human with recognisably human needs and failings. We need the biological machine to test biological pathways for drugs, to produce organic materials that we like – but does that biological machine have to be attached to a system that can perceive its environment, process that, and come out with emotions? Does the sentient part of the biological machine have to be there?

I am a sci-fi nerd, as we know, and I can see a possible future where we are able to create biological machines that have no sentience, and therefore animal welfare is completely circumvented. They have no suffering because they are not sentient. Some people, people who have a strong respect for nature, will find that abhorrent.

But the ‘always’ in this statement isn’t very helpful, is it?

 

The Suffering

So what is ‘suffering’? Some people say that it was advertisers who invented this belief that humans should always be happy. I often find myself thinking about this. As a scientist, I believe in the Normal Distribution. That is to say, the average is a good description of the population.

I believe the average height of a woman in the UK is a pretty good description of the height of women in the UK. Most women will be around 5″9. Now I’m 5″2. I am ‘noticeably’ short, according to my friends, so I already know that there are fewer people of my height than the average, but I also see people shorter than me. When I see someone very much shorter than me, say by a foot, I’m surprised, because they are at the very tail end of the normal distribution.

I think emotional state follows the same normal distribution. Most of us are ‘ok’. We have moments of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, but for the most part we’re floating around in the ‘ok’ feelings. In any normal system, the normal distribution appears.

What about suffering? What we’re really trying to do is make the tail end of ‘extreme suffering’ shorter, and to push the overall feeling closer to ‘good’. This is the whole idea of the Quality of Life concept of animal welfare – we want animals to have a life worth living, where the good things outweigh the bad things. The animal’s average emotional state is pushed closer to good, so there are fewer bad times.

The Scottish Government recently went a step further and said they wanted animals in Scotland to have a Good Life, not just a life worth living. They want to push that whole normal distribution further towards ‘good’ feelings.

But even if they are successful, that tail end will still exist. The capacity for suffering will still exist and where the capacity exists, it will occur – even if only in very small incidences.

 

 

The Utilitarian Suffering

So, yes. I think the Utilitarian accepts that there will always be suffering within a given system. What we’re trying to do is move the average up, and make the animals happier in general. HOW we do this is an entirely different question – and that’s where the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ come into play.

Ethics is a messy, messy subject. So I’m going to go have a cup of tea and discuss it with Athena.