Thursday, November 14, 2013

Do the "magical" nutritional, cure-all properties of honey work on the virus responsible for foot-and-mouth disease?

How responsible is it for authorities in India to advise farmers to feed their cattle ragi (finger millet; Eleusine coracana) porridge and honey to prevent spread of foot and mouth disease? Honey? Are there any papers on its effectiveness? -- a quick search did not yield any for me. I don't see how it can be practical for farmers in India to feed honey to their cattle.  Plus, if already infected, how do you get animals suffering from foot-and-mouth disease to eat anything?  They will be depressed, exhibit no signs of appetite, and will have likely stopped eating.
If by household bleach, they mean sodium hypochlorite for a disinfectant, isn't this substance unstable in warm and sunny conditions?
Here is a handbook of best practices to prevent spread of foot-and-mouth disease in animals from Iowa State University. 
UpdateAfter my initial and acute sense of incredulousness, I came to, what I thought of as, the only logical and sane explanation for the information in this major newspaper: somebody mixed up concepts of foot and mouth disease in cloven-footed animals with hand-foot-and-mouth disease in people. And hopefully, that somebody was none other than a news intern.
However, my wishful thinking that it must have been a news intern's mistake is not going to hold.
Some online acquaintances helped me connect with some well-respected senior local vets.  I have now become aware that local herbal treatments and homeopathic remedies are still being used for diseases such as FAMD and bluetongue, and trained vets, while emphasizing vaccinations and restriction of movement and NOT actively prescribing local treatments, pass no judgement on local medicine and practices (perhaps it is a politically-wise necessity). I've also learned that there is a department of ethno veterinary medicine in a state veterinary university.  
As I am very much a product of eastern Europe's production animal medicine and America's veterinary epidemiology, I do not know what to do with my new-found information. Still processing...  This on the same day that I became aware that the respected ecologist Allan Savory, who is advocating more livestock rearing to reverse the desertification of the world regretfully confesses to being partly responsible for the organized killing of 40,000 elephants* in Africa to prevent desertification.  
So I guess everyone, whether from north or south, east or west, is allowed the opportunity to make one major mistake in the pursuit of knowledge.   
40,000 elephants shot -- I can't get over that number. I know it is is a different time and different consequences, but the sense of mourning as well as outrage to news that 650 elephants were massacred by local poachers in Chad in 2012 {WARNING: Graphic images.} was so heavy and contagious...I doubt if interventions of that magnitude can be attempted these days.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Veterinary Medicine -- The much loved, but underappreciated cousin in the STEM family

On LinkedIn, some fantastic veterinarians and thought leaders are discussing a really interesting topic -- how to increase diversity in veterinary medicine.  Among other active interventions, it was suggested that we increase the exposure that the profession gets among under-represented minorities in the United States in an effort to help them come through the pipeline. Some unique programs in this direction have already taken off.  Check out what they do at Purdue University and at People, Animals, Love

While principally in agreement with this strategy and appreciative of programs as well-planned as the two linked above, I am not always sure that this is the most efficient, universal, long-term strategy to guarantee inclusiveness in our profession.  Sure, I worry about the lone, racial minority or ethnic vet-wannabe kid growing up isolated, suffocating and trapped in a culture that values a degree in medicine, dentistry, law, pharmacy, engineering, business administration, accounting (yes, even accounting!)  before it values a degree in veterinary medicine, -- in other words a redux of my teen years -- but I worry that too many localized resources invested towards a distant outcome with an unknown probability may not be necessarily defensible (if using public funding) or self-sustaining (if not using public funding).  (How precarious funding can get is something I have picked up from my days studying environmental education programs.)  In lean times, the best we can hope for, and strategize, is to join hands with other groups working towards increasing minority representation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects and streamline efforts.    
However, in this post I necessarily step away from the good work of leading, avant-garde local efforts, and attempt to raise questions on the profession's (abysmal) publicity in the larger, over-arching society -- i.e., exposure outside of targeted, localized efforts to attract and retain exceptional individuals from minority backgrounds; exposure that can guide exceptional individuals with leadership qualities from all backgrounds at all stages of a career in veterinary medicine.  More precisely, I have been thinking about why it is that we don't seem to receive, and benefit from, mainstream media attention the same way that mainstream professions get exposure.  Leaders and high-profile people from other professions -- politicians, doctors, researchers, lawyers, writers, economists, investment advisors -- manage to become household names and get more and more exposure with each passing day.  This must surely have some dampening effect on exceptional incoming cohorts of future students as well as on those of us who have already chosen this profession? 

For example, I would love to read (and pass on) career-advice columns from veterinary leaders to my friends in software and management fields the same way they casually send me article links from their worlds. I want to profile-watch people closer to my heart and profession than the mainstream ones I get accustomed to recognizing on TV, facebook, newspapers and magazines.  I would love to discuss who is the latest woman veterinary leader who says 'women can't have it all' and dissect why she is right (or wrong).  I want to get a glimpse of the early careers of the veterinary leaders and heroes I know about -- what difficulties did they encounter? What sacrifices, if any, did they make? What decisions did they take at crucial points that led them to where they are today?   

Perhaps not everyone is comfortable talking about setbacks along with their successes, but somehow there seems to be a market (speaking / talk-show circuit, book deals) for such information when they are from the banking, corporate management or tech world.  Where are the Sheryl Sandbergs/Anne-Marie Slaughters; the Arianna Huffingtons/Katrina vanden Heuvals; the Sanjay Guptas/Francis Collins of our veterinary medical world?  

Will a teen who hopes to be the first one ever to go to college in her household easily identify, idolize someone -- a contemporary, universal icon -- who has made a career out of working with/for animals?  Did I, as the first female to go to college in my family and second only to my father, recognize any veterinary public figures or know any close enough to be mentors? Answer: No.  (Just as I did a couple of decades ago growing up in India, James Herriott and Jane Goodall are the only universal ‘animal people’ names that friends' kids come up with when I quiz them now.)  This is partly the reality of our outside world -- kids believe and affirm that they love our profession, but media-industry adults with an eye on ratings don't see fit to promote us.  Perhaps, we are not captivating or charismatic enough.  But have they ever met our very own charming, gracious and articulate Dr. Karen Bradley?  Did they give a bigger chance (exposure, if you will) to Drs. Baxter Black and Kevin Fitgerald -- celebrities in their own right?  Do they know who is America's Favorite Veterinarian this year?  How do we rectify this under-appreciation, this lack of recognition, given our limited resources? 
How do we identify and promote the names and profiles of the top 100 veterinarians in global veterinary history?
How do we ensure that at least the top 10 become household names?  (Here you can find one list although it is missing other well-known namesIf you type in 'Legends' as a keyword search on the AVMA website, you will find these profiles.)
How do we ensure that at least one veterinarian is mentioned among the 'Healing, Feeding and Educating the World' category of Forbes list of 'The World's Most Powerful People?'
 And if we are successful in doing all this, will we also necessarily have to make further specific efforts to attract a diverse group of applicants as well as future leaders? (Perhaps yes, but that would be for different reasons and not for lack of exposure…) 

Yet, despite all my passionate questioning, there's a voice inside me that simultaneously wonders, 'Why must we try to be mainstream?  Why should we compete for visibility with other professions?  Isn't there a reason why veterinarians, as a distinct demographic group, and the veterinary profession are unique?'   

But those are, perhaps, questions to be answered another day.    

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Strategic serendipity or serendipitous strategy?

Here is a story of serendipity leading to strategy leading to meaningful accomplishment. 

Elizabeth Hess, author of 'Nim Chimpsky', was looking for an opportunity to write a biography of an extraordinary animal.  That animal would eventually be Nim, the chimp, who was brought up as a human baby in Manhattan (and then dumped back into a world of captive chimps where he didn't belong).  She came to know of Nim while she was working on the following story and met Dr. Stephanie LaFarge. 

Dr. LaFarge was Nim's first human "mom" who, somewhat naively, eagerly, even earnestly, took Nim from his chimp mom.

Monday, June 17, 2013


On a day when multiple alerts pointed me to an article that argued that ability to empathize will be the top skill employers look for among job applicants in 2020, I also get to read this article on empathy and disgust.  The long and short of it is that empathy is a learned capacity, as is disgust.  Easy enough, it seems.  But what do we do when empathy and disgust are both culture-specific?

Take for example my attitude toward animals.  At age 12, in grade 6, I cared for a mouse that somebody rescued in the field somewhere.  Adults were repulsed by this mouse, but I put it inside my shirt and went about my day.  Someone suggested that I should become a vet as someone always did throughout my youth when they saw me rescue crows, squirrels, paralyzed kittens.  So I went to vet school.  Vet school opened my eyes to the role of veterinarians in world food security, poverty alleviation and reducing the impact of zoonotic diseases.

Now, I worry when I think of my children rescuing feral mice, rabbits, racoons, dogs.  Plague, parasites, rabies...All I can think of is exposure to infectious agents.  And I have constructed, in my mind, a hierarchy of empathy.  People come first -- working to ensure less malnutrition in the world ranks high on my list of values.  I am disgusted with our apathy when I think of children hungry for food; their parents hungrier for more of life's opportunities.  With age and specialization, the cultural context of my existence has gradually changed. And so has my conscious choice and ability to empathize or feel disgust.              

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Two-and-a-half quintillion (18 zeros!)
 -- The number of new data bytes
Generated every day.
Yet our inferences
About our world
Are often incorrect.

Here's an example
Of inappropriate use
Of information.
We look at outliers
Like Bill Gates
And conclude that
Is unessential for us average beavers.
Inappropriate use of information.
Even irresponsible.

For most originating from
Middle and low income families,
Lifetime earnings are higher
With high school diplomas and college degrees
Than without.
And nothing replaces the
Broadening of horizons;
Exposure to diversity of views
That come with general education.

Yes, life is more than our earnings,
But not everybody finds opportunities
To travel;
Move in social circles
Inherently different from theirs; Or
Learn leadership qualities
Without access to formal education.

Don't be a sceptic.
Your education
As well as
That of others.
Say yes
To good,
Public Education.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wildlife vs. people (natives vs. tourists)

With her last statement, the writer, Akhila Vijayaraghavan, undoes every previous argument for ecocentric, non-anthropocentric approach to conservation: With the state of Madhya Pradesh already on the map for a sizeable tiger population, it could soon become the only state in India with both the big cats *which would make it an exciting visit for wildlife enthusiasts.*  Emphasis mine.  Access the article here.

Compare with the words of Neha Sinha, whose op-ed Vijayaraghavan is highlighting. "Placing the persistence of species at its heart, the judgment calls for directives based on an ‘eco-centric approach’ and not a human or anthropocentric approach. Combined with the idea of doing what is best for the species, rather than the whims of policies, planning and politics, the judgment makes a powerful call for a new conservation paradigm, based on both science and ethics, for our most threatened species.”

Despite our best intentions, we always have an eye on our benefits as humans, however, tangible or intangible.  Until the next study comes along and quantifies the cumulative effects of well-meaning wildlife visits, we will continue to believe visits as benign activities while local dwelling as exploitative.  My generation (of wildlife enthusiasts) was brought up with the thought that if you bring people to the wildlife, people will find value enough to want to conserve these species.  But I don't know...Maybe the new paradigm in justifying, planning, arguing for conservation should be to value species and habitat protection whether or not non-local people get to see them.

Contrast with the story of relocation of a whole village.         

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How much critical mass of scientist potential results in one award-winning young scientist?

Facebooker 1: Why can't we invent something like that [American teen who won the Intel award for creating an energy storage device that can charge cell phones in 20 seconds so we don't have to pause between text messages]?
Facebooker 2: We are not THAT smart.
Facebooker 3: You are smarter than you think. Unless you put limits on yourself. Your brain will believe it.

Eavesdropping Facebooker 4, which is moi, can't keep some thoughts to herself.  So, here, they tumble out:

The constraints do not come from individuals imposing limits on their own smartness, but from governments and societies passing up organized opportunities to tap into their citizens' smartness.  If every country, every government, every society, invested in and developed the collective potential of their peoples, then more 18-year-olds across the globe will have solutions to problems most pressing to them and their neighbors--and this may or may not include a focus on charging cell phones on the go.

And if you have not heard that Ionut Alexandru Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, won the Gordon E. Moore Award for using artificial intelligence to create a viable model for a low-cost, self-driving car, don't feel bad.  You are not alone.  I am with you.  I was so taken up by the promise of charging my ever-dead cell phone in 20 seconds in the near future that I did not dig up the news story that promises freedom from having to drive myself on the interstate.  Thank you, Romania, for investing in *your* smart and thoughtful teen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

When a picture hides thousands of words

In India, what is the source of information on animal welfare and animal husbandry issues?  Animal Rights groups with a narrowly-focused mission?  Forgive me for that conclusion but it seems that way.  And information, it seems, is disseminated by these groups in the form of photographs that are shared through social media sites.  Cows that already benefit from an underlying universal human reverence for draft animals in agrarian societies, also occupy a special place in various Hindu subcultures. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most 'popular' graphic photographs doing the rounds in India, seem to be of cows slaughtered or on the verge of being slaughtered.     
The problem with well-meaning people sharing graphic, gross, bloody pictures of 'callously' wounded or dead cows lying in pools of blood is that one has no idea why these cows are dead. Have they been slaughtered for meat in an inhumane, unhygienic manner because of state-level slaughter bans rather than despite such bans?  (Refer to this article to get a picture of the unintended consequences unfairly affecting only the marginalized sections of South Asia's populations.)  Have they been killed because of caste/religious wars where one group takes vengeance against another by destroying the others' means of livelihood and their limited sources of wealth?  Or are they dead from an acute infectious outbreak which has little to do directly with people, but plenty to do with the accidental nature of this world that guarantees life for no one (except the rich and the powerful, maybe?)  

Some of my friends claim that their commitment to Animal Rights and their choice of a vegan lifestyle is merely personal.  (To some of my friends, being vegan implies not just dietary restrictions, but also an end to use of all kinds of animal products and labor).  To these friends, I usually say: Don't assume your choice of cause is personal when you are actually part of a socio-political and economic movement that, if it has its own way, will result in further marginalization and poverty of hundreds of millions of humans, and not just in India, but elsewhere as well.   If you accept the concept of animal rights, you must have some sympathy for the rights of humans (who are also animals) who still make a living through a symbiotic arrangement with animals, as our own ancestors have done, directly or indirectly, for the last 10,000 years.
If you really want to understand and ask questions, take a book and read; don't rely on shock-instilling images that hide more complexities than they depict or pretend to communicate.  Pictures may convey as much as 1,000 words, but they hide 10,000 more.  Don't assume that people who study animals, work with animals, coax animals into giving what we as humans need from animals, know nothing about animals. Don't act like urban sophisticates and intellectuals have been put on this earth to teach rural people the 'true' value of animals.  Nothing is more insulting and obnoxious than this top-down attitude with an intent to change this world overnight. I have found that some North American hunters (for food) are so much more knowledgeable, nuanced and appreciative of this complex biological world than some privileged Mylaporeans who have never had to grow even a single tomato in their lifetime or collect cow dung for a day.  In other words, some humility in some new converts to veganism would be nice. And, in this age of progressive thinking, maybe we would do well to listen to those who work with animals in our backyards, if not farmyards. Listening to only those from our privileged class (and caste) is highly irresponsible when your words are going to affect those who have no choice in how they earn a living.

In the meanwhile, academic letters are a good place to start to critically think beyond pictures that target the emotions alone.  Here is my recommendation for a good read: Animal welfare in animal agriculture: Husbandry, stewardship, and sustainability in animal production.  Ed. by Wilson G. Pond, Fuller W. Bazer, and Bernard Rollin.  A must-read is Paul Robbins' paper, Meat Matters: Cultural Politics along the Commodity Chain.  Available freely for those who care to know.  Robbins argues that the numbers of large cattle in India are decreasing (while the numbers of small ruminants like goat and sheep are increasing) because of the economic implications of not slaughtering cows.

"...The cow, it should be pointed out, is not disappearing as a result of slaughter but instead precisely because it is not being slaughtered. While small-scale, illicit and local consumption of beef is not unheard of, the lack of a viable meat component to the cattle economy makes them less valuable in the growing meat economy.  Both sheep and goat populations, on the other hand, have steadily grown in recent years."

Robbins is not alone in his argument.   Ashok V. Desai came to a similar conclusion as early as in 1971.  Rural ecologists in India have long pointed out that cows with reproductive problems and/or low milk yield, are abandoned by farmers (just like male dairy calves early in their lifetimes) because of the lack of a safe, legal, economically-meaningful slaughter system. These abandoned cattle compete for limited resources (fodder and water) with wild herbivores.  The unintended (and sometimes, unseen) consequences of protection of one over-populated domesticated species is its role in the habitat destruction of another species. Some overnight urban ethicists and activists think little about the ripple effects of no-kill policies.

And lastly, if you choose to be a neo-vegan propagandist, I suggest that you first kindly consider giving up all your medications and vaccinations, your vitamin and mineral supplements, your make-up and plastic surgery, and what-whats and what-nots, before you get on your soapbox. Because hundreds of thousands of lab and farm animals before us have contributed to the miracle of our continued living even after a heart attack or a cataract removal or an attack of depression.  That's right.  Antibiotics, immunizations (active and passive), ECGs--all examples of therapeutic, prophylactic, diagnostic discoveries and developments--are medical miracles that come to you, your children, your parents and grandparents courtesy of the animals that you so advocate that none of us have a right to use anymore.  If that is hard to give up, I understand. I am with you, and so is almost all those who use animals for every other purpose.  The way they show their gratitude -- should show their gratitude -- is to respect and honor "the symbiotic contract humans made with ... animals."       

 For a creatively written approach to the uniquely human habit of contemplating the tragic source of our vital nutrients, please read Margaret Visser's "Sins of the Flesh" in Granta 52.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

How far do you want to go to live your dream?

Every cliched South Asian article on the burden of being South Asian and student/graduate of Medicine (Engineering, Dentistry, Pharmacy science) easily categorizes careers into science with money vs. glamour professions (with or) without money.

Veterinary medicine has always defied such categorizations.  A science -- with or without money, with glamour borrowed from the charisma of the species worked on  -- it is a profession that becomes what you decide to do with it.  It tests your ability to survive, be creative, grow up and grow out. (If you do all that before you grow old, you are lucky. If you do all that, and still grow old, you are luckier, as suggested by rumors of slightly high suicide rates among vets -- which may or may not have anything to do with career-related stress, burnout or success.)  Above all, this beautiful profession tests how far you would go to live your dream.

In the new world order, geographical distances hold little meaning, but the price that you pay to live (in) your dream, is no small feat. And even American veterinarians are beginning to understand what the rest of the world has always known--that vets do relatively well when the economy does well.  These debates have been going on inside the profession, forever, it seems, but now this New York Times article lays it all out neatly for future veterinarians (their parents), South Asians or not.  Don't let it scare you, instead allow it to inform you about respecting outside powers that effectively force a balance between dreams and reality.

High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets

Puppy Love Can Cost You. 

The American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) response to the article can be found here