Friday, August 24, 2007

On the Value of Life

Carl A. Osborne, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVIM, graciously gave me permission to present here an article he wrote that was published in DVM Newsmagazine in August, 2007. Dr. Osborne wrote:

Here is a true story about the value of life. Its profound message rises out of the ashes of a potentially deadly fire, and the heroic efforts of man and animal. As you read it, ask yourself about the value you place on life.

She was just a stray, short-haired, nameless cat with five kittens, trying to make it on the mean streets of New York City. She had set up housekeeping in a dilapidated, abandoned garage, recently subject to a number of fires. She scoured the neighborhood for scraps of garbage to help nourish her growing brood.

All of this changed at 6:06 on the morning of March 29, 1996. A fire of suspicious origin quickly engulfed the garage. The cat family’s home was in flames. Ladder Company 175 responded and soon had the blaze under control. One fireman, David Giannelli, heard the kittens’ cries. He found three of them just outside the building, another three-quarters of the way across the street and the fifth on the sidewalk. The kittens were too young to have escaped on their own.

Giannelli noticed that each kitten’s burns were progressively more severe; apparently some waited longer for rescue as the mother carried them to safety one at a time.

The New York Daily News of April 7, 1996, gave this account of what happened next:

Giannelli discovered the mother cat in a nearby vacant lot, unable to walk without pain. The sight filled him with compassion. The cat’s eyelids were swollen shut, apparently from intense smoke. The pads of her feet were badly burned. There were second-degree burns on her face, ears and legs.

Giannelli found a cardboard box and gently placed her and the kittens inside. Though she couldn’t see them, she touched her offspring one by one with her paw, as if counting them, Giannelli said.

When they arrived at the North Shore Animal League, the prognosis was “guarded” (they could live or die, but at this time the outcome was unpredictable). Medication and intravenous fluids to combat shock were administered to the brave feline, followed by soothing antibiotic creams for her burned skin. She was placed in an oxygen cage to help her breathe.

The entire staff was anxious about the outcome but within 48 hours, the heroine was sitting up. Her swollen eyes opened. There was no damage to the sclera or corneas.

One of the tiny kittens died.

Now put yourself in the situation that faced this courageous mother: Despite her natural fear of fire, she entered the smoke-filled, burning building to rescue her crying babies. To go in once to carry out one or two of the kittens would have been incredible. But for her to put her life in jeopardy five times, each time suffering additional burns to her feet, legs, ears, and face, is difficult to imagine. The courageous feline was named Scarlett, because the extensive burns caused her skin to turn red.

What can we learn from this incident? Simply this:

The lives of all living beings, animal and human, are precious. I’m sure you will agree that none of us can create a living being. But we do have the capacity to destroy life – all life on this planet. Each of us who reads and contemplates this story has, in some way, the opportunity and obligation to sustain life. Before our actions directly or indirectly take the life of any creature, we should ask ourselves: What is our motive for doing so?

On Kindness

Practicing holistic medicine allows me to spend much more time with my clients than in the past. One of the joys is that I learn so much more about my animal patients.

A few weeks ago, I asked a client if her German Shepherd, Count, was the “nurturing” type. She responded with an example of just how nurturing he is. He always senses when an animal is hurt or ill and will stay nearby them. But he has the misfortune to live with a dog who dislikes him, named Lamar. One day Lamar came home sedated after a medical procedure. Count could hardly stay by and nurture his non-friend, so he quietly carried a few toys to Lamar and set them by his bed, then slipped away.

How many of us would be so kind?

On Animals, the Law and the AVMA

There are over 50 class action lawsuits pending against pet food manufacturers for the illnesses and deaths caused by adulterated pet food. But did you know that in most states, it is impossible to recover more than the “economic value” of an animal?

As of this writing, the New Jersey legislature is considering passing a law that would allow owners of pets harmed by the contaminated pet food to sue for loss of companionship, i.e., for “non-economic damage.” The maximum an owner could recover would be $15,000. Only two other states – Illinois and Tennessee – allow such lawsuits. Otherwise, U.S. law classifies animals as property, similar to any other object you might own.

Who would you guess is in favor of the proposed New Jersey legislation? Anyone whose animal was poisoned by what they innocently poured into a food bowl. Anyone who has euthanized an animal in fulminant kidney failure due to poisoned food. (Count me in that group.) And attorneys favor the legislation – some because they love animals, and some because they love lawsuits.

Who would you guess is opposed? Here’s the sad part. Of course pet food manufacturers oppose the legislation. They want to minimize their liability. But would you guess that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is opposed? The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA) is actively lobbying the state legislature not to pass the bill. The same organizations that are eager to promote “the human-animal bond” where it induces people to spend more on veterinary care are running scared from the redefinition of an animal as more than a piece of furniture.

That is, if a fabric cleaner destroys your sofa, perhaps you can recover for the damaged sofa, but not for the sentimental value it held. The AVMA and some state VMAs want it to be just the same if the food you buy destroys your dog or cat’s kidneys.

The NJVMA’s executive director, Richard Alampi claims that “although the bill is specific to animals that were harmed or died as a result of contaminated pet food, it’d be an easy jump to go from that to loss of companionship of an animal from other causes, such as a vaccine reaction or a surgery that did not go well and the patient died.” In other words, “Watch out, veterinarians will be sued next!”

On the other side of the debate, Dr. V. W. Koch (a veterinarian) pointed out in a letter to the editor of the Journal of the AVMA, the AVMA Guidelines for Pet Loss Support Services advise that “the human grieving process following a pet’s death is similar to that experienced by people who have lost a family member.” The Guidelines even suggest that pet loss support helpline volunteers need to recognize when a caller is grieving so deeply as to be at risk of committing suicide. Does anyone grieve that deeply when a sofa is ruined?