Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Leo and Katya met about 5 years ago, when I introduced them, and they’ve been together ever since. At the time of their introduction, Katya went by the name “Rosie,” which didn’t seem to fit her at all. Rosie suggested a more sanguine nature, not the downright cranky creature I knew. Not long after they met, in homage to the Russians, Rosie morphed into Katya. It made for a more appealing couple: Leo and Katya. Very Tolstoy.

From the start, the contrast in their personalities couldn’t have been more dramatic. Besides her crankiness, Katya evinces overall high-strungness and restlessness, whereas Leo is definitely the quiet type; he rarely says anything and is über-calm. He is also all huggy-kissy, whereas Katya clearly does not like to be touched unless she knows you really, really well.

Leo is fascinated by machinery—the television, the microwave, the HP printer. Katya, not so much. Despite her high-strung nature, she spends a good portion of every day—usually after dinner—sitting in the corner, focused on one particular spot, her form of meditation.

Katya likes to talk. A lot, sometimes. Sometimes to no one in particular. And her voice is amazingly expressive. Sometimes it is strident, relentless. Other times, very tentative and endearing.

Leo and Katya are also very different in build. Leo is angular, Katya rotund—but not in a voluptuous way. More in a cartoon sort of way.  Or maybe it’s not her build so much as the way she moves, like a gunslinger, her bowed legs braced to support a belly of considerable size.

But the thing that unites both Leo and Katya—besides their zeal for mealtime—is birds. They are obsessed. About any bird, period—not just songbirds or birds of prey or ordinary birds like crows. Anything with feathers grabs their attention immediately, no matter what they happen to be doing at the moment. It is not a protective obsession, either. One senses they’d be more than willing to crush any bird into dust. What prevents them? They never go outdoors.

By now you have probably figured out that Leo and Katya are not people. They’re cats, and they live with me. And since I gave up eating meat and consuming animal products, I’ve been freed enough from guilt to ponder their inner lives.

You don’t have to be vegan to care about the inner lives of animals, of course, but it sure helps. Watch at least 15 minutes of Food Inc., and you’ll see what I mean. To disengage from the machinery of animal death can be liberating. And since I have, strangely enough, Leo and Katya have been a little friendlier. It’s like they can tell somehow.

He is using a dog’s body

A friend once told me about an exchange between a well known swami (a Hindu ascetic or religious mystic) and a Western youth. The youth asked the following question: What is the difference between a human and a dog?

The answer might seem self-evident, but the youth asked nonetheless. The swami’s answer? “The difference is that you are using a man’s body and the dog is using a dog’s body.”

You laugh, of course. (I did, especially after hearing the anecdote told in a thick Indian accent.) But then, if you are like me, you will find yourself returning to this Q&A surprisingly often. I know what it means to use a human body. But what is it like to inhabit an animal body? The answer depends on the specific animal, of course.

Our closer cousins, not so surprisingly, spend a lot of time observing our behavior and imitating it to their own ends. I recall a chimpanzee in my hometown zoo when I was growing up, who had learned how to smoke cigarettes so expertly that he could blow perfect rings of smoke that levitated overhead for almost a full minute before disintegrating into the atmosphere. He seemed to enjoy the attention this garnered him—not to mention the act of smoking itself. (His visitors would light the cigs and hand them through the bars.) (Yes, it’s shameful, but interesting nonetheless.)

In a 1999 article on animal intelligence, Eugene Linden describes an orangutan who learned to pick the lock of his enclosure—always checking first to make sure no humans were watching—and then concealed the wire he used in his mouth as he wandered around the zoo. And in an article from 2010, Jeffrey Kluger describes a male bonobo (cousin of the chimpanzee) who knows at least 384 words and can string them together into meaningful sentences.

Not such a big surprise, you say, considering these animals are primates? Well, what about crows, who are known to fashion tools to extract food from tight spaces? Or blue jays, who hide their stored food from other animals—making sure, in the process of stashing it, that none are around to watch?

One of my relatives tells the story of a crow who showed up one day and decided to become a member of the family. It slept beneath the family dog’s floppy ear, and enjoyed digging up the dog’s bones and hiding them in a new location when the dog wasn’t looking.

And a friend told me once about a large greyhound, the pet of a family of humans in semi-rural Vermont, who adopted a white rabbit who happened through the yard one day. Shortly after, all the dogs within a mile or two began gathering at the greyhound’s digs every morning, sitting around the greyhound (and rabbit) as pilgrims would surround a guru, then dispersing every afternoon.

Clearly, something more than dim consciousness is going on in these encounters. We cannot understand it fully because we are trapped in a human body.

Does dominion = cruelty?

Back to the swami’s deceptively simple response to the question of human-animal distinctions. “You are using a man’s body, and the dog is using a dog’s body.” If the only difference between humans and animals is the body we choose to inhabit, then how can we justify our cruelty toward the animals we eat?

My point here is this: Animals are not dumb beasts. They clearly have consciousness and different forms of intelligence. Should we be treating them the way we do, forcing them into excruciatingly close quarters and shooting them full of antibiotics and hormones, stimulating them into hyper-maturity and then slaughtering them in view of their kin?

Some people use the Bible to justify this treatment. The argument goes that God granted humans “dominion” over all living creatures, so we are free to treat them as we wish. But dominion is one thing, calculated brutality another. It seems to me that any God-granted gift, such as this dominion over the animal kingdom, ought to be revered and managed with sensitivity and responsibility. Instead, we use it as an excuse not to have to examine our actions and their sad consequences. We abuse the gift, in other words. That is what being a human animal has come to mean, tragically enough.  I almost wish I were using a dog’s body.

References

Kluger, Jeffrey. Inside the minds of animals. Time magazine. Aug. 5, 2010. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2008759,00.html.

Linden, Eugene. Can animals think? Time magazine. Aug. 29, 1999. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,30198-1,00.html.

Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1942, 1983.

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When I was 12, my mother took me to the pediatrician and asked if he could do anything about my height. I must have been 5-foot 6 or 7, and she was worried about how much taller I might become. This was in the days before supermodels. When I was a kid, there was nothing good about being tall if you also happened to be female—or so it seemed to my mother. And once she articulated her worries in my presence, it began to seem so to me, too.

I am fortunate that the pediatrician did nothing. Perhaps he was unaware of any remedy—or maybe he was accustomed to this sort of thing and just wanted to leave me in peace. As it turns out, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a so-called therapy for too much height: hormones. A few doctors in the new specialty of pediatric endocrinology had begun treating “excessively tall” girls with diethylstilbestrol, or DES. These doctors believed that large dosages of DES—a synthetic estrogen—would hasten puberty and accelerate closure of a girl’s growth plates. Once these plates fuse, a person does not get any taller.

Maybe you’ve heard of DES. It was also prescribed for millions of pregnant women in the mistaken belief that it prevented miscarriage. Years later, many of the daughters of these women started developing a rare vaginal cancer—and the malignancy was traced back to DES.

In the tall girls, the drug caused weight gain, nausea,  depression and other ills. It also failed to inhibit growth in many girls, many of whom struggled for years to overcome the negative self-image that treatment caused. Some of these girls may have felt self-conscious about their height before taking DES. But the unspoken message of all the probing exams, questions and pills was clear: There was something fundamentally wrong with their bodies.

THE QUEST FOR NORMALCY

Nobody knew anything about hormones until about 1900. Before that, as Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove point out in Normal at Any Cost, scientists were pretty much mystified by the “internal secretions” that influenced so many aspects of female life, from menstruation and pregnancy to menopause. Now, of course, we know all about hormones, and hormone supplements are ubiquitous—touted as the remedy for just about everything. Think of Suzanne Somers hawking bioidentical hormones, or A-Rod injecting growth hormone. We know all about hormones—and yet we never learn our lessons.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when DES was achieving widespread use, another steroid—human growth hormone—was used to accelerate the growth of very short boys—not always effectively. Beginning to see a pattern? Making girls shorter, and boys taller? Both strategies were part of a quest to render everybody a little more normal—which is to say, a little more homogenous.

When I say “population” here, I am talking mostly about upper middle class white people, as they were the ones who could afford these experimental treatments. This trend began in the 20th century, but it’s still going strong. Celebrities and the affluent are the ones who most frequently dabble in hormone therapy and other tactics (plastic surgery, for example) to achieve normalcy, while the other social classes struggle with more mundane matters like survival.

Hormones weren’t the only means used to enforce normalcy in the glorious 1960s, as this anecdote from Normal at Any Cost reveals:

…in 1965, when seventeen-year-old Carol Walters had finished growing, she was 6’6″, a height that her family found unacceptable. Carol’s younger sister and a younger cousin were given estrogen to stunt their growth, but the new hormone therapy came along too late for Carol. Instead, surgeons in northern California removed six inches of bone from both legs. She was hospitalized for six weeks while surgeons performed the two shortening procedures. A year-long recuperation at home followed, which included eight months in a wheelchair before learning how to walk again. Two years later, doctors determined she needed more surgery to shorten her quadriceps muscles. She spent the following summer in bilateral leg casts. Despite years of physical therapy, however, she was never again able to run, skate, squat, stand on tiptoe, or dance.

It sounds eerily predictive of the extreme plastic surgery makeovers people put themselves through today. Mutilation in the name of normalcy.

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

When I first began writing about health, it was for a journal intended for obstetrician-gynecologists. This was in the late 1990s, and hormone replacement therapy was the cure-all of the day. Not only could it alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, but it could prevent dementia, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other ills—or so the experts said. Implied in all the hype was this alluring premise: Hormones could extend a woman’s youth.

Along came the Women’s Health Initiative, the first large-scale randomized, controlled trial of hormone therapy in menopausal women. In 2002, it found that estrogen-progestin hormone therapy not only didn’t lower the risk of heart disease—it increased that risk in some subpopulations. It also raised a woman’s risk of breast cancer and stroke. Women everywhere abandoned their hormones, and the market for these drugs still hasn’t recovered.

One of the themes running through Normal at Any Cost is the way certain products appear to be miracle drugs when they debut. Doctors go into a frenzy recommending them. Observational studies frequently “demonstrate” some vague effectiveness, and consumers jump on the bandwagon. Time passes, studies are conducted, and next thing you know, the drug turns out to have numerous risks. DES is just one example.

I eventually stopped getting taller (I’m 5-foot 10). My mother eventually stopped worrying so much about my height and began telling me how lucky I was. I only half believed her. When I began my career as a health writer, and began writing about the many benefits of menopausal hormone therapy, I started taking the birth control pill myself, even though I was near 40. I was simply convinced the hormones were good for me.

Now I know better, thanks to the Women’s Health Initiative, physicians such as Susan Love, MD, books like Normal at Any Cost, and other compendiums of the hazards of hormones. But the furor over wonder drugs isn’t over. The new buzzword in the world of hormones is “bioidentical.” I won’t be surprised to find out, in years to come, that the “identical” refers to all the health risks.