Good day, ladies and gentlemen, guests and members of the Montreal Rotary Club.
I think you all saw my book last time I was here. Here it is again: it's called An Angry Veterinarian: Essay on the Animal Condition.
Well, I'm here today to give you a few insights on its content, and to tell you why I've "gone to the dogs."
Do not let the title misguide you though. Although I was angry at one time, you cannot tell by reading this book. It is a rather soft-spoken book.
Through personal anecdotes it explores our relationship with pets. It takes an original, inside look at the pet animal industry -- from the consumer to the producer, from the healers to the animal defenders.
In this book I stick to facts and make very few comments or judgment calls. It's meant to be a very serious and academic book, clinically documented by over forty pages of notes, references, and tables -- the result of twenty years of reflection and three years of writing.
Although some parts of the information it contains are known to many of you, few have ever seen the big picture and in such detail. The result is very surprising and, I would say, quite disturbing.
You see, we all tend to think, or rather, we like to believe that overall, pets are well treated by our society -- as well as, sometimes even better than our own children.
Our relationship with pets is thought to be a reflection of our humanity, and we tend to equate the ownership of an animal with love, respect, and compassion.
As I will attempt to demonstrate, perception is seldom reality.
There's a darker side to all this, and until we look into it, it's hardly possible to bring a meaningful change.
From the beginning of my career, I was never quite comfortable with my job and what our society is doing to animals and nature.
I could never reconcile the welfare of my patients and animals in general with the interests of my clients and my financial obligations.
You see, vets are not as much at the service of animals as they are at the service of their clients.
They pay his bills, and to be successful, he has to make a lot of concessions that I was unable to make eventually.
We have a very romantic idea about what a vet actually does. We all think he spends his days like James Herriot, that famous English vet, flying to the rescue of sick and injured animals.
Although that part of his work does exist, rather than curative, the work of a vet in general practice is mostly preventive and very routine.
He is responsible for the alteration, the maintenance, the repair, and disposal of a commodity that we are consuming in unprecedented quantities.
He softens and humanizes the use of animals, but he also condones it by his silence, his active promotion, and cooperation.
Without his services, our society could not use animals with such ease and so freely.
He is also in many ways the conscience of a very cruel society that treats animals as a renewable resource.
To accommodate my clients, I was obliged throughout my career to do many interventions and procedures that I came to dislike enormously, like declawing cats and rabbits, debarking dogs, ear trims, cut tails and feathers, remove anal glands from ferrets, and even spays and castrations.
These alterations make animals more appealing, easier to manage, less dangerous, and they eliminate unwanted and sometimes embarrassing sexual behaviors and other biological functions that are out of place in a society that is not made for animals.
These amputations are strictly for the benefit of the owner. They serve no therapeutic or medical purpose. They are not surgeries in the true sense of the word.
The word mutilation is much more appropriate.
I also spent a lot of time giving advice and operation instructions to my clients, most of them completely ignorant about animals. According to a recent survey done by Dr. Annon, an American veterinarian, only 1% of the population knows anything about the psychological and physiological needs of their pets. It's pretty hard under those conditions to take good care of them.
But my most common maintenance activity was giving needless, often ineffective, and sometimes very dangerous vaccines.
I ask you, ladies and gentleman, why are we not vaccinated every year of our lives until death do us part, with four, sometimes six or seven, different vaccines?
I did spend some time treating diseases, most of them man-made -- the result of domestication and a lifestyle that's not suited for animals. I thought it was kind of absurd to make them sick on the one hand and to go about treating them, on the other, as if nothing was.
Most of my patients were petrified, unable to understand the meaning of all these very traumatic manipulations. In the animal's point of view, my interventions could be considered as one more abuse to add to a very long list.
I finally realized that I was exploiting them even through my good intentions.
I often wondered, who I was really pleasing through my work?
The food we give to our pets is a slow-acting poison, highly contaminated with many toxins and chemicals and hardly adequate nutritionally.
It's fabricated with the leftovers of our own food chain and whatever else is not used. This includes the 4D's for Dead, Dying, Decaying and Decomposing animals.
In some areas, in some cities, even dogs and cats can be recycled into pet food. They are picked up by the rendering industry and they are boiled in huge vats, together with the other leftovers of our food chain. Their flea collars, the garbage bags used to carry them, are not even removed beforehand.
In dogs there are over 300 genetically-born diseases -- the result of inbreeding, consumerism, and our esthetic whims.
One out of four purebred dogs and many mongrels are afflicted with one or more serious defects that will lead to its destruction.
Many of the others will suffer silently all their lives from incurable, man-made problems.
Mental disease, depression, phobias, chronic anxiety, and stress are the lot of many animals. Many of these problems are caused by chronic boredom, confinement, and lack of exercise.
We nurture with animals very tight bonds which make them extremely dependent and infantile. Yet we do not hesitate to leave them alone for most of the day, locked up in a small room or left in a cage. Outside of this dynamic our relation with pets has no interest.
Animals have innate characteristics that are not compatible with the lifestyle we impose on them for our own pleasure and comfort. The natural need to dominate is always a problem and episodes of violence, sometimes severely punished, are not uncommon. These are but a few examples.
But by far, the most devastating disease in pets is euthanasia. It's a real epidemic of biblical proportions. I was called very frequently to euthanise animals on demand. A vet is kind of a death specialist.
Euthanasia by definition is the bringing about of a gentle and easy death in the case of an incurable and painful disease. And I stress the words "incurable" and "painful."
Although a few animals fit into this definition, a lot of them, I would say most of them, did not.
Euthanasia is therefore, in most cases, a euphemism for disposal of an unwanted pet.
If people have no money, if a couple breaks up, if someone moves, or if someone is tired of his pet or not satisfied for whatever reason, he can very well ask his vet to destroy him and dispose of him like everything else we consume. The owner has right of life and death over his animal. And many people do not hesitate to use it.
In fact, most people keep their pets for an average of two years. It is thought that about 70% of owners will eventually abandon their animal. Only 5% of the general population of cats and dogs actually reaches the equivalent of sixty-five human years.
In America, one of the most animal loving nations of the earth, ten million dogs and cats are destroyed each year in pounds and shelters.
In Quebec - human population of six million- it's between 300,000 to 500,000 a year, the highest euthanasia rate in America (27%).
These animals are destroyed in various fashions. Decompression chambers and carbon monoxide poisoning are commonly used. In some pounds they're hosed down with water before they're electrocuted. In Mirabel they just shoot them with a rifle. In a pound in St. Hyacinthe, now closed, in the vicinity of the veterinary college, they used to knock them on the head with a sledgehammer before throwing them half-dead in a pit and covering them with lime.
A few find a more humane death by injection of a lethal dose of penthotal, a quick-acting barbiturate.
The bodies -- the equivalent of four Titanics full, enough to cover most of the island of Montreal -- are thrown in public dumps, used as compost or fertilizers, or for animal feed. A small minority are incinerated.
Eventually, after many years of compromises and conflicting emotions, I reached the point where I could no longer be part of what I have just described.
I therefore decided it was time I "go to the dogs."
But before I did, it was important for me to make a positive contribution to the welfare of my former patients and to society.
I thought the best way to do it was to write this book.
Although we all acknowledge what pets do for us, we seldom think about what we are actually doing to them.
And when you start looking below the surface, when you finally see the big picture, you come to realize that overall, pets are not so fortunate, indeed no more fortunate, than the other animals we use for food, for clothing, to test beauty products, or that we hunt for pleasure.
And we are all collectively responsible. Whether we treat them well or not we are all exploiting animals, mostly for all the wrong reasons.
Our love for animals is a very selfish affair, a subtle and perverse form of slavery, limited to the passions and interests they arouse. And no one, not even the SPCA and the other animal defense groups that are thriving in our society, is willing to close the tap. They are also profiting from the exploitation of animals in their own subtle way...
But there is another reason for writing this book, much more important than the first. There's a second degree to this book. You see, what we are doing to animals and nature we are doing to ourselves.
This book is in fact, in many ways, a metaphor of our own "civilized" society, a reflection of what we are really like, deep down, under a veneer of respectability.
We have projected on animals our whole model of society and many behaviors that we would be wise at this point in time to leave behind us.
The thinning of our atmosphere, pollution, the contamination of our food chain, the exhaustion of our natural resources, the breakdown of our social tissue, war, drugs, violence, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, a dog on a leash, a bird in a cage, or a fish in a tank are all interrelated and they are all tragically due to our values and how we relate with our world.
Technologically, we have come a long way since the invention of fire and the wheel, but as far as our behavior is concerned, we are still very primitive.
Until we change our values radically there is no hope for animals. The animal condition depends on the human condition, and that's where we need to concentrate our efforts.
Fortunately, many people are trying, in their own measure, in their own personal lives, to change their ways.
And change has to come from individuals, and not from the top down. It has to be the result of a deep understanding of the issues at stake. It cannot be imposed blindly by anyone whether through laws and reforms. And it's no good to wait around for somebody else to do something about it.
If I can paraphrase John F. Kennedy... Do not ask what the SPCA can do for animals: ask yourself what you can do for them.
What we need at this point in time is a little more love and tenderness, and there is very little of that in what I have just described.
I still have a cat -- she's 15 now -- but when she dies of her natural death, I will never have a pet again. It's not a vital need for me and I prefer to go out in nature and watch wild animals, without interference, upon a chance encounter.
Animals honour us only when they are free.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for hearing me out with such patience and courtesy, and next time you see a bird in a cage or a dog on a leash, think about the vet gone to the dogs.
It will remind you that things are not always as they seem in this brave new world.