Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Barbaro's Hoof Prints

Yesterday was what would have been Barbaro's fifth birthday and his hoof prints were everywhere. A year ago, I was at Delaware Park marveling at the 600 plus Fans of Barbaro who showed up in full force to celebrate their hero's life. Yesterday they continued his legacy in a different but equally inspiring way.

In an all-out effort to "unstick" the two anti-slaughter bills that are being held up in committee by Senator Larry Craig, the Fans of Barbaro unleashed a phone campaign on the Senator's office urging him to release S 311 from the hold he has placed on it. I have no idea how many phone calls were made to the Senator's office, but woe be it to anyone who incurs the wrath of the Fans of Barbaro. I suspect their phone campaign may set a few records for the number of phone calls to one Senator in one day and I sincerely hope their efforts pay off. It may be that they have to continue this all out phone blitz for a few days in a row to make sure the Senator knows they are not going away.

And then there was a nice mention in Blood Horse about the Michael Matz-trained Derby entry, Visionaire and of course the inevitable comparison to you-know-who. "I was very happy with what he [Barbaro] did and what he accomplished and I hope I have the same feeling this Saturday," Matz told Deidre Bair. "I'm glad to be back, that's for sure. Anytime you're here it's a nice situation."

To top it off, the Lexington Courier-Journal reported that the $1 million bonus Yum! Brands offered last year to the Derby winner if he beat the 6 1/2 length winning margin of Barbaro in 2006, will not be repeated this year. "The offfer--called the Yumfecta--drew lukewarm reactions from previous victors who questioned whether any jockey should push a horse that was clearly going to win," reports Gregory Hall.

So Barbaro's "sublime" second largest margin of victory in the Derby stands on its own and is recognized for what it was--a supreme effort that will be hard to beat, bonus or not. And so should the accomplishments of all those who carry on his legacy.

I can't think of better ways to commemorate the day he was born than to continue what he stood for.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Mating Game

Woe be to those who buy a race horse with the strict intention of making money. First they learn about food bills. Horses need to eat regardless of whether or not they are racing and with grain prices keeping pace with gasoline, well, it gets expensive fairly quickly. Then they learn about farrier bills. Horses need their feet tended to by professional farriers every six weeks. If they are racing and changing shoes for different surfaces, it can be more often.

Then they learn about dental bills. Horses need their teeth filed down routinely to accommodate their bits. And then there are the seemingly endless vet bills. Pampered thoroughbreds are routinely tested and treated for every possible symptom. Not to mention the insurance bills, training bills, shipping costs, race entry fees, licensing fees. You get the picture. It all adds up pretty quickly.

And woe be to those who figure they can earn it all back when the horse gets to the breeding shed. Because, as the owner of the very expensive War Emblem learned the hard way, there are no guarantees. As The New York Times reported on Monday, "In nearly five years of contact with hundreds of mares, War Emblem, now 9, [and purchased for $17 million by a Japanese owner] has managed to mate with only 70 of them, which is half of most stallions' yearly output. He has not produced a live foal since 2006..." Ouch and double ouch. "By conservative estimates, he [the owner] has lost as much as $55 million in stud fees," writes Joe Drape.

To frustrate the Japanese owner, Shadai Stallion Station, even more, the 26 horses that War Emblem has managed to sire, have, according to Drape, "become terrific racehorses, capturing six stakes races and putting their reluctant father near the top of Japan's leading sire list." Which may say more about the status of Japanese horse racing than War Emblem's lack of procreation, but nonetheless is a point of continued angst for all those associated with the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner.

So heads up all ye horse hedge fund creators (see my previous post on Big Brown, one of the horses running in this year's Kentucky Derby), there is no such thing as a sure thing in horse racing, on or off the track. A dud at stud can win the Kentucky Derby and a non-stakes winner can sire a Triple Crown contender.

As they say, hold those bets and don't tear up any tickets, just yet. War Emblem may regain interest in the opposite sex or then again, he may not. As I've said before, horses are not commodities and those that treat them as such may never recoup their investments. There is a reason it is called the sport of kings.....

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cause and Effect

As I learned in my bioethics class this semester, there are numerous approaches to the study of medicine, one of which is the narrative method. This literature-based approach is slowly becoming more popular as more and more physicians are trained to truly listen to the patent's story, not just his/her symptoms. As many patient narratives indicate, when narrative medicine comes face to face with evidence-based medicine (the prevalent school of thought), the result is often frustrating for the patient and the doctor, especially if the case does not fit into a neat paradigm of previous cases. Clearly there needs to be a happy medium that combines the casuistry model based on information gleaned from previous cases and the narrative method based on the individual patient's story. All of which actually brings me to the story of Dancing Forever, a horse that brings narrative medicine to life.

Dancing Forever is the son of Dancinginmydreams and he recently won the $200,000 Grade II Fifth Third Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland, an event his trainer called "a miracle." Dancinginmydreams, you see, spent thirteen months at Penn's New Bolton Center, recuperating from five surgeries on the hind pastern bone that she shattered while running in the Frizette Stakes in New York eight years ago. According to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, trainer Shug McGaughey recalled that the surgeon at the track told him the horse's hind leg "looked as if a shotgun shell had been shot into the bone." And yet, the horse's owner asked, "Can we get her to New Bolton without being cruel?"

Off she went to New Bolton, hooked up to intravenous tubes, her leg stabilized in a brace, where Dr. Richardson put her leg back together again in five different surgeries. She healed for thirteen months, during which time, Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, would often go to New Bolton and check on her because he was close by. He phoned his reports to McGaughey. And when she left New Bolton for a nearby farm in Georgetown to continue her rehabilitation, Dr. Richardson and many others shed a few tears because they had grown so attached to her.

Dancing Forever was born five years ago and is Dancinginmydreams' first foal and the only one racing to date. Dancing Forever is a late bloomer and, according to McGaughey, "only turned the corner last year, at age four." He also prefers long distances such as 1 1/4 miles and 1/12 miles, but no one is complaining. To his owners, Dancing Forever is simply a miracle horse and the fact that he is racing at all is just icing on the cake.

So to those naysayers who questioned Dr. Richardson's ability to put Barbaro's leg back together again, there was indeed, medical precedence for him to try. The injury to Dancinginmydreams was not identical to Barbaro's injury but it was equally life-threatening and she survived, walked out of New Bolton and produced a graded stakes winner. Her story is as compelling as Barbaro's but many don't know about it simply because she did not win the Kentucky Derby or break down live on national television before an estimated viewing audience of four million people.

So using an evidence-based medical approach, there was every reason to try and save Barbaro. There was scientific evidence to suggest that his leg could be surgically repaired. It is the narrative approach, however, that, pardon the pun, gives the story legs and keeps it running long after the medical science has become a case on which to base future life and death decisions for other horses.

Of course, there is also the financial aspect and both Dancinginmydreams and Barbaro belonged to owners who could afford to spare no expense to save their horses. But without their willingness to try, we would never know if it could be done. And the irony, of course, is that even great men of science are moved, in the end, by the stories that give meaning to their work.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Young Frankenstein

We had an absolutely wonderful day yesterday--a continuation of my daughter's never ending 21st birthday (which was last week but who's counting...). We went to New York City, had a wonderful lunch at a sushi place recommended by one of my son's friends and then saw Young Frankenstein, the new Mel Brooks show on Broadway.

The show is classic Mel Brooks--hardly brain food but truly fun. The staging was phenomenal and the cast included some big names: Megan Mullally of Will & Grace fame, Sutton Foster who won a Tony for her role in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Roger Bart as Dr. Frankenstein. If you saw The Producers, Bart was the original Carmen Ghia. All of us thought the second act was better than the first and in fact, was what made the show, including a wonderful rendition of Putting on the Ritz that was very clever.

An equine point of interest. If you have seen the movie, you know that the housekeeper in Dr. Frankenstein's castle is named Frau Blucher and every time she says her name, the two horses (one named Black and the other named Andecker) whinny. Leave it to my son to note that Blucher is German for glue--hence the horse's concern. The horses, by the way, are priceless in the hay wagon scene. By the way, I have seen Mel Brooks on more than one occasion in the paddock at Saratoga and I know he loves horses.

I am always struck by the talent and energy it must take for these performers to pull this off day in and day out. I can't imagine how they do two performances on Wednesday and Saturdays but if you love what you do, it shows.

Four stars out of five on the Feldman review scale and guaranteed to make you smile.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Life with Sammy

It has now been a week and a day since Sammy arrived and we are settling in. Phoebe and Amos are adjusting, albeit slowly and Amos has actually turned into his prime babysitter. He spends a lot of time herding Sammy who has figured out that his role in this game is to lie down and roll over. Amos feels like he finally has someone to boss around and amazingly his limping has basically stopped. Today when I soaked his feet, he pulled them out as if to say, "OK--we're done now." Who knew?

Phoebe, on the other hand, is not thrilled--actually that's putting it nicely. She is miffed. There are times when she refuses to come inside if the puppy is anywhere near the door and then there are times when she refuses to go outside if he is bounding around. Today we did a little planting and she did rally when it was watering time (the hose is her absolute favorite thing except for food) and now she is curled up at my feet, her usual position when I work, but most of the time she has her nose out of joint. This may not improve--this may just be Queen Phoebe exerting her dominance over all of us.

As for Sammy, well he has grown and now lumbers around like a polar bear. He also has managed to make a place for himself in the hierarchy without stepping on too many literal and figurative toes. What can I say? His mellow disposition makes him a perfect third dog--he truly gets it--and he is smart, good and a charmer. He's figured out the house breaking rules pretty quickly and he sleeps through the night on his own enormous Orvis bed surrounded by a bevy of toys that he gathers together. He is hard to resist.

We did discover that the pet food he was on, Nutro, has been recalled which is very interesting since he never really liked it. We are switching him slowly to the brand inhaled by the other two and he seems to like that better. If you feed your pets Nutro you might want to take a look at this and contact your vet.

Otherwise, we're smitten. There is truly nothing like a puppy to make your heart sing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

There's No Crying in Medicine or is There?

When Dean Richardson, Barbaro's doctor, had difficulty keeping his composure when he spoke about Barbaro in the immediate aftermath (and actually sometimes even now) of the horse's death, did that make you feel any differently toward him as a professional? In other words, when a doctor cries either in front of a patient or, as Richardson did, when speaking about the patient, does this help or hurt his/her professional image?

It is an interesting question and one we have been pondering a bit in my class this semester. On Tuesday, Barron H. Lerner, M. D., a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia Medical Center and a fairly well-known scholar in the bioethics world, tackled the subject in The New York Times in an article entitled, "At Bedside, Stay Stoic or Display Emotions?"

As Lerner explains, the recent trend for doctors to display any type of emotion is a sharp departure from the centuries old stoic, detached stance practiced by most doctors of a certain age. The detachment, which often feels cold and uncaring to the patient, is, of course, a defense mechanism to guard against physician burnout. The theory is that avoiding emotional attachment to patients and their cases prolongs one's medical career.

As legions of patient illness narratives have documented, the cold bedside manner does little to improve patient morale. Not that every patient wants their doctor to hold their hands; more that every patient wants to know that there is a person in that white coat, not just a practitioner. Now, according to Lerner, most medical schools teach "physician-patient relationships and breaking bad news" (scary to think they actually have to teach compassion) but the real question still remains where to draw the boundaries.

In my class, the consensus, even among the med students, is that there is a time and a place to be emotional and it may not be at the patient's bedside. Many spoke of the need to keep their emotions in check until they could find a quiet place to cry, usually in the bathroom or even the broom closet. Lerner seems to be on the same page. "Whether because of my personality or my being a man, I, too, have never cried in front of a patient," he writes.

Which is probably a shame. I would argue that the danger of physician burnout caused by emotional attachment to one's patients, is equal to the danger of mental burnout caused by too much detachment from one's patients. The strain of keeping all those emotions in check has got to be as dangerous to one's health, physical and emotional, as letting it all hang out. There is still an aura of healer that we wish to associate with those who practice the profession and if we see them cry, this may mean they are not omnipotent or infallible as we would like to believe, especially about our own personal conditions. But not giving them permission to be human is doing those same practitioners more harm than good.

So, my guess is that Richardson cried for a lot of reasons--not the least of which was because he lost a patient he truly cared about--and that, in the end, it was good for his emotional health. My other guess is that we give our veterinarians a lot more leeway with regard to displaying their emotions than we give our human docs and that is not necessarily a good thing. Certainly each doctor has to do what is right for him/her and certainly all cases are different, but I don't think I would ever think less of a professional if I saw him/her shedding a tear.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Leveling the Racing Surface

It seems as if the use of synthetic racing surfaces has thrown all the Derby handicappers into a bit of a quandary. They simply do not know how to accurately compare races from synthetic tracks to those on dirt or turf and all of their "systems" have gone out the window. The New York Times reported yesterday that the guru of all handicappers, Andrew Beyer, has admitted that his speed figures (previously the gold standard by which many handicappers make their bets) are "next to worthless in the synthetic era."

To complicate matters further, there is no uniformity among synthetic surfaces. A Polytrack races differently than one made of Tapeta or Cushion and not even those well versed in workout fractions can seem to come up with a formula to level the playing fields. All of which led the New York Times to ponder whether or not we are in the "throes" of another "significant" change in horse racing (the triumph of the tote board, the invention of the starting gate and the acceptance of simulcasting being the three most recent ones).

To be sure, surface is a huge deal but not all dirt tracks are the same, just as turf differs from course to course. I'm more inclined to agree with Eric Banks who wrote (in the NY Times) that this new complaint is just a variation on the old problem of how to figure out how to compare horses who compete on different surfaces at different tracks.

Barbaro could run on anything--grass, dirt and even slop--and so could Secretariat. I hate to sound like a spoil sport but it seems like synthetic surfaces have just added another variable to the numerous ones that already exist in horse racing. Change is never easy and it usually involves adjustments (just like adding a third puppy to a very settled two dog household!) but eventually it all works out. The time may come when synthetic surfaces become the norm and then the handicappers will be moaning about how to calculate training sessions on dirt into their "full-proof" systems.

If you had it all figured out, it wouldn't be a horse race, and that, in the end, is what makes the sport interesting. If anything, the synthetic surface variable should make the sport more appealing to those who bet by hunch because who is to say they are any less knowledgeable than the pundits who admit they don't know how to compare apples to grapes. Especially sour ones.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Seeing Double

Sammy's sister, Lucy, came for a visit yesterday afternoon and it was like seeing double! Poor Amos may be done in for quite a while..things were bad enough with one new puppy and now there were two! Anyway, the two puppies actually seemed to recognize each other (I was not the only one who made this observation!) and they thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. They ran around like banshees, rolled on top of each other and most definitely slept well last night.

Lucy is the reason that we have Sammy. She and her family live down the street and I met her when I was walking Phoebe on one glorious spring day about two weeks ago. Lucy and the children she lives with looked like a Norman Rockwell painting, scampering about on their back yard as Lucy methodically gathered all the little pairs of sneakers the kids had taken off. I was instantly smitten and inquired about her origins and well, what can I say, the rest is history.

These two puppies are absolutely identical. It is hard to tell one from the other and I think Sammy may actually be the calmer of the two. When Lucy left, Sammy sat by the fence as she walked down the street. It was priceless.

I think Sammy was delighted to be in the company of someone his own size and my other two dogs were delighted when she left. I may have come out ahead in every one's eyes....

Oh, by the way, Sammy is the one on the right in both pictures.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Big Brown's Connections

There was a great article in Monday's New York Times about the majority owners of Big Brown, International Equine Acquisitions Holdings. The founders of IEAH have created an equine version of a hedge fund--based on their experience as Wall Street tycoons--and are currently raising $100 million to create the fund which will buy, sell and breed horses. The company owns 75% of Big Brown, and according to it s president, Michael Iavarone, the $3 million they paid for the colt is small change compared to the stud fees he could command if he wins the Derby.

The concept of a horse hedge fund is fascinating. The premise is that investors earn profits based on management and performance. So instead of buying into a fund of stocks you buy into a group of horses and earn based on their performances. Risky to be sure, plus you have to dole out management fees that I am sure are hefty, but then again given the recent performance of the stock market, there may be some who would see horses as a safer bet than stocks. Certainly if you have a wad to gamble, a horse hedge fund might be a safer bet than a big ticket trifecta.

Each financial quarter, an independent financial auditor will assess the portfolio and investors will have the opportunity to buy into the fund or sell their positions. "What we're offering are liquidity and options that people in the horse business have never had before," says Iavarone.

Fundamentally, the idea of horses as commodities is disturbing to me, even if there is money to be made. I hate to see people get into the sport strictly as an investment because if there is one thing they will learn very quickly, it is that horses are a very expensive investment. Even if they can't run, they need to eat, see lots of vets and have someone take care of them. It is rare that a horse earns his keep and even more unusual for one to turn a profit. But of course those are the ones you read about and those are the ones everyone thinks they can own.

About those vet bills, if there is one thing that Big Brown should have taught the masterminds of IEAH, it is about their frequency. Big Brown has delicate feet and has spent most of his career recuperating from abscesses in each of his front hooves. He has raced only three times and won each of those races in impressive style. Certainly he is the current favorite in the Kentucky Derby based on those performances.

All the connections swear that the foot issue is a thing of the past (and why would they say otherwise?) and that Big Brown is ready and raring to go. While I am delighted that young, ex-Wall Street types are trying to recreate the model of horse partnerships and bring new investment blood to the sport, there is the part of me that wants the horse to win without being part of any one's portfolio, just simply because he is the best athlete competing that day.

Call me sentimental, but I can't help but think that if Big Brown delivers on the first Saturday in May, his owners will do what is best for their pocketbooks and not for the sport.

Monday, April 21, 2008

What You Leave Behind

Last week was quite a week for me. I was in the presence of two influential women I admire; I acquired a new dog and the youngest of my three children turned 21. I am sure that on some level the last two events are symbolically connected--losing a child but gaining a puppy?--but overall I found myself thinking a lot about legacy. Yes, the concept of what you leave behind.

Surely Michelle Obama and Anna Quindlen have crafted impressive legacies, in words and deeds, and while I may not leave behind my name on the list of Pulitzer Prize winners (never say never...), I do feel proud of the body of work that bears my name. Of course, I would love for that body of work to include the Barbaro story in some shape or form, but it may not be in the way I originally envisioned. That's the curious thing about legacies: they are changed not only by the people to whom they belong but by the people in whom hands they ultimately end up. And sometimes the events that change them are out of every one's hands.

Take Barbaro. Events totally out of his control made him a celebrity and contributed to the prestige and allure of his life and legacy. And then those who felt moved to sustain his memory, many of whom never even met or knew the horse, took his legacy to another level entirely. The Fans of Barbaro, many of whom began as curious, innocent, animal-loving bystanders, perhaps contributing small change to purchase carrots and apples for the patients at New Bolton Center, are suddenly wandering the halls of Congress and making deals for equine welfare.

It is both astounding and inspiring that the legacy of a Kentucky Derby winner can sustain a legitimate grass roots political movement for social change. It is refreshing to remember that people are moved by the plight of animals and it is important to be reminded that what you leave behind may not end up being what you thought it was.

So maybe the answer is to do good, work hard and sow lots of seeds of inspiration into other people's lives and let them grow. I have to believe that what goes around comes around and with a little luck, we might all get a chance to see the literal and figurative fruits of our labors.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Conversation with Anna Quindlen

Last Thursday evening, I had the privilege of attending an event at which Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Anna Quindlen was the featured speaker. I have long been a fan of her work, especially the Last Word column in Newsweek. For thirty years, Quindlen has written about her family, her work, politics, education and social justice and she is just as outspoken in person as she is in print.

The topics ranged from her children--("If I ever write a memoir about motherhood it will be called Mistakes Were Made," she quipped), politics ("I always dreamed about the day when a woman and an African American would run for president. Who knew it would be at the same time?" she joked), and her work, which she organizes by week ("One week is Column Week; the next week is Novel Week," she explained. "I wake up every Monday with a blank slate"). Billed as a conversation with Anna Quindlen, the evening featured a one on one conversation between Quindlen and Philadelphia journalist, Jane Eisner that felt intimate and profound.

What has resonated with me in the days following, however, has been the difference that five years seems to make in terms of feminism and one's commitment to the cause. Quindlen is exactly five years older than I am and I feel like if she was Class 1, I was Class 1c. There is no doubt that I attained some of my accomplishments because women like Quindlen paved the way and to a certain extent, I rode on their coattails. But I think because those pioneers (she was, after all only the third woman in the New York Times' history to write a regular column for its Op-Ed pages), had to bang their heads a little more forcefully against the proverbial glass ceiling than I did, she is a bit more strident, a bit more adamant and a bit more of a feminist than I and I think her attitude is, to a certain extent, all about timing.

Maybe not. Maybe it's about opportunity, living and working in New York City. Maybe it's about playing with the big boys and winning. Certainly it's about being held to a higher standard and working twice as hard for half the recognition and having to lobby for the chance to compete--all provinces through which I too have traveled--but it's also about being more vocal during the journey.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Quindlen is an ardent Hillary supporter because they came of age at the same time--between five and ten years earlier than I did--and it seems to have made all the difference.

Anyway, the best quip on feminism came from one of Quindlen' sons who proudly wears the black tee shirt that his mother, the current president of Barnard's Board of Trustees, gave him. On the front it reads; Dare to use the F word. On the back, it says Feminism. When she saw him wearing it, she expressed her surprise and delight, patting herself silently on the back for having raised such a socially conscious male. "Mom," said son explained. "I always wear this shirt. Chicks love it."


Saturday, April 19, 2008

He's Here!!

Some scenes from Sammy's first day chez Feldman and as you can see, he's a keeper!! He arrived right on time at Newark International airport, none the worse for the trip and slept all the way home (through lots of traffic) in the car. The bottom picture is of him and Caroline, my daughter, bonding en route.

He seems to fit right in, albeit having attached himself indelibly to Caroline. He follows her everywhere and then sits at her feet at flops down. We gave him a bath in the kitchen sink--a Feldman ritual for new arrivals--and he loved it so much we couldn't get him out. He actually lay down in the water and loved having his head rinsed.

As for the other two--well, things are a bit unsettled but Phoebe is being the better of the two because Sammy comes with puppy treats--her favorite food. So whenever he does something great, we give her one too and so far, this is all fine and well with her. Amos is a bit more skiddish and there has been a lot of barking at nothing in particular, but I think all will be well. The dogs need to work it out for themselves which they will do in due time.

In the meantime, he is a bundle of love and 40lbs. (not 30 as promised) with absolutely enormous feet and he won us over in a matter of minutes. There is truly nothing like a puppy on a beautiful spring day....

Ask me again when it rains and he digs up my garden, but for now, we're enjoying the honeymoon!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Here's Sammy!!

We're big on "8s" in our family. Our kids were all born on "8" dates; two on the 18th and one on the 8th, so what better way to welcome the newest member of our family Sammy Feldman than to pick him up at the Newark airport on April 18th--coincidentally our daughter's 21st birthday. And how appropriate that Sammy was born on November 28th!!

We are very excited about our newest addition and we think he will fit right in with our already dog-filled house. Amos and Phoebe have been eagerly sniffing out the crates appearing from the attic and Amos has sampled just about every puppy toy we bought.

Sammy comes from Appleton, New York on the shores of Lake Ontario and he is a cream colored English golden retriever who looks like he will grow pretty quickly into his formal name, Samson. Look at those paws!! I heard from the breeder yesterday who said he is getting bigger by the day.

So we're off bright and early Friday morning to fetch our big boy and promise to post lots of pictures over the weekend.

And yes, now we will be a family of five humans and three dogs. You guessed it, eight.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Update on Amos, continued

For those of you who are wondering, Amos is doing much better which is a far cry from where he was about ten days ago. In fact, two weekends ago, Amos was about as bad as I had ever seen him. He was unable to put any weight on his front feet and was actually holding his right front paw up. He could barely walk and I was beside myself. I had rested him for a full week--he seemed to make a dramatic recovery mid-week but I still limited his activity and now a total relapse back to a point that I hadn't seen for months--for no reason.

It was at this point that I read on a blog I frequent about how the author of this blog had turned to an animal communicator when she couldn't figure out why one of her cats was all of a sudden urinating on her furniture, which is apparently a very difficult problem to live with and one which seemed to come out of nowhere. She had done the same vet, medicine routine that I had with Amos (albeit for a different problem) but nothing seemed to work. The animal communicator, however had nailed the problem and the author made a very good case for contacting her.

Well I figured I had nothing to lose, so I contacted the animal communicator, Lisa Reber. We set up an appointment via email, arranged payment and then set up a time to talk, which was to have been exactly a week ago, yesterday. Except last Wednesday, I had a horrendous dental day--a routine tooth cleaning turned into a potential implant because of a loose crown over root canal--and arranged to call her the next day when I would be able to focus on what she was saying. I had to go back to the dentist in a week to see if the root was cracked and needed to be extracted.

When we chatted, she told me that Amos had insisted that Phoebe go first--which he would--and so I learned that Phoebe gets bored easily, doesn't really know what is wrong with Amos and that he doesn't want to do fun things anymore. Then Lisa told me about Amos and his limping--which, she said, is not from joint pain but from a small sliver of wood stuck in one of the toenails on his right foot. It doesn't hurt him all the time, but when he steps on it the wrong way--WOWEE!! (her word) She told me to soak his front feet in a tub of warm water with Epsom salts and see if the splinter would dislodge. And she told me he wanted to go on walks again with Phoebe so I should start right away.

While I had her on the phone, I asked her about the possibility of the looming implant. "You don't have a cracked root," she told me. "You should be fine."

It all sounded plausible--except for the fact that my vet and I had been over all Amos' feet and toes for months to no avail--but I figured I had nothing to lose. So I bought Epsom salts and started soaking Amos' feet one week ago, twice a day. The most amazing thing to me was that he actually liked it--he stood perfectly still with his front feet in a Rubbermaid basin of water and smiled! Really.

Fast forward to Monday, when I took Amos to the vet. She found nothing in his feet but told me to keep soaking them if it made him feel better. Tuesday, Amos was the best he has been in six months. He ran Phoebe and me through Bryn Mawr College, wagging his tail the whole time and prancing like a puppy. He was feeling fine. And every day this week, he has gone for a long walk with Phoebe. Sometimes he limps, but then it just goes away. He gets his paws soaked when we come back and he seems like a genuinely happy camper.

By the way, when I went to the much dreaded dentist appointment today, I did in fact just have a loose crown. No cracked root and no implant (for now).

So draw your own conclusions, but I bought lottery tickets on my way home from the dentist.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Afternoon with Michelle Obama

I know this is not a political blog and it is not my intention to persuade or influence anyone about their voting choices but (and you knew that was coming), yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of hearing Michelle Obama speak and it was an inspiring, uplifting event, even for a hardened cynic like myself. I am here to tell you that this was the real deal, and I am pretty good at spotting hypocrisy in all its dimensions. She is every bit as eloquent as her husband and, here is the important part, every bit as genuine. Lord only knows how she does it day in and day out, but she could only do it this well if she was being herself. You can't fake sincerity--oh, you can try, but the truth seeps out. Nothing emanated from Michelle Obama except reality as she and her husband know it: that he is up to the task and we better take him up on his offer.

The venue was a local college and there were about 2000 people in attendance, although it felt quite intimate. She arrived on time and spoke for over an hour. Security was surprisingly indiscreet, and even though I am sure everything was tightly orchestrated, it didn't feel like it. More like, Michelle Obama dropped by to tell her story.

She grew up on the South side of Chicago in a working class family. Her father was a municipal worker. Her mother stayed home to raise her and her brother. They went to the local public schools. They studied hard; both got into Princeton, took out huge student loans and got great educations. She went to Harvard Law school, where she met her husband. They were both taught to use their educations to better their communities so that's what they did. They went back to Chicago. Her husband became a civil rights lawyer; he drove single mothers to City Hall to help them get the services they needed. He told the truth; worked for what was right and managed to survive the political climate of Chicago--one of the most "inbred" political cities in the country.

Her points were simple; we are not that different from you. We just paid off our student loans a few years ago. We know what it feels like to continually have the bar raised just when you feel like it's within reach. We are not out of touch. Oh, and we've heard it all before. Everything that anybody says about her husband has, according to Michelle, already been said. You don't survive nine years in the Illinois State Senate without hearing that you're too black, not black enough, too young, too inexperienced, too scary because you're different or that you can't put together a campaign from the bottom up and win elections.

This election, according to Michelle Obama, is not about her, her husband or any of the other candidates. What it is really about is us and what we want. Universal health care. More money for public schools. Tax breaks. We can't have it all and when we decide what is important to each of us, we'll decide who is going to get us there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hit the Road

What do you do on your weekends? If you have a pampered pooch, according to two recent newspaper articles you might spend your weekends following your pet here, there and everywhere--even down the aisle!

On April 11, The New York Times did a great feature on Travels with Fido and His Hair Spray, straight out of the film, Best in Show. Life on the dog show circuit is indeed a weekend adventure, with many handlers hitting the road every single weekend. There is heavy grooming involved--most of which must be done right before the dog goes into the ring--so these pet parents are also professional hairdressers to their stars. I am always so amazed when I see the handlers in the ring wearing black. Why aren't they covered in dog hair?

The best story was from the owner of three Norwegian elkhounds--big, furry beasts--whose owner decided to bathe her dogs the night before they set out for the dog show. She washed them, but didn't dry them, which she discovered the next day was a "big mistake." She loaded everyone in the car and opened her window--just a crack. "The wind began--instantly--to circulate like crazy in my Honda Civic and the hair came off in huge chunks. Before you knew it, I had a full-fledged furricane on my hands. I could barely see, there was so much elkhound hair flying everywhere."

To me, it sounds like one of my regular car trips with my own furry beasts. What is it about dog hair that makes it stick to every surface in the interior of a car--even those you didn't realize existed?

This is clearly something you should consider if you are thinking about transporting your dearly beloved pet to his/her nuptials, apparently another popular weekend outing among the canine set. The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday reported on the booming pet wedding business, complete with, you guessed it, wedding planners, caterers, trainers and even priests. "Holy Muttrimonies, Bark Mitzvahs and pet ceremonies in general have really started taking off," said Diana Guerrero, animal behavior expert and pet trend watcher. (Since when did pet trend watcher become a profession?)

Pet wedding ceremonies cost a pretty penny--the Mutt Club in Los Angeles charges between $700 and $1000 a day for their facility--and often come with cake, photographer, and wardrobes for the bride and groom. Of course, there are plenty of cake bakeries that will provide cakes for those who prefer home weddings. And yes, there are even destination pet weddings. In Oahu, Hawaii, according to the Inquirer, the Reverend Kermit Rydell will hitch your pooches on the beach.

Frivolous no doubt, and expensive for sure, but all indications of how we Americans have come to regard our pets as members of the family. As for mine, they will have to settle for sleeping on the bed.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Last Lecture

This is a long video and one that I do not post lightly. It is the last lecture given by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Diane Sawyer did an interview with him last week and my professor just added this video to our syllabus for my bioethics course.

Be forewarned--it is about achieving your childhood dreams and enabling others to do the same. It is funny, poignant and an incredible legacy, on top of the academic accomplishments (and there are many) that Pausch leaves behind. He is nothing short of a remarkable human being, who makes the lyric, "Only the good die young" seem all too relevant.

Watch it when you have time and you will have a new respect for brick walls.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Derby Fever

So what's in a racing surface? Apparently a lot. Pyro faltered badly in the Blue Grass Stakes run at Keeneland yesterday finishing tenth. His connections are blaming the surface, saying that Pyro did not take to the synthetic track, never really getting into gear.

Todd Pletcher's horses finished 1 & 2, Monba the winner ridden by Edgar Prado. So far, all are still headed to the Derby, including the favorite for now, Big Brown. What is interesting is that Colonel John, who won the Santa Anita Derby last week on a synthetic surface, is also heading for Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

So how much does a synthetic track matter? And is there the same advantage to a horse moving from the synthetic surface to the dirt as there is to one coming off the turf? Or does it really matter? Is a great horse, a great horse no matter what the surface?

I don't have the answers but I love pondering the questions because that is what makes horse racing such an unpredictable sport. No matter what "system" you swear by or what formula you use to compare horses, they all lose validity when you factor in the elements of horse and rider. Anything can happen when twenty horses charge out of those starting gates in three weeks.

So I'm officially smitten with Derby Fever and counting the days. How about you?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

We're Ready For Our Closeup Now...

So yesterday, Phoebe, Amos and I were taking our walk (yes, Amos was feeling well enough to walk) through Bryn Mawr College and we wandered onto the set of the movie they are filming there, Tenure, starring Luke Wilson. And when I say wandered, I mean wandered--right into the middle of a rehearsal for a scene being filmed in one of Bryn Mawr's Gothic archways. A bunch of kids were walking through the arch (I did think it was a little odd because there were a bunch of guys and Bryn Mawr is an all girls' school, but what do I know?) and there we were, face to face, with Luke Wilson--who is very cute in person.

Phoebe and Amos thought this was all fabulous because where there are actors, there are catering trucks with lavish spreads and of course, everyone fawned over them and told them how beautiful they were. Phoebe already knew this and concentrated very hard on removing a sandwich that one of the makeup people had stuffed into her equipment bag. We saved the sandwich just in time.

The best part however was when we crossed the street and ran into a group of bystanders who had gathered to watch the filming. They made such a fuss over the dogs because they thought they were in the movie!!!! One even asked for their autographs. This is enough to placate Phoebe for the rest of her life, although she is a bit miffed because I blew her cover.

More about the movie. From what I gather it is a romantic comedy about a professor coming up for tenure, facing off against a female rival. Bryn Mawr College is depicted as Grey College and as of now, the production company is planning kickoff events next year to promote the film in college towns.

So be on the lookout for the promos--you never know if we truly will end up on the cutting room floor!!!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Animal Hoarders

When I was spending a lot of time hanging out in the oncology department of the University of Pennsylvania small animal hospital gathering material for my article on pets with cancer, I remember meeting a client whom the staff referred to as a "collector." Simply put, this meant that the woman had well over 100 cats. She showed me photographs of the elaborate habit-trail type enclosures someone had built for her menagerie and although I marveled at how she ever managed to feed 100 cats, let alone keep them straight and dole out medicine to the right one, the staff knew her well enough to know that she did a remarkable job of managing her "collection."

Apparently this is not always the case as a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. A husband and wife from South Jersey were released on $25,000 bail earlier this week after they were arrested and charged in the deaths of dozens of pets found in their home. Apparently the house was up for foreclosure and when the locksmith arrived to change the locks, he couldn't believe the sight and smell of the interior of the home. I will spare you the details but suffice it to say that nothing was alive inside the home except for the flies and maggots that were attracted to the decomposing remains of 64 animals.

This seems to be the all too typical end for "collectors" or "hoarders" who start out rescuing animals with the best of intentions, only to find that the numbers eventually do them in. The Humane Society of the United States has had quite a lot of experience with these types of cases and, according to Randall Lockwood, vice president for Research and Educational Outreach,"Hoarding is very often a symptom of a greater mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder."

The problem is often difficult to detect because "collectors" appear to lead normal lives, but the HSUS warns that it is important to recognize when a person's infatuation with animals has reached a dangerous stage. Some key characteristics to look for are the "hoarders denial of his/her ability to care for the animals and his/her failure to grasp the impact his/her neglect has one the animals, the household and the human occupants of the dwelling."

Of course all of this is even more difficult to detect when the collector lives alone or with a relative. Take the case of the Massachusetts woman who had 488 cats, 222 of them dead, and the rest so wild they had to be euthanized, when she was discovered by the authorities. The eighty two year old woman lived with her daughter.

And lest you think this only happens to little old ladies, Gary Patronek, a veterinarian who teaches at Tufts Vet School has had "cases of white-collar professionals leading double lives, even health care providers or veterinarians who are going to work every day, advising people on proper health and going home" to an out of control menagerie.

So the bottom line to animal lovers is to control your personal collection of pets and keep your eyes open for situations in which the animals outnumber the humans by far too many. And if you think you've uncovered an example in your neck of the woods, by all means notify the proper authorities.

You are doing both the pets and the collector a service by rescuing all of them.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Caution and Competition

The late Christopher Reeve was a vivid testimony to the dangers inherent in any activity involving horses. Reeve broke his neck when he fell off his horse and never walked again.

The front page of yesterday's New York Times reports on the fall, last month, of one of the equestrian world's best riders, Darren Chiacchia. Chiacchia, age 43 helped the US Olympic Team win a bronze medal at the Athens Games and was, according to the Times, "considered a favorite for this year's team." He fell when the stallion he was training on an intermediate course in Tallahassee, Florida, crashed into a fence and nearly crushed him.

Chiacchia spent a week in a coma and is now recuperating at a re-hab facility near his home. He is making a very slow recovery. He sustained rib,lung and head injuries and is able to stand for short periods and carry on short conversations. It is unclear whether or not he will ever be able to ride again, which is how he earned his living.

Chiacchia was injured while training for the cross country-phase of a three day eventing competition. Eventing consists of dressage, cross-country and show jumping--the triathlon of equestrian events--and is extremely difficult. Twelve riders have died while participating in the sport over the last year and half.

Proponents of the sport say that there are too many inexperienced riders competing in events over their heads. Detractors say that the jumps being planned in the cross-country phase of the competition are too challenging and, as one participant noted, bear little resemblance to "galloping cross-country over natural obstacles anymore."

Regardless of which side you are on, the fact remains that any activity that involves horses and riders barreling full speed over any kind of obstacle is dangerous. It is dangerous for horses and riders to charge out of a starting gate at top speeds and the more horses involved, the more dangerous it becomes. Every time I see the stampede of horseflesh that thunders into the first turn at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby, I marvel that no one has been killed.

Certain events carry certain risks, which is not to say that we shouldn't take every precaution necessary to make them less risky, but somehow, the thrill of competing against the best in your sport, seems to minimize our perception of the danger.

I don't pretend to have any answers but I do think that those who make the decision to run with the big boys, accept a certain level of risk. And I bet that if Christopher Reeve had been able to, he would have gotten back on his horse.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Running Commentary

One of the things that disturbed me tremendously when I went to the New Holland horse auction a few weeks ago, was the presence of so many Amish buggy horses, trotting at top speeds on paved roads. I know most of these horses are standardbreds who are used to trotting quickly, but I don't believe any of them are used to doing so on hard, paved surfaces.

Running on pavement takes its toll on human athletes; think what it is doing to ankles and bones supporting about 1100 lbs. of weight. To me, it all looked like a recipe for disaster. As far as I'm concerned, no one--human or animal--should run at top speeds, day in and day out, on hard, unforgiving pavement.

Fans of thoroughbred racing know that even running on hard, uneven dirt tracks can contribute to breakdowns and even fatalities. Many racetracks are switching to synthetic surfaces to try and alleviate this variable, but the jury is still out on their effectiveness.

According to a small report in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few weeks ago,"horse fatalities from a new on-track injury reporting program showed fatality rates among horses that run on synthetic surfaces are nearly identical to the fatality rates of horses that run on traditional dirt tracks."

The report goes on to state that the figures for fatalities on both surfaces are nearly identical. Synthetic tracks averaged 1.95 deaths per 1,000 starts over the length of the study; dirt tracks averaged 1.96 deaths per 1,000 starts over the same time period.

There are, of course, other variables associated with equine racing fatalities, not all of them related to track surfaces, but it is indeed interesting that the numbers are so close. I would have hoped that synthetic surfaces would have proved to be less injurious, but then again, not all synthetic surfaces are created equal. Remember those early days of Astro-turf on football fields when it was laid on top of concrete? The new generation of faux turf is laid on dirt, giving it more cushion.

All of which probably goes to show that horses, like people, should run on grass as much as possible if they want to keep running for as long as they possibly can.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Battery Check

The other day I pulled out of my cul-de-sac onto the fairly busy main road only to see a small, white terrier-type darting in and out of traffic. His tail was down and he looked scared to death. Naturally, I pulled over, got out of my car, scooped the small guy up and put him on the passenger seat. I put on the flashers and searched for an ID tag.

His name was AJ and he was my new best friend. No passenger seat for him; he was in my lap, kissing my face. Well, I had saved his life. Now, to find his home. I called the phone number on the tag and told the person who answered that I had their dog. "What are you talking about?" came the startled reply. "He's in the back yard with an invisible fence."

"No, I said. "He's in my lap in my car. Where do you live?" When she told me, I was amazed. This little guy was fairly far from home and lucky to be in one piece. I returned him to a very thankful owner and told her to check the batteries on the dog's collar.

This is about the fourth time that I have returned an errant pooch wearing an invisible fence collar as well as a traditional one (a good practice by the way since invisible fence collars don't come with hooks for pet ID tags). Now I am a big fan of the invisible fence--the buried wire that sets boundaries for your pet by gently zapping them from their collar when they stray--we have one (as well as a traditional wooden one) and would not have been able to keep Phoebe's predecessor, Lucy, without one. That dog could leap a five foot fence without a running start!

But invisible fences run on buried electric wires that can be cut by over zealous gardeners or fence crews. When that happens, you usually hear a loud, shrill noise. But when the batteries in the collar die, your dog no longer gets his gentle reminders to stay put. The funny thing is when they get out free and clear, they are often too scared to go back in because they think they're going to get shocked. So they hit the road, and you know the rest. In other words, invisible fences are only as good as the people who live behind them.

So here's my gentle reminder to check the batteries in your pet's collar if he or she is protected by an invisible fence. Not every pet is as lucky as AJ.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Caution! Blogging can be hazardous to your health, at least according to the front page of yesterday's New York Times.

"A growing work force of home-office laborers and entrepreneurs, armed with computers and smart phones and wired to the hilt, are toiling under great emotional stress created by the around-the-clock internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comments." Some are even dying from the stress, like the late Russell Shaw, age 60, a prolific technology blogger who who died of a heart attack, presumably from the stress of keeping up with the latest high tech information.

Now lest you think that we who are doing this for the fun of it are not under any stress, think again. I refer you specifically to Dr. Patty Khuly's recent post on the topic in which she "outed" herself as a bit obsessed with generating new material. In fact when Khuly recently went on a vacation cruise and was unable to post for a week (despite being told she would be able to), she mildly freaked out. But guess what? She and her blog survived.

Now I understand all about building an audience and keeping their loyalty--what do you think I am trying to do here?--and I also admit to being a tad bit obsessed with finding fodder for daily posts, but I'm a bit obsessive about a lot of things. But some of you may have noticed my recent tendency to post entries late in the day for the next (or maybe I shouldn't give away that secret) which is my attempt to alleviate morning angst on my part and not rise with the roosters.

Which, I think, is the bottom line--keeping it do-able and fun. There may even come a time when I take weekends off--but not yet. I'm still in the building stage and to those of you (bless you...) who receive this on a daily RSS feed, I hate to disappoint.

But fair warning. As soon a it gets to be a chore, I'm outta here.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Lessons From Vet Camp

When my daughter was in between her freshman and sophomore years in high school, she attended a summer program at Tufts university in Massachusetts that she refers to as "vet camp." It was an intensive ten day program in which aspiring vets got to shadow Tufts fourth year veterinary students in the classroom, laboratory, clinics and operating room. There were also classes for the kids and lots of social activities but the highlight for her was watching surgery.

I bring this up because at the end of the program, the school sponsored a program for parents to hear their kids present the projects they had researched during their time at Tufts. One project was about laminitis, and I think it was the first time I had ever heard of the hoof disease. Maybe because it was presented by a self-professed fourteen year old "horse-crazy" girl, or maybe because it was presented in layman's terms with hand colored pictures, but somehow I remember that presentation as being extremely heart rendering as well as educational. The pony tailed rider was essentially pleading with veterinary medicine to find a cure for the disease to which one of her own horses had succumbed.

Here we are many years later still searching for the mysteries of this baffling disease that respects neither age nor pedigree. It has been around nearly as long as the horse and we still don't have all the answers.

I thought about this as I worked my way yesterday through a section of my paper on Barbaro's legacy and the role he played as a "poster horse" for laminitis. Certainly he put the disease on the public radar and attracted funding and expertise to the cause. And I keep remembering him as well as the pony tailed rider who put a face on this horrible affliction.

Here's hoping that one day soon, this disease will truly belong to another age.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Playing in G

This is Nora the cat, a Philadelphia phenom who plays the piano with her two artist owners, one of whom gives piano lessons. Part of this video shows Nora accompanying one of the owner's piano students in Bach's Minuet in G.

Nora has become something of an internet sensation so check You-tube for the recently posted sequel.

What can I say? We always knew animals were smart, this is just more proof.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Oprah Effect

Tivo Alert!!

Set your tivos or VCRs to Oprah this afternoon at 4:00 (EST). She is doing an entire show on the puppy mills in Lancaster County, PA. I have written about the billboards that dot the turnpike outside of Lancaster drawing attention to the fact that Lancaster is notorious for having an abundance of these breeding factories (Lancaster is Home to More Than Amish) and it turns out that it is the man behind these billboards who is responsible for getting Oprah to devote an entire show to this situation.

Bill Smith, the founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester County, PA came up with the idea of putting a billboard about four blocks away from Oprah's studios in Chicago, literally on her doorstep. The billboard read: "Oprah--Please do a show on puppy mills; the dogs need you!"and gave the contact info for Main Line Animal Rescue. A local supporter bankrolled the billboard for a month.

It turns out that within a week, Oprah's producers called Smith and told them they were sold. Smith is the featured guest on the show that includes footage of the horrors perpetrated in puppy mills. Oprah correspondent Lisa Ling came to Lancaster to file the report and get the footage.

Apparently the footage is rather gruesome but the intent is to dissuade consumers from buying puppies in pet stores. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Smith said that this one television show has the potential "to have greater impact than any legislative or regulatory changes" that have been stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate over opposition from breeders, farmers and sportsmen.

Oprah, a well-known animal lover is dedicating the show to her cocker spaniel, Sophie, who died last month and has vowed to adopt her future pets from shelters. "I am a changed woman after seeing this show," she reports.

Now if we could only get her to do a show about horse slaughter...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Barbaro-land and Beyond

I spent some time in "Barbaro-land" yesterday afternoon working on my paper for my class. I call it Barbaro-land because it truly is a separate place for me and when I go there I become caught up in the pieces of the story all over again. I lose track of time and I find I write way too much. The more I learn about different aspects of the story, the more fascinating it becomes and it really never gets old. And just when I think I have something figured out, I remember something else that turns my discovery on its head. This truly is a remarkable tale on so many levels and I find that the levels just keep coming.

My paper for the class is about celebrity illness narratives which is how I have come to view aspects of the Barbaro story. It is remarkable how powerful and influential stories about celebrities' illnesses are in our culture--think Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve and of course, Barbaro. In fact the entire emergence of breast cancer advocacy can be traced to woman such as Betty Rollin and Olivia Newton-John documenting their illnesses. Fascinating stuff.

And so what did Barbaro's story do? You already know the answer. He inspired many of you to heal from your own illnesses. He also inspired many of you to become advocates for equine welfare. And he prompted racing officials to look at track surfaces and invest in research for a disease that has little respect for age or pedigree. He brought many of you together on line and in person and he set an example of courage, dignity and great athletic prowess.

You can probably add to the list but as I told you, the story never gets old. For me, its a gift to be able to revisit it again and again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why Cats Need Nine Lives

There is a most remarkable story in yesterday's New York Times that is so reminiscent of the current anti-horse slaughter debate in the United States that it is actually eerie. See what you think.

Apparently it is still legal in Switzerland, a country where more than 60% of the people have a dog or cat, to kill cats for their fur. This applies to feral cats as well as domestic ones that, according to the article, "stray more than 200 yards from their homes." It is unclear exactly how many cats are being killed each year, domestic or otherwise. Government reports vary from "about a dozen" to "about 2,000" while the members of the cats advocacy group, SOS Chats, says it is closer to "tens of thousands."

And the numbers continue to vary when it comes to estimates of the value of the pelts, ranging anywhere from $5 to $1700 but here's where it gets really weird. Nobody believed this practice was actually happening until three undercover TV News crews caught "tanners who had officially denied trading in cat fur actively doing so and, in at least one case, explaining that cat meat was also available."

All of a sudden, Brigitte Bardot and 122,000 other Swiss citizens signed a petition urging the government to ban the practice. Luc Barthassat, a legislator, has become one of the movement's champions, introducing a bill that would ban the import, export and domestic commercial trade in cat fur. "It is very personal for many people because cats are more than animals to us," he said.

Stay with me here, because, according to Tomi Tomek, director of SOS Chats, this battle has been going on for TEN YEARS because NOBODY BELIEVED IT WAS HAPPENING. "For a long time, nobody believed us because we had no proof," she said. "We would call up the tanners and tell them who we were and ask them, and they would never admit they did this. Then we started pretending we wanted to order some cat fur, and they sold it to us. Now we are not seen as liars anymore."

Politicians admit that the issue will be resolved by this summer because of the negative publicity it is generating for the country. "Switzerland is becoming the place where the most cats are being killed for the import and commerce to sell the cat fur," said Christophe Darbellay, President of one of Switzerland's largest political parties. "We don't like to be seen this way."

So what does it take to convince elected officials that America is becoming the place where horses are being sold for slaughter "for the export and commerce to sell the horse meat" and we don't like to be seen that way either.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

No Fooling

Anyone who has ever trained an animal with positive reinforcement will appreciate Amy Sutherland's book, What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love and Marriage, reviewed in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The book, which was based on Sutherland's article that originally appeared in the Modern Love column of the Times' Styles section in June 2006, details Sutherland's attempts at training her husband based on the techniques she had watched animal trainers use while she was researching her book, Kicked, Bitten and Scratched.

It was a hysterical column--I remember thinking that I should indeed try some of her techniques--and apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so. That column, according to Lori Leibovich who reviewed Sutherland's book, eventually became the "single most viewed and most e-mailed Times article of 2006." No wonder she got a book deal to expand the topic, not to mention a film offer for Kicked, Bitten and Scratched. Dare I say it should happen to me?

Back to the premise. Animal trainers rely on positive reinforcement, usually in the form of food, to mold their protegees. After watching trainers reward behaviors they liked and ignore those they didn't, Sutherland tried the same techniques at home, without nagging. "I noticed trainers did not get a sea lion to salute by nagging. Nor did they teach a baboon to flip by carping, nor an elephant to paint by pointing out everything the elephant did wrong," she writes.

It isn't long before her "cagemate" (her term) is picking up his laundry, not hovering near the stove while she cooks and "shaving more and tailgating less."

While I can't guarantee the techniques will work on all the animals in your life, the premise is fun and entertaining and maybe even worth a try. Please note, however, that not all behaviors are easily or permanently corrected. In fact, I don't remember reading anything about the perennial toilet seat issue....