Archive for May, 2014

Hospital Hysterics

The other day I felt something odd inside my left cheek. At first I thought I had just bitten myself without realising but then I noticed the cheek was actually swollen. Over the next hour or so this swelling engulfed the side of my face and crept towards my lower lip. It then proceeded to spread along my entire lower lip until it looked like someone had gone seriously overboard with the silicone injection. As my lip now felt like it was going to burst and I was concerned about the swelling spreading into my throat and asphyxiating me, I took myself off to the local hospital’s emergency department.

As always emergency departments are a hive of frenetic activity, particularly in the evenings, and I marvelled at all the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff racing about much like bees in a hive. Each one had their job and I was very impressed with the skill and efficiency with which they carried them out. I was examined and treated promptly and courteously and cannot speak highly enough of the staff, even the nurse who blew my vein trying to get the catheter in. I have certainly blown more veins in my time than most people have had hot dinners.

Watching it all swirl by I reflected on my choice of profession and was glad to have picked veterinary medicine over human medicine. The hospital environment felt very confining and I don’t think I have the temperament to cope with that constant stream of people and their various ailments.

This decision is strongly supported by an experience I had many years ago. A friend of mine was one of the doctors in the emergency department at a large American hospital. He had dropped by with a friend of his to visit, and I had shown them around. Now my wife and I were visiting him and I thought it might be interesting to see the emergency department from the inside.

After some cajoling he agreed to let us tag along, as long as we threw on a pair of white coats and pretended to act like medical residents on rotation.

Much of the day passed reasonably uneventfully but then a fellow came in who had been in a car accident. He was not seriously injured but he had tried to ram his head through the windscreen, resulting in a nasty gash to the top of his head. My friend took him into one of the consulting rooms, and we dutifully followed. He then proceeded to clean and disinfect the patient’s head, inject local anaesthetic and start stitching the wound. I leaned in a little closer for a better look and marvelled at how similar human medicine is to veterinary medicine.

It was then that I started feeling a little odd. My wife told me afterwards that she was wondering why I had started leaning against her so heavily. As all loving wives do she stepped aside and I crashed to the ground. Through my rapidly receding consciousness I could dimly perceive the room exploding into chaos. My doctor friend leapt to his feet and began elevating mine. The patient wanted to know what was going on, obviously thinking I had made a rather bad career choice. And I lay on the ground feeling perplexed and confused.

As a zoo veterinarian I was certainly no stranger to blood and entrails, having necropsied elephants, giraffes and even a whale. So what was this all about? I could only conclude that I had some kind of an issue with damaged human skin. To this day it continues to astonish me, the way my body’s unconscious desire to pass out completely overrode my body’s conscious desire to watch the task at hand.

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Run Till You’re Sick

“Running the miles, pretty damn quick. Run through the wilds. Run till you’re sick”

(Going To Mexico, Motörhead, from the album “Aftershock”)

I have finished my six weeks in running purgatory (See “Too Fit To Run” 5/4/14) and visited a new cardiologist, one who looks fit, has Tour de France athletes on his books and seems to understand the concept of exercise. I passed my follow up heart test which means that, as my fitness level drops, my heart rate comes back into the “normal” range. Apparently there is “normal” and there is “normal”. Unfortunately my “normal” is closer to the “needs a pacemaker” kind of normal. But for now I can run again.

In order to try and keep my heart under control I have been put on a modified program of two weeks hard running, two weeks moderate running, two weeks no running, for 18 weeks (three cycles). Then I have a heart stress test and repeat heart monitor assessment. If all is good I assume that will be my foreseeable future. If all is not good then it’s back to the drawing board.

And I am allowed to run a marathon because I don’t have any myocardial scarring. The cardiologist was quite disparaging about my previous marathon result. Apparently, if it takes me four hours to complete a marathon, then I am not running nearly hard enough to damage my heart.

I guess that’s good news but I don’t think I will take up that particular challenge, at least not this year. After six weeks off I feel understandably sluggish and slow. I dare say that will all improve reasonably rapidly but, for now, I think I will confine myself to half marathons and see what happens.

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , , ,

2 Comments

Tom Hafey

Tom Hafey is dead. He was 82 years old and died of a brain tumour. For those not in the know, Tom Hafey was the four time premiership coach of the Richmond Football Club. But that is not what disturbs me. What disturbs me is that he was also a fitness fanatic. He rose every day at 5.20 am went for an 8 km run, followed by 250 push-ups and a swim in the bay. When he got home he did 700 crunches. Despite all this his lifespan was only marginally above the Australian average.

My mother also died when she was 82, also of a brain tumour. While she did not share Tom Hafey’s devotion to physical fitness she was obsessed with diet and nutrition, buying organic and consuming truckloads of vitamins, herbs and various other supplements. She finished up marginally below the average age for Australian women.

I realise that these are only two people and those statistics are the result of number crunching many thousands of lifespans. They do not represent hard and fast rules but probabilities. I am sure that for every fit person who dies prematurely there is a decrepit chain smoker that lived into his nineties.

However, I too have an above average interest in diet and fitness, hitting the gym three days per week and, until recently, running four days per week. And that is why the fates of Tom Hafey and my mother disturb me.

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Dangers Of Bird Feeding For Wild Birds

Found at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/seeds-of-destruction/5416254.

Monday 28 April 2014 4:52PM

By:

Darryl Jones

Up to 80 per cent of Australian households are involved in some kind of bird feeding. So are we creating a generation of bird bludgers dependent on handouts? Associate Professor Darryl Jones takes a look at the science behind backyard bird feeding.

It’s a most unlikely setting for a heated national controversy. Some regard it as misguided and even dangerous. So what is 83-year-old Mrs Rosine Jennings up to that raises such ire from her neighbours and critics beyond?

Every morning a little after dawn, Mrs Jennings carefully prepares a platter of cheese pieces, German sausage and diced heart which she places on a small platform on the balcony of her inner suburban Brisbane apartment. Cup of freshly brewed English Breakfast tea in hand, she sits a few metres away, awaiting her special visitors: a pair of magpies. They usually arrive within minutes. ‘Isn’t it marvellous!’ she declares. ‘Nature, right here in the middle of the city—and to think that some people say that it’s wrong!’

In this instance, ‘some people’ refers to Jack Miller from the neighbouring apartment. In Mr Miller’s forthright opinion, Ms Jennings is ‘a right nutter’.

‘These birds are all common,’ he says. ‘They don’t need any help. And all this feeding is doing is making the bloody things dependent on handouts! It’s a disgrace!’

Mr Miller and Ms Jennings represent two sides of the fence in what is a very Australian controversy: the feeding of wild birds. It’s a peculiar dilemma in this country because, although the sanctions are unofficial and informal, everyone seems to be aware that it’s not really acceptable. There are many reasons for that: the types of foods are wrong, it spreads disease, it encourages the wrong species; and, most prominent of all, feeding leads to dependency on human-provided foods.

These concerns are familiar to feeders the world over. What is interesting is that the negative is unquestionably the predominant perspective in Australia. We all know we shouldn’t feed, and this makes us truly unusual in terms of bird conservation and welfare. In the Northern Hemisphere, the clear message is that the feeding of birds is both kind and good. Indeed, all the major bird and conservation organisations—the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society, as prominent examples—actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘If you care about birds, feed them!’

That message has clearly been heeded; a range of surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Australians, with the ‘feeding is bad’ message ringing in our ears are apparently different from the rest of the world. This was noted with some fascination by British ornithologist Andrew Cannon in a paper on gardens as places for bird conservation. He quotes an undisclosed Australian source as saying: ‘Generally, the more conservation-minded and knowledgeable individuals in Australia do not feed.’

What is truly remarkable about this summation of our national position is not so much the attribution, but the fact that it is so fundamentally wrong. For despite the clarity of the anti-feeding message here, the reality is that the participation rate is about the same as everywhere else. A number of  surveys found that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend their hard earned cash on attracting birds to their backyards. The question is why.

At the most mundane level, many birds are thoroughly adept at spotting foraging opportunities. Discarded food scraps will often attract an eager scavenger. And once these animals are noticed, an almost innate reaction seems to be offer a little something: a few chips for the seagulls, sandwich crusts for the ducks. You can see such public interactions in parks or picnic grounds the world over—with or without ‘don’t feed the wildlife’ signs.

It is, however, somehow different when the interaction is in the private intimacy of one’s backyard. By intentionally offering food to attract wild birds to our back yards, we seem to be seeking something more than a casual encounter. Inviting wild birds to share our table suggests something potentially deeper. For some it’s just a chance simply to see beautiful birds up close; for others it’s a heart-felt assistance to apparently hungry birds. And it can also be a profoundly personal experience—a way of connecting with nature.

A few years ago, my colleague Peter Howard and I studied the motivations of bird feeders in Brisbane. Among the most powerful explanations offered by the people we interviewed was what we academically labelled a form of ‘environmental atonement’. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, these people explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world. Feeders feed for a variety of different reasons, but many care strongly about their birds, and some, at least, do so for broader conservation reasons.

And caring is probably how it all began. In the harsh winters of the Northern Hemisphere the plight of those clearly vulnerable creatures was all too obvious. Offering crumbs to starving robins in the snow would always have been commonplace, a humane gesture to helpless victims gathered at the back door. Slightly more elaborate homemade concoctions such as suet or peanut balls have been widespread in North America and Europe for a least the last couple of centuries. But that was the offering of familiar items from the domestic kitchen, only in winter. Today, all that has changed dramatically.

Beginning in the prosperous post-war decades, a specific and dedicated industry developed to serve and promote the feeding of birds. This has been most evident in the UK and US. The bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually. In the UK alone, enough seed is offered to support 30 million great tits, about six times the actual population of the species. There is also now a distinct push from the industry—but also from key bird and conservation organisations—to feed year-round.

A big part of this stems from conservation perspectives. It is argued that anthropogenic feeding supports populations of species which would otherwise be in worse shape. This has some support in places like the UK, where the single-most important bird habitat is now domestic gardens. There is strong evidence that some threatened birds—such as the song thrush—are surviving substantially because of human-provided food.

But this special case only highlights the stark reality that almost all wild bird feeding advantages the species which are already present and doing well. This is as true in Birmingham and Seattle as it is in Ballarat and Newcastle. Although Australians do feed birds on farms and in regional townships, the overwhelming majority of feeders live in the suburbs of our larger cities. This means that the birds that are potentially available to visit our backyards have already been through the filter of urbanisation. Although there will always be local exceptions, it is highly probable that the species most likely to visit your feeder will be big, aggressive, generalists that have long discarded their innate fear of people. These are the characteristics associated with success in the strange artificial landscape of the urban environment. Put out seed in whatever your city and I predict rainbow lorikeets, crested pigeons and possibly cockatoos; if it’s meat or cheese, expect magpies, butcherbirds and kookaburras.

Which brings us back to Mr Miller and Ms Jennings and their endless arguments; for one, the provision of food is an attempt to get close to wild creatures and possibly assist their welfare. For the other, it’s a potentially dangerous and selfish pastime. So surely, this is simply a matter of collating the evidence and settling this so-called controversy like scientists.

However, the unexpected dilemma for us is that although bird feeding is an immensely popular pastime practiced daily by millions of people all over the world, almost nothing is known about what all it’s doing to the birds. Because all of the food provided is entirely additional to their normal diet, this activity has been described as a ‘global supplementary feeding experiment’. It is an experiment in which the millions of participants are all focused on their own patch, thoroughly unaware of their potential influence on the wider landscape.

What we can say with some confidence, based on a large body of experiments on wild birds, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.

That research, however, tells us rather little about the other concerns associated with bird feeding. What we can say is typically tentative. Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.

And is all that artificial food leading to a nation of, as has been put to me innumerable times, a bunch of bird bludgers? The genuinely good news is that there is no evidence of widespread reliance on the food we provide. Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks.

Whether you like it or not, millions of Australians feed birds. This is almost certainly changing the avian landscape, but they are not going to stop. The best we can hope for, at least until more explicit research is undertaken, is for feeders to follow some simple guidelines like keeping their feeding areas clean; avoiding bread and processed meats and not putting out too much. Consider this: the birds don’t need it as much as you do.

Ockham’s Razor is a soap box for all things scientific, with short talks about research, industry and policy from people with something thoughtful to say about science.

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The Thrill Of It All

“Won’t you help me Mr. Jesus, won’t you tell me if you can? When you see this world we live in, do you still believe in Man?”

(The Thrill Of It All, Black Sabbath, from the album “Sabotage”)

I have now finished Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a thoroughly disturbing and unsettling, albeit excellently written and constructed, book. With a grinding hopelessness, Flanagan describes the atrocities and deprivations endured by Australian POWs at the hands of their Japanese captors, while working on the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. Reading about the astonishing acts of cruelty humans appear to be able to direct towards each other, peaking with accounts of the vivisection of American servicemen while still alive and fully conscious, left me depressed and despairing of the entire collective lot of us.

Obviously this is hardly an isolated case. Having a German heritage, I have spent a lifetime grappling with the fact that members of the same nation that read me bedtime stories, sang me whimsical songs, and developed wonderful Christmas traditions also murdered millions of Jews in some of the most horrible ways imaginable.

Unfortunately it is not something we can shrug off and tell ourselves that it was all in the past. There seems to have been a steady progression from Cambodia to Rwanda to present day Syria to remind us that nothing has really changed, and we are just as barbaric now as we always were. And it is not just “other countries” or “other people” who do these things. Every nation on earth has plenty of blood on its hands. Australians managed to kill enough Aborigines to completely exterminate the Tasmanian race.

And then someone turns around, runs into a burning building and pulls out a complete stranger. Is it possible that the capacity for acts of great courage and sacrifice can only exist because of our capacity for great cruelty? Why should this be so? How can both of these attributes exist within one person? And yet, I have read stories of Nazis who were devoted husbands and fathers.

I have certainly experienced enough firsthand examples of humanity’s amazing ability to display kindness and selfless courage to drag me out of the depths of despair, but I do not think I will ever understand our capacity to inflict pain and presumably derive enjoyment from doing so.

Now I am going to try and find something uplifting to read. Unfortunately positivity does not sell very well.

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Fact V Fiction

I have heard the argument several times that reading fiction is pointless. Why waste valuable time reading stories that aren’t true about people who don’t exist when there are so many excellent true stories? While I do occasionally enjoy the exploits of real people doing real things I generally prefer unreal people doing unreal things, in the same way that I avoid “reality” TV wherever possible.

Fiction is far more versatile. Non-fiction tends to focus on a specific subject, be it history, politics, or relationships. The author adopts a certain point of view and then beats the reader over the head with his (presumably) rational arguments and opinions that support his beliefs. The reader is being lectured at or taught and the book resembles a text book. I would greatly prefer to have the same concepts conveyed within a story. All good stories entertain but, within that entertainment, complex ideas and opinions can be woven, so that the reader learns and thinks without it being quite so heavy handed. In effect the reader gets two stories for the price of one.

I am currently reading “The Narrow Road To The Deep North,” by Richard Flanagan, a novel about the construction of the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. I could learn just as much about this topic by picking up one of the no doubt excellent non-fiction accounts of its creation. However, because this is a novel, it can use a bit of poetic licence to weave the facts of the railway’s construction into a story. It creates characters which, although fictional, are probably based on real people and give the reader a much more emotionally charged ride. Rather than a dry factual account of the railway, we have a much more human story that generates more empathy for the men that were involved. Instead of stating that 2800 Australian POWs died building the railway we find out that Darky Gardiner and Tiny Middleton died making it, fictional characters that have drawn us in and made their struggles a lot more personal.

Fiction is also more speculative, allegorical and subtle than non-fiction. “Animal Farm” is anything but a book about farmyard animals.

Fiction allows the author and reader greater freedom to explore a much broader range of ideas and pose “what if” questions. This is especially important for a fan of science fiction such as myself. I have not had much luck finding non-fictional accounts of possible alternative futures, lichen that allows people to live to be 200 years old or wizards with lightning scars on their forehead.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is a stupid argument anyway as we can have the best of both worlds. There is absolutely no reason to read one while excluding the other. They are both perfectly valid forms of literature and each has its place. Still, wouldn’t this piece have been much more engaging if it had snuck up on you in the middle of a huge rollercoaster of a story full of travelling gypsies?

Dr. F. Bunny

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment