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Mad people, sane ducks

in Featured/Mad Thoughts by

Contemporary research in health care, medical and otherwise, is whackier than you might think. LSD, magic mushrooms, mescalin and other hallucinogenic drugs are not only back in vogue as recreational pursuits for open-minded researchers wishing to experience model psychosis but are the active agents thrown into randomized, double-blind controlled trials and now prescribed as (fairly) standard treatment for certain conditions, especially in palliative care. Animals have also entered the health care scene in official ways, both in somatic/physical medicine and in mental health care and psychiatry. The news that animals may be good for your health may do no more than confirm your belief in good common sense (‘duh’) – here’s another example of research catching up with ordinary good habits. Even this insight should not be overlooked, given how easily it seems many people are willing to cancel out everyday habits and common sense when experts, research studies, or ‘scientific fact’ suggests doing otherwise. Having pets, or, more precisely, being-with domestic animals (possession is not the key here, but rather the mode of life or way of existing that animals introduce) gives you something to do, something to care for, and calms and soothes the over-stressed and harried, which is most of us.

The value of animals

Consider how you are with a cat, a dog, a horse, a bunny, whatever you like, and how that’s different from being with other people. Other people are the best and the worst (to riff off comments I heard from Michel Serres and marked by Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit with the phrase ‘hell is other people’). With animals, especially tame ones, we get something like the best and none of the worst (no judgment, no back-stabbing betrayal, no lies or broken promises, and so on). Animals might thus function as safe people. More specific benefits of being with animals may be more surprising. Their sense of smell, to begin with, might be a great benefit to you; your dog, for example, might be able to smell a disease or disorder before you become aware of it. Those skeptical of a dog or other animal’s ability to communicate that ‘knowledge’ to you should just get a pet (and watch and learn instead of insisting, following most philosophers, that animals cannot think or communicate).

No dearth of ducks at Quidi Vidi
No dearth of ducks at Quidi Vidi either. Photo by Costa Kasimos.

I have learned much in this regard from, yet again, reality TV: this time, ‘Pet Heroes.’ One example: a diabetic who’s dog is able to smell when her sugar level is off and not only is able to communicate that to her human friend (owner) by sitting beside the precise location where the insulin and needle are kept until an injection is performed, but revisiting that location fifteen minutes later (as per medical protocol) to remind the human to check sugar levels following the injection. Given how little we know about smell, how developed many animals are with respect to smell compared to humans (who construct whole industries to erase smell and smelling from our lives, at our peril it seems), and how little we know about the minute differences illnesses foist upon us, the potential for animal care in human health – including mental health – may be enormous. At the same time, if being with animals is considered mostly in terms of property and possession, then ill people being with animals raises some significant difficulties. How, that is, are the animals to be cared for if their owners are ill? While, for example, a severely mentally ill individual may benefit greatly from being with a dog, who’s going to take care of the dog in a time of crisis or hospitalization? Providing animals to the ill in structured, short-term agreements (rather than assuming ownership as the only model) appears a promising avenue and some initiatives of this sort can be found in Canada and globally.

Anyway, about those ducks…

Given my title, you’re probably wondering what the above has to do with ducks and Memorial University. The duck aspect may be a surprise given that ducks are not typical domestic pets but I’ve featured Duck Dynasty in this column before, and the enlightened skeptical attitude about mental illness possessed by the duck hunters, I would suggest, has something to do with their watching, hunting, handling, preparing, and eating of wild animals. But there’s a more direct, local reason for featuring ducks. These billed birds have been headline news at the St. John’s campus of Memorial University in what I would describe as a contemporary local tragedy indicative of the problems of over-administered, over-corporatized ‘knowledge institutions.’ Let me explain.

…the smallest, most basic things that make an environment livable are not considered significant by the powers that be, and that tells me that the more complex matters won’t be handled any better.

There have been ducks on Burton’s Pond, next to the university child care center, for a number of years. All three of my children have been well cared for at that daycare and I’ve had the pleasure of feeding the ducks with Alexandra, Nicolas, and Lily Blue, at various times of busy days. We would pause spontaneously at the edge of the pond and throw in a few bits of bread or crackers, watching the ducks gather, walk over one’s shoes, snap their bills, and happily chomp up this and that. Now that experience is in crisis. Construction around the pond and some mid-level bureaucrat’s fears about attracting rats led to ‘Don’t feed the ducks’ signs around the pond a couple of years ago. What happens next shows how the scientists and other experts employed by the university are regularly ignored in just about all matters of university governance, which are instead handed to administrators or farmed out to expensive consultants for their measured opinions.

After the signs were erected most people, it appears, followed orders and stopped feeding the ducks. Some university scientists complained that following orders in this case might very well endanger the ducks, given that the billed birds had likely developed a dependency on the people-feeders who intermittently came to visit them and be with them. They argued against the rat hypothesis and, given they were scientists – biologists, even! – perhaps they knew what they were talking about. They were not listened to and the signs stayed in place. This winter has confirmed the scientists’ warnings concerning the vulnerability of the ducks. Starting a couple of months ago, dead frozen duck carcasses have been discovered regularly around the pond (in view of the day care where students, professors, and staff send their children to be cared for).

Ducks at Burton’s Pond, Feb. 8, 2013. Photo by Justin Brake.

Now enters my hero, the instigator of the best political theater I’ve seen at Memorial in 17 years (that’s how long ago it was that I first arrived in St. John’s to teach in the Philosophy Department at Memorial and to see my first child, Alexandra, born in my new home city). My new hero is a Professor of Biology named Ian Jones. He had objected to the signs and was dismayed by the corpses. He did not ‘just’ slink away moaning about it. Instead, he packaged up a couple of the frozen duck corpses and mailed them to Memorial’s Director of Public Relations. Fantastic. Kudos and high fives. I have but one criticism: the President should have received a similar package. This is no small matter but yet another instance of the disregard of basic living spaces for people and animals (separately and together) at the university. If attracting and retaining students (and faculty) at the university is really a priority, then lip-service will not cut it and action is needed. Letting what is there deteriorate shows me that the smallest, most basic things that make an environment livable are not considered significant by the powers that be, and that tells me that the more complex matters won’t be handled any better. Hence the small matter of a few dead ducks should be a priority for the highest officer at the university, for the dead ducks are a testament to an uncaring and over-administered institution which is literally squeezing the life out of its animal inhabitants, human and otherwise.

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