Saturday, June 19, 2010

Report from the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference

We are pleased to share this reaction to our May 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference from conference participant Dorris Heffron, author of City Wolves. More reports to follow...!

For more than a decade now, I've been researching and imagining the life of a fictional first female veterinarian who graduates from vet college in the 1890s. Meg Wilkinson I named her in my novel, City Wolves. She becomes the notorious 'dog doctor' of Halifax and eventually the lone vet in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush. I haven't stopped seeing things from Meg's point of view. So, 'what astounding progress has been made', I kept thinking as I stood before the illustrious gathering of predominantly female veteran veterinarians at this year's OVC Symposium on Veterinary Medicine and Literature. The symposium itself led by the first female dean at OVC, Dean Elizabeth Stone and she partnering in this project with Hilde Weisert who is also a poet. Astounding!

As a writer of realistic fiction and one who doesn't like to mess with history, I was anxious in my presentation to assure this veteran pack that I was diligent in my research. The rest of the time I could relax and wolf down a two day feast of info on the topic.

I came away from the symposium with an unforgettable, strong and clear impression of how veterinarians are highly influenced by literature and are also talented producers of it. All that added to my own experience of how inspiring the lives and work of veterinarians are to writers.

I have since read presenter Dr. Sid Gustafson's novel Horses They Rode. A stunningly original stylist with a strong, vivid narrative, telling an important story of connected-ness in nature, animals and people through the lives of ranchers and indigenous people with horses, cattle and grizzly bears. Uniquely American, yet profoundly universal.

And I'm now part way through another presenter, Dr. Helen Douglas's memoir, William's Gift, having to exert great discipline to set it aside while I do my day's work. It is so engrossing! Another talented writer. It's exciting to read the first book of memoirs by a Canadian veterinarian who is a woman. And how refreshing to find that it is real and honest recording, therefore truly informative. There are a lot of 'memoirs' these days that are in fact creative writing, glorifying or re-writing lives to make them more entertaining or virtuous. Douglas tells the truth and is it ever interesting!

Dorris Heffron

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships

Erika Ritter will be a keynote speaker at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference, May 9 through May 11, Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Canada.

We're pleased to report that Erika Ritter's fascinating book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, has just been issued in paperback (March 25, 2010) in time to coincide with our upcoming conference. This post reprints a short review followed by some words from Erika on the origin of the book.

When The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath was originally published last year, Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Dean at Ontario Veterinary College, wrote the following in conjunction with a reading Erika gave at the Bookshelf in Guelph:

In her new book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, Erika Ritter, a familiar voice to listeners of CBC radio, seeks to “reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in our relationship with animals”. The central theme for her book is the age old story of the master who leaves his faithful dog to guard his child in his cradle. Upon returning, the master finds the dog spattered with blood and the cradle overturned. The master assumes the dog has attacked the child and immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then does the master find the child safely beneath the upturned cradle and the remains of a bloody poisonous snake lying where the faithful dog had killed it. Thus is demonstrated the paradox of even a trusted and favoured dog being condemned and killed without a moment’s hesitation.

Drawing upon extensive research and interviews with experts spanning the globe, the author takes the reader on a wide-ranging trip through the complex world of human-animal relationships. For example, the author questions how Temple Grandin, who designs improved animal handling facilities, can justify the ‘humane slaughter’ of the animals she loves. But she also recognizes that Grandin’s focus is on ‘practical solutions’ rather than abstract concepts. On another journey, Ritter visits a compound for ‘retired’ research chimpanzees where the co-founder points out that “they’re still in prison here. But it’s a better prison”. The author contrasts the lives of these primates with the 150,000 dogs and their owners who converge in Toronto during the annual Wolfstock event. This mass of dogdom is described as ‘big dogs in bandanas panting along the pavement, little dogs sporting peaked caps peering out of backpacks…small comedies of strangers becoming entangled in each other’s leashes.” Again, there is the difficulty of reconciling the attention and money lavished on these dogs with the thousands of dogs that are relinquished to shelters because they no longer have value to their owners.

Throughout her book, Ritter covers many of the animal-related issues of our times such as horse slaughter, horse racing, dog shows, animal ‘whisperers’, and the Ontario pit bull ban. Ultimately, the paradox of human-animal relationships is not so much about the animals, but about us as humans and our use and misuse, attention and rejection, and attraction and repulsion towards the animals themselves.


Erika talks about the writing of her book:

It’s one of the oldest stories in the world. Before leaving the house with his wife, the master sets his faithful dog to guard their only child, slumbering in its cradle. Soon after the parents’ departure, a servant enters the child’s chamber and makes a horrifying discovery: the dog spattered with blood, the cradle overturned, and the infant nowhere to be seen.

When the master and mistress return to confront this gruesome evidence, the man immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then is the cradle turned upright--to reveal the child, still slumbering peacefully and entirely unharmed. A moment later, the bloodied, tooth-marked body of a venomous snake is found in the corner where, after killing it, the dog had apparently flung it.

The more I have thought about the story, the more its simple specifics have come to embody some of the contradictions I see at the heart of humanity’s relationship with all animals. The fact that we claim to love what we so often end up killing . The guilt that the abuse of their innocence can inspire in us. The impulse to assuage that guilt by making animals seem complicit in their use, abuse and even death. Our need to pamper and celebrate the chosen few as a means to offset our unease about our casual dispatch of the many.

The Dog by the Cradle represents my adult journey into the implications of those and other paradoxes. One branch of the trail takes me to the heart of the story of the dog by the cradle, and a real-life cult of worship that arose literally from his corpse. Another path leads to conversations with animal advocates, philosophers, activists and academics about their personal methods for dealing with the many disparities between humanity and non-humankind. Yet another fork in the road takes me into some of the factual, fictional, and downright mythical ways in which humans seek to resolve the contradictions in the bonds between us and them.

For me, researching and writing this book was the trip of a lifetime. Since publication, it’s been my pleasure to invite readers along for the ride.

-- Erika Ritter

The Blue Hour of the Day, by Lorna Crozier: A review

A series of reviews of books by authors featured at our 2010 May 9 through May 11 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference. These books will be available at the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario for the conference.

The Blue Hour of the Day. By Lorna Crozier. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. 252 pp. Paper $22.99.

Reviewed by Hilde Weisert, Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature

“Non-human animal” – that’s what we say, these days, to show we know that a simple “animal” refers not only to “them,” but to all of us. No such qualified terms are needed in Lorna Crozier’s world. “Animals” in all their manifestations – two-footed or four, serpentine or feral; crawling out of the sea, grazing in the pasture, or dancing on the sand – are vividly present throughout the poems in Crozier’s wonderful The Blue Hour of the Day, a selection from eight major collections of her work over a distinguished career.

Where animals appear in these poems – which is on almost every page – it’s rarely for Crozier to contemplate anything as distant as our relationship with them. Instead, they give form to our own desire, delight, devotion, or sense of loss. “What Comes After” begins:

    I am my own big dog.
     Walk, and I’m at the door;
     eat, and I take what I offer,
     lie down, and I curl on the floor,
     my heavy head between my paws…

As in Denise Levertov’s “Talking to Grief” (“Ah, grief, I should not treat you / like a homeless dog”) the dog is the – dogification? – of loss, but the poem’s dogness is so true that it honors both the real canines in our lives, and what we make of them.

These are poems teeming with life and its constant transformations, a lush shape-shifting where the fox travels across the night and “One minute he’s a cat, the next a coyote” (“It Is Night”). The heart is “a winter hare. Soft-pawed and quick” (“Remember the Heart, Little Mole”); a snake is “the first saxophone / in the world” (“The Start of the Blues”); the soul is “bright-eyed / and feline, each paw placed/so carefully” (“Evolution in Moonlight”). Light – another constant presence – is also physical (in this case, equine!), needing a “shape to move inside, / a likeness tawny and thick-maned” (“Apocrypha of Light”).

Crozier’s metaphors are no mere literary device to show how two disparate things are alike, but the rich reality revealed by her glorious imagination. In the whimsical and memorable series, “The Sex Lives of Vegetables”, even vegetables are sentient and sensual. I urge you to read “Cauliflower” or “Brussels Sprouts” aloud tonight while you prepare dinner.

Like that time of day the book is named for, the creatures in The Blue Hour of the Day are always on the verge of turning into something else, being and becoming their inner and other selves one paw or mouth at a time. When you read this book, you will know again why the word “animal” has its origins in “anima – breath, soul”. You’ll also understand something new about poetry, the tame, and the wild, and have had much pleasure in the process.

If a Poem Could Walk

     It would have paws, not feet,
     four of them
     to sink into the moss
     when humans blunder up the path.

     Or hooves, small ones,
     leaving half-moons in the sand.
     Something to make you stop
             and wonder
     what kind of animal this is,
     where it came from, where it’s going.

     It draws nearest when you are most alone.
     You lay red plums on your blanket,
     a glass of cool cider, two sugar cubes,

     knowing it is tame and wild –
     the perfect animal –
     knowing it will stop for nothing
         as it walks
     with its four new legs
     right off the page

If, indeed!

Lorna Crozier will be doing a public reading the evening of May 8 at the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario, and speaking at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty: A review

A series of reviews of books by authors featured at our 2010 May 9 through May 11 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference. These books will be available at the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario for the conference.

Dog Years: A Memoir. By Mark Doty. HarperCollins, 2007. 224 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Dean, Ontario Veterinary College

“One of the things that being a vet is about is the continual restoration of hope, bringing back the possibility of companionship, making a stage upon which love can continue.” Thus, Mark Doty explains his view of veterinarians and their work in his New York Times bestseller, Dog Years. Doty has written a memoir from a time in his life when his dogs, Arden and Beau, gave him the will to live after the dying of his partner, the disaster of September 11 in NYC, the persistent awareness of mortality. The dogs were always “a door toward feeling and understanding”, and were their own source of joy and sadness. Throughout the lives of his dogs, he interacted with veterinarians who made the situation better or worse depending on their own abilities and talents and the moment in time on the life continuum of the dogs.

Young aspiring veterinarians choose their profession because they care about animals. However, in the eyes of the patient, the veterinarian may not be viewed as a friend – and the animals themselves may not be at their most lovable. Doty relates how veterinarians ‘never seem allowed to see his (Arden’s) charming side; in the doctor’s office, he’s nervous, exasperated and self-protective’. The challenge for the veterinarian is to create and sustain a relationship not only with the owner, but also with the patient - and at the same time take into account the nature of the bond between the human and the animal. The health and well-being of the patient and the satisfaction of the client is only possible when this triad of relationships is understood and honoured.

Of course, veterinarians are only one part of the life of dogs and their people. Doty’s stories of his own dogs are intertwined with his perceptive observations and insightful meditations on the lives of humans and lives of dogs. The daily needs of dogs keep us ‘tethered to the ordinary world of responsibility and schedules’, dragging us out of isolation and sorrow because their very lives depend on our reliability. At the same time, their unfettered devotion to us is part of their contract with us that ‘dogs take with ultimate seriousness’. As Doty so eloquently expresses, ‘being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavour than being a dog....they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it....they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.”

Mark Doty, a National Book Award winner for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, will be doing a public reading the evening of May 9 at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and is a keynote speaker at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium.

Read Mark Doty's wonderful sonnet, Beau: Golden Retrievals at the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature website.

The Second Blush, by Molly Peacock: A review

A series of reviews of books by authors featured at our 2010 May 9 through May 11 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference. These books will be available at the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario for the conference.

Go to Molly Peacock's websiteThe Second Blush. By Molly Peacock. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008. 85 pp. Paper $17.99.

Reviewed by Marie-France Boissonneault, PhD, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Molly Peacock’s The Second Blush is a collection of poems that captures life’s everyday routines with a reflective and emotional depth. The book is divided into four sections with each part exploring a socio-psychological or philosophical facet of relationships, love, and marriage. Peacock has a notable propensity for highlighting errors as is especially evident in The Cliffs of Mistake in the opening section to her closing poem The Flaw. Each section within Peacock’s quartet concentrates on a familiar emotional meeting point from loss, friendship, conflict, and devotion. Her poetry has an inspired quality that allows the reader to gain personal insight and perspective into matters that may haunt or illustrate their own lives.

In the first section of her book, Peacock addresses the theme of ‘a domesticated life’. From picnics to dishpans, she appears to question her own actions and that of others through a deep contextualisation of human behaviour. In The Cliffs of Mistake, Peacock paints a vivid metaphorical image to illustrate our inability to always gage the repercussions of our choices. She probes the reader to examine their own actions and contemplates the interpretative importance of allegorical reflection. As many readers and analysts invariably experience in their own lives, a seemingly mundane event can act as a trigger to explore underlying questions of one’s being, behaviours or relationships. Peacock eloquently manoeuvres through familiar liaisons and draws the reader to join in thought with her lyrical examinations of daily life. Ferocity in a Dishpan is an especially fine example of how Peacock takes a seemingly mundane event and transforms it into a moment of self-reflection.

The second section of The Second Blush invites the reader to examine the more intense nature and complexity of close relationships. Peacock highlights themes that are common to the individual experience such as personal conflict and its resolution, emotional pain or trauma, and the acknowledgment of one’s feelings and personal perceptions. In this part of the book, Peacock closely examines some more poignant experiences without the use of figurative language to veil the difficult subject matter that she confronts.

However, as we move into the third section, we are refreshed from the cathartic experience of the previous section, and travel into the security of moments and relationships that bring us comfort, remind us of the importance of our emotional bonds, and highlight the difficulties that make up the tapestry of our memories. Equally, Peacock’s fourth and final section offers solace in the act of remembrance as is evident in Quick Kiss and as is illustrated through the humour of passionate encounters in Our Minor Art. In Marriage, Peacock recognises the influence of people in our lives who may be overlooked or easily pushed to the wayside. She demonstrates how we are shaped by the presence of those who love us and who we love.

Peacock has the gift of enticing her readers to attach their own experiences and memories to the grace of her words. Her work is clever, rich, and delicate enough for her audience to either accept her illustrative language, or equally participate in sketching their own unique image, perceptions, experiences and memories. The Second Blush is a collection of works that tempts the reader beyond the role of spectator to personally engage and metaphorically sail away in search of meaning, and reel in the recollection of the events that mark, enrich, and contribute to the human condition.

Molly Peacock will be doing a public reading the evening of May 9 at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph.