Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Abstinence Only? To Arms! Send in the Shag Troopers!

Tim Kreider was inspired by the NYT's Contra-contraception article. Be sure to read the Artist's Statement in the link below the cartoon.

What You Can Do To Fight Against The War on Sex!

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Greatest Threat to America

Despite my best efforts to keep the popular press at bay, shouting headlines cannot always be avoided. Over the past few weeks I have placed the pieces together and have arrived at the conclusion that, apparently, the greatest threat facing our country today is hordes of gay Mexicans wishing to illegally cross our borders so that they can lobby to get married, use all of our oil, and demand that our schools teach evolution. This will, of course, signal the "end times". I imagine that somewhere there is a bible code that predicts this and that an hour long special about it will be broadcast soon on the History Channel.

Remember, you read it here first.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

What? No Mother's Day card? Into the casserole you go!

Oh, the sweet tales of Peter Rabbit! I fondly recall reading Beatrix Potter's stories to my kids when they were small imps. Old Mrs. Rabbit patiently and lovingly tended to her baby bunnies, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and that young rascal, Peter. She was a model of motherly behavior which included the threat of disaster should her bunnies stray too far afield:

'Now, my dears,' said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.'

Then she said she was "going out." Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail remained in their assigned territory and dutifully gathered blackberries. But not the disobedient Peter. He was too tempted by Mr. McGregor's radishes so he defied his mother's orders with near dire consequences. Perhaps Old Mrs. Rabbit should have told Peter something to really put the fear into him. Had Peter led Mr. McGregor to their cozy burrow, and had the farmer prodded around the rabbit hole a bit, Mrs. Rabbit would have returned from her jaunt to the bakery and set to making hasenpfeffer out of her children as an accompaniment to her brown bread and currant buns. In the world outside of Beatrix Potter's anthropomorphized bunnies and pastel Lake District scenes, a mother rabbit will eat her own young if her nest is disturbed. Furthermore, Old Mrs. Rabbit spends most of her time "going out" and visits her nest to feed her bunnies by high pressure lactation for about 2 minutes a day.

It's little wonder that Peter is hiding under the covers. What, is that a spice mixture which Mrs. Rabbit is stirring in the cup?Mama animals, as warm and fuzzy as the concept of the loyal, saintly, self-sacrificing mother might be, can be a ruthlessly practical lot. Check out One Thing They Aren't: Maternal by Natalie Angier and published in the NYT, 05/09/2006.

Oh, mothers! Dear noble, selfless, tender and ferocious defenders of progeny all across nature's phylogeny: How well you deserve our admiration as Mother's Day draws near, and how photogenically you grace the greeting cards that we thrifty offspring will send in lieu of a proper gift.

Here is a mother guinea hen, trailed by a dozen cotton-ball chicks. Here a mother panda and a baby panda share a stalk of bamboo, while over there, a great black eagle dam carries food to her waiting young. We love you, Mom, you're our port in the storm. You alone help clip Mother Nature's bloodstained claws.

But wait. That guinea hen is walking awfully fast. In fact, her brood cannot quite keep up with her, and by the end of the day, whoops, only two chicks still straggle behind. And the mama panda, did she not give birth to twins? So why did just one little panda emerge from her den? As for the African black eagle, her nest is less a Hallmark poem than an Edgar Allan Poe. The mother has gathered prey in abundance, and has hyrax carcasses to spare. Yet she feeds only one of her two eaglets, then stands by looking bored as the fattened bird repeatedly pecks its starving sibling to death.

You get the picture. Motherhood in Nature is not a sentimental Hallmark greeting card. Although my adolescents rest assured that I will not selectively starve one over the other, and they know they will not end up as a roast or stew, they don't call me "Winged Harpy Mom" for nothing.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Marching toward Gilead

We here at the Chimp Refuge have railed on about the Christian Right's incursions into the discipline of evolutionary biology, and their insidious distortions of science in the name of their fundamentalist faith. Their intrusiveness is not limited to the teaching of evolution in public schools. It also extends to public health and an aim to further curtail access to birth control.

While scanning the New York Times last Friday (May 5) this caught my attention: Use of Contraception Drops, Slowing Decline of Abortion Rate. The article focused on a report released last week by the Guttmacher Institute, a "nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education."

From the NYT article by Kate Zernike:

Contraception use has declined strikingly over the last decade, particularly among poor women, making them more likely to get pregnant unintentionally and to have abortions, according to a report released yesterday by the Guttmacher Institute.

The decline appears to have slowed the reduction in the national abortion rate that began in the mid-1980's.

"This is turning back the clock on all the gains women have made in recent decades," Sharon L. Camp, the president of the institute, said.

Granted, Zernike's article isn't the pinnacle of fine reporting, and there's scant emphasis on the discrepancy between the increased rate of unwanted pregnancies among the poor and the decline of such among the more economically privileged. As some wags have noted, the New York Times suffers from a chronic case of affluenza. Still, the data shown in the excerpted bar graph raise questions. Why are fewer poor women using contraceptives? Why is the rate of unintended pregnancies increasing for this demographic?

The researchers blamed reductions in federally and state-financed family planning programs for declining contraceptive use. They called for public and private insurance to cover contraceptives, and for over-the-counter access to the so-called morning-after pill, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after sex.

However, Zernike's mediocre article proved to be the appetizer for the main course: Contra-Contraception by Russell Shorto (NYT Sunday Magazine, May 7, 2006). This proved to be an excellent follow-on to the Guttmacher Institute's report. It's not enough for the religious right to outlaw abortion, and to argue that some forms of contraception are abortifacients. These fundagelicals of Roman Catholic and Protestant stripes see sex without procreation as an evil and a bane of the world. Although a majority of Americans (93% overall and 90% of American Roman Catholics) favors the use of contraception, a vocal minority rails against it, and contradicts evidence-based medicine in its pursuit to restrict access to birth control. Their beliefs have become policy as the Bush administration erodes federal funding for family planning here and abroad. The political machinations which surrounded the approval, or rather lack thereof, for over-the-counter Plan B contraception have been described in detail elsewhere, e.g., Chris Mooney's chapter "Sexed Up Science" in his book, The Republican War on Science.

As a woman, I do not see that Western civilization is threatened by the removal of the procreation factor from the sexual equation. What I see is an agenda to abrogate women's relatively new found freedom from fecundity. Effective and reliable birth control provides us with the ability to enjoy sex with our partners without the worry of pregnancy, a non-trivial health event in a woman's life. Contraception allows women to forge all manner of careers and vocations. Contraception allows those of us who are stay-at-home mothers to better focus on our families and nurture fewer children. Contraception allows poor women to avoid pregnancy and to be better able to pursue opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. Contraception allows women to make the decision not to have children at all. The subtext of the Christian Right's agenda is not just taking away the recreation and replacing it with procreation. The agenda is the subjugation of women.

It's bad enough that the fundagelicals want to criminalize abortion. They also want to criminalize all manner of birth control. One might argue that this is a minority opinion. However, this vociferous minority has insinuated itself into our reproductive health. Look at that bar graph. Read the conclusions of the Guttmacher researchers. Read Shorto's article. Perform a 'Net search to see how Plan B approval was stalled. Although it may be hyperbole to believe we are marching toward some version of Margaret Atwood's grim dysopia, neither should we be complacent.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Literary butchers and a back fat beauty regimen

First hand experience with butchering pigs seems to be de rigeur these days. I stumbled across two recently published articles which followed the general theme of colorful Italian teaches squeamish urban American how to gut a hog.

The first, Carnal Knowledge - How I became a Tuscan butcher by Bill Buford, New Yorker 05/01/2006, begins by the author's procurement of a pig (freshly deceased) from the Greenmarket in NYC. With the pig precariously tied to his Vespa, Buford careens through the streets to his home in Manhattan where he butchers the animal in his kitchen. After this preamble, he describes his tutelage from experienced butchers in a Tuscan macelleria where nearly every bit of the hog is put to culinary use.

The second was an excerpt in the NYT Sunday Magazine, The Modern Hunter-Gatherer, from Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. An interview with Pollan appeared in in the UCal-Berkeley News. Based on reviews and this interview, The Omnivore's Dilemma has reached the top of my reading list. In the spirit of Fast Food Nation, Pollan's book scrutinizes the sources and economics of our food as modern consumers. As part of his explorations, he prepared a dinner for friends from scratch, and I do mean from scratch. Pork was the main course so Pollan set off into the California brush, accompanied by the requisite grizzled Italian hunter, to bag a wild boar for dinner.

Pollan's description of the hunt is nicely crafted. Likewise, Buford's chronicles of his apprenticeship to the maestro macellaio evoke the central place of meat in the Tuscan diet and culture. Buford is less squeamish about the whole business than Pollan is. As a former farm kid, and current omnivore, it was with perplexed bemusement that I read Pollan's occasionally reverential, occasionally anguished scrutiny of first-hand killing of a food animal.

Killing animals for food was a fact of life on the farm. I regularly witnessed poultry beheadings then I looked on as my mother plucked the hen and disembowled it. I was fascinated by the entrails of the birds. As a kid, I saw a steer gutted and cleaned at the local butcher's operation, the "locker" as we called it. I knew the source of my meat-based food and likely, I had even named the animal. The cattle and chickens lived well on our farm. We only kept four or five steers and/or heifers grazing in our pasture at any given time. They also ate cracked corn as a treat. They were contented beasts which lived in a healthy environment. Similarly, the chickens roamed freely around our orchard. We respected the animals, and I felt a detached affection for them. They weren't pets, hence the detachment, but they were living breathing mammals and birds whose lives intertwined with mine.

For some time, I cynically regarded my memory of our delicious, full flavored farm-raised beef and chicken as superior food as a merely nostalgic view through rose-colored glasses. Now, I realize our farm raised meat really was that much better. For quite some time, I kept the image of our free ranging animals lazing about on a small farm at the fore and pushed the reality of crowded feedlots as the source of my steaks, burgers, and roasts to a dusty corner of my cerebral cortex. But Fast Food Nation really did me in. The prospect of cattle eating the offal of their own kind in the form of meal is revolting, not to mention the deplorable conditions of the feedlot and the workplace for the humans slaughtering the animals.

I am fortunate that I have the luxury of being pretty free with my grocery money and to live in an area where I have a wide range of choices in food markets. So, I usually aim toward Whole Foods as the market where I purchase most meat and poultry. The conditions for animals and workers of the Whole Foods suppliers may be marginally better than the Big Ag Biz operations. Pollan's term for the supply chain to Whole Foods and the like is "Big Organic." There is an alternative, short of stalking devil deer in the surrounding woods for my dinner. In this part of the Gahduhn State, there are several small farming operations which cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry and sell the meat as organic. Cherry Grove Farm is an example, and their beef tastes very much like what I remember as a youth. Cherry Grove is an example of what Pollan terms a pastoral food chain. Fewer animals are raised. They roam freely and eat a lot of grass. In fact, these farms are reminiscent of my childhood home. Although I have yet to read the book, Pollan's comments in the NYT Magazine article lead me to believe this is a far more sustainable kind of agriculture, and certainly more humane for the animals.

Back to the fascination which Pollan and Buford appear to have with butchery...Many of us, er, older biochemists are not phased by blood and guts. When I first entered the pharma biz after my post-doc, I worked with enzymes which I isolated from porcine kidneys and bovine adrenal glands. This was quite a transition after working with recombinant enzymes which were expressed in and purified from E. coli. Although my then-employer had some pockets of scientists cloning genes and expressing the corresponding proteins, there was no centralized group which provided these, so most of us biochemists were on our own when we had to find sources for enzymes and receptors. There were a couple of slaughterhouses in the city . I chose to patronize the smaller one. The butchers smirked when I entered the killing floor since they expected me, a young suburban woman, to be squeamish. A guy pointed out a smaller carcass hanging in the locker and told me that it was a German Shepherd. Without missing a beat I replied "Sheep" with a smile. I never flinched as I watched their operation, and finally, one of the guys astutely guessed that I was a farm kid.

Over the course of the year, I popped in to harvest kidneys and adrenals. The guys brought the animals down in a swift and sure manner using a captive bolt. I never witnessed the animals struggle. It was like turning off a switch. The evisceration process was contained and efficient. Copious washes of scalding water were used to keep the area sanitary. When the animal was gutted and hanging, I climbed a small stepladder placed in front of the carcass and dug my bare hands into the back of the body cavity to scoop out the adrenals or cut out the kidneys. That winter, my hands and forearms were exceedingly soft. I wasn't using any extra skin lotion so I wasn't sure why this was until I realized that my moisturizing regimen was supplemented by wallowing in back fat.