New Year, new perspective

By: Walter Straus, MD, MPH, PRIM&R Board Chair

I am beginning the New Year by fulfilling a resolution. Perhaps it’s a sign of age that I no longer race to embrace the latest technological breakthrough. So, here goes my first foray into the blogosphere.

My career has revolved around improving human health, through clinical medicine, public health work domestically and internationally, and, for the past dozen years, research to develop new drugs and vaccines. I have always focused on issues important for human health. I had recognized the importance of attending to animal welfare requirements in bioethics, but had not appreciated this on a personal level.

This past weekend, my family headed off to New Hampshire for a skiing vacation. We left Abbie, our six-year old German Shepherd, at home in the care of dear friends. For much of her life, Abbie had been a difficult dog. She had some alpha tendencies, and didn’t care much for other dogs. In her puppyhood, she had eagerly taken on some large and mature German Shepherds, to establish her dominance. My wife had patiently trained her during her first two years, but general puppy training wasn’t rigorous enough for Abbie. She found it a bit trivial, and required a more authoritative instructor along with a different set of peers. Soon she was in a dedicated German Shepherd class, consisting of 8-10 dogs, marching in procession through a local park. Onlookers wondered whether we were conducting police K-9 training, and always provided us a wide berth. She developed good manners, and was a very smart dog. She could put on a serious expression that I always interpreted as soliciting assignments more complicated than “fetch.” At night, I would put on a mock serious expression, stare her in the eyes, and instruct her to “secure the perimeter.” She seemed delighted to have a worthwhile assignment, and would eagerly run out, bark at the moon, and confidently return to the house.

Abbie was always concerned about the pecking order at home. For several years, we had to be a bit cautious when our young daughter was around Abbie’s food bowl. But over time, she became a wonderful companion to our family and was always attentive to our security. In fact, we would easily recognize whether a knock at the door was by a friend or a stranger based on the cock of Abbie’s head and the directionality of her marvelously expressive ears, and then by her pace to the front door. Whenever one of us was ill, Abbie would instinctively lay at the foot of the bed. And whenever we had overnight visitors, she would station herself midway between guests and family, before falling into a light sleep (keeping one eye open for the unexpected).

One night into our ski vacation, we received a tearful call from our friends. They had returned to our house, and found her dead. The next 12 hours were a blur. A veterinarian performed an autopsy, and made a definitive diagnosis of “bloat.” In human medicine, bloat is a term for volvulus, a paradoxical twisting of the intestines, which results in strangulation, and may lead to death. Bloat is a leading cause of death in dogs, especially large ones. With only subtle warning, Abbie, who had been in wonderful health, had become acutely ill, and then died.

In the past two days, I’ve had a rush of memories about Abbie, and more generally about dogs. Isn’t it remarkable that this species of once wild animals has permitted domestication? Isn’t it also remarkable that certain breeds of dogs instinctively dedicate themselves to protecting their owners, even at their own risk? With those thoughts, as well as our own love for her, we feel terribly guilty at having let Abbie down during the moment when she needed us. We wonder whether we might have been able to save her had we been present, and been able to quickly transport her to the veterinarian. Though that is not likely, we’ll always be troubled. This experience has made me appreciate our moral responsibilities to animals in a new and deeply personal way.

All of which brings me to PRIM&R and the Pillars program. Apart from its leadership in human bioethics, PRIM&R is dedicated to advancing the field of ethics in animal research, which benefits both humans and animals. I have made a contribution to PRIM&R’s Pillars program, and have done so in the hope of supporting future research to advance bioethics – so that future human and animal research can be supported with the highest ethical standards.

Interested in supporting the Pillars of PRIM&R program? Learn more.