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12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Veterinarians

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The career of a veterinarian is among the short list of jobs that kids imagining their futures often dream of. To be sure, stepping into the shoes of Doctor Dolittle has many rewards, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Here are a few insights that veterinarians have gained from their years of experience.

1. THE JOB IS A LOT MORE DANGEROUS THAN SOME PEOPLE REALIZE. 

A lot of people go into the veterinary profession planning to care for pets and cute, furry critters, but the job is not all purrs and wagging tails. “Any dog will bite you if you put them in a position where they’re frightened,” says Sue, a veterinarian in New Orleans, who explains that even with normally gentle dogs, vets and staff must use caution at work. Even cats can be dangerous, particularly because it is difficult to read their body language. “Cat bites can be nasty,” says Sue. “A bad one to the hand could end your surgical career.” And that’s to say nothing of large animals like horses, exotics like monkeys, and infections like rabies or plague. “If a monkey spits in your eye, it can be really bad news,” Sue says. “Some carry a strain of monkey herpes that is lethal to humans.” In addition, vets encounter all kinds of things that are both hazardous to health and really gross—like maggots and open wounds. 

2. IT’S ALSO UNPREDICTABLE.

Being a veterinarian involves a tremendous amount of variety, both in terms of situations encountered on a daily basis and different animal anatomies. While the vast majority of patients encountered at a regular vet clinic are dogs and cats, vets also see their fair share of rodents, birds and reptiles. This sometimes means that a lot of creativity and problem-solving ability is required. “Once a hamster came in with a broken leg and needed a splint,” Sue says. “We ended up making one out of a syringe.” 

3. OWNERS SOMETIMES REQUIRE AS MUCH TREATMENT AS ANIMALS.

Since the patients cannot speak for themselves, veterinarians spend a great deal of time communicating with their human owners. “To an extent we’re treating owners as much as patients,” Sue says. Talking to owners who are very attached to their animals requires a lot of tact, as does laying out treatment options to those ill-equipped to afford them. “When owners are short on money, it is tough,” Sue says. Dr. Eleanor Acworth, a mobile veterinarian based in Dutchess County, New York, adds that it can be very difficult “convincing (owners) to do what’s right for their animals. Some people don’t listen,” she laments. “They would rather pay for a fancy cellphone than to get their cat neutered.” 

4. VETS KNOW WHEN YOU’RE LYING.

“If you say that your dog only eats x cups of food, but he looks like an ottoman, we know you’re not telling the truth,” Sue says. “No, he’s not just big-boned.”

5. BUT THEY ARE NOT PERFECT PET-OWNERS THEMSELVES.

“I’m a much worse pet owner since becoming a vet,” Sue admits. “Before vet school, I was maybe a little overprotective. Now I've probably gone the other way because I'm like, ‘Oh well, I'll just put him back together myself if he gets broken.’ My dog started coughing recently and I thought ‘oh, kennel cough.’ I didn't even do an exam on him, I just kept him home from the dog park until he stopped coughing. But,” she stresses, “I'm a professional with the experience to recognize when things are about to get out of hand and the skill to intervene—this is not what I would recommend to clients.”

6. THEY DEAL WITH DEATH FREQUENTLY. 

An unfortunate part of being a vet is euthanizing animals who are old, sick, or whose owners simply can no longer afford their medical treatment. “I have worked shifts where I didn’t have a single patient walk out alive,” Sue says. That sort of circumstance would be unimaginable in human medicine, and it can understandably be very hard on vets, who can suffer compassion fatigue and burnout. 

7. EVEN VETS HAVE THEIR FAVORITE ANIMALS.

Acworth says that her favorite animals to work with are cows, which is probably good since she sees so many of them. She cautions, however, that “de-horning them is the worst.” She is not a big fan of llamas, however, because of their tendency to spit, sometimes on the vet caring for them. 

8. DOGS LOVE TO EAT PANTIES. 

People leave all sorts of things lying around that are hazardous to pets. “Don’t leave your panties lying around,” Sue says. “Dogs love to eat them, and they can cause a gastrointestinal obstruction or lead to surgery. Same thing with tampons. Dogs also love eating marijuana.” But just like owners who bring in fat dogs, people who bring a stoned dog into a clinic often lie. “I’ve had owners bring in a dog who is acting in a really bizarre manner,” Sue says, “but when I suggest that he may have gotten into someone’s weed, the owner says ‘Oh, I would never have that around.’” Once again, vets know when you’re fibbing!

9. “EXOTIC” IS RELATIVE.

“Pretty much anything that is not a dog or a cat is considered exotic,” says Sue. However, that landscape can change pretty quickly in the realm of farm or zoo veterinary medicine. Acworth, for instance, deals with a lot of farm animals in her daily rounds, including llamas. “Llamas do count as farm animals, not as exotics,” she says. “They give hair, and they serve a purpose.” Without question, though, the kangaroos Acworth works with at area petting zoos count as exotic. “They are such cool animals,” she says. “Their tails are solid muscle—really almost like another limb.”

10.  SURGERY CAN RAISE AN APPETITE.

Sue describes performing cosmetic surgery on a cow and using a cauterizing knife to remove a wart. “It smelled like beef,” she says. 

11. THEY DON’T MAKE A LOT OF MONEY.

Many vets graduate with high amounts of debt, often upward of $100,000, but often don’t make that much money, particularly when compared with their human doctor counterparts. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2014 median pay for a veterinarian was $87,590, compared to $187,200 for physicians and surgeons.) But for many veterinarians, the profession is a lifelong passion. “I pretty much wanted to be a veterinarian my whole life, like most of us,” Acworth says.

12. THEY DEPEND ON THEIR SUPPORT STAFF. 

Vets cannot get through the day without their dedicated techs and assistants. As Sue says, “we depend a lot on our support staff to help us do our jobs safely. It's a team effort, and we couldn't do it without them. The receptionists have one of the most difficult jobs in the vet clinic in handling the front desk, as they are the first line of people interacting with clients that may be very emotional. Behind every good vet is a team of hard-working, caring individuals invested in the task of helping people help their pets.” 

All images courtesy of Getty 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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