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Into the Abyss

Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - 01:45 PM

fistulated cow, rutgers, tim howard, barry jesse Tim, Lily, and Barry at Rutgers. (WNYC)

Thanks to the very kind folks at the New Jersey Agricultural Experimental Station at Rutgers, I was able to visit their fistulated cow, Lily.  I met up with Clint Burgher, the Director of the farm, and he introduced me to professors Carol Bagnell and Barry Jesse, and Preshita, a student who studies the microbial populations of the rumen. The fistula allows them to witness a wildly complicated ecosystem – it’s basically a tangle of alliances and hostilities between bacteria, viruses, fungi, and bacteriophages.

Barry Jesse at Rutgers

Barry showing how it’s done.

I would’ve guessed that for a cow, having a rubber tunnel implanted in your side would be like drawing the short straw in life…but Clint said it’s the exact opposite. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for cows that no longer produce milk, and they’re usually shipped off to the slaughter. By winning the fistula lottery, Lily has effectively lucked into that rare thing, the bovine golden years. She is now in her eighth year of retirement. But does she know that? Is she happy to have a fistula? Hard to say. I have no idea if the word “happy” applies to a cow, but through the whole visit she seemed totally placid and content, even when I was rummaging around in her lunch.

Tim with the cow

One thing that doesn’t really carry over the radio waves is the smell of a cow’s rumen. Every few seconds the rumen contracts on your arm, a strong but kind squeeze, and gas from deep inside shoots past your arm and into your face. It’s a noxious, poisonous smell (“primarily butyrate, and the C5 and C6 gasses are pungent as well,” explained Barry), but since your arm is being held hostage by a cow’s stomach, you just have to take it. The look of horror in these photos is me realizing why Mary Roach told me to bring nose clips.

Tim at Rutgers

As luck would have it, a Future Farmers of America class from Woodbridge High School in Bridgeville, Delaware, was taking a tour of the farm the day I visited. A few of them were brave enough to take a tour of the fistula.

Future Farmers at Rutgers

Rutgers cow

Closing the cow.

Closing the cow at Rutgers

Many thanks to the folks at Rutgers, and to Lily.

Lily the fistulated cow


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Comments [24]


I think it is good that they have the holes in the cows sides so that you would not have to put a cow down just to look at their stomachs. I think it is a lot easier to have the hole in their sides. Most of the cows that have had it since they were calf's so once they get older they would get used to it if they it done all of the time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mar. 21 2016 08:16 PM

This is sick and disrespectful to the animal. Everyone in the podcast was just laughing at this without even touching on the whether the cows mind having their insides touched whilst alive.

Sep. 12 2015 03:05 AM

It's not about whether the cow is content or not (although I'm guessing that the rescued cows at places like Farm Sanctuary are probably happier than ones with man-made holes in their side into which people regularly stick their arms). The question we need to ask is whether humans have the right to cut a hole in her side to begin with. And yes, the cosmetic and meat/dairy industries do terrible things to animals, but that fact is irrelevant to whether procedures such as fistulation are ethical. And to Ethan, who suggests we try educate people about the meat and cosmetics industry (and I would add the dairy industry to the list of offenders), you're right, we should do this, and I try to whenever I have the opportunity. But to say one method of abuse is "worse" than another is irrelevant. The level of harm we inflict upon animals is, of course, important, but even more important is the idea that harming animals is not even our right in the first place. I'm a great fan of Radiolab and generally love your features, but the idea that this practice is hailed as "cool" by the hosts disturbs me.

Jan. 28 2015 03:47 PM
Larry Willis from Petoskey, Michigan

I was pleased to see the comments from Giff from Philadelphia and Amanda from Chicago. Fort Mackinac (pronounced: MACK-in-awe)is on Mackinac Island, a major tourist destination in the Straits of Mackinac at the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The five-mile long Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The city at the south end is Mackinaw City, which is spelled differently but pronounced the same way. William Beaumont's house is close to the fort on Mackinac Island. There is a hospital in Royal Oak (near Detroit) named after him.

Jan. 25 2015 04:34 PM
Mary from NY

My husband has his intestines coming out of his stomach and there are many noxious smells that come from that too. I would like to think of Lily as his cow alter ego. Don't worry folks.. If we can do it to people with holes in their sides and have them lead a happy life, I'm sure Lily is just fine!

Jan. 22 2015 03:56 PM
Marv Hanner from Juda. Wisconsin

Very interesting, but there is a problem. "Lucy" does not appear to be a cow. Female bovine, yes, but cows give milk. The photo of her rear does not show evidence of a bag or teats. She appears to be a heifer, a female bovine that has never given birth.

Jul. 09 2012 06:56 PM
Ethan from San Francisco

I, too, prefer to see animals living free and natural. But, seriously, people should pick their battles. Although strange and different, this "abuse" is so trivial compared to what is done to animals for your cosmetics and your grocery store factory meats. This helps children and adults learn about biology and other animals. If you are outraged by this, instead of venting it here, go try to get someone to not eat factory meat.

Also, keep in mind, this is not so weird. Many humans are out there with fistulas to their gut and living pretty good lives. They wear clothes so you don't see it. Would they prefer not to have the hole in their belly? I guess they probably would. But, would they prefer that hole to death? I think so. So, even if you believe that all animals have feelings as valid as humans (which I agree with), I think we can relax a bit more about Lily.

May. 21 2012 03:32 PM

I have to wonder how many of the people commenting on this have ever actually lived and worked with cattle. I lived on a farm of free-range beef cattle in my youth and anyone who's seen a distressed cow will tell you that the cows you see being palpated via a fistula are not distressed.

As Emily Smith notes, cows are not hard to please. A cow is many things (I am even quite fond of cows, really, to the point that I at times have difficulty eating beef) but intelligent and discerning it most certainly is not. It's probably not even aware of the fact that it has a hole in its side or that it's any different from any other cow, other than that at times someone stands it somewhere and it feels some tickling on its side and then a weird gut sensation. Which, to be honest, the cow probably forgets soon after. Again: cows are not particularly clever. I can't emphasize this enough.

The cows in those pictures and in every fistulated palpation video you have ever seen, were they distressed, would be making their distress known. Cows in distress will vocalize extensively. Once you've heard an unhappy cow you will never mistake the sound again. Eventually they will get shifty, and their faces clearly show their unhappiness. And then, as I know from experience, SOME distressed cows, if sufficiently stressed, will not hesitate to engage in a tangled fight-or-flight response and will get the heck out of there and kick whatever they need to do to achieve it, up to and including your well-meaning cow handler trying to usher them into the right pasture.

This cow is fine. She is totally chill. To term fistulation research "abuse" is patently ridiculous.

Apr. 30 2012 03:33 PM

The level of disrespect and disregard our species has for other living, thinking, and feeling creatures is absolutely horrifying. As are the claims that we are doing these kinds of "experiments" for the beef bearers benefit. Just imagine a small defenseless human child who has been caged and fistulated as is being gut probed daily by throngs of half-curious, half-revolted aliens who are incapable of comprehending her cries for mercy and release. If we wouldn't do it our own children, then we probably shouldn't do it to other defenseless creatures that we been given guardianship over and depend on us for their existence.

I am sick of people claiming to know what animals feel and insist on assuring us that they feel no pain when they tails are docked, or they are force-fed to the point of vomiting, or have their beaks removed to keep them for pecking each other to death in cages where they can't even turn around.

Apr. 23 2012 07:21 PM
Margaret from 80026

What I would have liked to know is how St. Martin could have survived with a hole in his stomach? Wouldn't the food fall out?! Wouldn't bacteria get in and kill him?! I'm so surprised that Jad and Robert didn't address how someone can survive with a hole in his stomach.

Apr. 20 2012 04:24 PM

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned anything about the vagal nerve ablation experiment. I think the conclusion as presented by the story to be slightly misleading. The vagal nerve is expansive in it's connections and integral to many parasympathetic processes, probably the most important cranial nerve. For the lays and non-phds the parasympathetic system is is the "rest and digest" system. And is well known to modulate ones "anxiety levels" thus it is no surprise cutting it will thus not allow for any anxiety reducing autonomic function. In addition to losing this one parasympathetic behavior I'm sur it also loses most all ability to regulate heart rate effectively swallow properly, breathe properly etc. But I'm guessing a conclusion of the study isn't that lacto-basillus helps us breathe. I should also say that I'm sure the conclusions of the paper were much thorough than the explanation given in the show and I love the show an the study was intriguing and awesome. Just wanted to put this critique, because I don't think that cutting the vagus nerve proves bacteria help you keep your cool. Instead it only illustrates the vagal nerve helps the mice keep there cool...and if the bacteria is doing something it is through the parasympathetic nervous system (which is sort of obvious in the first place).

Apr. 10 2012 06:27 PM
Amanda from Chicago

I was so excited to hear this podcast, I actually threw up both of my arms at my desk. My grandfather was heavily involved in the restoration of Ft. Mackinac, and he actually built an animatronic exhibit showing Dr. Beaumont dipping meat-on-a-string into the soldier's fistula. I don't know if there's any surviving film of the exhibit, but thanks for bringing back a great memory!

Apr. 10 2012 02:10 PM
Giff from Philadelphia

Please, if you're going to tell a story about a pioneer in gastro intestinal medicine, at least pronounce the name of the fort correctly! Fort Mackinac (pronounced: MACK-in-awe), is one of the few things us Michiganders have left to be proud of so please, next time do your due-diligence.

Apr. 10 2012 12:54 PM
Shellie from Chicago

Was I the only one who was really hungry after that last segment?

I'm no advocate of experimenting on animals, but if you can't take hearing about it then this is not the show for you. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, so to speak.

Apr. 09 2012 04:45 PM
Jeff Whitmore from NYC

I feel bad for all the poor bacteria that were put into that yogurt.

Apr. 08 2012 01:27 PM

I'm sure there are worse conditions for a cow. But the abuse suffered by this animal does not justify the knowledge we get from it. We accept the worst possible conditions for others as long as their suffering is not obvious/gruesome enough to make us uncomfortable. We can live with farmed animals suffering because we're not sure exactly how bad it is. We live with "others" working in sweat shops as long as it's not the severest of inhumane treatment. We should expect the best for others as we do for ourselves. It may be cliche to say it, but anything less brings us closer to accepting things like genocide. Much resources, including knowledge, came to those who have exterminated other groups. It does not justify the cost.

Apr. 07 2012 09:27 PM
MW from Baltimore, MD

Am I the only one who thinks this is totally awesome? The first time I heard about the cow-fistula was in the documentary King Corn.

It really opens up your mind and makes you realize how superstitious we all are about violating a creature's 'sanctity' - that somehow your guts are 'sacred' because they are inside you, are you, in some sense. Not so much.

Apr. 07 2012 03:03 PM
Ashley Nam from Brooklyn

I found this whole "Guts" story fascinating but I'm really disturbed about the Cow fistula. I just really hate to see any sort of experiment made upon animals by humans, especially to see an open hole implanted on a cow where millions of hands are roaming around their intestines? It seems a bit involuntary and I'm sure a "happy" cow is one roaming free in the fields with other cows. I'de wish we follow different ways of discovering, through the help of all our advance technology, not animals.

Apr. 07 2012 12:07 AM
Rick from CA

I need to take back the comment about Jad and Robert. I listened to it again, and my memory was faulty. They did not laugh at St. Martin's treatment.

I still find St. Martin's story more offensive than the cow, but apologize to Jad and Robert.

Apr. 06 2012 08:10 PM
Rick from CA

What I found more disturbing was how they discussed St. Martin and how he was treated by Beaumont. Essentially, Beaumont, by their description, intentionally botched a non-elective surgery, then turned St. Martin into an invalid. Beaumont then proceeded to experiment on St. Martin for years, much of which was admittedly uncomfortable and sickening to St. Martin. St. Martin was forced to withstand this torture because he had no other way of supporting his family. Even in death, it continued: his family had to wait for his corpse to rot before they could bury it. And this evokes laughter from Jad and Robert. In what world is this funny?

Apr. 06 2012 07:55 PM
Emily Smith from Laramie, Wyoming

I thought every university had a fistulated cow . . .

For people who think that a fistula would make a cow unhappy: you haven't met a cow. As long as they have ample food and drink, a post to scratch against, and a temperate place to stand they are as happy as they ever get.

Putting a fistula into the rumen is not a terrible thing, although animals that are not ruminants (such as horses or humans) are not able to have fistulas due to the different nature of their digestive systems. It is seriously fine for a cow, and the things that researchers have learned from fistulated cows have made life better for cattle, as people better understand their dietary needs through the digestive processes as well as other useful and fascinating things.

Apr. 05 2012 06:59 PM
mc from nyc

yes, happy does apply to cows, but not these ones.
if you'd like to see what a truly happy cow, pig, goat, chicken looks like, you should visit a farm animal sanctuary or watch some videos from the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

Apr. 05 2012 01:51 PM
Cesar from Los Angeles

Free Moomia!

Apr. 05 2012 01:37 PM
Lauren from NYC

Is this how this poor cow spends her retirement? Stuck in a pen with tours of people shoving their arms inside her? These cows should be respected and are not ours to exploit. We do not need their milk (their babies need it!) nor do we need their meat. Cows do have emotions - especially when their babies are taken away so they can be immediately milked - and deserve a better life than we have decided for them.

Apr. 05 2012 01:32 PM

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