Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tom Tries to Put His Hand Inside a Cow (Ahwaz, Iran)

When I first saw the cow with the fistula, it was as if I was floating above my body. The cow, like me, had a two thousand yard stare. Cows have a conflicted mix of curiosity and fear, and I felt much the same way as it did. We sniffed in the air at each other.

Dr. Mohsen Sari was one of our local hosts for the Ahwaz dust conference and is the advisor of our translator, Fazel Almasi. Dr. Sari is an assistant professor in Animal Sciences at the Ramin Agricultural and Natural Resources University. After our conference, Fazel had to tend his cows’ rumen (stomach) every two hours around the clock as part of his studies. The fistula is a hole in the cow’s side so researchers can put food directly in (or out of) its stomach. 


When Dr. Sari asked us “You want… to put your hand inside a cow?” I don’t think he was expecting so enthusiastic of a response from us (“Oh h*** yes!”). Normally he has to coerce technicians or students to do it and was surprised that this is how we wanted to spend our last morning in the city.

He met us on his day off to open the facilities where he does research. The animal science department has a mix of experimental farms and chemistry labs where they study everything from the medicinal properties of marigolds to cheap ways to keep chickens.

DSCN1860And sheep… lots of sheep


Licking their own noses seemed to be a pastime.


Staring was another pastime.


The bovines got into it too.

Herding sheep into the pen

As we drove to the site, Dr. Sari tried to describe the suffering that happens during summer dust storms. It sounded like sucking on a tailpipe while sitting in a brick oven. The heat was brutal and relentless; we were never quite sure when he was using Celsius or Fahrenheit.

He ran his finger across the face of his car stereo and sighed at the smudge. He had just cleaned it. It was a new car and already it was having a host of mechanical problems. It was the same with his laptop and the lab equipment. He shuddered to think what it was doing to his one-year-old infant. His contract meant that he was going to be in Ahwaz for at least eight years.

The experimental farm had an ark’s worth of animals. There were dozens of cows, sheep, chickens, and at least one buffalo and a cat. Wild ferrets roamed the university grounds, looking much like prairie dogs. There may have been an ostrich pen, but it was empty at the time. Dr. Sari led us around the site wearing a formal suit and crisp white shirt. He would have likely worn a tie were it not considered Western and Un-Iranian.


Dr. Sari (left) dressed for the occasion. Kitty is wearing a trench coat and headscarf- as one does on the farm. 

When someone says “it smelled like a barnyard”, that person is usually talking about something other than a barnyard. However, I can confirm that a real barnyard smells just like you would imagine it.

After petting our third cow, it dawned on us that we were probably disqualifying ourselves from overseas travel for years to come. I was picturing the immigration/customs arrival cards we often have to fill out in airports:

Have you visited a forest, had contact with animals or visited properties that farm or process animals or plants? Have you had contact with biological cultures, fertilizers or other agricultural products? Have you been camping in a place that is muddy or dusty? Have you been in a malarial region? Are you bringing in large quantities of cigarettes or alcohol [we can’t help ourselves at Duty Free]… Are you carrying any gifts given to you by strangers [in Iran, you can’t travel 500 yards without someone giving you a gift]…


Kitty, seconds before making herself an enemy of Customs agents.


A cow nibbles on my pants.


My view of the situation


The view from my pants

The cow with the fistula (hole) looked just like any of the others except that it had a large white plastic cork (cannula) in its side. The stopper plugged a hole that was kept separate from the cow’s hair by a black cloth square. The purpose of the fistula is to take out partially digested food from the stomach. There are a few galleries of cows with fistulas. Although the cows don’t have much feeling in their stomach, I eventually decided it was probably unethical for me to reach inside for the sake of entertainment and that looking was enough.  


The fistula is the white plug near the center of the photo.

Next to the pen for the cows was a large artificial insemination station where they collect the goods from bulls. Dr. Sari is a maven of animal husbandry and regaled with facts about the fascinating sex lives of animals. Apparently, lesbianism is rampant among domesticated cows- when you see a cow yawning, she’s actually savoring the pheromones of her lady friends. Also, ostriches mate for life.


What it looks like when something feels fear, curiosity, boredom, and excitement at the same time.

Later in our trip, we visited a camel farm (not with Dr. Sari) and learned more than we ever cared to know about those guys. Camels don’t like being watched during sex, so to block their view from humans they’ll gather in a ring and have sex in the middle. If you hurt a female camel, the male camel will come bite your shoulder.


A camel smiles at us (on a farm near Kashan… the camel farm wasn’t a research station, we just visited it to make sure our outrage from Customs agents was going to be thorough.)

Also, if you interfere with a camel’s sense of sight and smell (e.g. put a blindfold on and rub aromatic oils under its nose), he will have no reservations about mating with his mother. But if you pull the hood off or return his ability to smell mid-performance, he’ll realize what he’s doing and feel such shame that he’ll stop immediately and then bite off his own member.

The mind reels, there’s so many questions. How did they discover this? Who is doing this kind of thing for the first time? And how did they do it enough times to declare it a pattern? Who would do research on this, with controlled experiments? And if that’s not enough husbandry for you, google “camel dulla”… or “koala bellows”. Do it after lunch though. 

Later, Dr. Sari showed us his chemistry labs where his samples are analyzed. The workstations were clean, with each instrument having an essential dust cover. The dust shortens the lifespan of the equipment considerably, and Dr. Sari prizes his devices.


A dust cover protects the gizmos

One of the most challenging things about being a scientist in Iran is getting hardware to do his work. The embargo makes anything specialized and technical a factor of two or more times more expensive than what one might pay in the US or Europe. Also, anything that could be used in biological/chemical/nuclear weapons development is tightly controlled. Some researchers have to turn to the black market with its extortionist prices.


A laboratory centrifuge

Dr. Sari withCentrifuge

Dr. Sari with another centrifuge, a spinning device for separating materials of different densities


On the left is a dielectric radiation-emitting gyrotron for rapid thermal enhancement of samples… also known as a microwave oven.


Some of the controlled machines (like centrifuges) are needed for Dr. Sari’s legitimate food and animal sciences research (never mind others’ work on water quality). He walked around the lab, proudly introducing each instrument. His new realtime PCR machine (used in DNA research, shown above) was clearly his favorite; he lovingly petted its case and his voice got higher when we talked about what it could do. “This device though” he tilted his head forward and looked at us over his glasses is “extremely restricted”.    

Tom and the Water Cycle

Outside the labs, the university buildings were decorated with murals. One was about environmental quality. On one side was neglect- deforestation, erosion, and ruined homes. On the other was prosperity- fisheries, crops and community. In both cases, the water keeps flowing.


  1. thank you for writing all of these, you wrote everything with every detail.

  2. love the watershed mural!
    fistulas, yeck!