Three Paths for Four Chambers
March 18, 2011 2:50 PM   Subscribe

It was Alex St. Martin's gory musket injury that paved the way for cow fistulation, a hands-on method to explore the inner workings of bovine digestion.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (56 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Cow... fistulation...

I love this post already.
posted by Malice at 2:53 PM on March 18, 2011

Yet, the pictures are much more horrific than I was expecting. I've seen this before, but jeez, that must be unpleasant.
posted by Malice at 2:55 PM on March 18, 2011

eeeevvvrrry day you learn something you should believe exists.
posted by clavdivs at 2:59 PM on March 18, 2011

There was an episode of Dirty Jobs that covered this. And of course, it involved Mike putting his hand into the cow via the unnatural orifice. It also reminds me of the scene in Dune when Baron Harkonnen pops his servant's heart plug.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 3:01 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Holey Cow.
posted by George Clooney at 3:01 PM on March 18, 2011 [11 favorites]

I remember visiting one of the ag buildings when I was in college at Iowa State and wondering what sort of obscene science experiment was going on with the cows there.
posted by sanka at 3:02 PM on March 18, 2011

Why are most of the pictures of smiling children? Is this a new after school program? Exactly how does this help dairy? I suppose I have a date with Google.
posted by Malice at 3:02 PM on March 18, 2011

Here we go: Mike Rowe fists a cow.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 3:04 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Put on a fingered shoulder length glove on the arm of your choice.

I am pretty sure it won't be one of mine. I vote for Gene Shalit's right arm.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:08 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

After some Googling, I can see that this is a much more humane alternative to vivisection.
posted by Malice at 3:11 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can't link to the DavisWiki entry for fistulated cow without also linking to a picture of the UC Davis Vet Med Department's fistulated cow float, which used to make its appearance at the annual April Picnic Day Parade.

Picnic Day is Davis' major holiday; it's basically an open house put on by the university. The fistulated cow was one of the main attractions for years, but it was controversial and was finally axed from the agenda several years ago.

The parade float outlived the cow-as-attraction by several years. But, alas, was not in last year's parade. :(
posted by mudpuppie at 3:12 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by En0rm0 at 3:13 PM on March 18, 2011

I came for the cow fisting.

I stayed because there was lots of cow fisting.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 3:18 PM on March 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oh, good grief.

Okay, I grew up just a few blocks from some fistulated cows. We called them "cows with portholes in their sides".

The neighborhood I grew up in was on the south side of Las Cruces, NM, a pretty middle-class neighborhood made up mostly of families with fathers who worked either at New Mexico State University or White Sands Missile Range. The neighborhood was very close to the campus of the rather large university, which started off as an agricultural college, and was also near a highway access which led to the road which led over the mountains to WSMR.

My particular childhood was filled with a lot of bicycle riding all over the southern half of "greater Las Cruces", along streets and irrigation ditches and drainage ditches, and especially over around the fields kept by the Ag school, because there wasn't a lot of traffic there and it was relatively close to home.

I don't know how long I'd puttered around that edge of campus before I noticed that the cows there had these things in them. At the age of 9 or 10, it was like something from a science fiction movie. These animals just had these... hatches mounted in them. They were much more porthole-like than the ones in the pictures in the FPP. I remember taking a flashlight with me once and shining a light down through the glass to see the insides. I also remember seeing a group of Ag students out in the field actually opening one of them up, but I never had the nerve to do that myself and I was only a kid and I shouldn't even be on this field anyway and yeah, that's my bike there by the fence and I was just leaving okay thanks bye.

It wasn't until I was quite a bit older that I learned more about the whole thing. Growing up in Las Cruces was filled with odd bits of secrecy and sci-fi-as-real-life things going on anyway, what with the missile range just right there (and lots of odd tests going on that stopped traffic or had odd flares going off behind the mountains and fathers who couldn't really tell you what they did for work)... Finding those cows, "discovering" them, and seeing them repeatedly for many years without really knowing what the fuck was going on... only kind of fed into the whole air of mystery and wonder I held when I was a kid.

Thanks for posting this. Always a fascinating topic for me!
posted by hippybear at 3:27 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Huh, I've always referred to this as a cannulated cow.

Back when I was a kid I may have even scribed a song with the hook 'Can you cannulate me?' A veritable Hammerstein I was.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:36 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am re-imagining (Lynch movie) Baron Harkonnen with new, more outre proclivities.
posted by everichon at 3:45 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of a scene I think was in From Hell where a young William Gull reaches inside a beggars chest wound and holds the man's beating heart.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:49 PM on March 18, 2011

Rule 34, people. Rule 34.
You're welcome.
posted by PlusDistance at 3:55 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Uh, why isn't it dangerous to the cow to... dear lord... stick a hand into one of these?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:13 PM on March 18, 2011

Great post. I'm jealous I didn't think of this. When I grew up in Michigan, you pretty much had to make at least one trip to Mackinac Island where Beaumont studied St. Martin. The historic site had a reconstruction of the building where Beaumont did his experiments on this, and it freaked me out to no end as a little kid. There was a painting on display there was particularly traumatic and memorable. It was not this one. The one they had there was in a similar style, but you could see more of St. Martin's guts.

That, combined with the fact I went to school at NCSU, makes me kick myself even more that I didn't think of this post.

Fistulated Cow at NCSU, 1956.

Fistulation on Flickr.
posted by marxchivist at 4:14 PM on March 18, 2011

Quick! To the cowhatch!
posted by Ratio at 4:25 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Beef stew inside.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:28 PM on March 18, 2011

for the past week my gaze has been fixed in horror on Japan.
posted by mwhybark at 4:31 PM on March 18, 2011

Perhaps I will start a cow fistulation liveblog.
posted by mwhybark at 4:32 PM on March 18, 2011

I will read lengthy academic papers pertaining to a subject I have never studied in detail, and, relying on my textual analysis skills and basic ability to combine simple arithmetic, spreadsheets, console myself in the absence of informed media coverage of cow fistulation with detailed and plausible guesswork, as is my right and responsibility as the citizen of a democracy.
posted by mwhybark at 4:34 PM on March 18, 2011

the domain resulting from the combination of the syllables 'cow fist u' and '.com' is available.


1. cow fistulation
2. topic fixation/ domain registration
3. ...*
4. Profit!!!

*content gathering and recasting which involves the actual destruction of a human soul
posted by mwhybark at 4:37 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by mwhybark at 4:38 PM on March 18, 2011


I could hire hippybear.
posted by mwhybark at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2011

Heh. Those fistulated cows were/are one of the things that made Davis pretty noteworthy. (See also: bikes, bikes, bikes)

Go Ags!
posted by polly_dactyl at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2011

posted by mwhybark at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2011

Uh, why isn't it dangerous to the cow to... dear lord... stick a hand into one of these?

The port (which, Lutoslawski, is also called a cannula or cannula fistulation), is surgically installed by a veterinarian. Remember from biology, the "tube within a tube" body plan of animals with guts that go all the way through? The reason that it "worked" in the "Guinea Pig Number One" guy was because the inside of the gastrointestinal lining was sealed to the outside of the body, thus sealing of the peritoneal cavity which is what needs to stay sterile. The port is sealed the same way, so that there is no communication between the inside of the GI tract or the outside of the body with the peritoneal cavity.

It's weird to see this on Metafilter. Sometimes it's been my job to show the fistulated cow to the publc. Number one question during the University's annual open house, "Where's the cow with the window?"
posted by zennie at 4:47 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Always put the plug back in

posted by Trochanter at 4:50 PM on March 18, 2011

I feel I should note that fistulation is done for research purposes, not just so people can get all touchy feely with the inside of a cow. There are other ways of achieving that!

Ruminant nutrition is extremely complex and difficult to study because what you feed the cow is not necessarily what it absorbs. The feed is first processed by a whole little universe of microorganisms, which take pretty much everything and convert it to something else. The only reason that ruminants can digest plant fiber is because the microbes do it for them. The microbes produce volatile fatty acids which are used by the cow for energy (the microbes ferment any glucose in the feed). Most of the protein that rumants absorb are microbe proteins.

It's kind of amazing, because these microbes spontaneously populate the rumen, and they just happen to produce the perfect nutrition for the animal. (Well, surely not coincidence, but we don't know how it works!)

Essentially, when you feed a cow, you are feeding the microbes. So we put in the port because it allows us to put in feed samples in nylon bags to see how fast the feed samples get digested. And it allows us to take out samples rumen contents, to try to figure out what's living in there; there are thousands of microscopic species.
posted by zennie at 5:03 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Zennie, thank you for the explanation. It seems obvious now, but I guess I'm so squicked out I didn't even think about it. But still - surely dangerous things could be introduced into the cow's gut, just as ingesting something harmful can make you sick or even kill you... no?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 5:03 PM on March 18, 2011

In terms of germs, it's no more dangerous than letting the cow lick your hand. The microbes in the rumen are fierce competition for anything foreign you put in there. However, you don't really want to open the thing all the time, because (I think) it's possible to give the cow indigestion.
posted by zennie at 5:05 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I see one of these cows all the time. I don't envy it.

Pretty gross.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:47 PM on March 18, 2011

"Rumen with a view"

I've done this. It's warm and feels like compost.
posted by idb at 5:53 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

We had several cannulated/fistulated cows at The Virginia Tech animal sciences farm when I was an undergrad there in the seventies. My buddies and I would take the ocassional evening stroll over to the barns for a peek while buzzed.

Payback for the cow porthole jokes we made is a bitch though, I guess. I now wear an insulin pump, so I am a cannulated human. (The insulin is delivered by a tube through a cannula inserted in my abdomen.)

Cool technology, actually.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:55 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a job once doing the lab work on samples that had entered and left the cannulated cow. We would take, say, Canola seeds treated with acid or mechanically abraded, put weighed samples in mesh bags, and then put them in the cow for varying lengths of time. Then they'd be taken out, weighed, and tested for fat and protein content. We would also analyze the surrounding poop to see what it was like. ("Good thing I didn't STEP in it! Ha ha ha." etc.) Thousands of samples every week, from many cows.

It was an ok job, especially when you think of how they treated the chickens. On the other hand, a discipline (Animal Nutrition) where the whole effort is predicated on squeezing the last gram of milk or meat production out of a cow, is kind of... sick? (No offense to any animal nutritionists in the room, and our cows were very well treated.) It's just that this is the sharp end of mechanized and mechanizing agriculture, and I think there are healthier ways to grow food. Better for the cows, for the land, and for the people.
posted by sneebler at 5:59 PM on March 18, 2011

zennie:I feel I should note that fistulation is done for research purposes, not just so people can get all touchy feely with the inside of a cow. There are other ways of achieving that!

This is both disturbing AND arousing.
posted by dr_dank at 6:21 PM on March 18, 2011

The last "huh?" i recieved in accordance to this fine post was when i worked at a hardware Store and someone wanted the catalog on "swine products" in particular, pig nipples and oral solution Pig Iron.
posted by clavdivs at 6:22 PM on March 18, 2011

As an undergrad in dairy science, we always loved making the cow sneeze when the cap was out and elementary school kids were gathered around. It takes days for that smell to wash out. In retrospect, we were jerks.
posted by wintermind at 6:37 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

On the other hand, a discipline (Animal Nutrition) where the whole effort is predicated on squeezing the last gram of milk or meat production out of a cow, is kind of... sick?

On one hand, we need to feed people, and unless the demand for milk and meat changes (which I'm all for), that aspect of animal nutrition is not going to change either.

On the other hand, don't leave out the other purposes of animal nutrition. How do you know the nutritional requirements of a pet canary? Or a cat? Or a dog? Alpaca wool is really great-- how do we feed them so that they are healthy and content and have strong coats? What if we would like to breed some endangered birds that we have in a zoo, and want to make sure their eggs don't come out thin-shelled? What about all the mice used (whether we like it or not) for cancer research?

And if you can figure out domestic animals, even though a large motivation is because people want to eat them, you can figure out all sorts of related species. If you can figure out how a cow works, you're closer to understanding an ibex, a mouse-deer, a hirola, and an okapi.
posted by zennie at 7:30 PM on March 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


posted by entropone at 8:02 PM on March 18, 2011

I just want to say, that story of Alexis St. Martin is one of the most interesting stories I've ever read. Worthy of an FPP all on it's own, and the reason I'm still addicted to Metafilter after all these years. Thank you so much, CJP.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:35 PM on March 18, 2011

This seems like a much better place to put your spare keys than, say, a fake poop or something.
posted by brundlefly at 11:04 PM on March 18, 2011

...which naturally brings us to hardware disease and cow magents.
posted by ryanrs at 12:22 AM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I must be a real city boy because I had never heard of this before. The countryside is a strange, scary, and bizarre place.
posted by three blind mice at 12:53 AM on March 19, 2011

Wow, that Alex St. Martin link ... to this place? WOW. I can hardly get my mind around the existence of a 'zine like that.
posted by mykescipark at 1:02 AM on March 19, 2011

In addition to what Zennie said: the old way to figure out ruminant digestion was to run digestibility experiments. The animal is fed the test diet, part of it comes out in the dung and the ratio between the amount of nutriments not excreted (i.e. the nutriments that have been digested) and the nutriments fed is the digestibility. This method is non-invasive and works well in many cases. However, it's lengthy, costly and is inefficient or useless when you want to investigate rumen mysteries, or the digestibility of single ingredients that can't be fed at 100% to the animal. The nylon bag method is both more precise and much faster. It's quite popular in developing countries where researchers need to determine the feeding value of lots and lots of forage species. The current technique was invented by Bob Orskov, who's something of a legend in animal sciences.
posted by elgilito at 6:30 AM on March 19, 2011

I saw one of these when I worked at Eli Lilly.

It played a starring role in my dreams for many years thereafter in which I would try to reconcile my feelings about my involvement in the pharmaceutical industry.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2011

Talking 'bout cow fiiiiiistulation...
posted by Bromius at 8:30 AM on March 19, 2011

I've been to several farms and research facilities like that. Now, for my anecdote that no one else has mentioned:

In the days when this sort of procedure was new, they used a football to create the porthole. That's right, they'd stick an uninflated football into the tract and slowly inflate it over a few days.
posted by mikeh at 2:44 PM on March 20, 2011

Why can I not stop myself from wondering what would happen if you pooped in the cow hole
posted by tehloki at 5:19 PM on March 20, 2011

Please let this be the next body mod craze.
posted by Theta States at 9:39 AM on March 21, 2011

Ewwwwww tehloki. Why? Because you have issues.

What would happen? You'd possibly have an unhappy cow who didn't want to chew her cud. Cows spend about 12 hours a day chewing, which stimulates saliva production, which in turn buffers the rumen contents with bicarbonate and prevents a literally sour stomach (rumen acidocis). Unchecked, it could have serious health effects. Then again, it's possible she may not notice, but you, tehloki, would still have issues.
posted by zennie at 10:46 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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