Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Horror-show Eyes

For some reason - perhaps because we're such a visual species, perhaps because it's a sensitive structure - eye things tend to freak people out. My own older sister told me, when I graduated vet school, "You know, I always wanted to be a vet when I was little."

I goggled at her. "Then why aren't you? You're more than smart enough."

"One day I was in the vet barn and I saw someone doing an operation on a cow's eye. I knew right then that this was not for me," she said.

Huh. What do you know. She's not a squeamish girl, my sis, and she's very accomplished in any number of areas, including taking care of the basics on her own livestock. But the eye thing got to her.

I've had the most hysterical phone calls on emergency regarding eye stuff. One time a woman called me in a complete weeping panic because her dog's eye was out of the socket. I admit this is a serious problem, but the owner was so panicky that I said, for the first time ever, "I need you to be REALLY careful when you drive in to the clinic."

"What does my driving have to do with anything?" she shrieked at me. "I just want you to come help my dog!"

"I'm on my way," I said, "but I'm concerned about you getting there safely. It's dark and the roads are icy. Ditching your vehicle isn't going to get your dog to the hospital faster."

"Fine!" she spat at me, hanging up. I drove in to the clinic and found the owner pulling in just ahead of me. Well, at least she got there in one piece. I did my intake quickly and sedated the dog, who indeed did have a big scary-looking proptosis, a condition in which the eye has been pushed out of the socket and is residing on the OUTSIDE of the eyelids, rather than behind them, where it belongs. I will grant you that this is a horrific-looking sight to most people; the eye is bulging and red and the normally-glossy cornea is often dried to a dull, sticky, dead-looking mess. The eye appears enormous, since we're not used to looking at the entire globe of the eye, just the relatively small portion normally visible through the open lids. It's common that the pupil is dilated, so the blue-green deer-in-the-headlights gleam of the tapetum (the reflective layer that glows when bright light illuminates an animal in the dark) is usually creepily visible, even through the gummy dead haze of the dessicated cornea. Often enough there is hair or dirt or other debris stuck to the surface; this is deeply distressing to many people, since we all know what it feels like to have even a single hair or a tiny speck of dust get in our eyes, let alone having gobs of the stuff plastered all over it.

Once the dog was asleep and safely intubated, the woman draws a deep breath and lets it out on a long, tremulous sigh. Her entire frame relaxes. Now that the dog is in my hands, and the responsibility is out of hers, the truthfully quite warm and pleasant person she actually is resurfaces abruptly. She smiles at me.

"I'm so glad you told me to be careful on the way in. You were right; even trying to be careful, I almost put the van in a ditch."

"Well, these kinds of eyes are pretty creepy-looking," I allow. "Nearly everyone freaks out when they see them."

I set to work trying to replace the eye in the socket. Unfortunately, our victim is a sturdy little cattle dog, a breed that typically has a normal to deep-set socket and a tight eyelid. That's unfortunate in the sense that it generally takes more trauma to proptose that kind of eye than it does to proptose the eye of, say, a Pekingese, who normally have large, prominent eyes in a shallow socket, and who can occasionally proptose their eyes all on their own, with no outside forces applied. Somewhat more unfortunate is the fact that the proptosis is of unknown duration, but probably at least a few hours old; the owner had been loading firewood with her family, the dogs running around in the dark as they did so. The owner had heard a short spat between the dogs, but thought nothing of it; the dogs were still running around, and there was no squealing or clinging other sign that there was a problem, and it was already too dark for the owner to get a good look without a concerted effort. Cattle dogs are stoic and tough, in general, so it probably didn't cross this dog's mind to complain about a little thing like having your eye hanging out of the socket.

Because there are a pair of small nicks in the eyelids, I assume that a face-bite during the dog squabble is the cause of the proptosis, though of course there's no knowing for sure. Unfortunately, that had occurred almost three hours previously, so there's bound to be significant swelling behind the eye now. Whee. My job just got more difficult.

Replacing a proptosed eye is deeply satisfying, in part because it's just wrong to have your eye hanging out on your face, and it is therefore very rewarding to put it back where it belongs. It's also satisfying because the procedure is kind of slick, and it just looks so cool when you pop it back into place.

Naturally I start by lavaging the eye with saline to get all the stuck-on gunk off it and to try to rehydrate the cornea as best I can, discovering in the process a broad but fortunately superficial corneal abrasion. That should heal without incident. There's a large and slightly bulging hematoma on this dog's sclera (the white of the eye), but no punctures. If the globe was not intact, this dog would be facing an enucleation, where we remove the ruptured eyeball. But so far, so good.

Now comes the tricky part, where I have to set some stay sutures in the lids. This involves setting a suture that passes from the lower lid to the upper, whist skipping over the protruding eyeball. This is a bit of a challenge, because the stay sutures should be set as close as possible to the edge of the lid, which is, quite naturally, deeply hidden behind the bulging curve of the eyeball. Since I don't want to poke the eyeball itself, this requires some careful manipulation. However, I soon have three stay sutures set, long ends trailing above and below the eye, the middles loosely arched above the globe. Under these arches I slip the well-lubricated and bladeless handle of a scalpel, pressed flat against the eyeball, while with the other hand I gather up all six of the ends of the stay sutures.

Now comes the fun part. Using the scalpel handle to push down on the globe, I pull on the stay sutures to draw the edges of the eyelids forward. The lid edges stretch to accommodate the girth of the eyeball - a larger stretch than they were ever intended to make, but one which, after all, they've already done once tonight, when they let the eyeball pop out - and presto, the eye is back in its socket.

It's still bulging, of course; there's swelling and maybe some bleeding behind the eye, making it press forward, and there may be some tearing of the quintet of muscles behind the eye. I'm concerned in this case about that, as well as damage to the optic nerve. I warn the owner that the dog may still be blind, and that if the muscles behind the eye - or the nerves that run them - were too badly damaged, the dog's eye set may never be strait, and that it might not be able to rotate the eye normally and synchronously with the other eye.

"I don't care," the owner says passionately. "I'm just happy the eye is back in the socket."

I slather on a large amount of antibiotic ointment, remove my stay sutures, and stitch the eyelids together over the dome of the bulging eye. This applies pressure to the eye to encourage it to go back to its normal anatomical position, as well as protecting the cornea; the dog won't be able to close her lids completely on her own until the eye sinks further back into its socket, and if she can't close the lids the cornea will dry out and be prone to further injury. The cornea is not fond of either circumstance, I assure you, so it will be much happier being smooshed behind a perfectly good pair of eyelids, even if they are sewn shut. I've used stents - made from sections cut from a piece of a red rubber French catheter - to prevent the sutures from pulling through the eyelid, so the dog has short hyphens of red decorating her upper and lower eyelids. She looks as if she is trying to signal us in Morse code (but all she can say is "O, O" - which may not be inappropriate, under the circumstances.)

I recover the dog from her anesthetic, advising the owner on medications to go home, timing for rechecks and sutures out, and the possible complications, such as secondary glaucoma and eye infections, reiterating the possibility that the dog may be blind in that eye. The owner absorbs all this happily, a rapt expression on her face, and asks intelligent questions. She takes her groggy but ambulatory dog out the door a short time later, pockets rattling with pill bottles and a with a wry promise to be careful on her drive home.

The dog did well in some respects; her corneal abrasion and scleral hematoma healed up completely. Unfortunately, she apparently had some optic nerve damage; while she seemed able to distinguish light and shadow on the injured side, she did not have normal vision. The retrobulbar muscles were damaged as well, so that her eye always tilted up about 30 degrees from true, although it could move laterally in concert with the other eye. But she never did develop glaucoma, and the eye remained comfortable and somewhat functional for the rest of her life. It wasn't a perfect outcome biologically, from the point of view (so to speak) of the eye; but both the owner and the dog were happy, so in the end I guess it was good enough. There was literally no more I could have done; trying to repair the retrobulbar muscles or the optic nerve would have been well beyond my skills and my training. I'm not sure even an ophthalmologist could have done more, given the time elapsed from the onset of injury to the onset of treatment, but in any case it was a moot point: there was at the time none available in the state of Alaska.

I became quite fond of that owner. It still makes me smile to remember how abrupt and complete her transformation was from frantic and strident to her true personality, which was uniformly kind, warm, pleasant, and generous. All it took to reveal that was the simple transfer of responsibility for the eye disaster from her hands to mine. No other emergency or extremity ever produced such a reaction in her, either; she had to have been stressed well beyond her normal limits that night.

Horror-show eyes will do that to you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost in Translation

Sometimes, especially when I am deeply tired or having a migraine, I'll have a little mental lapse and substitute one word for another. Usually this will take the form of a similar-sounding word beginning with the same letter.... "county" for "country", for instance. Luckily, even when tired, my ears still work, so usually I'll hear myself say the wrong word, have a little internal "Eh...?" and correct myself. Usually. I'm sure this accounts for some of the mangling of medical terms we hear from our clients.... but maybe not all of it.

One of the entertaining things about the brain is how it sometimes places new and context-less information into the best approximation it has for a context. Doubtless there's some theorized mechanism for this and it probably has a name of which I am unaware. However, it does sometimes lead to amusing requests from clients. One of my receptionists (and former office manager), SS, who has been in the biz for over 30 years, has a tale or two to relate. For instance, one day a client came in and asked for her dog's leprosy medication.

Eh? Leprosy? As this isn't Texas and we hadn't recently treated any armadillos, SS is fairly certain they don't mean leprosy.

"Let me just pull your chart," SS says. She peruses it quickly. Ah. Here it is. The dog doesn't have leprosy; it has epilepsy. Those are almost the same, right? (Well, at least you can kind of imagine how those particular brain wires got crossed.)

Another time a client remarked that the doctor had told them their dog was a tomb-lilly. SS is mystified. She can think of no disease or condition that sounds like "tomb-lilly". Again, she goes to the documents for clarification, and pulls the record. Turns out the dog is a cryptorchid, a male with one or more undescended testicles. It makes a neat sort of sense: A crypt is like a tomb, an orchid is maybe kind of like a lilly. Tomb-lilly. Of course. How silly of us. We know just what you mean. Kind of an elegant little mental side-step, really; the brain took what context if had and used it to keep the two alien words together. Still, given the funereal association that sometimes goes with lillies, I have to wonder what mental image the client had of this condition.

There are words that none of us expect the average client to know: Nystagmus, blepharospasm, epistaxis, urticaria, countless others. We aren't surprised or dismayed when terms like those come up mangled, although we ARE sometimes confused. Most of the time, this is cause for no more than a temporary blip before we're back on the same page again. Sometimes, though....

One night - or early morning, really - when I was an intern, a woman came screaming into the clinic at approximately 4:30 in the morning. She was carrying a laundry basket full of shar pei puppies.

"I need five cc's of detracycline, STAT!" she shouted.

"Stat"? Really? It might be wrong of me, but my estimation of what this client really knows about medicine takes a sharp and immediate dive. I myself have never used the word "stat" in a medical context, nor do I recall anyone ever saying it (except in jest) during the entire four years of vet school. Moreover, having worked with any number of clients who are medical professionals in their own rights, not a single one of whom has ever come blasting in during the wee hours demanding things "stat", I immediately suspect that this client's medical knowledge comes primarily from television medical dramas, where they LOVE to use the word "stat". Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge there is no such drug as "detracycline", and why would I allow a client to diagnose and prescribe medications for their own pets anyway? They can do what they want at home, but if they're in to see me, even if I agree 100% with their assessment (which sometimes I do), legally it has to be me who makes the decisions about treatment and medications. That's what that whole veterinary licensure thing is all about.

I search my mental banks. The closest thing to "detracycline" I come up with is tetracycline, an antibiotic. Tetracycline is a calcium chelator, though, and is therefore not generally given to puppies, as it binds into their bones and can cause enamel dyscrazias.

"There's no such drug as detracycline," I say mildly. "If you mean tetracycline, we don't give tetracyclines to puppies." Before I can ask her what concern she has that makes her want an antibiotic for her puppies, she interrupts me.

"You HAVE to! They're DYING! Oh! Oh no!" she exclaims, her attention returning to the basket of peacefully-sleeping puppies. She grabs one and shakes it roughly, so that it wakes up and starts to make plaintive little cries. She feverishly cycles through the puppies until all of them are chorusing in their thin, warbling newborn voices.

Observing this with some bemusement, and not at all clear on what she believes is the problem, I ask her, "Why do you think they're dying?"

"Because they stopped breathing!" She exclaims. "Are you stupid?" She goes back to jostling puppies, as some of them have fallen off to sleep again.

"They haven't stopped breathing," I say patiently, "they're just sleeping. It's the middle of the night, after all," I point out, with mild asperity.

"No, they're DYING! They stop breathing all the time! My breeder who I got my dog from told me this happened to her litter! She told me that if it happened to mine, I needed to get detracycline, 5 cc's right away!"

I get out my stethoscope and listen to the puppies. All of them have steady little heartbeats, and all of them - even the ones not crying - have normal breath sounds.

"They all sound completely normal," I tell her. "All of them are breathing fine, they all have normal reflexes, and they all have good color."

"No! They're DYING, I tell you! You have to call my breeder! Call her right now!" she demands.

"Ma'am, I'm not going to wake someone up at quarter to five in the morning about normal puppies," I tell her.

"You HAVE to!" she demands. "She told me to call her any time day or night, so you have to call her right now! She'll tell you!" she adds, in a slightly triumphant tone, as if savoring my future comeuppance at the hands of her wise and experienced and all-knowing breeder, who obviously knows a great deal more about medicine than some stupid doctor.

Sigh. I consider for a moment. Is there a better way out of this? Well, it's now coming on five, an ungodly hour to wake someone, but I don't see a way of getting this woman to calm down or leave the hospital without a lawsuit otherwise, so I give in. I take the breeder's phone number and, with great reluctance, dial it.

"Hello...?" says a sleepy voice.

"Ma'am, this is Dr. H calling from the veterinary hospital and I am very sorry to bother you at this hour, but I have Mrs. X here with a litter of shar pei puppies. She said you were her breeder and that it was okay to call you at any hour. I hope that was correct," I add.

"Yes, that's fine," she says, sounding more alert. "What seems to be the problem?" Bless her.

"Well, she feels that the puppies are having trouble breathing," I say, carefully not saying that I think so, since I don't. "She says that you told her that when your own puppies were having respiratory problems, your vet gave then five cc's of something called 'detracycline'...?"

The woman laughs merrily. "No, no," she says. "Five milligrams of dexamethasone."

"Oh," I say, looking pointedly at the fuming client. "Five milligrams. Of dexamethasone."

"It's the same thing!" she shouts, stomping her foot.

"No," I say firmly, "It's not. Tetracycline is an antibiotic, and dexamethasone is a steroid." Returning to my phone conversation, I say, "Thank you very much for clearing that up, and again, I am SO sorry I had to wake you at this hour."

"Oh, no problem at all," says the (astonishingly cheerful) woman on the phone. "Tell her she can call me at home if they're having trouble later."

I hang up and pass this information along to the client, who is at last looking a bit chastened (although also truculent, perhaps because I've told her - and can now prove, thanks to the all-powerful authority of the breeder, since my mere doctorate in veterinary medicine is obviously of no importance - that she is wrong.) Now I am faced with a dilemma. Do I give these puppies what is (in terms of their respiratory health) an unnecessary medication, or do I refuse?

Well, the oath says "First, do no harm." I weigh the options: I can refuse to medicate, leaving her to go elsewhere and repeat her act (plus or minus trying to take action against the hospital), during which time she will undoubtedly continue to shake the puppies awake every minute or two. Or I can medicate and give her instructions that will make her leave the puppies alone for a while, so the poor things can get some much-needed sleep. Clearly sleep is vastly in the best interests of the puppies, and I can't just pretend to medicate, as the client will not allow me to take them out of her sight.

Can I make a case for the need for a steroid? Well, yes, actually; as much ungentle shaking of puppies as has gone on, I'm actually a bit concerned about shaken-baby syndrome, puppy version. I weigh puppies and carefully calculate a safe and tiny does of steroids and administer it to each puppy. By the time I am done, they are all asleep again.

"Now," I say to the client, fixing her with a stern look. "These puppies need to sleep, and I don't want you messing with them for at least 8 hours. Put them back with the mother and let her take care of them. You can look in on them, but don't bother them unless she has pushed one of them away and it is completely unresponsive. Also, you have to handle them gently, they're tiny newborns." [In reality, the bitches are often shockingly rough with them when they're whelping them, but I trust a great deal more to the instincts of the bitch than to the judgement of this owner.] "This is a strong medication and it will last for a minimum of 48 hours. It completely takes all the swelling out of the soft palate, so the puppies will be very quiet when they're sleeping, making hardly any noise at all. If they're nursing and the mom is still taking care of them, they're fine," I add, hoping to avoid a repeat performance later in the week. I can only imagine what crisis will be next for her, given that as a breed, the shar pei tends to be predisposed to entropion, ear infections, skin conditions of various kinds, and (I will admit) sometimes respiratory issues.

Mrs X departs into the dawning morning with her basket full of (peacefully sleeping) puppies. My technician, the redoubtable Larry (who has watched this entire performance with commendable restraint), gives a little chuckle and a head-shake after the door closes behind her.

"I'm thinking maybe the shar pei isn't the best breed for her," he says.

Hmmmm. Ya think?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Eating Your Words

So, didja ever have one of those days when you said something that sounded different in your head than it did out loud? Or maybe when you said something without thinking and regretted the words the instant they were out of your mouth?

Back before I went to vet school, I was a graduate student in the Fisheries and Wildlife Biology department. During that time I had a TA-ship with a professor who taught Public Relations to budding wildlife biologists. One day, he asked me to go with two of the undergrads and give a program to one of the local grade schools.

The two undergrads were in their early twenties, young men who were work-study students for Professor D. I was only a few years older, maybe 26 or so, but they were endearingly respectful and seemingly almost awed by my status as [insert angel choirs and ethereal light here] a Graduate Student. They were oh-so-careful to get all the props together and offered to carry the heaviest ones to the truck (ignoring for the moment that I was recently off the racetrack and had biceps that were nearly as big as theirs). This was all rather sweet, and since they were earnestly being respectful and polite, I allowed this with nary a smirk, and thanked them graciously.

The three of us trundled out to the truck, a tiny Chevy Luv owned by one of the students. (At the time, I relied on public transportation to save money). The two boys carried the slide projector and the boxes of slides, and one of the two animal mounts (a beaver and a mallard duck). I carried the other.

We crammed ourselves into the miniature cab of the truck, slides and projector nestled between the feet of one of the guys, animal mounts on our laps. I sat in the middle (this offered in a courtly way, and I'm sure a more comfortable socio-psychological arrangement for the guys than being crammed in on top of one another, with me on the end.) The only way we could all fit - and still leave the driver enough space to shift gears without getting MUCH better acquainted with me - was if I sat with my left leg crossed above my right and my left foot braced against the lower panel of his dash, more or less in the glove box. This wasn't as uncomfortable as it sounds; I was able to brace myself securely, and it allowed a scant clearance between the gear shift and the bottom of my thigh to preserve the modesty of the driver. In addition I was young and flexible, and very fit, so I was perfectly content with the arrangement. Certainly I was more comfortable about it than the two guys were, both of whom kept their eyes studiously on the road and maintained a steady patter of small talk to distract themselves from the idea that they were smashed sardine-style up against (gasp!) a Grad Student.

In due course we arrived at our destination, extricated ourselves from the confines of the truck, and put on a successful and interesting wildlife program for the kids. The beaver and duck mounts, which we passed around, were a big hit, as were the many extremely good slides, and we left there with both sides well-satisfied.

Back to the clown truck to fold ourselves back in. I scrunched myself into the middle again, the guys sandwiching themselves in beside me. The passenger guy had a little trouble shuffling his feet amongst the slides and projector whilst still balancing his stuffed duck, so I uncrossed my legs for a minute to give him more room to get situated. Then, balancing my own mount, I had to re-cross them, which was mildly challenging in the tight space. Ever helpful, and noticing my contortions, the kid to my right asked me, "Do you want me to hold your beaver?"

I couldn't help it. I gave him A Look, brow cocked and sidelong. He went red to the roots of his hair. I started laughing. The driver started laughing. We all started laughing. The kid was still beet-red, but at least he no longer looked like he wished he would spontaneously combust and disintegrate into a tiny smoking pile of ash.

"No, thank you," I said demurely. "I believe I can manage it myself."

After that, I admit, I was smirking. Just a little. Innocently. Both guys were noticeably flushed, but I (fresh from the track, and used to far worse on an hourly basis) was serene. Deeply amused, but serene.

We got back to the U and the guys unloaded the slides and projector, walking briskly a half step ahead of me whilst I carried my beaver sedately back into the building. I could pretty much feel the heat waves rolling off their heads as I walked along in their wake. They neatly stashed everything - sedulously avoiding my gaze - and the passenger kid took off out of there like a scalded dog. The other kid was pointed toward the door when Professor D came out and asked us how it went.

"Oh, fine," I said. "The slides were a hit, and of course the kids loved the animal mounts." I carefully avoided adding, "Everyone loves a stuffed beaver," but I think a little glint of mischief might have shown in my eye, because suddenly the other undergrad melted away like frost on a spring morning.

Didja ever have one of those days....?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Divine Miss M

So, today I found out that one of my technicians, M, had kind of an interesting weekend.

M is a slender girl, tall and fair and nearly always cheerful. She has a gentle nature and is both industrious and generous of spirit, always willing to help out. While I'm sure she holds her opinions, she's not particularly in-your-face outspoken or pushy, and is typically polite, friendly and possessed of good sportsmanship. She's very good at her job, but she has many other skills as well, amongst which we must include marksmanship of various descriptions. This manifests itself in myriad kinds of shooting... including pool.

Now, M is competitive in the pool arena. She belongs to a team and competes with them, and she and her cronies meet up at sundry local bars for a game a couple of times a week. This weekend, M was playing at a local watering hole that isn't her most usual haunt. However, any pool table is home territory for her, and with her usual skill she took a victory over one of the patrons. Evidently he wasn't very happy about this; apparently he didn't like being whupped by a girl. Maybe especially a pretty, slender, fine-boned girl, who looks about 16, and one who (being engaged) isn't likely to be interested on a romantic level.

M was on her way to her truck when something hit her from behind, spinning her around and knocking her to the ground. She looks up to see her vanquished opponent leaping upon her, evidently intent on revenge, and she reacts instinctively, driving the heel of her hand toward his face. Alcohol was probably a factor in his decision-making; adrenaline was certainly a factor in hers.

There follows a bit of blood and confusion, culminating in the cops turning up and taking statements. The statement most often repeated by M's pool opponent was "She broke my nose! She broke my #%*&@ nose!"

Huh. You got whupped by a girl twice. How about that?

See, in my opinion, this is exactly what you deserve if you're cowardly enough to make a blind-side attack on someone smaller than you are. Kind of seems fitting for someone so ego-weak that they can't handle losing a game.... and someone pathetic enough to be spurred to violence by the idea of being beaten by a girl. And then to whine about the broken nose thus acquired, as if it is all someone else's fault, and none of it due to your own stupid decisions.

It's true what the bumper sticker says: Alaska girls DO kick ass. Sometimes more literally than others.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pimp My Ram

So the other day, S calls me at work to tell me that she has a friend who wants to breed to my ram. Hmmm. THIS is interesting. I never really thought about this concept. I have Trinity to make next year's roasts and lamb chops. I'd keep him anyway, because I really like this ram. He's even-tempered, easy to handle, kindly to my ewes, has marvelous wool, and, as an added bonus, is (IMO) very handsome. In a strictly platonic, sheep-type way, you understand. Moreover, he settled 100% of my ewes last year (one third of whom were unproven). S and R have some objections to him - mainly, that he's a Shetland, which means he isn't a giant ram, and his offspring are therefore on the smaller end. OTOH, they've had other rams at their farm, and some of them have been right bastards. One of them escaped his pen and, whilst R was fixing the fence, ran her down repeatedly; she finally had to pepper-spray him to get him off her back. Literally.

Having run the numbers more than once, S has determined that the only way to be profitable in a small sheep operation in Alaska is to keep small-ish, thrifty ewes who are good mothers, breed them to a ram lamb of a larger, meat-producing breed, and then to slaughter and eat the ram lamb once breeding season is over. This means you don't support a non-productive animal over the winter, and that when your ewes are open, they're smaller, thriftier animals who don't require a lot of feed for upkeep. In the spring, the meat-cross lambs are born (typically without difficulty, as the Shetlands ewes usually lamb easily) and rapidly gain size at a rate that outstrips that possible for Shetlands. Because Shetlands are generally good mothers, and produce reasonable quantities of milk, they generally don't have trouble rearing twins, even if the twins ARE bigger than standard Sheltands.

However... despite all these reasoned and sensible arguments, I just can't go for it. Maybe it's sentimental, but I can't bring myself to even consider slaughtering Trinity. For one thing, he's genetically distant from the other Shetlands up here; most everything else in the area (Shetland-wise) is somewhat related, since it's a geographically isolated population. Trinity was imported specifically to address this issue. You kinda hate to lose that. For another thing.... I just really LIKE this ram.

I'm not the only one. My shearer said two things about Trinity: One, "What an easy ram! I never shear one that behaves this well." And, "Man, this is nice fleece; you should enter this in the fair." Even S and R admit that he's a nice ram, and easy to tend and keep.

Oh... and have I mentioned that he's a handsome beast?

However, it hasn't escaped my notice that I am pretty much just eating most of Trinity's offspring, which sort of dead-ends his genetic usefulness. So it was kind of nice to think that someone else might want to take advantage of his genetics - someone, moreover, who is interested in fiber production, which means that his young will be hanging around for a while, and possibly one day producing young of their own, thus perpetuating his genes.

Meanwhile, S suggested to her friend that maybe I'd consider bartering for my stud fee. Hmmm. Interesting concept. As it happens, I have no idea what to ask for a stud fee. Apart from which, I've learned (after 13 years in the Greatland) that there are any number of people up here who have all kinds of interesting skills, talents, and various resources. Hence barter is something that is sort of culturally satisfying, as well as potentially profitable in ways that a cash exchange is not.

The upshot of all this that S and R's friend is bringing over her ewe, two bales of hay, and five range-reared organic chickens, already butchered and wrapped and ready for my freezer. Trinity - and here, put on your "surprised" face - is more than content to do his bit without payment of any sort. We plan to put her ewe in with my flock for two breeding cycles. The hay is for her upkeep and S and R's trouble, and the chickens are for the use of Trinity's testicles (and all associated apparatus).

Meanwhile, I had kept out Trinity's daughter from this year, Gigantor, to hold her open this year. I know plenty of people breed ewe lambs their first season, and probably that would've been the easy thing to do; however, I'm a big fat chicken when it comes to things like that, so I thought I might just let her finish her growth before I bred her for the first time. However, on the tenth, Trinity made himself a hole in the fence and made his way into the goat pen, where Gigantor is vacationing until breeding season is over. That may be of no real import. Or it may be that Gigantor will be lambing with the rest of them come spring. Best laid plans, and all that. So to speak.

So, I've now entered the world of breeding for profit, albeit in a (very) small, barter-oriented way. This seems like a good deal for this year, at least, and possibly for future years. It also opens up the possibility of sending Trinity off to breed wool babies at another farm next year whilst I buy, use and butcher a meat ram for my own ewes next year, a plan that fills S and R with anticipatory glee. This all leaves me with only one burning question.

Does this mean I'm a pimp now?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gumby-goo, Round Two

A little more about Gumby, while he's fresh in people's minds.

On Saturdays, the clinic closes at two, and it's a lovely thing, on a tender, warm spring afternoon, to come home from work, feed your lamb, and then maybe lay on your bed and have a little read whilst the dogs and cats and diapered lamb all meander peacefully about your room. One such afternoon, I was laying head-to foot on my bed, my feet propped up on my pillows and the rest of me propped up on my elbows, belly-down and enjoying a good mystery story. My bedroom has one wall composed almost entirely of a sliding glass door (leading out onto a balcony and a spectacular view of the lake and the Chugach mountains). For the sake of privacy, but in service of letting in as much light as possible, I have a set of sheers hanging there. On pretty days, they let in abundant light and a somewhat misty version of my view, and the fabric of the sheers seems in some way to capture and magnify the light, so that there's a soft extra glow to them.

On this particular afternoon, I fell asleep over my book. I wake up a little while later, my face turned toward the light, and I think, in a dreamy, luxurious sort of way, how pleasant it is to have a little mid-day nap, and how pretty the light is coming in through the curtains, and how adorable and striking it is to see little black Gumby-goo silhouetted against the glowing white backdrop....

A tiny frown forms on my brow. What is it about Gumby's posture that is catching my eye? He's just standing there... but oh, crap, his back is hunched in the urination posture. I bolt up, preparing to snatch him up and shunt him, still peeing, out onto the easily-washed balcony - and then I realize: He's urinating directly into my shoe. I think: Which is easier, shampooing the carpet and washing the deck, or taking the liner out of my shoe and tossing it in the laundry? I subside, a wryly amused little smile taking hold of me as I watch Gumby finish urinating blissfully into my cross-trainer. Done with his task, he looks at me, essays a little bleat of contentment, and begins chewing meditatively on the curtain. Oh, well. I was going to replace those anyway.

At the time I had Gumby, I also had (amongst others) a dog named Buddy. Buddy was meant to be a Border collie, but he was (as the BF, from whom I inherited Buddy, liked to say) more of a BorderLINE collie. Buddy was strange and delightful and so not what a working dog is bred to be, but I loved him with all my heart - more because of his strangeness than in spite of it, to tell the truth. Buds was never in life going to approximate anything even remotely resembling a stockdog, but he was, bless his pointed little heart, perfectly content to share his world with an increasingly-bratty diaper-wearing lamb. Buddy was tall and narrow, built like a sight-hound, with a deep, deep chest and a tiny little wasp-waist, lean ropey arms and thighs fat with muscle. He was a tri-color merle, with long silky feathers disguising his race-car build, and chocolate eyes capable of the sultriest glance this side of Savannah. He was shy and coy and when stressed would panic to the mental shut-down point, where he simply ran out of thought about what to do next, and could only try to run away from it. But he was kind-hearted and gentle, and possessed of a silliness and joy of being that were irresistible. He was a charming dog, strange and unique, and I suppose (with him four years in his grave) that I will miss him forever.

One afternoon, not long after Gumby christened my shoe, I was again lounging head-to-foot on my bed with a book. Buddy, standing bedside, began to essay his peculiar high, scribbly growl.

"Knock it off, Buddy," I said, mildly, figuring he was defending his spot against encroaching dogs. But Buddy's growl ratcheted up a notch in pitch and volume, and began to take on an odd hitching effect, like if you went "Aaaaaaahhhhhh" whilst thumping yourself hard on the chest. Hmmm. I leaned over the side of the bed to see what was wrong, and I find two things: One, Buds is pinned against the side of the bed, with a look combined of alarm, annoyance and confusion on his pointed face. And two, the reason for all this is that Gumby - no doubt led by instinct - has his head tucked deep in Buddy's flank, butting vigorously in a search for food. What he was sucking on, I don't want to know.

Ack! Poor Buds. The book goes flying as I launch myself off the bed to Buddy's rescue. Gumby is in no danger, as the expression on Buddy's face is a lot closer to his "Panic/help me!" face than it is to a "Knock that off or I'll bite you, you brat!" face, but Buddy is approaching the melt-down point. I wonder in passing how long Gumby has been trying to nurse off him, and what indignities he may have inflicted on Buddy's person in the pursuit thereof. I scoop Gumby up and trot downstairs to make him a bottle. Buddy, mightily relieved, jumps up onto the refuge of the bed and curls up there, his head protectively over his flank and a weather eye on Diaper Boy.

Unfortunately for Buddy (not to mention my legs), not long after mastering the jump-on-couch maneuver, Gumby began attempting the same trick on my bed. The bed is quite high, and the first time he attempted it, Gumby hit the side of the bed and fell, landing pathetically on his little back, bleating with dismay. That was very sad, and I tried not to let Gumby make the attempt.... but the nature of life is that sooner or later something distracts you, and also that you can't be everywhere at once. It wasn't long before Gumby had judged his distance and learned to spring up onto the bed, with a panache that would have impressed a mountain goat. Thus commenced a short era of bruises on my legs that weren't that easy to explain.

I would, in the normal course of things, already have placed Gumby in an outdoor home, but I was due for a school program at one of the local elementary schools, and the teacher (a client of mine) had specifically requested that I bring Gumby to meet the second-graders. In the interest of keeping him as comfortable and pliable around people as possible, I let him continue to live as an indoor-outdoor lamb. Truth to tell, he was an excellent gardening companion, happily mowing down my dandelions - which are legion - but ignoring the tender leaves of my tomato plants. He would placidly follow me anywhere I cared to go, and if I should see a stray dog heading down the road in our direction, he would come when asked to and could be quickly stashed in the house. He was getting a bit heavy to be picked up, but it was still an option in those days. He would readily hop into the truck for a ride, and he had, at last, graduated from diapers (having finally mastered the knack of producing a normal stool). To some degree sheep have latrine areas, so he was even somewhat housebroken.

Eventually a day came when it was time to take Gumby to the rescue farm, where he could live in the sunny outdoors and enjoy the company of other sheep. The day I took him there, the owner's 12-year-old son asked me why I was giving Gumby to them.

"Because he's a sheep, sweetie, and sheep need to live in groups. He needs to live like a sheep and have sheep friends, and all I have is a bunch of dogs for him to play with. "

"But... he loves you," the boy said. Just like that, strait to the heart of the matter, all other considerations unimportant.

Twelve year old boys. They'll break you heart.

"He does," I allow, "and I love him, too. But I think he'll be happier in the long run, being a sheep. Besides, this is a good place to live, and I can come visit him, right?"

Gumby never did forget me, nor lose his love of people. At first he tended to hang around nearer the dog pen than the other sheep - dogs, after all, were what he was most used to - but after a while it dawned on him that he really had more in common with the other sheep. He gradually relaxed into life as part of a flock, although the moment I appeared on the scene he would detach himself from the group and come trotting over so I could scratch his favorite spot under his chin, and oh, by the way, did I have anything for him to eat? His days of scrawny, hunch-backed apathy were long behind him, and he grew into a robust, solid Shetland, thickly padded with fine silky wool. As he matured to adulthood his wool went silver, as is often the case with the black lambs, but his face has stayed the same.

And so has his sweet Shetland heart.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Gumby, Damnit!

As you know, I have sheep. Just a few, and recently acquired, but they aren't my first ones. When I was a kid (about 7 or 8 years old to begin with) we did 4-H. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I decided to rear orphan lambs as my 4-H project. I discovered two things from this experience: One, I hated keeping records about food intake, rate of growth, feeding times, etc. Two, I loved taking care of the lambs.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when I am living in Alaska and working as a small animal vet. My neighbor S, from Wildwood, calls me up.

"We have an orphan lamb that needs bottle rearing," she tells me.
"Oh, okay; what you want to do is [blah blah blah, me outlining my strategies for the successful rearing of bottle lambs]."

There is a pause. "Well, actually," S says, "I was hoping you'd just do it for me."
Another pause. Hmm. "Okay," I say, cheerfully. I love bottle lambs, and no one will be bugging me about meticulous record-keeping. This will be fun.

The first lamb I reared for them was called Pete (adapted from P.T., for Pepper's Toy, since Pepper's stockdog instincts kicked in immediately and she was riveted to Pete's every movement, seeming to believe I had gotten him solely for her slinking-and-watching pleasure. Pete, I will say, did not seem displeased by this arrangement, regarding Pepper as both buffer against the other dogs, and big-sister shadow.) Pete I placed with another sheep-rearing family in the area, on the understanding that they would not slaughter him. Though I can and do eat lamb - with great enjoyment, I might add - I think it's unfair to eat the bottle babies. They're a lot more like pets than livestock. (Unfortunately, that agreement was not kept, and the new owners did in fact slaughter and eat Pete about a year later, much to my anger and outrage.)

Gumby, on the other hand, got his name by a quirk of memory. I was sitting at work one day with him sprawled on my lap - his long, cunning legs dangling on either side, his woolly head resting soporifically on my arm - and the name "Gumby" popped into my head. It took me a minute, but I remembered that an old friend had been in the habit of referring to girls with long, sexy legs as having "Gumby legs" (don't ask me - it must be a guy thing.) Well, hardly anything is proportionally more leg than newborn lambs are, so Gumby it was.

Pete was a sturdy wee thing, and only needed a little help to get on the right track. He was a well, healthy lamb within a week or so, at which time I moved him from the bathroom nursery (a bathtub lined with a plastic shower curtain and filled with straw makes a dandy lamb incubator) to the back yard, where he lived in the dog run and slept (adorably) in one of the straw-filled dog houses. He went to work with me during the day, so I could keep him fed, and before long he was transitioning first to dandelion flowers, then to grass and hay.

Gumby, my second go-round for Wildwood, was another matter.

Gumby was much sicker than Pete had been, for starters. Small, weak, disinterested in nursing, I had real fears for his survival the first three weeks of his life. I had to put the nipple of his bottle between his lips and squeeze the sides of it to run some milk replacer into his mouth. He would swallow unenthusiastically for a few moments, and then, exhausted, quit. With patience and persistence, I might ultimately get a tablespoon or two into him at a feeding. I transitioned him to raw goat's milk (obtained from a local goat dairyman) in hopes that the trace minerals and proteins would perk him up a little. In desperation, I made a crib for him by lining a laundry basket first with a large plastic trash bag, then with a nest of towels and blankets. Into the crib went Gumby, and onto my bed went the crib. I discovered that I could quite easily keep a night's worth of milk warm in its bottle by tucking it under my arm while I slept, and that without prompting from the alarm clock I would roll over every two hours all night long, tilt the crib over, poke the nipple into Gumby's uninterested mouth, coax him to drink a little bit, and then go back to sleep. This was much easier than getting up and traipsing to the bathroom every two hours, because by the time you're done with that, you're all the way awake and you can't get back to sleep as fast. The tilt-the-crib thing allowed me to get sufficient sleep and give Gumby sufficient care that after a few weeks he was starting to struggle up from his spindly beginnings and show some inclination toward survival. (The drawback o this method is, of course, that you have a sheep sleeping in your bed, which is one of those things that you REALLY don't want people to know about you, most especially if you are a vet. Except that now everyone knows, because I wrote this. What was I thinking?)

Gumby was in diapers for a long time. He had black and green slimy diarrhea at first, which was only partly contained by diapering (as I discovered on more than one 2-a.m. occasion, groping with a sleepy hand into his little crib. Urk, what's that? Oh, eeeugh. ) Because he was far too frail to transition to the outdoors, he lived in the house, toted everywhere in his little diapers by me. Unfortunately, male lambs urinate sort of mid-belly, so the diapers did nothing to control his urination messes (and the several attempts I made to jury-rig an absorbent belly-band were only partially successful.) Fortunately, very young animals have very dilute watery urine, and I am in possession of a carpet steam-cleaner, so this was a manageable complaint.

After he finally started to get well, Gumby turned out to have more personality than any other lamb I've ever reared. For one thing, he had a bit of an oral fixation. This ranged from being a potentially dangerous problem to a mere annoyance. Merely annoying was when I woke up after a pleasant afternoon nap to feel someone tugging gently on a hank of my hair - only to discover that it was Gumby, quietly gnawing a piece of it off. Potentially dangerous was when I got out of my morning shower to discover him standing blithely in the middle of my dining room table - where I did not imagine he would be able to go - happily chowing down on a length of green satin ribbon. I dropped my towel and grabbed the ribbon, reeling in approximately two and a half feet of its wet, slimy, tooth-punctured length from out of Gumby's gullet. Gumby looked both bemused by this (no doubt an odd sensation, me pulling that back out of his guts) and a bit annoyed (he didn't go to all the trouble of discovering a path to the Hidden Land of Tabletop, not to mention figuring out how to pluck the ribbon reel out of the mending basket AND finding the elusive ribbon end, just to have me steal back his prize.) However, he was a cheerful little creature, if a bit like living with a developmentally delayed raccoon, and he quickly forgot his disappointment.

This, however, was the first clue that things were changing in Gumbyland. Gumby - who heretofore had been too small to get up on the furniture, and who was by consequence limited in the amount of mayhem he could cause - had at last grown strong enough to make it up onto the couch. This trick he demonstrated memorably one cloudy afternoon when I was sitting on my couch, drinking a mug of tea and reading a book. So there I was, engrossed in my book and generally minding my own biz and enjoying a peaceful afternoon, when all of a sudden four sharp, pointy cloven hooves land forcefully on my thighs, as Gumby has just leaped off the floor and strait onto my lap. Tea goes flying one way and my book goes flying the other. All the dogs leap to their feet in alarm. Gumby looks mildly surprised at the commotion - although much more surprised to be evicted unceremoniously from my lap. Undaunted, he hops right back up on the couch, although this time (as he didn't leap onto my lap) I consented to allow him to snuggle down on the couch next to me and have a nap (after I retrieved my fallen tea mug and book.) It's a pleasant thing to have a dog or a cat curl up, napping, against your leg while you have a bit of a read. It's no less pleasant - though admittedly slightly surreal - to have a two month old lamb do so.

Still.... this was the first sign that Gumby was one day soon going to be too big - and too much a sheep - to live in the house. For the moment my diaper-rigging was working (and still necessary), but that wasn't going to last forever, and realistically: Gumby is a sheep. He needs to live outdoors. Right about then it became apparent that he was one day going to be strong enough to do so.

There are other Gumby stories aplenty, but those will wait for another day. But lest you be worried that Gumby met Pete's fate, he did not. He lived for a while on a rescue farm, and then became the pet of a woman who has one of the few remaining in-town acreages in Anchorage. He is their ambassador sheep, trotting out to greet visitors, following people around the farm as they do chores or tour the place, standing with his little cloven feet braced against the log sides of their cabin, poking his nose in the window on fine days to get a bit of toast and jam. They called me after they'd had him for a year to tell me how much they adore him - how much everyone adores him, come to that.

I'm telling you. All personality, all the time. He's Gumby, damnit!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Things You Shouldn't Eat

Now you all know what a great dog Finn is, in my Very Humble Opinion. However, he isn't perfect, as I was reminded this week when we started talking about Weird Things Dogs Eat. Finn, for example, is a well-known toy-eater, so he isn't left unattended with toys. His very first dietary indiscretion was as a puppy, when he somehow managed to find and eat one of the jesses from "my" crow (a bird I was involved in rehabbing, hence not really mine). I'm not quite sure how this happened; the crow was wearing the jesses at the time, and then all of a sudden one of them was gone. I looked everywhere I could think of; eventually I figured that the crow must have taken the jess off and stashed it in the bedding of his cage, and I must have accidentally tossed it whilst cleaning the cage. Oh, well, I figured; I'd have to make another, but it wasn't a disaster.

The next thing that happened was that I was walking Finn (then a 3 month old puppy) and I noticed that he was - erm - excreting quite a lot of gelatinous mucus and something that looked a bit stringy. And black. Like a strip of leather. At the same instant that I realized that the mystery of the lost jess was solved, Finn demonstrated his love for unfortunate ingestions by turning around and trying to eat it again. Urk. Luckily I was equipped with a plastic bag, so I was able to thieve from him this delightful prize.

Finn has since several times sneak-ingested the furry hide of some plushy toy (he manages this by a combination of speed and stealth, and an ability to determine when I am preoccupied with another dog and likely to have my back turned for the roughly 19 seconds this maneuver takes). I am usually alerted to the fact that Finn has outflanked my vigilance at approximately 3:17 in the morning, when I hear the deep and unmistakable sound of Finn roarking up his ill-gotten gains. I've learned from experience that the first move (after rocketing out of bed as if launched by a catapult) is to grab Finn and put him outside, because his first instinct is to re-ingest the slimy, sodden, vomit-covered Object of His Desires (which will then be vomited back up about 12 minutes later). Typically this is the end of it, but there was one memorable episode when he had to go to surgery, having failed for two days in a row (and despite many earnest attempts on his part, ugh!) to bring up his latest prize. His stomach, on being exteriorized out of his abdomen, looked for all the world like a pregnant uterus with a puppy in it. Shortly after this interesting revelation, he delivered via C-section (well, or gastrotomy) a toy that resembled a bile-soaked rat, beslimed with mucus. EH? That's not any toy I have ever seen. After some investigation it turned out that it was one of the toys we keep a the clinic (to put in the cages of dogs or cats who have to stay for a few days, as company of a sort.) Knowing Finn's proclivities, I never put him out in the clinic's dog-yard with any remotely-ingestible toy out there; I can only imagine that one of the clinic employees, being helpful, turned Finn out without realizing he was not to be left alone with anything fuzzy. Oh, well; no harm done. Finn did well with his procedure, and the stomach is tremendously forgiving of surgery, so all ended well.

Not everyone is so lucky, though.

We've taken all kinds of things out of dog guts. Once we had a client come in, having observed his Lab ingest a golf ball. We took the Lab to surgery and found said golf ball - along with a second golf ball, aged to a greenish bronze color by long immersion in bile. (Ah-HA! Maybe THAT'S why the dog has been vomiting intermittently for the last year!) I've seen X-rays with coins, a metal pagoda, a cake knife, a plastic shark, various stones, fish hooks, a spring, nails, screws, bits of tin foil, bones - all kinds of things. We've taken out many of the above (well, not the plastic shark, the pagoda or the cake knife - those were all from X-rays taken at my alma mater and removed there without my help); and we've taken out things that were not completely identifiable or else didn't show up on X-rays: corn cobs, most of a TV remote control, a wad of raw bread dough (a potentially fatal ingestion), various fabric items (including an entire and completely intact underwire bra, yikes!), ribbons, shoelaces, parts of used diapers, various feminine hygiene products, an entire cassette tape (Travis Tritt, if I recall right, and very much the worse for wear), plush toys, wads of grass, sticks, dish towels, part of a steel-belted radial tire, a cow hoof, various chunks of rubber and plastic - the list is practically endless. Some of these things come out with minimal consequences, largely because we get to them soon enough. Others - well, some things cause problems no matter how quickly we get them out. The remote control, for instance, did horrific damage to the lining of the dog's gut, and despite all we could do for him, that dog died. Other times it's not so much the damage to the dog's gut that is the issue; there are all sorts of consequences to the ingestion of non-food items.

One time, several years ago, we had a dog that came in with signs of a GI foreign body. I had given the owner an estimate for the cost of surgery, but on a hunch I asked Dr. J if he wanted to scope the dog before we went to surgery, to see if we could perhaps retrieve the object of his dietary indiscretion without actually cutting him open. Dr. J cruised around with the scope for a few minutes, muttering about how something was in the way of his scope and interfering with visibility. He managed to snag this object - whatever it was - and began to pull it out of the dog's mouth. And pull it, and pull it..... It was like watching a magician pull an endless string of knotted-together scarves out of his sleeve. It just kept on coming. After a few moments, the mystery item was discovered to be an entire pair of black pantyhose, wet and sodden (and very stretchy by consequence). After extracting this, Dr. J re-scoped the dog, found a pristine (and empty) stomach, and the dog was recovered uneventfully.

Well. That wasn't so bad. Didn't have to cut the dog open, and it was a less-expensive procedure than surgery, so the owner is bound to be pleased. Good news all around.

Now, it happened that that day we had a reporter at the clinic. We had recently been voted "Best Vet Clinic" of our local area, and the reporter was discussing with the staff what interesting cases we'd had recently. Naturally the pantyhose dog came up, as it was both a bit unusual, and very satisfactorily resolved. For some reason - and I curse the day I heard the story - I mentioned a similar case, several years previously at another hospital. A pair of red fishnet stockings had been extracted from a dog via endoscope. The stockings were proudly presented to the owners when they came to pick up their dog. The wife looked at the stockings, turned to the husband and said, "Those aren't mine."

Well naturally, the reporter thought this story was fascinating, and as I'd not revealed any personally identifying information regarding the clients or the patients in either case, I didn't think much of it. Which just goes to show you that the time you're most likely to stick your foot in your mouth is when you think you've been perfectly discreet.

Later in the day our pantyhose dog's owner came to pick up. He asked to speak to me. I went into an exam room with him and inquired pleasantly what I could do for him.

"I'm really in trouble on this scope thing," he said. "I don't think my wife is going to be too happy."
"Well, but we came in well under the estimate," I said earnestly, "so your wife should be thrilled, actually."
"You don't understand," he said. "My wife doesn't wear pantyhose."

Oh, dear.

"Umm.... does your dog run loose?" I asked him.
"We have a fenced yard," he tells me.
"Could it have been from something a previous resident left behind?"
"Owned the place for ten years," he says.
Okay, that runs me out of likely exoneratory scenarios. The pantyhose are already recorded in the medical record, which is a legal document, so I can't undo that part of things. "I'm sorry, sir,"I tell him, "But you're on your own. I'm out of ideas."

The man nods, a bit glumly, and takes his dog (buoyantly happy and completely unaware that he's just narc'ed out his dad) out the door with him. I'm thinking: Dude! If you're going to cheat on your wife, don't let the dog eat the incriminating lingerie! And just as a by the way, you shouldn't be cheating on your wife, and there's only so sorry for you I can actually feel, under the circumstances. I'm not going to call your wife at home and volunteer the information, but if the wife asks, I'm not lying to her either.

I didn't think much more about this tale until a few days later when the article about the clinic came out in the paper. The reporter had made mention of the Tale of the Red Fishnets.

Oh, crap, I thought. I hope our pantyhose guy and his wife don't read that story. It isn't about him, but it isn't likely to bring up happy memories. Yikes. Given the timing of the two events, I wish I'd never mentioned the red fishnets. At least not right on the heels of the pantyhose, even though there was no identifying information given. Too coincidental for comfort.

See? It's not only dogs that eat things they shouldn't. Open mouth, insert foot......

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Life in the Fast Lane

So, back in the day I was a racehorse groom. I loved that job - loved it more than any job I've had before or since, with the sole exception of being a vet. I was around horses all day long, for one thing; that's hard to beat. I was outside (kinda; being in a barn isn't really INside, but it's not completely OUTside, either.) I got paid decent money to be in tip-top physical condition. And I felt like I made a difference, every day, to my horses. That part is pretty satisfying. And it was really really convenient to be as strong as I was in my grooming days, and for a long time after.

It's a low-brow kind of job; despite my many years of higher education, that appeals to me. I like the nitty-gritty of life, the juice of it, the physical pleasures of it. Grooming had that going for it in abundance. It was sweaty, grimy, manual labor, and it was really really great. I remember one day walking down the road with a friend of mine, who was kitchen manager at a local restaurant. I asked him how he liked it.

He shrugged. "It's okay. Better than shovelling shit for a living, anyway" he said.
"No, it's not," I said, emphatically. He looked around at me, startled at my vehemence. "I shovel shit for a living," I reminded him, "and it's an excellent job. I totally love it."

That made him laugh, but it also made him feel worse about his own job (which he now knew was inferior to shovelling shit). I felt a little bad about that part.

As a rule, the "back side" of the racing industry (the grooming and hot-walking side, by and large) tends to attract workers who lean towards the low-brow themselves. This may be someone like me, who has a taste for the visceral satisfactions and physicality of grooming, but doesn't plan to make a career of it. It might be someone with no ambition to higher education, or no access to it. It might be someone who just loves horses and wants to be around them, or who loves racing and the world of track and training center. It might be someone working their way up from groom to head lad to assistant trainer to trainer. There are all kinds of people who make their ways through the barns. There's also a high turnover, because some of the people who pass through are less than committed to the work, or less than responsible in general. As a consequence, the entire first summer I worked as a groom, we worked shorthanded all but a few weeks scattered here and there through the months. In fact, I started as a swing groom, someone who takes another groom's horses on their day off; in a barn with 16 horses, that should have worked out to be a 4-day work week. After the first 3 weeks I finally asked my assistant trainer to put me on full time so I could get a day off.

The schedule is fast-paced, as a rule, although on the track it's typically faster than at a training center (where I worked.) Generally a groom rubs four horses. This means that in the morning the horses are fed, the water buckets pulled and washed and refilled, the stall mucked out and re-bedded, the horse brushed up and tacked up; the exercise rider is tossed into the saddle, and while the horse is at the track getting worked, this routine is repeated for the next horse. The horses (who love company) usually go out in "sets", a pair at a time, so you and another groom both have a horse out and three horses in. Then the hot horse comes back, is hot-walked and bathed, is fed again and stashed in its clean stall, hopefully in time for you to finish mucking out the second stall and re-bed it before it's time to hot-walk your next horse. If you have a hot-walker, they may walk and bathe a horse for you (especially if you have two sent to the track at the same time, or if you are given two or three sets back to back). Meanwhile you have to get your next horse brushed and tacked up and ready to go, clean and hang water buckets (one in the stall and the other at the end of the shed-row, since the hot horse needs something to drink out of while being hot-walked), and knock out as much of the stall as you can before the horse comes back. Repeat until done. Then, after everyone has been fed, brushed, mucked out, ridden, cooled, bathed, bedded in and fed again, you have to set wraps, if you have any. (Not all horses get their legs wrapped after work, but at the barn where I worked it was three out of four. I got really good at setting bandages.) Once a month you saddle soap the halters and shanks and girths and saddles. Once a week you wash your brushes in betadine and set them in the sun to dry (more often if you have skin disease in your barn). Every day you wash and roll bandages and saddle blankets, rake out the shed-row and sprinkle it lightly with water to settle the dust. Generally this has you done at around noon or 12:30, six hours after you started. At 3 p.m., two grooms come back and pick out the stalls (which means to use a pitchfork to take out the piles of manure off the top of the bedding) and to top up water buckets and feed up the afternoon rations. You can see why I had shoulders like a little tiny linebacker.

Anyway... one day, in the middle of summer (when we were again short-handed), my assistant trainer was interviewing potential grooms. I happened to be finishing up and saw the applicant come in to the barn. She was resplendent in a purple polyester pants suit, teetering along in matching be-gemmed high-heeled sandals, every hair in her bee-hive neatly lacquered into place. She looked like she might be in her middle to upper 50's, and was meticulously manicured, pedicured and made up, glittering with costume jewellery and trailing a cloud of perfume.

I raised an eyebrow at my assistant trainer, C. She gave me a don't-you-dare-make-me-laugh glare and I left her to it. But later that afternoon, when we were back picking out stalls, I asked her (a bit tongue-in-cheek) how the interview went.

"Are you going to hire her?" I asked, grinning innocently. C gives me A Look.
"I don't think she'd want the job," she said.
"Really? Why not?" I ask cheerily, imagining any number of reasons, not least of which are the damage the job would do to her manicure and the desirability (or lack thereof) of her high-heeled sandals for traipsing around in a stall full of urine-soaked straw and horse manure. Not much protection for the old tootsies, either, should you be trodden on by a horse.

"Well, I don't think she really got it how fast the pace is, for one thing," C said. "And you saw that she wasn't clear on appropriate dress. Plus she may have been around horses, like she claimed, but I think maybe it was more petting them at dude ranches than working as a groom. But the main reason was Superman."

"Superman?" I asked (this being the nickname for one of the colts in the barn.)
"Did you notice how much perfume she was wearing?" C asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Well, so did he. A lot of those perfumes have musks in them. He was starting to arch his neck up and nicker at her and paw at his bedding. Plus he was whacking himself," C added, referring to a fairly disgusting but somewhat hilarious behavior of intact colts, in which (several times a day, if one of the fillies is in heat) they - erm - enter a state of readiness, shall we say, and (employing muscles only they understand the working of) commence to whack their - um - masculine appendages against their bellies, producing a sort of meaty thumping noise. This is a distinctive sound, but not one immediately understood by the general public, unless they have observed this behavior in the flesh. So to speak.

"She was standing in the doorway to his stall, going on about how much she loved horses," C continues. "It was pretty clear Superman was loving her right back. I told her we'd better step put of the stall now. She said, 'Oh, no, he's fine, he likes me!' - and I'm tempted to tell her he likes her, all right, but not in a friendship kind of way."

"Good grief," I say. I can't help it. I know I shouldn't be, because that's a potentially disastrous situation, but I'm laughing. I'm picturing this lady, extravagantly turned-out and be-glittered with rhinestones, stroking Superman's elegant bay nose and gaily chatting about how nice he is and what a clean barn, and isn't this just the sweetest horse, and all the while he is beating his impressive hard-on against his belly and planning just how he can corner her to best effect.

"What did you do?" I ask C, stifling my hilarity.
"I said, 'Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but if you don't get out of that stall that colt is going to breed you.'" C delivers this in her best Kentucky accent, which somehow manages to sound rather polite and classy even whilst delivering the crudest of sentiments.

I just howled. "What did she do?" I ask, when I have mastered myself again.
"She kind of went 'Eep!' and jumped out of the stall, " C says. "Superman was disappointed," she adds.
"I'll just bet," I say, wiping my streaming eyes and picking up my pitchfork. "Poor Superman. Jilted again."

This might have been memorable enough, but a week later, C receives a letter from our erstwhile visitor. She seems to have come to an understanding that grooming racehorses might not be precisely her cup of tea, but she remarks that she has three strapping sons - "or young studs, as I like to call them" (yikes!) - who might be suitable as grooms, if we care to call them in for an interview. She then discourses in a rambling way about how horses are beloved of Christ and sacred animals, because their hoof print marks a letter "C" on the earth. Now, I've been around horses all my life, and my mother is a minister, but this is one I admit I've never heard before. Mind you, I'm all for horses being sacred animals, and I really don't know how anyone can be around them and not love them, so I'm prepared to accept this sentiment with minimal skepticism.

Oh, well. Grooming isn't everyone's gig. I spent most of my barn time in ratty Levi's (held up with suspenders, since very soon you sweat them into sagging limpness and you really can't afford to trot around the shed-row with one hand occupied in holding up your britches), a tank top (also quite sweaty, after the first 20 minutes), and a pair of increasingly-grungy leather trainers. Perfume never even occurred to me (all to the good, considering the kind of invitation it seems to offer to the colts), and neither did make-up (although this was more likely to attract exercises riders than horses, often with equally undesirable results). I chopped off my waist-long hair after the first week, when I discovered that even a pony tail wasn't safe (one of my colts having grabbed it one day and yanked me half off my feet by it); I got a sort of utilitarian short layered cut, which was long enough to keep the sun off my neck, short enough to be out of my way, and layered enough to let whatever scant breeze I could find riffle under it to cool me off. This move met with C's approval, both for practicality and because, she told me, "After you applied I told B [another groom] 'I hate that bitch!' because you had so much hair." This cracked us both up, but the point is well-taken; horses are large and powerful, and in racing barns the majority are jumping out of their skins with fitness and energy and youth and hormones. The last thing you should do is provide them an easy handle by which to grab you when your back is turned.

I miss my grooming days sometimes. There are better jobs than shovelling shit.... but for me, not that many.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Patty-cake Man

Another school program for Finn today. Preschool, actually, this time. I expect I won't be getting thank-you notes this time, as the children are only three to five years of age. However, I consider myself well-repaid by Finn's delight in the event.

This is what I love about this dog. A stockdog he will never be, but he's a wonderful pet, and he is SO stable in temperament. He's also goofy and hilarious, and really quite beautiful (or so think the good people at Brown Trout, who have chosen him for two more calendars this year, including his second stint as cover-boy.) He's an honest dog, too, one whose entire soul is in his eyes, right there for anyone to see. There isn't a sly bone in his body. What you see, when you look into his eyes, is what you get.

Our program started with me going in and talking to our twelve or so preschoolers about what a vet is and what a vet does. (I never bring the dog in right off the bat, because the minute I do I become pretty much invisible and chaos reigns.) So I sat on a little bitty chair while the kids clustered at my feet in a solemn little circle. One little boy, crying after having fallen down, sniffled and hiccupped and scrubbed at his little eyes while I talked about what a vet does. One little girl asked me if I ever treated bears.

"Well, no - I could, if one came in, but not very many people have bears for pets," I tell them. "Mostly if you see a bear, you should stay away from it, even if you ARE a doctor." This is the kind of thing that makes the grade-schoolers laugh uproariously (although I'm not quite sure why), but my little circle of preschoolers nods earnestly. We talked about shots and check-ups and surgery and X-rays. Some of the children talk about their dogs who have been sick, or (in one sad case) run away.

After a few minutes it's time to bring in Finn. When we enter the building, the lunch-worker (busy in the kitchen making snacks) makes a beeline out of the kitchen, cooing in delight. Finn, however, knows there are children nearby, and can't be still. After a perfunctory greeting he almost completely ignores her, casting about, nose twitching, leaning on the leash, a big grin on his face. I allow him to tow me into the classroom, where he is greeted with squeals of glee from some children and doubtful looks from others - he's 43#, leggy and tall, and he probably looks pretty big to some of them. I park him at the foot of my chair, but he is too excited to sit still; he sits up on his haunches and does his two-handed patty-cake wave at the children, who giggle and point and chirp with delight. The little crying boy stops rubbing his eyes and starts to smile a little. Finn eels his way between the children, who are starting to crowd closer. He licks the little crying boy, who starts to essay watery giggles. He reaches out one of his paws and pats a little girl, who squeals with delight and replies by patting him (rather hard) on the top of his head. Finn squints through this, but his tail never stops wagging, and he wriggles closer so she can hug him. One little boy squeals (with every evidence of delight) "He attacked me with his tail!" as if this is the most exciting thing that has happened to him all year. (In all fairness, Finn's tail is extremely luxuriant, and is just about the perfect height to smack a sitting 4-year-old directly in the head. It probably IS like being attacked.) Several of the children are trying to hug Finn at once. He leans into their encircling arms, licking those he can reach, pawing gently at others. Several of them grab his paws - something many dogs would take immediate offense to - but Finn does not care. He lays on his side so they can cluster around him and rub his belly, joyfully patty-caking a bit more. He leaps to his feet so he can squirm amongst other children, hanging back. The teacher has to send some children back to their own class; apparently drawn by the excitement and the mysterious power of dog vibes to penetrate through the closed door, some of them have left their own classroom and happily inserted themselves into the small swarm of children milling around Finn.

After a few minutes of complete dog pandemonium, I corral him back to my feet and show the children how I do a physical exam. I show them Finn's broken canine tooth (root-canalled by my own dentist, since we lacked the equipment). I find Finn's heart with the stethoscope and let the children try it on to listen to his heart, racing with excitement. Soon it is time to leave, but it is difficult to get out of the room - the children don't want to see Finn go, and they cluster around him, giving him "just one more hug", trailing along with him, petting him on the back, running their fingers over his glossy black coat, stroking his silky ears. Finn abets their efforts, hanging back, or spinning on his leash as we head to the door, looking back at the little throng of children, now waving bye-bye at him.

At last we make it to the door. Finn is disappointed, but accepts this loss of congress with his little friends philosophically, now making time for the lunch lady as we depart. Outside it's a mild morning, low 20's and slightly overcast, and ravens are wheeling overhead. Finn hops into my truck, still smiling. I'm smiling a bit myself.

I can think of worse ways to spend a morning.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Love Shack

Well, it's another sunny day here in the Greatland. Sunny means clear, and unfortunately, as it is November, clear means cold. Not too cold today - zero this morning, 20 or so now - but chilly, at any rate; enough that my truck wishes I'd remembered to plug in the block heater last night. Oh, well.

Things are seeming MOST cheerful and wonderous to me today. This is in part due to the sunny morning, and in part becuase the Purple Toes of Doom are now a little more like the Mostly Flesh-Colored Toes of Anyone Else, my 3X ankle is now down to a 1.5X version, AND I can flex it through its full range of motion. This is not a pain-free endeavor (particularly in the shin-ly area), but it's a lot more pleasant than it was even three days ago. My shin is still a nice mottley shade of grape, but the back of my calf is fading to a pretty rose-violet, and the top and sole of my foot are back to the usual color.

Regardless of all that, however, I'm pretty sure that at least 60% of my extreme cheer this morning is that I am WAY over-caffienated. I went over to Wildwood this morning with 150# of sheep feed, and this of course resulted in an hour or so of sitting on the deep, cushy leather couch, chatting in good company, with the sun streaming over my face and a mug of coffee steaming gently in my hands. A mug which was magically refilled at the halfway point by the good-hearted and ever-helpful YS. As I'm normally a tea and/or decaf sort of person, this has resulted in a sort of extra-happy zing to my behavior. I know I'm not the only one who acts this way with a random excess caffiene load. The other morning (for instance) Dave, the BF, came in to the clinic (he was dropping his dog off to me on his way to work; he's flying all over Asia this week.) Normally, in the interest of speed, he'd just pop Pepper into my truck and zoom on down the road, knowing I'd be out shortly to bring her in and set her up a cushy bed in one of the runs, but the other morning he came bouncing in, saying "Hi! Ooh, surgery, neat! I have to use your bathroom, I had a little too much coffee this morning! Hey, that's a cute dog! Is it getting its teeth cleaned? [short pause whilst sequestered in the bathroom] I left the seat up for the next guy, har har! Hey, is that one of the new vets? Nice to meet you! [pause while he kisses me] Okay, gotta go! I'll email from Asia!" My nurse, J, looking somewhat bemused, watched him go steaming out the door and then looked at me, a grin on her face. "Who put the coin in Dave?" she asked.

"Well, he is a bit lively this morning," I agreed, grinning back. But now here I am, in just the same state, so I'm not pointing fingers. Much.

At any rate, after taking on WAY more caffiene in 45 minutes than I normally would in a week, it was time to go inspect the goings-on in the sheep pens. Trinity the ram and Truffles the buck (now nick-named Horny and Stinky, respectively, by YS) have been in with their respective girls since yesterday afternoon. S has elected to put the marking harness on Truffles, because the minute all her does are bred she's going to castrate Truffles in hopes of sufficiently de-stenching him that A) you can draw a clear breath within 50 yards of his pen, and B) he can, eventually, be eaten. This means that we have to just observe Trinity to see if he's doing his Manly Duty by the ewes. (Yes, we could have gotten a second marking harness, but it didn't occur to any of us prior to running the girls in with the appropriate boys. Apart from which, Trinity is a proven sire, so we have less to wonder about with him.)

S and R and I walk down the hill to the sheep pens to see what's going on. Gigantor (who I plan to keep open this year, in view of her youth) is in with the goats. She seems reasonably content with this arrangement, despite the occasional speculative eye-roll from Truffles, and does not appear particularly offended by his aroma. (This, I will note, is somewhat damped down by the cold, but still quite distinct.) One of the does, Peanut, is dappled all over her fawn rump with red chalk from the marking crayon. She's also spotted here and there on her sides and legs, as it appears that Truffles is none too discriminating with his aim. She's beginning to get annoyed with him, and will make occasional feints with her horns at him (which he foolishly ignores, given that Peanut has already hooked him once in the groin, and he's still limping by consequence). If this threat doesn't work, she will trot over to a small framed-in wire cage (originally meant for moving pigs, I believe) and duck inside it, defending the low entrance with narrowed eye and menacing head-thrusts. This causes Truffles to stare at her longingly for a few minutes before shrugging off his heartbreak and going to insepct the other does, all of whom are evidently less sexy in his view - even the new doe, Jewels, an absolutely gorgeous Nubian. Her sides are a glossy black, pointed up with deep chestnut markings and emphasized with white dapplings on her head and ears. She is a big, substantial doe, and to my eyes quite beautiful, with an aristocratically arched nose and long, gracefully-lopped ears. Truffles, however, has eyes for no one but Peanut, despite her jabbing horns. Well, he would know more about what makes a doe sexy than I would - or care to. Perhaps Jewels will rise in his favor once Peanut is settled.

Trinity, meanwhile, had been romancing Mesquite all of yesterday afternoon, but this morning has developed a distinct yen for Olivia and Priscilla. Olivia walks haughtily away from his advances, but Priscilla can't decide if she's in love or not. She puts her tail up for him, and then down, or else holds it at an uncertain half-mast, twitching with indecision. When he sidles up to her and gives her a stiff-legged tap with his front leg - testing her interest and willingness - she sometimes walks away, and others turns rump-on to him for a moment before declining his advances. She is content to let him rest his head on her woolly back, but walks off if he tries to advance his suit. Trinity, for his part, is philosphical. He's done this before, and appears supremely confident that his moment will come. Last year he settled 100% of my ewes, so I trust in his - and their - judgement. I'm content for him to be conserving his energy until such time as the ewes are ready for him; he has twice the work to do this year than last, and there's no reason to get his metaphorical shorts in a bunch. No need to rush, he seems to be thinking: Eventually they will all succumb to my woolly charms. Beh-heh-heh-heh-heh! (Since, in the absence of human facial anatomy, "Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!" is hard to say.)

I don't know why, but there is something deeply relaxing about seeing all the goats and sheep together. The ewes are rounding up with wool and feed (this is the time of year we bump their food up, to encourage ovulation), and they have their shed to snuggle up in should it get cold. The does - thinner of coat - are less weather-resistant, but they have a snug, heat-lamped little barn to hide in if it gets too chilly. Neither of the males seems in the least interested in the weather, and it is perhaps this intentness of focus that is so calming to me. They are settled into their work, driving the circle of life, making sure that there are more sheep and goats coming in the spring.

S and R and I walk back up the hill. At the top of the path there is a post. I look at it thoughtfully.
"You should put a sign on this post, with an arrow pointing down, saying 'Love Canal'" I tell them, thinking that Truffles' smell and unfortunate caprine urinary habits might qualify as a metaphor for the pollution of the New York version of Love Canal. R chuckles.

"Love Shack," she counters.
"Love Grotto," I say, thinking of the secluded nature of the pens amongst their embracing woods. We have reached the chicken pens, which S is opening to allow the residents out into the sunny morning.

"Want some gloves?" she asks, pointing to a pair laying on the front step of the hen house. "They're free," she adds, with a sidelong look at me. This arouses my suspcions.
"I don't think so," I say doubtfully, alerted by her lurking smile. "What's wrong with them?"
"We used them to handle the goat yesterday and we forgot to put them in the wash with everything else we were wearing at the time," she tells me.
"Hmmm, no, that's okay, thanks anyway," I tell her, making gaging faces. We are moving to the next chicken pen, the one that also houses the peacocks. This one doubles as a greenhouse in the summer, and S lets the birds out by cracking a window. They pour out in a feathered stream, hopping onto the sill and then down into the pen in a steady procession. Ironically, the exodus is led by the peacocks, birds that originate in the sultry climes of southern Asia - yet they seem perfectly thrilled to go out into the paltry twelve degrees Fareheit that the morning had to offer at that hour. The chickens don't hesitate to follow. Some of these are chickens of S's own carefully-considered breeding program, and I am amazed to see how big they've gotten. They are particularly beautiful, with gorgeous feather patterns in rich colors, some with deep red combs, some with feathers so glossy and iridescent in the sun that they mesmerize the eye. Here too I am calmed by the abundance of the birds, their industrious inspection of the frost-blighted remains of the garden, their bright-eyed energy as they strut and peck amongst the sere remnants of the summer's harvest.

Hmm. Maybe there's something about farms; or maybe there's something about THIS farm. Either way, it's somehow viscerally satisfying to see all the animals going about their buisness in their robust good health and single-minded focus on the work at hand.

S emerges from the bird pen with a handful of eggs. We mosey back toward my truck, conveniently parked near the garage where the grain is stored. I should stop dawdling and unload the sheep feed, I figure, with some reluctance, still wallowing in the peacful satisfaction of animals. However... I have laundry to do (amongst other chores) and I know the inhabitants of Wildwood do as well. But at my truck, I discover that YS has been there before me and my 1.5 hundredweight of grain is already stored away. That's it, then: nothing for me to do but finish my coffee (which I discover has again been mysteriously topped up) and take my leave.

So now I'm back at my own house, dogs napping in the sun. Laundry is chugging away in my washer and I'm contemplating errands and chores with such goodwill that it's something akin to delight. Not sure if that's the delerious intoxication of caffiene combined with sun - or if it's the lingering, visceral peace of watching the animals at Wildwood, and the anticipatiry glee of knowing that there are Goings-On happening there, Goings-On which will (if all goes well) result in a crop of bouncing baby lambs (and even bouncier baby goats) come spring. On balance - as the caffiene is starting to level out - I think my cheer is due to the Love Shack, a little old place where sheep can get together, Love Shack, Love Shack ---> baaaaybeeees.....