Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The (Tall) Thin Man

When I was in vet school, I had a mustang mare, Cascabella by name . She was actually a Christmas present form my sister M. An accomplished horsewoman, M had adopted Cassie from a group that had underestimated the mare's age. Once M realised that -and that consequently Cassie wasn't likely to grow much more and would therefore be a little smaller than M likes to ride - she started thinking about placing her.

"Well, she's the perfect height for me, so wrap her up and mail her," I said, jokingly. But as it happens, my sis thought that was a dandy idea, so she shipped Cassie to me mid-winter of my first year of vet school.

Well, how cool is that? I got a pony for Christmas. I was 28 years old at the time, mind you, but hey: It pays to keep asking.

Cassie arrived in good trim late one night in November. (Okay, so she was an early Christmas present.) She was wearing a custom-fitted black denim horse blanket (lined in gorgeous teal green wool) and matching shipping boots - all custom made by M, who is (besides being an accomplished horsewoman) also an excellent seamstress, a software engineer, a professional dancer (belly and ballroom) and a sheep farmer.

What can I tell you? It's an interesting family. We might be described any number of ways - some less flattering than others - but "dull" never enters into it.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch - or at least, sophomore year of vet school - Cassie decides one morning to lacerate her pastern in some manner I have yet to determine. I go out to find that she has a cut that encircles two thirds of her pastern. Blood has run down her hoof, staining it a dark red-black color, and I can see little crusty half-moons in the dirt where she has stood long enough to leave standing blood, now clotted into small, grim coronas on the ground.

Well, hell. I have class this morning - a cadaver surgery rotation, and moreover it's the first day of the rotation, the one least likely to have any flexibility in schedule. On the other hand - this is my horse. I love her, and even if I didn't, I am responsible for her. Any horseman knows the saying: "No hoof, no horse". This isn't something to be blown off.

I step between the strands of the fence and pick up her foot. I can see tendon along the back, a sight that makes my heart leap into my throat, leaving a sick, hollow place behind. Cassie doesn't seem unduly distressed; in fact, she seems markedly impatient for her breakfast. She stands on the injured leg without complaint or lameness and attempts to encourage me to feed her by means of judicious nudging and nickering deep in her throat. I look at my hands; the blood on her hoof is dry, leaving not the slightest trace or stickiness on my hands. This didn't just happen; she did it sometime in the night.

I feed up and go inside for Neosporin, which I slather liberally over her laceration, and, thinking furiously, I get ready for school. I sort through my options and place a call to the University's Equine Ambulatory service, who needs to know when I want her looked at: They need me to be there to catch her up and hold her.

"I don't know," I say. "I'm a vet student and I have rotations this morning. Let's plan on noon, and I'll go in and ask my professor if I can come back earlier."

Once at school - 15 minutes early, and in a welter of nerves - I hunt down the tech who is assisting with the surgery lab and set out my dilemma in front of her.

"You're in luck," she tells me. "The lab is being run by Dr. Sydney, who used to be an equine surgeon. He'll know whether you have to go back right away or if it can wait til noon."

I set up beside a cadaver - a dog that was euthanized at Animal Control, one of the heartbreaking cadre of animals who have no home. As sad as it is that these animals die for lack of homes, it's a small comfort to know that their sacrifice is redeemed at least a small bit by allowing us to learn surgical skills on animals who will not suffer should we make mistakes. In this way they serve us... but they also serve our future patients, their brethren, by letting us learn where our errors can do no harm.

Dr. Syndey arrives in due course and I explain my circumstances. He looks at me, his eye both keen and calm.

"Was the blood on her hoof still wet?" he asks me.

"No," I say definitely, having checked specifically.

"Then it won't make a bit of difference if you see Ambulatory now or at noon. I'll let you go now if you want, but I promise you that if the wound has already dried, a few hours will make no difference. She'll be fine," he adds with a smile, seeing the tension in my body. His voice and manner show not the slightest doubt,and I feel my shoulders loosen and drop, reassured by his expertise.

"I don't want to miss the lab," I say. "I'll stay and do it, if you're sure."

"I'm sure," he says, with a smile. His eye is level and kind, and he pats me sympathetically on the shoulder.

Comforted, I do the lab without distraction, and make it out to my house in good time. Ambulatory calls me to tell me they'll be there in 20 minutes and to be sure of the directions to my house. I give these to the student on the phone, who I can hear relaying directions to the clinician (who is, of course, the one driving).

"As a by-the-way," I add to the student, "this is a mustang mare. She's very manageable, but she'll be a little shy at first. It would be best if you didn't all just pile out and mob her all at once. She'll need a minute to get used to you."

"Gotcha," says the student. We hang up and I go catch Cassie up, bringing her out of the fence and letting her graze on the lawn while we wait.

A few minutes later Ambulatory pulls in in their big white truck. This is a crew-cab pickup, absolutely jammed with vet students. All four doors pop open and vet students come boiling out like clowns out of a VW beetle, so many that you can't figure out how they all fit in there. They immediately descend on Cassie and I like a plague of locusts. Cassie takes two quick steps back and tries her best to hide behind me. I step in front of her face, offering what protection I can, and tell the vet students, "Whoa, stop! You have to go slow with her, she's a mustang. She's going to flip if you crowd her."

The students nod and essentially ignore me, fanning out to either side, pulling stethoscopes from around their necks and getting out clipboards. The clinician, an extremely tall, lanky fellow wearing a battered Stetson and worn cowboy boots, unfolds himself from the cab. At a glance he takes in the situation. Behind me I can feel Cassie starting to coil like a spring, preparing for flight but unsure where to go; she trusts me, but she is a wild horse. The first two years of her life she lived where flight was a matter of life and death, and though she is unusually good at managing her fear - you can see her thinking when presented with a new situation, evaluating it to see if she should stand or run - when she decides it's time to run, she does it as if her life depends on it - which, often enough, I'm sure it did.

"You all want to hold up now and back off of that horse," says the clinician in a quiet voice. His tone is conversational but the effect is immediate: The students seem to suddenly melt back and stand off to the sides. Cassie is still vibrating like a recently-plucked guitar string, pressing her head against my back and feeding her tension into my body. The clinician ambles up to her, unhurried and relaxed. In his stocking feet I imagine he is at least 6 foot 5, and the battered heels of his boots add another couple of inches to that. I step to the side, giving him room, and he sets his feet apart, straddling them wide to bring his face closer to Cassie's without leaning over her. He takes the sides of her halter in his long hands, his knuckles curled up against her cheeks, and gives her head a gentle shake.

"Hey, babe," he says to her in his deep, quiet voice.

The effect is instantaneous and astonishing. Cassie, who one second ago was barely controlling her need to bolt, relaxes instantly into his hands. Her ears relax, her eye half-closes, and she lets her head fall into his hands, taking a half-step forward to butt her head up against his sternum. This, her body tells me, is my kind of person. Here is someone who speaks my language. Here is someone I can trust.

"Why don't you all get a temp, pulse and respiration," he says then, in his mild way. "Dr. Stace," he adds, nodding at me. I look at him, cradling Cassie's head, and close my hanging jaw.

"Pleased to meet you," I say. "Although not half as pleased as she is," I add with a crooked smile, looking at my mustang, who now has her eyes closed and is rubbing her forehead on Dr. Stace's clinic coat as vet students swarm around her. "Sorry about your smock," I say, as black and white hairs begin to accumulate on the front. Dr. Stace gives me a slow smile and looks back at Cassie, who is now allowing him to rub her ears.

"She's all right," he says, dismissing his increasingly hairy clinic coat as a matter of no importance.

The students report their findings and Dr. Stace has a look at Cassie's pastern. Completely relaxed now, she stands patiently while everyone looks, while she is given a mild sedative and clipped and scrubbed and sutured up, while she is bandaged and injected with antibiotics. Her sedation wears off while Dr. Stace details her aftercare and she gives him a little nicker as he hands me the meds she'll need. He gives her a little sidelong smile, a secret thing, that warms the back of his eyes: something that is just for the two of them, some shared recognition.

"That's a nice little mare," he says in tones of approbation, gives me a nod, and takes himself off into the Ambulatory truck, now tightly sardined with vet students once more. I find myself staring after them as they back down the driveway and disappear down the road.

"Well. I never saw anything like that before," I say to Cassie, who is now lipping at her aftercare sheet with an interested expression, as if contemplating eating it. I walk her back to the pasture and offer her a carrot instead, which she feels is a fair trade. I turn her loose and she wanders off, her bright blue bandage jaunty against the steel grey of her leg. In the end she healed well, with barely a scar to show for her adventure.

I never got to go on rotations with Dr. Stace, as he left the University and went back into private practice before then; he missed it, he said, and I could see why. The next time I needed a horse vet I tried to get him - willing to bypass even the student discount I got from the University's Ambulatory service - but as it turns out he had as many clients as he could handle and wasn't taking new ones. Well, I can understand that; there's only so much time in a day, and anyone lucky enough to have Dr. Stace as their horse vet isn't likely to give up their spot. But even though I regretted that I did not have the opportunity to have him as a professor, I'm pretty sure I learned nearly as much from Dr. Stace that day as I did in a week of Ambulatory rotations when I went on them myself. Don't get me wrong: I loved my ambulatory rotation and I learned a lot from a good professor - and had a great time with my rotation mates, who teased me (the only woman on the rotation) like brothers. I teased them back, mercilessly, and we all got a lot done and learned a good bit about equine medicine and enjoyed the doing of it. What I learned from Dr. Stace was less about the "what" of medicine and more about the how and why, I think. Why we do this; how we keep doing it and doing it well; what it is that brings us joy in this work, despite its many burdens; how the essential inner heart of who we are is perhaps the most important thing we bring to our patients... more important, sometimes, than our knowledge and our skills, than our intelligence and reasoning, than our meds and sutures and bandages.

I imagine Dr. Stace is either retired now, or considering it; I would hope he's still amongst us on this earth, walking it with his long, ambling stride, his pace all leisure but his eye as keen and quick as a striking hawk. I can be sure of one thing, though: Wherever he is, he walks on the side of the Angels.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Red Hand of Death (And Other Ways to Stay Sane During Vet School)

Vet school is a stressful gig. It's not just the responsibility of it, the knowledge that you are undertaking to go out and save lives, do surgery, make tricky medical diagnoses; undertaking to be the expert, to have people rely on you for help in matters of life and death. It's not just the astonishingly fast pace or the intense workload or the massive amount of information and skills you are trying to master. It's not just the expense of it, the long hours and the early realization that, rather than floating somewhere near the top of your class, an academic over-achiever, you are suddenly average: EVERYONE in your class is an academic over-achiever and ALL of them are from the tops of their classes - and at least half of them (and probably more) were better students than you were.

No, there's also the sneaking suspicion that your admission was a dreadful administrative error, and that you don't really belong here. This feeling will be emphatically underscored by the realization that the stunning girl who sits next to you - who is beautifully made-up and has her long strait hair perfectly curled, who has a husband and a house and a job.... this girl is not just smart enough to get into vet school, but she's SO smart she also has time to manage a full life AND look like that. Every day.

That's when you're pretty certain you're sunk.

Maybe it's not a big surprise that I went a bit frantic on the studying the first semester. We had an exam every 10 days, because if they stretched them out further, the amount of material to master was just too vast to be contained within one exam.

Now, the upperclassmen and the faculty were all well aware of the fact that the first exam of vet school was the most stressful of all of them - until it came time to take the National Board Exam and the Clinical Competency Test in senior year (plus or minus a state board exam, depending on the state in which you proposed to work). It's tradition that an outgoing Freshman - now a newly-minted sophomore - "adopted" a "little sib": an incoming and somewhat petrified freshman. In my case, I had my regular big sib - who, on the morning of the first exam, brought me a plate of home-made snicker doodles and a nice encouraging card, which was bright and cheerful and full of moral support - but I also had my neighbor's big sib, a very kindhearted girl who had met me via a work-study situation and to some degree taken me under her wing. She brought both of us - me and the kind, funny, intelligent and intimidatingly beautiful girl who sat next to me, who was her ACTUAL little sib - a new and freshly-sharpened #2 pencil, a brand-new eraser, and a petri dish of m&m's, labelled "m&m culture, eat on [date of exam]". My neighbor also got a few extra goodies, but it seemed her big sib didn't want to leave me out. Isn't that sweet?

Next we are all ushered, trembling, sleep-deprived and sweaty-palmed, into the lecture hall, where they are to pass out our exam papers and tell us the rules (the exam being half written, half practical). There is a strange murmuring noise, which you quickly realize is composed of 131 freshman muttering last-minute aides-memoirs to themselves or their neighbors. The professors proctoring the exam are on the lecture stage as the second hand sweeps away the remaining time before the exam. Suddenly it's 8:00. You can almost hear a hundred and thirty-one hearts skip a beat in synchrony.

The lab coordinator gets up to tell us how the practical stations are set up in the lab: there are no more than four students allowed per station at any one time, though we're allowed to go back and forth between stations as many times as we like, within the 4 hours we are allotted to take the exam. We are also welcome to take the exam sitting in the lecture hall or go back to our cubicles and take it sitting at our desks, or anywhere else inside the building, as the honor code applies: we are expected not to cheat. (Although an honor board exists - a group of students who self-police their peers, with advice and supervision from a professor - it is rarely needed over the next 4 years, and never is a student actually found to have been cheating, at least in my vet school class).

Now there is a slight pause, and the lab coordinator tells us a joke. A pretty good one, getting roars of laughter. A bunch of students shuffle in at one side of the lecture stage; they are upperclassmen, and they put on a skit to loosen us up. It's pretty funny - although to this day everything that happened before that exam is a blur to me, and I have not the faintest recollection what the skit was about. What I do remember is laughing so hard I was nearly crying, while one part of my brain stood off to the side, looking at me and saying: Man. You are REALLY stressed out. Get a grip on yourself.

But the joke and the skit do their jobs: I am feeling cheerful and upbeat and a bit more relaxed as I start my exam in my cubicle, with my snicker doodles and my m&m culture, looking at a picture of my pony I have taped to the wall. (Okay, it's one of the racehorses I groomed right before I came back to school, but you get the idea.)

After the first exam, when I realise that I did well, I start to relax just a little. Maybe it wasn't a huge administrative error after all and I really DO belong here. I don't let up on the work, but I'm not so freaked out any more, since I've proven to my personal satisfaction that I can in fact handle the material, as long as I apply myself.

Still: it's a big deal, being in vet school, and I never want someone's animal to pay for me not paying enough attention in school, so like my vet school brethren, I work hard. Which means that we have to play hard - and we do.

At least some students go out dancing every time an exam falls on a Friday night, as there are no classes the next morning. I am amongst those who find this relaxing, and I'll dance til I fall over. Not well, mind you, but with great enthusiasm. Then there are various FACs (Friday Afternoon Clubs) at various bars and eateries around town, which vet students are adept at ferreting out, as many offer free or half-price appetizers and cheaper drinks from (say) 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday afternoons. There's my usual Saturday coffee date with my friend SF, at which we would vent and commiserate. We never said where we would meet; one of us would call the other and it would be:
"You want to meet?"
"Sure, what time?"
"How about noon?"
"Okay, see you there!" [click].
Then we would meet at noon, having never specified WHERE we were meeting or what for. It didn't occur to me until senior year that the only thing we ever specified was the time.

Sometimes I would take out my little mustang mare (or my thoroughbred mare, or one of the horses I boarded in my pasture for extra money) and ride in the beautiful old cemetery across from my house. Sometimes I would go for a walk or a run in the same cemetery. Sometimes I would just sit and listen to music, or watch a movie or a little TV whilst meditatively knitting or spinning yarn, or play silly games with my dog. Sometimes I'd just sit and stare out my window, or go down by the irrigation ditch running through my property and watch the ducks and muskrats playing in the water. I also developed a few culinary hobbies, the B list: making bread, beer and biscotti (all of which had the significant advantage that you could eat or drink the results of your stress-relieving hobby, providing further stress relief.) Sometimes I would write - can't seem to help that, no matter the circumstances - and sometimes I'd get out my pad and sketch, or just draw pictures in the margins of my notes.

In vet school I was also a hiking fool. I had a ratty old Dodge Dart, which half the time had to be started by arcing two poles on the starter with the assistance of large slotted kitchen spoon, but which limped me through the first couple of years of vet school. I took my dog hiking probably at least five times a week for the first three years - less often the last year, as the workload increased, but even then we probably made about three times a week or more (except for the month I spent on the ICU rotation).

But maybe the single most important thing that kept me sane through the first three years of vet school was the discovery of racquetball.

This was introduced to me by MT, she of San Juan rafting fame. For 7 weeks of the first semester of vet school (for me; she was finishing her Master's degree) we had a weight-training class three days a week and would warm up by playing racquetball for an hour or more first. Then we'd do our weight training and then we'd walk to Pescado Bay for fish tacos afterwards. Naturally MT was a much better player than I was, but by the time she graduated, I was hooked. Not because I was so good at it: more because it just felt so good to hit something.

So I developed other friends to play racquetball with, and was on the courts at least 5 days a week the first two years of vet school (during which we were up-campus and within walking distance of the students-only rec center), and on a slightly slower schedule for the third year, when our classes moved down-campus to the teaching hospital. I did have two unfortunate events associated with my racquetball obsession: One was that I tore my calf muscles badly on the court one day early in our sophomore year and was laid off for three weeks; that made me nearly crazy with restlessness, and to this day that calf has never been quite the same. And the other was that, consequent to my years making my living at the end of a pitchfork, I had tendinitis in both wrists. This made for a certain amount of strain on my right wrist during play, with the consequence that sometimes, as my hand grew slick with sweat, the racquet would spin in my grip, ruining a shot.

Well. I can't have THIS. I need to hit the ball so hard I split it along its seam. Need to, I tell you.

So I went shopping for a glove of some kind, something that would keep its grip no matter how sweaty my hand got. But naturally I didn't need TWO gloves, since racquetball is a one-handed game. To my annoyance, I could find goggles and balls and racquet covers, sweat bands and court shoes and all manner of workout clothing - but nary a racquetball glove to be found. Not one.

After much poking about I realised that golf gloves come as a single glove. Well. This looks promising.

So I tried on all kinds of different golf gloves of various sizes and makes, until I found the one that fit me the way I wanted. It was thin and light and didn't ruin my feel of the racquet, but it was made of leather that would absorb the sweat and would, if anything, become stickier if the sweat soaked through the palm. Perfect.

The first day I tried it out I was playing with a male classmate, C. He had thick curly brown hair and smiling dark eyes, and in some way reminded me of both my brothers - the curly dark hair and twinkly chocolate eyes of one, and the teasing demeanor and bratty-younger-brother spunk of the other. He was not so very much taller than me - perhaps six or seven inches - but he was significantly more athletic - well, or at least looked it, with a diver's build and a general lazy ease of motion.

We get on the court and I unzip my racquet cover, taking out my golf glove and pulling it on. It just so happens that this glove, the one that fit me just right, is bright red. C takes one look at it and starts laughing.

"What is that?" he asks me.

"The Red Hand of Death," I tell him with narrowed and menacing eye, trying not to grin. For some reason this makes C laugh all the harder. (Hmm, I can't think why THAT would be). On the other hand - the Red Hand of Death hand, no doubt - I beat him two games to one that day... maybe because he was laughing at me the whole time.

I'm telling you: It doesn't do to laugh at The Red Hand of Death.

Nowadays I find my stress relief in some ways differently, and some ways similarly. I no longer have a horse, and my gym does not have a racquetball court (although there is a gym in town that does, the fees have gotten ridiculous, and I have no partners anymore, so it hardly seems worth it.) I traded making beer for making wine, and baking for making kefir and roasting lamb. I still play silly games with my dogs, of course, although some of those games are a bit more serious - working sheep, for instance. There is less regular TV and more PBS and movies, although music and staring out my windows are still good. I do less sketching and more photography, less hiking and more flying, but I still meet friends for coffee. I have no patience for spinning anymore - in part because the minute I turn my back on it some Border collie snatches the end of the yarn and runs all over the house with it, unreeling it madly and tangling it in a giant spider web upstairs and down - but I still like to knit and crochet, especially while watching TV... it seems less wasteful somehow if I'm making something at the same time. And of course... I still write. I still can't help that. It's almost a compulsion.

These things do me fine, for the most part. Every once in a while, though, when I've had a particularly trying day I can feel a little itch in my palm, and I think: I wonder if I could get away with wearing it to work... The Red Hand of Death.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Okay. NOW You've Done It.

And here I mean pretty much all of you.

I suddenly have acquired an agent. Yes, a literary agent, like the kind that helps you gather your random scribblings together and make them into a book which will then (with any luck) get peddled to publishers and hence appear on bookstore shelves.... and hopefully, the shelves of people's houses - after being well-thumbed, if all goes as planned.

This is all your fault, you know. You kept pestering me about publishing things, and just LOOK what's happened.

So here I have a little question for you: My agent wants me to order things as I want them to appear. My personal take is that the mix is the way I like it - a story about horses here, one about dogs there, one about Alaska next, a happy one, a sad one, a funny one, a sweet one. I think grouping them all together - like all horse stories here, and all sad stories there - will be less interesting (and in the case of the sad ones, maybe more overwhelming and harder to deal with.) But I want to know what you think, since you've been reading here for a while and know if you like the order or not.

SO: Mix it up, or group it by subject?

As for the logistics, I'll need to edit a bit (in part to be absolutely sure I've protected confidentiality), and it takes about a year before anything is in print, according to my agent. But I'll let you know, shall I?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Averting Catastrophe

The other day I was poking around on VIN (Veterinary Information Network), researching something for one of my clients, when I came across an account of a spayed cat with persistent signs of estrus.

Well, once the cat is spayed, it's not supposed to go IN to estrus any more. And as anyone who has lived with one can attest, an in-heat cat is a real nuisance to live with. We used to get this call all the time on emergency when I was in intern:

Caller: My cat is in terrible pain! I want to bring her in!

Tech: What is she doing, ma'am?

Caller: She's rolling around on the floor screaming! Can't you hear her? [Owner holds phone out so that the tech can indeed hear long, moaning feline wails in the background.]

Tech: How old is your cat, ma'am?

Caller: Six or seven months...

Tech: Is she spayed?

Caller: No... should I bring her in? What do you think is wrong with her?

Tech [after ascertaining that the cat has no other symptoms apart from rolling around and wailing like she's auditioning for a New York blues band and hopes they can hear her from home]: You certainly can bring her in, ma'am, but it sounds to me like your cat is in heat, in which case the usual solution is to spay her. We normally do those procedures in the morning.

Caller: Are you sure? Can I talk to a doctor?

Tech [sighing, because now he has to wake up an intern or break one away from another case]: Sure.

This conversation is repeated almost verbatim until we get to the part where the doctor tells the caller that, although we can't tell for sure without a physical exam, it IS in fact likely that her cat is in heat.

Caller: But she sounds like she's in horrible pain!

Intern: Well, yes, they do sound like that. We'd be happy to see her tonight but the emergency fees do apply.

Caller: But why is she making that noise?

Intern: Ma'am, I know she sounds like she's in desperate agony, but it's more likely she's just desperate. For a date. [Weighty pause while this sinks in.]

Caller [in a tone of dawning understanding]: Ohhhh. [pause] So you're sure you can't spay her tonight?

Intern: Ma'am, I can see why this would seem like an emergency surgery to you, since you're not likely to get much sleep tonight, but I assure you that if she's just in heat she will survive until morning, no matter what she thinks about it. However, we'd be happy to have a look at her. Would you like to bring her in?

Caller: Well, I don't really have the money for the emergency fee or surgery [naturally, or else your cat would most likely already have been spayed, so we would not be taking this call].... Is there anything else I can do instead?

Intern [resisting the temptation to suggest earplugs or soundproofing her bedroom]: Well, ma'am, cats are seasonally polyestrous. That means that she will continue to cycle every few weeks all summer unless you do something.

Caller [in a pitch of rising hysteria]: All summer?!?

Intern: Yes, ma'am. Of course, you could do a false breeding, which will usually keep them out of heat for about 2 months.

Caller: Oh, that sounds good. What is that?

Intern: That's where you take a smooth slender object like a glass rod - a thermometer will work - and... er... pretend you're a tom cat. That will fool her body into believing she's pregnant, so her estrus cycles will stop for the length of a normal pregnancy, which is about 63 days.

Caller: [dead silence]

Intern: Ma'am....? Are you there?

Caller [in a small voice]: Maybe I'll just bring her in tomorrow to get spayed.

This was a call repeated over and over starting about February and continuing on until around November. It got so that when I heard my tech say "How old is your cat?" I'd just get up and go to the phone (presuming I had the rare good fortune to be trying to nap during my 16-hour overnight shift).

The false breeding thing does work, however. It takes a particular mind-set to be able to do this, but sometimes desperation plays a part. We had a classmate when I was in vet school whose wife bred cats. She had a particular queen who hated her husband, and it is perhaps a mark of his good nature that he didn't insist she place the cat in another home. The queen would hiss and slap at him and had, if I recall right, on more than one occasion attempted to bite him through his shoes or his pant leg. But she was a valuable breeding queen, and the wife (not surprisingly) did not want to breed her for back-to-back litters, which meant that there would be periods of time during which the general hissing and growling would be supplemented liberally with screaming and moaning. I gather it was creating a certain amount of marital disharmony; vet school is, after all, a gruelling haul with its high work load and its attendant stress levels, and having a cat screaming and moaning (not to mention clawing and biting) all the time isn't especially conducive to concentrating on your studies.

However, help was on the way. One day we got the false breeding lecture, and my classmate went home with a determined light in his eye. A few days later he reported that he'd given the false-breeding technique a try.

"Did it work?" I asked him.

"Oh, it worked, all right," he said, with a dark look.

"What?" I asked him, eyeing the set of his mouth. It took a bit of prodding, but he finally admitted that it might in fact have worked a little too well. The queen in question developed an immediate and inappropriate passion for him. She would run to the door when she heard him coming and throw herself on his feet, rolling around on them and purring wildly, rubbing her face against his ankles with every evidence of feline devotion and generally making a spectacle of herself.

"Well, at least that's better than her taking a swipe at you every time you come home," I said, encouragingly, biting my lips firmly to keep myself from laughing. He nodded.

"It's not so bad most of the time," he admitted. "But the other day we had friends over. They looked at her carrying on and asked me 'Doesn't this cat hate you?' So I'm telling them, 'Yes, she does, absolutely detests me' and trying to nudge her away from me with my foot." He gives me a morose look. "Didn't work," he concluded. "She spent the whole evening rolling around on my shoes. I think they suspected there was something going on between us." He gives me a dark look. "Go ahead and laugh," he adds, eyeing my face, clearly aware that I have at best no more than two more seconds of self-control left in me.

"Well, at least you know you have good technique," I said, declining to specify exactly what technique I meant by that (and not entirely certain myself).

"Oh, yes, that's me," he said sourly. "Have thermometer, will travel." But he joined me in a chuckle.

It's an odd life, being a vet; maybe the only thing odder is being a vet student. But at least our lives are rarely boring. And where else would you learn skills that will magically restore marital harmony with no more than a thermometer and a little determination?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Moose On The Loose

It's a grey, overcast fall day here in Alaska, and there is a light breeze fluttering the green and gold birch leaves outside my window. My dog Finn is laying on my feet, a silky, comforting warmth. I am contemplating my errands for the day, and for no reason that I can think of, I am suddenly thinking of moose encounters.

I love moose. Some people I know say they look like they were made by committee, with all mismatched parts; but I find them elegantly adapted to their habitat, and strangely charming. That's when they're safely at a distance or on the other side of some barrier, of course; close to, I find them quite scary. I've seen video of man killed in Anchorage several years ago by an enraged cow. Unfortunately, the cow had been harassed and pressured all day long by various students and others on the U of A campus, who had gotten WAY too close and put far too much pressure on her for hours, taking pictures and so on. She was minding her own business, just trying to make a living, trying to get enough forage to survive the harsh Alaskan winter. She was browsing on some plants near a University building, and the unfortunate target of her ire happened to exit a door near her without realizing she was there. He was far too close to her, and though he never even glanced in her direction, she had had enough. Having been pressured and harassed all day long - without malice, but also without thought for the potential consequences - she wheeled toward the man, striking him in the back of the head with one large hoof. He went down like a sack of potatoes; I suspect he was dead before he hit the ground. She stomped on him for a few seconds, kicking at him, but he was limp as a rag doll. I don't think he ever knew what hit him.

It was a tragic thing all around; the moose was killed by Fish and Game, and of course it's a terrible thing that the man died, really through no fault of his own. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and made the mistake of not looking both ways before exiting the building.

Most of the time when I have moose encounters they're much more benign - but I'm not foolish enough to stroll out to my truck if there's a moose in my yard or my driveway. I've several times called in "moose" to work: "Hi, it's me, I can't get to my truck because there's a moose on my deck. I'll be in as soon as she clears off." There used to be a cow that inhabited this neighborhood pretty regularly, though I've not seen her this year. Many times I've seen her scat in my driveway, or a hollow in the snow where she's bedded down outside my fence. Once I found a spot where she'd urinated next to my truck; there was a hole burned through 3 solid inches of ice, leading me to a new favorite expression: "Man, that's just hotter than moose piss!"

Another time I pulled in to my driveway and found her at the top of it, industriously stripping leaves off the trees. I parked halfway up my drive, got out a book and read until she moved off (fortunately I'd just been to the bookstore, so I was well-prepared.) Once she was bedded down about halfway down my drive; I had a safe shot to the truck, but I had to back down my driveway (which is on a hill) with extreme care; she came surging to her feet the minute I started the engine, but at that point seemed in no hurry to vacate the driveway. Instead she stood browsing on my birches for what seemed like forever, her rump end in the strike-path of the truck. Well, I'm not running a moose down for the sake of saving five minutes on my commute, so I waited. What the hey, my truck could stand a few more minutes of warm-up anyway, right?

The scariest encounters have been when I've had one or more dogs with me. One early morning, I let the dogs out into my back yard for their first stretch-and pee of the day. There was a sudden explosion of furious barking, of a tone that any dog owner knows means trouble. I yanked the door back open and saw a large and furiously enraged cow charging my fence, the dogs in scattering pandemonium in front of her, with only a thin barrier of chain-link between them. At that instant it looked flimsy and insubstantial as gauze to my horrified eyes.

"Crap! Finn! Ali!" I screamed. "Get in here! Raven! LEAVE it! Kenzie!" Meanwhile I'm jamming my feet into the boots by the door and running down the porch steps dressed only in an over-sized chamois shirt and a pair of Sorrels. I grab the first dog I come to (Raven) and pitch her up on the deck, where she has the good sense to go into the house, closely followed by Ali - who is not easy to catch, being swift and nearly hairless, but who has started to see the wisdom of backing off the moose cow, so I am able to make a lucky grab and heave him toward the house. Kenzie goes in on her own, following the other dogs, but Finn will NOT come off. Meanwhile Raven has turned around for a second look, so I dart up and slam the door in her face, lest they all decide to come out and rejoin the fray, and then I spin around and run out into the yard.

"Finn! LEAVE it, I said! Finn, God damn it! Get in the house!" I am shouting, slipping in the snow as I try to snatch any part of his body. Finn is dodging back and forth, fence-fighting the cow, barking furiously. Spit is flying from his lips as he leaps at the fence, springing off of it and evading my grasp again as I slide in the snow. The cow has twice kicked the fence with her powerful hind legs - making the chain link sway and bow alarmingly, chinging and rattling along its length - and has now turned face-on to Finn, dodging back and forth, ramming the fence with her head and striking with her lethal front feet, trying to find a way through to kill him. She is making a frightening sound - it's nothing I have ever heard before or can ever describe, something weirdly between a snort and a growl, a deep, thoroughly enraged sound that immediately raises the hair on the back of my neck. With one part of my brain I register that she has two nearly-yearling calves with her, hanging back slightly in the woods. This makes her even more ferociously dangerous, and as she rams the fence again with her head I am seriously afraid she'll come through it.

"Finn, God damn it! Get in the house!" I shriek at him, making another abortive grab at him, putting a hand down in the snow as I lose my footing. But by some miracle my fingers snagged just slightly in his tail, breaking his concentration enough that he finally hears me as I scream "Leave it, LEAVE it!" at him. He registers the fear and anger in my voice and breaks off, running at last up the porch steps, still growling and casting backwards glances as I follow after him.

"Shit! Shit!" I am panting as I shove the door open and stumble into the house, slamming the door behind us all. I can still hear the fence ringing and shaking as the cow rams it and I run into the bathroom, where I can look out the window at her. The fence is rippling and swaying, but it holds. Now that the dogs are gone, her ire dissipates quickly and she trots off into the woods, snorting and blowing, the calves high-stepping in front of her as they vacate my property.

I go to my living room and collapse on the couch, shaking and panting from adrenaline and exertion. Finn is panting too, but he looks thoroughly pleased with himself. The dogs mill about my feet, butting against me, all of them keyed up, but only Finn looking like he'd like another go, because that was fun.

"Damn dog," I say to him, petting him shakily. "When I say leave it, I mean leave it now," I tell him sternly. He grins at me, waving the luxuriant plume of his tail.

Next moose we see, he's not going to leave it. I know he'll do just as he did this time: race in barking furiously, leaping up to snatch at her face, dodging back and forth trying to grab a leg.


Well, he comes by it honestly, I will say. His mother, Keetna - a lovely bitch, a favorite patient, and owned by a friend of mine - is also hell on wheels - er, paws - when it comes to moose. J, her owner, told me this story.

One year, when Keetna was herself less than a year of age, J was walking with her step-daughter down a street in Girdwood, where they had a condo. J had Keetna on a leash, as any sensible person would with a Border collie puppy. It was summer time, a pleasant day. There was a moose browsing on some shrubs on the far side of the street, well off the road. J kept a weather eye on it, but it was peacefully engaged in its breakfast and they walked by without incident. There were other people here and there out on the street, but no one near the moose; everyone was giving it a wide berth. There was enough distance that J thought little of it, beyond taking care to leave it room and keep an eye out for any signs of irritation from the moose.

A while later, on their return down the street, J retraced their path. The moose was still decimating some home-owner's bushes, ignoring all else. About the time they were abeam the moose - or perhaps just a little past it - J catches motion from the corner of her eye and turns her head in time to see the moose charging out of the yard strait at them.

"Run!" she shouts, and run her step-daughter does - unfortunately, right down the middle of the street, the easiest possible path for the moose to follow and run her down - but luckily for her, the moose goes after J instead. J leaps into the woods, dragging Keetna, and dives behind the paltry shelter of a small black spruce. These are thin, weedy trees, some of them little more than a large sapling with a bristle of short, needled branches sticking randomly out from the sides. The tree J has taken refuge behind is one such, and it is little cover; the moose doesn't seem to think much of it, either, as she comes after J, making that hair-raising sound of rage and striking at J with her huge front feet. The spruce is narrow enough that the cow can strike at J from either side of it, and she does, her long legs whipping her sharp-toed hooves at J with bone-crushing force. J stumbles back from the strike zone, tripping over the uneven footing and dropping Keetna's leash.

The result is instantaneous. Keetna, freed from restraint, leaps snarling into the cow's face, her razoring teeth aiming for the cow's nose. The astonished moose rears back for a moment, her attention diverted from J to the snarling, snapping black-and-white fury in front of her. Keetna presses her advantage, using the moose's hesitation to leap at her face again. The moose turns on her haunches and runs. Keetna runs after her. Julie regains her footing and runs after them both, screaming at the top of her lungs, "Keetna! Get back here!"

The amazed neighbors look up to see a moose cow galloping down the street, with a small Border collie in hot pursuit, and J - herself a runner, and no doubt spurred by adrenaline - bringing up the rear, pelting down the road after them at top speed and screaming for her dog to come back now.

A short period of time later - although I imagine it seemed like an eternity to J - the moose has enough of a lead that Keetna breaks off her pursuit. She comes loping jauntily back to J, all smiles, and clearly pleased with herself. It was a lucky thing in one sense that Keetna was there, as she may well have spared J being stomped by the moose; on the other hand, it instilled in Keetna the absolute certitude that she is the Queen and Commander of all moose everywhere - a dangerous confidence to have.

So far that hasn't led Keenta into any serious trouble, although it's been a near thing at least one other time. That was a time when I was taking care of Keetna for J, when J was out of town. It was winter, and the dogs had all been out (on a runner in my front yard) and then back in and had their breakfast as I got ready for work. I was taking Keetna to work with me, and had gathered all my stuff. The dogs had been restless, but I'd attributed their subterranean growls and uneasy fidgets to the fact that we had a "strange" dog in the house - not that she was unknown to any of them, but that she didn't normally live with us.

At that time, I had a dog run along the side of my house, but it did not enclose my back door, as it now does; on that day it was empty, since the dogs stay inside while I am gone. I am thinking about the day ahead of me, paying little attention as I open the door and let Keetna outside to go to the truck; she's a well-behaved dog, so it naturally never occurs to me to leash her for the 15 yard walk to my truck. Keetna trots down the steps of the deck and about three feet into my yard and then starts barking furiously.

"Keetna, knock it off, you'll wake the neighbors," I say absently, juggling keys and lunch as I step out onto the porch, pulling the door to behind me. One second before I slam it shut - locking us out - I see movement from the corner of my eye.

There is a moose bedded down at the far end of the dog run. It comes surging to its feet, hackles up across its big shoulders, eyes slitty with annoyance, ears laid flat back along its skull.

"Crap! Keenta! Get in the house!" I yell. Keetna responds to this piece of advice by taking a short, stiff-legged charge at the moose, who is now rounding the corner of the dog run. Keetna and the moose are now about ten or twelve feet apart, a distance the moose can close in one stride.

"Keetna! Come!" I shriek, sounding a bit unhinged, even to my own ears. The moose, distracted, looks at me, now. I try to figure out how long I have to let Keenta come darting back into the house before I have to jump back and slam the door - or if I can just leave the door open, hoping the moose will not enter the house. As an added bonus I am imagining J's voice telling people "Keetna is lame because my vet broke her with a moose." I am thinking: Great, the first time I board Finn's mother at my house and I let her tangle with a moose and maim herself to death.

I plant one foot inside and the other on the deck, and try once more.

"Keetna! Get in the house right now!" I bellow, pointing furiously inside; Keetna looks at me, then back at the moose, who is now hesitating: still blowing down its nostrils in irritation, its attentions are divided and it is not advancing. Apparently figuring her work here is done, Keetna trots jauntily back into the house, where I slam the door and let out a whuff of relief. Keetna gives me a glance of sparkling delight, clearly saying: Did you get a load of that? See how I made that moose back down? I am QUEEN of all moose. They do as I tell them or they feel my Border collie wrath.

I go call work and tell them I'll be late, as I am currently trapped in the house by a moose. They are not completely astonished to hear this; it's an uncommon occurrence but not unheard-of. I peek out about 10 minutes later, but the moose - who has now been joined by a companion - is happily mowing down on my birch trees. I'm standing inside at the window, thinking: The willow. Eat the willow. But no: They like my birch.

I'm late to work that day, but in the end it's all fine. Keetna's confidence in her moose supremacy is unshaken - although my nerves are less steady than hers in this regard. No one gets hurt. The moose have a nice breakfast. And my first client, who I have kept waiting for 30 minutes, gives me a twinkling smile.

"Nowhere but Alaska can you be late to work with the excuse that there's a moose on your porch," he says, but as my staff has craftily plied him with coffee, he is quite cheerful about the whole thing. I'm telling you. Moose have NO consideration for other people's schedules.

Ah, well. Part of life in the Greatland. But realistically, I prefer my moose either served up on a plate or safely on the other side of some sturdy barrier (preferably in a photogenic pose easily shot from my balcony or other suitable vantage points). But I'll be extra careful in the next few weeks; in fall and spring they move around more, so I can just about guarantee that somewhere along my daily path, moose will be on the loose.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Wings of Owls

We have some wild days at work. Some are wilder than others, though.

One day, a few years back, a man comes in to the clinic clutching his Carhartt's coat, bundled into his chest. Since it is around 10 degrees outside, this is a bit unusual; in that weather, most people come in actually wearing their coats. The receptionist, C, looks at him and says, "May I help you?"

"Do you treat owls?" he asks, a slightly desperate look on his face.

As it happens, we DO treat owls - and other wild birds, should they arrive at our doors. At the time we were one of the few local clinics who held a wild bird permit, although this is no longer necessary in order to treat wild birds. Accordingly, the man was ushered into the treatment area carrying his bundle of Carhartt's, which turned out to contain a large and deeply annoyed great horned owl. The owl, most unfortunately, had gone for the bait in a leg hold trap and had gotten caught in the trap. The man, who was daily and diligently running his trap line (as required by law) had come upon the trapped owl, a good 20 miles from town. Distressed that he'd caught an animal he had not intended to, he deliberated about what to do. He might have decided on the "shoot, shovel and shut up" course of action - and no one would have been the wiser - but instead he took off his coat, threw it over the owl, corralled its beating wings and avoided its snapping beak, released it from the trap and bundled it snugly in his coat. Then he got back on his snow machine and drove back to town - in 10 degree weather, mind you, and coatless (and let me tell you, this is NOT a comfortable experience) - got the owl into his truck and drove it to our clinic.

Nice guy, and one who is willing to endure some discomfort to do the right thing. Gotta love that.

We de-bundle the owl, do a physical - the owl hissing and snapping the entire time, and making abortive grabs with the talons of the uninjured foot - install it in a cage in isolation, and give the guy back his coat.

"Will it be all right?" he asks me anxiously.

"Well, the injury to the leg is serious; that'll be an amputation, which makes it a non-releasable bird, because it won't be able to hunt properly. However, the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage has guidelines for amputees; below a certain joint on either the wings or the legs is acceptable, and this one falls into the "good" category. It'll become a teaching bird. So the upshot is that you've saved its life."

The guy looks relieved for a minute. Then his brow creases again.

"Do they like that? Being teaching birds?"

"Well, most of them adjust pretty well," I say, frowning thoughtfully. "But of course it's not a guarantee. Bird TLC screens them for that; the ones that don't adjust to public life, they usually keep in the hands of volunteers who are specially permitted. They have flight cages and so on for flighted birds, too, and try to do what they can for environmental enrichment." The man still looks doubtful. "It's a chance," I tell him. "Without you bringing her in, there would BE no chance."

He nods, accepting this, and departs in a little better frame of mind than he arrived in.

When it's time to amputate the owl's leg, we gather her up with a towel (and I'm only assuming she's a she, based on size). Birds are tricky under anesthesia; their airways are complex compared to those of mammals. For one thing, they have air sacs, which we don't; for another their airways are rather delicate. And of course they have different physiology. The consequence of all this is that bird anesthesia requires at least two people: One must keep a stethoscope on the bird's heart, listening without pause. The other must man the anesthetic machine, adjusting the gas flow as directed by the person with the stethoscope.

Naturally this is a bit nerve-wracking, so we divide up the tasks as seems best: me on the heart, Dr. J (a fast surgeon) cutting, and one of the techs manning the anesthetic machine. We mask down the owl, a tricky task as she is no more interested in having an anesthetic mask over her face than she was in being bundled out of the cage in a towel, and is inclined to attempt to bite through the rubber gasket on the edge of the mask. But the gas does its job and soon she is relaxing, her wings drooping open and her large golden eyes closing, their thin, papery lids hiding her fierce glare. In my ears her heart is fast but steady, relatively loud through the sturdy breast muscle. The leg is quickly prepped and Dr. J starts cutting.

I am listening intently to her heart, ignoring the hive of activity around her leg. "Turn it up," I tell the hovering tech, as the heartbeat grows louder and faster in my ears. "Okay, turn it down," I say a minute later as the beat goes softer, lighter, slower. Right about now I notice that the owl has lice, since a large, fat example of the species is now crawling leisurely across the back of my hand. Gah. But I can't move my stethoscope off the chest so I content myself with a little shudder and the knowledge that lice are species-specific, so even if this one runs strait up my arm and into the thickets of my hair, there will be no infestation: Just one creepy little bird louse to track down and murder.

"Turn it up... turn it down... turn it off!" I tell the tech, as the owl's heart goes to a feathery-thin, barely-audible flutter. A minute passes; the second hand is halfway through another sweep before I tell her, "Okay, turn it on again... turn it up...."

Dr. J is closing; the heavily-taloned foot, the leg bone a splintered mangle an inch above the toes, is discarded; it's a sad thing, trashing something so beautifully made, all symmetry and strength and sharp, strong talons, gracefully curved. But the foot has no blood supply, which means no healing is possible, so it is of no future use to the bird.

We inject the bird with antibiotics and turn off our anesthesia; I crush my visiting louse and roll the owl onto her side, ready to bundle her up in a towel to help keep her warm til she wakes up. But I cannot resist just once extending her wing. Quiet now as she sleeps, this is a marvel of grace and power, the feathers fanned in gorgeous overlap one atop the next, the long pinions showing the reach she will have in flight. Even completely still, it gives you a sense of movement, of grace on the air. The edges of the wing are impossibly soft; the reason for the owl's silent flight is that each feather has a finely-fringed edge, rather than the smooth, hard edges seen on the flight feathers of other birds. Evidently this microscopic fringing diffuses the air disturbance as the wing beats so that there is virtually no noise made by its passage.

After a moment I feel a slight tension in the wing. I release it and the owl draws it back slowly toward her body. She is waking. I gently wrap her in her towel and put her in her cage, then call Bird TLC; they have a volunteer in the neighborhood who will come pick up the owl that afternoon. That's a good thing, since we have no mice or rats on hand, frozen or otherwise, for her to eat.

When the TLC volunteer arrives, she is armed with gauntlets and a carrier for the owl. The owl, less than thrilled to see yet another person today, hisses and clacks her beak menacingly; she is already standing on her one remaining foot and half-spreads her wings, either for balance or in indecision as to whether she should attempt escape or murder. The volunteer, well used to such antics, waits patiently; after a minute the owl turns to the back of the cage, trying to shut us out. The volunteer reaches deftly into the cage, pinning the bird's wings in a gentle but firm grasp, and quickly transfers her to the carrier, which she then shrouds with a towel. The hissing and beak-clacking quiet immediately.

"Here's her treatment record," I say, handing it over. "She has lice, by the way," I add, in case the record isn't read immediately.

"Thanks for telling me," says the volunteer with a grimace. "We'll put her in isolation til we get rid of those, instead of in the general population."

A few weeks later I call TLC to see how the bird is doing. She is adjusting well, I hear; a young bird, she has taken to handling with relative ease. Her incision is healed and she is now louse-free. A flighted bird, she has been allowed the use of the flight cage, and she is eating well. As she adjusts, she will become an educational bird, going to nature centers and schools to teach people about predatory birds.

It's the best we can do for her; the foot was irreplaceable from the moment the trap snapped shut on it. The trap line was legal and well-maintained, and in truth it's uncommon for birds to get caught in trap lines. It's likely that it only happened this time because the bird was young and inexperienced. I sometimes wonder if salvaging these birds is the best thing for them; but I know from past history that some of them develop close bonds with their handlers. When I was in school we had a great horned owl in the Raptor Center that had cataracts. She was as hissy and touchy as an irritated rattlesnake, in part because her cataracts made people seem to spring into her face without warning, as a hand moved from her blind spot into her sight with no evident transition. I was leery of handling her (although I was fine picking up all manner of other birds, from barn owls to red-tailed hawks). However, when her handler arrived, her hissing feints calmed to his voice and she would shuffle cautiously to the front of the cage, looking for his gauntlet so she could step up, waving a foot uncertainly in the air for him to slip his arm under. The minute she felt the gauntlet under her foot she would grip it and step up, sidestepping down his arm til she felt the balance point on his fist. He would gather her jesses and bring her in close to his body, stroking her feathers and talking softly to her until she stopped gaping and snapping and started to fluff herself, and then they would stroll majestically out of the hospital and back to the raptor center, located across the parking lot behind the hospital. The handler was a big, beefy man, at least 6 foot four, but he had a way. He could soften his voice down to a soothing purr, and something about his measured, stately progress seemed to calm her easily-agitated nerves.

That was a good match, and without it the bird would be dead. She showed every sign that she was fond of her handler, letting him scruffle his fingers softly in her feathers, half-closing her eyes as he stroked and groomed her. On balance I guess I think that with the right bird/handler match, the teaching-bird route is preferable to the dead-bird route. It's hard to think of these birds, meant to be wild, living in captivity; harder still to think of the ones who are forever flightless when they are meant to soar. Still.... there is no question that people need to understand the value of these animals, so that we preserve their habitats and minimize the hazards to their survival, and there is truly nothing on this earth that will make you appreciate the incredible power of, say, a golden eagle, better than standing next to one and seeing it cast its sharp, piercing glance your way. There is no other way to really grasp the massiveness of such a bird, nor the latent power of its furled wings, nor the deadly beauty of beak and talon, unless you stand next to one, under its proud eye, and feel these things for yourself. There is an immediacy to that that makes you understand at once that this is a thing of value, something not to be lost. And for me, at least, it gives me a little atavistic shiver, fixed in that eagle eye; a reminder that should we perish as a species, the world would go on... but should we be here alone, the sole species remaining, we would die, bereft.

So I try, every so often, to think kind thoughts for the volunteers who take in these birds, who spend their time caring for them and teaching others about them. I try to think of the birds themselves, whose lives are spent not as they were born to be, but perhaps in a way that is worthy of them, even if not what nature intended. And I think of the kind of person who will drive 20 miles on a snow machine without a coat to give an owl a chance to survive, when he could have done otherwise in greater comfort and with no one knowing anything about it.

Kind of gives me hope.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Of Bears and Bagels

So Friday at work was insanely busy. It wasn't necessarily the number of cases - although that was quite high enough - so much as the type of case: ones that required extensive workups, deep and complicated reasoning, meticulous client communication and education. There were several complex cases that came in unscheduled and required lengthy procedures or testing protocols. Two of the nurses were out due to unexpected events, which left us unusually short-handed. And of course to top it off, there was the usual complement of abscesses and lacerations and hit-by-cars to field, just like any other day. This was somewhat more frustrating in view of the fact that my Saturday - a day usually jammed with appointments, often double- or triple-booked, a day when people calling for emergent cases are often told that we will get them in, but they may have to wait - had only four cases booked for the entire day. Four. I've never, in 14 years here, seen a Saturday as lightly booked. There were moments - well, hours - where all three doctors working Friday afternoon half-wished that some of the cases pouring through the doors would pour through on Saturday, just to give us enough time to manage the cases in front of us.

Like most days, though, it had its compensations. For one thing, we did a lot of good that day, got a lot of work done and helped a lot of animals and people. For another, it was one of those days that reminds me that by and large, I love my clients. Most of our clients are great, and several of the ones I saw that day were particular favorites of mine. One client - a client who has become a friend, and whose entire family are favorites of mine - had brought her elderly dog in for a procedure. Our pre-surgical bloods located a significant issue, however, so rather than proceed that day, I advised a course of treatment to address the metabolic disorder, with re-check bloods in a month. The client - a warm-hearted, funny, charming woman with strikingly beautiful eyes - thanked me for delaying the procedure, agreed to all suggested treatments, and then followed that up by asking, "And do you guys want donuts or bagels today?"

"Er - well, you don't have to do that, but if you're asking, I'd vote bagels," I said.

"Good choice. And do you want REAL bagels, or the crappy kind from the grocery store?"

"I don't know... do we want real bagels or the crappy grocery store bagels?" I asked SS, sitting nearby.

"We want real bagels," she said, laughing. "Is that FJ on the phone?" she adds, recognizing the behavior.

"Yes," I tell her. Meanwhile, FJ is asking me, "What kind of cream cheese do you like?"

"Well, personally I don't like the fruit kinds much, but anything else is fine," I say.

"Good for you!" she commends me. "How many people are there today?" SS counts them up for me and relays the information.

"Twelve," I tell FJ, thinking: That's convenient. An even dozen.

"Okay," FJ tells me cheerfully.

" You're my favorite now," I tell FJ, teasing, in a half-flirty, half-coy tone.

"I'm your favorite now?!?" she asks me - reasonably enough, since FJ and I like to go out to coffee and have girl-talk together.

"I heard that," SS says, laughing. FJ sighs.

"I know; my dad always wins," she sighs, resigned - but in truth, JF and both her parents are so good, so kind, so genuinely warm and loving and thoughtful and good-humored and generous that you would be very hard-pressed to choose between them. They are all lovely people, always a delight to deal with, and I've been very fortunate to be able to treat their pets for many years now. They are the kind of people who humble you, by virtue of no more than being who they are: You want to be a better person so that you can be worthy of their regard.

Half an hour later FJ arrives with enough bagels to feed an army and three different kinds of cream cheese.

Have I mentioned I love my clients?

One way or another we made it through the day and I left work only a half hour late. I needed to bring sheep feed out to the farm; when I got there, R helped me unload it. R had been moose hunting and was home for one night before going back out. I asked if she'd gotten anything yet.

"No, but my hunting partner got a bear... sort of by accident," she said.

"There has to be a story with that," I said.

"Well, we were in camp tented up and my hunting partner heard something crashing around and rattling things and poking around the fly of his tent. He waited til the snuffling went away and then stuck his head out. There was a bear in camp."

Oh, dear. Besides being dangerous in their own right, bears are destructive to property - they are, for example, fond of plastic and will readily chew up and destroy even extremely sturdy plastic objects, such as the impact-resistant equipment lockers on the backs of the 4-wheelers, and parts of the 4-wheelers themselves. In addition, the presence of a bear in camp pretty much ensures the complete absence of moose anywhere in the vicinity. Moreover, a bear that is not cautious about human habitations and presence is a potential hazard to every person it encounters.

"Yikes," I said.

"Yeah," agreed R. "Anyway, K got it before it did much damage, although it was pretty interested in our outhouse. There were ropes of bear spit hanging off the seat. A little too close for comfort, if you ask me."

I'll say.

"Come on in and have a glass of wine," she added, brightening.

Well. After the day I just spent, that sounds awfully good. You don't have to ask ME twice.

I went in and had a glass of wine and chit-chatted a bit with S and R and YS, sipping at a glass of Merlot (which had the strange and mysterious ability to magically refill itself every time I turned my back.... or maybe that was R being hospitable.) After more like two glasses of wine, S stood up.

"Come on, it's dinner time," S said, gesturing me into the kitchen. Well, this was not really my plan, but hey - I find it hard to turn down such invites at Wildwood, where the food is always as good as the conversation.

"What're we having?" I asked, sniffing appreciatively.

"Bear heart," S smiles.

"Yeah, I called to find out what parts of a bear you would want to use," R said. "S told me 'everything but the rectum'."

"Yup. No bear asses around here," says YS, to general amusement. This is followed by a story that S tells us about having gone to a specialty foods store in Anchorage once in search of jellyfish, which she had been told might be an interesting gastronomic delicacy. The store employees looked at her like this was the weirdest and most disgusting request imaginable.

"This is a store that carries pig rectum," she adds, to put it in context.

"Pig rectum...? To EAT?" I ask, in some astonishment; I thought that was only used for Fear Factor gross-out points.

"Yes, to eat. Jellyfish were unbearably disgusting to everyone there, but evidently pig rectum is just fine."

"Um... ew," I said, secretly glad that the usable parts of a bear do not include anything rectal whatsoever. I'm not sure if it was the wine - lubricating my ease of amnesia - or if it was simply that the smells from the kitchen were growing increasingly enticing, but I quickly forgot all about bear behinds (and pig ones, too) and got myself a plate.

So I had bear heart for dinner. I expected this to be tough, both because heart muscle is in constant motion from birth to death, never still, and so might be expected to be a little tough; and also because bear needs to be cooked very thoroughly in order to avoid the risk of trichinosis, a parasite that can kill you - quite painfully, I hear. But the bear heart was surprisingly tender - and having eaten bear before (although never, I assure you, the bear ass) I knew I would find the flavor to my taste. The best enchiladas I ever had were made from bear.

And bear heart: Yum.

I've lived in Alaska for many years, and have eaten many things here that I'd never tried (and sometimes never even heard of) before I got here: high-bush cranberries, low-bush cranberries, salmon berries, birch syrup, fiddlehead ferns, squash flowers, moose, caribou, reindeer, puff-ball mushrooms and morels, roasted kid and peacock eggs and pilot bread and candied fireweed, rose hips strait off the bush, rhubarb champagne and home-made kefir, pickled green beans and pickled pike, not to mention various kinds of secret-recipe sauces and ways to make or preserve fish and fowl and whatever else you might think of. But even for all that, eating bear heart was a bit of a novelty. But you don't want to waste the sacrifice, so if you shoot a bear, my advice is that you cook it thoroughly and honor the animal by using every last bit of it.

Except the bear behind.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kefir Madness

Lately I've been going a little crazy making kefir. I blame Wildwood Farm for this.

It all started innocently enough when I was over there one day, doing sheep chores or something - I don't even remember what. S announced that a friend of hers had given her some kefir grains. Now, I've had store-bought kefir, and it was more or less like liquid yogurt. I liked it fine, so I was mildly intrigued by the thought of making my own. However, both becuase S seemed entirely too excited about this, and I was confused by the term "kefir grains", naturally I had to learn more. I thought maybe that the kefir bugs came in a little granulated powder like baking yeast or wine-making yeast or something, but what S was spooning out of her fermenting kefir looked a lot more like some mutant cross between cottage cheese and a cauliflower, with maybe a little alien brain matter mixed in.

However, I was game to try it. I must first point out that it was NOT like the store-bought version - it was not sweet, nor fruit-flavored and -colored. It had a tang and texture more similar to buttermilk (which I quite like), although it had a little bit of a fine-grained spritz on the tongue, like barely-fermenting fresh-pressed cider. It also had some deeper notes to the flavor, something that reminded me of certain kinds of ripe French cheeses. And there was something else: It made me feel sort of.... good. Like it was making me cheerful and peaceful and all... good-like.

Eventually S gave me some kefir grains from her culture so I could start my own. Now, here I must point out that making kefir is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT and not for the faint of heart. The instructions follow:

1. Pour some milk in a jar.
2. Put your kefir grains in.
3. Put the lid on the jar and set it somewhere in your house.
4. Wait 2 days.

See? Extremely difficult. If you try it, you should probably lie down for an hour or two afterwards and make people bring you food and hot buttered rum so you can recover from your labors. A foot massage would definitely aid the process considerably, so be sure you mention that.

Ideally, the kefir should (supposedly, and if you can wait that long) be refrigerated (after you scoop out the kefir grains on the top to inoculate your next batch) for an additional 2 days. This is because apparently, if you put it in the fridge, the little kefir bugs will keep metabolizing and making nutrients for you to drink, but they produce different nutrients in the cold than in the room-temperature. Or so I hear.

Having done a little reading, it appears that the reason kefir makes you feel all good-like is that it contains significant amounts of protein, vitamin B and tryptophan - and small amounts of alcohol. It also has all kinds of other goodies in it, including several different strains of beneficial microbes (the home-made kefir, I mean; the store-bought kind usually only has 2 strains of microbe and no appreciable alcohol.) Originally, it seems that kefir was made of camel milk, but if you don't happen to have a camel - or if you do, but don't feel up to milking it, which in my view just shows good sense - it also appears that you can kefir a lot of things that aren't camel milk: cow milk, sheep milk, goat milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, fruit juice, ginger beer, sauerkraut, (which I guess would be kefirkraut, actually), even water and sugar. Some people believe that kefir can cure cancer, initiate world peace and intimidate harmful yeasts and bacteria and viruses right out of your body. Which may or may not be true - I have no proof either way - but I have to say: I'd drink it anyway, because I find it all yummy and stuff.

It's been like a little biology project. The kefir bugs seem to grow at nuclear speeds, so I can make many many different batches and mess around with them as much as I like. I can put in raspberry jam (which several of my clients bring me in the home-made version because they know I'm a complete maniac for raspberries.) I can put in agave nectar. I can put in strawberries and bananas and make smoothies. I can put in all KINDS of stuff - and as I have some congenital abnormality which makes me absolutely incapable of following a recipe as written, God only knows what might end up in there. But it'll probably be yummy.

Actually, Alaska is a good place for someone with my particular mental defects. That thing about not following recipes - it's really true. Ask anyone. I can do it once, if I force myself, or if I've never eaten anything like the recipe in question and I'm not sure how it's supposed to taste.... but the second time (and often the first) I'll be standing there thinking: Hmm, I bet a little bit of nutmeg would taste really good in this... [OOOH! Kefir with nutmeg and apricots! - Ooops. Sorry about that.] At any rate, it's quite annoying to people who have certain expectations about their food, like that you will not make their grandmother's famous chocolate cream pie with crushed pecans for the crust, nor shave chocolate and nutmeg over the top of it. But up here, there are LOTS of people who screw around with the recipe - or just make up their own. There are whole Alaskan cookbooks like that. One time I invented something called "moose baked in wine and apples" (which also included birch syrup and pine nuts and garlic, and if I ever make it again, will also include Craisins) and nobody up HERE thought I was nuts. I did get a lot of remarks from "certain people" in the lower 48, however, even though I specified -SPECIFIED! - that any meat could be used, if you didn't happen to have a moose handy. I ask you.

I don't know why we like to invent our own up here. Maybe it's because we don't have "normal" stuff that people in the lower 48 take for granted, or we only have it for a short time. Maybe it's because we have a lot of stuff that's normal for us, but is pretty unusual for people Outside, so Betty Crocker had no idea how to tell you to cook it. (First, take one pound of canned beaver, half a cup of dried lowbush cranberries, and 20 to 30 fresh fiddlehead ferns...) Maybe it's because we get snowed in and have to invent something out of whatever is in the pantry, which might be a can of smoked salmon, some pickled green beans, and - and KEFIR. Yeah. That's the ticket. Maybe it's because while our growing season is short, it's violent. Just today Dr. P brought in about 11 enormous squash which are "extras" (as in, they can no longer think of new things to do with squash, or else have run out of freezer space). I expect that sooner or later he'll be bringing in some "extra" cabbages, most of which will weigh in excess of 20# (that is, if the moose didn't eat them again this year). In years where I feel like gardening, I can grow enough sweet basil to make pesto literally by the pound, and still have enough to chop up into salads, layer on sandwiches or fresh sliced tomatoes, dry for later use, and freeze in olive oil for future use in soups and sauces. And that's not counting the live plants I gave away, or sprigs I bring to work and pass around.

Right now I'm having lurking thoughts about making stuffed yellow squash tomorrow for dinner - since I DO have a pound and a half of moose burger in the freezer, and thanks to Dr. P I have a yellow squash big enough that I could probably use it to stun a 300# hog, if I were to tap it smartly over the head with it. I have some home-grown rosemary and thyme and sweet basil, and I might even have dried apricots and Craisins, and some pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.... and I DEFINITELY have some kefir.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Arrow Escapes

Well, the horse stories could go on forever - and I will doubtless trot out (as it were) the rest of them for you at some juncture - but I thought today maybe a little change of pace, in case the less horse-obsessed amongst us were getting bored.

It's moose-hunting season up here now. And beautiful weather for being out today, although my nurse M says her best hunting is usually on the wet and gloomy days. Fortunately for her that's what we had during bow season, which comes before the regular season. M bagged her moose on the last day of the bow season, filling her freezer against the winter to come. I have to say I admire the willingness to hunt an animal as large as a moose with just a bow, and respect the skill it takes to bring one down in that way. It seems fairer to me, in some way; the bow hunter has not such an enormous advantage over the prey as a gun provides. You don't have the range you can get with a rifle, so it's a little more of a level footing, at least in my imagination, and requires more skill of the hunter. M is a careful hunter, never taking a shot unless she's pretty sure she HAS a shot, not risking merely wounding an animal that will then wander around for days, suffering. She's been known to proxy-hunt as well - going out to hunt for someone otherwise eligible to hunt but who is too old or infirm to hunt for themselves; a generous thing to do, given the amount of work it is and that the meat goes to the person for whom she is hunting, not to herself. But not everyone is so meticulous in their ethics.

Not long after bow season was over, Fish and Game had to go trap a trumpeter swan that someone had shot with an arrow. Swans are a non-huntable bird in Alaska, so that in and of itself was wrong, and the kind of thing that completely infuriates me - and completely infuriates all responsible hunters, as well. Luckily for the swan, whoever shot it - and F&G thinks it was done deliberately - used a target arrow, not a hunting arrow. Target points are little bullet-shaped tips, a short cylindrical metal shape that is crowned by a conical point. Hunting tips, by contrast, come in a variety of shapes, depending on what you're hunting, but a lot of them are shaped more or less like the arrowheads made by Native hunters (which shape most of us would recognize.) Some people, in fact, still knap their own flint arrowheads and hunt with them. At any rate, a target arrow does much less harm than a hunting arrow would do, but it still enrages me that anyone would shoot a defenseless bird just to be shooting something - shoot it in a way that will cause it pain and harm, but not kill it outright. Wild swans up here are often semi-habituated; as they migrate, they travel from lake to lake, often spending a few days at their "usual" stops. Beautiful as they are, it's not uncommon for people to go down to the shore to watch them, and sometimes feed them. As a result, swans are often inclined to paddle peacefully over for a little gander at their admirers, and possibly a handout or two. After all, it's a long flight south, and a few extra calories aren't going to go amiss. But that means it would be extremely easy for some cruel, small-minded moron to shoot one of them with an arrow.

As it happens, Fish and Game managed to net the swan and examine it. This is not as easy as it sounds; apart from being strong and fairly fast swimmers, swans are strong and fairly sizey birds. They can beat you about the head with their powerful wings, and are not averse to biting if the need arises. Habituated though they might be, they aren't really interested in being caught. When you add to this the presence of a highly annoyed mate trying to goose you as you splash around in your waders with a net, you really have to give the F&G boys some credit. Eventually they did manage to corral the injured swan, however, and have a look at it. One of its wings was pinioned to its body by the arrow, but the arrow didn't penetrate deeply into the body wall. They were able to repair the injuries (with the assistance of the good offices of Wild Bird Rescue) and return the swan to its mate - and since the trumpeter swan mates for life, this is an important consideration. Well, all's well that ends well, in that case at least (although I would DEARLY love to see the shooter get what ought to be coming to them for their cruelty and their violation of the law.)

It's not the only time I've seen a non-huntable animal with an arrow injury, though.

Many years back, after I first came to Alaska, I was on call one day when some people paged me. They had found a dog that had been shot; it wasn't their dog, but they didn't want to see it suffering, so could they bring it in? Well, this is a sort of tricky situation; the clinic I work for is a small business, and they expect to collect fees, so that they can feed their families and stay open to help other animals. These people don't own this dog, and naturally enough don't really want to pay the emergency fees on an animal they don't own. And while it's true that even if I were independently wealthy I'd probably be willing to do this work for free, in fact it's not unreasonable for me to expect to be paid for going in to work on a weekend - or any other time, come to that. In those days Animal Control had no real facilities for handling this kind of thing, so... what to do?

Well, sometimes, you just have to go with your gut, so I told the callers to come on in. I just figured we'd work it out as we went along.

I had assumed, on hearing that the dog had been shot, that it had been a gunshot wound, by far the more common event up here. But no; when I reached the clinic, the good Samaritans were waiting anxiously by their car. I walked over to them and they said, "We were afraid to move him too much, since it's still in him."

Eh? That's not the usual thing people say with a gunshot dog. I look through the open door into the back seat, where they have ensconced the dog. He is laying across the entire length of the back bench seat, a long, rangy grey husky-mix sort of dog. The Samaritans, obviously being the planning type, have blanketed the seat for comfort and against messes, and have already muzzled the dog with a blue nylon muzzle ("We don't know anything about this dog and we thought he might want to bite," they explained.)

Well, I might want to bite, too. Protruding from his back, just to the right of his spine and just aft of his ribs, is the end of the arrow. It is embedded so deep that the fletchings are snugged up against his fur. In fact, if not for them, I believe the arrow would have gone all the way through the dog.

Yikes. I can't believe the dog arrived alive.

"Let's get him inside and see what we've got," I say. "Let me go get a stretcher."

We manage to slide the dog onto the stretcher and carry him into the hospital with a minimum of jostling. I have a look at the dog. He looks a bit disreputable, a little thin and unkempt, as if he has been on his own for a while. He is regarding me somewhat warily over his muzzle, but the muzzle is loose enough that he can breathe unimpeded. After a minute, when I've not done anything too alarming, he opens his jaw slightly to pant, and I can see that his color is excellent. He looks alert and oriented, as well - all of which is a bit of a shock, considering that I can feel the point of the arrow protruding between the ribs on the left side of his chest, tenting his furry hide but not penetrating through it. This means that the arrow has passed from his right upper lumbar area - just over the right kidney - across his midline through his diaphragm, and through his chest at a slightly downward angle. The tip is palpable about mid-thorax, maybe 4 inches above the point of the heart, but level with it. Somehow the arrow, while it most assuredly passed by them both, has not torn either the aorta or the vena cava, the two enormous vessels that travel down the body's midline: a laceration to either one would have caused the dog to bleed out in a matter of minutes. I can't rule out a nick in one or the other; sometimes the presence of the foreign body will plug the wound temporarily - until it is removed, and then the hole opens up and bleeds ferociously. I know that the arrow has passed by the stomach, the liver, the gall bladder and the esophagus, not to mention quite a stretch of lung tissue, but I have no idea what damage was done to which organ - although it's obvious that the diaphragm must have a hole in it, since the arrow goes through it. And, quite incidentally, the dog is also missing a small bit off the tip of one ear, and two toes on one of his hind feet. He's had an eventful life, this dog. But clearly the arrow is by far the biggest of these events, and the most life-threatening. I can imagine the path of the arrow through his body, and all the potential harm it might have done going in - or could do, coming out again.

Hm. This could be quite a disaster in the making.

I look at the good Samaritans.

"Ideally this would be something where I sedate him and Xray to see what we have, and then decide on a course of treatment, although in a situation like this the anesthesia itself might destabilize him and kill him," I tell them. "But that all incurs some significant expenses, and I'm not sure whether you intended to take responsibility for that...?" I ask, as delicately as possible. They look at each other, one of those marital glances that seems to carry within it an entire conversation.

"He's not our dog," the husband finally says. "We wanted to help him, and we'll pay the emergency fee, but beyond that..."

Well, okay. This is certainly reasonable enough. This is not their job. They've already done more than many people would, by carefully catching up the dog, muzzling him to prevent him from injuring them - or me, I might add with some gratitude - and volunteering to pay an emergency fee for an animal they do not own and have no responsibility to beyond that of common human decency.

Okay, the ball is back in my court. I can euthanize him, or I can try to treat. Euthanasia is tempting, given the frightening nature of the arrow path; but the dog is laying sternal, looking quiet but alert, breathing easily (and isn't THAT rather astonishing, under the circumstances), rotating his ears to catch our conversation. I call my boss to ask for guidance. He says I can do whatever I decide is best, but to try not to spend too much of the clinic's money, since we're not getting paid for it. I look at the dog. He looks at me. There is undeniable awareness in his clear golden eyes. Somehow I feel like I have to try something, at least.... and clearly I can't just leave him there with an arrow running through his body.

"Well," I say to the Samaritans. "Our choices are to put him down or to give it a try. I'm inclined to give it a try, but I have to warn you: I have no idea what kind of tip is on this arrow. I can feel the point of it just under the skin, but it's mainly embedded in the muscle of his chest wall between the ribs -so even though I think it's a target point, I might be wrong: it might be a hunting point, and if so, pulling it out will likely kill him on the spot. Even with a target point it's a risky endeavor: if it doesn't kill him outright from exsanguination, there are all sorts of possible consequences: he could get a pneumothorax and die from that, or it may have lacerated his esophagus, which would certainly kill him unless very extensive surgery is done. It might have nicked a loop of bowel or perforated his stomach, either of which could lead to peritonitis. That would kill him too, unless we do some major surgery. It could have lacerated his kidney, which would be another complete disaster, and I don't see how it can have missed hitting his liver. And of course there are infection risks along the entire arrow path; even if it somehow missed all his organs, it certainly wasn't sterile, and it's bound to have carried all kinds of bacteria in with it. He could get a massive infection in his chest or his abdomen as a result, which would naturally be a very serious problem."

They look at each other.

"None of the long-term consequences are your problem, of course, since he's not your dog," I add. "But usually when people bring in dogs like this, even if they don't decide to keep them, they want to find out how they did in the long run. I'm just letting you know he's got a lot of potential hazard to this. If you'd rather I put him down and not take the risks, it's okay to tell me so."

"Would it be... would it be okay to just pull out the arrow and see what happens?" asks the wife, tentatively.

"Yes," I say. "You don't have to stay," I add, knowing that the dog might crash on the spot and that that might be deeply distressing for these kindhearted people.

"No. We'll stay," says the husband, resolutely. He flexes his hand slightly, ready to step in. "What do you want me to do?"

"Just steady him and keep him from jumping off the table," I say. Carefully, I clip as best I can around the fletching of the arrow; if the dog doesn't die from the extraction of it, I'll need to suture that area, and I'd rather do it without hair on it. I gently prep around the shaft of the arrow and set a purse-string suture around it; if I'm quick, I can pull this tight as soon as the arrow is out, cinching the skin down to prevent air from entering the arrow path to minimize the chance of sucking air into the wound, and maybe encouraging a pneumothorax. I have no idea if this would in fact happen, but it's at least something I can try to prevent.

During all this the dog lies stoically, flicking an ear back at me, but barely twitching when I set my sutures.

I grasp the ends of my purse-string suture with mt left hand, bracing the heel of it against the dog's back. I grip the arrow's fletchings firmly in my right.

"Ready?" I ask them. The husband, hugging the dog around the neck, his mouth set, looks at me and gives me a nod.

I start to pull back on the arrow - pull back hard, because it doesn't want to move. But after a second it starts to shift. I feel a stuttering, grating vibration in the shaft as the point releases itself from the rib against which it was set, and then the arrow pulls out smooth and fast. I snatch my purse-string tight, tossing the arrow on the floor, and quickly tie down my suture.

I look up. Neither the dog nor the good Samaritan clinging to his neck has moved during the few seconds it took to pull the arrow. Slowly, the man straitens up, backing away from the dog as he might from a live hand grenade. All eyes are on the dog. Inside his blue muzzle, he opens his mouth and pants gently.

I watch him for a minute, two minutes. He doesn't appear to be bleeding out. I inject a large wad of antibiotics and enlist the help of the good Samaritans to lift him off the table.

"Let's get this muzzle off of him," I say, unclasping it and handing it back to its owners. The dog sniffs with interest at the nearest trash can.

"Well, okay," I tell the couple. "Let me take care of him through the weekend, see what he does." I ensconce the dog in a cage with a blanket and some water, which he drinks a little of. We handle some paperwork and I promise to call Monday with an update.

Monday the dog is seeming pretty chipper with his little hotel stay. He likes the room service, and has happily eaten everything offered, with no ill effects. He has no fever, no cough, no penumothorax, no abdominal effusions, no belly pain, no apparent ill effects whatsoever from being impaled by the arrow. The good Samaritans stop in and want to visit him.

"Sure," I say, leading them back to his run. "I've been calling him Archer," I add, since we had to call him something, and "That Dog That Got Shot With The Arrow" is a bit cumbersome. "He has no microchip or other ID, so Animal Control is going to come over and get him later today or tomorrow. I gave them a description, but they have no reports that he's gone missing from anyone," I add. He's not that hard to identify, after all, with his missing parts; I'm fairly certain if someone was looking for him it would easy for Animal Control to match him up with my description.

Leaving them to commune with the dog for a while, I go take an appointment. I go back to check on them. The wife is sitting on the floor in the front of the run, cuddling the newly-christened Archer. He's generally friendly enough in a slightly aloof, independandt sort of way, but seems happy enough to be getting his ears scratched by Mrs. Samaritan.

"We've decided we want to adopt him," Mr. Samaritan informs me.

"Oh," I say. "I'll call Animal Control and see if I can clear it with them." Animal Control takes information from me and the Samaritans, treating it as they would had someone called to report a stray, but been willing to house the stray (rather than take it to the shelter) while Animal Control seeks the owner. The Samaritans pay Archer's bill and take him home.

I never saw any of them again - Archer OR the Samaritans - so I can only hope it all ended well. I do know that no one ever showed up at Animal Control looking for Archer - and I also know that whoever shot him was never caught. I've seen many a strange thing in Veterinary medicine from that day to this, but there haven't been a lot of things stranger than having a full recovery from an injury like that solely on the strength of a single suture and a wad of antibiotics.

Since they weren't gunshot wounds, I suppose you can't really say that either that trumpeter swan or Archer dodged the bullet... in either case, it was more of an arrow escape.