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The Snake in the Street

 

It was a warm summer day, and I had been out and about running errands. As I turned the corner to go home, I spied a garter snake in the middle of the street. The snake in the street was as pretty as all garter snakes are—thin, green, red, and shiny with a little yellow. They’re common in my neighborhood; my favorite sighting was one slinking around the juniper bushes beside our house.

Something was not right about Mr. Snake in the Street. He wasn’t slinking anywhere, despite the hot sunshine and even hotter black asphalt.

Snakes are poikilothermic, or cold-blooded. Their body temperature changes with the environment around them, and if that environment is too hot or too cold, they’ll die. It’s not just the temperature extremes themselves that are dangerous; if you feed your pet snake when its body is too cold, it can’t digest the food. The undigested food rots, which kills the snake.

In the case of Mr. Snake in the Street, the asphalt was hot enough to literally cook him. If he stayed there too long, he’d die of hyperthermia.

He moved his head feebly as I watched through the car window. I noticed blood spatter on his head, so I figured he’d had an unfortunate encounter with a car.

I’m a veterinarian, and in my feline-exclusive veterinary practice, I dedicated my work and life to making the world better for cats. My in-home cat clinic was a converted one-car garage, licensed by the city solely for the care of cats.

A snake is not a cat, but that never stopped me from providing compassionate care when it was needed. I grieve for all animals that suffer, whether they’re pets or animals in the wild. I’d never refuse to treat a sick animal in an emergency situation—not only would that go against my own beliefs, but it goes against the Veterinarian’s Oath, too.

When I became a vet, I swore an oath, similar to human medicine’s Hippocratic Oath. The first part of the Veterinarian’s Oath is, “I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering. . .” I couldn’t protect the snake’s health, but I could relieve his suffering.

I parked my car in the drive and pulled on gloves, planning to retrieve the snake and euthanize him. By the time I reached him, he had already died. I gently laid him in the tall grass by the drainage ditch, where nature would take care of the rest.

Injured and dying snakes aren’t the only wild critters I’ve treated. As a volunteer at the Tucson Wildlife Center, I had plenty of opportunities to care for different species.

One of the most common looked like a domestic kitten. Good Samaritans would find what they thought was an abandoned kitten and bring it to their local veterinarian for help. But these kittens weren’t domestic or abandoned; they were bobcat kittens.

Vets are required to have a special license to treat wild animals, so the usual procedure was for the regular vet to examine the bobcat kitten, insert a needle to hydrate it with subcutaneous fluids, and, if the kitten was healthy enough, feed it Kitten Milk Replacer. Then the vet called the Tucson Wildlife Center to make arrangements to transfer the kitten, where it would be cared for by a wildlife specialist until it could be released back into the wild.

My favorite animals at the wildlife center were the Great Horned Owl chicks. Many weren’t injured; they’d just fallen out of their nest. A helpful human passing by had found them and brought them to the center. I took great pleasure in feeding these youngsters. I wore thick gloves and held a piece of mouse with long-nosed forceps. I swear those chicks looked at me with pure hate—they wanted another owl feeding them, not this weird creature with the forceps—but they snatched the food and gulped it down.

When the wildlife vet declared that the chick was ready to return to nature, a volunteer or staff member headed into the desert, found any occupied Great Horned Owl nest, propped a ladder next to the tree, climbed up, and dropped the owlet into the nest. Great Horned Owls are excellent parents and, although their nests are sloppy and a fall hazard for owlets, the adults accept babies that aren’t their own and will raise them until they can fly.

Back home in Colorado, my cat clinic occasionally hosted non-cat pets, too.

A mother and daughter waited in the exam room with the daughter’s pet rat. The rat’s name was Jennifer. She was soft and brown, just your basic rat that could be a pet, snake food, or a research subject.

Rats make excellent pets, but I must confess they are one of the few animals that give me the willies. They’re kind and friendly, but there’s something about that bald, scaly tail with sparse hair that makes me cringe. I also do not care for the yellow gnawing incisors or the malodorous droppings.

It didn’t matter whether or not I disliked rats in general or Jennifer in particular. Jennifer’s people were worried about her, didn’t know where else to go, and I had a job to do. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax so I could listen to what they had to say. When they finished, I knew what the problem was, even without examining Jennifer.

I turned Jennifer on her back, revealing the swelling on her abdomen that her owners had noticed: a mammary carcinoma (breast cancer). The mass was leaking reddish serous fluid, lending more credence to my diagnosis.

The treatment for breast cancer in rats begins with a lateral chest radiograph to see if the cancer has metastasized to the lungs. If it has, it’s game over for the rat; pulmonary metastatic breast cancer is fatal. If it hasn’t, treatment is a mastectomy. That may have a good outcome, but it’s expensive. The average life span of a pet rat is about two years, and Jennifer was well into her second year already.

After discussing these options, Mom and daughter decided to take Jennifer home to enjoy as much time as she had left. As always, I offered euthanasia at no cost for when the time came. I only charged for this service if it was a first time client bringing in the patient specifically for euthanasia.

I never saw Jennifer or her people again—I suspect she died peacefully in her sleep—but I was glad I could help, even though Jennifer was not a cat.

During the years I ran my cat clinic, I was also teaching junior high school science. My fellow science teacher, Chuck, had a class rat named Scruphy. Although the junior high didn’t allow classroom pets any more, Scruphy had been in Chuck’s room for several years, and the school administration was unaware of her existence. Scruphy’s history was exactly like Jennifer’s, but Scruphy was ready to be put to sleep.

Chuck asked if I would handle Scruphy’s euthanasia. Despite fretting that someone would find out that I was bringing a syringe filled with pentobarbital (an ingredient in the lethal injection cocktail used for executions) into a junior high school, I agreed.

In the early morning quiet at the back of the science department workroom, I euthanized Scruphy. With no way to find a vein in a rat, I injected the deadly solution into the liver. Immediately after, I ran outside and hid the syringe in my car.

Next, I did a partial necropsy on Scruphy, excising the tumor from her chest wall. Chuck and I laid Scruphy’s remains on a cart, placed the huge tumor mass next to her body for size comparison, and covered everything with a moist towel. Throughout the day, we asked our kids if they wanted to see cancer in a rat. It was entirely up to them; we wouldn’t force them to look, and we certainly wouldn’t risk traumatizing them.

I was amazed that most kids did want to see the specimens, which meant I had to toss my planned lesson for the day. We had a study hall day instead, while my students waited their turn to see a real-life example of cancer.

Mr. Snake in the Street, the bobcat kits and owl chicks, Jennifer, and Scruphy all needed relief of their suffering, including veterinary care. I felt fortunate to be there, because even though I’d chosen to practice on one species—cats—I was able to fulfill my promise to “practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.” In those moments, there is never a question of shouldI help another species; there is only the commitment to help the animal in the best way possible.

Ivy’s promise

I ruffled my fingers through Ivy’s mop-headed curls, my face close to hers. “Such a good dog,” I gushed. “You’re the bestest dog in the whole world.” As Ivy wriggled, overflowing with happy puppy energy, a wave of guilt washed through me, leaving behind a familiar ache.

It wasn’t Ivy’s fault. She’s an adorable ball of beautiful fur. From the very beginning, it was obvious that she was smart, loving, and loyal. She was the first puppy I’d raised by myself, and I was (and am) sloppy in love with her.

Ivy came into my life eight years after my husband Earl died. Over the 27 years of our marriage, we’d raised and loved two dogs, both huskies. Keli was our first. Fourteen years later, about a year before Keli died, we added Tipper. Tipper lived a long time too, and died ten days before Earl did.

What do you do when you lose the best dogs of all time, then years later, adopt a fuzzy little puppy who is also the best dog of all time? Is it disloyal to the huskies to tell the newcomer that she’s the greatest dog in the world?

There are some who would pooh-pooh these feelings of disloyalty and my worry that I was betraying my beloved Keli and Tipper. “The dog doesn’t know,” they’d point out. True enough, but just because Ivy doesn’t know the sorrow I still carry doesn’t mean I don’t feel the ache of that loss.

At first, I thought I could stay loyal to the memory of the huskies if I told Ivy that she’s the “greatest dog born in this century,” but that didn’t ring true. It was like telling her, “You’re the best—but oh, wait, I had these two huskies, and you’re not the same—but don’t worry, you’re also a good dog.” Things would get tangled in my head, too. I’d say, “What a good husky,” or call her Tipper.

I slowly began to understand that this was less about grief and more about comparison. What are the parameters by which we compare our pets, and our love for them? Should we compare them?

As Ivy’s first birthday approached, the answer finally emerged: there is no comparison, and there should be none. I didn’t need to let my love of Tipper and Keli go. I didn’t need to qualify my joy for Ivy. All three dogs in their times were the greatest dog of all time. From now on, no comparing one dog to another, no trying to gauge my love to prove it was equally deep for each.

I sat Ivy down and looked into her big round eyes. I told her how much I loved the huskies, and that I’d never forget them or the things we’d done together that made sharing my life with them so much fun.

“These memories are for remembering, not comparing,” I told her. “I promise to never compare you to them. I promise to not add ‘born in the twenty-first century’ when I say you’re the best dog.”

I’ve kept my promise. The ache is still there, but it’s softer, thanks to the memories of Keli’s and Tipper’s love and antics, combined with—not compared to—the new memories Ivy and I have been making for almost three years.

This angel has gone home

How appropriate that my neurology professor, Dr. James T. Ingram, Purple Heart WWII vet, died on Memorial Day at 94. I have posted previously about Jim.

I saw him last week when he was an inpatient for hospice care last week. He was ready to move on.

In Fannie Flagg’s book and movie, Fried Green Tomatoes (book-at the Whistle Stop Cafe,) she has a conversation between Idgie and Buddy, whose mother, Ruth, Idgie’s best friend, is dying. Trying to get him to understand, she says, “There are angels disguised as people walking the Earth. Your mama is one of those angels.”

Jim Ingram, angel, husband, father, friend, teacher and the best equine neurologist ever, has gone home.

And for the class of ’87, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

A wonderful life

Something told me that day, October 4, 2001,  to go to the Humane Society.

Our new cleaning lady was starting that day, and I didn’t want to walk in when she was working. So I thought I would go look at the animals. I didn’t need one. We had Tipper the Wonder Husky, and Alexander, the twenty-pound cat.

I walked around the cat area just to see what was there. I had no intention of getting a buddy for Kitty Al. He definitely was not an alpha cat, and although the largest cat we ever had, he was always the most mild mannered . I got him because when I returned home after a year of practice in a Falls Church VA, clinic, Fletcher, our long-haired orange boy, started pooping on the guest bed. After Fletch died, Al needed a buddy.

There, in a cage was a short-haired orange kitten, three months old. Already neutered. Ready for a forever home. Would he get one?

Yep.

Short hair? I hadn’t had  a short haired cat since high school. But he was also an orange tabby. Orange boys are special. I have found orange females not that nice, but to me, orange boys had it all, love and kindness, polite (well mostly), and bravery. I brought him home, and he became in love with Tipper, and nursed on Al’s toe.

How about a name? Oh yeah, he needs a name. Humane societies give them names so you will give them a closer look and take them home. My orange boy was called “Pumpkin” because it was October 4th, almost Halloween. Cowboy Joe and brother Franklin were Chip and Dale. Please.

I tend to give pets people names. I can only remember one beagle from childhood that I named Panhandle. Don’t ask me why; I was a kid.

Although I  was not instantly in love with this orange tabby and white cutie, I took him home.

So what name would work? Dunno. As I’ve said to clients, they will tell you their names in a week or so. And so he did.

I had an unusual ninth grader in my biology class that year. Matthew was inquisitive, knew everything to know about the Titanic, liked antiques, and reading, but didn’t learn biology. A social kid, we talked often. I like to talk to students, just chatting about anything but school work. Matthew. Matthew. Although it was really coincidental, and not on purpose, the tiny kitten told me his name was to be Matthew.

And so it was for the next eighteen years.

I came home with my Goldendoodle, Ivy, last Sunday from a trip to my second home in Tucson for five weeks, and staying with new friends that had Ivy’s sister, Cali. What a fabulous 3 days we had after a nice, but short visit in New Mexico.

I left the three cats home with my next door neighbors, Sharon and Phyllis to care for them. When I left, Matt was fine, a specimen of good health and proper nutrition.

When you see something every day, you don’t notice subtle changes. At first, Matt looked fine. Later in the day, I noticed him crouching, looking toward me with totally dilated eyes, and he had huge lump on the right side of his upper jaw. It took me a nanosecond to know he had a cancer of the jaw, and he was blind. His heart was going at Kentucky Derby speed.

Matthew got around OK, but was slow, a little wobbly, and took a long time to lie down on his special throne, a brown cat pillow with a leopard-print border.

Since it was Sunday and not an emergency, I made several (only needed one, really,) calls to the clinic that Earl and I originally designed. He slept all night with us on the bed. I don’t think he urinated. He was dehydrated, but wouldn’t drink or eat.

I wanted at least one x-ray to say we had done an examination, which we did. The x-ray was a dead giveaway. A tumor right where we thought it was. Dr. Michelle Thomas and I knew it was also in the brain, probably in the area of the optic chiasm, where the optic nerves cross; and some of the fibers cross over to the other side of the brain to pass through two nuclei, one for each side, the Edinger-Westfall nuclei for us neuro geeks.

Blindness can come from  an eye problem, an optic nerve problem, a crossover problem, a nuclear problem, or a tumor of the part of the brain called the occipital lobe.

All staff knew I would not leave Matthew for any part of the euthanasia. The techs gently gave him a shot of anesthesia, and I stayed with him, holding him until I laid him on the table, and smoothed his fur and kissed his face.

The techs came back in to insert a catheter into sleeping Matt’s cephalic (arm) vein, and gave us some more time together even though he was sleeping under anesthesia.

Dr. Thomas came in with the euthanasia solution, and handed me the syringe, and another syringe to flush the catheter in his forelimb after the euthanasia solution was all in. Matthew was peacefully released.

The staff did what I always did in practice, pay the bill first, not to be sure to get the bucks up front; but make it easy to just leave after whatever time you want to spend with your pet. They also asked me what I wanted done with his body. Note: I have written about euthanasia in my book, Drinking from the Trough: A Veterinarian’s Memoir. Cremation, save ashes was my choice. I picked the ashes up yesterday. The pretty box is in a safe but not noticeable place. I will take them to Arizona next fall and scatter them in my garden.

My cousin, Gail, and I reminisced about some of Matthew’s antics and how he would always talk on the phone if I was using a strong business-like voice, and how he was the head of my family. The details are in the book.

Matt, my golden boy, you were definitely top cat in the house no matter who were your buddies: Alexander, or brothers Cowboy Joe and Frank. You knew how to be a good cat right from the start of our relationship of nearly eighteen years. And you also won an award at your passing: You lived the longest life of any cat I ever had, even Pruney.

I’ll see you at the Rainbow Bridge, my love. Love from me, your cat-mother, and everyone who knew you. Peace.

Matthew Fletcher Carlson

2001-2019

May your memory be a blessing.

So much for the clean dog

Well, Ivy made it through last week until today. Then I took her to the dog park. Yes, THAT dog park, where I did a header and skinned my nose and knees.

Honestly, this dog will chase the ball launched from the dog ball launcher until she fell down in heat stroke if I let her. She had a great time playing with a husky until he and his owner left. Then we had the place to ourselves.

An update on the townhome: I had garage remotes fixed, put in a keypad, had the vanity (80’s) painted, and removed the twisted poles where there is now a spacious looking place to put dog boxes. Things dry fast around here.

Ivy loves the patio and chasing her ball. Thing is, I can’t just leave her out there-coyotes would have a lovely lunch of Goldendoodle. Not on my watch.

While I was gone, I meant to set the thermostat to be cooler. It was 85 in the house when we got back. Darwin’s Law I guess.

Happy Passover and Easter!

Wow, what a busy week. Highlights are that right now I’m in Scottsdale at my cousins’ house. Ellen (my first cuz John’s wife) is preparing Passover Seder for 30. The real first night was yesterday, but Ellen does it on Saturday so people can get up here.

I got here yesterday so I could stop in at bookstores for meet and greets. I got two done in Tucson a couple of weeks ago, and three here. I couldn’t find the other two. I went so far out, I thought I was in Mongolia. I stopped for a slice of pizza, and the server wrote me a map that perfectly got me back to John and Ellen’s. I’m done with that. I do have GPS on my care-brought the Subaru because Ivy was invited too-and map app on my phone with a car phone charger was a little better, but there was no voice telling me where to go. It just showed where I was supposed to end up. Oh well. The important bookstore I was supposed to sign the books they bought only had three, and I was fifty miles away. Sorry.

Ivy and Lucy, her new cousin, got off to a rough start. Ivy is so not an alpha dog, and Lucy went after her. No bites. But when John came home, and he saw her do this to Ivy, it was like the heavens opened up and a monster lightning bolt hit that dog. After taking Ivy out three times last night, Lucy didn’t do anything. They are true cousins now.

I walked Ivy this morning, trying to stay out of Ellen’s way-she likes to work alone, and will ask if she needs something. 100 degrees in the morning.

So I have an ‘office’ that used to be Doug’s (younger son) bedroom, and am sleeping in older brother Greg’s room minus the two snakes. There are in here with me. John came home early to help out, and he has the fourth bedroom office, hence I was given a table and chair, wifi codes, and here I sit, pining for dinner. No lunch today! Breakfast was good,  but that’s it until dinner.

Thursday, Cyndi, her husband, and her daughter came to my wonderfully comfy townhome. They have Cali, Ivy’s sister. I well remember socializing that litter. If Cyndi is home when I go through New Mexico, we will stay with them and see Cali (short for California where Cyndi is from.) Maegan loves horses, and rides weekly in a special needs riding club. They had the time, so we drove over to the Randall’s ranch, where our horses live. She also got to see the sheep and goats next door, and we walked down to see the other horses. My sister’s two and my horse are kept up near the really neat ranch house.

A good time indeed.

A long good-bye

I needed some ear cleaner for Ivy, so I contacted a classmate’s clinic, which is just around the street for me. I asked for my friend, and was told she was out with medical issues. I contacted my go to vet, and was told, “The news is very bad indeed”.

I’m 66 years old, and other than horrible migraines, I’m fine, even with the orthopedic injuries I have had. I count my blessings every day.

The “very bad news indeed” turns out to be early onset Alzheimer’s that is rapidly progressive. My God, she isn’t even sixty!

I talked to her husband this morning, and could hear the pain in his voice. He had told his wife that I was in town, and she remembers me. This week is crazy prior to the holiday weekend, but I will go see her with Ivy in full therapy dog mode. Her husband thinks it will be good for her.

I kept telling him how sorry I am. Then I said I wouldn’t say that any more. We had a long chat, and he offered information about her condition. I did not ask.

This bright and brilliant lady is in the throes of the “long good-bye” as Ronald Reagan put it when he wrote a letter to everyone in 1994. While I’m not using any names or locations, please pray for her, and especially her wonderful husband who will care for her always. Thank you.

Staying close to home today.

Greetings from Tucson, where it will be 95 degrees for the second day in a row; then it will “cool off” to the seventies. Fort Collins has all kinds of storm warnings.

The little Chevy Sonic I keep here is in the shop. I was at the dealership for service, and the place is a maze. So I couldn’t get out of a row of cars and I had to back up. Crunch! Backed into a concrete light post. The car will be there a couple of days, but I have the Subaru, and won’t worry about squeaking two cars into the garage.

The reason I’m staying home is the heat later; and I am doing a phone interview with the Highland Park (IL) Landmark, a local publication. I wonder if it replaced the weekly Highland Park News, which we looked forward to every Thursday.

Ivy loves it here. She learned how to use the dirt surrounding the patio for her potty, and I keep it clean with a pooper scooper and a child’s beach bucket.

The minute she set eyes on my sister, Ivy fell in love. Margo is so good with animals, and Ivy is now her slave. We usually ate in the dining area. Now, we can close one door to the kitchen, and slide the pocket door so she can see us.

We walk in the early morning-you have to, here, and spend lots of time together as I get going with my meet and greets.

She spied the home-grown grapefruit Margo gave me, but no-no, not getting any. Sorry, Ivy.

Ivy trying to steal my grapefruit. Don’t you keep them on the floor?

Princess Ivy of Wrigley Field goes to the spa

Hands down, the best doodle groomer in town is April Castillon of Spa 4 Paws. Two weeks ago, when Ivy had just a “fluff and buff,” I reminded April that Ivy was scheduled for her Arizona haircut in two weeks. April said she would be out of town for business. OK, I thought, Ivy will be fine. April keeps records of what the owner likes the dog to look like. She knows if anyone touches her four inch eyelashes, a funeral will be involved.

So this morning we went to the spa. Who’s at the front desk? April! I said, “What are you doing here”? She replied that she postponed her trip because no one wanted to cut Ivy’s coat. When I picked Ivy up, I asked April if I was a helicopter mom who yelled at everyone about my perfect dog. I didn’t think so. The staff preferred not to do Ivy because she is so beautiful, and I want her to look a certain way. April also said one groomer cut the eyelashes short on one dog. Oy.

Ivy was gorgeous, and will not go to a dog park until we are in Tucson. She will get walked on a leash.

What a fine place of business where the staff knows the dogs and owners so well, and the owner postpones a trip to cut one special dog who brings smiles to the world.

The horrible secret behind Lippazaner shows.

One day, Earl and I went to a traveling Lippazaner show at the Larimer County Fairgrounds. Apparently, there are several groups that travel the nation so people can look at these magnificent horses which were saved during World War II by General George S. Patton.

We watched the magnificent jumps. The highlight of the jumps is the Cabriolet, where the horse jumps high into the air, then kicks his rear feet back. Astounding.

Since we were veterinarians, after the show we went behind the curtain of the arena to see the horses up close. We were promptly yelled at to get out. We explained that we were vets, and just wanted a closer look.

The mood changed immediately.

The head person in charge said they were out of Adequan, a powerful anti-arthritis drug, ridiculously expensive. I said I could get some, and would meet them there the next morning. I bought some at the veterinarian supply store, not a store like PetSmart, but one focusing on medicine and specific supplies.

I bought a box of Adequan with the caveat that I would be allowed to return it. The manager agreed. I went back to The Ranch, the name of the fairground complex in Loveland, and was told to get out by the security guards. When I explained myself, I was allowed to the area where the horses were.

In veterinary medicine, you must have a doctor, client, patient relationship to sell pharmaceuticals. In other words, you have to examine the animal. The head man said he just wanted to buy the stuff because he had some lame performers. I said I brought my horse bag, and would look at the sore animals. No, the man said.

I turned and walked to my car to the swear words of this man because I wouldn’t sell him drugs improperly and risk losing my license. I returned the Adequan to the store.

I got a horrible feeling in my gut. These people were using these magnificent horses daily, lame or not, and pumping them with drugs so they could perform. Then they traveled to the next city. Horses can develop stomach ulcers by daily travel and stress.

I stopped going to circuses long ago. I will not have anything to do with performing elephants. I have such high regard for the elephant. Circus animals are so abused so the companies can make money. Sick.

Thank goodness that now, Ringling Brothers shut down because of complaints by the public on how animals were treated.

There are many other ways to watch an amazing show. Cirque de Soleil uses human performers. These people have the gift of choice. Animals do not.

Please boycott traveling animal shows. My exception is a good rodeo if there is no steer roping, which is incredibly cruel to the steer. Steer roping is only allowed in two states.

Earl and I went to Chicago when my stepmother died. On the Hertz bus was a total cowboy in full Western dress. We asked him where he was going. For the first time ever in Chicago, the Built Ford Tough circuit of bullriding was in town. The rider was Wiley Peterson, 27, already a millionaire.

How are these animals treated? With the utmost care. Earl, I and my vet friend, Ruth, went to look at the stock. The man there pointed to a phenomenal looking bull. “See that bull?” he said. “That’s a million dollar animal.”

These prize animals are cared for with the utmost of patience. You won’t see handlers begging for pain killers. A veterinarian travels with them.

Pease be aware that there is a dark side to animal shows.