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.

Hey Culligan Man!

Years ago, there was a study of Fort Collins city tap water comparing it to bottled water. Fort Collins water won hands down, even though a certain amount of Giardia, a protozoan parasite that affects the GI system, is allowed in the water. If you are used to a small amount of Giardia, nothing happens. It’s like when we used to walk our dogs through the vet hospital at CSU for a ‘street dose’ of germs to become immune to them.

The water in my Texas town is pretty nasty tasting. I’ve been buying cases of bottled water. I don’t really like bottled water. I used to buy it for the bottles to fill with FC water after my cat, Fletcher (1987-2000,) was caught drinking out of my glass. Ish. Frank does this also.

I just got a reverse osmosis system for drinking and cooking water, as well as for ice cubes. It is delicious. I also got a Culligan (R) system for water softening. The water is pretty hard here. Now, I use less soap for washing clothes and dishes. My whites won’t turn yellow, as if I’d notice.

I went to college with one of the Culligan daughters, but I don’t think she’d remember.

The best thing about the reverse osmosis system is that the cats don’t have to drink water with so many minerals in it. Also, I fell like I am going green without so many water bottles around. I’ll save what I have left for my trip to Tucson later this month to see my ponies and ride. Talk about chugging water!

I still remember one summer during my childhood in suburban Chicago when you turned on the tap and foamy water came out. Nasty. It wasn’t even in 1967 when all the alewives (a type of fish) washed up on the beaches, turning the beaches into a rotting, stinking pile of sand. I think, though, that the worst drinking water I’ve ever tasted was in New Orleans. West Texas doesn’t even come close.

Do wind turbines suck the lungs out of bats?

My new Kindle 2 from Amazon arrived Friday, and I am thoroughly delighted with it. I have been reading constantly since then. Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance” is a can’t put downer, and I look forward to David McCullough’s “Truman.” I so enjoyed his “John Adams.”

On my Kindle, I have a trial subscription to the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper I read every day growing up in the ‘burbs. There was a piece March 1 by Gerry Smith about a mystery alarming wildlife experts. It seems that large numbers of bats are being found dead at wind farms with no visible signs of injury. Researchers think that the wind turbines cause the bats’ lungs to explode. Whoa.

Researchers at the University of Calgary reported that 90% of bats felled near one wind farm showed signs of barotrauma, or fatal internal hemorrhaging, of the lungs that occurred because of drops in air pressure near the spinning blades. This condition affects bats more than birds because bird lungs are more rigid, have one-way flow through the air sacs, and can withstand sudden changes in air pressure, according to the study published in the journal, Current Biology.

The delicate balance of life poses the question of how to go “green” without unintended environmental consequences.

Another related issue Smith brought up in his article is that coastlines and mountaintops, some of the best sources of wind, also happen to be in the path of migratory birds.

The bat deaths are causing a stir among wildlife advocates, and a partnership called the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative, BWEC, is seeking ways to balance wind energy and protecting bat populations while meeting the nation’s demand for renewable energy.

Of course, there is always some organization to make light of a potentially serious issue. A 2007 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded far more birds and bats have been killed in collisions with vehicles and buildings than with turbines. Consider the recent US Air “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Wildlife experts say that bats have low reproductive rates, so even small numbers of fatalities affect their population counts. The concern over bats is fairly recent. Wildlife biologists have been focused on protecting birds from spinning turbines. Bat deaths went largely unnoticed.

In 2003, an estimated 1400-4000 bat carcasses were found at a West Virginia wind farm, as well as farms in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

This raised a chorus of voices calling for the protection of bats at wind farms. The American Society of Mammalogists called for wind farms to avoid “bat hibernation, breeding, and maternity colonies.”

Wind farms are increasing dramatically. Mandates are coming regarding percentages of electricity to be generated by renewable resources. In Illinois, this is to be 25% by 2025.

To offset the scenario of barotrauma to bat lungs, night-vision cameras found bats have also been killed by collisions with turbine blades. Several theories explain why bats would fly close to turbines. They may confuse turbines with large, dead trees that bats use to roost. Turbines may attract insects, which attract hungry bats.

The issue is not building wind farms because they harm bats, or bats will die if wind farms continue to be developed, risking extinction of a very important part of our ecosystem. It’s finding a balance, and the problem can be solved.

Article by Gerry Smith, with additional information provided by Dr. Mary


Prairie dogs get a bad rap

As rural areas become increasingly populated, these charming rodents become victims of urban sprawl. A letter to the editor in the local paper today is titled, “Prairie dogs not good for the environment.” I beg to differ.

The black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus, is a ubiquitous rodent belonging to the squirrel family. They are common in our area, and an essential part of our ecosystem.

Prairie dogs have a complex habitat and strict social structure, living in “towns” of families that can span hundreds of acres. Tunnel systems channel rainwater to prevent erosion and runoff, and can enhance the soil by digging it up to reverse compaction caused by cattle grazing. The tunnels also provide homes to many species of animals such as Burrowing Owls and snakes. Prairie dogs have an elite social hierarchy, and designated individuals help to protect and defend the town.

I love prairie dogs. I delight in watching their antics. I have taken students on field trips to the Cathy Fromme Prairie to observe them. I watch them as I ride my horse while being mindful of where the holes are on the trail.

It seems that when development is desired, city officials think nothing of decimating a prairie dog town. One area near the foothills was wiped out with poison a couple of years ago. Guess what! The grass is back and the dogs are back. What city officials neglect to consider when wiping out a prairie dog town is that their predators, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles and other raptors, go away to find food elsewhere. Seldom do I ride my horse in local open spaces and state parks and not see eagles. In fact, one mountain park trail that we frequent is closed because golden eagles are nesting. There is a prairie dog town right there, a sort of fast food joint for the birds.

The letter in the paper today says that prairie dogs eat all the grass causing wind to blow dirt around. So what! This is nature. The author went on to say the wind-blown dirt could have caused a traffic accident. How about the driver slowing down if there are risky driving conditions?

If the prairie dogs eat too much and destroy their habitat, they will either die off or go elsewhere. The habitat will regrow. Let them be. Enjoy them for what they are, a vital part of the ecosystem, and food for wildlife.