Animal medicine for a nostalgic writer

Column by Hal Walter

Livestock – December 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE SMELL OF BURNING BONE drifted out of the old burro’s mouth as the wire saw, a thin piece of abrasive metal floss with metal rings on each end, ground its way through a tooth deep in the back of Jumpin’ Jack’s mouth. The veterinarian leaned into his business, and when the wire finally cut through the tooth, he nearly pitched over backwards with the released momentum. A chunk of tooth, about the size of the tip of my pinky, lay nearby on the ground. It had been hindering Jack’s ability to chew.

Jumpin’ Jack may be 40 or older — I can only account for his last 20 years and he was not young when I retrieved him from a pasture in Poncha Springs shortly after graduating with my B.S. in journalism from the University of Colorado in 1982. Now he’s somewhat blind and deaf, and generally decrepit. My wife, Mary, suggested that instead of the dental work we should buy him a much-less-expensive one-way ticket to the big pasture in the sky. But I keep holding on to the notion that he will humor me with a peaceful passing some sunny morning.

With one tooth corrected, the vet, very savvy at equine dentistry, set about working on the second tooth, at the opposite side of the bottom of the mouth. But the vet couldn’t get the saw started because the tooth was very hard and also slanted forward at an angle. The wire kept slipping. Finally, with the vet guiding the wire and me working the rings, we got it started. Then he allowed me to continue sawing. The smell of burning bone once again wafted forth as I marveled through my first hands-on experience at equine dentistry. When I could tell I was nearing the end, I eased up in order to not fall backwards.

The piece of tooth popped out and for the first time in my life I realized for certain that I would never be a vet. This was a dream I shared with a high-school buddy when we worked together in a pet store in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The owner was a retired Marine Corps colonel with a crew cut who regularly pulled out a white glove to test the cleanliness of shelves and bellowed “Good night!” if the result was not to his satisfaction. By contrast, the shop’s dog groomer was a gentle and kind African-American man who did business quietly in the back room; he claimed to be a pimp by night, kept a huge roll of cash stashed in his sock, and drove a Windjammer motorcycle to work.

On Saturdays and Sundays before opening the doors for business, my friend and I would arrive early in the morning to clean the dog dung from the cages and wash them out with a Pine Sol-and-water mixture that the colonel drilled into our brains should be “as hot as the hand can stand.” In between various tasks such as sweeping floors, feeding tropical fish, and wiping down shelves we would discuss our future careers as vets. Occasionally we would have to practice minor “medicine” to save a sick puppy at the store, and we never lost one.

There was a red miniature pincer that nobody bought as a puppy who literally grew up in the store. As the puppy grew, we would let her out of the cage to roam the store when there were no customers. By the time we finally sold the dog for $50 she had a name, “Mini,” and could fetch a ball. We were sad to see her go but glad she finally had a home.

Other images spring to mind from my first formal “job.” It made me feel useful to toss 50-pound sacks of dog food over my shoulder and carry them to the cars of older customers. On Christmas Eve we stayed until midnight as parents came to pick up pre-purchased puppies. “The only love that money can buy” was the store motto. I once sold a Pomeranian, a decidedly wimpy breed, to a defensive back for the Washington Redskins who had been traded to another team and needed company for the cross-country drive to California. Sometimes, after closing the shop late in the evening, my friend and I would go to the tennis courts at a nearby park to drink contraband booze supplied by our older friend the pimp, and to bat balls back and forth under the lights. A few years later, long after I moved to Colorado with my parents, this friend would marry a gal I had dated and they would have children.

HOWEVER, DESPITE OUR SHARED TASTES in youthful employment and young women, neither of us became vets. My friend ended up an M.D. and I have not heard from him in many years. But I thought of him recently after reading an analysis of a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming that the health-care system is the No. 3 cause of death in this country, right behind heart disease and cancer.

In becoming a writer instead of a veterinarian, I still somehow managed to surround myself with animals. Besides the ancient Jumpin’ Jack, I also keep four other burros, a horse and her mule foal. There are two dogs, one a 16-year-old cocker spaniel and the other a 4-year-old rat terrier that really is a Tasmanian Devil, and a big fat cat who views rabbits as big game. Somehow these animals give me a sense of responsibility that my “career” has never provided. In addition, my property in the Wet Mountains is a haven for many deer which sometimes mix in with the burros to graze as one big herd. A large variety of birds also make this place their home. Magpies, crows and piñon jays clean up scattered grain. Stellars jays steal cat food from my barn. Often when I’m out running, ravens fly up over my shoulder and speak in their own language which I only vaguely understand. They glide along with me for a while and then set their wings and drift away.

THIS FALL I READ writer and poet Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, and was struck by how he delineated chapters of his life by what animals he had at the time — cats, horses, and especially dogs. More sobering was the revelation that he wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days. But then again, time is relative, and it would scarcely matter if he had taken nine years to create what might be the best novella ever written. What matters most is that he wrote it at all.

My neighbors at Bear Basin Ranch bought a small herd of eight longhorn cattle. These cattle possess an uncanny deer-like ability for hopping fences. One of the more humorous stories this autumn was how they sold one steer to a guy who lives in Hillside. The guy brought the steer home and put it in a pole corral for the night. It has not been seen since. Barring abduction by aliens, we keep watching for this Darwinian longhorn to return to the herd but perhaps there’s a fence between here and Hillside that’s just too high to jump.

The remaining cows, calves and one yearling bull just make themselves at home wherever they want, jumping fences into the neighboring 35-acre homesteads, grazing at will, and moving on when they feel like it. Sometimes for fun I saddle up my riding burro, round up these beasts and chase them back to Bear Basin. It’s an exercise in futility that can only be compared to voting.

A few days after Jumpin’ Jack’s dental work I noticed some greenish-yellow bile in the corral where I feed him, and he didn’t seem very interested in his feed though he ate most of it over the course of the day. When I went out to check on him that evening he was not around, and the next morning at first light there was no sign of him. I told Mary I wondered if he had died.

But he hadn’t. With the rising sun he came stumbling blindly to his usual feeding place. I’m not sure if there’s any significance to this part of the story other than that’s how I came to be walking out with the usual Equine Senior that morning when a chickadee landed on the fence right where I usually duck under the wire on my way to the corral.

I placed some of the feed in my hand and offered it to the tiny bird. Without trepidation the chickadee flitted off the fence and onto my outstretched fingers, thoughtfully selected one of the morsels from my palm, and then flew away with it. In that magical moment I was truly joyful to be a writer and not a veterinarian.

Hal Walter operates from 35 acres in the Wet Mountains, which he hopes will live up to their name one of these years.