Monday, December 21, 2015

Bobo, The Christmas Gerbil

Like most children and almost every veterinarian (but only almost....), I was fascinated with animals from a very young age. And like most children this fascination spawned a relentless campaign to obtain a pet. My parents were, however, not "pet people". Far from it. A dog was so clearly out of the question that I never actually dared to ask and I understood that the suggestion of a cat would be received no differently than a suggestion of a warthog or a rhesus monkey. So I set my sights lower and began the work of building up the Mongolian gerbil as the ideal pet in my parents' minds.

This prolonged effort had no discernible effect whatsoever until the Christmas of 1977 when a large rectangular object covered by a decidedly non-festive grey tablecloth appeared under the tree. I had more or less given up on the gerbil campaign by that point. I was actually afraid that that large rectangular object would be a gigantic Meccano set as part of my father's own campaign to get me interested in something "practical". But no, to my astonishment, the object revealed itself to be a cage. A large cage, hand-built by my father out of heavy gauge one inch galvanized steel mesh. This cage was solid. It appeared to be designed to help its occupant withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, mortar attacks and significant civil unrest.
But there was no occupant. 
"Oh wow! Thank you, thank you! It's a... It's a... It's an empty cage..."

My parents peered closely at the cage and then looked at each other. There had been a gerbil in there just half an hour ago. Now there was no gerbil in there. My father, the physicist, expressed astonishment and disbelief that a gerbil could pop through one inch mesh. But pop through it evidently did, like a button through a button hole. The remaining gift openings and assorted Christmas rituals were abandoned and the hunt was on. Two bewildered adults and two manic children scoured the house until eventually the gerbil was found, pooping silently in a corner under a cabinet. 

Incidentally, as an aside for the uninitiated, a Mongolian gerbil is a small desert rodent (incidentally, I first wrote "dessert rodent"; good thing I reread this before posting...) with tan-coloured fur and long tail ending in a fuzzy tuft, a bit like a lion's tail. They bite a lot less than hamsters and they stink a lot less than mice. 

Back to the story though, as soon as the gerbil was captured my father set to work covering the cage in fly screen. This was effective for a day or two, but then the gerbil chewed through the fly-screen. The fly-screen was patched and patched again, but the gerbil was nothing if not relentless. What eventually put a stop to his repeated escapes were sunflower seeds. Or more precisely, the morbid obesity caused by the continuous intake of high fat sunflower seeds. He soon became unable to squeeze his bulk through that one inch mesh anymore. So he stayed in the cage, exchanging his freedom for tasty snacks. A trade-off familiar to Doritos addicts everywhere.

Over time the gerbil and I became close. Or, more accurately I should say that I became close to him, for his part I think it's safe to say that the gerbil was largely indifferent to me or really anything other than his sunflower seeds. I originally named him "Berbil", but this morphed into "Berbo" and then "Bobo", which is ultimately the version that stuck.

Eventually Bobo died and was not replaced. The cage ended up in the basement with the suitcases and old coffee makers and was forgotten until one bitterly cold January morning when my father found a pocket gopher, an essentially blind burrowing animal that should have been hibernating but was out wandering in disoriented circles on a snowy field. My father dusted off the cage and then, to our collective astonishment, walked out onto the field to scoop up the surprised rodent. Failing to recognize the good deed it bit him savagely, but my father persisted and brought him inside and placed him carefully in the cage. Ultimately over the course of the next three or four months he and the pocket gopher developed a peculiar and, it seems, mutually beneficial relationship. The gopher was released in the spring and the cage never saw use again. In my mind's eye I picture it in some deep substratum of the Saskatoon landfill, intact, unbroken, still sturdy like the day my father made it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Nasty Big Pointy Teeth"

The Monty Python fans among you will immediately recognize from the title that I'm going to write about rabbits today. And not just any rabbits. Not the fluffy, gentle, innocent rabbits almost everyone imagines. No, I'm going to write about the vicious ones. Vicious rabbits? How is that possible you ask? Remember this - the rabbit has no idea that he is cute and cuddly and harmless looking to a human. He may seem a nervous, timid creature much of the time because he is a prey species after all, but in an environment where he has learned to become confident, his true self may emerge.

As evidence I offer the following telephone conversation I had with a client a few years ago:

Ms. Fitzsimmons, "Dr. Schott, thank you for coming to the phone right away. I'm calling from my bedroom."
This seemed like an unnecessary detail. I became faintly alarmed.
"Yes?" I offered cautiously.
"It's Mr. Cuddles, I don't know what's wrong with him!"
Mr. Cuddles was a small floppy-eared grey rabbit that she had had for about a year.
Relieved, I asked, "what symptoms are you seeing?"
"He's gone crazy!"
"Oh? What is he doing that seems crazy?"
"My bedroom is at the end of the hall where his little house is. He won't let me past his house!"
"Won't let you past?"
"Yes! He attacks me and bites me!"
"Um... how long has this been going on?"
"All morning! He just gets madder and madder every time I try! I don't know what to do! I need to get out! What's wrong with him?"

What was wrong with Mr. Cuddles? Nothing really. He was just a highly territorial male rabbit allowed to roam free whose "lair" had been set up in the hallway. With time he became confident enough to defend his lair. I told Ms. Fitzsimmons to come out of her room holding a blanket in front of her and then to toss the blanket onto Mr. Cuddles so that she could quickly sprint past. I told her that once things settled down she should wait until he was sleeping in his house and then scoop him up with a towel, put him in a cage and bring him in to be neutered. Neutering doesn't always help, but in this case taking the testosterone out of him plus moving his house to a far corner of an unused room seemed to do the trick.

The words of Leo Tolstoy come to mind: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness."
Or, in case of killer rabbits: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that cuteness is innocence."

For those few and misguided that have not seen 
"Monty Python and The Holy Grail", it offers a more
graphic illustration of what rabbits are capable of.

Monday, November 30, 2015

What The Seeing Eye Dog Saw

A little factoid that people have occasionally quoted to me is that the average dog is about as smart as the average two year old child. Google it; you'll see many references. But as with many google friendly factoids it is silly. It is a soundbite oversimplification of complicated science. In fact, the specific research paper that gave birth to this only demonstrated that the average dog recognized as many words as the average two year old. English words mind you, not dog words. This actually makes the "average dog" seem astonishingly smart to me. Especially since my own dog sometimes seems to recognize as many words as a cucumber does (but he's very handsome).

There is no doubt that human intelligence is extremely broad compared to dog intelligence. Our own intelligence applies itself vigorously to taxes and fashion and philosophy and physics and indoor plumbing and why the freaking OS update won't install properly and a million more things. Dog intelligence is not nearly as broad, but where it needs to be it is exceptionally deep. Whenever I think about smart dogs I think about one particular patient, Sierra McNabb. (Incidentally, throughout the blog I've change all the names. I probably don't really need to, but it seems like the polite thing to do.)

Sierra was a seeing eye dog. She was a golden retriever from central casting - the kind you see in happy suburban family advertisements for life insurance and Jeep Grand Cherokees. She belonged to Roger McNabb, a spirited single older gentleman, also from central casting - the kind you see at the bar telling boisterous jokes to the bartender and buying rounds for strangers. Roger had not been fully blind that long and Sierra was his first guide dog. He had flown out east to meet her and to go through the final stages of the training with her. It goes without saying (although watch me say it anyway) that they were inseparable and that she was indispensable to him. Sierra knew how to guide him to the post office, to his doctor's office, to the 7-11 and, my favorite, not just to the liquor store, but right to the specific location in the specific aisle where Roger's favorite whisky was. Not just a smart dog, but a useful dog. Try to get your two year old to do that for you.

One incident made it clear to me however that there was a deeper thought process at play with Sierra rather than just a robotic response to commands. In common with 90% of golden retrievers Sierra had recurrent ear infections. Those infected ears were very sore and Sierra hated having them handled and looked at. She would sit obediently enough and permit the examination, but her eyes said, "Why do you keep doing this? Don't you know by now what's wrong you fool?"

One day Roger was due to bring her in at 10:00 am. He lived within walking distance and was always very punctual, making allowances for weather or anything that might slow them down. By 10:10 I was already a little concerned. The receptionist called his home, but there was no answer. Just then we noticed Sierra and Roger walk past on the sidewalk out front. Sierra took a quick furtive glance at the door, but kept moving ahead. A moment later they came back, walking the other way, again right past the door. The receptionist ran out to get them.
Roger was flustered, "I count blocks and I knew we had gone too far, so I turned her around. We went back and forth like that four times! I don't know what got into her; I know she would have seen the door. I've never known her to be so confused."

Confused? Hardly. Sierra and I exchanged the most fleeting of glances: she knew that I knew that she knew...

From that day forward we would keep a careful lookout at the door when Sierra and Roger were due.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Consider The Ostrich

Now consider the epileptic ostrich...

The three most common questions I am asked when someone finds out that I am a veterinarian are: (a) what is the most unusual animal you have treated, (b) how often do you get bit and (c) do you know why my aunt's cat has a rash? We'll ignore the third question, but rest assured the two will be addressed in Vetography. The unusual animal question is actually worth a few posts, so let's start with the earliest one of those.

The first "unusual animal" I encountered in my career, aside from my girlfriend's deranged cat, was an ostrich. This goes back 26 years to fourth year of veterinary school in Saskatoon. I no longer recall the ostrich's name, but for reasons that will become evident later let's call him Johnny. Johnny had been brought in for examination and treatment because he was having seizures.

Now think about that for a moment.

A fully grown ostrich like the one in question is eight feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. This is much bigger than me. This is much bigger than you (pardon the presumption). Moreover, he has legs that can reach fourteen feet in a single stride, claws the size of railroad spikes and muscle power enough to disembowel you. "Disembowel". Now there's a hazard you don't consider too often. At the best of times an ostrich has a brain smaller than it's eyeball, but when it is seizuring even that tiny speck of intelligence shuts down and something akin to blindfolded chainsaw juggling ensues.

The professor told us to take off our lab coats before Johnny was brought in.
"They like to peck at white things, like lab coat buttons," she said.
Or like the whites of eyeballs, I thought.

Johnny was brought in by an assistant. We regarded him with nervous anticipation. He regarded us with... nothing. To our relief Johnny did not appear to be in a disemboweling mood. His gaze was vacant and unfocused. The professor explained that they were medicating him to control his seizures and were still trying to work out the best dose. Consequently one of his two functional brain cells was disabled.

"Now watch this," she said. The professor reached into her pocket and pulled out a marshmallow. Then she pulled a vial containing pills out of her other pocket, removed a pill and shoved it deep into the marshmallow.

"Remember that they like to peck at white things?" She held the marshmallow out gingerly between her thumb and forefinger and sure enough, with lightning speed Johnny, who had seemed so stoned a moment before, lunged forward and gulped the marshmallow down in one impressively fluid motion.
"And that, class, is how you medicate an ostrich."

I have had call to make use of this knowledge exactly zero times, but it is a cool thing to know.
Johnny was led away again and we shuffled off to go dissect something, each of us relieved not to have become an instructive ostrich attack statistic. Seriously. Ostriches are as dangerous as sharks. And sharks are rarely, if ever, brought into a veterinary clinic.

An Emu rather than an ostrich, but the only photo of
me with a potentially disemboweling flightless bird.

Incidentally, the most famous ostrich attack ever was the one on Johnny Cash:
Yes, the world is a deeply weird place. You gotta love it.

And in closing, if you are ever attacked, heed the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, "If, when assailed by the ostrich, the man stands erect, he is in great danger. But by the simple expedient of lying down, he escapes all danger." But lie on your stomach Teddy. A handy illustration is provided below for you to print out and put in your wallet for reference: