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:


  1. This little story made me chuckle out loud.For some unknown reason, I find reading this blog to be FAR more entertaining than it probably should be..must just appeal to that part of me that likes to laugh at other people's sometimes bizarre and zany experiences and antics! In this case, "it's not a party until someone loses a bowel!" lol

    1. Ha! Thanks, it certainly can be zany at times, and bizarre at even more times!