Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Greatest Man I Ever Knew From the Greatest Generation

This morning my grandpa Aden Gunderson passed away.  He was 98.  We’ve known for the past few weeks that it was coming, and for the past 48 hours that it was coming at any time.  He was one of the last of his generation, also known as the greatest generation.  He survived his wife and 3 of his children.  He survived all of his brothers and sisters; virtually everyone he grew up with.  He survived pre-industrial farming before it became trendy.  He survived a great depression and a world war; the former as a teenager who had to work like a man, the latter as a soldier who had to leave his wife and 2 small children behind.  He survived a house fire and an unfriendly encounter with a black bear; and he came out of it looking better than the bear.  He survived disappointment and personal loss.  He survived 2 heart attacks and a stroke.  He lived until his internal organs finally wore out, having exceeded their maximum use.

He had an indomitable spirit.  I don’t mean in a way that was flamboyant or arrogant, but that he was a man who had mastered the art of making the best out of whatever circumstance he found himself in.  He spent a third of his life milking cows, day in and day out, rain our shine, hot or cold.  Even after selling the cows, he continued to occupy his life with productive activities.  Raising corn, caring for my grandmother in her twilight years, staying active in the senior citizen’s center, visiting his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and recently even his great, great grandchildren.  He drove his car to town well into his 90s.  He liked to have fun too, he had a 4-wheeler that he rode until only very recently.  Most recently, he had a golf cart that he toodled around in.  I discovered from a neighbor about a year ago that he took his golf cart off-roading on a steep, lava rock covered trail.  This neighbor came upon him trying to push himself out after he’d sunk up to his rear axle in sand.  He lived his life as fully as he could up until the last.

I spent most of my childhood living a stone’s throw away from my Grandpa and Grandma Gunderson.  I knew them both very well.  However my relationship to them was very different from a lot of grandkids today.  Today my daughter and all or her cousins refer to their grandparents by their first names, Grandpa Brent and Grandma Elaine, or Grandpa Ross and Grandma Laurie.  When we were kids we referred to Aden and Afton as Grandpa and Grandma Gunderson.  My dad was the youngest in his family, being born about the same time as my oldest Gunderson cousin.  As such, when I came along, my grandparents were already fairly advanced in age.  I’m not suggesting that we didn’t love our grandparents, we did, or that they didn’t love us, because they did very much.  It was just different. My grandpa didn’t dote on us the way first time grandparents do; he already had nearly twenty grandkids.  He did, however, always have candy in his suit pocket when we sat next to him at church; he definitely saw his role as a spoiler and not a disciplinarian when it came to his small grandchildren. 

One of the things that stands out in my early memory of Grandpa was the Blue Bus.  As I mentioned previously, my Grandpa had a lot of grandkids.  At some point in the early 80s, he purchased an old school bus and painted it blue.  The original intent of purchasing the school bus was to use it to haul calves for the dairy, but it turned out that it worked even better for hauling his kids and grandkids to family vacations.  We all rode together in the Blue Bus to Yellowstone National Park, Green Canyon Hot Springs, and the Grand-daddy-of-them all, Lagoon Amusement Park.  We also spent many a summer evening at my grandparent’s home in Menan.  We’d play football and croquet on the front lawn, and look for kittens and play pirate ship on the haystacks.  My early memories of Grandpa don’t revolve around my personal interactions with him so much as they do the family environment that he and my Grandma had created.  By the time I was a teenager my Grandpa had started to slow down considerably, then I graduated from high school and moved away. 

My Grandpa had a stroke in 2002 which left him partially debilitated.  His mind and body still worked pretty well, but his speech became much more difficult.  He knew exactly what he wanted to say, but had a hard time getting the words out.  He was still able to function after the stroke, but it was the beginning of a long downward spiral.  By the end of the aughts, Grandpa could no longer live alone and started splitting time between his 4 surviving children.  One of these was my uncle Glen who lived in Georgia.  Glen flew my Grandpa out to Georgia as often as he could, however on one of these trips Grandpa took ill and had to come back early.  He just about didn’t survive the plane ride home, and when he did come home it was obvious that he needed more intensive care than what my parents or any or their siblings could give him.  Thus Grandpa began his adventures in assisted living at the Homestead in Rexburg.  Grandpa did quite well at the Homestead, despite what he told my Dad and his siblings.  I know this because I worked in Rexburg for a year and a half, and on several occasions when clients would meet me and see my last name they would ask if I was related to Aden.  Invariably, they would tell me about how their parents or grandparents who had been in the Homestead with Grandpa Aden, and how he had been a friend to them.  Grandpa would give other ‘inmates’ of the homestead rides on his golf cart, and was generally very social and upbeat.  He convinced the management to let him plant tomatoes in the shrub beds, and everyone I talked to viewed him with the utmost respect and admiration.  Many of them said their parents and grandparents missed him dearly when he left.

Grandpa did what he was good at while living at the Homestead, he made the most of it; but it wasn’t home.  My uncle Glen passed away from heart failure in the fall of 2014, and I think this compounded his yearning for home and family even more.  He finally convinced my Dad to bring him back out to Menan about the same time that Ruby and I moved back from Canada.  I helped move him into the spare bedroom across from Mom and Dad’s room; the same bedroom where we had slept when we were little kids and needed looking after.  Much like a small child, Grandpa now needed a lot of help.  I will spare the readers the gory details . . . you’re welcome.  I will say that I took care of Grandpa by myself for about 5 days while my wife and parents were both away.  It was emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting.  I have the utmost respect for my parents and their commitment to do it for as long as they did.

However, living so close and being involved in his day to day care allowed me to create a relationship with my Grandpa that I would never have had otherwise.  I got to cook and eat meals with him; often 3 times a day.  On most of these occasions I also got to go fetch his teeth out of his bedroom, because he almost always forgot them.  I got to watch him interact with my 2 year old daughter much the same way he did with me when I was that age.  I got to drive him around Menan on the 4th of July and watch him stop and reverently read the names on the WWII memorial in the city park.  I got to go on golf cart rides with him, sometimes to places we probably shouldn’t have gone.  I got to go to church with him, even though it was difficult for him to do.  I got to go on a road trip with him to a BYU football game on a beautiful October day, and I got to listen to him sing “Here we have Idaho” as we drove back and crossed the border between Utah and Idaho.  I got to experience first-hand his humility, his courage, and his love; above all, I was able to feel the deep and abiding love that my Grandpa had for me.

Because of the decision my parent’s made to care for my Grandpa in their home, and our decision to move close, I was able to experience all of these things.  However, perhaps the most sacred and cherished of these experiences was the last conversation I had with him in this life.  It was about 3 days before I moved to Salmon.  He was already on hospice care, and as a general rule he didn’t talk much.  I was dropping off a load of items that we were storing at Mom and Dad’s until we could find a place for them in Salmon.  Mom sent me into his room to check on him.   He was lying in bed with his eyes closed, a John Wayne Western was playing on his big screen TV.  He opened his eyes slightly and bade me help him up to a sitting position.  I gave him a sip of water and asked him if he needed anything.  He asked me if I was in a hurry to leave and I said no and sat down.  He had heard that I was moving and started asking me questions about my new job.  He was having even more difficulty getting the words out than usual, but I was able to understand the intent of his questions.  I talked to him at length about the move, why we were doing it and how it was going and so forth.  He asked me if I liked being a veterinarian, and about my family and life in general.  He had been in a lot of pain, and his body was all but wasted, but he was genuinely concerned and interested in me, and we talked for almost half an hour.  Finally, his energy gave out and I helped him lay back down and roll over to his other side.  I told him I loved him and I knew he loved me.  That is the last living memory I have of him; I moved to Salmon and he died about 2 weeks later.

One might wonder why I am writing about my Grandpa in a veterinary blog.  I mean, he did milk cows and stuff, but the cows and Grandpa probably fall more into the territory of my older cousin’s memories than mine.  By the time I was old enough to be of any real use on the dairy farm, the cows and had been sold and my Grandpa had retired.  No, I am writing about my Grandpa because as a veterinarian I deal regularly with end of life decisions.  Not for people, but for their pets.  There are a lot of people, who view the bond they have with their pets as something akin to  . . . well their kin.  For many people, the decisions that come at the end of a pet’s life are agonizing.  Fortunately for pets, our modern society has embraced the practice of euthanasia for old and suffering animals.  While it doesn’t necessarily make things easier for the owner, I find that euthanasia done properly spares animals a great deal of pain and suffering, and brings a certain sense of peace and closure to their owners.  Furthermore, there are situations where an animal’s care would place an extreme financial burden on their owners, and in these cases euthanasia becomes an economic option that also satisfies the need to minimize an animal’s suffering.   

Some people have argued that euthanasia should be an option for people as well, especially when faced with chronic, debilitating illness or the ravages of extreme old age.  Euthanasia for people would ameliorate many of the expenses incurred by end of life care for geriatric people, and would ease the burden placed on the shoulders of their families, and one could argue, society as a whole.  For the past year and a half, I have been able to see my grandpa and my parents, aunts, and uncles go through all of these things.  I have seen him suffer and languish as his body slowly, excruciatingly shut itself down bit by bit.  I have seen the toll it’s taken on my mom and dad as they have diligently cared for him in their home rather than let him spend his last days in assisted living.  I personally have shouldered the burden of care on a few occasions when I stayed with my Grandpa while my parents took a much needed break.  After having seen and experienced all of these things, I can say unequivocally that euthanasia would NOT have been the best thing for my grandpa, and especially not for my family.

The purpose of life is not to live free of adversity or strife; that is a myth perpetrated by those who feel cheated at the prospect of a paradise lost.  Humans exist that they might comprehend joy; and without suffering, there can be no joy.  Therefore, to fulfill our purpose, we must necessarily experience suffering.  That’s not to say that we should go out of our way to find suffering; the suffering we need will find us when we need it, and sometimes we experience needless suffering because of our own bad choices, or the bad choices of others.  However, it is this ability to benefit from suffering, to comprehend joy, that makes us human; that separates us from the rest of Kingdom Animalia.  I have been around a lot of animals, and I believe that they can experience joy, or something very near joy, but they cannot comprehend the deeper purpose of suffering and as such, do not directly benefit from it.  As far as I can tell, they only comprehend what they are experiencing in the present.  Past experiences can serve as conditioning, but not necessarily as the building blocks of character.  They can anticipate the future, but not build it; they can react to their circumstances but not create them.


We, however, are capable of comprehension and character building; and we have the capacity to act and not be acted upon.  The experiences shared by my Grandpa and parents over the past few years have served to make us all better people, and have deepened the love and respect that exists between us.  I have watched my Dad become more patient and longsuffering, my Mom become more temperate and empathetic.  That’s not to say these traits didn’t exist in my parents before, but they have been magnified in caring for my Grandpa.  Even though he was largely being cared for, my Grandpa also cared for us.  He thought about and no doubt, prayed for his entire family.  For my part, living close to my parents over the past year and a half allowed me to develop a one on one relationship with my Grandpa that I never had as a youngster.  I believe that even in his very advanced years, he still had work to do and a role to fulfill.  He was The Greatest Man from the Greatest Generation that I ever knew, and I am forever grateful that we got to have him in our lives for as long as we did.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Back in the Saddle


I’d been in Salmon, Idaho for just over 48 hours.  It was my first day of work as an ambulatory vet for Mountain River Veterinary Hospital in Rigby.  Confused?  Well, how it works is like this.  Mountain River Veterinary Hospital in Rigby (herein referred to as MRVH) bought a practice from an ambulatory vet in Salmon named Todd Tibbits (coincidentally Dr. Tibbits also grew up in my hometown of Menan, Idaho).  The good ranch folk of Salmon missed Todd from Menan, so the owners of MRVH decided the best way to smooth things over was to hire another Todd, also from Menan.  Or at least, that was the explanation I was going with to break the ice.

Dr. Tibbits operated almost exclusively out of his pickup with a vetbox in the bed.  MRVH had provided me with a similar pickup, along with a couple of supply sheds with a hydraulic cattle chute and a set of horsestocks.  There wasn't much in the way of an office, or a facility for cleaning equipment, but it was sufficient to get me started.  That first day was supposed to be a pretty light schedule.  Pull Coggins on 3 horses in Baker, BANGS vaccinate 125 head in Tendoy, possibly ear notch some bulls.  However, it turned into a marathon of running from one work-in appointment to the next while still trying to show up on time to my original appointments.  The clinic in Rigby seemed to be handing out my cellphone number like candy, because there were people calling in from all corners of the valley to have me come preg check a few head here, and drop off some tags there.  Oh yes, and I got lost . . . a lot.  People in cow country don’t care for a lot of modern conveniences such as addresses.  Instead they always try to guide you in with the names of property holders who lived next to them round about the turn of the century . . . the last century.  Example:

“Ya doc, you need to go 2 miles past the old Miller place, then take a left at the old Krauthammer homestead, then it’s a straight shot until you get to where Johnson’s used to have their livery stable...“

In other words, not exactly helpful to a guy who had been in the area for less than a week.  It turned out pretty good though.  It felt like I hit it off well with the clients that I was able to meet; it was sure nice to be speaking cow talk again.  I’m not talking about moos and lows, I’m talking about the peculiar idioms and syntax of the cattleman (I use this as a unisex term, the word ‘cattleperson’ does not exist in cow talk syntax).  For the past year and a half I’d been trying to pay down debt by working out of a small animal clinic and doing relief work.  In doing so I had grown accustomed to talking to people about their animals as if they were one of their children.  It’s different with cattlemen.  While cattlemen tend to base their decision making largely on a marginal cost vs. marginal gain basis, cows aren’t just mere property to cattlemen. Talking to cattleman about their animals is more like talking to them about their culture and livelihood.    Cattlemen take pride in their cows, and they all mostly tend to think along a certain set of lines.  If you don’t know your way around cows or cattlemen, they can pick up on it instantly, and they will be very wary of you from then on out.  I was on the receiving end of this type of discernment when I was a veterinary student.  However, after taking a few lumps, I started to figure things out after graduation and I now converse in cow talk freely and fluently.

When I start talking shop with a cattleman, I tap into a passion for my work that I’ve never been able to harness as a small animal vet.  For me, cow talk is similar to speaking Spanish.  I learned to speak Spanish as a young LDS missionary in New York City, and in doing so I developed a deep and abiding love for the Latino people.  It doesn’t matter what kind of a mood I’m in, when I meet a Spanish speaker and we start conversing in Espanol it does something to me, I become a much happier, friendlier me. Much like how I become a new person when I speak Spanish, talking cow talk brings out a side of me that I like, and has helped me to develop an appreciation, and yes even a love, for cattlemen; it’s rejuvenating.

By the end of the day, I was wore out, and hungry!  I went to the supermarket to buy groceries for the 5th wheel trailer I was staying in.  My wife and daughter were down in Rexburg still, trying to sell our house and get things organized for the big move.  Being away from them was difficult, but I had been a bachelor for a lot of years before I met my wife.  As such, after such a hectic day I was looking forward to cooking myself a decent meal and settling down to finish all the health certificates, exam sheets, and coggins forms that I’d had to rush through earlier in the day.  However it was not meant to be, because just as I was nearing the trailer I got a frantic phone call regarding a colicking stallion.  The call itself came from Dr. Clark one of the veterinarians in Rigby, who had received the message from the MRVH staff.  Apparently the owner who'd left the message was certain her prized stallion would die if I did not get there immediately.  I asked him for directions and he texted me an obscure address that no doubt had been given in haste.  He also gave me the owner’s phone number.

I called the nearly hysterical owner for better directions; she told me to take a left 2 miles North of the 28 Supper Club where her husband would be waiting for me.  So, I threw all the materials I thought I might need into the vet box and headed out at a brisk clip.  When my tripometer registered 2.0 miles north of the supper club, I turned left onto a road that sounded nothing like the name of the road I had received in the text message.  I tried calling the owner for better directions, no answer.  It was dark, it was starting to storm.  Where in the devil was the road I was supposed to turn onto?  She had told me that her husband would be waiting for me in a GMC pickup, but I didn’t see it anywhere.  I drove a ½ mile in either direction to try and find the road, all the while calling over and over again.  No luck.  I called Dr. Clark, who was sympathetic but unfortunately did not have any better information to offer.  I was just about to throw in the towel and head back to the supply shed when I finally got through.  This time she said it was 2 miles South of the supper club, so off I went in the other direction.  Strangely enough, I encountered the correct lane and GMC truck a mere ¾ of a mile South of the previously mentioned reference point (at least I didn't have to look for the Johnson's Livery Stable).

The husband jumped out of his truck and ran over to my passenger side window like one of his children was on their deathbed.  He told me to follow him, jumped back into his truck, then spun out as he whipped around and tore off down the lane.  I tried my best to keep up, but vet trucks aren’t exactly designed for Baja racing.  Finally, we turned into a lane where a very nice horse trailer sat next to a well-built pole fence.  Inside the paddock was a middle-aged woman with a very alert, very non-colicky stallion.  The owner had -managed to force some 80 milliliters of an all-natural, colloidal-silver-containing, equine supplement down the stallions throat.  The second ingredient on the list was corn oil, and whether it was the enchanted silver or the emulsifying effect of the corn oil that took the starch out of that horse’s sideways fart I’ll never know.  Whatever it was did the trick though, because his heart rate and other vital signs were completely normal.  As an added bonus, since the initial frantic phone call the stud had passed 2 piles of horse-biscuits and he seemed to be just fine.  The owners were overjoyed that my arrival had such a curative effect on their horse, and they were profuse in their gratitude.  Having had more than my fair share of cases go sideways on me in spite of my best efforts, I was more than happy to accept thanks for a case that went well despite the fact that I did nothing other than show up.  Notwithstanding the stallion's improvement, I gave him an intravenous injection of flunixin meglumine for good measure, wrote down my cellphone number in case he took a bad turn, and headed for my trailer.


By the time I got back, I was too tired to cook anything other than cup-o-noodles, though I did eventually muster the gumption to fry up some duck from a hunting excursion the previous week (the first bite reminded me why I stopped hunting ducks as a teenager).  Definitely a good day, but an exhausting one.  I knew that not all of my days would be like this, but they were no longer going to be a scarcity.  Working a 9 to 5 job at a small animal clinic definitely had its perks.  There had been an emergency clinic in a neighboring town so I had not really been on call for the past year and a half, and I’d had a full and competent clinic staff at my disposal to take care of most of the clerical work.  Now I was the lone veterinarian and staff member at a satellite clinic where I would pretty much be on call 24/7.  Furthermore, after having put in a 13 hour day, I still had at least an hour’s worth of forms to fill out.  It definitely caused me to stop and reflect upon my decision to leave what was a pretty stable and profitable employment situation to come slog it out in Salmon.  The answer came as a feeling, a feeling that on that day I had tapped into something that I hadn’t felt since I'd left Canada.  I was engaged in a job that allowed my God-given abilities and my work ethic to synergize; driving around the mountain valleys in a vet truck was something I was born to do.  But that alone wasn't the only thing that motivated me to try this clinic out.  One of the reasons, I had decided to hitch my wagon to MRVH was that I believed the owners had the leadership abilities to enable this clinic to grow into something more than just a one man show, and that I had the opportunity to take ownership in that process from the ground up.  Eventually, there would be a staff, and a facility, and hopefully some other vets to share the on call burden.  No, there was no doubt in my mind that I was exactly where I needed to be, doing what I needed to be doing.  That brutal first day was exactly the motivation I needed.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Pioneer Day Pack Trip

Sometimes we have experiences in life that give us a greater appreciation for the unseen benefactors that have enriched our lives in ways that aren't readily apparent.  My family and I recently had such an experience, one that was so deep that the only way to do it justice was to write it down.

I recently moved home to Idaho from Alberta.  While it was tough to say goodbye to Wild Rose Country, it has been nice to be back around family and friends in the land of my forefathers.  One of the things about Idaho that I have missed while I was abroad was the 24th of July, or Pioneer Day.  Pioneer day celebrates the day that Brigham Young and the first company of Mormon Emigrants arrived in The Great Basin.  The day is recognized by the Utah State Government as a holiday, and many communities in Idaho celebrate the day as well.

On this most recent Pioneer Day, I had the day off.  One of the things my wife Ruby and I love to do more than anything else is to pack into the mountains with horses.  On this particular weekend we decided to ride into a canyon drained by Palisades Creek near Swan Valley, Idaho.  Palisades Creek is fed by 2 beautiful lakes, called the Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes.  Both of these lakes are a deep turquoise and support large populations of trout and wildlife.  I had never been to either lake, but they have always been on the list of places I have wanted to see.  On all of our previous pack trips, we have gone with Ruby's family and have relied upon the experience and wisdom of Ruby's dad to guide us through.  This was going to be the first time that we were going to do a pack trip by ourselves, and to top it off we would be taking our 18 month old daughter Ayla along.  Ayla went on her first horse excursion with us when she was only 6 months old, and has spent many full days in the saddle since.  Nonetheless, taking her on an overnight pack trip with just Ruby and I was definitely taking things to a new level.

We did our best to get things ready on the day before our scheduled departure, however, as often happens, I wasn't able to get away from work as early as I wanted.  As a result, we had to postpone much of our preparation until the morning of the pack trip.  As this was our first pack trip without Ruby's dad, and his knowledge and equipment, it took us a little while to make sure we had all the supplies we thought we might need.  After a long morning of running around and picking up this and that, we finally arrived at the trailhead around 4:00 in the afternoon.

It took us about a half an hour to saddle our horses and throw a sorry attempt at a diamond hitch on our reluctant pack horse; a broodmare named Ally that had been plucked out of my mother's small remuda a couple of days before.  By the time I threw the last few loops over the canvas manty, storm clouds had gathered into the canyon.  We got Ruby and Ayla situated on Moonshine, Ruby's sorrel gelding, and as I swung up onto my palomino Slim, the first drops of rains started coming down.  With our Border Collie, Jax taking point and our Australian Shepherd, Cowgirl riding drag, we headed up the trail towards parts unknown with storm clouds gathering quickly overhead.

The trail wound its way up a narrow canyon along a very boisterous and rapidly rising Palisades Creek.  Fortunately, the Palisades Lakes are a very popular destination for hikers and packers alike, and the Forest Service does a good job of maintaining the trails.  However, because the canyon is so narrow, the trail frequently crosses over the creek by means of several high, narrow pack bridges.  Both Slim and Moonshine have always been very good about going over bridges.  Still, I couldn't help but hold my breath in just a little as I looked over the edge of those bridges and watched Ruby and my baby girl come across behind me.  Several of those bridges were 20 or 30 feet over the water, and most of them did not have any kind of guard rails.  I've been on other pack trips where green pack horses would balk at bridges and even dive off into bogs rather than go across.  Thankfully, Ally proved to be willing to follow and we didn't have any trouble.

The rain continued to come down, but we worked our way steadily up towards the lower lake.  All the while, Jax would run a few hundred feet ahead then stop and turn around and look at me as if to say, "Come on, shake a leg!"  I would sometimes call to him and he would reluctantly come back just long enough to whip around and go on around the next bend in the trail.  "One of these times" I kept thinking to myself, "he's going to come back with a bear on his heels . . ."  Still, it brought a smile to my face.  In his little Border Collie brain, he had a job to do, and that job was to get us up the mountain, and nothing was going to deter him.  After about 4 miles, we started up a series of switch backs that put us out into a meadow nestled within the terminal moraine of an ancient glacier.  The glacier had long ago deposited hundreds of narrow, jagged boulders in rows that resembled pickets along the wall of some stone age fortress.  I don't know for sure, but I assume that this series of boulders is how the Palisades lakes got their name.

As we had ascended the switchbacks, we noticed that Ally's pack was starting to list a little to starboard, so once we reached the meadow we decided to stop and redo the pack.  While I was cinching down my slightly improved diamond hitch, made possible by some suggestions from Ruby, Jax suddenly broke off into a run across the meadow after some unseen quarry, all the while baying in a high pitched whine that I'd never heard him utter before.  As near as I could figure, either he was onto the biggest chase of his life, or he was being ripped to shreds my some quarry that turned out to be a predator.  We called after him, but a little switch in his Border Collie brain had gone off; as far as he saw it he had a job to do and nothing was going to deter him.

Needless to say, we had ourselves a dilemma.  It was getting well into the evening, and we still had 4 miles to go.  The rain had not stopped since we had started, and now we had a dog missing.  We went up the trail a ways, not sure if he was waiting up ahead or where we should go.  We soon discovered that the palisades of boulders were actually a dam that formed the lower lake, but we could not find Jax anywhere.  We went back to the meadow to see if he had come back to the spot where he'd left us.  A different trail went out the backside of the meadow into a canyon that veered off in a different direction than where we were heading.  I had come to the conclusion, that we couldn't just go on ahead and wait for Jax to find us, our best bet was to stick around until either he came back or I could go look for his shredded remains.  I had seen a sign that indicated that there was a horse pasture up the new canyon about a quarter mile, so we rode until we came to a small meadow that contained about an acre of lush mountain pasture.  Miraculously, as we entered the meadow we heard a bark coming from the other side.  I called out to Jax who came bounding back along the trail, thankfully unhurt.  I wanted to bawl him out but I was so happy to see him that I just said, "This way Jax", and turned back for the main trail.  I only went about 100 feet before a little voice inside of me said, "You aren't going any further tonight, get your family out of this rain."  I turned to Ruby and told her I thought we should stop here for the night and press on to the upper lake in the morning.  She concurred, and we went back to the meadow.

The first order of business was to get the tent set up so that we could keep our bedding dry and have a place to take shelter from the rain.  Ruby had been keeping Ayla dry in the saddle by buttoning her up in her yellow slicker, which worked really well while we were moving.  However, once we stopped we needed a place to keep her dry and warm.  Thankfully, the tent went up quickly and we were able to get Ayla in out of the weather.  The forest service had installed a nice metal hitching post/saddle rack which had just enough room for our two riding saddles and our pack saddle, so we unsaddled the ponies and turned them out to graze.  Slim and Moonshine were both used to being hobbled, but Ally had never been hobbled before.  Ruby put Ally's hobbles on then got knocked over and nearly trampled when Ally tried to take a step in them.  This was unfortunate because of all our horses, she needed the nourishment from grazing the most.  She would eat where she stood, but she was so tired that once she'd eaten a few bites she would just stand there with her head down.  It's always been a source of amazement to me just how quickly a horse that is fat and sassy can be made into a humble bumble by carrying a pack saddle a few miles.  Nonetheless, we had only gone 4 miles that day and we had more than twice that distance to go the next day.  We really needed Ally to eat.

There had been enough rain that getting a fire started proved to be a challenge.  We had brought our aluminum dutch oven and some chicken and potatoes for dinner, but we would need a good fire to cook it with.  Usually dutch ovens are made of cast iron, which holds and distributes heat very well, but is very heavy.  Aluminum is much lighter but requires that the heat from the coals be long lasting and evenly distributed.  Getting coals like that was going to be tough with wet wood.  The only solution was to build a fire large enough to heat the underlying ground and rocks to the point that they would continue to release heat even after the pine coals started to wane.  The only problem was finding enough dry wood.  There were a couple of small dead trees next to camp, so I grabbed our pack axe and chopped them down.  Limbing the trees was labor intensive but enabled me to get the fire started with a dense pile of dead pine needles.  However the greatest challenge to getting enough fuel for a decent fire turned out to be the lack of a saw.  When we would go on pack trips with Ruby's family, her dad usually had a very sharp pack saw on his saddle.  We had somehow overlooked that detail in our preparations, and now I was faced with the daunting task of hacking up those dead trees with an axe.  This problem was compounded by the fact that between getting the tent up, getting the horses squared away, and trying to get a cook fire going, the daylight hours were fading fast.  I came to the conclusion that chopping those logs up would take too much time and too much energy.  So, I made a few quick cuts on the thinner sections to get enough small pieces for the the flames to get going, then I threw the remaining large segments on in a large pile.  Soon we had a bonfire almost ten feet tall.

Normally I wouldn't risk a fire this large in the forest, but the surrounding area was so soaked from the steady rain that I didn't figure it would be much of a problem.  In fact it had rained steadily since we had pitched the tent, and as soon as the horses were out grazing, Ruby had gone into the tent with Ayla.  Once I had the fire going, I discovered that while I had been out playing Paul Bunyan, Ruby had been attacking the problem of dinner from a different angle.  Ayla, like most small children, did not have the patience to wait for the perfect coals, but Ruby had brought along some summer sausage, cheese, and crackers.  While I had been building the fire, they had been in the tent contentedly munching away.

I opened the tent door and decided to abandon my plans for dutch oven chicken.  We all piled into the tent and enjoyed our cold camp meal.  Ayla was perfectly giddy.  She was bouncing off the walls of the tent and using her toddler sign language to ask for more cheese and crackers.  She accompanied the signs with words like 'mo' and 'pease'.  It was the first chance I'd had that day to just sit back and enjoy the moment.  The burden of taking my family into the wild had proved to be a heavy one, and it had driven me to work extra hard to make sure that everything was taken care of.  I thought about those early pioneers who had crossed the plains of Iowa and Nebraska, and the barren wastelands of Wyoming.  Many of them lost spouses, parents, siblings, and most tragically, children along the way.  The very first pioneers to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley had been driven from comfortable and stately homes in Illinois at bayonet point.  They traveled over a thousand miles in wagons, on horses, and even by walking and pulling handcarts.  We, on the other hand, had driven to a trail head in a pickup and horse trailer and gone a grand total of 4 miles.  Even still, though it could not really compare to the sacrifices those early pioneers had made, I felt a connection to them.  I had tasted a small sample of the worry that comes with having your family exposed to hazards of traveling through the wild, and of having to protect them from the elements.  Of course I didn't bear that burden alone, and in many ways, Ruby was more efficient and practical in her approach to caring for our needs.  But nonetheless, even if I could not fully compare myself to them, I had gained a greater appreciation for what they had gone through.

After we finished our supper, we gave Ayla a bottle and she was soon asleep.  My pants and boots were soaked through from traipsin' around in the rain and wet grass.  So I went out in my camp shorts and crocks and brought the horses in from grazing.  It was at this point that it dawned on me that we hadn't given the horses water since we had loaded them on the trailer at home.  The closest water was at least a half mile away from camp, and the night sky was shrouded in rain clouds.  Walking three horses a half mile in pitch darkness, through the woods, in my shorts and crocks, was not a thought I relished.  Fortunately, the grass in the meadow was very tall, very green, and also very wet.  I decided to take a chance and hope that they had been able to hydrate themselves well enough by grazing.  We had packed some alfalfa cubes and sweet feed to supplement their grazing, so I gave them each a pile of cubes and tied them to the hitching post.  I moved the saddles onto a rock that was under a tree then covered them up with one of the manties.  Finally, I redistributed our supplies into two different categories: those items that would attract a bear, and those that would not.  I filled one canvas panyard with the items that would attract a bear and set out to look for a tree limb to hang it from.

Usually on pack trips, we would rig up a bear pole between two trees, but I hadn't time to do that earlier, and the thought of finding a suitable pole, shinnying up two wet trees, and lashing said pole to those trees in the middle of the night, while it was raining, appealed to me even less than the thought of walking the horses to water.  So I was left with trying to find a suitable tree limb.  This proved to be difficult though, as most of the trees around camp had thin limbs that were densely spaced, and hung at a low angle that made it easy for the rope to slip off.  I could get the pack cinch to go over a branch, but as soon as I would start to haul the 50 lb panyard up into the tree, the limb would snap or the rope would slide off of the limb.  After about half an hour of messing around with this, I decided to just secure the panyard to the base of the tree a fair distance away from camp and hope to heck that any unwanted guests would stay holed up all night in the rain.  I took comfort in knowing that we had 2 dogs that would most likely warn us if anything came too close to camp, though they had curled up under a tree next to the tent as soon as we got to camp and hadn't moved since.  It was feasible that we could all sleep through it and not wake up until after the damage was done.  Nonetheless, it was late, I was soaked, and it was time for me to get some sleep.  I hauled my short barrel 12 gauge shotgun into the tent with me and laid it by my side.  Ruby and Ayla were on the air mattress, so I settled down onto a reasonably comfortable patch of pine needles and drifted off to sleep.

The first thing that woke me up was the horses.  Slim and Moonshine were herd mates, but Ally was a new addition.  So even though I tied the two geldings together on one side of the post and Ally on the other, about midnight they started screeching at each other as they sorted out their positions on the pecking order.  If they had been doing this from the get go, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, but it started up after several hours of silence, which made me wonder if they were actually screeching at each other, or if there was another large animal in the fray.  I was also still worried about the lack of water.  When horses don't stay hydrated, they are prone to gastrointestinal problems such as cramps, twists, and impactions.  These can be very painful and their occurrence is described broadly as colic.  I had brought some medication along in case we had a horse colic, but even still the thought of dealing with a colicky horse in the mountains filled me with dread.  I grabbed my spotlight and slipped outside for a better look, toting my shotgun along with me.

When I shone my spotlight on the hitching post, all three horses were standing sedately in the rain.  I sighed a big breath of relief.  I walked over to the horses, who seemed ambivalent to my presence.  I placed my fingers under Ally's jaw and found her submandibular artery.  I felt a slow steady woosh of blood go past my fingers and estimated her heart rate to be around 40 beats per minute.  Next I checked Slim's heart rate; it was about the same.  Moonshine's however was 50 to 60 beats per minute; that was a little high.  I stood there for a moment wondering why his heart rate was up.  I listened carefully as I heard the gurgling of his intestines.  Normally, the sound of a horse's intestines moving is a good thing, but sometimes if they are moving too much it's called hypermotility and can be a sign of pain.   Moonshine was just standing there in the rain with his ears slightly back, maybe slightly uncomfortable, but not in any great pain.  I decided to leave it alone for now and go back to bed, though now with one more worry on my mind.

At about 3:00, Jax let out a single 'WOOF!'  Everything had been pretty quiet for the last few hours, but with that single bark my eyes were wide open.  I lay there in the tent with the rain pattering down on the tent and waited for what may follow.  Silence.  Just to be sure, I poked my head out of the tent and shone the spotlight around.  The horses hadn't moved an inch, and everything else seemed to be in order.  I lay back down for another hour or so until Jax let out a series barks.  This time I didn't wait.  I grabbed my shotgun and spotlight and climbed out of the tent.  Everything appeared to be copesthetic, but the food was far enough away that I couldn't see it without walking a hundred feet or so out of camp.  The rain was starting to let up, but the grass was still wet.  I was pretty sure that if there really was a bear eating our food, that it would have made enough noise for both Jax and Cowgirl to hear.  Cowgirl hadn't uttered a peep, and even though it was Jax that had woke me up, he appeared to be largely unconcerned when I came out of the tent.  I debated whether it was really necessary for me to trample out into the dark and check the food, but I didn't think I would be able to sleep until I knew for sure one way or another.  By the time I got to the food my spotlight was running low on power and my feet were soaked, but thankfully the food was just as I had left it.

It was shaping up to be the most uneventful sleepless night in the history of sleepless nights.  Thankfully though, dawn was only a couple of hours away.  I wondered if the pioneers had as much trouble with insomnia as I did, and realized that the answer was no, theirs was much worse.  Not only did they have to worry about their stock, and their food, but there were also marauding bands of vigilantes, prairie fires, and blizzards.  While many consider it a trite stereotype, the fact is that most of the tribes they encountered were not exactly friendly either.  While it seemed daunting to me to have to walk a half mile to water, they went for long stretches without any water at all.  When they did find water it was often contaminated with cholera and dysentary.  No wonder they never smiled in any of their pictures.  Those might not have been my exact thoughts at 4:00 in the morning as I stood there in the dark with my spotlight dying and my feet soaked, but they would have been good thoughts to have given the circumstances.  Whatever my thoughts were or were not at the time, I only had a couple of hours before I had to be up and at'em, so I crawled back into the tent and went to sleep again.

It seems like when I'm camping that I can't sleep as soon as it gets light.  If I'm back home the sun coming up seems to only serve to make me want to sleep longer, but when I'm camping, as soon as the first gray shafts of light start to brighten the eastern sky I'm awake.  This morning was no exception.  The clouds had cleared off and the sky was a bright shade of gray when I emerged from the tent.  The first order of business was to get the horses out and grazing again.  If Moonshine had been colicking the night before, he didn't seem to be any worse for the wear this morning.  The grass was still wet so I figured I would let the horses eat their water again rather than try to lead them to the lake.

I got the fire going again and started making plans for breakfast.  We had brought dehydrated hashbrowns, sausage, bacon, and eggs along with my 3 foot diameter steel frying pan.  I had been introduced to oversized frying pans while on pack trips with my in laws.  An oversized pan distributes heat well, and allows you to cook multiple items simultaneously.  It was an easier and more robust system than having to wait for the fire to die down to coals as the frying pan could simply be held over the flames then taken off as needed if things got too hot.  The pan was too large to be packed on a human backpack, but it fit perfectly under the lashings of a diamond hitch.  The biggest hurdle to be crossed was water.  We needed water to rehydrate the hashbrowns, and would need even more water to clean up the dishes after breakfast.  We had brought along several bottles of water for us to drink, but it had to last us throughout the rest of the day.  So, I grabbed a couple of empty pots and hiked down to the lake.  It was a beautiful day, and the rain had left everything looking crisp and clean.  As I walked among the rock palisades, the lake came into view.  The color of the water varied from a milky white at the shoreline to a deep turquoise as the depth increased.  On the South side of the lake there was a bull moose feeding in the shallows, and a fine cloud of mist clung to the steep, timbered hillsides.  The lake drained into Palisades Creek through a wide outlet that ran under a wooden pack bridge.  I walked across the bridge and down to the bank where I could fill my pots.  Carrying the full pots of water the half mile back to camp proved to be awkward, but I made it back just as Ayla and Ruby had gotten up and started moving about camp.  The fire had died down and was smoldering, so I cut down another dead tree and got it going again.  I started some water to boiling in a little camp pot and we settled down to the task of getting breakfast going.

The water was soon boiling and I poured a couple of cups in with the hashbrowns.  As soon as they were ready to go, I threw half a stick of butter in the pan and dumped the hashbrowns, sausage and bacon in after it.  We had forgotten a spatula, so I moved the food gingerly around the pan with a fork.  Cooking over a fire is 1 part science and 3 parts art.  You have to detect the hotspots and coolspots quickly then readjust the pan's position constantly to keep the food from burning while simultaneously keeping it hot enough to cook.  It takes a little practice, but I'd had lots of that on our other pack trips with Ruby's family.  We soon had a pan full of golden hashbrowns, crisp bacon, and sizzling sausage.  We knew better than to bring eggs still in their shells, instead we had cracked all of the eggs and put them into a sealed container.  I cleared off a patch of greasy metal in the pan and held it over the flames until it was good and hot.  I dumped the eggs in and continuously folded the edges into the center until we had a nice scramble.  We pulled the pan off flames and tucked into our breakfast.  Food always tastes better when you're camping, but this food was sweet ambrosia.  It was greasy, salty, and full of flavor.  We had brought way more than we needed, so the dogs got to partake in the feast as well.  It was a great way to welcome in the new day after such a long, dark night.

We were just finishing up the last few morsels when Ruby looked up and jumped about 2 feet straight in the air.  While we had been focused on our breakfast, the bull moose I had seen in the lake had made his way up to our camp.  He was no more than 20 feet away when Ruby spotted him.  I think the moose was as surprised as Ruby because as soon as she moved he quickly made a right turn and swung wide around our camp.  The horses took particular interest in his presence, but thankfully he was not in a disposition to make a nuisance of himself and soon disappeared on the other side of the meadow.  The dogs had surprisingly been silent throughout the whole episode, and the presence of this moose, along with whatever animal Jax had chased the prior evening made me wonder if our camp lay on a major corridor of animal movement between the lake and the canyon.  Who knows what animals may have passed by in the night without our knowledge.  I felt very grateful in that moment for whatever protection we might have unknowingly benefited from.  We had said a very heartfelt prayer prior to our departure, asking our Father in Heaven for protection.  As far as I could tell, he had heard our prayer, and was blessing us abundantly.

After breakfast we focused on getting our gear dry and ready to be packed.  The sun was starting to filter in through the trees, and the meadows were awash in its brilliant warmth.  We arranged the canvas manties on the grass and moved the bedding and wet gear onto them to dry.  We then moved the tent out from under the trees and flipped it upside down to let it dry.  We soon had everything lined out and ready to go on the pack horse.  Ally seemed more than a little reluctant this morning, but she stood like a champ as we cinched down the pack saddle and threw on the panyards.  The bedding went on last, then we covered everything up with the manties and threw the diamond hitch over top.  With the frying pan and pack axe secured snuggly under the lashings, I threw my shotgun over my shoulder and mounted up.  We left our little campsite behind and moved up the canyon towards the upper lake.

Part of our purpose in coming on this trip was to scout out places where we could camp on subsequent trips, and we saw several.  The stretch of Palisades creek that flowed into the lower lake was much more level than the outlet, and meandered through the canyon amongst a dense bottom of willows and reeds.  It was perfect habitat for trout.  I saw a handful of fly fishermen out on the water and felt a twinge of envy.  I had brought my fly rod and vest along, but with everything that had gone on it didn't seem like I was going to get a chance to use them.  Nonetheless, I made several mental notes regarding where and how I would camp if we ever came back here.  After a couple of miles we started up a series of switchbacks that went up a much larger terminal moraine behind which lay the waters of the upper lake.  The upper lake was about 5 times the size of the lower lake, but its waters were the same deep shade of turquoise.  Along the trail there was an abundance of wild raspberries, thimbleberries, and gooseberries.  I even saw some berries that looked surprisingly like saskatoons, a berry that was very common in Alberta.  I didn't see any huckleberries, but that doesn't mean there weren't any; the habitat was suitable enough for them.

By the time we reached the upper lake, Ally was starting to play out.  The side of the lake where the moraine formed a natural dam was designated for hikers, but there was supposedly a very nice horse camp near the inlet.  Unfortunately the inlet was another mile and a half from the moraine.  We started up the trail, but we soon realized making it to the inlet was going to be an ambitious goal.  Ruby voiced as much to me and I replied with, "I think you're right, we'll stop as soon as we can find a good place to rest and have lunch."  For me, a good place to have lunch was one that had fresh water for the horses and for us.  We had depleted most of our bottled water and I really wanted to find a spring before we made the trek back for the pickup.  Unbeknownst to us was the fact that the horse trail took us high over a bluff that overlooked the lake, and put us out right next to the lake inlet.  Ruby was more than a little upset when she realized that we were going to have to go all the way to the horse camp.  Ally was very tired, and we needed her to be able to make the 8 mile journey back to camp.  When we finally made it to a spot with good water and a place to tie up the horses, we were all tired and hot.  We unsaddled Ally to let her back cool off and fed all of the horses what was left of the alfalfa cubes and grain.  We took the horses down to the creek where they all gulped up large quantities of water.  Then I hiked up stream from where the trail crossed the creek and filled our water bottles up.  The water was very cold, and sweet.  I felt a little bit guilty for having pushed the envelope so hard to get here, but at the same time, I was glad to have found such a place, we would definitely be back.

Once we refilled our water bottles, I stretched out on the ground and pulled my hat over my eyes.  I hadn't realized it up until that moment, but I was thoroughly exhausted.  It felt so good to not move.  We ate our lunch slowly and let the horses have about an hour breather.  I didn't have the energy to deal with hobbling them to graze, so we just kept them tied and let them eat their dried rations.  When the hour was up, we led them down for one more drink, then we threw Ally's pack saddle back on and loaded her up again.  Because we had fed the last of the alfalfa and grain, the pack was now considerably lighter than it was when he had started, so at least we had that going for us.  On the ground, Ally was so tired that we could barely get her to budge her by pulling on the lead, so in order for me to get her going I had to dally the lead to my saddle horn.  It seemed a little harsh, but we really had no other choice.  Fortunately, Ally's reluctance to move was more a function of her stubborn nature than her physical ability because as soon as she realized she couldn't pull back as hard as I could pull on her she picked up the pace.

Up to this point, Ayla had been a real trooper.  In truth, she loved riding horses and very seldom complained.  But even she had her breaking point.  She had been very happy to stop at the head of the upper lake, and was not at all impressed when we got back on after only an hour break.  She fussed for the first half mile, but Ruby and I started singing every happy children's song we could think of and this seemed to mollify her.  After a mile she placed her elbows on the cantle and rested her chin on her little hands in a act of supreme boredom.  I had never seen her do that prior to that moment, it was one of the many defiant things she did that made me laugh.  I suppose someday I will regret validating that kind of behavior, but it's hard not to smile at her, even when she's pouty.

We wound our way slowly down the canyon.  After about 4 miles, Ally started to really drag and I had to keep her dallied most of the time.  The only exception was when we went over a bridge or along a steep drop off.  I didn't think Ally would do anything foolish, but just in case I was wrong I didn't want to be tethered to her if she went over the edge.  With this system, we kept up a pretty good pace that allowed us to make it down the canyon in about 3 hours.

Throughout the day, we had seen a multitude of hikers and campers.  I don't think I have ever been in the backcountry where I have seen so many people.  Being on horses, we had the right of way and, as we were also faster than the hikers, we passed by every one we met.  Almost without exception, they would make comments as we went by on the size of our pack and frying pan, a few of them disdainful.  I pretended to ignore the comments, but inside I was thinking, "I'll remember that next time I see you munching on granola for breakfast and I'm having pancakes, bacon, and eggs."  Nonetheless, seeing all those people reminded me how much things were changing.  The Idaho of my youth was slipping away, and would soon be unrecognizable.  The trails that had provided me with solitude and adventure as a boy were now crowded with suburbanites teaming their way out of the burgeoning cities to partake of their own little share of the remaining wild places.

I wondered what the early settlers on Sand Creek near present day Idaho Falls would think if they could see us now.  Would they be proud of the legacy they had forged out of the sagebrush, or would their hearts fill with sorrow at the sight of so much virgin wilderness brought under the yoke of civilization?  If I had to place a bet, I think the majority of them would be proud.  They lived in the wilderness not for recreation, but out of necessity.  The wagon trains and handcart companies came to this land with the express purpose of building a nation.  I think most of those pioneers dreamed of a day when they would be able to sleep soundly in their homes without having to worry about predators, marauders, or being exposed to the elements.  I'm sure there were a few of them that went the other direction; that chose to become part of the wilderness rather than tame it to suit their needs.  These were the mountain men and the cowboys, the romantics of the 19th century that lived on in the character of people like my father in law.  But, these people were likely the minority.  Most of my ancestors had come here to establish a community where their progenitors could be free from the dangers and uncertainties of living so close to the edge of life, and in so doing afford them the time to focus on matters that transcended the day to day requirements of survival.

As the sun started to descend in the sky, we rode into the parking area.  My legs were like rubber as I dismounted my steed and tied the horses to the trailer.  We got the packs and saddles off, and the horses loaded onto the trailer.  The dogs jumped into the back of the pickup and slunk down into the bed; it was one of the few times I'd seen them exhausted.  Jax lay right down with his head on the wheel hub and didn't move.  As I settled into the driver seat, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for an amazing experience with my family, and most of all, for a safe return.  I still didn't feel like I could completely relate to the pioneers, but I definitely had a greater appreciation for them and what they had gone through to provide me and my family with the life that we had.  May we never forget the gift that they have given us.  To quote the great pioneer Brigham Young, "The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth. (Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, 4th ed., p.126-129)"

Happy Pioneer Day.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Sorry Excuses and Customer Service in Cattle Industry

I had a professor in veterinary school, an equine surgeon in fact, who had a phrase he used when people came to him with sorry excuses.  It went something like this: "The horse doesn't give a #@!%"

It was a good lesson to learn early on.  When working up a veterinary case, the horse doesn't care if you are tired, or if your car isn't running well, or if the relevant information wasn't in the assigned reading.  All the horse cares about, is that it is sick or injured, and whether or not you correctly identify and treat its problem is totally independent of whatever excuses you might have.  The horse just plain doesn't care.  Cows care less.  Dogs will look at you like they care, but sorry excuses won't make the difference for them either.  Cats . . . well most cats I know lives their lives in a constant state of indignation, and I'm certain they care the least of all beasts about your sorry excuses.  The bottom line is, sorry excuses won't get you far with animals, and not much further with their owners.

I have found this rule to be especially true in the case of cattle clients.  The men and women who own cattle for a living are well acquainted with just how little cows can care about whatever excuses one might have.  When cows have or create a problem that needs attention, they don't care about the time of day or night.  They don't care about whether or not it's the weekend or a holiday.  They don't care about whatever your plans are, or were.  They just do their cow thing, when they decide to do it, and if you don't respond appropriately the consequences are unforgiving.

As a result, when a cow client calls their veterinarian with a problem, it is hard for them to be sympathetic to whatever else might be going on in your life.  That's not to say they don't recognize that they are inconveniencing you, most of them do and they even feel bad about it deep down.  However, you will likely not get very far with them if you don't at least recognize that they are only calling you because some critter decided to mess up their plans first.

I once had a client from British Columbia drive 2 hours in the middle of the night to my clinic in Alberta with a cow in labor because the vet that was 45 minutes away in Cranbrook couldn't be bothered to deal with the problem.  The veterinarian did at least answer their phone, but when she found out it was a calving, she tried to wash her hands of it by advising the client to "just pull harder."  I wasn't personally present when the phone conversation took place, but I got enough of the content from the cow's owner to surmise that this veterinarian either didn't have a clue about calving, or she was seeking to excuse herself from having to deal with it.  If a rancher calls you in the middle of the night with a calving problem, you can bet they've already tried pulling harder, or if they haven't, they've pulled enough calves to know when not to pull harder.

Either way, the client was not impressed.  When you spend nights on end checking your cows and dealing with whatever problems come your way, it's hard to be sympathetic to someone who can't be bothered to get out of bed long enough to at least give an intelligent assessment of your problem. Too at least be able to say, "I'm sorry, I think you're cow needs a C-section but I am not able to do that for you."  As it was, the cow made it to our clinic in time to deliver a live calf via C-section, however the calf was severely compromised due to prolonged oxygen deficiency and died a few days later.  Had it gone to Cranbrook it might have had a better chance of survival, though I doubt the owners of the cow will ever darken the doorstep of the Cranbrook clinic again.

Interestingly enough, I have found that being sensitive to this aspect of owning cattle will often times get you further than successfully treating the animal.  Most cattle producers have pretty low expectations when it comes to treating sick animals.  There's a saying I've often heard cattle producers use that goes, "if you're going to have livestock, you're going to have deadstock."  All cows die eventually, and there is always going to be a certain percentage that die unexpectedly.  Anyone who makes a serious attempt at earning a living from raising cows will learn this hard lesson very early on.  It is true that as a veterinarian, there are many things that one can do to help keep this number low.  However, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, and being understanding and patient with cattle producers when they call you in the middle of the night will elevate your medical skills in their eyes far beyond what they actually are.

I had this lesson driven home for me on a steer that came into the clinic with a swollen abdomen.  It wasn't a rumen bloat, or a displaced abomasum that I could detect.  However, after performing various tests and examinations, I came to the conclusion that the steer had some form of a blockage in its gastrointestinal tract.  The steer weighed close to 700 lbs and we were heading into the weekend where I would not have the support staff I needed to do a full abdominal exploratory surgery.  I offered to go to surgery right then and there, however the owner opted for a lest costly, more conservative medical treatment.  The medical treatment did not work, and I eventually ended up coming in on a Saturday to do a flank surgery in a hail-mary attempt to find the blockage and relieve it.  The surgery proved to be in vain and the steer eventually died, but these producers showed up at the clinic with some summer sausage and ground beef nonetheless to thank me for my troubles.  They expressed appreciation for being willing to try, especially on a weekend, even though the chances of success were slim.  It was a powerful lesson to me about how important it is to be available for my clients in their hour of need, and if I can't be available, to at least pretend that I give a #$!%.

The same goes for any aspect of veterinary medicine.  There are going to be times when you are busy, or tired, or you simply do not want to deal with it all anymore, and in those times you will be presented with animals that need your help.  They don't care if you're tired, or burnt out, or if you haven't eaten for the last 2 meals.  All they care about it that they are sick, or hurt, and the biological systems that dictate whether they live or die will play out the cards their dealt regardless of what your schedule dictates.  It can make life real tough, but the veterinarians that I respect the most are the ones who can push all of those excuses aside long enough to get the problem taken care of.  Coincidentally, these are also the veterinarians who develop loyal clients, especially in the cattle industry.  So while it is true that the cows may not give a #$!%, if you want to provide superior customer service to their owners, make sure that you do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dog Days of Summer

In Ancient Egypt, the new year began when the star Sirius (the dog star) appeared on the horizon just before the Sun.  5,000 years ago this happened somewhere around the first part of June.  Nowadays, this star does an opening show for the Sun somewhere around the middle of July and continues to do so until about the 2nd week of August, depending upon your lattitude.  This period of time in the summer, when the temperatures seem to be at their hottest and the days tend to loll along without any real sense of urgency has often been referred to as the 'Dog Days'.

In many ways, the 'Dog Days' signify a significant transition period for large animal veterinarians.  All the cows are out to pasture, most of the colts have been castrated, and aside from the odd cut up horse there's not a lot going on for a large animal veterinarian this time of year.  There are several days when I show up to work and there's nothing on the books at all.  At first I try to occupy the time by catching up on all of the things I've put off during calving, bull testing, and managing the inevitable outbreaks of disease that occur in young calves.  When those tasks peter out, I start looking for other outlets and soon remember that I have a blog.

The Dog Days also makes me think about, well, dogs.  Even though the large animal clinic is slow, I work out of 2 clinics, and the other clinic does a sizeable amount of small animal medicine.  For the most part, small animal medicine makes for a very enjoyable and fulfilling break from large animal medicine.  I especially enjoy working with family pets.  Helping an animal recover its health always seems much more rewarding when there is a little boy or girl attached to it.  However, there are times when small animal medicine can make me want to pull my hair out.  Most of these instances involve people whose attachment to their animals surpasses the boundaries of common sense, many times to the detriment of animal welfare.

Over the past 50 some odd years, the values and priorities or our western society have been in a state of flux.  When my Grandfather was my age, the majority of pet dogs and cats lived outside.  It seemed only the very wealthy and/or eccentric had dogs and cats actually living in the house.  The loss of a pet was certainly a sad occasion, but for the most part was marked by a minimum of ceremony, and was often regarded as a necessary part of growing up.  Family relations were considered paramount to whatever bonds may connect man and beast.  Gradually this scale of priorities has shifted; almost to the point of inversion.  Pets have moved from the backyard, to the living room, to the bedroom, and finally to the bed.  It is not uncommon for people who are estranged from their family members to have a pet that they love and cherish more than their own children, siblings, or parents.  Pet loss has gone from being a necessary and expected part of owning a pet to a major ordeal where persons involved may experience feelings of loss akin to the death of a spouse, parent, or child.

This shift in values has been both a boon and a bane to veterinary medicine.  When a person ascribes greater value to their pet, they are more willing to expend resources to diagnose and treat pet illness.  Preventing illness through vaccination, dental cleaning, and routine check-ups has also become more common place.  However, there are times when a pet owner's affection can be detrimental to their pet's health.  For instance, many people equate feeding their pet with showing it love, resulting in widespread pet obesity.  A large portion of the disease that we see in small animal patients could be prevented simply by feeding pets only as much food as they need.  Treats are also a major culprit, and can take on the form of milk bones, which are relatively harmless if given in sufficiently small quantities, to portions off of the dinner plate which really have no place in a pet's diet.  Some people feel the need to cook for their pets, or conversely, feed them raw basic ingredients.  Often times these programs are elaborate and difficult to follow, and as such, mistakes in formulating rations are common.  Ironically, many dogs and cats on homecooked or raw diets become deficient in nutrients that are commonly found in most commercial pet foods.

Another way that affectionate pet owners do their pets a disservice is through end of life decisions.  Many times pets are allowed to languish and suffer through chronic, terminal diseases because their owners simply cannot bring themselves to let go.  Sometimes these diseases are left untreated due to financial constraints.  However, even when finances permit an aggressive diagnostic and treatment regimen, there comes a point when keeping your pet alive because you cannot bear to let it go becomes inhumane.

Along with this rise in grief over pet loss, has come a rise in the number of litigation cases over the loss of pets to medical errors.  For the bulk of modern history, pets have been considered chattel by the law, thus relegating any litigation to a matter of the intrinsic value of the animal.  However recently there have been court cases where bereaved pet owners have sued for emotional losses. While these types of cases may seem like a victory for animal rights to some, their existence puts the animal health industry on a very slippery slope.  Once a 'free to a good home' puppy that has no intrinsic market value begins to carry a treatment liability exceeding tens of thousands of dollars, the cost of obtaining the puppy remains small while the cost of performing veterinary medicine will grow exponentially.  Fewer veterinarians will be able to afford keeping the doors to their clinics open, which will mean a scarcity of veterinary clinics with no change in the pet population.  As the demand for veterinary services increases with this scarcity, so too will the price of obtaining those services.

While I am not advocating that we love our pets less, I am advocating a little bit of perspective.  First, as pet owners, we need to cope with the fact that we are almost certainly destined to outlive our pets.  As such, we should expect, and be prepared for the day when our beloved pet either goes of its own accord or has to be humanely euthanized.  We also need to understand that loving a pet means its welfare comes before the gratification we receive from spoiling it.  We live in a time when there is an abundance of pet foods that are formulated to fulfill all of the nutritional needs of our pets.  Most of these pet foods come with a comprehensive feeding guide that allows us to zero in on an ideal weight for our dog or cat.  While the quality of ingredients and an individual animal's preference for a particular food may vary, once you find a pet food that works for your budget and your pet's preferences, it is a very simple matter to only feed only as much of it as is required.

Regarding the legal shift of animals going from chattel to individuals with rights, there are volumes devoted to the pros and cons of that argument.  For this post, sufficeth to say that if our goal is to increase the overall welfare of animals in our society, it is my belief that meeting that goal will be much more economically feasible if animals are defined as property under the law.  Whether that is moral or not, whether it is socially acceptable or not, I will leave for another day.  However, I will conclude by predicting that defining animals as members of society with rights will invariably raise the cost of owning and caring for them to the point where only the very wealthy and/or eccentric will be able to afford legitimate care.  It may be that we come full circle and return to a time when the relationship between most humans and their dogs and cats will be reduced to infrequent encounters with strays that somehow fell through the cracks, but for whatever reason cannot fully enter our lives.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Few Good Vets

Today was the first day off I've had in over 2 months.  The first day that I haven't either had appointments scheduled or been on call since September.  Sundays don't count since I spend a good chunk of those days working on ecclesiastical duties.

It's always hard to know what to do on a day off when you've been going mach chicken for weeks on end.  Even though it was a day off, I still had to attend to some church stuff first thing in the morning, but after that I found myself nervously fidgeting and looking for something to do.  I was actually supposed to be working today but we've had a real cold snap this week and nobody really wants to preg check when it's 30 below outside.  In fact the cold has slowed things down at the clinic in general, leaving us all with time on our hands. Time to reflect.  Several months worth of problems, inconsistencies, impressions and insights have been floating around in the ether and now the atmosphere is supersaturated.  Conditions are right for condensation.

After making token contributions to varying projects, by the end of the day all I really wanted to do was watch a movie.  My wife and I are house sitting for a couple while they are away for a year, and they happen to have a large collection of movies.  One of these is 'A Few Good Men' starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.  I hadn't seen it in a long time, and my wife had never seen it, so we fired up the old VHS and did our best to get a handle on the truth.

For those of you reading this who haven't seen it, I will summarize the basic premise of the movie, though I warn you there may be a spoiler or two to follow.  Tom Cruise portrays Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a young, talented navy lawyer who has a flair for plea bargaining.  Through a series of events, he is assigned to be lead counsel for a couple of marines who are on trial for murdering a fellow marine.  The victim in question died soon after being bound and gagged by the defendants as part of a disciplinary ritual known in the marine corp as a 'Code Red'.  The marines on trial claim that they carried out the Code Red as a result of a direct order from their superior officer(s).  The superior officers claim that the marines acted on their own with intent to kill.  The plot line clearly shows that the superior officers are lying as part of a cover up to spare the commanding officer of the base, Colonel Jessop, played by Jack Nicholson, a career ending blemish on his record.  Jessop uses his high up connections to get the Judge Advocate General to assign Kaffee to the case, knowing that he will go for a plea bargain that will minimize jail time for the marines, avoid the publicity of a trial, and ultimately spare Jessop from any connection to the death.  Kaffee, who has never seen the inside of a courtroom thanks to his prodigious ability to negotiate ridiculous plea bargains, knows that the marines are innocent, knows that Jessop is lying, but also knows that his clients stand no chance if the case goes to trial.  He uses his mad skills to negotiate a plea bargain that will see his clients home in 6 months, after a dishonorable discharge of course.  However, to his chagrin, his clients refuse the plea bargain.  They are marines, they've got honor, they've got code, and they followed their orders.

What follows next is an edge of your seat series of courtroom events, where the defense mounts a courageous attempt to prove to the jury with no evidence and little more than conspiracy theories, that the marines in fact followed orders and that the death of the victim was a direct result of Jessop's poor judgement.  Their luck goes from bad to worse as every possible avenue is exhausted, until finally, Daniel Kaffee has only one alternative if he is to succeed: place Jessop on the stand and use his skill as a trial lawyer to induce this proud Colonel to confess.  Oh, but wait, there's a catch.  If Kaffee accuses a ranking officer of a felony without sufficient evidence, he faces the possibility of court martial and disbarment.  Futhermore, if he fails his clients will spend the rest of their lives in Forth Leavenworth.  The only evidence he has will be the Colonel's confession.  Pretty serious stuff.

Those of you who have seen the movie already knows what happens.  Those of you who don't know are about to find out. Amidst cries of 'I want the truth!!!!' and 'Did you order a code red?!!!!' Kaffee extracts a confession from a very bellicose Jessop and the Marines are exhonerated of all charges except one; conduct unbecoming a marine.  The penalty for which is dishonorable discharge and time already served.  So in essence, after risking his career, his reputation, and the lives of his clients to overcome insurmountable odds, Daniel Kaffee has bought his clients 6 extra months of freedom but no change in their status as marines.

So here I sit, with months worth of vaporized meaning floating above my head, asking myself the question, "Was it worth it Kaffee?"  When a hit by car dog comes into the clinic after hours in respiratory distress, and I know that his only chance of survival is a surgery that I have never performed, do I trust in my surgical instincts and try it anyways?  Even though I know that he probably won't survive the anesthetic and I could be exposing myself, my family, and the practice to the consequences of a malpractice hearing?  Do I punt it on up to the referral surgeon?  Even if I know the dog probably won't survive the drive up there?  Do I just throw in the towel and euthanize?  Protocol dictates that I inform the owners of their options and let them decide, let it rest on their shoulders.  But are they really capable of making that decision?  Are they capable of advocating for their animal in that moment?  Where does honor come in?  What about code?  Am I truly acting as the ultimate advocate for the animal?  Is that even my responsibility?

I don't have answers to these questions, and I don't think I need to have the answers right now.  But I do need to ask the questions.  I have had my moments of glory in success and defeat, when all options come down to either kill or cure and that's it.  I'm the man.  Referral isn't an option.  Either I save this animal or I don't and I'll live with the consequences either way.  But what about when referral is an option?  Kaffee could have petitioned the court that his clients be assigned to a different lawyer, but he didn't.  Why didn't he?  He could have washed his hands of the whole matter and walked away; far, far away from the responsibility and risk associated with putting your neck on the line for somebody or something, even if it's an ideal.  Thanks to the magic of screenwriting, Lt. Daniel Kaffee emerged from his foray victorious, but in real life there is a very real chance of failure.  What then?  Even if he is victorious, his clients' situation isn't that much improved.  They still get dishonorably discharged.  The only thing that brings any kind of sense to it all is knowing that they can hold their heads high.  Knowing that, as Lt. Kaffee eloquently put it, 'you don't need a patch on your shoulder to have honor'.

You don't need to have letters behind your name to have honor either; though those of us who do have acronyms should strive to embody such principles as honor and code.  There is a need in this world for people who are willing to make that choice, to risk it all for the sake of the truth.  This is not an excuse for recklessness, and when you are dealing with serious issues, you definitely need to know your limitations and know when to refer.  However, I hope I can find myself counted among those few brave souls who put their faith in the power of truth, who honestly believe that right will prevail if we are willing to sacrifice for it.  I hope that in the future, when I am faced with a difficult decision between honor and dishonor, that I will choose the better part.  That I will choose honor, even if the results of a successful outcome are marginal at best.  In the meanwhile, I think it's time to get busy again.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Little Fluter Boy

I just came back from a Christmas musical presentation at our local church; it was wonderful.  I really do enjoy good Christmas music.  Whether it be George Strait singing Away in a Manger, Karen Carpenter singing No Place like Home for the Holidays, Johny Mathis singing Sleigh Ride, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing O Holy Night, it always brings back happy memories and really puts me in a Christmassy mood.

However, there is one Christmas Song that I have never liked; in fact I despise it.  Most of you know it.  It usually starts out with a children's choir singing very solemn tones of "pum, pa-pa-pa-pum, pa-pa-pa-pum, pa-pa-pa-pum-pum . . ." to the steady beat of a marching drum, followed by a very over the top musical narrative of a little shepherd boy who doesn't have any thing to give the new born king . . . but he has a drum! . . . .

GAG!!!!

That's right, I do not like 'The Little Drummer Boy', not at all.  Never have.  First of all, why a drum?  I mean, why would a poor little shepherd boy have a drum in the first place?  Wouldn't it scare the sheep?  As a mixed animal veterinarian, I have several clients with sheep, and none of them tote their drums around with them while their out checking the flocks.  To be fair, I guess the song never actually says that he was a shepherd boy, but what other kind of boys were there in Bethlehem at the time?  Other than innkeepers son's?  I guess he could have been an innkeeper's son . . . maybe he played a drum for the lounge singers?  But then he probably wouldn't be poor, because innkeeping was apparently pretty profitable in Bethlehem at the time.  I don't know.  I just never have liked it.  I don't like the overly serious tone of the music, the fact that a drummer needs an ox and a lamb to keep time, and the incessant ra-pa-pum-pums scattered hither and yon throughout the lyrics.  I especially don't like how it gets into your head.  There are few things more annoying than having a song stuck in your head that you don't like in the first place.

Nonetheless, because 'tis the season to be jolly, I have come up with a few improvements for the song that might make it a little more historically correct and entertaining to listen to.  First of all, we've got to get rid of the drum.  Shepherds were more likely to have flutes!  So we call it 'The Little Fluter Boy'.  Because we need some lyrics that rhyme with 'flute', I suggest that instead of 'Pa-ra-pa-pum-pum' we should sing 'A-root-a-toot-toot!'.  That way, when you find yourself inadvertently ra-pa-pumping you can just say 'root-a-toot-toot!' and kablewy!  No more stupid little drummer boy in your head.  Add a few minor modifications to make everything jive together and I present to you, "The Little Fluter Boy"!

(Children's Choir singing in the Background)

Root! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot!

Coooooommmmme they told me
A-root-a-toot-toot!
A new born king to see
A-root-a-toot-toot!

Our finest gifts we bring
A-root-a-toot-toot!
To lay before the King
A-root-a-toot-toot-root-a-toot-toot!

So to honor him
A-root-a-toot-toot!
with our loot!

Little baby
A-root-a-toot-toot!
I am a poor boy too
A-root-a-toot-toot!

I have no gift to bring
A-root-a-toot-toot!
That's fit to give our King
A-root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot!

Shaaaaalllll I play for you?
A-root-a-toot-toot!
On my flute!

Mary nodded
A-root-a-toot-toot!
The ox and lamb felt fine
A-root-a-toot-toot!
I played my flute for Him
A-root-a-toot-toot!
I played my best for Him
A-root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot! Root-a-toot-toot!

Then He smiled at me
A-root-a-toot-toot!
Me'n my flute!

(Children's Choir singing, slowly fades into the Background)

Root! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot! Root-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot-a-ta-toot!

Merry Christmas everyone!