Thoughts On Dogs and Aging

My prior blog piece shared aspects of our 14th Birthday party for Buddy and his sister, Howdy.

A grown up Howdy

A sampling of doggie themed tasty appetizers

We enjoyed feting these two old Border collies. Just think of it; 14-dog years are the equivalent of 94-human years. Such graceful aging by both dogs justifies giving them a party.

A young Buddy posing

It is hard for me to wrap my head around how Buddy who once was so active, athletic, and energetic, has become so old acting. I first observed him changing by his weight loss. Buddy has always been thin but he became even more so. I suspected Bella and Little Jack, our other dogs, were eating his food. We began taking precautions against this. Finally I added canned food to his dry food (plus table scraps) along with keeping a watchful eye during doggie dinner time. No poaching from the senior dog!

Buddy in recent years has developed a pained gait. No longer does he sprint across the pastures, spring across cattle guards in a single bound, and ferociously herd cattle fifty times his size. No, Buddy now gingerly walks cattle guards, has a mincing, head down gait and is subject to having his rear end collapse unceremoniously out from under him. He now even requires my assist getting into the cab of the pickup or into the bed of the pickup. Traveling in the pickup, though, is probably still his favorite activity. Buddy accepts my help, but I sense he doesn’t like his need for such help. But he still loves to ride in the pickup, traveling across the ranch with the breeze flapping his ears and barking happily. Watching this, I know his life is still good and enjoyable.

Buddy sleeps more now. I’ve noticed like Buddy my own fondness for afternoon naps. If he is not working on the ranch with me (which basically consists of Buddy sleeping under the pickup while I work), he travels among his many dog beds strewn throughout the house. He simply requires more rest now than he did previously. When sleeping I often see his legs moving. I imagine that Buddy is dreaming of prior exploits on the ranch, or else dealing with a particularly gnarly cow in his dream state.

Enjoying the warmth of the sun and a good nap

I’m surprised by how well Buddy has accepted his limitations. When Trudy and I return from a trip to town, we are always mobbed by our dogs. They bark and act as if we have just returned from an extended round-the-world trip. Buddy, however, can no longer compete with the other dogs for our attention and instead holds back. While Little Jack and Bella jump up, bark, and ferociously compete for our attention, Buddy hangs back, merely cutting his milky eyes in our direction with a look of hopefulness plastered across his graying doggie muzzle.  I can tell he loves it when we approach him and pay him special attention, while also needing to defend him from the onslaught of the other dogs.

Buddy long ago lost his position as dominant dog in the house. He can’t stand up to Bella or even Little Jack who are stronger now and more assertive than he. He seems reasonably content with his lowered station in life and doesn’t seem to fight the inevitable. This reminds me of humans on the brink of retirement who often say, “You just know when the time is right.”

Buddy shows resilience in the face of getting old. He accepts his infirmities, loss of station, and limited mobility. However, he does require greater affection and petting. He warts us for petting almost constantly. I wonder if his neediness for his human companions’ approval helps to mitigate his sense of loss in the other areas. While he no longer can achieve the redemptive power of work, he has put away a lifetime’s worth of impressive works.

For this, my old dog, I say thank you.

It seems to me there is wisdom for humans in watching our pets age. Perhaps Max Ehrmann in his Desiderata said it best:

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth…

He continues:

You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Doggie Birthdays

We recently celebrated 14th Birthdays for both our male Border, Buddy and his Sister, Howdy. She resides with her human companion, Suzy Gillette about twenty miles west of Fredericksburg. Fourteen years old in human years equals 98 dog years- now that’s really old and calls for a PARTY!

Buddy on left and Howdy in the middle as puppies. Howdy was a large puppy born breech. I had to help deliver her myself.

An event of such grand significance, in addition to Howdy and Suzy, demanded we invite our good friends Tom and Linda Norris. They’re invested in our family and willing to act a little silly to celebrate whatever, so long as wine is served. Trudy made scarves for the birthday dogs as well as scarves for Bella, our female Border collie, and Little Jack, our Texas Brown dog. Their canine attendee scarves had printed messages that read, “He’s Our Buddy.”

A grown up Buddy

 

A grown up Howdy

As you can see, both Buddy and Howdy have almost identical markings. The big difference is that Buddy is black and white while Howdy is red and white. Their behaviors are almost identical- both being rather shy, loving, and extremely smart.

Trudy put together a menu fit for a canine banquet. It was as follows:

Mighty tasty I might add. Needless to say this menu was for the human attendees.  The meal for humans was served in dog bowls (see below). The doggies had bowls overflowing with doggie treats and favorite canned dog food.

Admittedly, ours were brand new dog bowls, but what a lark to see the humans eating their “paw-sta” from dog bowls. All really got into the spirit of the party and enjoyed their meals.

Needless to say we also enjoyed snacks and appetizers prior to the big meal. This included a snack mix, we referred to as Puppy Chow.

Puppy Chow

The tasty appetizers were largely for the human attendees at the party, but I’ve been know to sneak a few treats for our doggie companions. They were mighty good and enjoyed by all!

A sampling of the tasty appetizers

As you might expect some adult beverages were available to heighten the enthusiasm of the human companions. These came in red, referred to as Buddy’s Bonanza, and white, referred to as Howdy’s Hurrah. The dogs were served generous supplies of cool, fresh well water.

Following the meal, cookies were served to the human companions. As you can see, Trudy outdid herself by creating cookies in the image of dogs.

Trudy created cookies in the image of dogs

 

Needless to say, both humans and dogs enjoyed themselves. We celebrated our faithful dogs, told stories about their skills and foibles, and described how they mirrored our own aging process. Both dogs are slowing up. Both dogs have some health problems. Buddy suffers from a weak rear end. It gives out on him periodically. Nevertheless, he is always anxious to load up in the pickup and cruise the ranch. Admittedly he can no longer leap into the bed of the truck, requiring me to catch him mid-air and lift him in. Both dogs continue to play vital roles in supplying the affection and loyalty to their human companions.

The occasion brought to mind the Ode To A Dog written years ago by George Vest who was a Missouri State Senator. It turned out that a loyal and much loved dog had been shot and killed by a neighboring farmer who suspected the dog was marauding his stock. The State Senator presented in court, representing the bereft dog’s owner. What follows was this lawyer’s poignant closing argument to the jury.

 

A Portion of George Vest’s Closing Argument To The Jury:

Gentlemen of the Jury: A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. Where all other other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.

 

Needless to say, George Vest won his law suit!

Such strong and loving sentiment for our loyal canines, seems to me, to deserve an occasional celebration. I recall with love and amazement how Buddy as a half grown Border collie broke up a fight between two bulls and then herded our bull back across the neighboring ranch to the break in our fence. I also recall how when I was laid up for six weeks with a bad back, how Buddy laid beside me virtually the entire time. Such loyalty from a dog earns loyalty from this human.

Happy Birthday Buddy and Howdy. For our lives, you have added much.

Buddy with his place in the sun. Rest well my old dog for you deserve it.

 

Avian Apocalypse: Why Should We Care?

An article in the prestigious journal Science recently revealed that the bird population in this country has dropped 29% since 1970. The reasons given for this loss include reduced habitat and increased use of pesticides that diminish the food sources. This loss was pretty much across the board and included such common birds as Robins and Starlings. But why should any of this matter to us?

The other day I was feeding our lone survivor duck at the stock tank near our house. The morning was clear and the temperature had not yet risen to an uncomfortable range. The lone male Rouen duck (looks like a Mallard duck but larger breasted see example below) waddled up to me, awaiting my throwing of his food.

There standing before me within my own shadow stood this survivor bird. He is the last of a group of twelve we raised and put on the tank, the others having become food for local predators (fox and raccoon we think). He is a wily little duck that greets me each morning. I’ve wondered many times what sets this duck up for survival whereas the others made early exits.

I lifted my eyes toward the opposite side of the tank and noticed among the catails a beautiful Snowy Egret. This long legged white heron has been residing with us for the last several weeks. Also nearby on the top limb of the tallest tree sat our resident Great Blue Heron. I’ve written several blog pieces about this marvelous Great Blue heron, its beauty and its mythology.

A Great Blue Heron. Not my heron but representative

I must admit to a moment of profound awe. There in front of me were three beautiful birds. Each has its story and its own beauty. Later on I blithered on about this magical moment to friends; the profound impact it had on me, and the beauty of the birds. Admittedly my friends did not fully understand the magic of my bird sighting. Perhaps you had to be there to appreciate the moment.

Moments of wonderment like this are a major reason why we must reverse the loss of our bird population. The thrumming of their calls first thing in the morning, the beauty of their synchronized flight, and their contributions to thinning out noxious insects are practical and important reasons to protect them. Think how sad it would be if our skies were cleared of birds and our ears failed to hear their melodious calls.

Animals and animal behaviors fascinate me. Even though on the back porch of my years, I’m so glad to still experience awe and wonderment of nature. Yes, Trudy and I will continue to spend countless dollars filling our multiple bird feeders and enjoying their beauty, song, and flight. We hope you will too.

Air Mailed By A Cow

While the event to be described happened sometime ago, writing about it before now proved impossible, as it was just too painful. Let me assure you that as a cattle rancher, this was not my finest moment.

The cow in question is #36 or as I refer of her as “the tongue.” She is a large Black Baldy cow with a protruding tongue problem. You see, her tongue hangs out of her mouth about eight inches and dangles to the right. Even my veterinarian had not seen a cow with a problem like this one. The vet  concluded that the tongue must work, as she is hardly malnourished.

Perhaps it was her slightly goofy appearance that gave me my false sense of security. Rather than focusing on her tongue, strikingly pendulous as it was, I should have noticed the suspicious gleam in her evil bovine eye. Surely that would have put me on guard, if I’d only been sufficiently observant.

#36- The Tongue

In truth “the tongue” had previously been a good cow. This attribute of goodness  I define as placid, a good mother to her calves, and gentle to be around. The latter criterion is the one for which I was in serious error.

My ranch hand, Juan, and I decided to vaccinate her calf in the pasture. It was several days old. We chose to do this rather than running the whole herd through the cattle chute and separate the calf from its mother. Let’s just say our plan was expedient rather than clever.

Juan who is handy with a lasso did his roping thing, and I ran merrily in with the syringe in hand and proceeded to give the calf its necessary vaccination- subcutaneously mind you, as it is less painful. Meanwhile Mama cow stood nearby seemingly showing little interest and no apparent animosity. Or so I thought. I suppose her baleful stare, in retrospect, should have tipped me off to her explosive temper.

Suddenly and just after withdrawing the syringe, I look up and Mama Cow, the tongue, is barreling toward me as fast as a 1400 pound cow can move. Seeing I am in imminent danger of becoming roadkill, I began to backpedal as fast as my aging legs would allow. The tongue then stuck her head in my plump and ample midsection and launched me high into the air, airmailing me about twenty feet away and into a pile of cattle dung and wedged against a barbed wire fence. Whether she ran over me, I honestly can’t say, as the pain resulting from the hard landing was simply too intense and distracting. Houston, we have a problem!

There I laid amid the cow patties, lying on the packed earth that was softened only with aromatic dry cow patties. Try as I might, I could not overcome the pain in my hips and shoulder sufficiently to regain my feet. I think I did glance at the cow to make sure she was no longer in full combat mode. By this time she had herded up her calf, paying me no more attention than she did a nearby rock pile.

Finally I struggled to my feet. I did this by holding onto the barbed wire fence which is not a particularly comfortable source of support. Juan by then had reached me and was in full apology mode. This was not at all necessary, as Juan had done nothing wrong, but rather it was my judgment that had been lacking.

After regaining a somewhat clearer head, I asked Juan to fetch my pickup from the barn. With effort I drug my pained body into the cab of the pickup. I slowly set out over bumpy roads for my house and called ahead to Trudy, asking, if on my arrival, she might help me out of the truck. When I reached the driveway, there Trudy stood awaiting me and wearing a concerned look on her face.

It’s at times like this when you find out if your spouse truly loves you. There I was covered in cow manure, groaning like a woman in end stage labor, bleeding from multiple scrapes, and hobbled by substantial pain. To cut to the chase, X-rays later showed no broken bones, but I had narrowed my shoulder joint and developed rotator cuff symptoms. These have improved over the last month and mostly only bothers me now if I attempt to elevate my right arm above my shoulder. My walking was limited for awhile but fortunately healing has occurred and the bruising has subsided.

Admittedly I sometimes think back to my career as a neurologist and recall that not once, not a single time, was I injured swinging a reflex hammer! Since retiring I’ve been pitched from a horse and broken my arm, blew out a disc in my back requiring surgery after man-hauling a stump from the creek, and sustained a compound fracture of a finger after being hit by a wayward golf ball. Retirement is not for sissies!

Despite my injury prone retirement, I’ve simply loved it. I only hope I can stand up to the physical wear and tear. i have determined henceforth I will run every calf through the chute, separating the calf from a potentially overprotective mama cow. This might be good in the long term to prolonging my life as a rancher.

#36 chewing her cud and even then with tongue hanging out

Also the mama cow and I have come to an understanding. I recognize she was only protecting her calf and she appears to be her old docile self. She will be sticking around the ranch. Now, if #36 will only stop sticking her tongue out at me!

 

A Mysterious Rodent Infestation

Years ago my younger brother Jim undertook a school science project that involved white mice. In retrospect Jim admits the science was weak, but as he vaguely recalls, it had something to do with the impact of nutrition on white mice. He doesn’t recall his experiment finding anything of substance, but he does recall, to his surprise, just how rapidly the white mice multiplied. Clearly the nutrition provided in no way hindered their reproduction.

By the time the project ended some months later, the white mice had multiplied at an incredible rate, something to the tune of doubling every three and a half seconds! By the time Jim had written the paper and turned it in for a grade, he had lost all possible interest in his little white critters with the pink eyes. (Of course puberty has a substantial effect on the interests of young males.) The same declining interest as was shown by my brother could not be said for our alarmed mother and father.

The white mice, having little else to do, continued to multiply at a prodigious rate. Suddenly our four bedroom, ranch style home became crowded with cardboard boxes, each brimming with scurrying white mice. You see, neither Jim nor anyone else in the family had considered what was to be done with the mice after the project was completed. With the rapid increase in numbers of the white mice and brother Jim’s interests by then laying elsewhere, my mother and father experienced a severe case of rodent angst.

Being kind people, no one would consider euthanasia of the cute little pink eyed critters. Nevertheless, their rapidly increasing numbers screamed out for a solution- any solution, and soon.

During one of his long airline trips, my father ruminated on the rapidly growing self-inflicted mouse problem. Dad, you see, served as a commercial airline pilot who experienced long hours of extreme boredom in the cockpit, intermixed with moments of sheer terror. That flight, however, proved routine and provided time for him to surface a drastic solution. On returning home that night from his trip, he undertook loading the numerous mouse boxes into his car. How many trips this took I cannot recall, nor would Dad ever provide such damning details (you can only trust a family so far).

In any event Dad drove about the darkened neighborhoods of Richardson, Texas. Out of view of the prying eyes of neighbors, he skulked around, distributing white mice to all corners here and far of our previously peaceful and rodent-free hometown. No doubt the sudden invasion of white mice in the days that followed provoked concern and substantial conjecture. Our family, however, was sworn to silence and no one in Family Hutton would let on from whence the white mice came.

To this day I’m sure some of the old timers in Richardson still talk about that time way back then when Richardson was invaded by a virtual torrent of white mice. Theories remain as to what environmental or Biblical plaque had struck our bedroom community that lay near Dallas. I imagine the rock-ribbed Southern Baptists are still railing against the evils of alcohol and dancing that brought on that infestation of white mice.

After 50 years of family silence, a little honesty seems called for. Yes, the family Hutton in the person of my Dad released the critters. His rationale was that this approach gave them a chance to survive in the wild (even then Richardson wasn’t really that wild) but desperation caused him to deem it a good idea. In addition the local cats and snakes likely enjoyed a hunting season like none they had never experienced before.

“What a good stroke of fortune”

I offer this long overdue mea culpa on behalf of my family just in case someone out there has a child or grandchild who might be considering a science project. Trust me, it is a foolish idea to ever, ever involve white mice!

Auslander Ranchers

I received the lovely photograph (see below) from a friend and amateur photographer, Jim Harris. In truth the picture was taken of a woman in chaps from New Mexico, but it fits well our local situation. Many folks moving into the Texas Hill Country bring with them their lifestyles and fashions.

Branding In Style

The photograph depicts this aspect nicely. You can notice the clean red ostrich boots on this well-dressed lady rancher. If you look closely, you will notice a diamond bracelet on her wrist. She is, nevertheless, wielding the branding iron with an air of competence and determination. Her dress is not the usual dress of our locals who typically wear worn out jeans, muddy work boots, pearl button shirts, and beat up cowboy hats.

Gillespie County, the county in which Fredericksburg is located, continues to have agriculture as its number one industry. Admittedly, this distinction has been helped of late by the 100 or so wineries and vineyards that have flocked to our area. Gillespie county ranchers continue to raise many cattle, goats, and sheep.

Being a newly minted rancher back in 2001, I felt the probing and suspicious eyes of my fellow ranchers when I attended Field Days or other agricultural events. I was, after all, a newbie and likely seen as an Auslander with questionable intent. I certainly lacked ranching experience. In any event after eighteen years, Trudy and I feel better integrated and believe we do a reasonable job ranching cattle. Nevertheless, this picture reminds me of the social divide and suspicion we felt in those early days after moving in at Medicine Spirit Ranch.

Have you ever experienced similar cultural divides? Would love to hear from you.

The Nutria Are Coming, The Nutria Are Coming

Not long ago I spied a medium-sized brown animal swimming languidly in my pond. At first I thought the animal was a beaver. How wonderful, I thought, for our stock tank to be a home for a beaver. After all, who doesn’t love those industrious, furry little flat-tailed creatures?

On closer inspection I saw that while the head looked like that of a beaver, its tail was not flat nor paddle shaped but instead bore the look of a rat’s tail. With a little research, I learned the identity of the interloping animal- it was a nutria.

Brown furry nutria

I began to read about nutria. From my reading I sensed an existential dread associated with nutria. I learned it was an invasive species and fully worthy of eradication. For me, a man of peace, the thought of shooting or trapping nutria was hard to accept. After all, I had spent a professional lifetime trying to preserve life in my chosen profession of medicine, such that killing simply doesn’t come naturally for me. Trapping of the nutria also made no sense either, as once trapped what was I to do with the despised animals?

Little Jack does not share my concerns regarding the killing of varmints. He in fact specializes in squirrels and armadillos

Nutria are an invasive species brought to Louisiana from South America in the 1930s. Some 20 animals were transplanted to begin fur farms so that their pelts could be made into hats and muffs. After the craze for nutria fur subsided, however, and the fur mills disappeared, these semi-aquatic rodents scampered and swam into the Louisiana swamps where they bred like crazy. Their initial numbers increased dramatically, having up to three litters per year and up to 13 pups at a time. It is now estimated that in the U.S.A. some 20 million nutria exist and are spreading out from Louisiana in a rapidly expanding rodent infestation. Texas is affected, your state may also be impacted or else may be soon.

Already nutria have spread to the northwest portion of the U.S. and as far as California. In California the threat they pose to the wetlands is said to be equal of the threat that wildfires have for the State.

What makes nutria so feared is that they eat water plants, both root and stem. Nutria will completely destroy water plants , creating an ugly “eaten out” and useless body of water. They are destructive little beasts with voracious appetites.

One of the stranger features of nutria are their stubby orange hooked front teeth. The orangeness comes from the dental enamel that makes nutria easily recognizable. They look to have been drinking Tang. Anyone remember this drink?

Note the distinctive orange teeth.

The dramatic increase in the number of nutria along with their wholesale destruction of aquatic plants in the bayous and estuaries of Louisiana led in 1958 to a bounty being placed on thm. Louisiana paid $5 per tail for the nutria. Over time the bounty system led to a reduction in their numbers. Nevertheless, the remaining tail-less carcass often was often thrown into the water, reducing the water’s oxygen content and negatively affecting the fish. This consequence led folks to question whether the nutria’s lean protein source could be used in some other way, such as a source of food. Might some other practical use for nutria be found?

Admittedly, the idea of promoting and selling nutria as a meat source has proved challenging. The critters have mistakenly been called “river rats” rather than the rodents they truly are. Who would wish to eat a rat? Nutria actually are more like squirrels which in some parts of the country remains a food source. Various chefs have come up with dishes using nutria. Nutria spaghetti casserole has been suggested and nutria meat has been mixed with pork to make sausage. It also has been used in dog treats.

Despite the influx in recent years of nutria into the State of Texas, to my knowledge no bounty system has been established at least in our County, nor have I seen a nutria dish on the menu of any restaurant I frequent. If nutria are to be controlled either a bounty or some practical use will need to be found.

Not long ago I asked my lovely wife, Trudy, if I were to shoot a nutria if she would cook it? Her disgusted look spoke volumes. I didn’t even make it to the part in my spiel, saying how it was gluten-free and low in cholesterol. No, I can’t see nutria or even squirrel being served at the Hutton house any time soon.

A company in Louisiana has also tried to push the use of its fur again and calls its product “righteous fur.” It has lined mini-skirts and has been fashioned into neck wraps. The orange nutria teeth have also been utilized in jewelry making. I don’t know if any of these practical uses for nutria products will catch on but without some practical reason to hunt or trap this critter, I fear for my home State of Texas. I also worry as well for other States and worry for the rest of our country as to what is yet to come. Beware, the nutria are coming, the nutria are coming!

Do the readers of this blog have problems with nutria where they live?