Timeless Spirit LogoTALES OF A COUNTRY VET

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. July's Theme: "Key to Heaven"
Volume 3 Issue 5 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM

I had just returned to the clinic to meet Charlie. Apparently his dog Bosley wasn't feeling too well and he wanted me to check him out. "Whats'a matter?" asked Charlie, a gruff old curmudgeon with a heart of gold. His brow furrowed and head cocked with concern. "…you look like you jest lost your best friend." "Oh… nothing really…" I replied haltingly. I could feel my eyes mist up and my throat tighten. "… just a crummy duck! That's all." It was all I could get out.

"A duck? What's so special about a duck?" he asked incredulously. I couldn't answer him until I collected myself. Then I nodded and smiled. "Nothing …nothing…" I said softly. I was unable to speak so I took a deep swallow and changed the subject. "So, …what's wrong with old Bosley then?" After I'd dealt with Bosley and sent him and Charlie home, my mind slipped back over the past two hours or so.

It was mid-Saturday afternoon. The end (almost) of a long but productive week. The sun shone from above and behind and was partially obscured by a few billowy clouds. I was driving home from the last call of the day along the narrow one-lane, goat-trail connecting 272nd and Nathan Road. I glanced down and observed the small amount of dried blood on my sleeve from stitching up a horse with a lacerated eyelid. As I got half way down the road I slowed down.

As the truck came to a halt, a large beige rental van passed me on the left and almost collided with a newly replaced telephone pole. The van contained a very determined group of what looked like off-shore investors. They held up and appeared to be poring over some kind of site map. They were dressed in immaculately clean, pin-striped suits and each wore a pristine, white hard hat. The driver swerved back onto the road and they were gone as fast as they had appeared.

There were always garter snakes basking on the pavement of this narrow road or frogs jumping across it. More than once I'd had to jam on my brakes and plant my four-by-four in the middle of the road to prevent other cars from trying to pass as I chased or picked up any number of wild critters from sure death under the wheels of uncaring vehicles. This past month, however, there was a special reason for me to slow down. A pair of Mallards had chosen to build a nest in the narrow ditch beside the road. Not on the pond which extends to the south of the road, not on the larger pond on the north side of the road, but in the drainage ditch. This was a sad comment on how devoid the area had become of suitable habitat for wildlife.

I had first observed them scouting the location about four weeks before. They'd slowly walk up and down the road, looking left, then right, then over into the ditch, and then around and over towards the forest, like someone intently looking for pop bottles along the side of the road.

They were obviously looking for a nesting site. Unfortunately, all of the even remotely possible nesting sites had been taken. Undeterred, they eventually settled on a section of the ditch which boasted a moderately permanent collection of water, which, fortunately, was being repeatedly filled with the predictable rains of late May and early June.

Just a pair of plain old Mallard ducks. But they clearly didn't see themselves as plain. No way! The Drake (the male) was in perfect condition, his iridescent green head glistened in the sunlight. The deep blue patches on his tertiary wing feathers stood out like beacons. Not a feather out of place. He was absolutely gorgeous! And he strutted around, as much as a duck can strut, emphasizing the fact to all and sundry. He projected an air of proud dignity, hitherto unknown in the awkward world of mallard-dom. The Duck (the female) was equally striking, though obviously not as colourful. She was not dull and drab, as many of her species can be, but instead the edges of her sharp brown and white feathers were crisp and clean. They were a perfect pair! Absolute models of mallard perfection.

Every day I drove by, they were around. Either on the side of the road or on the nest. Once the clutch had been laid, the Duck remained motionless on the nest. I could walk up to within five feet and nothing could make her leave those eggs. I could have reached out and grabbed her by the neck if I'd have chosen to and she wouldn't have moved. She was the model of absolute devotion and, if necessary, self sacrifice. The Drake was equally vigilant. He would do his best to distract me and a couple of times even seemed to fake a broken wing, which I hadn't seen mallards do before. Proud and protective parents-to-be. They seemed very content with their abysmally humble abode. The only concern I had was with their security. I knew once the ducklings had hatched, they'd be ushered onto one of the larger beaver-assisted ponds and would be moderately safe from wandering dogs, marauding coyotes or feral cats. But, until then, and by being so willing to defend their nest, I was worried for their safety, particularly of the Duck.

However, they never let me down. No matter what the weather, each time I passed I looked for them, and every time they were there. It quickly became a ritual. I even came to believe they recognized my big white truck and eventually determined it not to be a threat. Maybe even a friend. Each time I passed, I'd either stop and get out or roll the window down and have a quick peek, depending on the weather. There was little I could do if something went wrong, but it felt good just to know they were still there.

I've always had a special place in my heart for wild waterfowl. It dates back to when I was in high school. Ever since I watched a television show called 'Tides and Trails.' Ted Peck was the moderator. It was a local Outdoor show, popular in the 1960's. I remember one show in particular. Ted was hunting Black Brant, a tiny sea goose, on the shores of Boundary Bay. I only watched the show for the fishing and the scenery. I would invariably turn the show off when he was hunting but with this particular show, for some reason, I left the TV on. Ted was in the plywood blind and when a pair of geese approached the camera followed them continuously as they headed up the beach. I was to find out later this is what Brant do. They follow the beach-line like they were on auto-pilot. No great secret. No great skill in out-foxing these poor birds. Just plant yourself along the flight path and don't move until the birds are in range. Of course, that doesn't make for good drama, so Ted's narration went into great detail about how wily and crafty these birds were and how difficult it was to shoot them. No discussion about how tasty they were or how many people they would feed or how many Brant were left on the coast, or what their habitat was. The focus was simply on how difficult a target they were to hit. Nothing more.

I remember following the condemned birds as they flew closer and closer, having no inkling of their impending fate. As far as they knew they were just migrating north to raise another brood in the far northern tundra. The longer the camera focused in on the birds, the more personal the relationship became. Hoping against all odds Ted would miss, which he rarely did, on tape. Closer and closer they came, until the tension was almost too much to bear. Finally, Ted burst out of the blind and got off two rapid shots at the hapless pair. One of the birds froze in mid-air for a split second and then plummeted to the beach like a stone, as birds do when they've been shot. All the grace and beauty of an innocent life gone in an instant. The other bird, miraculously, escaped unscathed. Not a feather out of place! I cheered lustily. "At least one had got away!" I yelled vengefully at the television. I then heard Ted say. "Don't worry… these courageous little birds mate for life. If you miss one, all you have to do is reload and get back down in the blind…" He instructed, matter-of-factly. "…The mate will always return if one goes down!" And sure enough I stared in horror as the camera followed the doomed mate as she circled out over the water and came right back down the same flight path to where her mate had just gone down. This time Ted didn't miss. He blew her out of the sky in a hail of goose-shot and exploding feathers as she slowed down, searching in vain for her fallen mate.

I remember him proudly displaying what was left of the four tiny, blood-stained carcasses he'd shot that day laying beside a piece of blood-smeared driftwood. I gained a lot of respect for ducks and geese that day… and lost even more for my fellow man.

I've carried that image with me over the decades. And it haunts me regularly. The plight of the individual is so much more evocative than the plight of the population.

Yet, the loss of those two birds was inconsequential to the health of the Brant population. The loss of shoreline habitat all up and down the coast is of far greater importance. However, even today, it is much easier to get individuals motivated to do something or to react when the threat is to a single individual rather than faceless masses in the thousands, even millions. If a face can be attached to a problem, people take notice. World Vision knows this, UNICEF knows this, Foster Parent's plan knows this, The World Wildlife Fund knows this. Greenpeace knows this. Take note of how the newspapers gave front-page coverage to effort put forth by well-meaning, if misguided, vets and technicians when they 'rescued' half a dozen dogs and cats left homeless in Hurricane Katrina. Money was donated left right and centre for these efforts. Yet, we have hundreds of local cats and dogs that need homes just as badly who were denied any special funding or care. But they just don't matter in the same way. Its one of the more annoying hypocrisies we call 'Human Nature,' I guess.

The saddest thing about my little Mallard family is they were forced into such an improbable, unsavoury and, likely, unsuccessful place to nest by the continued destruction of the areas they used to call home. This unfortunate circumstance is only a recent phenomenon and is caused by habitat destruction.

Even twenty yeas ago the autumn skies were filled with ducks and geese. Now the skies are almost empty. And who misses them? Certainly not the children, who have never experienced the sights and sounds of nature which no longer exist. No one looks up to see what isn't there. It's a sad but true comment on humanity. All societies. All cultures. All colours. All races. All people have short and narrow communal memories. We lament only what we personally have lost, not what we have collectively lost. We don't miss the thousand-year-old, two-hundred-foot Douglas Firs which stood majestically, carpeting the uplands of the lower Fraser Valley. We don't miss the hundreds of elk who used to drink at Mill Lake and the dozens of smaller lakes which pock-marked the valley, nor the cougar and Grizzly Bear who fed on them. We don't miss the aboriginal cultures who thrived along the Fraser River for four thousand years before the erection of the first pyramids of Egypt. Or the runs of Oolichan that sustained ecosystems for thousands of years, or the sturgeon which have, until recently, flourished, unchanged for millions of years.

Sure some of us we may have a passing wave of regret if we close our eyes and imagine what the valley must have looked like fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago. But it passes quickly with a sigh and we move on. We have more important things to do! Roaring from store to store to finish shopping. Checking for parking spaces at the mall. Complaining about all the other drivers. Dodging Jay-walking pedestrians. Racing to get home to put supper on the table and not miss the hockey game. We concentrate on what is directly in front of us. And there is more than enough to concentrate on. The newspapers, radio and T.V. all vie for our attention, endlessly repeating the same mindless red flags to keep the advertising dollars flowing in. Election campaigns! Negative Ads! Positive Ads! The price of gas! Caffeine reduces the rates of colon cancer! The war in Iraq! Who is Tom Cruise seeing this week? Do I have to buy new tires for the truck? Caffeine increases the rate of colon cancer! Another Crack dealer gets a walk because the judge believes he's on the road to redemption. Arial Sharron blinked one eye two days ago! Misinformation overload! Day after day after day! Conflicting bites of trivial, inconsequential information are thrown at us like snow flakes in a prairie blizzard. But this blur of 'information,' whether intentional or unintentional, only serves to distract us from what is truly important. We do our best to focus on each and every snowflake, which is, of course, impossible. So, either we ignore it all or we cultivate prize-winning ulcers.

Unfortunately, well hidden amongst this white noise, there are important bits of information. No, not important. Essential. Absolutely, critically, essential. At least for the sustained existence of our children, and our grandchildren and their grandchildren. And it centers on the irrevocable and ongoing destruction of our environment, our home.

We are all the end-products of the environment in which we live. However, our environment is suffering the death by a thousand cuts. Small encroachments add up. A new shopping center here, a tiny industrial park there. And of course to provide consumers to keep these facilities profitable, we need more housing. In order to provide transportation to and from the housing, we need new and improved roads. To keep the new residents happy and healthy, we need more space for schools, and hospitals. Then we need more consumers so we need more space for shops and warehouses. It's like a never-ending spiral of industrial construction and environmental destruction. And, no matter what the thick-headed, self-promoting politicians espouse, it is not a sustainable situation. Continued expansion in a finite world is a pipe dream, into which we all seem to buy!

The problem is us! Too many of us! So, what do we do? It's all well and good to identify the problem, but what can we do about it?

Well, what about some kind of compromise? Politicians, particularly smug Canadian politicians, love the concept of compromise. Canadians (and Canada as a nation) embrace(s) the concept of compromise. Compromise is such a part of the Canadian myth that we frequently, and erroneously, take credit for its invention. Is compromise the solution? Sorry, but no. Not a hope! For two very good reasons. Compromise never ends. Just ask the aboriginal peoples of North America. When we white guys arrived all we needed was half of everything they had. For the most part, they said sure, take what you need. Then we needed half of what was left, then half of the remainder, then half of that, and half again. The compromise continued until the aboriginals were left with tiny reservations on the most unusable land in the country. They have been compromised almost out of existence. And even today, they are still being asked to compromise.

Second, and more importantly, Nature doesn't compromise. We need only reflect on the natural disasters of the past year - the Caribbean Hurricane season, the Boxing day Tsunami, the collapse, and more importantly the recognition of the non-recovery of the Atlantic cod stocks and the current drought in the Amazon Rain Forest, to name four trivial, but recent, environmental catastrophes. And more are on the way. We haven't seen anything yet!

We all need to breathe, we all need clean water. But, what the politicians would ask is how little clean water is enough? How much smog is too much? And then work back from there. There are no answers to these questions. We can't answer them, nor should we. So, as a compromise, we ignore them. Yet they are fundamental to our long-term survival as a species.

We take compromises in other walks of life for granted. Medicine for instance. A surgeon can remove a gangrenous finger and the patient will do reasonably well. He could even remove two, or possibly three fingers, and the patient could still do fine. The surgeon could remove five fingers and the patient could still get by. But then the compromises begin to have an effect. Especially if the patient is a concert violinist. Then what? How about an ear? An ear is not absolutely necessary for life. The patient has two of them anyway. So one can be amputated without significant damage to the patient. He might look a little odd, but looks are only superficial. No worries. And then a couple of extraneous toes. Maybe a portion of the liver could be removed. Then a kidney. Again, we came with an extra one, so we can do okay with only one. Then another ear. So far, we still have a living breathing patient, any doctor would boldly testify to that. All of the surgeries have been a success. The patient can certainly get by, more or less. Unless, of course, if the remaining kidney gets infected. Or if the patient unexpectedly falls down a cliff and needs to grasp something. So, as long as the patient isn't exposed to unanticipated hardships, he can get along okay. But, it's hardly a stable or secure situation. At some point the patient expires.

When I worked in the bush I was regaled with stories of how backward the people on reserves were. I was assured that rather than go out and cut and store firewood for the winter, they would burn the two-by-fours in their government-issued houses. Whether the stories were true or not, obviously this is an untenable situation, especially if the winter is long, and the analogy still holds. The fact is, we, as a species are burning the infrastructure that supports us. Every stream we destroy, every acre of arable land we pave, takes us one step closer to the point of no return and our lives are that much more unstable. And we are traveling down this road at an ever-increasing speed. We are no more intelligent than they were, in fact, we're much worse. We know what's coming and are doing nothing to prevent it.

We are destroying our home so quickly we can see the changes from week to week, not century to century. Just look at the hills of Sumas mountain, of Ryder lake, of Mission and Burke mountain. The Fraser Valley remained essentially unchanged from the recession of the last ice age until the first European colonists arrived here, just over two hundred years ago. 100% of the destruction in the Fraser Valley has occurred in just 2% of that time span. 90% in the last 1%. Put that data on a graph and ask any industrialist if he would invest in a company where the resources were full and stable for 99% of the company's existence and then plummeted straight downward. We are driving full speed at a brick wall. You think you're okay right up until the instant you hit the wall.

Destruction of the Fraser Valley is not happening in slow motion. Take a camcorder and document the changes by taking one frame per week and in a year the mountains surrounding the Fraser valley will look like a giant lawn mower has just gone through them.

This state is not sustainable. No less an austere organization than the United Nations has an entire department studying the possibility of, and I would say the folly of, 'Sustained Development.' Sustained growth only occurs in one place in all of nature. In a Cancer. And we all know how that ends.

Nature always wins in the end. And so it would be better for us to learn how to have a society which can thrive with zero population growth. And we need to discover this now. It may be difficult, it may even seem impossible, but the only certainty is the consequences of not doing so, are fatal.

But back to my little family of ducks. Once I was satisfied they were both safe and content, she on the nest and he standing vigilant along the side of the road twenty feet away, I drove on. As soon as I arrived home I got another call. It was from the same farm I had just been on. Another horse had just jumped the fence and had torn a flap of skin on its chest. I checked my watch. Only two-thirty. So I grabbed something to eat and drove back. It was a small job, so I was finished in less than half an hour. As I was cleaning up, I got the call from Charlie. "No problem - I'm heading back to the clinic now. I'll meet you there." I told him over the phone.

As I turned the corner onto the narrow road I noticed the same beige van I has seen earlier stopped on the road, facing me. The driver was out on the road examining the front left head light. He angrily kicked something from in front of the van off to the side of the road, jumped back in the van and drove off. They roared past me. By the time I arrived at the scene mallard feathers were still floating in the air. The Drake was flopping helplessly, covered with blood and ditch water. It was he that had been kicked into the ditch by the driver, obviously angry that he would now have to pay for a broken headlamp. I looked for the Duck. She, at least, was still alive. Her neck was outstretched and she lay motionless on her nest. I moved back, so as not to disturb her any further. After a few moments, she lifted her head slightly, looking for her mate. I felt so hopeless and depressed. All I could do was retrieve the broken body, and put him out of his misery. I carried him with me so as to minimize the attention of scavengers like crows or ravens.

I never saw her or her brood again.

Dr. Bruce Burton, DVM, B.Sc., M.Sc., works with the animals at The Greater Vancouver Zoo and with 'animal stars' in the local film industry. He has extensive expertise in domestic and wild animal biology, health care and nutrition, as well as fish and game-farming experience. In addition to his busy practice in Bradner, Dr. Burton teaches at The University of British Columbia, and is often called upon by the SPCA to help exotic animals in need.

He chooses to write down his experiences so they are not lost, but rather shared with others. He wants his children and grandchildren to be able to read them first hand. I hope you enjoy your own sneak peek into his daily routine!

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