Timeless Spirit Logo    TALES OF A COUNTRY VET

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November Theme: "Unique Perspective"
Volume 2 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265

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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This uniquely blind perspective is never more accurately represented than when dealing with a mother and her child… except possibly, when dealing with a boy and his pig.

Every year or so a new species of animal becomes popular as a pet. Sort of 'animal of the month.' The species in question starts out as a novelty from a distant and mysterious land. Initially, only a small number of 'breeders' have them, and obeying the laws of supply and demand, they are generally sold for many times their original cost.

Dollar signs then appear and the race is on to become the first person in the neighbourhood to own one. The media fans the burning desire of all and sundry to own one. TV, newspapers and even radio have their slow news days, and on those days seek out sellers of these exotic creatures, promoting their exotic qualities. The more homely and obscure, the greater is the demand.

Each new owner has memorized a fact sheet extolling the virtues of the new species, which they robotically repeat like the talking dioramas at a museum. 'Clean,'odour-free,' 'easy to feed,' 'won't bite,' 'breeds like rabbits,' etc… And then the hook, 'people are lining up are willing to pay hundreds (or, more likely, thousands) of dollars each for them.'

In fact, all new owners tell you they bought them 'because they are so cute (read 'ugly') and they are breeding them just so others can have the same joy of companionship (read 'to become rich'). The 'AMWAY' approach to pet ownership.

There is only one essential characteristic, which is common to all new, exotic pets. They must be completely useless. One such trophy-pet which emerged in the past decade was the Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig.

Pot-bellied pigs possess all of the necessary requirements. They are ugly. They originated from an obscure portion of Southeast Asia. And, of course, they are completely useless.

Percy was a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied pig. His owners loved Percy. Which only goes to confirm that love is blind. Completely and absolutely. When they called they informed me he was the 'most friendly and loving pig in the whole world' and they certainly didn't want to inflict upon him anything even remotely unpleasant. Which is why he was three years old, had never been castrated, de-tusked, nose-ringed; or in any meaningful way, handled.

Now all pigs express a certain fondness towards anyone who doesn't touch them, while at the same time allowing them the freedom to wander the entire yard uninhibited, providing them a dry, weather-proof, straw-filled, barn and continually feeding them buckets of grain, fresh vegetables and fruit. Who wouldn't? Pigs are ugly, not stupid. How his owners knew he was friendly was beyond me, because in the preceding year, no one in the family had ever laid a hand on Percy.

The family's entire assessment of Percy was based on the fact that up until the previous week, he ate his food when fed, he never attacked anyone, and he would grunt contentedly every time someone walked by. So, by this masterful study of porcine behaviour, they were convinced he was 'the most wonderful pig in the world.'

The only thing missing from Percy's utopian existence was a girlfriend. In order to rectify this deficiency he had recently started making amorous advances to the next best thing, Max.

Max was the family's neutered, overweight and slightly neurotic Doberman. Max didn't seem to mind the attention, but the rest of the family did. Any time they tried to intervene, or even walked near Max, Percy took it upon himself to race over, if the word 'race' can ever be applied to a pig, to protect Max.

Fortunately, Percy weighed about 150 lbs and it took him a couple of minutes and several rocking attempts just to stand up. When he did move, it was more of a waddle rather than a sprint. So, by the time he got where he was going he generally forgot his purpose, thus saving a great deal of needless confrontations. Everyone thought it was more cute than dangerous. Another endearing personality quirk of the favourite member of the family.

At least that was the general feeling until a neighbour decided he wasn't going to move for 'any Gott-damn-it pig' and received a four-inch gash on his leg for his obstinacy. Most pot-bellied pig-owners never realize that boars grow tusks, which can grow to several inches in length. They remain hidden under the rolls of fat lips. But all day long, when the pig is not eating, he sits and slowly, deliberately, sharpens his tusks by rubbing them against one another. Most soon become sharp as razors.

I received a phone call from Freddie, the eldest son in Percy's family. Swallowing hard, he explained the family's dilemma and acknowledged reluctantly that they probably had to do something about Percy. I asked if they were planning a barbecue any time soon? Silence.

"Oh, Doc… no! Please don't say that! Not even as a joke! No… what we need is for you to come out and sort of round off Percy's teeth. Smooth them over so's he don't kill no-one." Freddie seemed like a pleasant little boy, so I explained to him that it would be a waste of time to just round the teeth off, since they would continue to grow and Percy would just re-sharpen them. "You have to remove them right at the base, because even a semi-toothless pig can give a nasty bite." I informed him.

I also suggested that Percy should be castrated so as to reduce or eliminate the re-growth of the tusks. I heard a thump on the other end of the line, and then silence. I thought Freddie had fainted. His mother then picked up the phone and I could hear her hollering in the background. "Freddie!… You come back here and talk to the vet!… He's your pig… Freddie!… Come back here!… You get on this phone right now!" Damn kids!… " Then she spoke directly into the phone. "Doc?… Is that you?"

She and I then sorted out what would have to be done and when it was to be done. We were going to castrate Percy and at the same time remove his tusks.

The procedures would have to be performed in the late afternoon and it had to be on a Thursday, because Freddie, I found out, was at work until about three o'clock (he was 24 years old, not 12 as I had expected) and he had to be there to make sure we didn't hurt Percy.

It also had do be done on a Thursday because Freddie's father was away on Thursdays and he didn't want to be anywhere near when Percy was to be 'tended to.' He strongly empathized with Percy apparently. In the father's absence, they would get the neighbour to help if I needed a hand. I explained to them that, yes, I would need a hand but also that Percy would have to be anaesthetized, to 'make sure he didn't suffer any pain.'

There are three real reasons why you always anaesthetize a pig. The first is due to the innate shape of a pig. They are unbelievably strong for their size and they don't have any horns or tails to hang on to. And every part of them is tapered away from the body. This makes it nearly impossible to hold a fully conscious pig.

The second is that pigs are smart. Very smart. They know what you are going to do long before you do yourself. So you have to 'level the playing field' so to speak, by removing their ability to escape.

Third, and most importantly, pigs squeal. Actually, they scream more than they squeal. And being in the proximity of a pig that is screaming is a very unpleasant and deafening experience. I have learned that pot-bellied pig fanciers either have never heard a pig scream or don't understand its significance.

For anyone who has never heard a pig scream, it is not something you want to experience more than once, and never in a confined space. The volume of a pig's scream is similar to that of a DC-9 during take-off. And any form of restraint initiates the scream. If you try to grab a leg, an ear, or a nose, they immediately launch into a skull-piercing, unabated screech, which will last until the restraint is released. They will scream whether or not anything even remotely painful is being done to them.

I've suffered permanent hearing loss due to collecting blood samples from caged sows. The scream begins the instant the hog-holder is placed on their nose. You need to draw the blood from tiny jugular veins buried deep in the fat of their throats and so, by necessity, your ear is no more than several inches from their mouths. As you try to concentrate on finding the minuscule blood vessel, they stare at you nonchalantly with a benign gaze, chewing contentedly on whatever food they have in their mouths - all the while screaming at full throttle so loudly that your teeth rattle and your head feels as if it will explode.

Once the blood has been collected you let them go. And just as soon as you let them go, they immediately return to contented grunting and more eating. To a pig, a good 130-decibel scream is nothing more than the pig's way of telling you that he or she is present in the room with you and that they would prefer if you didn't touch them.

I had one pot-bellied pig owner literally run from my office and almost vomited when her 'little baby' began its introductory scream. All I was doing was trying to vaccinate it. After that experience, I have always been afraid that a pig-lover might experience a heart attack at this delicate point in the treatment regime. So it has become a rule that I completely sedate any pig before starting to work on it, for any reason.

(On the other hand, commercial pig producers wouldn't go through the same degree of self-recrimination and expense as to use an anaesthetic for something as mundane as de-tusking a boar. They would invest in a good pair of ear protectors and get on with the job. For example, I know some pig-farmers who remove the boar's tusks in a rather novel way. They wait until the boar mounts a sow during breeding. They then take a heavy ball-peen hammer and without even a local anaesthetic, nonchalantly knock off the offending tusks while the boar is otherwise occupied. Mind over matter, I guess, since the boar rarely stops what he is doing. But I expect it must be hard to convince the boar to breed next time. But, I digress.)

So we agreed - Percy needed to be anaesthetized. Unfortunately, that presented another problem. Pigs are the most difficult of all domestic animals to anaesthetize. They don't react to tranquillizers like normal animals.

So, most of the time, you end up giving them a near-lethal dose of the anaesthetic and hope that they will be drowsy enough to get whatever needs doing, done, but not so heavily drugged that they don't wake up. And even under anaesthetic, it is often necessary to physically restrain them, in case they start to wake up before the operation is over.

So, just anaesthetizing a pig can present serious consequences. Adding this unpleasant fact to the already near-hysterical anticipation of impending doom by Freddie and the family did not decrease my anxiety as I pulled into the driveway to do the dirty deeds.

I anticipated a sombre group. "Get the job done quickly and be on my way," I thought to myself. But the reception I got was a little different than I expected. As I entered the driveway, Freddie came running up to the car, excitedly proclaiming who he was and asking if he could help me carry anything. The rest of the family was close on his heels.

Since the father was missing, we needed a masculine overseer to keep the crowd in line. The role was ably played by a cigar-chewing aunt, who, in an accented, gravelly voice, said she used to raise pigs in some far distant part of Poland many years ago and she would be there to help. Then came the neighbours. Two grown men, both 'expert pig handlers' - plus their wives, each with their respective gaggle of children. All told there were six adults, and eight noisy kids, all pushing and shoving to help me carry one stainless steel bucket and one medical case. The feeling was more like Mardi Gras than an impending funeral.

My spirits lightened somewhat in this jovial atmosphere, until I rounded the corner of the house and saw what had been arranged for Percy and me. There were three rows of lawn chairs, all set up in a semi-circle facing Percy's pen. High atop an adjacent pile of something (which was covered by an orange tarp) was a video camera mounted on a tripod. A pair of 1,000-watt outdoor halogen lights was set up to illuminate Percy's pen, if needed.

As I walked past in open-jawed amazement, a mad scramble took place to grab the best seats for the upcoming show. The only thing missing was a popcorn and hot dog vendor. This crowd must have done some pretty wild things in the past, because Percy remained calmly in his pen, oblivious to the circus around him.

"Hold on Doc!… I need to get in position!" Freddie made a couple of valiant, off-balanced attempts to reach his video camera before he actually made it to the top of the pile. Clearly, Freddie was only going to help me in spirit… And from a distance. I had to wait until he was completely in position and ready to film. "Don't want dad to miss anything!" he said in triumph as he finally gained a foothold on the pile of lumber, or whatever, and balanced precariously 10 feet above us. 'OK.' he said. 'Roll'um!'

I had laid out everything I needed to first sedate Percy and then to remove his tusks. There was renewed discussion about whether or not we were going to castrate him. I noted that his feet were overgrown so we decided to include a good foot trimming while he was out.

As soon as I began to mix the anaesthetics, the crowd all rushed for their seats. I began to climb into the pen. (The fence was only about 2 feet high). A hush settled over the crowd.

Percy stopped chewing. He fixed me with a gaze out of the corners of his piggy eyes. I moved a little closer. The crowd leaned forward. Just as I was about to grab Percy one of the smaller kids hollered from the front row "Look out Percy, he's gonna get ya!"

With that the pig got up and began to charge out across the pen, with me in hot pursuit. That pig sure could move when he wanted to. I cursed the kid and then heard Freddie shout from above, one eye staring down the barrel of the Video Cam, "Get 'im, go on get 'im!"

The neighbour, who resembled a Greek weight lifter, jumped into the pen and chased Percy back into a corner. His leg wound had not completely healed so he did more hopping than running. As soon as he got Percy cornered, the pig turned to face him. You could almost read in his little piggy face that he recognized this guy, probably by his limp, and remembered that since he beat him once, he could beat him again.

As Percy started towards him, concern flashed across the Greek's face as he recalled his last encounter and as Percy lunged at him, he jumped high in the air. Percy made a valiant, but futile attempt to gore him as the Greek sailed over the charging pig. He missed by about two feet. As he did so, Percy continued on and ran straight into the fence post. He became temporarily entangled in the wire mesh. This was my chance! 'I had him!'

A quick jab of the needle, a push of the plunger and the anaesthetic was sprayed all over Percy's back. The syringe had broken on impact! The crowd roared its approval for what they interpreted as my deft and successful thrust. I then had to explain what had happened. It was like a hockey referee phoning upstairs to confirm a disallowed goal. The crowd moaned their disappointment in unison but soon regained their enthusiasm as they saw I wasn't going to quit. The crowd warmed to the impending battle. Man against pig. The fourth 'true sport' that Hemmingway neglected to mention!

Over the next five minutes, we ended up with three adults and two of the more rotund kids holding Percy. I tried to slip a hog holder (which is a steel cable noose) around Percy's nose, but because his face was shaped like a tapered cone, it kept slipping off.

Percy screamed! But we didn't let go. The Greek was possessed and held Percy with super-human strength, forged out of demonic vengeance. Three of the kids in the stands ran for the house. This time I got a larger, thicker needle and jabbed it home.

Percy continued to scream, but in the background, I heard another scream. "Not another pig?" I worried to myself as I turned round. No, it was Freddie. As we had driven the needle home, Freddie got so excited that he stepped out onto the orange tarp. It turned out that it wasn't just a pile of lumber after all. The bottom sections were stacks of wooden pallets, but on the very top someone had laid a 4'x 6'plate glass window on its side just before they covered it with the tarp.

Freddie, in his excitement, had forgotten this important bit of information and had stepped right into the middle of it.

Crash! Went the plate glass.
Crash! Went the Video Cam.
Crash! Went Freddie as he half slipped off the pile.

Fortunately, he was able to grab some rope to catch himself before he hit the ground. From my vantage point in the pen I looked back at the audience, expecting a mad dash to save Freddie. "Oh! That Freddie! Always trying to be the centre of attention!" said his mother, who hadn't left her seat, obviously fearful of losing it to some one else during the fracas.

Freddie eventually sorted himself out, and got down, with nothing but a few scratches and a mildly embarrassed look. He picked up his camera, dusted it off. "Darn!" He said, dusting himself off and straightening his torn shirt. "The battery's dead!"

By now Percy was getting a little tipsy. I watched the Greek. His eyes were fixed on Percy and you could see he was aching to get at him. Clearly, he saw his participation in the show as the best opportunity to get back at the pig - since the Barbeque was not on.

As soon as Percy went down, the Greek was back over the fence and made a desperate lunge to grab the pig. Luckily, I grabbed him, just before Percy reared around once more. "Wait until he his completely out." I said. "It'll take another few minutes. Then we can get on him."

After another 15 minutes and 2 more doses of anaesthetic, Percy was down. Not out, but down. We got a rope on him, looped the cutting wire around his tusks and in five minutes had all of his ivory-coloured weapons on the ground. Percy was grumbling and mumbling to himself the whole time. Next, we trimmed his feet. This took another ten minutes.

I then asked for the decision about whether or not we were going to castrate him. With the dust swirling around, the now profusely sweating Greek wrestling with the flailing hind legs of the pig as Percy was now beginning to come around, and the blood-thirsty crowd roaring its approval I knew what it must have felt like to have been a gladiator in ancient Rome.

The crowd fell silent once more. All eyes turned to Freddie's mother. "Naw", she said, glancing at her watch. "I reckon old Percy's had enough fun for today. We can do it another time. Besides, my favourite Soap is on in a few minutes."

With that, the stands emptied in a matter of a couple of minutes and I was left alone with Percy in the middle of the dusty pen. He was doing his best to crawl away from me and I was doing my best to slap the grime and dirt off my coveralls.

As I carried my gear back to the truck, Freddie hobbled up behind me, favouring his right leg and nursing a bruise on his cheek. "Gee Doc. That was fun… But, well, do ya think we can do that again once I get the batteries recharged? I know dad 'ud love to see it!

My brother Frank's gotta pig, too. His name's Willie. He's not as friendly as Percy but he needs his teeth done too… I'll get him to bring 'im over. He just lives down the street…

Only next time, I'll get on the garage roof… Probably safer."

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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