Timeless Spirit LogoTALES OF A COUNTRY VET

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November's Theme: "Faith"
Volume 3 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM

I went for a hair cut the other day. My barber is on West Broadway, on the way to UBC, at least thirty miles away. As I passed his shop, searching in vain for a parking space, I glanced over and noticed he was engrossed in an animated conversation with some friend or customer on the sidewalk. As I passed, he poked his head around his friend as if he had been alerted by some form of hidden radar that a familiar face was in the area. He honed in on me as I passed. Instantly his face lit up. "Hi Broos!" He yelled across the street. His greeting was immediately followed by a vigorous wave of his hand. Caught staring at him, I waved back sheepishly, pretending to concentrate on the traffic. I had actually slowed down to determine the number of customers ahead of me. I didn't have time to wait. I was on my way to play hockey and had to be on the ice in an hour. I had planned not to stop if there was any line-up. Fortunately, I only saw one customer and he was leaving. So after circling the block two more times, a space came available. I parked and went in. Nothing particularly noteworthy here, except that Sam, an excellent barber from, I think, Lebanon, has been cutting what's left of my hair for the past decade. Yet I was only able to learn his name about six months ago. It never came up in conversation. And, after several years where someone has been calling you by your first name, it can be embarrassing to ask them their name. It needs to be pointed out that I only get my hair cut about every six months. With that level of interaction, how in the world does he not only know my name, but remember it with enough confidence to shout it across the street? He sees me twice a year! A total of about forty minutes every three hundred and sixty-five days. How is that possible? And it's not just him. Every time I stop in at Simpaticos Greek restaurant on Fourth St., Marino, the manager greets me with a warm hand shake and "Ah Broose, how you are dooing todye? You want the usual I guess?… Kalamari?" He asks with a confident smile and is gone. I learned his name a week ago.

I've never been able to master the art of memorizing names. And it can be confusing unsettling to encounter a client away from the safe and familiar confines of the clinic. In the clinic, names are not a problem. But on the street or in the mall, well, that is another story entirely. And I share this dilemma with many other vets.

Essentially everyone who comes through the doors of a veterinary clinic knows who we are. First of all, our names are routinely listed on the door or windows of the clinic. Second, our names our generally displayed widely around the office. We either have our names stitched onto our coat pockets or we sport name tags. At the very least we have our degrees framed and hanging on the wall. It's hard for people to not know who we are. Third, we are often sought out by name. So, as a rule, pretty well everyone who enters a veterinary clinic, knows specifically who they are going to see.

In the clinic, it's more or less a level playing field. When examining patients, the file folder is laid before us. Both client and patient are clearly identified. The numbers' game then comes into play. Clients only have to remember one name, that of the vet. At the very minimum, we vets, are expected to be able to recall the first and last names of the husband, the wife, (both current and past) sometimes a variety of children and anywhere from one to half a dozen pets, sometimes more, each of a different species and/or breed, and each with a different medical history. Believe me, it is a daunting task. So it's not surprising that the moment we leave the office and become Joe-consumer, we enter an entirely different, and in many ways, intimidating, world.

Outside, there are no crutches. No crib sheets. No office assistant to nudge for a name. We must rely on rote memory. And, this can be pretty scary! Particularly to someone like me who hates to make mistakes. Of course I am not talking about the regular clients. Those we see every month or two. Or even once a year. I am speaking about the clients who come in maybe once every two or three years. These are the really difficult ones. Especially when they ambush you in a store by running up and calling you by name. Often these well-meaning individuals are only too happy to launch into a long and detailed monologue outlining the latest malady of their beloved pet. It can be disconcerting when you can't recall whether they are talking about a cat or a dog or a budgie.

It can also get confusing when names bridge the species barrier. When the animal's name is 'Patches' or 'Bear,' it is usually easier to follow along. But often it is not until they get to the specific medical problem that a face can put to their pet. Then it's fine. However, if the pet's name is 'Frank' or 'Lucy' or 'Ted', that's when I can find myself at a loss. "So, how are you doing?" I might ask in my most engaging tone. "Oh I'm fine, but poor old George isn't doing so well." Might be their response. Before asking the next question I have to rack my brain to remember if George is the husband or the Labrador. It can lead to some pretty fancy mental footwork.

And from my intermittent appearance on the 'Animal ER' television series, I occasionally get recognized (very occasionally) by someone I truly don't know. I get into animated discussions trying to draw the individual into divulging if they are a client of mine (who I should know) or if they are just someone who saw me on TV. Yes sir! Running into people away from the clinic can present a significant challenge!

Occasionally, the shoe can be on the other foot. Some clients don't recognize me as easily as I don't recognize them. Well, this is not quite accurate. If I make eye contact with a client, more often than not we exchange a nod or a wave or a pleasant, benign observation of the weather. They recognize my face, but can't quite place exactly who I am or where they know me from. So, often their initial response might be somewhat guarded. They know they know me, but are not quite sure why or from where. Which is just fine with me. When I'm out and about, I've always preferred to be by myself. Lost in my own thoughts I love to go shopping in a self-induced shroud of anonymity. In order to maintain this state, I initially adopted the 'Ronald Reagan' approach to ducking awkward situations. It consisted of a quick wave while walking away, pretending I didn't hear what was said. And, with a folksy shrug of my shoulders and an exaggerated pointing to my wrist-watch, indicating some pressing emergency was unfortunately tearing me away against my wishes, I would be gone. Unfortunately, this led to some unpleasant repercussions, when I walked into poles or into bins of food in my haste to flee. It became too dangerous to be used as a regular strategy.

The basic trouble is, I've always had a tough time recalling names, not so much remembering people, particularly when the faces are out of context. And the aging process doesn't help either. And while this might be an adequate excuse in a large, metropolitan city, I live in a relatively small, semi-rural setting, flanked by small towns. Many of my clients are friends and neighbours. It is impossible to remain anonymous. So I try my best to interact and smile at familiar faces.

Over the years, I have come to rely on the presence of names in the files. As time passed, and the client list grew, I became lazier and lazier in trying to recall names. I limited my focus to the animal and its particular problems. My brain only has so much room, so the human identification suffered. But, in the outside world, there are no files to fall back on. I would never be one-hundred percent sure of a person's name or a pet's name. Maybe 99%, but not 100%. And as a consequence, I was always worried that I would utter the wrong name of a beloved pet, or that I would have forgotten that I euthanized "Fluffy" a month ago and would mistakenly ask how she was doing. I was always frightened I might unintentionally trigger a flood of tears in the middle of the produce section. I felt this was a serious problem. So, after agonizing for several years, I finally resolved to address this phobia head-on. I went out and bought a book purporting to be able to improve my memory. Particularly, for matching names and faces. The simple techniques I picked up worked so well that I subsequently went out of my way to seek out clients at the mall, or in a store or when filling up at the gas station. I can now roam the stores and streets of Abbotsford and Aldergrove uninhibited. Secure in the knowledge I can match identities with any and all I encounter! I have even developed a wicked sense of enjoyment when I encounter someone I recognize but who isn't quite sure who I am. Ha! It is now they who are at a disadvantage!

Nowadays, I often lead the conversation. And once we have finished discussing the medical state of their pet, the conversation often switches to what new and exciting exotic animals I may have worked on recently. Here, I am in my element and press my advantage.

Most clients know I work on wild and exotic animals. As such, I am often the object of, dare I say, envy. Clients, friends and even colleagues, often remark, and well within my hearing, how they wish they could do what I do. And how lucky I am to be able to experience the things I do on a daily basis and get paid for it. And, yes, I treat my happy situation with the humility and dignity it is due. I know how lucky I am. In more ways than can be adequately expressed in words. And it is the fringe benefits where this really hits home. The little things and activities I have access to, which few others acquire or experience.

For instance, due to my position as veterinarian at the zoo, and because I work with many of the companies who train and work with animals for the movie industry, I have direct access to the leftovers of many exotic species. These include certain expected 'trophies,' and other, shall we say, less obvious ones. A phenomenally wide range of antlers, fur and feathers are available for the taking. In addition there is one other…. item, or class of item… I am privy to and while most individuals may not share my enthusiasm, it can be a rare and novel delight. It is… well… fecal material.

Most people can figure out uses for the aforementioned items. Antlers can be carved into intricate designs and shapes. Multicoloured feathers and fur can be used for tying fancy fishing flies, or mounted on the wall. But, not every one is enamoured with fecal matter. However, there are more scatological aficionados out there than one might think. Trouble is, it can be difficult remembering who does and who does not like animal feces. (Again, the memory thing.)

I am very proud to say that at a moment's notice I can lay my hands (both literally and figuratively) on the droppings of a wider variety of animal life than anyone else in B.C. From the surprisingly dainty, uniformly round nuggets of Giraffe to the voluminous piles of Rhinoceros dung. From the neatly formed horse-like road apples of Chapman's zebra and Tibetan Kulan to the amorphous pasty mounds of Ankole and Zebu cattle. I have had the unequalled good fortune to be able to accumulate the tightly formed excreta from almost all of the major large feline carnivores (tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah and jaguar) and all of the major canine carnivores (wolves, coyotes, foxes and wild dogs) at the snap of my fingers. I have access to bear (both black and Grizzly), and to all members of the deer family, (Whitetail, Blacktail, Mule, Pere David's, Fallow and Water), in addition to Reindeer, Moose and Elk. I can even collect the droppings of a wide range of lizards, amphibians and tortoises, if I want to. Furthermore, I am in the enviable position of being able to obtain, in the space of half an hour or less, fecal samples from a host of new and old world primates, new and old world camels and new and old world parrots. And not just a few grams either, but buckets and buckets of the stuff! Yes, they are all attainable. And each has its special allure.

It's true, good fortune did play a role in my being placed in such an enviable position, but mostly it was just hard work. I had to work and scheme to put myself in this situation. Now, having achieved success, I can bask in the glory. People have to come to me if they want this stuff. And the demand continues to grow.

I never cease to be amazed at the throngs of people who are fascinated by the nature and volume of excreta produced by exotic animals. 'Zoo Do' is a valuable commodity and is frequently packaged and sold by most reputable zoos around the world.

The most frequently asked question by these budding Scatologists is: "What is your favourite brand of fecal matter?" Without hesitation, I answer. "Well, that's an easy one. My favourite fecal matter is that produced by our own local mountain lion." "Oh, and why is that Dr. B?" They persist in rapt attention. "Well, it's not because of shape." I answer. "And it's not because of the size or fragrance, nor even the contents. The primary attraction of Cougar Poop is its utility. Cougar turds are just so dog-gone useful!" And it is not just me. I have many disciples who line up to take possession of any and all cougar excreta I can lay my hands on.

Maybe I should explain.

As in ancient Rome where the Fulleries (the original Laundromats) collected human urine in large vats to clean clothes, so I collect cougar droppings and allocate the limited amounts I acquire equitably to needy clients and friends. I have workers at the zoo who kindly save all the Cougar droppings for me. I pick it up on a bi-weekly basis.

I currently have a list of seven regular consumers of cougar turds. It is my solemn duty to determine worthiness of each potential recipient and to assign the appropriate amounts to each, according to need. I accept no pay for this. I do it purely out of the goodness of my heart. "But what use can this material be?" You ask. "Ah, now there's the rub." Says I.

The value of Cougar Poop is in its repelling effect on other animals, particularly deer and other carnivores. And I have no shortage of testimonials to prove it:

From these, and other, testimonials, I am confident the product works. So, I continue in my noble efforts to accumulate and distribute Cougar Poop, for the betterment of my fellow man.

The other evening I had finished my rounds and was at the SuperStore in Abbotsford. I had just finished suturing up a Quarterhorse mare with a deep laceration on her left hind leg. By the time I was done, it was getting dark and I wanted to get home. I guess I didn't notice I had some blood stains on my coveralls. I might have had a few drops in my hair and on my forehead and maybe a smear or two on the underside of my forearms. Normally I would have scrubbed clean before leaving the farm but the horse was in a field a few hundred feet away from running water and I figured that since it was my last call for the day, I could clean up when I got back to the clinic. However, when I climbed into the truck, I got a call from Diane. She asked me to pick up a few things on my way. This distracted me. I couldn't see my face or the underside of my forearms and had forgotten about the blood stains on my coveralls.

In the store, I felt more conspicuous than normal. The staring faces seemed to linger a little longer than usual. I figured I stood out because I was in a bit of a hurry and was rushing up and down the isles. I had left my reading glasses in the truck and was squinting hard at the labels on the vacuum-packed blocks of Espresso coffee. One of the items I had been asked to pick up. The store was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday evening. I sensed someone familiar in the area as a shopping buggy rolled behind me. I made my selection and glanced down the isle at the lady who had just passed. There stood the unmistakably thick, lustrous, perfectly quaffed, blond hair of Shelly. She was wearing the same faded blue jeans and jean jacket I had last seen her in. She was concentrating on the contents of the shelves as she ambled slowly down the isle away from me.

'Should I go over and say hello, or should I just get going?' I thought to myself. I glanced at my watch. It wasn't that late, and seeing her reminded me I had a big bag of droppings for her friend. It was her turn. She was supposed to have picked it up two weeks before, so I assumed she'd forgotten about it. I decided to remind her. So, forgetting where I was, I called out over the heads of the other shoppers. "Shelly! I've got your Cougar Poop!" She kept walking. I assumed she hadn't heard me. But clearly all the other shoppers in the aisle did, because they all stopped and stared at me. "Shelly! I yelled a little louder. Still no response. 'She's embarrassed.' I reprimand myself silently. So I trotted up to her and tapped her on the shoulder while saying a quieter voice. "I've got a big bag of Cougar Poop back at my place. Did you want to stop by and pick it up?" She turned and with a look of combined horror and disgust shouted defensively. "What did you say?" She continued to pull away slowly. I looked more closely at her face. Then a little voice inside me began to speak. 'Hmmm. Maybe this isn't Shelly after all. Sure looks like Shelly, but no, it's now that I get a closer look, don't think it's her.' Then in the frozen moments after my faux-pas I considered the implications and optics of what I had just done. First, I recalled the smeared blood on my face, arms and coveralls. Next, I reflected, in excruciating detail, what I had just said to what was now obviously, a complete stranger. Then, in a moment of panic, I quickly checked to see if some monstrous boyfriend or husband was in the immediate vicinity. Fortunately, there were none I could see. No police officers either. Good! That at least bought me a few precious seconds. Attractive girls get all sorts of come-ons, I didn't see how this could be mistaken for any thing but some perverse form of harassment. And by then I was getting a little flustered myself. I wanted to explain! I needed to explain! But considering the likelihood of extricating myself gracefully from my predicament as being Nigh-on impossible, and given the disheveled nature of my appearance and the … uniqueness … of the story I would have to relate, I thought better of it. She obviously wanted to escape. If I physically tried to stop her, I knew all hell would break loose. The other customers had retreated to a safe distance, but had not abandoned her.

I glanced at my watch. Then back at her. By this time she had grabbed her purse and began fumbling inside, likely for a bottle of Pepper spray or a nail-file and was easing herself further down the aisle. Not wanting her to scream and run off, I shuffled haltingly after her. The other shoppers parted as we moved slowly down the aisle.

What could I say or do to put everyone at ease? How could I put things right?

I could only think of one thing to do. I lapsed into a feeble, phony, but very thick South African accent. "Kruger Park? Aff you ever byne to Kruger Park? Ahm ferry sorri but aff you effa byne to Kruger Park in Sath Avrika?" You look so framila, that Ah thought yuu must bee Sath Avrikan, lyke me." She stopped moving backwards and a puzzled frown appeared on her brow. I continued. "I av byne pynting my fence and I vas lookeeng for the pynt deparrtment. Do you know wherre it myte bee?" She immediately relaxed and placed her hand over her heart. "Oh, I'm so sorry, you gave me quite a fright. I thought you said Cougar Poop… and the red paint on you… … I thought it was… well… you know, it looks like … … well kind of like… like blood." She said with embarrassed relief. "No, I'm not from South Africa. Just from right here in Abbotsford… My parents are Dutch though." She added helpfully. I figured she decided she must have misunderstood the rest of my communication as well, because a big smile crossed her face. I pressed forward. "Ahm very sarri, to av disturrbed you. Tayke ferry goode kare of youself. Goode-bye!" I said meekly as I hurried down to the check out stand and freedom.

I am seriously reconsidering my plan to engage clients, real or imagined, in conversation outside my clinic ever 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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