Sunday, December 27, 2009

Caring For Pets in Cold Weather



As we go about our wintry business, shoveling snow, going
for a brisk walk on the beach or just racing from car to
home, we have prepared ourselves for the adversity and
stresses of cold weather. However, it is important to
remember that certain categories of pets have special needs
during this time of year, and all animals can suffer from
hypothermia and frostbite in the worst of conditions.
  Breeds like the Newfoundland, Husky and Saint Bernardlove the snow. When in good health, only extremes in climate change will affect them. Make sure your companion pet does not have a special need in relationship to the cold. The geriatricpatient has far less tolerance and it is always a good idea to have a recent medical examination to evaluate what stresses should be avoided. Conditions like heart disease,kidney failure,diabetes and hormonal imbalances can compromise your pets ability to withstand the stress of cold weather.
When you walk your animal companion, when it gets too
cold for you, consider the conditions the same for her.
Small pets will find themselves immersed in snow and will
require special attention. Those pets with short coats will
require coats in very cold weather. Locally, many pet stores
like Pet Smart and Petco carry coats, as well as the pet
departments in discount stores like Walmart and Target.
The Dog Spa has some pretty snazzy choices too. However,clothing alone is not always a safe alternative in extreme
cold. Dogs loose most of their body heat through their paws,
ears and respiratory tract.
Beware of certain dangers that exist because of special
circumstances created by the cold. The cat that snuggles up
against a warm car engine is at risk as it will not be seen by
the driver starting a car, and a frozen pond or lake creates a
hazard to the dog running off-leash during a thaw. Once an
animal falls thru the ice, it is very difficult to get out, so pay
special attention when near frozen bodies of water and keep
pets on a leash.
There are unusual threats that exist inside the home during
cold spells. The space heater and the fire place can create a
hazard to the dog or cat that snuggles up to them, failing to
realize that a paw or tail could get burned. The potential of
knocking over a space heater is something that pet owners
should be aware of.
When outdoors, there are certain symptoms which may
indicate that frigid conditions are causing a problem. If he
or she whines, shivers or stops moving, your dog may be
feeling the effects of hypothermia (below normal body
temperature). Never leave a dog unattended outside when
the mercury drops. It is obvious that sources of water could
be unavailable and worse, serious conditions such as
hypothermia and frostbite can occur.
Hypothermia occurs when a pet’s body can not regulate it’s
temperature due to extreme cold and drops below normal.
Depression, shivering and an unwillingness to walk will be
seen. As her temperature falls below normal she will
breathe more slowly, her heart rate will slow and she will
respond to stimuli slowly. Pets that show these symptoms
should immediately be taken into a warm environment and
wrapped in a blanket with a hot water bottle or with an
electric blanket.
A less common condition is called frostbite. It occurs in
pets and people when the body is exposed to extreme cold.
In an attempt to protect itself, the circulatory system shunts
blood from the extremities into the core of the body for
warmth. Deprived of the movement of blood, ice crystals
form in the paws, ears and tail. These crystals damage the
tissue. If you suspect frostbite, immediately bring your pet
into the warmth and soak the affected parts in warm water
for 20 minutes. Do not rub the suspected areas as this will
cause tissue damage.
Once you have done the above, take your pet to your
veterinarian. She or he will administer pain medications
and possibly antibiotics.
The winter is a great time to share outdoor activities with
your pets. For many of us, it serves as an incentive to leave
the warmth and comfort of our homes and discover the joy
of walking a solitary beach or feeling the pleasure of a brisk
walk in the woods. With a little care and forethought, the
risks of the cold can be prevented.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Safety Concerns

This a favorite time of year for all of us and our pets. There are abundant treats available and lots of food left over after big meals. Additionally, unusual plants and tree decorations abound. Unfortunately, some of these represent unusual hazards that could interfere with the joy we share during the holidays. I have described a few of these in previous articles, however, this time of year I would like to share a more comprehensive list of potential health hazards with you.

1. Christmas Trees: The christmas tree water may contain preservatives and fertilizer. If consumed by
pets, it will cause an upset stomach. Stagnant water at the base of the tree can also be a breeding ground for bacteria. Consumption could lead to vomiting,diarrhea and nausea. Christmas tree ornaments,ribbons and tinsel can be dangerous because they can cause an obstruction in the intestinal tract if consumed.


2. Holiday Plants: Pets who ingest holly can experience gastric upset. Mistletoe has it’s romantic side for us humans and could even cause a harmless heart palpitation under the right circumstances, however,for dogs and cats the cardiovascular problems are nota joke and gastric upset is also a side affect. For cats,all parts of lilies are toxic. Even in small amounts, theycan cause life threatening kidney problems. Poinsettia is less toxic than commonly believed, however,ingestion can cause mild stomach upset.


3. Beverages: Holiday beverages containing alcohol cancause vomiting, diarrhea, incoordination, central nervous depression, tremors and even potential comaand death. Carefully monitor the availability of sweetholiday drinks and beverages like egg nog. Coffee can cause agitation, rapid heart rates and vomiting.


4. Chocolate, Macadamia Nuts, Grapes and Raisins:Chocolate can cause cardiac and neurological symptoms,macadamia nuts cause weakness in the limbs,vomiting , and temors. Grapes and raisins have been documented as causing acute kidney failure in dogs. These are all foods that appear harmless and therefore could be left out or unattended in the presence of our pets.


5. Yeast Dough: Cookie and cake dough can be attractive edibles to our pets. Uncooked dough can swell in the stomach and cause extreme discomfort, bloat and depression. Sometimes it is necessary to remove the swollen contents surgically.


6. Bones: Poultry bones can splinter and cause damage
or blockage in the intestinal tract. This happens less
frequently than one might imagine, however, when it
does occur it is life threatening. Personally, I do not
like to see our pets consume any kind of bones. I have
seen large bones slowly chipped away and accumulate
to cause large obstructions in the stomach of a patient.


7. Fatty Food: Excessive fat in the diet can cause
inflammation of the pancreas. When this occurs,
digestive enzymes leak out of the pancreas and into the
abdominal cavity. It is an extremely painful and
potentially fatal condition. For this reason, I
recommend that you very carefully separate any fat
from food leftovers that you might be inclined to feed.



The holidays are a period for sharing joy with our
families and pets. The above list represents some
hazards that could interrupt this happy season. If your
pet ingests the above harmful substances, call your
veterinarian at once for advice. If not available, Angell
Animal Medical Center has an Animal Poison Control
Hotline: 877-2-ANGELL. Jacqie and I wish you and your
pets a happy and healthy holiday

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Influence of Pets in My Life

Some animals come into our lives as blessings.   These pets change us and teach us, and sometimes we understand the profound nature of the relationship only after they leave us.   For me, one such creature was a horse named Snowbird.  Snowbird was just one in a menagerie of  animals that have left me with a wealth of shared experiences and insights.


To understand the influence animals like Snowbird have had on me, many of you can reflect on your own experiences with special pets.  Over the years she was one of a myriad of pets that shared different passages and evolutions. In a previous article I described her influence on me.  Below are the other creatures that blessed my life as a child growing up in the suburbs, one who was my roommate during my college years and the several pets Jacqueline and I have shared.


My experience with pets started as a child living in suburbia with parents who both worked.  An English springer spaniel named Bootsie was my companion in a frequently empty household and my bond to her served as an inspiration for what was to become my profession, veterinary medicine.

 During my university years, an Irish setter named Nina was my constant companion.  After graduating from veterinary college, I joined the U.S. Air Force and was sent to Southern Italy as a military public health officer. At the time,  I had to leave Nina and my girl friend behind. When I returned two years later, my girl friend had moved on but Nina was waiting.  A lesson in unconditional love; at least I was batting 500.

Nina stayed in my life for many years.  We drove across the country and had a scrapbook of experiences to share ala John Steinbeck in his wonderful book “Travels with Charlie”.  

Nina remained with me while I ran a small animal practice in New York City. At the time, NYC was becoming less inhabitable and I ventured on a quest which turned out to be the journey of a lifetime. I left all my material   possessions behind, and researched and implemented a driving expedition accross Africa, living alongside desert nomads, camping alongside ancient species of animals and living with native tribal people who embraced me as part of the universal community of man.  Having to cross many borders, some with potentially life threatening  pitfalls for a pet, I had to leave Nina behind.

When I met my wife, Jacqueline, I inherited a new round of what we might call “step pets”. There was Buzz Bomb, a Doberman Pincher puppy  with every inherited disease known to veterinary medicine.  Also included in Jacqueline’s menagerie was Otis, a finger biting skunk and Katie, a delightfully neurotic parrot. 

Buzz Bomb taught me to respect each animal as an individual and not to accept stereotypes given to certain breeds.  He became our first “child”, and frankly we were silly in love with him.  Some see Dobermans as threatening, while in fact, Buzz Bomb was the gentlest creature imaginable.   We would be entertained by what we called the “Buzz Bomb-Otis show”.  Can you visualize the hysteria that ensues when a skunk named Otis chases a Doberman Pincher around the house?.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Treating the Pain of Arthritis in Dogs



The number one cause of chronic pain in older pets is osteoarthritis. In our practice, it is very common and it is important to treat it as a disease.  Consideration must be  given to the mode of the treatment because there are important factors that must be determined in designing a treatment that is effective and causes the least amount of side affects.

The best way to treat arthritis in the older pet is through a multi-modal approach.  This simply means considering a way to treat the pet that requires the minimum amount of pharmaceutical drugs. 

The first part of this approach is weight control. Excess weight contributes to a shorter life span and causes additional stress on the joints. Weight loss and management is accomplished through a reduction in calories and exercise. Obese dogs have more osteoarthritis and require more medication to control the pain that is associated with arthritis.

The second part of my approach to treating chronic pain due to arthritis is eliminating other causes of weight gain and making certain that the drugs used for pain relief will not be harmful.  The first test that is employed is for hypothyroidism.  We know that dogs that have thyroid disease gain weight.  Once that is established, we test for liver and kidney function and rule out diseases like diabetes.

The next part of the module is nutritional support. The dog is unique in the way that certain essential fatty acids are stored in the cells that make up the tissues in the joints. This is a variation from the process in cats and even humans. Studies have proven that the supplementation of omega 3 fatty acids actually slows down the degradation process in the joints of dogs. When we add      essential fatty acids to the diet we not only slow down the degradation process, but we also know that these essential fatty acids actually act as anti-inflammatory agents and may let us use a lower dose of the drugs that reduce the pain of arthritis.

There are several ways to provide this nutritional support. Essential fatty acids can be given in liquid or capsule form. There is a prescription diet available that combines this supplement with Glucosamine and other nutraceuticals that has proven to be very effective. The level of essential fatty acids is excellent and makes this an economical and convenient choice.

Exercise is another important consideration.  The correct ratio of exercise to rest is important in arthritic patients.  Exercise must not be excessive as this places additional stress on the joints.  At the same time, we must make certain that the muscles that support the joints do not degenerate.

The next part of the multi-module approach is through the use of  drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals. (NSAIDS).  You are familiar with ibuprofen (Advil) and a host of other drugs used in human medicine.  Unfortunately, many of these are responsible for unacceptable side affects in dogs. The good news is that there are several drugs which have been developed for use in pets that are very effective.  It is important to remember two facts when administering these drugs.  First, different drugs work differently on individual patients, so a trial can be helpful.  Second, the amount used can usually be reduced by nutritional supplementation.

The older patient with arthritis can have an enhanced quality of life through the use of a multi-module approach of weight control, exercise, nutritional supplementation and the appropriate use of NSAIDS.  Consult with your veterinarian to learn how your older pet can live a longer and happier life.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Loving and Losing A Best Friend: "Colin"


One of my responsibilities as a veterinarian is assisting my clients in the process of saying goodbye to a beloved friend. Grief counseling has become an established aspect of my profession and my own personal experiences have guided me in my attempts to make this time as peaceful and kind as possible. A broken heart takes a long time to heal, and I hope my own personal experience will in some way enlighten those who suffer a loss.

My story began while I was doing a housecall for a local breeder of poodles.At the time we had two dogs and a cat and I was very satisfied with our family of pets. I really didn’t NEED another dog. In a litter of black eight week old puppies, there was one white male. While the others huddled together and slept, he was busy “at work”,running in and out of the house carrying a majority of the house hold puppy toys. He was sassy…he had attitude, and against my better judgment I looked into his eyes and I lost my perspective. He came home with me.

That was over thirteen years ago. In the interim, we established that special bond that many of you share with your pets. His name was Colin. We were best buddies, and even though I am blessed with the best son anyone could dream of, he was jokingly referred to as my “number one son”. He became the clinic mascot and his image graced our website.

He had the conformation of a champion and a grace in motion that could make your heart soar when you watched him canter on a beach. One of my fondest memories was the visualization of the pattern of his paw prints on a deserted beach at low tide. He was athletic; one of his characteristic moves was jumping shoulder high when excited about your entrance or mutual exit. However, his real virtue had nothing to do with his breeding, the way he was clipped, or his athletics...it had everything to do with his heart and soul.


We were buddies. When he was mischievous, I was his coconspirator. When he carefully plotted the theft of food from a counter, my wife Jacqueline’s annoyance was countered by my mirth. I marveled at his intelligence and can only apologize to Jacqueline for my insensitivity. He had a vocabulary. I could swear he understood our language. If anyone in the family was at odds with one another, he simply got bummed out. He was a reflection of our emotions and more often than not communicated that. His tail would sink between his legs and you knew all was not right in his world because all was not right in ours. He told you it was time to shape up and get happy.



And then there was his intuitive side. He had distinct likes and dislikes. He never learned how to swim and detested the water.However, he really enjoyed sailing with me in our little fourteen foot sailboat. The way I got to the mooring was paddling on an eight foot yak board. So we worked it out…if I positioned him on the yak board on the beach, and pulled it into the water, then mounted it with him between my legs, he would balance himself perfectly while I paddled and until I pulled alongside the sailboat where he could jump off. We never took a tumble.

We teach our pets many things, however, one of their gifts to us, if we are willing to examine it, is what we can learn from them. “Colin” was no exception to this rule. Unconditionally loving, forever forgiving and totally loyal…what a string of virtues. However, I have always believed the greatest characteristic he exhibited is the thing we all work so hard to achieve, living in the “present”. For Colin there was no past and no future. (Other than plotting to steal food). In many ways he lived in a state of meditation.

As a human, there is a payback for all that we are given. It is the responsibility to care for them, sometimes at the expense of our own emotions. Last Saturday night, at 4 am in the morning, I did one of the most difficult things in my life. I lovingly ended his time on earth. Jacqueline and I had prepared ourselves for this eventuality. We had always had multiple pets; however, he was the end of the line. We even joked about how we would be pet “empty nesters” for the first time in our many years together.

That was before we actually had to experience the reality of his loss.

Returning home, I could not believe how empty the house felt, how empty my heart was and what profound grief I felt. His toy “babies” sat in the alignment he would carefully plan and they where another reminder of his special nature. It all felt so surreal….Colin was gone.

My next lesson came a day later. While Christmas shopping, Jacqueline suggested we stop by a pet shop “just to look at the puppies”… Now here comes my mea culpa, my “do as I say and not as I do!”… In our practice, we recommend adoption from animal shelters and animal rescue leagues for pure bred dogs.

As we entered the pet shop our attention was immediately draw to a puppy with Colin’s moves. Tossing around a toy and looking at us through the cage bars she had been inhabiting for 6 weeks. In the visiting room, it was over in minutes. We had to rescue her. I have always considered getting another pet soon after the loss of one a very personal decision; however, our own experience may cause me to modify that.

We still cry when we think about Colin. However, our pain is tempered by this new beginning. She greets us with unbridled enthusiasm, runs around the house with his toys and brings laughter and joy back into our household. Perhaps it is apt that we share the beginning of a life after the loss of one. Our puppy has been named “Little-Foot”, because she is smaller than Colin, and partially to recognize she has such large shoes to fill.

The Polo Years: Snowbird,The Horse Who Taught Me to Ride





Africa had a profound influence on me, and one dilemma I returned with was cultural.  I lost my desire for  an urban environment and moved to the rural environs of Vermont, living on a 30 acre farm and running a small animal clinic attached to our home.  After an extended period time, I became discontent with the land locked environment, social attitudes and inhospitable climate.  Cabin fever became my disease.

During one of these dreary winter seasons of self imposed isolation, a friend convinced me to try an indoor polo clinic at a local stable. Even though I had scant experience riding horses, I returned home after the experience and reviewed every swing of  the polo mallet, remembering in detail every time I hit the  indoor polo ball which resembles a small soccer ball.  I was smitten and became obsessed with the sport.


Over that winter, on a rented horse, I learned how to play indoor polo.  I also learned how to balance myself  while literally standing in a saddle while swinging a mallet and leaning far to one side or another while following the path of the ball,  anticipating the “line”, which is the direction of the ball created by a teammate or opposing player.  When one is totally absorbed by this process, fear of injury dissipates and learning to ride becomes a natural endeavor. During this exercise, time stood still for me.


When the spring came, the sport moved outdoors.  One of the advantages of living in Vermont was that the activity was not prohibitively expensive, although there was the small detail of finding a polo pony.   Another acquaintance was a very experienced polo player.  He had a large white horse that was trained as a hunter and adequate at the game of polo.  Sadly, she was diagnosed as having a malignant melanoma on her tail by his veterinarian, and when I examined her, I felt a reasonable doubt about the diagnosis. She became mine for a very fair fee and fortunately lived a long and healthy life as my teammate and teacher.

Snowbird was a large statuesque white mare who had a soul that seemed bonded to mine immediately.  I learned that a relationship to a horse was different than other animals as my safety and security depended on her.  She taught me how to ride off opposing players and her size gave us the advantage of mass, opposing players trying to push us in one direction or another ran into her strength and willpower.


A disadvantage was her independence.. After a long hard charge down the field, the direction of play might change, but in Snowbird’s mind, we were advancing forward. My commands were just simply ignored.  On occasion I was in the adjacent cornfield while my teammates were at the other end of the field. I forgave her for  embarrassing me and celebrated her individuality, because on many other occasions we were mutually effective, and besides, polo was really just a game.

Our communication had the magic many pet owners experience. I would bring her treats in the barn and she would snuggle her head up against me and prod me for more carrots or more caresses. It was a private time of peaceful meditation, so different than the competition we enjoyed together on the playing field.
   

 On the playing field, she intuitively knew how to follow the polo ball and respond to the signals I gave her.  If I applied pressure to her side with my right knee, she steered to the right, and if I gently moved her reign while holding them in one hand to one side or the other, she responded to that touch…unless she decided to go for the cornfield.

My next lesson from her was how to jump over fences. This was really her forte.  She was as graceful as she was physically beautiful, and we went on to win ribbons together.  Trust me, it was all her.  I was just along for the ride.





 On one occasion, after a wine tasting, we entered a pairs over fences competition.  This challenge required two horses and riders to jump fences at the same time, simultaneously clearing the hurdle in unison. She was so steady; we were able to jump the fences while I held the hand of my female co-jumping equestrian.  That stunt won a ribbon and a front page photo in the local newspaper.

Love from animals comes in all shapes and sizes, and I have been fortunate in having creatures in my life that have changed me and taught me many lessons.   Each experience is different, each taught me new things and all shared the common denominator of mutual respect and love. All the experiences included a special shared companionship, and in Snowbird’s case, a  trust and confidence in the physical ability of another being.  It was an experience I will never forget, and  I will always remember Snowbird for helping me  endure the long and tiresome winters and for giving me the opportunity to do something that I considered way beyond my reach .


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Africa: Wisdom and the Warrior




Pets and People covers a diversity of topics and this week I will share with you things I learned about a very special people and the animals in their lives. The story began when I graduated from Cornell University at the age of 23 with a doctorate degree in Veterinary Medicine. Up to that point, I had led a cloistered life that involved studies and work and felt a great desire to continue my education in other ways.

At 24 I was a Captain in the United States Air Force during the Vietnamese Conflict, assigned to a security services base in southern Italy providing military public health services to the Navy and Air Force in southern Europe. I was still just a young veterinarian wet behind the ears and a recent graduate with few worldly experiences.


The Air Force provided me with the opportunity to travel around the world and created in me a desire to learn about other cultures and the people who lived there.  As a result, after practicing small animal veterinary medicine for several years in a major metropolitan area, I determined that the best course for me would be to take a break from veterinary practice and expand my experience with people in other parts of the world and observe how those people interacted with the animals in their lives.



I previously described the adventure of driving a volkswagen campmobile from northern Africa, through the sahara desert to west Africa, then across the jungles of central Africa to the destination of this story: the Seringetti plains of Kenya in East Africa. It was here that I had an experience that could have ended the journey and my life.


I do not believe in embellishing stories and over the years I have struggled with this one. At one point I felt a sense of superiority in the way I handled the situation. This morphed into an awareness of my limitations as a witness of my own experiences and eventually became a source of inspiration, knowledge and humility.


I will first describe the experience and my original impressions and then explain how I have re-evaluated my experience based on my personal evolution and the knowledge gained from studies of an ancient people who were best described as “women and men of knowledge”.


After driving all day over very difficult dirt roads on the Seringetti Plain of East Africa I was eagerly anticipating the campground which was my final destination of the day. I had been exhilarated by the smells, sounds and sights of the the cradle of human evolution. I had experienced many sightings of the animals for which this journey was partially about.


In the distance I could see a large herd of cattle and as I approached, I observed they were being shepherded by several warriors dressed in the most beautiful adornments. They are a regal people with many unusual customs and unfortunately, at this time I knew very little about them. As I approached them I took out my 8mm motion picture camera to record my passage through the animals. At this time I was approached by one of the tall warriors who had a large spear in hand.


He approached me and put out his hand, apparently requesting money for taking the film. At this time I did not feel any fear, but rather a certain indignation. I said to myself “I didn’t travel all this way to have to tip someone, after all, I am not a tourist on safari, I have driven across this continent...having to pay for a photo is an insult...this is a matter of pride and principle!”



He then put his hand inside my open window . Reflexly, I closed the window and accidently caught his hand briefly in it and then continued making my way slowly through the herd on the road. I decided to continue to film this. The Masai watched me as I moved forward. I had absolutely no sense of the relationship between the Masai and the animals who are so much a part of their culture, livelihood and tradition.


The Masai must have seen me filming from the reflection in my side view mirror, and came charging to the front of the van. I had to stop. He then raised his spear and pointed it directly at my head behind the front windshield. I had only several options: One might have been falling to the floor of the vehicle to protect myself, however, that would have left my traveling companion vulnerable in the seat beside me.


At this moment I was left with only my instincts and my intuition. In my practice of veterinary medicine I had always prided myself with my ability to resist fear because I understood that animals can smell slight changes in human emotions, and once fear is telegraphed to an animal, it may respond aggressively.


I had no avenue of retreat and I decided to mask my fear by being offensive. I threw open my door and approached the Masai as I waved my hands in an effort to communicate the message...”How dare you do this to me”. He retreated.


We continued on to the campground and I must admit I was quite full of myself for having had the kind of courage Hemingway defined as “grace under pressure”. Then I learned that several weeks earlier, two British tourists had been killed in similar circumstances.

I came away from the experience feeling good about myself. In the years that have passed I have had the opportunity to study the ways of the Masai and other ancient people and see the events that transpired in a different light: perhaps the Masai was actually demonstrating something I did not understand and my sense of superiority was not in justified.  I have wondered how often, we who are raised in a western civilization misinterpret the intelligence and knowledge of peoples we are unfamiliar with.
There was an ancient society in South America called the Toltecs. It is only recently that their wisdom and knowledge has been interpreted and shared with us in the west. When applied to this experience, I now understand how ignorant I was. These teachings can be applied to our everyday life; They are called the four agreements and when applied to our daily lives can provide us with a sense of peace, happiness and love. These are the agreements to be made with yourself.
  1. Be impeccable with your word. Words are a force, they are the power you have to communicate and create the events in your life.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.
If I had applied these agreements to this part of my adventure, a life threatening experience could have been averted and I would have had the opportunity to know the Masai on a meaningful level. I would have known they are a warrior people who use their animals as a source of nourishment and social prestige. My thoughts (words) were far from impeccable; I took a reasonable request under the circumstances as a personal affront; I made incorrect assumptions about a people I knew nothing about. In this case, I simply did not do my best by not learning about a people whose land I would be traversing. To the Masai, their cattle represent their very livelihood and prestige. And worse of all, as a caregiver who understands the importance that animals have to the people in my way of life, I made the mistake of not honoring something they held sacred, the animals in their lives.

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The Four Agreements is a book by Miguel Ruiz.  You can click on the book to find out more about the wisdom of an ancient people.




Africa: The Lion in the Sub-Sahara







As a veterinarian, working with animals has been my life’s work. Most of what I do is based on education, another aspect is the intuition gained through experience.. What follows is the story about 5 animals who elected not to take my life and a human despot who would have. Not exactly “Pets and People”, however, threads of both weave their way through the experiences I will share with you.


This chapter began while I was serving in the US Air Force in Europe as a Base Veterinarian and Military Public Health Officer. During this time I had the opportunity
to drive throughout Europe and fly to the Middle and Far East. It created in me a certain lust for travel, and after managing a small animal practice in New York City for several years, I decided to seek meaningful experiences and put my career temporarily on hold as a matter of choice.


After putting all my material possessions in storage and acquiring a suitable vehicle for transport, I found myself in a campground in Morocco sharing a fantasy: Driving the entire length Africa, experiencing wildlife in their own environment and visiting existing veterinary colleges on that continent.. There were many obstacles to overcome, some of which included putting up a bond on the vehicle in order to cross borders, visas for each country to be visited and getting past the pessimistic and fear laden tales of other travelers who claimed it could not be done.


I had taken care of the administrative details in the European capitals I had visited, but the discouraging stories passed on by travelers who had never really experienced an atte
mpt at this journey was the most difficult to overcome. As I was to learn later, the information they passed on was wrong. According to some self proclaimed experts, we would encounter no lions in West Africa.


As luck would have it, I met an individual who had been planning this sojourn for years in a campground in the North African country of Morocco. He had refurbished a land rover and had replacement parts for most contingencies and every Michelin Map of Africa available. We enlisted a third party to join our caravan and we set out to prove the naysayers wrong, that driving the length of Africa in a Volkswagen camper was possible and could be the journey of a lifetime.







The journey through the Sahara desert was indescribable. To be surrounded by the boundless beauty of an untamed wilderness removes one from the consciousness of the potential threat it provides and for the sake of brevity I will leave many of those details behind. However, I can share that the travel is grueling because there are no roads as we know them. There are paths defined by piles of rocks placed for guidance and grooves in this path placed by the supply trucks that travel between oasis to oasis.


The Sahara desert terminates in what is defined as sa
vanna. It is here that vegetation begins to grow and we encountered human life for the first time. Nomadic desert people would greet our small party and sit and observe us on the periphery of the locations we selected to spend a night. They were not threatening, but rather seemed to be welcoming and protecting. It was a memory of the universal potential of sharing space in harmony that I will forever cherish.


As we continued on our trek into the interiors of West Africa and towards the West Coast of the continent we found ourselves in a country called Haute Volta. Still sub-saharan, the roads were like old fashioned wash boards. Driving over them required keen observation because they could lead a driver off the edge of a dangerous precipice and they required you to drive at a speed that prevented the vehicle from dipping into every rut encountered. At the end of the day, exhaustion was routine.


It was at the end of one of those days that I experienced an event that will be forever etched into my memory. A memory that was comparable to seeing a child born, for it represented not a beginning, but rather the avoidance of a sudden and brutal end.


It was dusk when we found a clearing to park our vehicles in a fort like configuration of three. . It was an arduous task at the end of each day to first clean the air filter, refill the gas tank from the gerry cans we carried on the roof and finally, unpack the cooking gear.


If you will remember, we were advised by traveling “experts” that we need not fear lions in West Africa. The silence of the early evening was interrupted by the “put-put-put” of a scooter coming from a distance. When it finally arrived in our clearing, a short dark man in crisp khaki shorts and a pistol on his waist advised us that we were in a dangerous area of a game reserve and would have to move to a campsite some 5 miles down the road. Admittedly, exhausted and totally surprised, I didn’t really believe this “park ranger”, humored him, waited for him to leave and ignored his advice.


He returned about a half hour later, and with a hand on his pistol,
convinced us to move on and left again. By this time, it was dark and it took all the energy we could muster to reassemble our equipment. It was an absolutely gorgeous night, and without the benefit of moonlight, I drove to a location on the very edge of the clearing next to the wild brush surrounding us. As I waited for the other 2 vehicles to complete their preparations to move, I left the security of the VW Campmobile to stand under a starlight sky that was radiating the glow of a myriad of stars. I was within feet of the brush on the edge of the clearing and could not see into as a result of the darkness that engulfed me.


When I returned to the car, I got in and turned on the headlights. They quickly illuminated the place where I was just standing on the edge of the clearing and….the glow of 10 golden eyes reflected back the light of the headlights. I had been standing right next to a pride of 5 lions!

At that moment I viscerally screamed, “Lions,lions,lions” and felt an exhilaration that probably only comes with sharing a birth or narrowly escaping death. Since that moment, I have reviewed the circumstances of the experience repeatedly and have formed some opinions based on my experience with animals that are admittedly, totally subjective.


First, they had probably only recently eaten and were not hungry or under any obligation to service the male they served. The second part is a supposition I made based on my experience and intuition based on my experience working with animals.


I have learned that I must disguise the experience of feeling fear when working with dogs and cats. If I do not, they have the ability to smell it and will often react fearfully themselves. This sense of insecurity can result in aggression that might be avoided. I assume that is an instinctive response on their part and I have learned that an animal will be easier to work with if handled gently and without fear on my part. This is a form of communication which animals share with each other.


When I stood next to the lions, they smelled no fear or submission. Probably confused and unable to interpret either stupidity or courage, they elected not to attack. It was a matter of choice, and a very lucky one for me!


Having survived this close encounter, nothing quite that threatening occurred during the rest of the trip through the jungles of the Congo and Central Africa, although there were many meaningful encounters. Finally, we reached the East African country of Uganda. It was here that I was offered a position teaching Small Animal Veterinary Medicine at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. At the time, it was East Africa’s top academic institution and I was honored by the offer. I must admit I was confused by the decision I had to make. The offer represented an unusual opportunity; however, I was not totally prepared to stop the journey and was torn between this offer and driving on to Johannesburg, South Africa or putting the vehicle on a car ferry from Mombassa, Kenya to Bombay, India and all the adventure and learning opportunities awaiting me there. It was a matter of choice.


I elected to continue my travel through Africa and left Uganda after a short rest. At the time, a dictator was in power in Uganda and I cannot say for sure if that influenced my decision to move on. It was in Tanzania several weeks later that I heard the terrible news; many of the faculty at Makerere University had been executed by Idi Amin. The lions in West Africa had elected to spare my life; a human being could have terminated it.


The philosopher, Niezsche once said, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”. At the time, I would have concurred with this sentiment completely. After the birth of my children, I probably would take some exception to that, however, I did gain many things from this journey.


The most enduring lesson was that of achieving a goal. The satisfaction gained and the self confidence garnered is priceless. I also learned that fear can be a positive emotion when employed appropriately; however, it can also extinguish great potential if allowed to rule decisions without research and determination.


With the exception of a despotic dictator, I felt sheltered and protected by the people I encountered on this journey, and visualizing wildlife from ground level made me keenly aware of this precious resource and our responsibility to protect it.