Sitting in a cattle growers' convention where, in round numbers, four hundred members were gathered, it came to me that I was in the midst of four hundred practicing physicians. This was only a small swatch of the world's vast array of livestock growers-all qualified doctors. By what right qualified? By the ancient right of ownership-the same that gave Cleopatra authority to try out her poisons and potions on her slaves. They were hers! Anyone who owns a four-legged creature is, ipso facto, privileged to dose it and practice surgery on it. For all practical purposes, a bill of sale or brand-inspection slip carries with it a veterinarian degree.
But it has occurred to me that maybe there ought to be a law prohibiting the practice of medicine by fools like us. The idea came to me while on all fours in the musty corners of the barn, hunting for black crickets to stew. My worry wasn't for the crickets. They died a merciful death when I snapped off their heads and dropped them into the saucepan. I pitied the dear horse out in the corral suffering the agonies of kidney colic. It is called that in range country. He could not void his bladder and was in terrible anguish, for a horse's pain is cut to size.
What effect the orthopterous brew might have was a mystery. I was shooting in the dark on the theory of "try anything once." Epsom salts and sweet spirits of nitre had not given relief. I had heard a cowman say he had cured a horse by inserting match heads, but that was too drastic for me. The dose of cricket broth had been recommended by the Old Vaquero, who now and then held the ranch on his shoulders but not at the time. I worked more in doubt than hope, and turned out to be right. Nothing resulted from the hard struggle with the horse but an added quart of liquid to his load.
Plagued by ignorance and helplessness, I jumped into the pickup and drove recklessly twelve miles to consult a friend who had spent a lifetime around horses.
"Oh, yes," he said confidently. "I kin tell you what to do. Git a bottle of turpentine"-he measured about two ounces with his hands-"and pour it on his back right exactly over his kidneys."
It sounded brutal to me, and again I was right. A blister like a saddle blanket spread across the poor horse's back. For that sin my penance was the expense and trouble of keeping him up and feeding him hay and grain while treating his burn with wet dressings of cold tea and boric acid. Fortunately the sturdy little horse recovered, and I learned a lesson. A better informed neighbor told me to remedy this affliction with Gold Medal Harlem Oil, and I have never been without it since, although years go by without the need for it.
Not too many years ago, the big sorrel I was keeping in the corral showed symptoms, and I made ready to dose him. Some miners were boarding with me temporarily while their accommodations were being built up the creek, so I took advantage of available manpower and asked for a volunteer. The three swing-shift men were lounging in the patio, and at a glance from the others, Lalo got up to go with me and hold the horse. As soon as he picked up a rope, I recognized him as a man of experience. Yes, he told me, he had worked on ranches down the Valley, and he ran a few head of his own on the Gila River. He wanted to know what I was pouring into the horse while he "eared" him down. I could see he wasn't impressed with my competence. Later I found out that when he came off shift at midnight, he got one of the boys to hold a flashlight for him, and he went down and "cured" my horse in his own way.
Cowboys of the old school have a simple faith in remedies they have learned by word of mouth: simple remedies, such as tying a hair tightly around the end bone in the horse's tail; or stuffing a wormy calf's navel with dry manure to stop blood and discourage flies. Whether it involves their own animals or the boss's, these cowhands are not squeamish about plying their primitive arts and sciences. You'll see one readily open his pocket-knife and slash a horse's nose to bleed him, or make a poultice of fresh cow manure to bind on an injury.
When the ranch "medic" finds a cow with a protruding vaginal passage, he ties her up and goes for the traditional materia medica-baling wire and a long-necked bottle. Sanitation is something new in range lore, and, to tell the truth, it doesn't seem to make much difference. The cowboy works with patient-strength until he has pushed the cow's insides back into place. Then he inserts the bottle and sews her up with baling wire. In my part of rangeland, such cows are generally turned loose in this condition to take their chances. The bottle is supposed to keep them from straining inside-out again. Actually, it isn't the womb (as the cowmen call it) that protrudes but the passage leading to it.
Usually the condition comes from a difficult birthing, but not always. My sister and I found a cow in bad shape three miles from the ranch, and drove her home on foot to take care of her. No bottle. And I used a sacking needle and strong twine. Then we went back to hunt the baby calf. We wore ourselves out with no success. The next day I turned her out and tried to follow her, hoping to save the baby. She went back to her grazing ground and ate for a couple of hours, then lay down in the shade-never once bawling or showing any sign of new motherhood. But cows are very foxy about hiding their young. As long as you are watching them, they will mosey around chewing on bushes, pretending to have not a care in the world when actually they are within a few yards of where they have hidden their young. When it was growing dark we gave up and came home. The next day we went back and found her contentedly grazing. This time I took a longer look at her udder and decided she was still expectant. We drove her to the corral again and shut her up. We had business in the city, but before we left, I put her in the chute and cut the twine. When we returned at midnight, I went down and found her lying comfortably in the moonlight with a big bull calf by her side.
With the first case of this kind that fell to me, I tried an improvement over the cowboy way. I stuffed the cow with sanitary napkins dipped in antiseptic solution, sewed her up with twine, and made a gunny-sack harness to steady the works instead of the bottle. She had been in extremely bad condition from long exposure and fly damage. I kept her in the corral-which meant a hay bill-and washed her twice daily with potassium permanganate solution. She became a member of the ranchhold, and I called her Old Kotex. My "daughter" Caroline, home over the weekend from the university, brought a boyfriend with her. As we walked up the hill to the corral, she begged me in a whisper not to mention Old "K" by name.
You may not have a natural bent or conscious desire toward the medical profession, but if you enter the livestock business you have medicine thrust upon you. The rancher must go farther and farther into back country looking for cheap grass and water, two commodities made increasingly rare by population density. Isolation throws him upon his own resources.
As of today, a membership such as that of our cattle growers' association will contain a sprinkling of graduates from animal husbandry classes. They are the ones who will think twice before opening their pocket-knives in the presence of a bloated cow; they will drive miles to get a vet's advice; and they are the biggest patrons of vet supplies.
And for modern vets the range of supplies available seems almost endless. Before the invention of medicated aerosol bombs, a kind neighbor brought his vaquero crew and helped me round up. When we got the long-ears in the corral for branding, I opened my drug closet and brought out-besides fly repellents, merthiolate and healing powder for the castrations-ointment for the brands, blood stopper for the dehorning, and smear for wounds. The neighbor turned to his men, and forgetting that my Spanish is as good as his, murmured: "This woman is crazy about medicine."
I belong to the school of thought that declares: "Grease never cured nothin' on earth." Old Perry was with me in that. There was always a controversy between me and the Uncle, a grease man. When faced with abrasions, wounds, or swellings, he wanted to use mentholatum, tallow, snake oil. I held out for drying lotions-iodine, merthiolate, healing powder. While he was with me, we seldom had the advantage of expert advice, for vets were scarce, and money was scarcer. Even today, of the veterinarians in this area, centered in Tucson, five out of six practice only on small animals. If you can find one who will treat a cow or horse, it is no snap to take the sick one to town and keep it there the necessary length of time. We took a baby colt to a vet because it had a cactus spine broken off in its eyeball. The doctor was so interested he called some eye specialists, who came to his hospital and operated on the colt just for the experience. The colt got well, to our great satisfaction. When he got back to the ranch and found his mother in the corral waiting with plenty of warm milk, he was the happiest creature alive.
A young doctor, who had treated my dogs, was startled when I carried a three-week-old bull in my arms and laid him on the steel operating table of his small-animal hospital.
"What's that?" he asked hostilely.
"It's a small animal with pneumonia," I answered aggressively.
I explained that a schoolboy spending summer weeks on the ranch had found it at the bottom of the forty-foot cliff from which it had plunged. A palo verde tree had broken its fall, so that the only fractured bone was its lower jaw, where two teeth were missing. It had lain for hours exposed to the hot sun, and congestion had set in. I gave it canned milk with aspirin, a shot, and took it to town. The vet examined it with professional interest and concurred in my diagnosis.
"How much is this animal worth?" he asked, seeming to mean that it couldn't be much.
"It's not worth anything dead," I parried.
"Frankly," he said, "it would cost considerable money and a lot of trouble to cure."
His advice was that unless it would eventually bring a good sum, there was no use to make the investment. I understood that he was following the tenets of his profession by being honest with me. I did not feel capable of explaining to him that livestock owners are not always mercenary. Why did he think I had taken the two-hour drive to town with the calfs head on my lap, its hoarse breath in my ears? I was thinking of the calf's mother, of the months it had taken her to produce this nice little bull, of the bag of milk she had, and her broken heart if he died.
"Let's cure him," I said.
That was when antibiotics were very expensive. It cost $27 for the sulfa and penicillin, besides the office fee. It cost considerable money for the hay I had to feed the cow, while I milked her to pour the milk down the helpless calf via a soda pop bottle. Days passed before he could stand up, and a long time went by before his jaw healed enough for him to take food naturally. My time counted for something, especially while I was giving him the sulfa every four hours day and night. But, it was a thrill to see him live and grow and get fat. I called him Stevie for the fellow who leaped off Brooklyn Bridge. When he was a big yearling I got $100 for him. I don't know whether I made a profit or a loss on the deal, but I gained a victory.
Living a long way from the marts of trade, a rancher seldom has money in mind when tending to his stock, and probably needs cash more than do fellow citizens in town jobs. But other things count more, or ranches would be a thing of the past. When you cure a case of worms, you are saving a life. When an old cow comes in to water with a cholla knot sticking out on her jaw, and you get her into the chute, tie her head, sharpen your knife and plunge it in, trying to dodge the stream of "corruption" that shoots out, you're relieving the old cow's pain.
Once a cow staggered into the Windmill Ranch just as I happened along alone. She had a bone stuck in her throat which had prevented her from eating or drinking for several days. It was easy to push her over and tie her legs. I thrust a smooth sahuaro rib into her mouth so she couldn't bite me, rammed my hand down her throat, and jerked out the bone. Then I tried for two hours to get her up. I even made a tripod of poles over her and tried to pull her up with ropes. She would not make the slightest effort Gratefully she swallowed the water I poured down her, but she wouldn't eat any hay. Her torture had been too cruel. She quit.
Nothing dies as willingly as a cow. If things are favorable she goes along placidly functioning day by day, but at heart she doesn't care a great deal about living. When the going is tough, she gives up. When she lies down to die, she wants no interference.
Perhaps it's the indifferent lack of cooperation that gives you a feeling of uplift when you bring a doomed one back to life. It was a big thrill to save Old Frenchie's life soon after her last calf was born.
The Nephew and I arrived home with a load of hay about nine-thirty one night and found a message from the people at the mine that a cow was sick and probably dying up at the fork of the canyons. We hurried the two miles to see what cow it was, what ailed her, what could be done about it, and if there was a little calf that could be saved. Old Frenchie lay in complete collapse, able to move only her eyelids. She had a young calf poking around in the bushes at the edge of the tailings dump where she had fallen. It looked hopeless. I had a gun ready if worse came to worst; Nephew said later he had a speech all ready, begging me not to shoot her.
It was a case of poison. That much I knew. From there, I ran up against the wall of ignorance that has plagued me always in my role of Florence Nightingale to the bovines. Unable to figure out what had caused the poisoning, I gave her the full therapy at my command. We made three round trips up the canyon that night. I will never know if it was the quart of mineral oil, the pint of Pepto-Bismol, or the 10 cc's of penicillin that gave her a boost. By morning, she still breathed and had managed to turn around. We hooked the jeep to her hind legs and pulled her out of the hollow she was in, dangerously close to a machine- made ditch, and got her across the tailings dam to some bushes where she could have shade. I repeated my dosing and poured several bottles of water down her throat. We scattered soft alfalfa for a pillow, rigged up some gunnysacks to help shut out the hot sun, and went off, miles away, to work. On one of our trips down the canyon the night before, we had taken the little calf home and put him on another cow, feeling certain that he would never see his mother again.
After a long day that lasted till dark, we took the flashlights and our medical paraphernalia, some hay and water, and drove up to see our patient. Nephew went up alone to the top of the dam. "If she's alive," I said, "wave your light and I'll climb the steep slope with the jeep." As I waited, I thought sadly of what a good thrifty cow she had been; faithfully furnishing the outfit with a nice fat calf each year.
At the signal I threw the jeep into granny-gear and mounted the dam. There was Frenchie, two hundred yards from where we had left her, sitting up cow-fashion under a mesquite. She got up and drank water out of the pail, but we had to tie her to the tree to give her the injection. I was shaken by the miracle of her survival. She had been found just in time. And we had happened to hit on the right cure. Next day she walked the two miles down to the corrals and went about the business of recovering and of raising her calf.
Bum Ears was a steer who was orphaned at birth; and that statement only begins his sad story. He was born in the shipping pens at the railroad, almost at the moment his mother was hustled up the chute and into the car to go to summer pasture up north. He would have been trampled to death in the crowded railroad car. The two men who had bought the cows came back to knock the wet sprawling baby in the head. Like Pocahontas, I threw myself between him and the fence post that was to give him the "coup de grace".
"You can't raise that thing," the old Cowman argued. "Without a drop of his mother's milk he won't get along No matter what you feed him, he'll take sick and die."
But he wiped the calf off with a gunnysack and put him on the car seat beside me for the fifty-mile journey. He did take sick, but I wouldn't let him die. For a long time he wavered up and down, so that every morning I ran to the barn to see if he was still breathing. At last, nursing care prevailed. And finally I persuaded the milk cow to raise him with her own calf. It wasn't easy to do. Every time she kicked at him, I kicked her; and it happened that my endurance outlasted hers.
But for all the trouble and care, the poor calf didn't thrive. His misery came to a focal point in his ears, which both ran malodorously with canker sores. Each morning I carried a fountain syringe and tube up to the corral and washed out his ears with warm boric-acid water, then filled them with healing powder. They were still sore when he was a yearling-and still sore when he was two. On account of his affliction, we didn't dehorn him. As shipping time after shipping time went by with Bum Ears in no condition to go, the Uncle said: "We'll keep him for his horns. When they git five or six feet spread, somebody'll buy him for a set of longhorns."
Bum Ears was coming four years old when I took him down to an extraordinarily smart cowboy, who tied him down and injected a pint of sodium iodide into his jugular vein. And lo, he was cured. After years of my practical nursing, as if from a miracle, Bum Ears was a well steer. In the spring he weighed nearly a thousand pounds.
Yesterday I rode by the place I call the Bone Yard-a flat point overlooking the deep canyon-where I drag off the remains of my mistakes. When I pass there, I am confronted by the bones of the wretched ones who lost out on my blind gamble of cure-or-kill. For all my good intentions, they died from my ignorance, or my negligence in not finding them in time. I dread to think of the animals that perish each day because of such human frailties. Cattle people cannot spend years in the study and research necessary for medical proficiency. We must go on guessing.
The most onerous thing about range doctoring, particularly in my case, is that it must be done by a combat of strength. You get nothing from the patient but contrary opposition. A range cow's instinct tells her that people are no good, and her first aim is to stay as far away from them as she can.
Minorities, avalanched under by centuries of despair, have a tendency to work up to the surface of human consciences. After millions of years (nineteen, is it?), women have done so over most of the world. Then children. And the aged. And the poor. And the variously-pigmented. Everywhere the oppressed are heaving mightily against the weight of misery.
After people come the animals.
Already, dogs have come a good way out of their doom of suffering, as have cats. In all urban communities there are small-animal hospitals competently equipped and staffed. Few families, of whatever economic status, fail to take their pets in a health crisis to a doctor.
Not long ago I read of a plan, in St. Louis it was, promoting hospital insurance for dogs. Perhaps the idea will spread.
With large beasts such as cows, the story is not so good. They have no declaration of rights. Nobody loves them. They are means, not ends; not so much living creatures as negotiable wealth-"money on four legs." What hygienic senice they get is done for the sake of making a dollar for the owner.
But there is revolution abroad in the matter of animal care. An increasing number of veterinarians in every state make it their concern to promote the life and health of large animals. Federally endowed scientists have made wonderful contributions-in chemistry and allied subjects-to the welfare of livestock during the time I have been ranching. Cattle associations sponsor ranch schools at least once a year where members can ask questions of experts and see the vets in action.
The law I've been thinking about is on its way. Time will come when an ignoramus like me, who starts out with a razor-sharp knife to operate on some trussed-up animal, will have to keep an eye out for enforcement officers of a law prohibiting all but properly certified persons from practicing medicine beyond the common measures of first aid.
Speaking for those under my care, I say: Speed the day!
Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.