These Things Take Time

I usually drink my first cup of morning tea working at my desk. I’m most productive first thing and have always been an early riser, a bane to mother, who’d have stayed up late and slept in until ten every day had the choice been hers. I save checking email and Facebook until the day’s work is done, unwilling to sacrifice creative energy to those mundane chores.

IMG_2638This morning, however, I’m distracted by the appearance in our front yard of Barry White and his harem. Barry is our resident turkey cock, a massive and handsome fellow who puffs his chest feathers and spreads that Thanksgiving bird tail as he sweet-talks his ladies.  Ooh, baby, ooh, baby. The hens alternately ignore him and egg him on flirtatiously. Yesterday, I inadvertently interrupted him and a lady-friend carnally engaged in the bushes. Oops! Sorry about that. They both gave me offended looks. Move along, pervert. Don’t you know these things take time?

It’s July, so of course people have begun to talk about winter, how it’ll be here before we know it. I give less conscious thought to it, but see indications every day when Holly and I walk the Airline Trail or meander around the yard. Day lilies are producing like mad, each bloom good for one cycle of the sun before they wither and drop. The bleeding hearts have gone to seed, the pods bursting to enrich the ground with what will become next year’s seedlings. (Anyone want plants? I’ve lots.) The hosta are in bloom, remarkably untouched by deer so far. Perhaps they’re put off by the astilbe, which they don’t care for. Grass seed is coming in on bare patches of soil, remnants of the work we had done to put a curtain drain in the back yard. My husband’s garden of potted plants–born of a whim to plant five-year-old packets of tomato, basil, and chard seed–have miraculously sprouted and are growing like the blue blazes with what little sun manages to get through the leaf cover on our south side.  Days are hot and the evenings blessedly cool, without hint (yet) of autumn. These things, too, take time.

img_1847Holly is 10 1/2 years old. On the downhill side, as they say. So far, she’s managed to hold traction on that slope, but I wonder for how long. Last week, she became very ill with vomiting, diarrhea, fever, pain. We ended up taking her to the veterinary ER and they kept her for two days. We brought her home with meds and orders for a bland diet, which she’s still on as we work to erase all sign of illness. Diagnosis was gastroenteritis, ie, stomach ache. What’d she eat to upset her? Who knows. Could be wildlife excrement, dirt, or something from the garbage. (I blame the cat for that. Rudy taught Holly the joys of garbage surfing, so we’ve had to child-proof the cabinet door. As for eating poop, that one I lay at the feet of Holly’s former next-door neighbor boyfriend, Randy. She was the perfect dog before he got his paws on her.) It’s hard watching her get old, turn gray around the eyes and muzzle. When we left her at the vet’s last week, I honestly thought she was done. She looked ancient, worn out, used up. Not so, as it turns out. But I can see her wending her way toward the path that leads to the next great adventure. Please, I think. Take your time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ooh, baby, ooh, baby

IMG_2638Most mornings, I wake up somewhere between four and five o’clock. Often it’s courtesy of my cat Ruby, who seems to feel that’s an appropriate hour for breakfast. Lately, however, my alarm has been a soft burbling noise from the woods behind our house, the wake-up call of the local turkey flock.

At some point (and there’s no telling when, as they keep to their own schedule), they’ll appear, stalking through the yard on lean legs, walking with slow ceremony as they search the ground for nuts, berries, and other choice morsels. Most of the year, it’s just The Girls (as I call them), six or eight hens busy about their business. In spring (in other words now) they’re joined by a robust and handsome fellow I’ve nicknamed “Barry White” for his sultry mating call. Barry postures and preens, puffs his feathers until he’s almost spherical, and fans his spectacular tail feathers as he courts his women. (One year, we had a flock of 15 come through, with a fully adult male and two juveniles, all working hard to lure the ladies.)

I suspect Barry will be successful in his wooing, and I look forward to seeing the hatchlings come through the yard, following close on mother’s heels, mindful of the raptors, coyote, and fox that also shelter in our woods.

Canine Epilepsy,Two Years On

img_1847I’ll never forget Holly’s first seizure.

It was August 11, 2016, two months short of her eighth birthday. We were hanging out in the kitchen–me getting ready to prepare lunch, her hoping for a handout–when suddenly her feet began to beat a rapid tattoo against the floor. At first, hearing it, I thought she was scratching herself or maybe having one of those occasional “dry humping” moments. Then I looked down … and knew at once that it wasn’t either of those things, but something new, something scary, and something definitely wrong.

Her eyes, usually soulful and mild, were wide and wild. Her feet skittered this way and that as if she was trying to keep her balance on ice or slippery polish. She collapsed onto her side, legs and feet paddling frenziedly, spine arched backward, jaws gaping so wide it was a wonder they didn’t crack, teeth bared, tongue lolling. Saliva gushed from her mouth and urine sprayed across the floor.

I yelled for my husband Ed, busy in his basement office, and fell to my knees beside her. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” I babbled, knowing she wasn’t. I held her, not restraining her, but just to let her know I was there.

This first grand mal seizure lasted approximately forty-five of the longest seconds of my life. In the time it took Ed to dash upstairs, it was already winding down. He made a quick call to the local vet clinic, and was told to bring Holly in immediately; they’d be waiting for her.

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Two and a half years — and 27 grand mal seizures later — we’ve developed a routine around these events. Although it still takes a lot out of us emotionally — it’s a helluva thing to watch — we now remain calm. (For those of you who’ve never experienced a dog seizing, here’s a YouTube video to give you an idea of what it looks like. I’ve never had the presence of mind to video Holly’s seizures.)

When she drops, our eyes go to the wall clock or a wrist watch. Timing the seizure is important not just for your records (it’s imperative you keep a seizure log), but also so you can inform your veterinarian of duration, severity, and any other observations. When Holly’s seizures began, they ran roughly 15-to-30 seconds, followed by 30-60 minutes of disorientation, hunger, and thirst. Those after-effects are still in play, but now we’re unfortunately creeping up toward the five-minute duration mark; the mark that worries veterinarians and canine neurologists because a seizure that long runs the risk of literally frying a dog’s brain.

That’s why — at approximately the two-minute mark — I head for the drawer of pet medicine in the kitchen to retrieve a syringe of Valium prescribed by our vet. I insert the needle-less delivery end into Holly’s rectum and depress the plunger. Within seconds, she begins to emerge from the seizure.

That’s not where it ends, however.

Now we stay close to monitor how quickly (or not) she begins to react to our voices.  Response time to gentle commands is skewed, and she often staggers and falls if left on her own. (I sometimes put her on a short leash to keep her close by.) I immediately take her outside — she often needs to urinate again, and sometimes defecate — and then bring her back indoors. Because she burns a lot of calories during seizure, she’s always ravenous afterward. I don’t want her to bolt her food, so I give it to her in small amounts, in a bowl. DO NOT try to feed your dog by hand, as you will get nipped. It’s inadvertent on their part, but I learned this the hard way. Your dog is out of it mentally and can’t differentiate between your fingers and a hot dog.

As soon as possible, we wipe down her chest and rear end to get rid of the saliva and urine. (Bath time can wait, but usually follows within 24 hours.) Within a couple of hours, she’s back to “normal.” I put that in quotes because the truth is, normal becomes a very fluid thing. Each time there’s a seizure, we must reorganize our thoughts into accepting whatever the “new normal” becomes. Holly is a little diminished by every episode — slower at regaining a response to commands (or forgetting them entirely and needing to be retrained), a temporary (although sometimes hours-long) loss of coordination, a slight difference in personality that only those who live with her can pick up on. It can be frustrating — and heart-breaking — but as I learned when dealing with my mother’s dementia, you must accept them where they are, not where you’d like them to be.

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So let me share a little of what we’ve learned.

  1. Canine epilepsy comes in two flavors: symptomatic and idiopathic. Symptomatic epilepsy has a diagnostic root cause such as cancer, stroke, autoimmune disease, liver disease, low blood sugar, exposure to toxins, infectious disease, or congenital brain abnormalities like tumor. Idiopathic epilepsy (Holly’s version) has no identifiable cause. Although it may be inherited — certain breeds seems predisposed to the condition — this need not be the case. Research is ongoing.
  2. Seizures strike without warning or pattern. The dog is unconscious during the episode and experiences neither pain nor panic, even though their eyes are open and they may vocalize.
  3. Although your first inclination may be to hold your dog or touch it during the seizure, be extremely careful. If you must touch them, keep your hands to the rear of your pet. Keep your face and hands away from the dog’s mouth. They can, and will, bite … and because they’re unaware, they don’t automatically release. You can suffer a debilitating injury if not careful.
  4. If your dog has a seizure, see your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes or your pet experiences more than one seizure in a 24-hour period, seek emergency help immediately.
  5. There is no cure for canine epilepsy. Medication is a lifelong therapy whose goal is not to prevent seizures (that, sadly, is impossible), but to reduce their frequency and severity. Because these drugs are not “one size fits all,” it may take time for your veterinarian to determine the correct dosage/combination for your pet. And bear in mind that may change over time. In Holly’s case, we’ve used a variety of drugs and combinations. All have worked for a time, but only for a time before needing further tweaking.
  6. You will also deal with a plethora of drug side-effects, which might include lethargy, muscle weakness, anxiety, loss of appetite, vomiting, and periodic soft stool. Please note that anti-epileptic medication should never be discontinued without first consulting with your veterinarian. To do so could endanger the life of your pet.
  7. Be proactive. This is frightening, but knowledge is power. Make yourself part of your pet’s treatment team. Talk to your vet and/or neurologist and ask questions. They should be open and willing to discuss treatment options and any other concerns you have. (And if they aren’t, find new practitioners.)
  8. Do research, but be skeptical of anything or anyone that makes exorbitant claims. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian to weigh in. Under no circumstances should you pursue a course of treatment without first checking its validity with your pet’s doctor(s).
  9. Have your pet examined at least one a year for follow-up.
  10. Remember that your dog’s better days will likely outnumber the bad ones, so enjoy your time with your pet.

 

 

Teaching Moments

packys-eyeI had a thing happen today.

I follow several elephant-related sites on Facebook (yeah, I know; big surprise), as well as a few zoos. Recently, one of those facilities posted a short video in which a snake swallows a pinkie mouse. For those unfamiliar with term, “pinkie mouse” describes a particular size and age of feeder mouse–those live or frozen mice fed to reptiles and amphibians. Although I’d never seen a snake eat a mouse, the video didn’t particularly shock or bother me. I’m one of those for whom the grittier side of Nature holds a certain allure. I was the kid fascinated by close-up photos in National Geographic of lions devouring antelope. I’m the adult who (when the vet expressed my dog’s anal glands and the pus flew into her hair) fell over laughing … along with the vet, who is one of the world’s totally cool human beings.

 

Anyway.

I was a little concerned that there was no comment attached to the video warning viewers of graphic images. As I said, I wasn’t bothered, but I’m sure there are those out there who would be, and they should have the option to pass on such things, or go forward knowing what to expect. Not everyone is into Nature. (More’s the pity.)

I got a response from another viewer basically telling me to shut up (her words), and chiding me for being so sensitive that I couldn’t deal with a little Nature. I responded with a “No need to be rude” and explained that wasn’t bothered, but that some people might be. And that’s as far as I’ll go. I won’t respond to anything else, but it got me to thinking.

We each have a right to react to things as we do. Someone may well be squeamish over the visceral side of Nature, or even traumatized by it. (Honestly, they may have very good reason. My mother grew up on a farm and routinely saw her step-father kill newborn kittens by throwing them against the wall.) But if someone is having difficulty with something, why not embrace that as a teaching moment, a way to introduce them to another facet of the fascinating world we are so lucky to live in? Instead of castigating someone for being overly-sensitive, why not take them by the metaphorical hand and explain why things happen as they do? Opportunities are lost because it’s so much easier to offer up a ration of shit than it is to consider another’s position and go forward with compassion.

Who knows … somewhere down the line, you might actually turn them into a Nature lover. And wouldn’t that be wonderful? The more people who care about our world, the better our chances for saving it and the countless species that call it home.

 

 

 

Article Published in JEMA

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EMA Logo

I’m very pleased to announce that my article “Return of the Elephant Man,” appears in the most recent JEMA,  Journal of the Elephant Managers Association, Volume 29, Number 1. The article is based on a portion of my book The Man Who Loved Elephantswhich tells the story of Roger Henneous and his 30 years working with elephants at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo).

Out of the Blue

img_1847

Holly

Note: This piece first appeared on the blog “Animal Bliss”  in December 2016. It was named a “Favorite Dog Article of the Week” on Puppy Leaks.

 

Out of the Blue: A First Experience with Canine Epilepsy

On August 11, 2016, our eight-year-old Australian shepherd, Holly, seized for the first time.

She was lurking at my side in the kitchen, hoping for a handout, when her feet began to beat a sudden, rapid tattoo on the floor. At first, I thought she was scratching herself or having one of those “dry humping” sessions she occasionally experiences, but when I looked down, I saw at once that this was something very different … and very, very wrong. Her eyes were wild, and her feet skittered against the floor as if trying to keep her balance on ice. In an instant, she collapsed onto her side, legs and feet pedaling frenziedly. Her jaws gaped wide, teeth bared and tongue lolling. Saliva ran uncontrollably from her mouth. She stared blindly as her spine arched in an extreme backward curve. Urine sprayed across the floor.

I dropped to my knees and placed my hands on her thrashing body, trying to let her know I was there. “You’re okay,” I babbled, even though I knew she wasn’t. I screamed for my husband, Ed, who was down in the basement. He came running.

Although it seemed to go on forever, in reality the grand-mal seizure lasted approximately forty-five of the longest seconds of my life. In the time it took Ed to rush upstairs, it was already winding down. With our regular vet forty minutes away, he instead called a local clinic and explained what had happened. They said to bring Holly in immediately; they’d be waiting for her.

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Seizures are an indication of brain disease and can happen for a variety of reasons. The term epilepsy is applied when more than one seizure occurs, even if over a span of several months.

Canine epilepsy comes in two flavors: symptomatic or idiopathic. Symptomatic epilepsy has a diagnostic root cause such as cancer, stroke, autoimmune disease, liver disease, low blood sugar, toxin exposure, infectious disease, or congenital brain abnormalities. Idiopathic epilepsy has no identifiable cause. Although it may be inherited–certain breeds seem predisposed to the condition–this need not be the case.

Seizures strike without warning or pattern, and there is no way to determine in advance when they will occur or how severe they will be. They are upsetting to witness, particularly the first time. Despite appearances, the dog is unconscious during the episode and experiences neither pain nor panic, even though their eyes are open and they may vocalize. Duration of a seizure typically lasts less than one minute, though at the time of occurrence it seems far longer to any human witness. If a seizure episode lasts longer than 5-10 minutes, or occurs more than twice in one day, emergency care should be sought immediately.

It bears saying that any dog which seizes for the first time should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

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By the time we arrived at the clinic, Holly had emerged from the seizure, but was far from normal. She panted frantically, racing back and forth at the end of her leash in confusion, always returning to us as if asking for an explanation for what she was experiencing. Her tongue hung from the side of her mouth like a piece of bologna, flaccid and uncontrollable. She was desperately thirsty and ravenously hungry.

Dr. Mordasky took a brief history, including contact information for our regular vet and details of the seizure, particularly duration and Holly’s behavior before and during the episode. She gave her a physical examination and drew blood for a workup to rule out poison, infection, or problems with her internal organs. The results came back normal straight across the board.

Since this was Holly’s first seizure–and might, with luck, remain her only one–it was decided to not place her on medication at that time. Seizure meds are extremely strong and carry many side-effects, not the least of which can be damage to the liver over time. In the event of further episodes, we were encouraged to keep a “seizure log” specifying date, time, duration, and behaviors.

We took Holly home, bathed her to wash off the dried saliva and urine, and watched her closely, flinching every time she made an odd movement. For almost a month, nothing happened. Then, on September 8, came the second seizure. This one was shorter than the first–a “mere” 15-30 seconds–with similar behavior afterward. It occurred to me that both episodes had coincided with her having been given heartworm medication approximately 24 hours earlier. I called our regular vet to get her opinion. Dr. Gamble felt there was some plausibility to the idea, so we opted to change Holly’s heartworm medication and wait another month to see what, if anything, would happen. On September 25, Holly experienced a third seizure, but we believed it might be residual effect from the previous heartworm meds, so again we waited. However, on Dr. Gamble’s recommendation, I made an appointment for a neurological consult at Tufts University’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals.

Three weeks passed without event. Our hopes rose that we had found the solution to the problem. On October 20, neurologists at Tufts evaluated Holly’s behavior, coordination, reflexes, and nerve function. Based on her glowing results–and because idiopathic epilepsy most often strikes dogs between the ages of 1 and 3–they determined that her seizures were likely structural in origin, meaning that they were the result of a brain tumor or stroke rather than an over systemic condition such as organ disease, endocrine abnormalities, low blood sugar, etc. An appointment was made for a follow-up MRI and spinal fluid tap on November 3.

Much to their surprise, Holly came through with flying colors. Dr. Scoda, the neurologist in charge of our case, went so far as to describe the brain images as “beautiful.” Without a clear underlying cause for the seizures, we were left with a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy Because Holly had not had a seizure in almost five weeks, the decision was made to continue to hold off starting her on meds.

“Frankly, we’re surprised she hasn’t had another seizure,” Dr. Scoda said. She smiled encouragingly. “Maybe she’ll be one of the lucky ones who beat the odds.”

Unfortunately, luck wasn’t in our cards. On November 6, Holly experienced her fourth seizure. Two days later, she had another, this one longer and stronger than all the others. That evening, she received her first dose of Zonisamide.

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Anti-epileptic drugs are a lifelong therapy whose goal is to reduce the number and severity of seizures. Unfortunately, they cannot eliminate seizures entirely, and breakthrough episodes are to be expected. These drugs are not “one size fits all,” and it may take time to determine the dosage that best fits the needs of your pet. You should never discontinue anti-epileptic medication without first consulting your veterinarian. Doing so could endanger the life of your pet.

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It’s now been nearly a month since Holly’s last seizure. We continue to deal with a plethora of drug side-effects–lethargy, muscle weakness, anxiety, occasional loss of appetite, vomiting, and periodic soft stool–but we’ve been assured that these should pass in time, allowing her to return to her “usual” self. That’s in quotes because the reality is that Holly will never be quite who she was before this began. She forgets commands and sometimes displays a lack of confidence she never exhibited before, but she’s still our girl and we love her. We will walk this road together.

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Things to remember if your dog has a seizure:

  1. See your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes or your pet has more than one episode in a 24-hour period, seek emergency help immediately.
  2. Be proactive. This is a frightening time, but knowledge is power. You should view yourself as part of your pet’s treatment team. Talk to your vet and/or neurologist and ask questions. They should be open and willing to discuss treatment options and any other concerns you may have.
  3. Do research, but be skeptical of anything which makes exorbitant claims. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian to weigh in. Under no circumstances should you pursue a course of treatment for your pet without first checking its validity with your pet’s doctor(s).
  4. If you and your vet decide to put your dog on medication, do not stop using it without first discussing this with your vet. To do so could injure, or even kill, your pet.
  5. Continue to keep a seizure log even if your dog is not experiencing seizures. Note any unusual behavior.
  6. Keep all vet appointments and have your pet seen at least once a year for follow-up.
  7. Lastly, remember that most dogs will have fr more better days than bad ones, so enjoy those times with your pet.

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Followup:

Holly remained seizure-free for six and a half months. On May 20, 2017, she experienced a petit mal seizure. Almost a month later, on June 16, she had a 2.5 minute grand mal and Keppra was added to her drug regimen.

She remained seizure-free for five months. On November 17, she had a 1-2 minute seizure in the early morning … and another that afternoon, of approximately 3 minutes duration. Her Keppra dosage was increased and an appointment made to consult with Dr. Hammond, a neurologist at Pieper Memorial Veterinary Center.

After her examination, Dr. Hammond switched Holly from Keppra to Phenobarbital, along with her standard Zonisamide. We went through a month-long adjustment period; she experienced many side-effects but those have largely worked themselves out. As of this writing, she has been free of seizures for two months.

When A Writer Gives Up, Part 1

pexels-photo-269451In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the notion of story ideas drifting about in the ether, coming to rest with one writer or another. If given attention, the ideas stay and grow. If not, they eventually move on to a more receptive audience.

I believe this.

More than two years ago, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and go. If you possess an ounce of sensitivity in your soul, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a quality to the space … the silence … the sense of energy, of presence, behind that silence. Anyone who thinks it’s a boring old bunch of empty fields dotted with memorials is missing the point. Because of that visit, I will never be the same. I’m grateful for that, and can’t wait to return.

At any rate, shortly after that visit, a line of narrative popped into my brain–a description of a minie ball blasting into the abdomen of a young soldier from Maine on the fields of Gettysburg–and I knew I had the idea for my next book.

But I also had an idea for a book of narrative nonfiction about this man I’d met 20 years earlier who spent 30 years lovingly caring for the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity. My research into that book–my tentative forays to locate this gentleman–had suddenly borne fruit, and here I was juggling two ideas.

My first inclination was to go after the Civil War story. But the minute I decided that, I heard–literally heard–a voice in my head say, “If you do that, you will lose the elephant book forever.” And I just couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t risk it. Telling the story of Roger Henneous and his pachyderm family was more important to me. It felt vital. It felt necessary. And, in truth, it felt like a goal I’d been working my way toward my entire writing life.

So I set aside the Civil War story and threw myself into the elephant book. In six months, I had a first draft. A very rough first draft, but at least it had a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve since lost count, but my guess is the manuscript went through something like six iterations before reaching a point where I could search for an literary agent–happily accomplished when I signed with Bonnie Solow–and begin the ongoing task of offering the book to publishers.

At long last I could turn my eyes toward the Civil War and all the research books I’d collected in anticipation! Except the power of the story had left me. The drive to write it had withered and vanished. I suspect the idea got tired of being ignored and wandered off to a more fertile field, one ready to accept it.

Every now and then I toy with going back to see if I can revive that sense of vigor and excitement, but I don’t know. I may have missed my chance this time. But that’s okay. Something else miraculous occurred.

Where To Go For Elephants

Hello, all! I wanted to let you know that I’ve started an adjunct site to this one, focused entirely on elephants and the stories behind my book The Man Who Loved Elephants: 30 Years at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo, which is being offered to publishers by my agent, Bonnie Solow.

Roger pontificating

Photo courtesy of Roger Henneous

Gruff, bow-legged, and whiskey-voiced, Roger Henneous admittedly “suffers fools lightly, and damn fools not at all,” but when it comes to elephants, he’s nothing but a big marshmallow. For nearly 30 years, he served as mother, mentor, teacher, and therapist to the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity, among them the illustrious Belle–who made history in April 1962 by delivering the first calf born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years–and her equally famous son, Packy.

Belle became special to Roger for a different reason when she saved him from being killed by another elephant. From that moment, the two of them were bonded in a way UC Davis veterinarian Larry Galuppo later described as “incredible.”

At The Man Who Loved Elephants I’ll talk about these stories and more, and share photos from Roger’s days at the zoo. I hope you’ll join me there!