Mind Over Miller: All creatures feathered and finned


Dr. Robert Miller recalls his experience working with a variety of animals in veterinary practice.

One day, while I was a veterinary student working on a ranch in Colorado for the summer, I sat on the porch at an altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level. I watched, fascinated, as a hummingbird marvelously flitted from flower to flower in the nearby garden.

Robert M. Miller, DVM

Then I suddenly thought, "Hey! How does this mite of a bird, not much larger than some insects, manage to survive the subarctic winter here in the Rocky Mountains?"

When I returned to school in the fall, I researched the life cycle of that hummingbird and was astounded to learn that, for the winter, it migrated all the way down to Latin America. Amazing! Able to hover and fly in any direction, its little wings a blur, this tiny bird can migrate thousands of miles—and it knows when to go and where to go.

A hummingbird weighs as much as a nickel coin does. Its brain is no larger than a grain of rice. Imagine the energy required to sustain that wing action even for a few minutes, let alone a long migratory flight. No wonder it has such an appetite for sugar.

I find every species a marvel of adaptation to the habitat it evolved in.

Only once was I presented with a hummingbird as a patient. Somebody found one, apparently injured, and brought it into our hospital since we did not charge to treat wildlife.

Curiously, that same afternoon, I received an equally unusual request. I was asked to treat a pilot whale in the Channel Islands of California. So I agreed to do so, and an airplane picked me up at a nearby airstrip and flew me out to see the whale.

A hummingbird and a whale on the same day. What a profession!

The pilot whale is really a sort of very large dolphin. I treated dolphins and related whales at Pacific Ocean Park for several years.

Of all the creatures I have had as patients, the dolphin is, to me, the most amazing. They are not only amazing because they were once a land mammal that adapted to life in the sea, but also because of how superbly they did so. Their ability to swim at high speed, navigate, leap high out of the water, nurse their young, and communicate with each other is uncanny. They are, I believe, one of the most intelligent of all mammals and have a remarkable ability to relate to humans.

Despite the often-painful procedures I had to perform on dolphins, only once did I receive a very minor bite—and this is an animal, a predator, equipped with formidable teeth.

I most admire intelligence in animals. I guess that's why I regard most highly, among the many creatures I have doctored, the dolphin, the elephant, and the dog. And, of course, equines have an important role in my life.

What's that you say? How about our closest relatives, the great apes? How about chimpanzees?

Yes, they are remarkably intelligent, but sorry—they behave too much like us.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at robertmmiller.com.

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