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What are you scared of?
How do you feel about ghosts, clowns, drowning, bankruptcy, heights and Freddy Kruger? This Texas veterinarian recently had occasion to analyze his own worst fears, and here’s what he learned.
The Lamesa, Texas landscape is so flat that on a cold night you can see the lights of Midland about 60 miles away. We get about 16 inches of rain a year, most of which falls on one evening in mid-May. The dirt here is a drab clay-orange color, and the wind blows so hard that I have seen many a tumbleweed stuck in the highline wires of telephone poles.
We’ve got our share of creatures, from coyotes, lizards, roadrunners and meadowlarks to a quail, horned toads, rabbits, hawks and snakes. Most of these critters are just fine with me. I like to shoot guns, but not usually at animals. My grandfather said I was a crybaby because I wouldn’t shoot anything but, heck, my job is to fix critters, not kill them.
One of my very first cases as a veterinarian was a horse that had been bitten by a rattlesnake. Oh my, that poor horse was about to die by the time it was brought to the clinic. I could not imagine how toxic that venom must have been to make a 1,000-pound horse’s head swell so much that it couldn’t breathe. I remember standing there imagining what a snake like that would have done to me had I been the recipient of that dose of venom.
I have since seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals that have received an inoculation with the juice from the fangs of these evil monsters. We have mostly Western diamondbacks and prairie rattlers here, and that Western diamondback, well, it is a beast.
One of my good friends narrowly escaped with his life after being bitten by one a few years ago. He spent weeks in the hospital and had to have skin grafts and dialysis for a while because of the venom's effects on his kidneys. I am scared to death of those things. I'd estimate that my kids spent less than a third of the typical time playing outside when they were small because these monsters roam the plains of west Texas.
No snake bothered us for years on Brock Hill thanks to Hank, a big mutt that hated all snakes. Hank would grab the tail in his mouth and swing them around until they were dead. He had been bitten so many times that he barely even swelled up after a bite. He was like mongoose with a cobra. The venom he had been exposed to over years of being bitten had immunized him like a vaccine. When he saved me once from being bitten, he and I were bonded for life.
When Hank got old and eventually died, it was one of the saddest days of my life. And once Hank was gone, the snakes started coming in by the billions. OK, maybe there weren’t that many, but last year we killed 45 of them in the vineyard. If you are reading this and thinking we are inhumane for killing animals, well, I don’t care. Until you have seen how devastating the venom of these snakes is to people and animals, don’t judge.
What am I doing up here?
One recent Saturday a windstorm came through and broke a bunch of branches off a tree in our yard. The next day I was out picking up branches when the following event occurred.
I always keep an eye out for snakes and usually wear “snake boots” when working outside. It was a bit early in the season, so I hadn’t broken out the snake boots just yet. Instead I was just wearing my regular boots while I picked up branches. I was looking around closely while walking across the yard when I felt something smack up against my right leg.
I figured I had stepped on one of the branches and it had swung around and hit my other leg. But when I looked down, I saw a three-foot Western diamondback stuck to my britches. I never saw that rascal coming, and it never rattled at all.
As I am getting close to 60 and am way too fat, I had no idea that I could jump so high. Some sort of sympathetic response in my subcerebral brain, fueled by adrenalin, caused me to jump so high that I was clinging to a tree branch with my own feet four feet off the ground. It all happened so fast that I looked around and wondered what I was doing hanging from a branch so high off the ground.
I don’t wear skinny jeans (most of the people I know say that is a wonderful idea) and, boy, am I glad I don’t. The fangs of that snake had penetrated the material of my baggy, fat man jeans, and the snake actually had those fangs lodged in the denim fabric for a second before it could release.
As I hung from the branch I tried to direct my brain to the area of fang penetration. Could I feel heat? Could I feel swelling starting? Was there pain like my friend had described? How far was it between my jeans and my flesh? How long are a rattlesnake’s fangs? Is it possible that my leg was bitten but I just couldn’t feel it yet? How could I have not seen the snake coming? Why didn’t it warn me with a rattle?
Just as I had that thought the rattle started, adding to my terror. If I let go of the branch, I was going to fall down into striking range. I managed to shimmy around the tree and let myself down a good distance from the evil, legless beast.
My truest fear
I ambled over to a safe spot next to the house and analyzed what had just happened. I was a tight-fitting jeans moment away from a trip to Lubbock in an ambulance. All I could picture was my friend’s leg after he was bitten. I tried to picture what that critter might have done to one of my grandkids had they been playing in the yard. That was it: No more snake.
I can assure you that snake will never bite one of my grandkids. I can also assure you that I have learned what I am a really afraid of: the effects of a mean rattlesnake on an old veterinarian.
Bo Brock, DVM, owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas. His latest book is Crowded in the middle of nowhere: tales of humor and healing from rural America.