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Festus was his name

Many farmers keep a pet cow or pig, but they aren’t much for sentimentality, not like your typical off-the-farm pet owner. To the farmer, medical care is important until the cost exceeds the value of an animal. When this threshold is crossed, farmers often become very pragmatic and usually opt to send the animal to market or put it down.

Pet owners, on the other hand, usually want only the best for their animals. They will often spend considerable sums for an animal’s welfare and their own peace of mind. My late wife, Judy, and I have found that nine times out of 10 when our phone rang in the middle of the night, we’re being awakened by a pet owner, rather than a farmer. Compared to farmers — for whom animals are their livelihood — pet owners often lack knowledge about animal care. Many times they call with a perceived problem that isn’t a significant issue or, at the other extreme; they call after their pet has been sick for days and is at risk of dying.

So, when the phone rings at night, it could be for a life-threatening emergency, or it could just as easily be for a Siamese queen (female cat) in heat or a dog with a tapeworm that hasn’t been passed entirely, driving the dog nuts as he scoots on the floor to extricate it.

When I received a call one summer night around midnight from Dick, a professional horse trainer I had known casually for some years, I couldn’t determine whether his call — about a sick dog — was for an emergency or just a case of tonsillitis. In the background I could hear the frantic voice of a girl who seemed to be getting impatient as I played 20 questions with Dick to determine if I should get dressed and go into the clinic to check the dog. After discussing the dog’s choking spell with Dick, I decided to meet them at the office. It would prove to be a memorable encounter, and a simple lesson in not judging a book by its cover or a dog by its name.

Judy and I had a rule that unless a call is clearly not an emergency, we conduct an examination if the owner’s requests it. We know that once in a while a case that sounds less than serious turns out to be an emergency that requires immediate treatment.

Dick’s persistence, reinforced by the girl’s voice in the background, made it clear to me that they would not wait until office hours, even though I was certain that this was not urgent. Off the phone, I had grumbled to Judy as I dressed in the dark. She sleepily told me to mind my manners when I got to the clinic.

Driving to the office, I thought about Dick’s persistence. He had always seemed pretty laid back about the horses that he trained professionally. He called rarely, and then only if the horse were in danger of dying and he couldn’t get a cheaper vet. I thought that maybe the girl — I presumed his daughter — was turning him around, getting him to be more concerned for their animals. I chuckled to myself, knowing that wasn’t likely the case.

The more likely story was that Dick knew he wasn’t going to be allowed to get any sleep until he called the vet. He was probably more upset at his daughter’s disturbing his sleep and the fact that he would have to pay my after-hours emergency fee. I felt better picturing Dick’s squirming about the fee; I decided to maintain a good attitude about the case.

To my surprise, Dick didn’t accompany his daughter and her dog to the office. She was an attractive blonde, I’d say about 22 years old, and had a dazzling smile, which I figured was enough to weaken his defenses and the grip on his wallet.

I made casual conversation with her and collected information to start a medical record on her dog. I knew that Dick was in his late fifties, so I asked if she was the youngest and only one left at home. Her face flushed as she quietly told me that Dick was her husband.

Red-faced, I apologized to Janeen — that is, Dick’s wife — and mumbled some excuse about not having been to Dick’s in a long time. Then I did my best to pick myself up and get on with the case at hand. And that case was Festus. Yes, the dog’s name was Festus.

Just as Janeen didn’t fit my preconceived notion of the wife of a 50-something horse trainer, her white-haired little lap dog, a wiry crossbred concoction, didn’t look like a Festus. More like a Fi-Fi or Pooh-Pooh.

Festus didn’t like being on my examination table. Janeen stood on the opposite side of the table not offering much encouragement as I tried to size up the dog. He certainly wasn’t an emergency case. His choking had ceased during the drive to the office. I knew that he likely had tonsillitis and I should examine the back of his throat for the tell tale swollen glands. He also needed his temperature taken. But Festus wasn’t going to have any part of it.

As I tried to maneuver around and grasp him by the scruff of the neck, he circled, never taking his eyes off my hand while his lip twitched. I could see that he was likely going to make his move just about the time I would attempt mine. Janeen just stood there paying no attention to the unfolding drama. Was it going to be grabbing the dog by the back of his neck to keep him from biting me, or was Festus going to beat me to the draw?

After I started to make the first move, everything else seemed to progress in slow motion, like in an action movie, guns blazing, and the hero miraculously evading each bullet. Except that Festus clamped down on my right thumb with all the might his nine-pound body could muster. He was determined that I would cry “uncle” right there in front of his master.

Janeen stood by dumbfounded. She made no attempt to restrain the dog or disengage him from my thumb. I winced in pain, as I jerked back my hand. The little dog, determined to hang on against the force of my whip-like reaction, began to lose his grip, his teeth grating against the skin of my thumb like a jagged vegetable peeler.

Loosed from his human tether, Festus went airborne. He made a lazy arc over my head, and like a gymnast dismounting the parallel bars somersaulting a 360 in the air before “sticking” his landing perfectly in the scrub sink behind me. Just before landing, Festus bumped the faucet, turning it on. Janeen looked incredulous. I pondered the probability of my being sued for animal endangerment and malpractice. In the sink, Festus growled menacingly, as if to say, “I dare you to touch me again!” I meekly turned to Janeen and asked her to retrieve her little Festus from the sink before he caught his death of pneumonia from the cold water running on him. She quietly moved to the sink, and with a soothing voice got her dog to come to her while getting herself wet in the process.

I tried to sound professional as I cleared my throat and suggested that we dispense with the examination as it would make Festus uncomfortable. I told her that I had some antibiotics that would fix his cough and that he would be fine.

Janeen was agreeable, so I fixed Festus up with an antibiotic. I told her that she had been such a kind and understanding client that I saw no need for Dick to pay the after-hours charge. She wrote a check from Dick’s horse account and thanked me for coming in to the office.

The next day Judy, as she logged the checks, asked why I had let the previous night’s emergency case off without the extra charge. She teased me that if she didn’t know better she’d say I had probably felt sorry for some “sweet young thing.” I shrugged off her comment, just thankful to have gotten out of that case with both of my thumbs.


Author’s note – This story first appeared in my book, “Stories from the Land of Milk and Honey.” This story is being reprinted by popular request.




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