Posted 10/27/23

A heartwarming tail and a cautionary tale

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My Mom is 82 years young and in excellent shape. She gets out and walks the prairie with her Border Collie Red day in, day out, pretty much regardless of the weather conditions. A blizzard will keep her inside but not much else.

Remarkably, she was pretty close to checking out for good a mere eight years ago. Her hips were degenerating due to osteoarthritis and she was in a great deal of continuous pain. The human animal cannot long survive with that kind of pain.

Fortunately Mom lives in the age of miracle medicine. She had both hips replaced, one at a time, over the period of one year. Then she was off to the races. She does about two miles of hiking each day. If you do the math, two miles times 365 days times seven years, she’s logged more than 5,000 miles on her new hips in prairie hikes alone.

Last Friday she was hiking in the warm October sun when her dog Red, who tends to scout ahead of her, came to a sudden stop, then backed up against her legs. Red’s hackles were raised and she was softly growling. It took a few moments for Mom to see what Red was upset about. What she finally saw was a fat prairie rattlesnake coiled up in the path.

“She saved my life,” said Mom.

Well, One good turn deserves another. Back in 2016, when Mom was in the middle of getting bionic hips, Red was having her own severe medical issue.

At the time she was four years old, quite a good cow dog, and just a very nice dog overall. In the spring she’d had an infection in the tissue of her chest. At that time she’d been sick for a month or so (or so we thought) and hadn’t healed up on her own, despite an exam and wound cleaning by the vet and a big dose of long lasting injectable antibiotic.

She’d been in a fight with another dog in March and at the time we thought that that’s how she got injured in the first place.

As it turns out, that probably wasn’t it.

Anyway, we tried just about everything short of surgery. Antibiotics to the tune of about $700. X-Rays. Twice daily irrigation. She’d get better and the wounds would nearly heal, then they’d open back up and start weeping again.

One day she took a turn for the worse. She was quite droopy and lethargic, had a fever, and wouldn’t eat. The wound discharge had changed color and gained a foul odor.

So she was starting to get septic, and that would kill her. The only hope was surgery, which we did the next day. I say we because I’m friends with the vet and having a medical background offered to assist in the surgery. She agreed, and allowed me to act as scrub nurse.

What we found, to our astonishment, was a five-inch stick, lodged in the muscles of her chest along the sternum.

What probably happened was that she ran into a tree branch and snapped the thing off in her chest. It was kind of icky-horrible to think about, particularly when my Dad remembered that she’d suddenly started gimping around one day in the previous fall, and that she’d had some blood on her chest at the time. But she quickly got better, so he didn’t think much about it.

Red snapped back into good health after the surgery and was already wanting to work cows in only a few days.

So did Red save my Mom’s life?

Here’s where the cautionary tale comes in.

It’s true that prairie rattlesnakes are venomous. It’s also true that they are the most docile of all rattlesnakes, and generally only strike non-prey animals like people only after being mightily provoked. They have a fearsome reputation, and to a certain extent this is understandable.They are venomous, after all, and if they bite you and inject venom you are going to be very sick at best, and dead at worst.

So did Red save my Mom’s life?

Well, maybe, but probably not. Did Red do an amazing job of warning and protecting Mom from a potential threat? You better believe it. In that sense she’s a hero dog.

The cautionary tale is this. Most people believe that prairie rattlesnakes are a deadly, existential threat to human life. It’s not true, but most people believe it. There are a lot of reasons for holding that belief, but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that we humans can be easily programmed to believe things which simply are not so.

A long time ago Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, was giving the commencement speech at Cal Tech University. It’s rather a famous speech and well worth the time and effort of reading. You can find it on the internet, just search for Feynman’s Cargo Cult speech. Anyway, one of the things he said to the graduating class of future scientists is this.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Today there are a great many foolish things that we humans are tempted to believe. The choice we have is whether to simply believe these narrative declarations on their face, or to look more deeply and spend a little time and effort checking claims against the fundamentals of reality.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.