The Vet Is In: Tales of Undead Hamsters and Snake Eyes

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway September 15, 2017 21:10

There’s a joke in the trade about an aging veterinarian’s retirement party: He hobbles to the podium on crutches, wearing an eye patch, arm in a sling.

Bottom line: No vet survives a career without injury at the hands (or, more properly, the paws, claws, talons or teeth) of his patients.

I’ve been lucky. Over 35 years I’ve only been bitten by dogs and cats 15 to 20 times. I’ve suffered occasional nips from birds, snakes and lizards, been whipped across the face by the tail of a four-foot iguana – and caught conjunctivitis from, of all things, a grebe (more on that later).

But my stories are more humorous than painful. And after 10 years of Friends and Neighbors columns, it’s time to share a few of the more unusual yarns.

Canine pincushion Bud, a yellow Lab, had one mission in life: to rid his Mi-Wuk area of porcupines. He failed, miserably and repeatedly. Back in the 1980s, I pulled quills from Bud’s snout, mouth and legs a dozen times. On the plus side, I saved the quills for a Me-Wuk woman who made baskets from them. On the minus side, porcupines have largely disappeared from the Sierra and scientists are trying to figure out why. One thing for sure: It wasn’t Bud.

Call in the posse Some years ago a woman from San Francisco brought in her Lab, bitten on the muzzle by a rattlesnake. I treated the dog, mentioning that hers was the sixth rattler victim I had seen that spring. “Somebody ought to put a posse together and go after that snake,” insisted the alarmed woman. I politely explained that it was likely six different snakes were responsible, but I’m not sure that sunk in.

Spearing a cow Early in my practice I got a call from a Jamestown rancher with a sick calf. The calf’s 1,000-pound mom was ferociously guarding her offspring. One danger with range cows is that they’ll knock you down and then roll to crush a potential predator – or a veterinarian. So we cut off a broom handle and drilled a hole in one end to hold a syringe full of sedative. Next the rancher flapped his shirt, the cow charged him and I rammed the homemade spear into her neck. As she slept, I successfully treated her calf for pneumonia.

Snake eyes In the 1980s, a client brought in a boa constrictor with an eye cap that had not come off with shedding. I said I could remove it. He agreed and stood behind me as I was peeling the cap off the boa’s eye. I was suddenly slammed toward the table: He had fainted at the sight, pinning me on top of his snake. I called for help to remove the fallen client and later – as the revived owner opted for the waiting room – that stubborn eye cap.

Undead hamster A Soulsbyville client brought in his dead hamster, asking me “to take care of the body.” But I listened one last time through the stethoscope before last rites. I heard a faint heartbeat, then a second: Although cold and motionless, this hamster was still alive, and as we warmed her up, she came back to life. She apparently had gone into hibernation mode after a few winter nights on a cold porch. Whether the rodent had complications from its near-death ordeal is unknown. Hamsters are so short on brains that if it had sustained cerebral damage, who would know?

Who’s the jackass? Was it the 400-pound not-so-miniature donkey I was trying to vaccinate? Or, based on my decision to put this donkey in a headlock and try to bulldog it down, might it be me? I was at a Sonora-area ranch worming and vaccinating 15 donkeys. Number 8 proved reluctant. Halter in hand, I cornered her and grabbed her around the neck when the rancher yelled, “Don’t hurt her.”

I eased up, and the donkey took off like a rocket full speed down a hill with me hanging on to her neck. I put my feet out and dug in my heels, figuring I’d bring the animal to a skidding stop. Instead, one heel hit a rock, breaking my leg. I rolled away in pain, and she went back to eating. And yes, the doctor who fixed my leg knew who the jackass was.

Grebeous consequences I sometimes treat wild birds, and in the late 1990s, Animal Control brought me a grebe with a broken leg. Grebes are freshwater divers that fish in local streams, lakes and, on occasion, koi ponds. They have sharp bills and often aim for an assailant’s eyes, so I put on a face shield before I removed the bird from the cage.

As I subdued the bird, it struggled and generated clouds of dust and debris. The next morning my mistake came home to roost: a case of conjunctivitis so bad that I couldn’t open my eyes.

The takeaway here? All these stories date back a few years, so maybe I’ve learned something. Now that I’m retired, for instance, I won’t be bulldogging any donkeys in my spare time.

Marv Ordway is the founder and former owner of Twain Harte Veterinary Hospital. Read more of his columns online at

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway September 15, 2017 21:10
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