A Vet’s World
Nigel Taylor, Devon's answer to James Herriot, tells the tale of a wounded collie who grasped modern technology with both paws
I guess we've all got our own favourite volcano, I know I have. Krakatoa, Stromboli, Vesuvius? No, mine's much closer to home. It's not that big, but it's extra special to me. Brentor, the only volcano I know with a church on top! I often find my way to the ancient church of St Michael. And, once you're high on Brentor, what a view. Cornwall to the west, Dartmoor all around and there, where the summer sunlight always falls, Sky's farm.
I've always been fond of collies. I like all dogs, but there's something about the working collies you find on Devon's farms. They're great. Black-and-white bundles of fun who work hard and play hard right through the farming year. I'd often see Sky when I visited Bob Davey's farm. Bob had four or five working collies that he used for rounding up his cattle and sheep. They were all proper farm characters and hurtled about like Exocets with fur at just a few whistled and shouted commands from Bob.
True, Sky wasn't the best when it came to everyday farm jobs, a little too much tumbling over and somersaulting when he was caught up in the chase of a wayward sheep or calf. No, he'd never excel at the sheepdog trials but you could tell by the way Bob smiled whenever he was out and about with Sky that this was his number one dog. I'd often see them together when I climbed Brentor because, like me, Bob thought it held a special wonder for anyone who likes the wild places of Dartmoor. Sky would come bounding up the winding paths towards the summit and seek me out whilst Bob would huff and puff his way into view a few minutes later. "Can't keep up with him these days," he'd say disarmingly. "I've never seen a dog so full of life." And there on the ancient volcano the three of us would gaze out across the farms and fields spread around, where as busy farmer, vet and collie, our lives trickled through the seasons. "He loves it up here," Bob would say, gesturing to the windswept collie eagerly seeking out his sheep way below, "and I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be than Dartmoor. It's just perfect."
Now, as a country vet, I knew that driving through the Dartmoor lanes could catch you out if you weren't careful. All too easy to have a crunch if you were carrying a little too much speed or not staying alert to the hazards a rural road could suddenly throw at you.
When the sheep had broken out through a hole in one of Bob's fences, Sky did what any self-respecting farm collie would do. He pelted straight after them. Out across the usually empty lane they ran, with Sky in hot pursuit. The postman bringing out the mail from Tavistock did what he could. Slamming on the brakes, his van slewed to an unsteady halt. The sheep were lucky. Heading for the nearest hedge they weren't touched, but there in the middle of the lane lay Sky, badly injured, bleeding heavily and fighting for life.
Now local postmen always know the local vet. So, as gently as he could he bundled the unconscious collie into the back of his van and came straight to the surgery.
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Later that morning I had to break the news to Bob about Sky's terrible accident.
"He's sleeping now," I said in that brisk, optimistic way vets always adopt when they're trying to be optimistic but deep inside they're very anxious, "We've put him on a drip. The nurses are with him. I've patched up most of his wounds but he doesn't seem to have too much feeling in his back legs. We'll have to wait for 24 hours or so to see how things are when he comes around properly and he's not in so much pain. Hopefully we'll start to notice some improvement."
The next few days came and went. He was in and out of sleep for a while. We controlled his pain as best we could and gradually Sky started to show steady signs of recovery. Farm collies are fit and tough and they don't need much encouragement to recover from accidents and illnesses, even a serious accident like this. But as the days passed by I was becoming increasingly concerned about his back legs. True, there seemed to be some feeling in them when I pinched his toes but I was rapidly beginning to think Sky would never walk again. Sadly x-rays confirmed my worst thoughts. Sky had sustained serious spinal injuries when the van had collided with him. His spinal cord was almost certainly damaged beyond repair. As I told Bob, there was nothing anyone could do to help him.
Now, one day there'll be marvellous injections of stem cells and other kinds of treatment which will, like magic, restore damaged spinal tissue, and paralysis will be something vets and doctors read about in history books. But for the moment such wonders are waiting in the wings. And life's not much fun for an active dog who suddenly finds himself unable to walk.
"I'm not having him put down," Bob said emphatically, when I outlined Sky's predicament to him. "I've heard you can buy these little carts from America for paralysed dogs. They seem to do OK. He deserves a chance."
And Sky got his chance.
Luckily I knew a gifted technician at the University of Bristol Veterinary School who could make one of these mobility carts from scratch.
We measured Sky for his own personal 'wheels' and when they arrived Bob rested Sky gently into the support harness, tied the straps around him and, there in the surgery, after weeks of immobility and aided by his cart, the young dog took his first steps. It was a simple thing really. A frame of lightweight metal rods, a leather support to take his weight and two small wheels that spun round as he happily found his feet again.
Sky had a long way to go. Would he cope with his new cart and what were the long-term nursing issues involved for Bob? Busy farmers aren't renowned for having a lot of time to give animals like Sky the individual care they so often need.
I needn't have worried. The weeks went by, and life in the busy world of animal medicine carried on as it always does. I used to wonder how Sky and Bob were getting on as I hadn't been near the farm for ages.
One spring morning I was passing Brentor and took the chance to park up and spend some time to myself climbing up my friendly volcano. It was the perfect day. Bright, fresh and views so sharp across the moor that the horizon seemed within a simple high-definition touch. I was lost, as usual, in the wonder and the beauty of it all.
It was then that I heard the barking. And there hurtling up the hill as fast as he could towards me was Sky, the wheels of his cart bouncing off the stones that lined the ancient path towards St Michael's.
He greeted me excitedly. Have you ever noticed how collies smile?
Bob came puffing into view. "I couldn't keep up with him before," he said, "but with these high-speed wheels he's unstoppable!"
Together we watched the eager collie seek out his favourite perch. That special spot where he could keep an eye on 'his' sheep in the patchwork of fields laid out far below us.
I thought of the poorly collie, badly injured just after his accident. At the time, the chance Bob wanted to give him had seemed a very faint hope. I should have known better. Collies don't read the book that tells you to give up.
"He's never looked back," Bob smiled. "Just the same as he always was, only faster!"