Tis the week before Christmas, and one could say that this is where it all began, my relationship with animals. I’m spending the weekend with my second father, my Uncle Sam Burrell, who partly reared me on their dairy farm in the late 50s and 60s.
Uncle Sam, like many folks approaching age 98, began, and will probably end his life with roots in farming. Though he quit milking some 20 years ago as big corporate farms took over the market, he still lives in the same house on the same land. Now the milking barn is used to store vegetables from a garden he lovingly tends.
Here I learned respect for animals. I learned that from the time of Adam the Bible teaches us to be proper stewards of our wards, the four-legged creatures. I learned that we are to care unselfishly for their needs, when sick and when well, and, in return, they provide us with milk and butter and eggs and ultimately, meat. Until the days of tractors, they helped work the gardens and the fields we planted to provide food for winter and cotton for additional income. Uncle Sam’s garden is worked with mules even today.
We kept our animals clean and fed and sheltered. When they were sick, we mostly did the best we could for them. In the 50s and 60s, like today, doctors of veterinary medicine knew about what physicians knew, but back then few owners of animals knew how much a veterinarian could help.
Even fewer people could afford the luxury of a doctor for their animals.
Many people called folks like my uncle for help when farm animals were sick. He had done enough reading and studying in books to learn about anatomy and diseases, about how to administer certain medications, including intravenous injections and fluid therapy. If he made the right diagnosis and chose the right treatment, the animal got well.
Whatever the outcome, he had the gratitude of his neighbors and friends. And I learned early on that gratitude counts for a lot. Then, as now, it was against the law for him to accept money for his services. Gratitude, or a gift from a neighbor’s garden, was often all the reward he got for having been awakened at midnight to go out in the cold or wet (or both) to tend to an ailing cow.
His reward was the satisfaction of knowing he’d done something for one of God’s creatures. And, God was, and is, very important in his life. I know that pleasing God meant everything to him, much more than the gratitude of his neighbors and the feeling of self-satisfaction combined.
I’m very lucky to know and be inspired by this man. Though he never achieved a DVM degree, he has done a lot of good for animalkind in his 98 years, and continues to do all he can for his own animals today, despite the limitations of educational and legal issues.
Yes, things are different now. Now, I am the beneficiary of many decades of research into maladies of animals of the farm and of the household. Now, I have the advantage of ultramodern diagnostics we didn’t know of in my childhood. Now, dogs and cats not only come inside our homes as pets, but we would be lost without the contribution they provide as family members.
But, for me, it all started as a little boy watched in wonder. Eyes as big as saucers as an old man would put a needle in a cow’s jugular vein, administer some medicine, and minutes later she would get up and walk away.
Thank you, God, for these animals, and for the man you sent to inspire me to a career of caring for them.