Monday, August 29, 2011

CASE STUDY: Compassion and Courage save a Severely Abused Mare




WARNING: The details of this case may be disturbing to some readers.

            Gail Jewell, DVM, CAC, is a holistic veterinarian who practices in the Lower Mainland and Okanagan areas of British Columbia. With her emphasis on chiropractic and homeopathy, she is used to dealing with devoted horse owners willing to do most anything to help their horses. In 1998, however, when she was called out by the SPCA to examine an injured horse in Aldergrove, BC, she became a central player in an animal cruelty case that brought her face to face with the worst of human nature.
            The horse was an Appaloosa filly now named Kessie, approximately 1 ½ years old, who had gotten a leg caught in a piece of derelict farm machinery left in a field housing a number of horses and cows. “The place was wall-to-wall junk”, says Jewell, “so it’s amazing more animals didn’t get hurt there.” As for Kessie, she was unable to get free and eventually went down, where she lay panicked and struggling for at least 24 hours.
A neighbor alerted the owner that he had a horse down, whereupon the owner assessed the situation and decided the filly wasn’t worth saving. However, as Jewell recounts, “Rather than call out a veterinarian for humane euthanasia, the owner attempted to kill the horse himself – by smashing her head in with a sledgehammer. Apparently, the massive blow caused her to make a colossal effort to free herself, and she managed to untangle herself and get to her feet.”
            Perhaps too cowardly to go after a horse that was now standing – albeit on three legs – the owner led the severely injured filly into a filthy cow shed that was several feet deep in manure. At that point, he did call in his cow vet, who administered a shot of long-acting penicillin but was not allowed to do anything else. Jewell believes it was this veterinarian who contacted the SPCA, but she is not entirely certain. What is known is that the SPCA sent a second vet to examine the horse, but he was not allowed to do so.
            The SPCA then sent Jewell – but this time they provided an RCMP escort to ensure that she would get to see the horse, and to provide for her own safety. “It was actually very frightening,” recalls Jewell, “because the owner was rabidly angry, a real loony toon just screaming his head off and calling me every name in the book. If we hadn’t had the police there, I think he would have assaulted me.”
By that time, Kessie was about four days into the injury – and she was in bad shape. “When I walked in there,” says Jewell, “what I saw was a mare who was three-legged lame on her left front leg, which had an almost 360 degree de-gloving injury where the hide had been stripped right off the leg. Several muscles in the front and the inside of the leg were severed and shredded – they looked like hamburger. The wound was already full of maggots, just crawling with them.
“Then there was the injury from the sledgehammer: a skull fracture with bare bone sticking out of the wound and a large depression just below the left eye, sort of left center. The whole bony orbit of the eye was crushed and pressed down, and she’d obviously been bleeding quite copiously from the left nostril.  In addition, she had a full-blown, full-thickness ulcer the size of a quarter on her left cornea, which had been abraded against the ground as she struggled repeatedly to get to her feet.”
It was obvious that the mare was in a tremendous amount of pain. She was also not even halter broke and was understandably wary of people, which wasn’t helping.  Remembers Jewell, “It was a very bad situation, any way you looked at it.  I was thinking there might even be a leg fracture, and you have to realize that the whole time, the owner was screaming at us, but the police were keeping him from interfering with my exam. Taking all factors into consideration, my recommendation was to put the mare down – there was no question in my mind.”
Jewell had already sedated Kessie for euthanasia and drawn up the euthanol, when something happened that stayed her hand. “Just as I was getting ready to administer the injection, she looked at me in this way that said, ‘I’m a fighter, I want to try’. I can’t explain it – something shifted in me. She just looked me right in the eye and right through my soul, and I simply couldn’t do it.”
Instead, Jewell took advantage of the sedation to do an initial cleaning of the wound, then bandaged it and started the horse on some antibiotics and pain relief. Afraid to leave the mare for fear of what the owner might do, she and the RCMP escort stayed on until a hauler came to pick the horse up and transport her to the Abbotsford SPCA. “From that point on,” says Jewell, “the mare’s response to everything we had to do was simply amazing. She actually followed me right into the trailer like a little orphan dog, even though it was the first time in her life she’d even had a halter on her, and despite the fact that she could barely put any weight on her leg.”
Jewell rode with Kessie in the trailer, where the young horse seemed to really bond with the veterinarian who was trying to save her life. Kessie’s attachment to Jewell became apparent once they reached the SPCA and got her inside. “It was like if I was there she was okay,” says Jewell, “but she got quite anxious when I walked away. I cancelled my calls that weekend and stayed with her at the SPCA, I think for 36 hours straight.”
Now that Kessie was in a safe, clinical environment, Jewell was able to start more aggressive treatment, but it was highly intensive work – and the outcome was far from certain. Recalls Jewell, “It was really touch and go for a while. I was sort of going 12 hours by 12 hours in terms of whether we were going to keep treating her or euthanize. The danger of bone infection was very real, and she was not eating. We also had her on IV fluids because she was quite dehydrated from her ordeal. I’d treat her through the day between other cases, then stay there overnight because her eye required treatment every two hours.”
Though Jewell was exhausted, her dedication was rewarded when the mare finally seemed to stabilize. “She began eating, and physically she started looking a bit better. I think Kessie’s personality and the connection we shared had a lot to do with her surviving that initial phase of treatment, because with everything I had to do to her, she just totally put her trust in me and said, ‘Okay, let’s do this’.  She loved attention, she loved being groomed, loved company.  She was obviously a real people horse, despite what had happened to her. It was pretty amazing.”
Jewell decided to adopt Kessie, waiving all payment in exchange for the little horse that had touched her soul. She wanted to take Kessie home and continue treating her there, but she kept her at the SPCA for about a week to allow the filly to gain strength, as Kessie had really struggled in the trailer the first time.
Once she did get her home, however, her recovery was anything but a smooth ride. Explains Jewell, “After I got her home there were a couple of rough times. She went three-legged lame again due to reinfection about three weeks into treatment, and I thought, that’s it – this horse can’t be saved. I actually felt relieved, because I was completely exhausted, trying to run a practice on my own and having this mare that needed round the clock care. So, I drew up the euthanol one more time – but same thing happened: Kessie somehow communicated to me that she wasn’t ready to go, and I just couldn’t do it. The next day, Kessie rallied again, despite the infection, and we bonded even more. It was a real emotional roller coaster for a while, for sure.”
The battle Jewell was fighting had two main fronts: the eye, which she still wasn’t sure she could save, and the ever-present specter of an incurable bone infection. Both the skull fracture and the damaged leg were vulnerable to such infection, but the leg was actually a much greater concern,. “If there was a sequestrum (dead, separated bone that antibiotics can’t reach) in the head area, we could have just taken it out, but if she developed a primary infection in the humerus, well, that probably would have been the end.”
To deal with the soft tissue infection and try to prevent it from spreading to the bone, Jewell switched to a regime of two totally different antibiotics from what she had used initially, and went with that for two weeks. In addition, Jewell started using some homeopathic remedies, as well as herbal concoctions in the wound – a treatment modality Jewell was just beginning to explore. “Fortunately,” says Jewell, “Kessie started responding to that regime, but we were still not free and clear. She had IV catheters in both jugulars because both antibiotics were IV, and she had to be rewrapped all the time – it was an extremely labor intensive treatment.   It was a good month before she was out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.” 
Kessie did eventually turn the corner for good, and Jewell was even able to save her eye. Today, Kessie is a happy, healthy mare, though her face retains a noticeable depression below the left eye, and her third eyelid does not function normally on that side. However, her leg healed beautifully. “It’s pretty unbelievable,” says Jewell, “because if you could have seen that de-gloving injury -- she had no hide on about 80% of her leg, and it all grew back in.”
Though the time, expense and emotional energy Kessie’s treatment required was more than most veterinarians would have taken on, Jewell’s heart compelled her to do. As she states, “It truly was a labor of love --  I simply fell in love with her. As soon as I decided that we were going to take her from the owner’s property, nothing else was really a decision, it was just something I had to do. The initial plan was that I would treat her and the SPCA would reimburse me for the medical expenses and such, but in the end I just basically traded the SPCA the medical bill for her.”
Kessie’s treatment also provided Jewell with a new perspective, in a number of ways. “I had just begun my study of homeopathy and chiropractic, and Kessie was kind of my guinea pig horse that I tried a lot of things on. I truly think that there were a couple of homeopathic and herbal remedies that really helped turn her around.  She was my first serious case where I integrated Western medicine and holistic medicine, and I was impressed with the results.
“Dealing with Kessie also made me braver – I’m totally unafraid of taking on tough cases. I think that animals have far more innate ability to heal than I understood prior to that, and I’ve certainly seen that in my practice since. If you just give them a chance and give them the care they deserve, they can, in many cases, come back from some pretty horrendous injuries. In Kessie’s case, she really let me know that she wanted to keep fighting, and I had to listen. It was a decision that she was very much a part of.”
Jewell kept Kessie until last year, when she made the difficult decision to part with the mare for Kessie’s benefit. As she explains, “About four years ago we got really heavily involved at a high level in endurance riding, and we’ve got ten endurance horses now. I went from having little time with Kessie to having no time for her, and she’s a horse that really craves attention. I tried to get a free lease situation arranged so that she could stay here, but nothing really worked out.
“Then a client of mine, Lori Clewlow of Roberts Creek, BC, lost one of her horses, and she ended up taking Kessie.  If you know Lori – gosh, I want to be adopted by her! She looks after her animals so incredibly well, and I thought that if they clicked, that would be a great place for her to be. Jimmy, one of Lori’s other horses, used to belong to me, and he and Kessie had been together before for about 3-4 years, so it was kind of a reunion for them, too.”  Kessie is now Queen of the Clewlow pasture, enjoying excellent care, lots of grazing and leisurely rides through the lushly wooded coastal trails.
The one lingering sour note is the fact that Kessie’s original owner was never brought to justice.  Says Jewell, “We tried extremely hard to have him charged with animal cruelty. We had a trial date and I was all set to go testify, then the case was dismissed. What the SPCA told me was that one of the other veterinarians refused to testify, and so the owner was let go without so much as a fine. That was a really sad time, especially as it wasn’t the first time for that guy.” There is still emotion in Jewell’s voice when she adds, “I must say, it’s embarrassing to be human sometimes, to see the stupidity and the cruelty that our species can inflict upon other animals.”
             Embarrassing and disheartening, without a doubt. When faced with such cases, we can only hope that the goodness and selflessness of people like Dr. Jewell will triumph in the end, as it did in the case of one small appaloosa filly – who was clearly willing to forgive us all.

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