Many thanks to horse vet and Barnmice member, Geoff Tucker, for allowing us to share this story.
“Hello? Is this Dr Tucker?” the phone caller asked. “Yes it is,” I said as I was driving my family home from the movies about 9 pm Saturday night. “Good. Can you come out and kill my horse tonight?”
Thinking it might be a prank call, I returned a quick reply, “Let me check my schedule.” My family looked on in silence as they listened to the one sided conversation.
“I know this sounds strange, but I’m sure my horse has rabies. He’s acting very strange. We saw a raccoon in the barn last week. My vet won’t come out.”
I took the family home then drove into the night to the old dairy barn about 10 miles out of town. The mood in the barn was somber as I entered the yellow of the incandescent lights. The husband met me at the barn door and the wife stood on the far side.
The small old dairy barn had been gutted of all the cow stanchions. Now, the wide open and clean area had 6 horse stalls made only of one 2 x 6 12 foot long board on three sides. The back wall of one side of the barn was made of stone to hold back the earth where the barn had been built into a hill.
The chestnut gelding stood quietly in the middle stall with his chest gently resting against the front board. The wife explained, “We saw a raccoon walk into the barn last Sunday. Our horses leaned down to sniff at it and the raccoon scratched our gelding on the nose.” She continued, “Our vet vaccinated all the others but said vaccinating this one was against the law.” I told her that he had been correct. Because the horse had not been eating, her vet thought it might have been a dental issue and the teeth were floated. There had been no improvement and in fact, the horse had become more depressed.
I took a moment to explain that the number one sign of rabies in the horse was colic and depression. Then I asked her to place the halter on the horse so I could examine him. “Well Doc, you’re gonna have to do that yourself.” Surprised, I took the halter from her and approached the sleeping horse.
There was no gate, only the three 2 x 6 by 12 foot boards on three sides nailed into the 6 x 6 posts at the corners of the stalls. I walked slowly towards his head with a plan of slipping his nose through the nose piece then lifting the crown piece over the ears as I stood directly in front of him. The gelding had other plans. He snapped out towards me biting the halter with his teeth and shook it vigorously as I held the other end of the halter.
I pulled the halter away then stood looking at the again sleeping horse standing in front of me, a thin breakable board between me and him. My kneecaps shook uncontrollably as I stared at the horse, then to the owners, then back to the horse. For the next hour I tried half a dozen different ways to inject an overdose of sedative. Every time I approached the sleeping horse, he would turn and charge me, teeth open, and bouncing firmly against the single board that kept the deranged horse from imparting his blind rage on my body.
After exhausting all possibilities, the man asked about shooting him. He had a shotgun with deer slugs, but his fear was that when the first slug hit, the horse would go insane and charge through the board and savage any person in site. I agreed with his worries. I had no experience with killing any animal this size with an inflamed brain and irrational behavior. He went to get his gun.
He kneeled 20 feet away and quieted himself. I had drawn a picture of where the heart was located because the brain needed to be left intact for the postmortem diagnosis. The man went into a trance, then pulled the trigger. Five bullets made ten holes with 1 inch diameter flows of blood pouring out onto the ground. The horse dropped to the ground and died quickly. I had to put my hand on the man’s shoulder to stop him from pulling the trigger on the now empty gun. I called the college for a pick up of the horse. It was now almost Sunday morning.
Three days later I received a call from the New York State Health Department. “Dr Tucker?” I answered, “Yes?” After identifying himself, the official instructed me to go to the hospital for my post exposure rabies treatment. The horse’s head had been sent to the state diagnostic lab and the tell-tale signs of a positive rabies infection was evident in his brain.
I received the two large gamma globulin shots in my lower buttocks followed by immunization injections that day, then on day 3, 7, 14 and 28. All others exposed to the gelding also received the same treatment. This would give us protection for about 10 years and it was about that long before I thought I had become exposed to rabies again.
I stood in front of a horse whose owner had complained that the mare wasn’t eating. She thought it could be the teeth, but I have found that horses with tooth issues usually were hungry and CAN’T eat. My mind drifted back 10 years to the day I saw the rabid gelding. A horse not eating and depressed. As I was about to place my hand and arm into the horse’s mouth, I asked if the horse had been vaccinated for rabies.
“Hmmmm, Let me think. Maybe…. Yes, I think,” she said. I hesitated. Rabies was on the list of possibilities for this horse’s illness if she had not been vaccinated. I wondered why, for only a little amount of money, would someone not protect their horse against this devastating disease. I counted the years since my own vaccination and decided to go ahead with the oral exam.
My arm was deep in the mouth when my eye caught movement at the barn door. At 2 in the afternoon, a raccoon waddled into the barn. My mouth went dry. I muttered something to the owner and my eyes bugged as I pointed with my free hand towards the door. The look of fear on my face brought concern to the owner. I literally was speechless.
The owner turned towards the door, then laughed and said, “Oh, that’s Maggie! She’s our pet raccoon!” I all but collapsed with relief.