Mind Over Miller: 'Twas the night before Christmas

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Dec 01, 2007

I was on emergency call for 32 consecutive Christmas Eves—and I remember almost every call I had to make.

In 1959, Thousand Oaks was a small town. It could have been called Thousand People. It had only one physician—Dr. Mario Zoller—and one radiography machine—mine. On Christmas Eve, Dr. Zoller called me because a patient's mother-in-law had stepped off the bus to spend the holiday with her family and had gotten clipped by a passing car. Dr. Zoller thought she had fractured her wrist, but he needed me to X-ray it to be sure.

Well, the lady did have a fracture. And 20 years later her son-in-law was still telling people, "My mother-in-law got run over by a car, so we took her to the vet."

I'll never forget the Ortega family, whose cow came down with milk fever on Christmas Eve. The family was anguished when I arrived. I tried to reassure them as I started administering the intravenous calcium solution. They were overjoyed at the cow's dramatic recovery. In gratitude, they presented me with a huge box of tamales, a traditional Mexican Christmas dish. My wife, Debby, and I ate tamales for a week afterward.


Dr. Miller (left), assisted by his partner and friend Dr. Robert Kind, examines the eyes of an injured fox called Darryl.
The most memorable Christmas Eve story of them all started when Jack Chambers called because he had found an unconscious fox, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. He said he'd pay me to examine the fox and see what I could do.

The fox, a California gray, was in intensive care for two days before slowly regaining consciousness. A mature male, the fox made no attempt to bite, and we successfully spoon-fed him. We split the hospital bill with the Chamberses, and they took the fox home.

Gradually the fox, named Darryl, the 20th Century Fox, recovered except that he seemed to be blind and had lost his sense of smell. Darryl would not eat unless the food was spooned into his mouth. His eyes were normal, but because of brain damage, he could not interpret what his eyes perceived. Interestingly, Darryl had lost all hostility and aggressiveness. He would cringe in fear but never bite.

Darryl became a house pet. He rode in the car and played with the family cat. One day, he was visiting the hospital and his vision returned. I was taking a photo of him outside on a leash when another client arrived with a large dog. Darryl cringed, and his pupils abruptly distended. He could see!

Six months after Christmas, Darryl was asleep on the fireplace mantel when a visiting neighbor tried to stroke him and he bit her. His brain had repaired itself. From then on, he would attempt to bite whenever he was handled.

Eventually Darryl returned to the wild, and the Chamberses never saw him again. But one day, they came home to find several wastebaskets overturned—one of Darryl's favorite tricks. He had apparently entered through an open window.

A year later, a client who lived in the canyon in which Darryl had been found asked me if foxes got rabies. I said yes and asked why.

"We have a fox around here that sits on the windowsill, looking through the glass. But if we step outside, it runs off."

I told him about Darryl, and we agreed that it must be the same fox, confused by his wild instincts and his memories of six months of human kindness.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at http://www.robertmmiller.com/.