Tanaka, ears down, signals "come pet me."Photo by: Robert Winslow

 by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

Jean walked into the office. “Tanaka isn’t feeling good….”

Jean never says that for anything mild. Last time he said that, the wolf died.

Tanaka is a gorgeous, sweet, loving, three year-old wolf. In a panic we put him in the back of the Subaru. I petted and reassured him as Jean drove us all to Maura, our vet. Meanwhile she obligingly cleared her day’s appointments. On the ride over he hung his head over the front seat to be closer to us for reassurance.

Tanaka the wolf on the way to vet, not feeling very well at all

What could be wrong with a healthy three year-old suddenly taken desperately ill? He was coughing, hunched over in obvious pain, and scared. Blood work – pretty normal – slight elevation in white blood count. Dehydrated. Maura, looking in his beautiful face asked, “Have his eyes always been crossed like that?” We took a look. “As a matter of fact, no.” “Huh,” she said. “Horner’s Syndrome. Let’s get an x-ray.” She and Jean lifted him onto the x-ray table, so gentle and accepting, that big black wolf with the golden eyes. No anesthesia or tranquilizer. Just trust.

Tanaka, sweet natured as always, even while being examined

Jean carries Tanaka back to the x-ray room

While I held his head in my hands murmuring to him, Jean and Maura arranged him on the table and took the x-rays. He was scared but reassured by our presence, let them move him, turn him over, arrange him on the table. I would give a lot for a film of that (vicious, innately-dangerous man-eating species).

Maura located the shadow of a large foreign object in his esophagus; the cause of the Horner’s Syndrome – pressure on the nerve that goes to the eye. She gave us a detailed education on the esophagus – more than I wanted to know at the moment, the main point that it doesn’t heal once punctured, which is fatal. She couldn’t try to pull the object out because it was so far down it was beyond the reach on any instrument she had. The only option was to try to gently push it down with the help of a soft pliable lubricated tube to prevent injury to the delicate lining, into the stomach where it could be digested or if needed, removed through an operation. Time was of the essence. His coughing and natural motion of the esophagus would only make the injuries worse and anytime there is blockage there is the possibility of aspiration pneumonia where liquid get into the lungs and that too can be fatal.

She tried and tried with ever larger plastic tubes but the object didn’t move – it was caught somehow. As the tube came back with increasing amounts of blood she finally said, ”I can’t do anymore without danger or serious injury. The only option is to drive him to across the state to Boise where they have the right equipment – a scope with long pliable tubes, cameras and grips.” Boise was 6 hours away at best and it was already 2:30pm. My heart sank. Would he survive the trip and then still longer until a doctor could see him tomorrow? Maura said they are open 24 hours a day and that was that. We drove him home, threw in a sleeping bag and pillow for Jean, packed him some food, water and credit card. The most reliable of our cars is an old Subaru, but it was too small to put in a cage that would fit such a large wolf so Jean folded down the seats, put in a soft mattress for him, lifted him into the rear of the Subaru and without further thought Jean, with flu, and frantic with worry, took off across the state…

Maura our vet tries to dislodge the obstruction in Tanaka‘s esophagus as
an exhausted and worried Jean looks on

I waited all night to hear. I couldn’t sleep. Had he gotten there safely? Had the doctors been able to help? Was Tanaka still alive? No call. At eight in the morning I went to the office – there were 6 calls from Jean. In his exhaustion and stress, complicated by his ADD, he called the number he was most familiar with. The first message, “Susan I’m lost. I don’t know where I am at. I think I am in Idaho Falls.” The call was at 9:30 at night. He was supposed to be in Boise at 8:30pm, and he was five hours away. According to the message he hadn’t even made it to Boise yet and was driving around in confusion with a sick wolf loose in the back? What would happen if he were stopped?! Had he been circling for 5 hours? How could I get to him? He tends not to answer his phone.

I had visions of him circling aimlessly with a dying wolf loose in the car – who would be willing to help him? Tanaka may gentle be but he is an imposing animal and he is a wolf. In Idaho, where the attitudes towards wolves are neither rational nor friendly. With Jean appearing confused and a wolf in the car, would the cops arrest him and shoot the wolf? They certainly wouldn’t have holding facilities for him. A few more messages – one from a Walgreen’s – then silence. The next message was from the vet clinic about 2 am. “Jean just left here but left his paperwork behind.” So I at least knew he had made it! I asked if Tanaka made it. The secretary kindly researched the paperwork and said, “It seems so – they were both released a few minutes ago.”

I tried his cell phone again and this time he answered, very groggy. “Where are you? Is he alive? Are you safe?” “Somewhere west of Pocatello – I’m pulling off and sleeping. He’s OK.”

There wasn’t much room in the back- one very large wolf and one man in a small car. It must have been very intimate……

As more of the story came out, Jean had arrived in Boise after dark and became confused with all the streets. It was pitch dark and we have no GPS. He forgot his glasses and couldn’t read the instructions. Frantic and disoriented, he parked in the lot of a large drugstore and asked a clerk at Walgreen’s to give him directions. But they were complicated, so his solution to get there as fast as possible – call a cab. The cab arrived. Jean told him he had an “animal” he had to take to the vet. He lifted Tanaka into the back, put himself in the front and with his arm over the seat caressing Tanaka’s head, off they drove. He gave the cabbie a very large tip.

After careful examination of the x rays, the doctors began the operation. For three hours they worked, pulling piece after piece of large, jagged-edged hard black plastic out of his stomach and through his esophagus, being as gentle as possible. Once it was over they put him in a cage to wake up from the anesthesia, and be observed. Exhausted, Jean asked for a pillow, crawled into the cage with him and legs sticking out its door, fell asleep.

When they both woke, Jean couldn’t remember where he had parked the Subaru. He found a card in his pocket with the cab company- that was the first clue. The other was he had pulled into a large parking lot by a drugstore. With the help of a computer they located several possibilities, called the cab company to check their records; traced it back to a couple of possible location. The cab picked him up and they prepared to searched the city for likely place. To his relief there they found it on the first try. It sat alone in the large Walgreen’s parking lot. He picked up Tanaka, and began the drive home.

When I had called to make the arrangements the clinic was all atwitter. Did he have his vaccinations?? Did he have his rabies? Would his handler stay with him all the time? I reassured them that the “handler” would be with him like Velcro including in the operating room; they wouldn’t be able to separate the two, and that despite his imposing presence he was really gentle. They were unimpressed. I called Maura and asked her to call the clinic before they met the two with machine guns and machetes. I think seeing Tanaka getting out of the back seat of a cab probably eased their fears some.

When I called to speak to the doctor in the morning there was quite a different tone. “What a beautiful animal!” “He was no problem!” “Better than most dogs!” “That wolf was a gentleman! Call us anytime!” Tanaka strikes one for wolves…

The Subaru drove up slowly in the late morning with a cheerful Tanaka and a pitiful Jean. We were to give him a raft of medications: for pain, inflammation, infection, pneumonia, coating for his esophagus, and Prilosec, to prevent acid from going back up and damaging the tissue further. The doctor said there was widespread damage to the lining, but he couldn’t see anything that was deep so he should be OK.

I made them both chicken soup.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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