Santa Fe veterinarian finds the hardest part of his job is not being able to converse with his patients
Dennis Jenkins’ biggest workplace frustration is the human inability to tell animals what’s ailing them. Jenkins has been a veterinarian for large animals since 1986.
A strawberry-colored stud, with an intravenous line attached to his neck, grazes on the pasture of Jenkins’ Santa Fe practice. The horse looks morose. Its head is drooping. The animal was suffering from choke, which is caused by blockage of the esophagus, usually by food.
Choke occurs when a horse doesn’t chew its food properly, usually because of dental issues or because the animal isn’t producing enough saliva. When a horse suffers from choke, it can’t swallow, causing digesting food to resurface through the nostrils. Untreated, the condition is deadly.
“A horse eats, no matter what,” Jenkins said. “You can’t tell them to stop. You can’t look them in the eye and explain why they are in pain either.”
Jenkins treated the horse’s condition with a drug that induces muscle contractions.
Jenkins is a Texas A&M University at College Station graduate. He wears the university’s maroon scrubs proudly. He’s had his practice on 3417 Ave. J in Santa Fe since 1990. Jenkins only recently took on an associate, a decision encouraged by his wife, who hoped for the occasional undisturbed vacation.
As Jenkins and I talk, the phone rings and another potential choke case is on its way. Jenkins shakes his head. Ten years ago, he never saw more than a couple of choke cases a year, but now they’re quite frequent, he said. The increase in such cases might be attributed to added growth hormones in the grain that makes up part of a horse’s feed, or too much molasses, Jenkins said.
The new case rolls into the yard in a trailer and a brown mare is subsequently tied to the stand where horses are examined.
Grace is a former rescue animal from Habitat for Horses in Hitchcock; her owner has had her for a couple of years. It’s hard to tell who’s more nervous, the horse or the owner.
Jenkins’ veterinarian technician, Kaitie Barczak, administers a sedative before gently twitching the horse’s upper lip in a wired loop. Twitching releases endorphins, relaxing the animal. Jenkins inserts a tube through Grace’s nostril. If it finds its way into the stomach without obstruction, the esophagus is clear and the horse doesn’t have choke. Turns out, the horse is fine except for an upper respiratory infection. Grace blows her nostrils like a steam engine and shakes her head, eliciting relieved laughter from all present, including Jenkins.
Because it’s important to keep a horse’s teeth healthy, the animals have their own dentists. Stacy Chaffin has her hand deep in a Paint horse’s mouth that morning. Chaffin is holding on to what looks like a gigantic electric toothbrush. Her patient isn’t very calm because the veterinarian practice is surrounded by other horses, some of them mares belonging to Jenkins’ wife, Kay, who runs accessories store Doc’s Boutique in Santa Fe. Eventually, the horse gives in to tranquilizers and the calm words of the people surrounding him. Soon, he’ll step out with a perfect smile to win over the lassies.
Jenkins used to treat cattle, but because most big herds have left the area, he now only distributes the occasional round of vaccines. His practice, however, is fitted with state-of-the art X-ray machines and can accommodate just about any large animal.
Eying an old mare suffering from colic, Jenkins presses his lips into a thin line. He has tried everything in the book to help her, but now thinks she has suffered enough and that it might be time for her to go, he said.
“Sometimes, one needs to know when you can’t help them any longer,” Jenkins said. “The hardest part of my job is leaving emotions aside.”