Updated: May 6, 2014 at 7:26 am
Marv Maul is right-handed, but there have been two things over the years that he has regularly done left-handed.
One is to throw a Frisbee. The other is to perform rectal palpations on cows - sticking his arm deep enough into the rectum of the cow to feel the uterus and to qualify him, he jokes, as "a member of the exclusive veterinary society called the Order of the Green Armpit." Rectal palpations are a way to determine if a cow is pregnant.
Maul emailed me after a recent column on mules to share his memories of Bonnie, a mule born on the Maul family ranch in Kiowa; Bonnie was a hard worker with some peculiarities - she, for example, hated having anyone touch her ears - and spent her retirement years grazing in a well-grassed pasture before being struck and killed by lightning.
Maul mentioned that he had grown up on the family ranch and had been in practice decades ago as a rural veterinarian. Intrigued, I met with Maul at his Colorado Springs home, figuring he would have some interesting tales to share about country life - and I was right.
His great-granddad started the ranch in Elbert County in the 1870s and it is still in the family, raising mostly cattle. Since the family wanted to produce as much of their feed for the cattle as possible, that also meant a lot of farming, such as growing alfalfa hay and corn for silage. Maul's childhood - he was the youngest of four boys - was marked by a lot of hard work, but "we were a happy bunch," he says.
His dad, he says, "was not a big believer in some of the new-fangled farm machinery that came out." Maul spent a lot of his childhood on the seat of a horse-drawn sulky rake, used to collect hay.
He learned to drive at age 8, not unusual for farm boys. He started off in a 1937 International pickup - having to stand since his feet couldn't reach the pedals otherwise - and went on to drive tractors as well.
The country life posed dangers; as youngsters, Maul and his brothers worked with "unpredictable work horses." Despite accidents such as a crash involving an out-of-control team of horses and a hay rig, Maul avoided serious injury. But his father - who lived to age 90 - wasn't so lucky. He lost the use of an eye when a horse somersaulted with him in the saddle and his hand was crushed in a straw-baling accident; the accident caused John Deere to redesign the part of the machine that caught his dad's hand, Maul says.
Maul's career path was sparked by the loss of a steer - a 4H project - to bloat.
"I watched my steer die," he says. "I didn't know what to do. My dad wasn't around; he would have known what to do." Frustration over that death inspired him to go to vet school at Colorado State University. It was in college that he met his wife, Nancy; the two have been married for 56 years and have a daughter, son-in-law and grandson.
When he graduated from vet school, he also had nearly six years in Air Force ROTC and expected to go into the Air Force. "I actually had my first lieutenant commission," he says. Then he got a letter from the draft board, offering him an indefinite deferment from the draft if he opened a vet practice in Elbert County, which had no veterinarians.
"I didn't know what to do," he says. "I decided to reject my commission and start my practice right away. To this day, I don't know if I made the right decision."
He was "green as grass" when he opened his practice, which in the rural setting was largely devoted to large animals, particularly cattle. Which brings us back to those rectal palpations - and that green muck up to his armpit as he reached inside the cow. Determining if a cow was pregnant, and if so how far along, was a service that was highly desired by ranchers.
"I developed quite a proficiency at doing this," Maul says. "I don't know how many thousands of cows I did over the years."
Maul covered Elbert County and eastern El Paso County; he racked up 60,000 miles a year on his truck, mostly on rough, dirt roads. And, after 10 years, he was exhausted. So when a representative from The Upjohn Co. suggested he apply for a job, he did.
It was his experience checking cattle for pregnancies that got him the job; the Michigan company was developing a drug to synchronize the heat cycle in cattle and required his expertise. When that drug failed to pan out, he became a liaison between Upjohn and the Food and Drug Administration. He moved onto a similar job with another company, Syntex, in California; in all, he spent a quarter-century in the animal pharmaceutical industry. He retired in 1990 and he and Nancy returned to Colorado.
Maul, at a fit-looking 81, keeps a finger on the pulse of the ranching industry; an older brother, Walt, and Walt's son operate the family ranch. "We try to get out there to help from time to time," Maul says. He's a member of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and previously served as chair of the group's animal health committee. His writings have appeared in a rural publication, The Fence Post. And he still knows a few of the old-timers out in the country.
Despite the challenges of his long-ago decade in practice, he has fond memories of the ranchers and others he worked with.
"I loved the people in the area. They were honest, hard-working people. Many were as poor as church mice, but they were good about paying their veterinary bills. They were good, wonderful people."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots.
Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford
on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.