Veterinary Tales From FitOldDog As A Youth: Catching the Barn on Fire!

Hi folks

I realized recently that I continue to blog because I enjoy storytelling. Deb’s 13-year old son, Nick, will frequently say, “Kevin, tell us a story. Please!!!” Just imagine your most ancient of ancestors sitting around a fire in some part of what is now called Africa, looking at the stars and wondering about it all. No television. No radio. No books. The most popular person at that time might well have been the storyteller. Stories bring joy, assuage fears, convey life lessons, and they feel good to tell if the audience is appreciative. We are a storytelling species, which resulted in the desire to record the best tales, and  led to cave paintings, ancient tablets, papyrus, paper, the printing press, typewriters, and finally, this computer.

Of the stories I have to tell, the ones that children or young adults seem to like best come from my days in veterinary practice in England in the late 1960s. I told one such story recently on the Heartosaurus blog entitled ‘Pride Cometh Before a Fall.’ These are true tales of a young veterinarian, yours truly, who eventually transmogrified into a scientist, and was then transformed into an older athlete with an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). On the surface, veterinary tales might appear unrelated to athletes, AAA-stent grafts, or this blog. They are, in fact, highly relevant to the AAA community, and to any person wanting to continue living a full life in spite of major health challenges. The bridge between these worlds lies with your inner child from whence, I suspect, can spring your fears, joys and playfulness.

We (our phenotypes) are the product of an ancient genetic lineage combined with a lifetime of interactions between constantly mutating individual genotypes and the plethora of environments in which we each experience life’s journey. This saga is nicely portrayed by Richard Dawkins in his enthralling book, ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’.

The Ancestor’s Tale. A saga well worth reading, told by a master zoologist and communicator. From:

Our environments are molded by a vast range of variables, including nutritional history, a mother singing to a fetus, the emotional challenges of peer-peer interactions associated with adolescence and individuation, our careers and so forth. What a bewildering array of ‘things’ makes us each who we are, mentally and physically, and ‘who we are’ will determine how well we handle the strains and stresses that accompany AAA or any other really irritating health setback. Buried in your body-mind are memories of all of these events. They live on, inside of you, almost like a separate younger person with their own thoughts and feelings.

I have been fortunate to be accompanied during my journey through adulthood by a strong-willed inner child, my 5-year-old Kevin. This guy really helped me to overcome my AAA (with the assistance of modern medicine and surgery, of course), and to continue training and, more importantly, playing. This inner Kevin has been with me since the age of 5, and here is a story in which he was an important actor on the stage of my life, and that young Nick seemed to enjoy a great deal.

Once upon a time in a land far away (England in 1969, distant both in terms of time and place), there was a young veterinarian who was experiencing first-hand the life of James Herriot. These events are probably still talked about in the local pub to this day, by one old farmer at least. I was undertaking a routine visit to a remote farm in Somerset to deal with a bloated sheep.

Bloat in a sheep, which has to be ‘depressurized’ or the sheep will die. From:

The sheep was owned by a young farmer, approximately my own age (late 20s), and he was a nice chap. During my examination of the sheep in an old barn, he asked me about the mechanisms of bloat, a condition that causes methane to accumulate in the animal’s rumen (a large part of the stomach, which is populated by an entire ecosystem of bacteria and protozoa that digest the grass).

In fact, here they are:

I spent some time studying these impressive little guys when I left practice and entered sheep diseases research, but that is another story. One product of grass digestion in all ruminants, including sheep, is a large amount of the flammable gas, methane, which they are constantly ‘burping’ out through their mouth under the control of the eructation reflex. I told the young farmer that this gas was trapped in the sheep, and after trying other remedies, it was clear that I would have to use a trocar and cannula to let the gas escape, and then all would be well.

Trocar and cannula similar to the type I used to relieve life-threatening bloat in sheep. From:

This astute young man then asked me if I had ever ignited the gas as it escaped through the cannula. I said that I had not, but would be only too willing to do so in this case if he was agreeable, as I considered the sheep to be at no risk from what I expected to be a small blue flame. We were just a couple of boys, really.

He went in search of a match, and then I inserted the trocar and cannula (the tube that remains in the sheep for a short while to permit the gas to escape) and proceeded to pull out the trocar to release the methane. He was poised with a lighted match, and WOOOOOSSSHHH! A bluish-yellow flame about eight feet long shot out of the cannula, barely missing us, and proceeded to set light to some straw bales that were piled high behind us. It was with great difficulty that we extinguished the blaze, and then we laughed ourselves silly. The sheep was fine, by the way. I bet that story about the ‘young vitenry and a flaming yaw’ was worth a pint or two down the local pub that night.

I didn’t have a camera at my disposal at the time, and I was unable to find a movie showing an ovine methane flamethrower, so here is the best that I could do, a clip of methane being ignited as it escapes from a frozen lake. At the end of the clip you hear the same noise that we did during our adventure.

I never did dare to try it in a cow. Chicken, I guess.

-k @FitOldDog



  1. Strange coincidence.
    I have been searching (without success) for small scale digester designs to manufacture methane domestically as a houshold fuel.
    We are surrounded by things that can rot (including us when we pop our clogs) and bacteria to rot them with.
    Our engineers are obsessed with economies of scale (not having read up the all important diseconomies of scale, distribution to market being a big one!)
    Smale scale methane production could help bridge the gap now that the world has passed peak oil production and must be weaned off of oil.
    Cow fart flames are 8-10 feet long and the tail must be tied back to stop injury!
    I heard a garbled version of the tale you tell here in Wellington but the sheep had morphed into a bull and the flame was 20 foot long…
    As for story tellers our ancestors in so-called anglo-saxon times had their Skops who recited long tales like Beowulf and their riddles like the Exeter Book of Riddles

    For example:-

    Exeter Riddle No. 25

    I’m a strange creature, for I satisfy women,
    a service to the neighbors! No on suffers
    at my hands except for my slayer.
    I grow tall, erect in a bed,
    I’m hairy underneath. From time to time
    a good-looking girl, the doughty daughter
    of some churl dares to hold me,
    grips my russet skin, robs me of my head
    and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl
    with plaited hair who has confined me
    remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens.

    What am I

    An onion

    • Kevin Morgan says

      Hi Trevor,

      I nearly ‘unapproved’ your riddle, but then I read the punchline.

      Oh! By the way. That incident with the sheep flamethrower actually occurred whilst I was working at the Wellington veterinary practice. Odd coincidence!

      Kind Regards and thanks again for interesting comments.


  2. Not my riddle. It is 1100 years old ans sounds better on Old English.

    I have been reading up on methane digesters to make the gas as a domestic fuel. Scope there for small scale engineering now we have passed peak oil production and new fuels need to be sought.

  3. Not my riddle. It is 1100 years old and sounds better on Old English.

    I have been reading up on methane digesters to make the gas as a domestic fuel. Scope there for small scale engineering now we have passed peak oil production and new fuels need to be sought.

  4. Catharine Hennessy says

    That’s excellent! I have some fun stories following my large animal veterinary practice days, and all involved amusing and dynamic situations, but none were of my personal direction and instigation. You are admired for your initiative on this one!

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.