The Big Gulp

Our latest column from William Thomas

A few years back, I wrote about Mark Hatterer of York, Penn., who bravely went where few men have gone before: headfirst into a stinking septic tank. On purpose. But for a very good reason – to save the life of a dog.

Mark saved Scottie, a Terrier who, while sniffing the sweet fumes of an open cesspool, got dizzy and fell in, thrusting Mark reluctantly into the role of a hero. A dirty, filthy, dripping hero, but a saviour nonetheless.

Mark successfully applied CPR to the unconscious Scottie, bringing him back with the breath of life. In the absence of witnesses, it’s still unclear who threw up first. This was the only case I’d ever heard of in which a human rescue technique was successfully applied to a dog – until I met Maureen Fredrickson at her farm in Fredonia, NY.

An absolute animal lover, Maureen has created a kind of healing homestead, where emotionally damaged people achieve recovery by developing ‘gentle touch’ and trusting body language while interacting with her menagerie of horses, donkeys, chickens and turkeys in her huge, arena-like barn. Animal Systems operates weekend group seminars and one-on-one therapy sessions for people not dealing well with the nightmares of their past. The dogs and birds lived in the house.

One day, Maureen arrived home with a prized addition to her lineup of therapists: a young and very sociable Cockatiel. The small crested parrot from Australia, with a yellow head and grey body, was everything Maureen looked for in a teaching assistant – gentleness and predictability. Moreover, the bird liked people more than other birds.

Watching him flop around on the kitchen counter that first day, taking measure of his new home, she wondered what to name him. Just then, her roommate Greg came into the kitchen with the dogs, having just finished their daily walk. New bird, old dogs – there was suddenly an awful lot of staring going on.

Even under the best conditions, a tall, long-snouted Irish Wolfhound can be quite intimidating. To a small bird in an unfamiliar environment, big, gangly Gaibhne (pronounced “Go-Nee”) must have looked like the Loch Ness Monster – which could be the reason the young Cockatiel lost his balance and fell awkwardly to the floor.

Maureen’s dogs are working dogs and after a long day at the healing barn, the house is theirs for rest and relaxation. So, there aren’t a lot of rules in the house, except one: anything that hits the floor is theirs.

Before the bird could pick himself up from an unceremonious landing, Gaibhne was on him like he was a table scrap from a Thanksgiving buffet. In a flash, two people frozen in fright, watched what the chain of 7-Eleven stores might call The Big Gulp. Before Maureen or Greg could move, the dog had swallowed the Cockatiel whole.

Maureen lunged for the Wolfhound and pried open its jaws, only to see the bird’s trembling tail feathers sticking out of the dog’s throat. Her only option would be to grab the tail and yank hard, but she was pretty sure she’d only end up with a handful of feathers.

Before she had to make that decision, though, Greg straddled the dog from behind. He had been in the restaurant business and the chart on the wall came back to him:

  1. Wrap your arms around the victim’s waist.
  2. Make a fist against the victim’s upper abdomen, below the rib cage and above the navel.
  3. Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into the victim’s abdomen with a quick, upward thrust.

After hesitating about where a dog might keep its navel, Greg did the hug and jerk on Gaibhne and in doing so, performed a successful Heimlich maneuver. The bird shot out of the dog’s mouth and across the room like a cruise missile – only damp and backwards. The look of surprise on both the dog and the bird was something Marlin Perkins never captured in 25 years of filming Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

It may not have been the first ever successful Heimlich maneuver on a dog, but it had to be the only time in history an Irish Wolfhound ever barfed up a parrot. H. J. Heimlich would be proud, if not a little confused.

Both dog and bird lived wearily ever after. Maureen said the Cockatiel never felt comfortable around big dogs after that. And the dog never trusted small birds. Eventually he did go on to eating other snacks.

However, the collision of two unrelated links on the food chain had solved one problem: the bird’s name. It was a no-brainer after what he’d been through. Maureen named him Jonah.

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