Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008



Critters I Have Known and Loved


(Disclaimer: This is not one piece, but more of a thumbing through
a photo album and stopping to take a look at some of the snapshots.)

Sheryl Birkhead

I was born in a hospital in Washington D.C. and lived (until I was 9) in Landover Hills, Maryland. An interesting sidenote is that D.C. hospitals do not issue a Birth Certificate, but rather a Certificate of Birth Registration. Trying to convince the passport office that these are the same thing is... actually, a losing battle. But, I digress...


My father was raised on a farm in Kentucky-and my mother not on a farm in New Jersey. My father decided he wanted his kids raised on a farm (he was usually out of the country on government business, so Mom had to become a fast farmer understudy). I hated the weekend trips to look at farms. My parents found a farm and we were transplanted. She maintained there were two things she would never do- milk a cow and clean a chicken (in case you don't know- that means, essentially, gut it after it is killed)--she never did.

Our two cats Tom and Jerry disappeared and made the trip back to the only home they had ever known. While sighted at the old address, we never managed to catch them.

I remember my father killing our black Cocker Spaniel puppy, Inky, by hitting him in the head with a hammer. The puppy had contracted distemper and refused to take the medications we put in meatballs for him. This was before vaccinations and long before I could understand it was probably a most humane death.

That first winter on the farm, the pipes froze. They had been put in the farmhouse as an afterthought and were well above the freeze line. My father was away in the mountains of India. The plumber, a new licensee, tried to defrost the pipes using a blowtorch on the plaster and horsehair walls. Fire, oh yeah, bigtime. My mother tried to catch us at the new school, but missed the bus. My brother and I got off the bus to face smoking ruins in a town new to us. I must also say that the firemen had asked my mother if she wanted this wall or that and...whack.... I never knew that kitchen cabinets were as high as they are since the replacements that were built in were put at a height for her-- 5 feet.

We had to live in a “tourist” home for several months. A courier was sent into India with Power of Attorney papers for my father to sign allowing my mother to sign contracts to allow starting repairs in his absence. Times have changed.

Trial by fire?

glephchickenIt was my job to care for 250 laying hens. Those suckers were nasty. When I would come running into the house in tears because a hen had pecked me when I tried to collect eggs, my father would sternly tell me to stop didn’t hurt-wanna bet? Now go back and get.... Many times I ended up scrambling a dozen eggs while I squashed the hen back against the back of the nest with the egg basket so I could safely reach under her and get whatever eggs she had.

We had an egg route and delivered eggs every week. I remember one house that told my mother to be sure to come to the back door. Abruptly, one week, that same woman greeted my mother and called her Mrs. Birkhead--telling her to come right in and have coffee. Turns out she had just learned that my father had a PhD. My mother declined and continued to deliver the eggs to her back door.

Even today the “old-timers” check your pedigree before committing to anything. I still identify myself as Miz Evelyn’s daughter. Mom knew she had been accepted by the community when her appellation went from Miz. Birkhead to Miz. Evelyn.

dogI did not realize until I was a senior in veterinary school that I have issues with birds. On an externship to a public lab, we had go into a flock and draw blood samples to check for avian influenza. I found I simply could not make myself reach down an pick up a chicken. My partner stepped in and did the catching, while I did the blood drawing. Ah, childhood flashback.

Of course there was the garden and fruit raising...along with canning and jelly making. I cannot imagine how much my mother actually had to learn!

I do recall the first year my father instituted his family tradition of hog slaughtering at Thanksgiving. He asked a local fine furniture maker to come and help. I won’t go into the details-but it involved Mr. Cain locking himself in the pumphouse and refusing to come out until everything was over.


At the same time Mom was asked to get sausage made. She had absolutely no idea how to stuff sausage and called a friend to vent. The community we had moved to was one where everyone was related to everyone else--except us. No one would talk to us. Mrs. Magdeburger (Elviria!) was also an outsider, but a bit longer resident- whose husband worked on engineering of nuclear submarines. They had a farm up the street and Mom cal-led her to tell her she needed to find a sausage stuffer. We were on a phone-party line-- ours was three rings. Ten minutes after the call. Our phone rang--Miz Birkhead ... I understand you need a sausage stuffer.... My mother figured that if they had the nerve to offer, she had the nerve to accept.

My father wrapped the hams in cheese-cloth and hung them in the smoke-house. They were forgotten for months. Then, while my father was at work, my mother happened to open the smokehouse door and was shocked to see slimey green and yellow mold covered masses hanging there. She knew that her mother would never have put anything looking like that on their table.

She asked Frank- the guy who delivered the chicken feed- if he would like to have them-and was proud of herself when she gave them all away. My father popped a cork when he found that eight aged country hams were now gone.

I always loved animals and was horse crazy. I finally managed to talk my father into getting me a horse when I was 12. That summer I contracted a disease called Chorea or St. Vitus' Dance-a sequel to a strept infection.


I was confined to bed all that summer. I’d sit looking out the bedroom window at Lady in the back yard--crying my eyes out.

We had two dairy cows (Cookie and Blackie) which my brother and I had to feed and milk. My brother developed asthma and was allergic to most pollens, so I got to walk down to the pasture and bring them in since he could not walk past the cornfields. He also got glasses the day after a cow nearly ran him down in the barnyard and he said he had not even seen her.

We bought baby calves from local dairy farms to use the extra milk and, for a short time, made pets of them. Then I got to stand in the driveway and sob as they were driven to auction. We would also raise several steers a year that would end up in the freezer. I remember my father carving and applying an actual yoke to one steer that persisted in plowing right through any fence we would put up. So, while my father, was out of the country my mother would get phone calls from neighbors that the cows were out again and off we would go. There was one Christmas morning, early, that my brother and I ushered in chasing and screaming...trying to get Yokie back home. My mother said that was one steer where she enjoyed every forkful.

I had no idea what dental bills were since we gave our dentist a half a steer every few years. All this was because my father wanted up to learn responsibility.

I loved the cattle and wanted to raise and show them. I joined both girls' and boys' 4-H clubs one to learn about cooking and sewing and one to show cattle. I researched exotic (i.e. rare) beef breeds and even went out to some senator's farm to look at his Devons--but couldn't do it--beef cattle would have to be slaughtered every year. I ended up raising and showing Brown Swiss--here a milk breed Switzerland a dual purpose breed.

My parents would not allow me to take a day off from school to go pick out a heifer calf. My instructions to my mother (who had to make the purchasing trip alone--see note above)--were to get one with four spigots and pretty eyes. She did. Shadow--registered name Fogle's Meadow Barbie--was gorgeous.

I even had a pet rooster named Gimpy-he only had one and a half legs. Mostly I remember the day he klump-thumped across the concrete my father had poured to level the front porch. My father took off in quick pursuit- yelling and red-faced. Somehow the disabled bird, for the moment, managed to evade capture. Looking back now, I realize that Gimpy’s disappearance right after that probably meant he ended up on the Sunday table.

I raised Cali-fornian rabbits -- mine (the buck) was named BeanBrain- aka Beanie-and my brother owned the doe-Dolly. I was horrified to find out, after having sold several of their litters, that people were actually eating the babies. For the record- the first litter was named- Flopsie, Mopsie, Cottontail, Peter, Bugs, Oswald, and Clyde.


When I went off to college, I decided I could not face things such as euthanasia. To those who are unaware, pets are considered chattel and many farm animals that end up on the table have had a less than painfree life. Ironically, most baby calves that are raised on dairy farms have a prretty good life...until the age that those not intended to become replacements in the milking herd get sold (i.e. become vealers). If they are directly sold for slaughter, things are only bad for a short time-otherwise....So, I selected Chemistry as a major with a Math minor. This way I did not even consider anything even related to veterinary medicine.

I had never intended to continue going to school. The intention was to graduate, find a job, pay off the loans and then decide what to do next. Instead, I (at the prodding of a professor where I did my undergrduate degree and who had presumed I would be going on...) I went to Penn State got a Master’s in Solid State Science (a mix of Physics, Chemistry and Geology). Ironically, the main reason I went there is that they did not reqiuire GREs and I was firmly convinced I could never pass them to go on to graduate school.

I got a job in research--primarily cancer stuff. Then, after a few years I back to school part time to get a second B.S. in secondary science education. Teaching had been a secondary interest so I taught (Math and Science to 7 and 8th graders) for 7 years. At that point I decided it was time to either go for what I had loved all along or quit complaining that I hadn’t.

Somwehere in there I also decided that I couldn’t be upset about putting meat in the table if I was eating that meat- and (if you’’ll pardon the expression) went cold turkey to being a lacto-ovo vegetarian...with major vegan tendencies.

I applied to 5 veterinary schools and gave myself 3 years to either get in or find something else I could love doing. I did enjoy teaching, but only to those kids who actually wanted to be there. By my last year, most of what I did would have been classified as babysitting since I could only give true/false tests and could require neither note takingnor writing in full sentences.

I had missed out on the slot of shooting for the minority choice based on being female--now almost all of the schools have close to 90% female students!

The second question from the interviewer from VA Tech was if I was a vegetarian. When I said yes, he flatly informed me I would never get into any veterinary college. That first year he was right I had to take the GREs and the VATs. On the GREs I did so well I figured they had goofed on reporting, but I took the results and ran with them. On the VATs things did not go well in reading comprehension and there was nothing I could do about it. The current students (I was now almost 15 years out of college) were crowing about the fact that they had just covered the information that was in the reading sample--so they were simply recalling information. I guess I was lucky to do as well as I did

I asked each school what I could do to improve my chances at getting in the next year and most did not respond. My father had his M.S. from Purdue, so I had applied there (he had his PhD from Harvard but they don't have....). I kept pushing them and the only thing they finally said was that I needed a new ribbon on my typewriter! I had told them I was sporting a half-cast on my right hand that would make typing difficult and not very clean--waaay before computer typing! I had a spiral fracture gotten from a 6-week old foal who jerked me off my feet while I was trying to halter break her. I fell on the hand to an audible is NOT true that if things still move the bones are not broken. The hospital persisted in saying the injury occurred when I fell off a horse and I finally quit trying to explain. I drove a Celica with a floor shift- driving myself to the hospital was relatively simple- driving home I had to be creative in shifting gears.

So-- the second year I applied to a slightly different list of 5 schools and either got in directly or at the top of the waitlist (and assured I would get in) at all 5. I even applied to Tuskeegee and got in. This go-round the VA Tech interviewer asked, among other things, if I would have any problems being older than some of the faculty. Heck, I had been going to classes all my life and had never even given that a thought. VA Tech was both the closest and the cheapest. We have a clear winnah!

This is all just to let you know I did not simply go to veterinary school. When I finally did graduate, my sister looked at me and simply said it was about time since everyone had always known this is what I would do. It might have saved me quite a few years if someone had told me that.

Knowing what I know now, I would have gone to veterinary school right after college and probably could have made it in then based on being female! I would have continued and specialized in feline medicine-- which is a Board Certified Speciality. If that had happened, I would never have been bitten in my right index finger- by a healthy black lab--and my ability to perform surgery would never have been compromised.

I would have taken the chance and set up my own specialty practice. If things had worked out that way, I would have become a slave to the bottom line. As it is now, I work with humane groups, low and no-income people, and there is no bottom line. For the first time in thirteen years of helping as many people as I can, I actually hit the red ink last year. This was just in time not to qualify for the tax rebate.

The Cats Me-ouch

Somehow I manage to limp along year to year, but it is becoming more and more difficult. Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I wish that it paid better (or at all, for that matter)? Yes. I have worked at jobs that paid well but that I did not love...and at jobs I love but that did not pay at all. Given my druthers, as long as I can actually survive, I choose the things I love. I have had two classmates from veterinary school ask if I wanted to come work for them, even part time. I gave it some thought and decided I have been my own boss for too long and given away far too much stuff to have to report to someone else. Of course I may actually have to re-think this and get a real of these days.

Ah yes-- how quickly things could have changed.

This is just a series of snapshots of my critter contacts. I left out the recipes I got from my father who put himself through graduate school as both a glazier and a short order cook. His Mary Jane dessert using the world’s simplest hot fudge sauce (two ingredients!) is wonderful. No, I did not learn how to putty in panes of glass, but I watched him do it.

KittyThere is, of course, a plethora of cat stories- revolving around the numerous barn cats and then housecats we had. There is the tale of the mouse I took away from a cat- then gave it back when the mouse bit me. There was a sprinkling of dogs, guppies, parakeets, and...or the time I had a hole knocked in the ceiling (after a specific warning not to do just that) to rescue a bird that had fallen down the chimney and then into the wall somehow...or when Shadow managed to get the kitchen door open or... Then too there is a year spent living in Switzerland. There are the interesting facts that once I decided to try for veterinary school I had a 4.0 average and in vet school was inducted into the veterinary academic honor fraternity. You get the idea. To paraphrase----

The country is filled with a thousand stories.



[ HOME ] [ Current Issue ] [ Archives ]

Challenger is © 2003-2008 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.

Last Modified: