Nature is perfectly beautiful, but not always perfect. Every now and then, there’s a little hiccup, a glitch, a faux pas of some sort. Scientists call it a mutation. Some are minor such as my kids having slightly webbed toes. Others are curious such as having two eyes of different colors. Some are really conspicuous such as albinism; while others are just downright weird. In those cases, the person or the animal usually dies shortly after birth or has a greatly diminished quality of life.
In the world of farm animals, funky mutations such as extra teats on a goat are fairly common and basically harmless. But one of my students Guthrie and his daddy Wesley ran into a real freak of nature the other day. They were out checking on their latest crop of calves when Wesley noticed something odd. He saw what looked like a bushy goatee growing off the chin of a calf. Upon further inspection, he realized that it was the vestige of another calf’s head. It had blood flowing to it, so the tiny "twin" was still alive. I’ve heard of this happening before. In fact someone brought a similar specimen to exhibit when we owned the local meat locker.
This calf had two empty sockets where its eyes would have been. It had partially shaped ears and a mouth that kept opening in a creepy way to reveal a small tongue and some teeth. Guthrie had been around cows all his 12 years on the earth, but he’d never seen such a bizarre spectacle – neither had his dad for that matter.
They needed to do something to better the animal’s chance of survival and to make him more marketable at the auction. First, they tried to pen it. That didn’t work. It was quicker and more agile than either of them. Then young Guthrie tried his hand at roping it. He couldn’t land a loop on either of its heads. After chasing it around and finally cornering it against a panel fence, Wesley basically tackled the bewildered calf.
"Whatcha gonna do, Dad?" asked Guthrie as he watched his dad in action.
Dads hate questions like that, I think. He was still just trying to formulate a game plan as he held the writhing two-headed calf. He ordered the boy to go rummage through his pickup truck for something they could wrap around the small stump of a head, maybe a piece of leather, an old rubber glove or some twine. I’m sure the inside of Wesley’s truck looks like most farm trucks — a veritable cornucopia of random items — everything from syringes and vet medicine bottles, to coke cans and empty potato chip bags, from plastic ear tags and fencing pliers to last week’s mail.
After searching through vast acres of miscellany, Guthrie came back with one of his mama’s elastic headbands.
"Will this work?" he asked.
"Perfect!" replied his dad who was beginning to sweat in the late morning summer sun.
He took the piece of fabric-covered elastic and tightly wrapped the furry lump under the calf’s chin.
"Daddy, how’s that gonna work?" Guthrie asked, never at a loss for words.
"It’ll cut off the blood flow, and the small head will wither and fall off."
"Just like when we castrate those bull calves," the boy mused to himself, proud to have made the connection.
Guthrie loved working with his dad. He always seemed to know what to do in any situation. Once again, his dad had risen to the occasion. Wesley, a man of few words, got up, finished checking the rest of the herd and got back in the truck without comment.
Last Tuesday morning, when I began my junior high reading class with my usual question, "Who’s got earthshaking news?"
Guthrie’s hand went up first.