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Every One His Own Physician

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

As a plantation boy, I kept many wild creatures as pets. One of these was the fawn of a whitetail deer. One day, while it was still but a baby, it ran against a barbed wire fence, tearing an ugly gash in its side. I cleansed the wound with carbolic water, and strapped on a bandage with adhesive tape. When, an hour later, I revisited my patient, he had pulled the bandage off, and was carefully licking the wound clean. I noticed that he licked the hair away from the injured place, exposing it fully to the air and the sunlight. He took entire charge of his own trouble and within a very few days had healed himself.

Because all my life both the study of nature and the study of medicine have fascinated me, I have taken more than common pains to discover how wild things preserve their health; or, if that is impaired by illness or by injury, how they attempt to repair the damage. And the first principle that they observe is that each one is his own physician.

The Romans had a proverb, “Every herb reveals a present god.” Birds and animals know nothing of this saying, but with startling clairvoyance they appear to know what herbs will cure what ills. Of botany and of the materia medica they, in a sense, have no understanding; but in another and a far more practical sense, their comprehension exceeds ours. It is generally supposed that men have made their own medical discoveries, but this has not always been true. As late as the eighteenth century, physicians admitted that many medicines then used were discovered by watching animals that sought out these things to cure their ills. Our American Indians, and through their example our pioneer ancestors, learned the rudiments of medicine from animals by observing what herbs and roots were sought out by those of nature’s children who were suffering from wounds, fever, alimentary disturbance, snakebite; by watching a bear grubbing for the roots of fern; by observing how a wild deer will dig up and eat the roots of the sweet flag; by noting how the wild turkey, during a rainy spell, will compel her babies to eat the leaves of the spice-bush; and by seeing a wolf, bitten by a rattler, confidently chewing snakeroot! In his long fight against disease, animals helped man long before he began to experiment with them by vivisection for medical purposes. And our ancestral debt to them goes beyond our search for health: an official of the Pennsylvania Railroad told me that when that great system laid its roadbed over the high Alleghenies, it followed the ancient buffalo trails. Those animals had every curve, every ascent, and every decline perfectly surveyed.

I mentioned the incident of the fawn’s licking its wound— of course, to prevent infection. It is often a matter for wonder why carrion birds are not infected by the food on which they subsist. In the first place, nature has supplied the vultures with heads that are practically featherless; in the second place, they scrupulously cleanse their huge beaks; and in the third place, the vulture is the only bird known to me who will, selecting a place high up and completely exposed to the sun, sit there with huge wings extended. It is the vulture in this pose that must have so impressed the ancient Egyptians; for it is often thus that he appears in their sculpture. This complete revamping himself, as it were, is for the purpose of cleansing his feathers. It is also for drying them. The manner of the bird’s life calls for especial caution in sanitation, and he takes it. Both birds and animals bathe regularly to cleanse themselves and to rid their bodies not only of parasites but of possible sources of infection. These baths are of many varieties—water, sun, mud, clay, and dust. In the Yellowstone, old grizzly bears are known to use the hot sulphur baths, which may alleviate the aches and pains incident to age, and unquestionably would have a beneficent effect on rheumatic patients. I have long observed that it is almost a daily habit of the princely game birds such as the quail, the ruffed grouse, and the wild turkey to take dust-baths, this practice no doubt having the effect of dressing the plumage as well as discouraging insects and refreshing the whole body.

One day a Negro brought me word that he had seen two old wild gobblers in a cotton field on his place. Repairing thither with him, I crawled up through the woods to the old shambling fence that enclosed the small field. Not more than fifty yards away I saw a superb wild gobbler standing at full height. In the bright sunshine he glimmered and glistened in his iridescent plumage. He was acting as a sentry while his comrade wallowed in a dry bath of dust. After perhaps fifteen minutes the big bird in the sand arose, shaking clouds of dust and tiny worn feathers from him—a part of the performance plainly not relished by his fellow. As soon as he had completed his toilet, he took up the watch, while his comrade performed his ablutions. . . . Later, when they were gone, I examined the field, finding at least a dozen of these dusting-places. And that this practice is constant may be attested by the fact that a wild turkey always looks tailor-made—as trim as milady’s Easter bonnet, just out of its bandbox.

The wild life of nature is not one of freedom from care or illness. Birds and animals are often wounded, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by man or by their fellows. Of course, if the wound is fatal, it is fatal; but many an injury that would be fatal to a human being is not so to a child of the woods and fields—the reasons being that a bird or an animal has a higher physical stamina, is in more constant training, and perhaps, in the main, is inclined to act with a swifter and more unerring sanity than we are.

A wild creature’s ability to sustain grievous wounds is almost miraculous. I have a record of an old stag that, after having been relentlessly hunted for thirty years, was killed near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in 1935. There were found in this old veteran more than one hundred buckshot— any one of which might have so disabled a man that his pursuers would have captured him. Rarely is a mature buck dressed without giving evidence of having survived many wounds, some of them of a most dangerous character.

Once on a deer hunt I saw a splendid buck shot down; but he regained his feet and made his escape. Because he carried freak antlers, I knew that I could identify him if I ever saw him again. Twelve days later I started that stag, and he left me with his customary grace and speed. He had leaped up out of some broomgrass near a small pond in a very remote section of the woods. Examining his bed, I found no blood in it; but a careful search of the immediate vicinity revealed the presence of ten other beds—all of them evidently made by this wounded deer. From each a dim path led through the grass to the water. In some of the beds there was a great deal of dried blood. Yet, despite what must have been his agony in moving, this gentleman had insisted on having fresh sheets on his bed every night! Apparently he had eaten little or nothing, but he had drunk copiously; and there in the lonely woods he had healed himself of his grievous wounds.

When certain animals are caught in traps, or when one of them is so injured that a leg dangles because of a broken bone, the creature is likely to perform an amputation. The raccoon, the muskrat, and the rabbit are swift to perform this rude self-surgery.

When I was a boy, I set a steel trap by a hole in our garden fence, a hole through which I knew wild rabbits had been coming to feed on the early lettuce. Going out at daybreak to see what I had caught, I saw an old mother rabbit crouched beside the trap, apparently busy with something. Stealing along the line of the fence unobserved, I saw that in the trap was one of her babies, about one-third grown, and she was in the act of amputating his foot to free him. She probably thought him too young to be his own physician. That was nearly fifty years ago; and I have never since set a steel trap.

But more remarkable than the crude but heroic self-amputation of a limb is the care given the wound. It is a well-attested fact that a muskrat will completely cover such a wounded part with hemlock gum, thus excluding all dirt and all germs that might lurk in the water in which he swims. Bears also smear their wounds with spruce or hemlock resin, and occasionally with clay. But I never knew a muskrat to use the latter. He knows that water, his natural element, would dissolve it. The orang-outang, the chimpanzee, or the gorilla, when wounded, will attempt to stanch the flow of blood with its hands, and will then close the hole with packings of aromatic leaves, astringent in their effect. An African hunter told me that on one occasion, when he had shot an old female gorilla, and had come up to where she lay dead, beside her sat her baby, apparently weeping in childish despair, and attempting with his hands to stop the flow of blood from his mother’s breast. One such experience, I should think, would cure a man of hunting gorillas.

That a bird (at least, some birds) with a broken wing seems aware of the necessity for keeping it “in splints,” I can testify. A wild gobbler with a broken wing used to roam the plantation woods near our house. I have seen him lie down in a certain position, and with his bill adjust his wounded member, trying to keep it in place. I have also seen him stop while he was scratching for food and carefully push his broken wing well up on his back. This break knitted completely, though the wing did not have the same pitch and angle as the other.

Among woodsmen it is a well known fact that a woodcock with a broken leg will apply to the injured member a splint of clay, sometimes reenforced with fibrous roots, thus ministering to himself in such a way that, had he been a regular patient in a modern hospital, he could hardly have been given a more perfect chance for complete recovery. I have seen a wounded woodcock become his own physician; have observed that, until his wounded leg was well, he used the other one only; and have marked his return to physical normality. I have been told that the wild dove will thus sometimes mend a broken wing; but this feat I have never witnessed.

I used to have a flying squirrel that always entertained me by her antics in her big cage. There were some cracks in the bottom of her box and one night she got her left foreleg caught. In her frantic efforts to escape, she broke it. Next morning I found her lying bright-eyed in a sunny corner. As I came up, she shifted her position slightly, but I saw that she was an invalid. I knew that if I tried to put her leg in splints, she would struggle fearfully, and then tear the bandages off, so I pushed her water pan and corn up to her and left her alone. For a space of several days she lay silent and strangely effaced. I noticed, too, that she always kept her injured paw in the same position. What impressed me most, however, was the complete transformation of mood that she imposed on herself. She, who had been vividly active, almost iridescently restless, suddenly became strangely passive, intent on the one great aim of healing herself. And this she did by being absolutely quiet and, I think, hopeful. These patients of the wild seem to me to meet their emergencies with invincible optimism. They display, all alone, a steady confidence in recovery that we might do well to imitate.

When a wild creature is injured, and retains enough strength to effect an immediate escape, it first seeks solitude and complete retirement. Then, giving scrupulous attention to its external wound, it likewise takes care of the needs of the “inner man.” Perhaps the universal remedy is a laxative. The patient may induce vomiting; he will almost certainly take a purge. Invariably he appears intent on clearing the alimentary tract. Members of the canine and feline families, when in physical distress, although they are carni-vora, eat green grass; in fact, if a dog or cat eats grass, that fact may be taken as a sure indication that it is below par. Wild bears eat berries and roots that are cathartic in their effect. The ungulates rarely need a laxative, but they do sometimes need medicine that has the opposite effect. This they find in tender bark and in twigs that are rich in tannic acid. Moose are sometimes seen riding down saplings to get the topmost twigs; and I have observed wild deer standing on their hind legs and cropping twigs seven feet up in birch trees. Attendants in zoological parks, when they find an animal ailing, attempt to give it an assortment of the flora natural to its habitat; and from these plants and shrubs, roots and berries, tie patient will nearly always be able to select the medicine it needs. Apes and monkeys, for some reason, are prone to pulmonary troubles, and the common cold is one of their frequent afflictions. When so beset, the creature chews the bark of the chinchona tree; that is, he takes a dose of quinine.

Wild creatures often appear capable of detecting poison. Every plainsman knows how difficult it is to poison a wolf or a coyote. I have a friend who owns a cotton field adjacent to a great hunting club. As the deer, at night, spent their time in his field, eating the leaves of his cotton, he sprayed the entire patch with a mild solution of Paris green; not so much to kill the deer as to discourage their depredations. With the owner I visited the field the day after the poison had been applied to the plants. Scrupulously avoiding touching any leaf that had received the spray, the deer had nevertheless enjoyed a full banquet by selecting the foliage, especially that near the ground, that had not been contaminated.

An animal with a fever always hunts up an airy, shady place near water, and remains quiet, eating very little and drinking often until it recovers. On the other hand, a rheumatic animal always hunts the hottest spot that it can find in the sunlight and soaks up all the heat possible.

Good health is due to prevention of disease as well as to cure. I have found wild things to be exceedingly temperate in their diet; and they often vary it with the seasons of the year, when their systems require certain adjustments. Some profound and unerring instinct causes every bird and animal to eat those foods, and to eat them in those quantities, that will enable them best to carry on their functions. Often whal they eat cannot exactly be called food. For example, in the South, where there are great dredge-cuts made by the old phosphate mining, deer will travel for miles to drink that water, which is richly impregnated with lime. And the bucks are the ones who resort to these old canals. They need lime in their systems for horn-growth. And I can vouch for the fact that the bucks of those regions carry the finest antlers I have ever seen. All female birds need lime to form eggshells ; and as the shells of crustaceans, especially the oyster, are rich in lime, it is a common thing to see even birds of the uplands and the deep forests resort, in the mating season, to places where these shells are found. I have watched a female cerulean warbler breaking up a tiny mussel-shell on a sandbank beside a stream. She had to have lime, and she knew where to get it.

All grazing animals like to eat salt; and even the wildest and wariest of them will come to its lure. I regularly put out rock-salt for the deer on my plantation; and so eager are they for it that, after a block is gone, they will paw great holes in the ground, where they lick the soil that has become faintly impregnated with some of the salt that the rains have melted. It has been observed that mountain-goats apparently eat clay; but it is likely that they are after the salt.

These wild things appear to know how to make up for deficiencies in diet; thus cattle, whose ordinary food, lacks phosphorus, will search for old bones and horns. Observation of this habit has led cattlemen to add bone meal and other calcium compounds to their animals’ regular diet. In the pinelands of the South I have seen an old cow with a dropped deer-horn in her mouth. She kept turning it over and over, wetting it thoroughly with her saliva and then sucking it for the phosphorus and lime in it.

In some cases, wild things go on a special diet, even though they may be in perfect health. Especially is this so in the case of expectant mothers. A recent exhaustive study of the diet of the mule deer has disclosed that the female in gestation selects her food as carefully as would any pregnant woman under orders from her family doctor. At such a time a doe will eat what at other times she avoids; and she eats sparingly of those grasses and herbs that form her regular diet. I have observed that expectant does of the white-tail deer are exceedingly fond of the leaves of the highbush huckleberry; but, while the bucks will ravage my young corn in April, the does appear timid about indulging in its lush succulence. Their condition warns them to be careful, and they obey.

While they are in health, wild things guard their health with a sensitive sanity and clairvoyance; when sick or wounded, they resort to the ancient remedies of nature: medicines, pure air, quiet, complete relaxation and rest. They go to bed all alone, and stay there calm and uncomplaining as long as is necessary. And, while I marvel over their capacity to heal themselves, my greater wonder is reserved for the positive majesty of the faith with which they undertake their tasks of self-healing.


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