Les Hutchens wasn't particularly disturbed when a woman came to him with her deceased dog's testicles. Heck, he wasn't even all that surprised.
It's all in a day's work for Hutchens, the president and CEO of Stillwater's Reproductive Enterprises Inc. Even if that day happens to be the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the work involves salvaging semen from a dead-for-one-day dog.
The woman's beloved pet had passed away sometime late Thanksgiving Day, and when the veterinarian asked what she would like to do with the body, she provided a somewhat unusual response.
Hutchens recounted the possible exchange: "You know I can't stand to see my dog dead. "¦ Please save his balls."
So, on Friday, she tracked down Hutchens, who was able to preserve the pooch's genetic legacy.
And that, in a nutshell, is Hutchens' line of work: keeping the lines of reproduction open. REI began in the late 1970s as a semen collection facility, specializing in bulls. Today, REI offers semen collection, storage and sales, as well as artificial insemination and embryo transfer, and the services extend beyond the world of bovine to include goats, sheep, horses and canines.
As to how he gets up close and personal with the beasts of burden " many of which are PBR bucking bulls " it can be an interesting process. Usually, it involves a teaser bull for arousal and an artificial vagina for collection. The donor, if you will, mounts the teaser bull, while his penis is ever-so-gently redirected by attendants into the artificial piece.
The result is a straw full of bull semen, enough to inseminate a cow or heifer. The price depends on the bull and the seller. Although the baseline per straw is typically less than $50, certain breeders have been known to sell their stock for thousands of dollars, Hutchens said.
In addition to insemination, REI performs follow-up services, like ultrasounds and determining the gender of the fetus. And these subjects have fascinated Hutchens throughout his life.
"Looking back, every animal I ever had had babies," he said.
Worming her way
Selena Heckler's animal preferences are more of the creepy-crawly variety. For six months out of the year, she spends her time sifting for worm poop.
She and her husband, Paul, own and operate Worm Solutions, a division of the Guthrie-based Sly Worm Farms. The pair sells worm castings " "a nice name for 'worm poop,'" she said " and worm tea, which is water drained through bins containing the red wigglers they tend.
Dubbed "the worm lady" by folks she knows, Heckler first became interested in the biz 11 years ago. Dissatisfied with her job at the time, she was looking for a way to work at home when she read a newspaper ad for a company seeking contract worm growers.
"And I thought, 'How hard could that be?'" she said.
Little did Heckler know the tricks of caring for creatures that she said are 99 percent water. These "amazing little creatures" hold sway over her because of what they can do. They're composters, consuming microbes that cause materials to decay, and this makes them a natural way of getting rid of things like kitchen waste, manure and newsprint.
But if you are what you eat, it only makes sense that worms' true value lies in what they produce. With the appearance of soft, silky coffee grounds, worm castings are chock-full of the vitamins and nitrates that soil and plants require.
And so, in nine 3-by-5-by-1-foot bins in their barn, the Hecklers farm for dung. For half the year, the couple feeds and tends to the worms, letting them "do their thing." Twice a week, the Hecklers spread food and water atop the worms' beds.
"It's kind of slopping them like you do hogs," she said.
Then for three months in the spring and three months in the fall, it's harvest time. During these periods, the routine is to feed the worms, wait one to two days, and shovel out the top 4 or 5 inches of each bed. These top layers contain most of the worms. The rest of the beds and the castings are shoveled onto a plastic mat where they're dried by fans for four to five days. Finally, once any stray worms have been rescued, the castings are put through a harvester with an 8th-inch screen that separates the material, and the castings are bagged and sold.
Through the course of this process, one grows an attachment to the little wrigglers.
"They'll let you know when they need to be fed, when they need to be watered. They become kind of like your little girls. And when you lose some, it makes you feel really bad," Heckler said. "It's just like having your animals: your cats, your dogs, your fish. Only thing is, they're providing something you can reuse."
Dealing with the crap
Rick Guy knows a thing or two about pets.
When he brought home a golden retriever puppy for Christmas 13 years ago, he thought he had a great gift for his kids. He had no idea he'd be stepping in, so to speak, a career path as well.
"I discovered pretty quickly that if you feed her, she goes out in the backyard and squats," Guy said.
That pattern went on for about two weeks before Guy's wife, Connie, put her foot down and said he'd have to clean the yard.
"I got out there in the backyard and thought, 'You know, this isn't a lot of fun, but I bet I'm not the only person to endure it, so let's see if we can make a business out of it,'" he said.
And so Pet Waste Scooper Service began in March 1999. Guy has been scooping the poop ever since.
"Nobody really likes to do it, so it falls under the list of, 'Oh, crud, it's my turn,' or nobody does it," he said. "And if nobody does it, the yard fills up pretty quickly. It backs up, if you'll pardon the pun."
To prevent this, Guy's service braves metro backyards for $49 a month, providing weekly, biweekly or triweekly visits. Its importance is more than just owners' convenience " it's good for dogs, too.
If piles are left, flies will land in the feces and lay eggs, giving dogs worms if they step in it. Lawn mowers merely scatter the matter all over the yard, Guy said.
Speaking of scattered matter, everyone's driven by them. And some have driven over them. They're the dead possums, armadillos, dogs, cats, squirrels and sometimes livestock that line Oklahoma's roads and highways.
The next time you see one, Rick Lowry would like you to call the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Like, immediately.
"The guy that is picking it up, he would certainly appreciate that," said Lowry, an urban maintenance manager.
So does it gross him out?
"Absolutely. If you've ever been around anything, particularly in the summertime, that is deceased, and it's been there for a couple of days, it is not a pleasant smell," he said. "It's a horrible smell."
But it's just part of the job. Lowry oversees the contract maintenance activities for Oklahoma, Canadian and Cleveland counties. These duties include mowing; repairing fences, guardrails and signs; patching holes; and anything else that has to do with maintenance, which, of course, includes freeing the streets of any unfortunate varmints.
Typically, depending on the county, maintenance crews or contractors will retrieve the deceased, anything from Bambi's dear deer ones to the unlucky house pet. Occasionally, the job's a little something bigger.
"I've had to go out and pick up cattle," he said. "You have to go get the loader and the dump truck, and you've got to load the thing up and take it somewhere where you can bury it and dispose of it."
As far as least-favorite parts of the job, dead animal removal ranks right up there for Lowry. That's not to say there aren't others that can generate just as much dislike, like being behind a hot asphalt machine in the middle of an Oklahoma summer. Or, most especially, cleaning up the aftermath of an accident, particularly one involving fatalities.
"That is never a good feeling or a good place to be at any given time," Lowry said.
On the balls
For Ken Jordening, the golf course is a good place to be. Most golfers try to stay away from water hazards, but he heads straight for them.
When he's not hitting the links himself, Jordening retrieves golf balls from the murky depths of several area courses' ponds. He started several years ago at the urging of a friend, and never stopped.
It's actually a simple process: Although he never goes underwater, Jordening feels around with his hands and feet for golf balls. When he finds them, he drops them in a sack he carries around his neck. Once that gets full, he empties it on the bank and goes back for more.
Of course, it's not always submerged balls. A fair share of clubs and flags have been thrown " either accidentally or with malice, he said. No matter what he finds, he enjoys his wading.
"It's just like swimming around and making money at the same time, I guess," he said. "You're always outside, and it's usually nice weather."
Jordening spends his days cleaning up golf courses, but there are others in the area who spend their time cleaning up much worse. Unfortunately, attempts to contact portable toilet operators for this story " ahem " crapped out. Still, respects must be paid for those intrepid souls who brave the elements to keep those bathrooms-to-go as tolerable as possible. The same can be said for all those with downright dirty jobs, even those who love them.
As somebody who's quite pleased with his messy job, Guy summed up the philosophy of those with these seemingly unpleasant career choices.
"If you find something people don't enjoy doing and find a way to make a living out of it," he said, "people will pay you." "Nicole Hill
top photo Les Hutchens displays a bull semen collection device.
bottom photo Selena Heckler of Worm Solutions.
Did you know?
Fun facts from dirty workers Lee Hutchens, Selena Heckler and Rick Guy.
» Nationwide, the average dog poops three times a day.
» Finicky little water-based creatures that they are, worms require certain conditions to survive and flourish. It's best to keep the temperature at no less than 35 degrees and no more than 90-95 degrees.
» Most people artificially inseminate cattle in March, April or May.
» Post-mortem recovery of sperm and genetic material is best done within 24 hours of the animal's death, although Hutchens has performed the procedure as far out as 72 hours.