It is winter and the cattle are housed. For vets in County Durham, farm work begins to dominate, as this is the time of year when whole herds are tested for disease surveillance and prevention. The consolation of the season is that now our work involves the beasts of food production and we can think of ourselves as doing something essential, rather than working solely in the leisure industry – the care of companion animals (dogs, cats, hamsters, horses and others that are supposedly not on the menu).
Most vets are involved exclusively in the latter. A profession whose purpose was once to support and improve agriculture is now given over to looking after pets. This isn’t surprising. One farmer told me that the number of dairies in Durham had fallen from 200 to eight in the past 40 years, a statistic that may not be exaggerated.
The result is that many vets today can discourse with authority on the dietary requirements of a rabbit but can’t milk a cow. A colleague in mixed practice – dealing with rabbits and cows – once remarked on his frustrations in trying to employ a suitable vet: “Give me someone, anyone, who can spay a bitch, geld a colt and Caesar a cow!”
In my rarefied life as a member of an endangered species (the mixed vet), I go to work with no inkling of the thousand natural shocks that await me on any day. So it was last Friday: I walked into the surgery, looked at the daybook and saw that there was a call for me – cattle coughing. My initial fear of having to go out into the wind and rain was soon supplanted by my joy that the boss at the practice, lazy of action and loud of mouth, would have to help with the surgery that morning while I would, for an enchanted moment, be spared the demands of small animal clients.
My joy doubled when I saw on the waiting list that Rasputin had arrived: an ancient, long-haired, badly educated black cat, whose raison d’être is to maim and terrify. His visits usually end with a nurse or a vet spending lunch hour with the GP and collecting a prescription for antibiotics. The owner, a genial old lady, likes to bring him in to have his nails cut and shows genuine wonder when such a task ends in very bloody failure.
So off I went to see the cattle. It was my first visit to that particular farm in two years. The farmer there is charming, has two teeth and uses baling twine as a belt. He keeps half a dozen cattle in his retirement. He prefers to watch, rather than assist.
When I arrived, expecting to treat half a dozen cattle for pneumonia, I was led through the rain to a shed, roofed with corrugated iron and insulated with cobwebs. Recumbent in the straw lay a Limousin cow. Out of her back end hung her calf, head oedematous and lifeless, front legs out, back legs still in. “She’s been calving like this for a while,” he said.
Calving. Not coughing.
The calf had been stuck at the hips the whole night. There was a choice: a) Caesarean section: £350, dead calf and 50 per cent chance of a dead cow, too; b) shoot the cow – often the right decision in hindsight; c) cut the calf up (embryotomy), save the cow and limit the expense. There is always a choice in practice, which means that most of the time the wrong one will be made.
The last option sounds ideal but can take hours, often kills the cow and usually demoralises the vet. It can be like sawing wood while lying on one’s back and holding the log up in the air, a feat that I once witnessed (the perpetrator was later performing similar miracles of counter-intuition in a psychiatric unit).
I liked the farmer and, accordingly, made the wrong decision. After three hours of dismembering, I emerged hopelessly from the shed. Left in the cow’s uterus were remnants of hind feet, a patchwork of calf skin and intestine, lubricating gel and a bucket of soapy water.
The farmer had not stayed to supervise my misery; he was watching Countdown. I told him that the cow was still alive but needed antibiotics, lots of them, and she might pull through. He muttered something and waved. I ached and stank – of rotten “cleansing” (afterbirth) – and the smell lingered the whole weekend.
On returning to the surgery, I found that the boss had managed to cut down the ops list on the most feeble pretexts imaginable – so that he could go shopping. “John,” he said amiably, “Rasputin needs a blood test but he had eaten two prawns this morning, so I asked Mrs Cowper to bring him in tomorrow to see you, as I’m off and expected at a dog show.”
Dejected, I pressed on with consultations for the rest of the day and came home in the darkness and rain. The phone rang twice that night. First, at 11pm, I was given the news that an injured badger had been seen on the central reservation of the motorway; this was followed by the request – remarkable for its sincerity – that I attend. I declined, took the abuse, admitted that I was a murderer and fell back asleep.
Second, at 2am: “Do you deal with snakes?”
John Brooke’s Animal Farm column will appear fortnightly