Sunday, October 24, 2010

Say it was a cow

Anytime people find out I am a veterinarian they ask what type of animals I work on. I always answer that I work in a mixed animal clinic which includes large and small animals. I do, however, have a terrible fear of snakes and I always tell people that I don't work on exotics. Now, I really need to stop saying that as my list of interesting animals that I have done work on now includes elk, reindeer, camels, water buffalo, and the one this story is about.

A client of mine came in one day and asked if I had a dart gun. Of course I do and I said yes. Next he asked if I could hit something from about 200 yards away. Naturally my first question wondered what on earth we needed to tranquilize from 200 yards; and secondly, why? Well he quickly explained that he had a musk oxen that had gone through a fence. The going through the fence wasn't too disconcerting, the fact that she was still out and was dragging half of the fence around with her was the true problem. After much discussion on the solutions to his problem and the efficacy of the dart gun, particularly on the very windy day, we didn't have a good plan, but we went to see what we could do.

My assistant and I were excited to see if we were going to become musk ox hunters. After arriving at the ranch we quickly surmised that the first thing to try would be to herd the little musk ox back into the enclosure with the rest of the herd. Much to our delighted surprise she ran back in without any trouble and we were congratulating ourselves with our good luck. Little did we know that the fun had just begun. She quickly rejoined the herd and we thought it would be a simple matter of chasing the group into the holding pen where there was a working alley, tub, and chute, designed for handling buffalo. The owner failed to mention that one section of fence was torn down and the musk ox quickly disappeared through the fence and over the hill. Having never herded musk ox before I was ready for an adventure. I was excited until the owner told me that they usually move well, although sometimes they circle up and if they get really worked up they may start chasing you. So here there I was running over the rolling hilltops "chasing" a herd of miniature cattle look-alikes that have massive horns and could decide to put them to good use and I have nowhere to hide. Fortunately we were able to haze them into the smaller pen without too much worry.

Next in my musk oxen handling course was sorting 101. Unlike cattle or horses that you put in a pen and walk through to sort out the one you want, musk ox sorting is a little more involved. Mostly I stood and watched as my client would first start getting the group to move back and forth along the far end of a very large pen until they were kind of spread out. At this point he would charge directly at the herd and one of two things would happen: either the group would whirl into a protective circle with all horns facing out, or some members of the group would scatter sprinting away. If the latter happened you had to sprint away from the gate that they needed to leave, or sprint toward the gate to stop them if the "wired" cow was in the group. After several minutes of sprinting, whirling, sweating, breathing hard, nearly falling down once, and getting scared twice, the group was finally whittled down to leave the lone cow in question.

She ran into the alley and tub quickly but then there she sat and would not move another inch to go forward into the chute where we could actually catch her to do any kind of work. Now first I must explain that musk-oxen have similarities to cows but the also are similar to sheep and goats. They are much smaller than cows, this one weighed probably 400 pounds, and far more athletic. Instead of moving forward she simply sat crouched against the gate, painting her horns green by continually bashing her head against the chute and gate. The owner was reluctant to climb in behind her because he said he has seen them rear up on both hind feet and do a complete about face and smash the gate that was behind them. With the help of a sheet of ply wood we finally got her forward into the chute and began the work that we had originally come to do.

I should probably mention that at some point during all of this we brought my pickup with all the supplies into the enclosure for easy access. Some might say I am lazy but I didn't want to walk the 200 yards and climb through three fences each time I wanted to get something from the truck. Now back to the story.

Once the musk ox cow was in the chute she was amazingly quiet. The wire was wrapped around her head and neck and wrapped tightly around a couple of her legs as well. Of particular concern was the back leg. The hair was rubbed off but, luckily the skin seemed unaffected and once we untangled all of the wire it looked like she was good to go.

In general, releasing an animal after the procedure is usually the quickest and easiest part. Not true with her. With the side gate completely open she refused to move. My assistant and I were on the far side behind the chute by the truck and the owner was behind the side gate he had just opened. Finally she walked out of the chute and seemed to be ready to leave until she paused. She stopped, turned around, and charged straight back at the chute where the owner was waiting. He quickly climbed up the chute out of harms way. As she finished bashing up the side of the chute the owner and my assistant smiled and observed out loud to each other that my truck was red. Not thirty seconds later, as she trotted to the front of the chute, she saw my assistant and came charging around the chute after him...or so I thought. I scrambled to jump into the back of my pickup just as it began to rock! Instead of chasing my assistant she had come around the chute and charged straight into the side of my truck!

Having done her intended to damage my pickup she turned and went back around the chute where she began attempting to get at the owner and my assistant who sat perched eight feet off the ground on the top of the chute. After 10 minutes of her repeatedly charging the front and side of the chute and even trying to jump into the air to try and get at my assistant she finally gave up and ran away without even a look back.

After apologizing no less than fifty times the owner had one piece of advice for me. He said, "When you tell your insurance company, just say it was a cow"