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Authors: Gillian Hick

Vet Among the Pigeons

BOOK: Vet Among the Pigeons
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Firstly, my thanks to the many readers of
Vet on the Loose
who passed on their praise and good wishes. Sorry it’s taken so long to write this one.

My thanks to the Irish Blue Cross who have allowed me to use the Ballyfermot clinic as a setting for some of the stories. The Blue Cross clinics are supported by voluntary staff and I was lucky to have had the privilege to work with two of the best in Gordon Nowlan and Eamon Cosgrave who, between them, have given almost eighty years’ service to the pets of Dublin and their owners. Their good humour and compassion never once failed in all the nights, despite serving one of the busiest clinics in the inner city in all weather conditions and into all hours of the night.

My apologies, in advance, to the many nice equine vets and the ones who run decent equine courses! I was unlucky in my first experience described here, but thankfully have had good experiences since. Hopefully, the few remaining dinosaurs will soon become extinct!

While on the subject of vets, thanks to Ralf Seidewitz, my neighbouring colleague and friend, for picking up the pieces for me when my efforts to combine a twenty-four/seven
on-call
practice with rearing three young children didn’t work!

My thanks to the staff of the O’Brien Press and in particular to Michael O’Brien, who allowed me to stay as a hobby writer, and to Ide, the editor, as she waded through pages of clinical detail and surgical procedures, not to mention my appalling spellings!

Thanks to Hillary and all the staff in our fabulous local book shop, Bridge Street Books in Wicklow town, for their ongoing support of
Vet on the Loose
.

Thanks to Mark Quinlan for his input in the accountant’s meeting chapter. Mark, of course, in no way resembles the
entirely
fictitious boring suit in the story!

As always, my thanks to my husband, Donal, and three
children
, Molly, Fiona and Jack (who wasn’t born for the
time-frame
of this book – sorry, Jack!). Thanks for the unending support and many cups of tea that were needed for the
production
of this book!

And, speaking of cups of tea, thanks to John Armstrong, who dropped in for a cup of tea one evening and ended up building a veterinary clinic – read all about that in the next book!

T
he phone rang. Slug, my faithful canine assistant since I first qualified as a veterinary surgeon, looked up, expectantly.

‘No, Slug. We’re off duty,’ I reminded her, following her gaze to the cherubic four-week-old baby, concentrating intently on studying her fingers in the cradle nearby.
Motherhood
had put a temporary hold on our veterinary career. Still, every time the phone rang, Slug jumped to attention.

‘So, Gillian! How are all the sleepless nights going?’ boomed John, a vet from Dublin for whom I had worked a few weekends over the previous years, usually at
last-minute
notice.

‘Well, it’s easier to get up at night to feed a baby than calve a cow,’ I replied, leaving out the bit about how, after calving the cow you could go straight back to sleep instead of endlessly lying awake, wondering if that tiny creature beside you was still breathing, and equally afraid to breathe yourself in case you woke her.

‘Ah, but you’re probably getting fed up sitting at home at this stage. Do you good to get out of the house for a bit.’

I had a feeling I knew where this was headed. ‘Well, no,
actually,’ I insisted, firmly. ‘Molly is only four weeks old. Maybe in another month or two.’

The voice on the other end of the phone was dismal. ‘So, no chance you’d do a clinic for me this Wednesday, then?’

‘No. Absolutely none. Not a hope.’

And that was how I found myself, at four o’clock the
following
Wednesday afternoon, hunting desperately among the Babygros for my stethoscope and rooting out my white coat from the maternity wear.

But only for an hour … maybe even half an hour, I
reassured
myself, feeling slightly tearful at the thought of baby Molly, comfortably swaddled in the apprehensive arms of her father, blissfully unaware of the abandonment that was about to take place.

With debating skills that would have served him well in the Senate, John had convinced me to cover his weekly stint at the animal welfare clinic. Although I had heard of the Irish Blue Cross, to my shame I was ignorant of their purpose and work. John had explained to me that they ran a series of subsidised clinics throughout the inner city to bring veterinary care to the pets of those who couldn’t afford it. My job for tonight was to go out with the mobile veterinary clinic and tend to the ‘handful or so’ of cases that would arrive at the Ballyfermot clinic.

‘A couple of quick vaccinations and the odd itchy dog,’ he reassured me. ‘You’ll be in and out in no time.’

By the time I had travelled out to Ballyfermot and met up with the mobile clinic, I had been away from home for an hour already and was desperately trying to stop myself
from ringing just to check that all was okay. I was ready to bolt. Just a couple of itchy dogs, I reminded myself. Another few minutes and I’ll be on my way home again.

Being unfamiliar with the area, I was surprised, as the Blue Cross ambulance pulled around the Kylemore
roundabout
, to see a vast crowd of people lined up along the pavement. I scanned the area trying to see where the local football match might be held, but the surrounding
concrete
jungle offered no clues.

‘Good crowd tonight,’ commented Gordon, the
volunteer
driver for the clinic, as he pulled in alongside them.

‘What match is on?’ I asked, aware that in my
angst-ridden
silence I was probably appearing unfriendly.

‘What match?’ he asked. ‘There’s no match on tonight.’

Then it became obvious to me that not only was the footpath filled with enough people to support a
good-sized
football team but that these people were
accompanied
by an array of squalling puppies, yowling cats and oversized mongrels with the odd suspicious-looking
cardboard
box thrown in for good measure.

I looked at Gordon in horror.

‘This,’ he indicated, waving his arm expansively across the sea of expectant faces, ‘is your audience.’

The ‘in and out in no time’ ran to a full hour and well into the second as I vaccinated and bandaged and prescribed tablets and doled out advice to what seemed like hundreds of pet owners. I didn’t even have time to dwell on the image of John’s smug face as he lay in his Spanish villa, enjoying the peace and tranquillity. Luckily, neither did I have time to dwell on the face of a hopefully sleeping baby.

It wasn’t until one client left me with the
all-but-forgotten
refrain of ‘Thanks very much, doc!’ that I felt a grin slowly spreading across my face. Despite the long months out of work, the path worn to the National
Maternity
Hospital in Holles Street where I had become yet another unidentifiable mum, the frequent check-ups and weighings and measurings – the vet had returned!

For the rest of the clinic I came alive, sleepless nights forgotten, all fears of returning to work a thing of the past. With the last bandy-legged pit-bull lurching down the steps of the clinic, it seemed as though I had never been away.

As I drove back the miles towards home, though, the feeling of satisfaction was gradually overtaken by panic over what would await me. I could already envisage the scrunched-up little face, blotched and reddened from hours of incessant screaming. For the last few miles I could almost hear the indignant roaring in my ears and was breaking out in a sweat by the time I screeched to a halt in the driveway. As I opened the front door, the silence was deafening. This was worse than I had anticipated. Frantically, I burst into the sitting room and my eyes came to rest on the cradle, pulled over beside the large armchair, where husband, daughter and dog all lay snoozing happily, oblivious to my worst fears.

I
finally resumed my regular job as the third vet in
Riverside
Veterinary Clinic, a mixed practice based in County Wicklow. My boss, Seamus, was an
experienced
vet, and my colleague, Arthur, had four year’s more experience than I had. It seemed a lifetime since my short break for maternity leave and life went on as usual at a hectic pace at the clinic. I had been back in the thick of things for a good few months now. I could hardly believe that Molly was almost eighteen months old already!

One day, at a nearby four-hundred-and-fifty unit dairy farm, my visit coincided with the arrival of a tour bus of seventy or so kids from a south Dublin primary school on a mission to find out where their daily milk came from. The fact that my job for the day was to collect a semen sample from a bull to check his fertility before the season began was unfortunate. Although my patient was keen, and a dainty little Friesian cow stood by, ready and waiting to assist, I didn’t rush in. The kids, all decked out in a
multicoloured display of virgin wellies, were enthralled by the scene that lay before them. The little cow, obviously less concerned than me by their arrival, pulled greedily at an errant wisp of silage and raised her tail to dump a steaming deposit, quickly dispelling any romantic notions the children might have had about farming life.

The teacher, all decked out in immaculate tweeds and pristine boots, assuming I was from the farm, called for my attention.

‘Oh, it’s so good of you to have us out today,’ she
blustered
. ‘You’ve no idea how much the children have been looking forward to it. I’m a country woman myself, you see, and I thought it would be wonderful for them to get to see a real farm. Of course, it’s not the same now,’ she lamented, largely to herself as no-one seemed to be
listening
to her. ‘When I was a girl, every cow had a name and we knew them all; not like now, with great ugly numbers on their backs and plastic tags in their ears.’

I thought back to the last time I had been in this yard, scanning a batch of heifers. I had overheard a heated
argument
between Richard and his elderly father as to whether number 435 (or Scruffy, as she was known), was an
offspring
of number 320 (Annabel, daughter of Lucy) or number 279 (Thatch, to Richard and his father), both of whom were sired by Butler, who could be traced back to Richard’s grandfather’s day. Despite the Department of Agriculture’s best efforts at recording and traceability, nothing could match the mental records of a farmer who took pride in his stock.

‘Would you mind telling us what you’re doing today and,
maybe, what is a normal day for you in your life as a farmer?’ continued Miss Clark, the teacher, interrupting my musings.

‘Oh, well, I’m not a farmer at all, I’m afraid,’ I told her, anxious to get on with my job as soon they were all safely out of sight.

‘Oh, but of course you are a farmer,’ she assured me, patting me gently on me arm. ‘To me the farmer’s wife is every bit as much a farmer as her husband.’

Much and all as I liked Richard, I went on to put the woman in the picture.

‘You’re right,’ I replied. ‘But, actually, I’m the local vet. I’m just here to carry out a few quick jobs.’

‘The vet!’ she exclaimed, clearly in absolute raptures. ‘Boys! Girls! Come quickly!’ she called out to her charges. ‘I have some very exciting news for you. We really are the lucky ones today. This lady here,’ she told them in a hushed voice, ‘is the vet. A real live lady vet!’

The kids didn’t look quite as excited as their teacher, who seemed to view me as one might view the arrival of a previously undiscovered exotic animal at the zoo.

Before I could pass a few pleasantries and get safely away, Miss Clarke continued, ‘Maybe, girls and boys, if you’re all on your best behaviour, this lady vet might like to spare us a few minutes to tell us about her job today.’

I looked briefly from the one-tonne mass of hairy bull to the dainty Friesian, to the bulky artificial vagina in my hand and back at the tender young innocent faces of the schoolchildren.

‘Ah no, I’m afraid not,’ I stumbled, desperately trying to
come up with some excuse as to why I wasn’t going to give them a live performance. ‘It’s just that I have to collect a sample from the bull and I don’t really think the kids should be in on it,’ I confided to her. ‘If I had been doing any other job it would have been fine, and of course they could have watched.’

‘Oh, but the children would be delighted to see you take a blood sample, now wouldn’t you, children?’ she said, clapping her hands to regain the attention of the kids who seemed much more interested in the pea-hen and her litter of chicks than the local stud.

‘Well, no, it’s not a blood sample at all,’ I whispered to her in increasingly urgent tones.

‘Oh, a milk sample then – even better. Now everyone will be able to tell their parents tonight exactly where the milk comes from.’

I looked from her to the great big bulk of bull in the pen beside me and wondered fleetingly how much time she had spent on a farm in her childhood.

‘Eh, no … not a milk sample. It’s actually a
semen
sample I need, you see,’ I eventually told her, hoping the case would rest and she would herd them off to look at some cute calves or something.

‘Oh, I see … oh,’ she continued, not quite as
enthusiastically
as before. ‘How messy,’ she concluded, but still, she was not to be deterred.

‘Well, I suppose you could tell them all about that then,’ she continued, obviously determined to make the most of the moment.

‘Ah no,’ I replied firmly. ‘No. The bull might get
distracted. There’s much better things for them to see on the farm. There’s a shed full of tractors and harvesters and a load of newborn calves. I’m sure Richard will be out to you in minute to show you around.’

With perfect timing, he appeared out of the vast feed shed and greeted Miss Clarke warmly as though this little gathering was an annual event.

Miss Clarke was by now back in full glee and told the smirking Richard how wonderful an opportunity it was for the children to meet a ‘real live lady vet’.

‘And now, we’re going to watch the vet take a sample,’ she continued confidently. ‘I think it’s wonderful for the children to see these things first hand, don’t you?’

I didn’t. I really, really didn’t; especially when I was the one doing the demonstration.

‘No, I was just saying to Miss Clarke that they really couldn’t watch,’ I said, turning to Richard for support. ‘Much too dangerous. I don’t think your insurance would cover it or anything.’

‘Not at all,’ boomed Richard, clapping me genially on the back and waving a great big hand towards the cattle unit. ‘Once the children stand in there well out of the way they can get a great view of everything.’

‘How wonderful! Shall we get on with it, so,’ concluded Miss Clarke before I could protest any further.

With a sense of something happening, the kids began to gather around. Greg, the stockman, who looked just as unenthusiastic as I did about the whole affair, led in the little cow while I stood brandishing the artificial vagina, or AV, as we called it.

Harry, the bull, was well accustomed to the procedure and approached enthusiastically.

‘Now, children,’ declared Miss Clarke, ‘the lady vet is going to explain everything to you.’

Keeping my head down and ignoring her, I angled myself to accommodate the great big bull as he mounted the cow with an enormous grunt.

‘Oh look,’ squealed one of the little girls
enthusiastically
. ‘The cows are playing leapfrog. I like playing
leapfrog
too.’

With another few grunts, Harry produced his sample and dropped back down to the ground with a triumphant bellow.

‘He’s grunting a lot,’ added another girl. ‘Did he hurt himself?’

At that stage, I decided the show was over and throwing back a hurried ‘Can’t let this get cold – have to dash,’ I hopped out just in time as Miss Clarke began a lecture something along the lines of man-cows and lady-cows and baby-cows.

Richard had caught up with me by the time I got back to the car. The look on my face sent him off into great big deep-chested bellows of laughter.

‘You are so dead,’ I told him. ‘Well you may laugh now but next time you want a real live vet to play leapfrog, do your own dirty work, don’t bother coming for me!’

‘Ah sure, the kids loved it,’ he roared. ‘Just think of them going off to write their school stories about the cows
playing
leapfrog and that’s how you get the milk,’ and he broke off again into peals of laughter.

* * *

As it was spring, I was in and out of Richard’s yard on an almost daily basis from then on, but every time I arrived I threw a quick look around to check there were no coaches in the driveway. Richard always took great glee in relating the tale to anyone who cared to listen.

‘I have a severe case of leapfrog up here,’ he would roar down the phone whenever he rang the surgery.

With the bulk of the cows and heifers calved, it was well into summer when the time came for the annual TB herd test. Although a herd of that size with such a high
proportion
of cows to be blood-tested would usually send a sense of dread through me, the prospect of spending a day in Richard’s yard was not so daunting. Both Richard and Greg were efficient stockmen and were no more interested in wasting time with dodgy crushes than I was. The metal crush which ran alongside the length of the hay shed could hold almost twenty cows and led out into an open expanse of fresh pasture, which greatly speeded up the whole process of loading and unloading. On the day of the test, I was happier still to see the bright sunny
morning
, not hot enough to hinder the progress, but just enough to make the task more pleasant. At least six other local farmers had been roped in for the job of loading and unloading the cows, and before long, the yard was filled with good-natured slagging in between the roars and bawls of the cattle.

Once the heifers and young stock had all been tested,
Harry, the bull, went next. His enormous frame was too great to fit into the crush, but Richard had welded a strong restraining gate in his bull pen. Having coated out for the summer, Harry looked magnificent. His thick coat was sleek and glossy and his powerful muscles rippled under the enormous hide.

‘By God, he got over that dose of leapfrog well, anyway,’ threw in Richard, much to the merriment of the other farmers, who had all heard the story.

Harry gave a few deep bellows as I subjected him to the indignity of clipping and measuring his skin before
injecting
the avian and bovine tuberculin. It took all of my strength to haul up the enormous tail to take a blood sample.

After a quick cup of tea and a sandwich in the hand, we carried on with the older cows and worked solidly –
clipping
, measuring, recording, injecting and blood sampling cow after cow after cow, until I felt they would never end. The mirth and merriment that had started the day gradually subsided as each batch of cows came through. I wasn’t the only one who had started to fade, and by the last pen-full, it seemed as though we were all working in slow motion.

By the time we were finished, I hadn’t the energy to get back into the car and go home for dinner. Generally, I didn’t like to accept hospitalities on the day of a test. To me, it just seemed a little insensitive to sit and share a meal with a family when, in three days’ time, you might be sending some of their stock to the factory if they failed the test. It was a different story on the day of the reading. If the test was clear, I always enjoyed at least a cup of tea in the
relieved atmosphere that followed. If the test was positive, I would accept, if I was offered, as much to commiserate with the family. Despite only being a pawn of the
Department
of Agriculture, the vet was usually deemed
responsible
if some of the cattle were positive.

In Richard’s case, though, I wasn’t too worried as his farm was a closed one. They bought in no stock and grazed no common grounds with other farms. As far as I knew, they had never had a single reactor.

It took not only the decent dinner but a few mugs of tea before I felt sufficiently revived to gather myself and return home. The test had taken the best part of the day and I was happy to sink into a hot bath.

Three days later, I returned to the yard to read the test. In order to do this, all the cattle had to be loaded into the crush again and each animal had to be individually checked for any lumps or swelling around the site of the injection.

The same gang had gathered and we got through all the young stock in record time. As the cows were to be turned out to a different field, Richard opted for them to go next. Despite the efficiency of the operation, it was some time before the last cow ran through. Next we moved on to Harry, who by now was roaring indignantly at the
disturbance
of what should have been a quiet morning.

As I walked into the pen where he had already been enclosed by the gate, I stared in horror at the left-hand side of his neck. The top lump, which was the control injection of avian tuberculin, was barely palpable. The bottom lump, where I had injected the bovine tuberculin, had
swollen to the size of a small golf ball. I stood with
callipers
in hand, knowing it was useless to measure the mass. Without a doubt, Harry was a reactor, and was destined for the slaughter-house.

I was suddenly aware of the frozen silence behind me, and in a flash it came to me that the mood hadn’t been quite so jovial this morning. As though in a daze, I walked towards Harry and ran my hand over the oedematous lump, wondering why, oh why it had to be this one – this perfectly managed farm, this prize bull, bred from a
generation
of quality stock, this gentle farmer who until now I had never witnessed in anything but the best of form.

Cursing my cowardice, I stood mesmerised by the bull, unable to come up with the words to tell Richard that Harry, sired by The Dean (number 241) out of Tinkerbell (number 204), traceable back over at least five generations of stock bred by his father and grandfather before him, was on the way to the factory – to the factory where he would be slaughtered, have his lymph nodes slashed and analysed by an anonymous inspector, and then the
tremendous
carcass would be sprayed with an indelible dye, rendering it unfit for human consumption.

BOOK: Vet Among the Pigeons
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