A Veterinary Safari

The fine dust from the rocky clay road swirls around my head, stinging my eyes to the extent that I close them and turn away, trying to block out the worst of its assault.  I’m bounced like a superball on the floor of the flatbed trailer and I squint towards my patient, placing my hand over his big wet nose.  “Good buffalo,” I tell him.  “Keep breathing.”  He’s sedated enough that he doesn’t care, and I’m satisfied with his condition as we turn the last corner to his new enclosure.  Relieved at our arrival, I hop off, making room for the bucket truck to lift the chains of my patient’s stretcher, then place him gently on the ground inside the fence.  The veterinarians move in to reverse his sedation, and he stumbles to his feet quickly with an expression that could have landed him a part in The Hangover.

We climb onto the trailer and bounce our way back to collect the next buffalo.

When you need to make a half-ton animal move somewhere in particular, it isn’t a decision made lightly.  There are any number of reasons why you might need to move a buffalo into a new enclosure – pairing them up for breeding, separating aggressive animals, improving crowded conditions, etc.  But regardless of the reason, the process is a carefully orchestrated endeavor that involves a lot of people.  On this particuar day, we were moving six buffalo, each of which took about an hour to move.    

Maybe it goes without saying, but these buffalo are not cattle.  They are not accustomed to people, and they have not been trained to file politely from one enclosure to another.  Hence, our buffalo-moving endeavor was really more of a veterinary safari, and a dart gun was a crucial piece of our veterinary equipment.  We, as veterinarians, are the guardians of animal welfare, and to make movement of a buffalo as safe as possible for the buffalo, it needs to be fast and efficient.  However, this necessitates the use of a drug that is strong enough to knock out an adult male buffalo with a single injection that fits into a dart, so you’re inherently dealing with some potent stuff.  The drug we use is etorphine, which is more commonly referred to as M99.  This drug is an opiod that is so potent that a single drop can kill a human.  In fact, we’re instructed that even if any of the affected animal’s blood gets on our skin, we’re to report the incident immediately.  The risk is literally our lives, but I’m happy to report that no one died during our endeavor.

Only the veterinarian goes ahead to dart the animal.  The rest of us wait on the bakkie and trailer, rolling slowly through the African veld vegetation, ducking under acacia tress and crunching plants that release a minty scent into the air.  The later it gets in the day, the hotter the sun shines overhead, but the South Africans just look at me with an amused expression when I comment on the heat – to them, it’s a nice autumn day.

My job was to monitor the buffalo as the anesthetist.  In a clinic, this may have involved monitoring heart rate, respirations, blood pressure, oxygen perfusion, etc, depending on the equipment available.  In this situation, it meant wedging myself between the buffalo’s head and the edge of the trailer to make sure he kept breathing.  It also included making sure that there were people holding his head upright so that, if he regurgitated, he didn’t then aspirate and die from pneumonia, and making sure he stayed sternal (on his chest) so that his own massive weight wouldn’t squish his lungs.

By the end of the day, everything was coated with a fine layer of clay dust and there were small, sharp barbs from ‘blackjacks’ stabbing me unexpectedly from where they clung to my pants.  I was blowing dark, sticky snot out of my nose until well into the next morning and I somehow managed to find a blackjack barb the next day in a pair of pants that I didn’t even wear to the buffalo farm.  But the buffalo made it safely, and I got the rare opportunity for an incredible and rewarding experience.

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