I should’ve stayed in bed...
Veterinary medicine sometimes requires a never-say-die attitude... in the literal sense!
It was a morning like most, nothing particularly memorable as mornings go. The sun was being coy behind some misty clouds. It wasn’t too hot, but not really cool either. My husband brought me my morning tea and rusks before he set off for his usual early morning run. I took the dogs for a walk along the route we usually take.
The morning routine completed, I set off to my client north of Pretoria. After chatting a bit about the weather, December holiday plans and the usual small talk nonsense, we set off in his bakkie to go look for the young impala ram I had to dart. The big herd ram on the farm kept on bullying the youngster so we needed to move the young ram to a safer place.
Impalas are skittish at the best of times, but they have a supernatural intuition when it comes to darting them. They will allow you one shot, but heaven forbid should you miss... it will be your last good opportunity. This young upstart was no different to any of his kin and by no means willing to let us get close.
Working with game has forc- ed me to become more patient, or at least give the appearance of being more patient, but deep down inside, I am not. So, when I at last got an opportunity to take a long-range shot, I did not hesitate. And I missed. Hell and damnation I shouted inwardly, knowing that the envisioned quick and easy early morning dart just got a lot more complicated. One of the crew on the
back of the bakkie said he was sure he heard the dart go off, maybe it had hit the impala after all. So, although we were quite certain of the opposite, we had to check.
After a long search we found the young ram wide awake not too far from the main herd. Driving closer, he took off and joined some springbuck. Driving closer to them, the ram split off and joined some blesbuck. In the blesbuck group there was also a single wildebeest cow. Since there are no other wildebeest in the camp, she had decided she rather liked the blesbuck, so she would run with them. Unfortunately as their names imply, they are wild, even wilder than impala. The wildebeest cow, of course took exception to us driving closer and bucking and snorting, whipped the whole group into a frenzy... off they went to the other side of the camp. The young impala decided that all this excitement was too much and chose to rather play hard to get on an open piece of grassland. This meant I had my second chance at getting the bugger.
It was a very long shot, I aimed about 20cm above his back and got him squarely on his side. It wasn’t the ideal shot (which was on his bum, in the nice big glottal muscles), so it would take some time for the drug to take effect. Impala are normally very sensitive to Thiafentanyl – a single drop can drop them like a stone, so I had high hopes.
NO GOING DOWN
Ten minutes later, the youngster was still running around. After convincing ourselves that we are indeed seeing some symptoms of the immobilising drug taking effect, the farmer and I kept visual contact with our quarry for another ten minutes. The big herd ram then decided that the youngster was too close to his harem of ewes and started chasing the poor thing all around the open grassland in the middle of the camp. We had no other choice but to chase after the two to save the youngster.
Eventually the big boy decided that maybe the youngster wasn’t worth all the effort and returned to his harem. Besides, it looked like the youngster only brought trouble – in the shape of a bakkie with three people clinging to the back and two inside shouting at the top of their voices (the farmer and I). By now it was clear that the youngster would not go down (normally most impalas are fully immobilised two minutes after being darted).
So I prepared another dart... and missed again. I must admit it was a dicey shot, the sly ram was hiding under an extremely scrubby bush with lots of small twigs and branches covering most of his body. Ever the optimist, I tried anyway and hit a twig which deflected the dart.
The farmer then suggested that we take a coffee break to give the little guy time to settle down a bit. I gladly agreed, being im- patient by nature, I also needed a few minutes to calm down. Arriving at the house I decided to prepare another dart before we had our coffee. I drew up the immobilising drug, realised I didn’t have a dart to put it in and without thinking, placed the back end of the syringe in my mouth, as I always do when I need two hands to do something. Reaching over my medicine case to the little trays on the front where I keep my darts, I leaned closer to see what I was doing, and in doing so accidentally injected a small amount of the drug into the back of my one hand.
Now, as some of you might know, humans are extremely sensitive to the drugs used to immobilise game animals. A safe doze that will immobilise a young impala, will kill any human in no time. Looking at the syringe to see whether I needed to even worry about the amount I got into my hand I immediately realised that I needed to worry...
Fortunately I always keep antidote and a syringe in the top right pocket of my jacket. Working quickly I filled the syringe and injected the antidote into my left upper arm. Afterwards I realised that the needle I used was probably the same one I used the previous day to wake up a sable. What the hell, I’d rather be alive and have an infected deltoid muscle than be dead whilst trying to find a clean needle and syringe in my case in time. As calm as a cucumber, I finished the preparation of the dart, placed it in my dart-gun, made sure the safety catch was on and then joined the farmer in his house.
Sitting down I told the farmer and his wife what had just happened and that I had already administered the antidote, so there should be no need to worry. I thought it was a good idea that someone else knew... just in case. The farmer’s wife freaked out a little, especially because I acted so calmly. Well, when I am in an extremely stressful situation, that is what I do, my mind goes completely »
» calm and focuses sharply on what needs to be done. Afterwards I might freak out a little, but stress is something my body and mind handles very well.
The farmer gave me a serious stare, and asked whether I felt okay. Half of my face was completely numb, I could feel pins and needles in my nose, but my tongue wasn’t feeling thick and clumsy. I was thus convinced that I had administered the antidote in time. We kept the antidote close at hand and I had my coffee.
After a while the numbness started to subside and I told my hosts that I’m OK and that we should try to finish darting the young ram.
We set off again in the bakkie. The same dance through the bushes... getting closer, closer and just when I think I have a shot, the ram would take off. Then he was joined by an impala ewe and it was even more difficult to get close to him. After a while the ewe joined the impala herd again and the big ram had another go at the youngster who then hid under a bush again.
This was our chance. We got close enough, I aimed and hit him squarely on the glutes, a good shot. He ran off but after only 30 seconds it was clear that the drug was taking effect. The ram started running with his head held high. A few more seconds, and down he went. We raced closer with the bakkie to attend to him. With wildlife it is very important to keep them upright once they are immobilised. This is to prevent regurgitation of the stomach contents with subsequent aspiration into the lungs (it causes pneumonia and death) since the cough reflex is usually also suppressed under immobilisation.
We were about 80m away when the big ram came running out of nowhere, straight to the youngster and proceeded to ply him very determinedly with the horns. The farmer pushed down on the accelerator and let loose on the hooter to scare the big ram away. It worked, but it was too late, the big ram had already pushed the youngster a few meters. A heavy feeling of dread settled in my stomach as I jumped out of the bakkie and ran the last few metres towards the young ram. The big ram’s horns had made a superficial hole on the right side of the youngster’s thorax and a long, deep gash under his left front leg. The wound was about 25cm long and 15cm deep, neatly cutting through the pec- toral muscles (the muscles that keep the legs pulled in and preventing them from splitting to the sides, away from the body). Fortunately those deadly horns missed all the major blood vessels and most of the nerves in the leg.
My story is proof that an average working day for a vet can turn into a bad day, an even worse day and eventually the worst day...
Flushing it out with the disinfectant I keep in my medicine case, I cleaned the wound as best I could of hair, sand and grass. Then I proceeded to suture the muscles. There was one belly of the triceps muscle that had to be cut out, it was unfortunately complete severed and mangled. Luckily as the name implies, there were still two bellies left that could do most of the work. I sutured the pectoral muscles as best I could and patched the wound, leaving a hole at the lowest point so that any fluids and/or pus could drain out if necessary. Vitamins, antibiotics, pain medicine and fly deterrents were injected, as well as some long-term sedation. The ram would spend the next few weeks in a boma, until he had recovered enough to go to his final destination.
My story is proof that an average working day for a vet can turn into a bad day, an even worse day and eventually the worst day... Veterinary medicine sometimes requires a certain bull-headedness and a youcan’t-get-me-down attitude. If you don’t have it to start with you will certainly get it beaten into you by a combination of your patients, your own bumbling and the general perversity of the universe.
The young ram luckily survived his darting ordeal.
Hanneke with her Pneu-Dart dart gun. What should have been a simple darting operation turned into a nightmare that gave her a scare and almost ended tragically for the young impala ram too.
Hanneke (right) with one of her students, Shanzelle Rabe, and four young impala rams. This outing was a successful one without any drama.
RIGHT: The drugs used to immobilise animals are deadly to humans. Carrying the antidote with you is mandatory.
Darting animals calls for accurate shooting. You also need to get close because the dart gun has a very limited range.
TOP: A dart and the .22 blank that powers it.