Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2006, 12:00am

It's the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. This makes me sentimental, so I am going to share an interesting incident from my veterinary schooling.

Being a veterinarian isn't all doom and gloom of sick and dying animals. Sometimes, it's wonderful, such as the birth of an animal.

One spring over 10 years ago, near the end of my veterinary schooling, I was doing some work experience at a farm near beautiful Ninety Mile Beach in eastern Victoria, Australia. In this temperate area, the grass is lush in the spring, so lush that dairy cows thrive on the pastures without any grain supplements.

The countryside is dotted with hundreds of dairy farms. There is a processing plant nearby to handle the continuous supply of raw milk for the whole of Melbourne and the state of Victoria, and some of that milk makes its way to Hong Kong.

I was lucky enough to be present at the end of the calving season, witnessing the birth of hundreds of newborns. I was up close as they hit the ground and you can see their reluctant look as they leave the comfort of their mother's warm womb. They bleat at their sudden exposure.

Calves are amazing - they are up and running in minutes. Humans are considered clever to walk at the age of two. Calves are funny as they try to take their first steps. They are wobbly and their long gangly legs take a wide stance for balance. They are often born in slippery mud making it that much more difficult to stand.

But once they work it out, they forget the discomfort of birth and straight away before they learn to walk they run. You can certainly feel their cries of joy. I laughed at their confusion when they first discovered the electric fence.

Day in and day out calves are born throughout early spring in time to take advantage of the lush vegetation. As the season gets late, the old farmer turns from calving to fixing fences and preparing the farm for the next season. It's a never-ending job and it amazes me every time to think how much different his life is from mine.

One early morning, late in the season, I was peering out the windows of the farmstead overlooking the calving pad. There in the centre was the last cow to give birth. And, boy, it was having a hard time. It's a fact of the dairy industry that the last calf of the season ends up being one of the least productive cows on the farm. It gets the least share of the spring grass and that means less milk production throughout its life.

Due to this, the farmer wasn't all that interested in its birth and was having a scone with tea over a newspaper. Well, I didn't know this and so went out to give mum a hand.

The calf was coming out backwards, so I helped by manipulating the calf's position so it would slide out more easily. I pulled hard and out came the little guy. I sighed in relief.

I returned to finish my coffee and out the window saw that the calf hadn't stood. So, I ventured out in the cold again to investigate. I wasn't a fully fledged vet yet but I knew that a cow should have two eyes and not one. This calf was deformed, due to an infection during the mother's gestation period.

So, the first thing I ever helped bring into this life was deformed. What a shock.

It so happened, that it was going to be a day of firsts. I told the farmer the news and he casually gave me a hammer. I stared at it and shivered. The children on the farm had heard about the deformed calf and accompanied me back to the calving pad. So, the act of calving was quickly followed by euthanasia.

Yet, it was the kindest thing I could do, as otherwise the calf would have died slowly on the ground. But it was a sudden shock to discover I had to take its life. The morning suddenly became chillier. I recalled what I was taught at vet school, where to hit this calf to quickly end its misery. I did the deed. Wham. Darkness.

I still think about that calf when I am alone. The emotion it stirs to this very day is as real as it was then. It reminds me how precious life is and how sad it is to see it fade. That calf may have been one of countless calves born every day, but it was one I had to destroy, and ending its suffering makes me human again.