Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Student mishaps

Some vets end up in fairly routine careers. Some, like myself, end up in small-animal practice, while others end up in laboratories, teaching, large-animal practice, abattoir work and government service. All are fairly specialised, meaning I would be fairly out of my league if someone presented me with a horse to cure.

But we vets all have the same beginnings. We were all students and were taught to be jacks of all trades; not until we graduate and start our first jobs do we pick a speciality.

So even your most urban veterinarians have had farm experience during their student training. It is this clash between urban and rural lifestyles that sets us up for some fairly hilarious situations.

During the final two years of my course at the University of Melbourne we were stationed at a rather unsocial locale call Werribee, 50km from central Melbourne. We spent the final two years of our studies there because its location allowed us to be exposed to large animals, such as cattle, sheep and horses. We had rotations that moved us among all the different species of domesticated animals such as canines and felines, bovine, ovine, porcine, avian and equine.

The one that I always dreaded was the equine rotation. Don't get me wrong. I like horses and I think they are a magnificent animal, grand, intelligent and loyal, but let's face it, they can also be unruly, bad-tempered and unpredictable to the uninitiated.

My job as a part of the horse rotation was to learn from the horse vets while they were doing their rounds and seeing clients. We got to perform seemingly basic procedures such as taking blood, starting a drip and giving injections.

I use the word 'seemingly' for a good reason. It is rather daunting when you realise that you are jabbing a beast weighing more than 500kg that is rather well armed with gnashing teeth and a bruising, possibly fatal, kick.

I remember one fateful morning during one of my horse rotations. The sun wasn't even up and it was cold and dark. My alarm lay twitching in the corner of the room where I had thrown it moments before. I was rubbing my bleary eyes to keep them open. I dragged myself out of bed and into my ugly green overalls. It had been busy the night before and only a few hours earlier I had had to wake up to see to a foaling.

Things start early when dealing with horses and it was time for my treatment rounds. The hospital stables were near my accommodation. The university hospital was world-famous and in the hospital stables were a number of expensive and famous horses. I wondered why they would let an amateur like me near one. I shrugged and figured it was an essential part of what I enrolled for when I chose to be a vet.

At one end of the stable area was the prep room. On the wall of the prep room was a whiteboard that outlined the necessary treatments and food types each horse needed. So I got everything ready and headed off to face the menacing steeds. The idea of stabbing a horse in the neck with a 50ml syringe always sends shivers down my spine.

The stalls were numbered like houses on a street. I was in stall No4 trying to put a halter on the horse when I heard an ominous 'clink' from the stall opposite. The horse I had just treated in stall No 3 had pushed open the door and was walking towards the exit! So I dropped everything and ran out, slamming shut the door of the stall.

There is a safety mechanism that locks the door and it appears I hadn't locked stall No3 properly and I simply didn't have time to lock stall No 4.

I chased the horse from Stall 3 and was able to catch the rope attached to the halter and drag the beast back to its stall, just when the horse from Stall 4 pushed open its door and started trotting out the exit.

My heart sank. I watched with horror as the horse trotted way faster than I could run towards the exit. If the horse turned left out the exit it would head towards an enclosed car park, but if it turned right it would head towards the expressway. It turned right! I figured at that moment that I would be expelled after the university claimed insurance for a horse killed in a car accident. I quickly shoved the horse from No 3 back in its stall and ran after the escaped horse with all kinds of horror in my mind's eye.

I found the horse happily grazing along the fence. I casually skulked up to it so as not to scare it away and wrapped a rope around its neck. Some other students happened by and asked, 'What are you doing, Eric?' I casually answered without breaking a sweat: 'Nothing much, just thought I would walk the horse and let it have some fresh grass instead of the dry stuff inside.'

I felt I was the luckiest person in the world at that moment.