The night the cattle arrived – part 2

Written by Dr. Renee Orange, Veterinarian, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Samoa.

This is part 2 of a two part series. Find part 1 here.

Our stock truck and the portable yards were standing by at the cattle station, 2 hours away. After much back and forth with our boss, he and the consultants agreed that the best course of action would be first, get the portable stock yards to the airport in case the heifers decided to wake up and go for a run. Secondly, get the stock truck there so the heifers could be loaded into it.

That was the longest 2 hours of my life. Myself, my colleague, and 2 of our paravets spent it patrolling the periphery of those sleeping heifers, monitoring their sedation, vital signs and positions. My colleague had the tranq gun loaded and standing by. A passenger flight landed and taxied past us. I wondered what the passengers thought of us – all these people standing around on the tarmac, trucks everywhere, 5 large bodies on the ground. Did they know they were cattle? Hopefully they didn’t think they were dead. There was a small attempt to stop people taking photos, as they could be easily misinterpreted on social media, but there were too many people and everyone was tired. I’m afraid I myself don’t have any photos of that night, I lost my phone shortly after in a paddock, losing all photos as well.

Finally, the portable stockyard arrived. The panels were assembled, and stockmen were stationed at each, again in case the cattle tried to break out. Then the stock truck arrived, that blessed stock truck. Here the 9m casting rope came into its own – it was used to tie the four feet of one heifer together with a piece in the middle to act as a “handle”. The forklift then lifted the sleeping animal high above the sides of the stock truck, and lowered it gently into the tray, where it was then untied and positioned to allow room for the others. Everyone was on edge as each animal was carefully lifted into the truck. One slip of those knots and we would have likely had to euthanize the heifer. I offered a prayer of thanks that nothing went wrong. All were lifted safely into the truck. The heifers had been sedated for 3 hours. It was almost the end of the ordeal.

The airport staff were now in a hurry to get us off the tarmac as they had a flight that needed the berth we were in. In record time, people, equipment and trucks moved off. The previously loaded animals moved first, followed by the vet truck, and then the stock truck. Before the truck left, I grabbed the reversal agent, syringes and needles and jumped in the back of the truck with 2 of the consultants, and began injecting it into their veins to get them up. It was a priority to minimise their down time. The truck started moving while I was injecting the second animal, and we all yelled at the driver to stop because it was so unstable. I looked up to yell at the driver, and I clearly remember seeing the nose of the passenger aeroplane that had been kept waiting, moving in right behind the truck. No wonder the driver didn’t pay us any attention – I stopped yelling at him.

I wonder what the pilots of that plane must have thought.

We got a bit of a quiet spot in the carpark. I finished injecting all the animals and they had already begun to wake up and attempt to stand by the time I finished the last of them. I hastily hopped out while the boys finished tying on the net over the top of the truck.

I got into our vet truck and the convoy was off. It took a little over 2 hours for the trucks to get to the station since they couldn’t travel too fast. I caught a nap on the way.

Everyone was incredibly tired, nerves stretched by the events of the last few hours.

At the clearing, the stock trucks and the container trucks found their rhythm during unloading and the cattle were slowly but surely ferried up to the stockyards where they would spend the night with some food and water. All the staff took turns to eat a cold dinner behind one of our trucks. Best tasting grub ever. True to our Samoan personalities, humour was high and everyone was still sharing laughs.

My colleague went to the stockyard to supervise the unloading there, and I remained at the clearing with the tranq guns should anything try to escape.

It was with great relief that at 5am, the last of the cattle were unloaded at the stockyard. I heard later that my colleague had almost been trampled by a particularly lively and rambunctious heifer that had charged straight out of the door of the stock truck onto the loading ramp. As it was, she was merely bounced off the top of the race and remained unhurt. This same heifer tried to charge her at a muster just after her first calf, and has gained a notorious reputation since.

Everyone returned, totally spent, to our office and slept for 2 hours before waking up again to go check on the cattle. The sheep had taken a back seat in all this but the competent senior officer had managed their unloading flawlessly and they were happily installed in their new sheep shed with adequate food and water.

It was a gratifying sight to see all of our heifers up and busily eating in the stockyard in the warm light of day. We went for a drive to check the paddocks that had been prepared for them, then walked them into the first one.

Considering what it could have been though, I consider us fortunate, and while it would have been better to never have happened, I learnt a lot from that night.