“And they’ll try to mount you.”
Jenny, an affectionate Irish woman, a guru at my new work place, nodded vehemently as I stared at her. “Oh yeah. Especially at certain times of the month. You just feel this big head on top of yours. It’s horrible. All the girls on the farm talk about it.”
Before my PhD I’d never worked with cows. Seals, deer, horses, but never cows. My knowledge of them started and ended at big black and white things that stood beside country road accidents, and big black and white things talking about humans in a Gary Larson cartoon. So it was thought, a general opinion held by all involved in my PhD, that I should do a little work on the research farm to get used to handling the animals.
“And the heifers are the worst.” Jenny’s briefing was an informal one, I’d popped into her office to ask about something else and cows, as they always did, came into the conversation.
“Yes,” Jenny observed, mistaking my regret for disbelief. “It’s scary!”
As I slunk from her office, I didn’t need her to tell me that being mounted by a 500 kg animal was scary. I had enough problems shaking off my friend’s dog.
Office romances don’t come easily to people like me. In child care, you’re surrounded by the end result of flirting and it does put a dampener on things. There’s also a limited amount of romancing that can be done among brightly coloured Ikea plates and sweaty faced children. Animals lend an entirely different atmosphere. All that energy and unabashed sex. It’s carnal. Unfortunately, those that work with animals are usually covered in shit and their own sweat. It’s not a good look.
Despite this handicap, I can recall a few great love affairs. There’s the tragic love affair, the beauty and the beast situation between an RTA goose and a lead poisoned swan. That goose spent many a warm autumn evening chasing the swan round and around the pool, while she serenely floated away with a couple of flips of her black webbed feet. The fact she was on a course of antibiotics and so had to be captured twice a day was of no small concern to the goose, and he defended her virtue rigorously. I’m not sure she ever noticed, or appreciated those attentions. The staff at the wildlife hospital noticed. The goose had a powerful bite. One evening, after my colleagues watched me fend off the erstwhile lover while simultaneously stuffing an antibiotic tablet the size of my thumb down the swan’s gob, I returned to the kitchen picking white feathers from my hair. “It’s cute,” said one of my colleagues. My supervisor, shaking his head sadly, managed a morose: “It’s wrong,” which we all felt was rather unprogressive of him.
Swans lend themselves to love. Even in old age. They mate for life, so people tell me, and I try not to bring up the literature that says otherwise. The biggest problem about working with animals is how often people will tell you things they know to be true. I’m guilty of it myself, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. That same autumn, working the isolation unit, I opened up a swan’s pen and stepped onto the sawdust covered concrete. These pens are roughly 2m by 1m square and painted a soothing, hospital-y shade of green. I don’t think any of the animals appreciated that. The swans were bedded on sawdust, which could flake and get into your eye with alarming frequency. In two big, black plastic bins we kept protein pellets for ducks and corn mix for swans. The ducks and ducklings would get their specific kind of pellets in a shallow bowl. Swans would get their corn in a plastic basin filled with water, occasionally with a garnish of lettuce on top if we had some going. Carrying these basins into the pens was sometimes a balancing act, as the decaying plastic threatened to split from its heavy, sloshing load. This evening I gave the admission card a once over, noted the treatments on the back of my glove, and entered the pen.
The swan was lying with her head submerged in the bowl of water.
While birds, particularly diving birds, are capable of going without oxygen for considerably longer than humans, my initial reaction was to dread the impending paperwork. I plucked the animal’s head from the water and gave it a little shake on the end of its long neck. It rolled one yellow eye in my direction and gave a little flutter of its wings.
Just let me die, it seemed to say.
I cleaned the pen, medicated the bird, and made a slightly facetious note that the bird should be kept on suicide watch. On a more serious side of things, I recommended the vets upped the dosage, as her lead poisoning was severe.
On my final round of the night, I popped my head round once more to find her submerging her whole head. As she had plainly ate nothing, before I left, I made sure to move her bowl a little further away. Do animals have a concept of suicide? Did the poor bugger feel that bad? That didn’t matter. I was three shifts in to my four nights on the isolation ward and I hadn’t lost a single animal yet. The day shift had, but I hadn’t seen them, so it didn’t count.
The following evening I found her again, drowning herself. The day shift had written “seems to like submerging head in bowl” on her card. “Have moved bowl away”. I studied the sawdust shavings. Had the listless animal dragged herself closer to the lurid orange bucket in order to end her days? Could I really justify snatching that chance at swan heaven yet again? Maybe swan suicide was against swan religion. I couldn’t take that chance. Besides, the vet had upped her EDTA dose so surely she’d start feeling better after the double injection I was going to give her. Was this not what we lived for? The healing of poor, innocent animals?
EDTA solution needs to be diluted in saline, so the higher dose resulted in two injections, one in each leg. Despite her attempts at drowning, she was massively dehydrated too. Already feeling as though I was taking this far too seriously, I popped my head out of the door and tried to catch the attention of the vet nurse as she walked by.
The vet nurse was a dedicated woman who lived on site and, seeing the state of the bird, she went to set up a saline drip. I lifted the bird from its sawdust bed and saw, for the first time, its terrible case of Angel Wing. Her wings drooped at the ‘wrist’, she was probably flightless. I mentioned, gently, to the vet nurse that it might be kinder to euthanize. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. There were plenty of ‘sheltered housing’ lakes we could rehome her to. The next morning, the swan was sitting on the sawdust, head up, a drip sellotaped to the wall above her.
I watched her recovery over the next few weeks and it was with some delight that we released her into the outside pen where she wasn’t even tempted to drown herself in the large pool. And a large one-winged male swan took one look at her and in the golden light of the sun setting over the aviaries, reflecting off the algae tinted pond and the fluffy yellow backs of the last of the year’s ducklings, he fell in love.
We rehomed the pair together in a stately Cheshire home where they could be flightless and happy together.
Not all love stories end well. Particularly when I’m involved. 813 and I had known each other for a little over two months. I was working on a farm in Friesland, a land so flat it gave me vertigo. 813 hadn’t paid too much attention to me until the unfortunate few days my hormones happened to spike at the same time hers did. Suddenly I was irresistible. Some things, like laughing at small women being pursued by amorous cows, transcend language barriers, and I never had quite such a good relationship with the guys on farm as when I was the subject of their amusement.
For this particular experiment I spent a lot of time in the pen moving cows, selecting cows, and for a whole week I was also avoiding 813. Sometimes I was even physically fleeing from her. I’d be checking out my notes to find out what cow I wanted next when I’d feel a slobber-covered chin alight upon my shoulder. 813 was nothing if not ever hopeful.
Alas, when her hormones subsided she wanted nothing further to do with me and all that remained of our love was a long drool mark down the right side of my overalls.
I’ve given up on office romances. It’s all very mooving at the time, but it seems best left to the birds and the bovines.