The latest episode of Safari Vet School saw a new group of vet students arrive at the reserve, with most being more experienced than their predecessors yet just as keen to get stuck in to the fun. This week’s episode seemed to have much more of an edge to it, with the word ‘danger’ very much being the one that kept cropping up. Whether it was the ‘danger’ posed by getting too close to a protective female elephant and her calves, or the ‘danger’ posed to the Hartebeest that was very close to succumbing to the effects of hyperthermia, the new students had a lot to really keep their adrenaline levels at maximum.
The elephant experience reminded me of a story my late grandfather used to tell us, in which he came face to face with a rogue bull elephant whilst living in Kenya right out in the bush. The elephant in question had apparently been terrorising local people and it was suspected that it had something very wrong with it. My grandad was charged by it and had the terrifying and upsetting decision to make of having to kill it, in order to safeguard his own life and those of his family. As a result, we had it drilled into us from a very early age of the unpredictabilty and ‘danger’ posed by animals, even those we consider to be cute and generally harmless.
Overheating & Death as an unhappy fact of the job
The incident with the Hartebeest was a close one and it was clear that the group very nearly lost the animal to over-heating. This really drove home the fact that in spite of our best efforts, animals are ultimately complex biological systems with all of the inherent unpredictability that you’d perhaps expect but which can serve up real curve-balls on occasion. This is an important lesson to learn early on in a veterinary career as there are guaranteed to be a number of such situations throughout any vet’s working life. I had one such case on the weekend. We had a middle-aged Rottweiler transferred to us from it’s vet for ongoing fluid therapy and treatment for vomiting, weight loss and bloody diarrhoea (not the nicest of combinations). The dog was also very yellow and clearly had significant liver issues. Owners have a great way of really piling on the pressure and the owner’s parting words were that her dog “could not die.” As I say, no pressure. Further blood tests and an ultrasound scan later made it clear that the dog had serious liver problems and as such the prognosis was guarded to poor. She did, however, start to look better and more responsive after a few hours of fluid therapy, and as such we felt that we may have made a difference. Now this is where as a vet you have to be very careful as animals like this have a particularly nasty habit of perking up just before a major crisis, and that’s exactly what happened. The dog suddenly went downhill, turned pale and basically started dying in front of our eyes. Unfortunately, in spite of our very best efforts, the damage was too great and she was put to sleep. This really drove home the fact that cases can take an unexpected turn, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and that as vets one of our most important tasks is to sensibly manage owner expectations. It would have been easy at admit to reassure the owner by telling her that her dog was “going to be OK,” but that would have been misleading and caused even greater anguish to her compared to being realistic and cautious by advising a guarded prognosis. Although the dog’s owner was understandably very upset, she had been given a chance to come to terms with the fact that her pet was very ill and may well die rather than languising under false, or misguided, thoughts that everything was going to be OK. So, the thing I would say to the Safari Vet School students is that in spite of their best efforts, that particular Hartebeest on that particular day had obviously ‘decided’ that it was going to test the boundaries between life and death. Sometimes stuff just happens and you have to be prepared to accept the fallout, learn any lessons and then move on.