GOAT #44, R.I.P.

I’ve posted before on some of the events related to working with my Egyptian graduate student, S―, who did an anatomical study of development of the placenta in goats 20 years ago. For this research project we purchased a flock of 50 Boer/Spanish cross females from a farm in Forks of Buffalo.

I like goats: they have a lot of personality. Each goat is a distinct individual; plus they’re much smarter than sheep (something which isn’t difficult to be). Two of them, #47 and #44, had been selected to be exposed to a drug that affects placentation, this over a 21-day period before they were due to drop their kids.

We’d been holding them in a comfy pen in the basement of the vet school for two months. On Wednesday of their last week on earth, S― asked the animal care people to clean out the stalls and to put new bedding in place; while this was being done the two were removed for a couple of hours to a temporary holding pen, then returned to their original spruced-up digs. S― came to tell me that as of the next day―that Thursday―Goat #47 was “acting funny,” and by Friday she was definitely not in good shape. On Saturday morning when S― went in to tend them, #47 was dead in her pen, and #44 was alone, a terrible thing for a herd animal to be, of course.

S― transferred the still-warm corpse of #47 to the nearest freezer, then tried to reach me. Unfortunately by the time I got her message it was well after 8:00 PM. By then she had decided (on no real evidence, but with her characteristic flair for the dramatic and her customary serene self-confidence in her own judgment) that #47 had “...an infection...” and that it “...came from the other room where they were held.”

Now, this was not really an unreasonable hypothesis, but she presented it with the air of the pope making ex cathedra pronouncements on matters of faith and morals. Like the Pope, S― considers herself Infallible. Any attempt to play Devil’s Advocate is waved away with a tolerant smile and dismissive gestures of her elegant hands. I suggested that we really needed to have a post-mortem exam done, and to this she agreed, as a concession to a kindly but simple-minded old professor who was not in tune with things, but loveable nonetheless.

Then there was the question of #44. S― has a healthy respect for infectious disease, so much so that she wouldn’t even touch a goat without gloves on (I spent a tidy sum on latex gloves supporting her project). Furthermore, she tends to be a bit hysterical when things don’t go as she has commanded.

There was the fearsome possibility that Goat #44 would in her turn develop the mysterious “infection” that had killed #47. As it happened, #44 did get sick: that Saturday evening she too was “...acting funny,” and when I went down to see the situation for myself on Sunday morning, #44 was clearly in distress. She was depressed and lethargic, refusing to eat, and drinking a good deal of water. She was also grinding her teeth.

Goats grinding their teeth make a peculiar noise. It’s hard to describe but if you can imagine a squirrel playing castanets, that’s what it’s like. Not a squeak or a screech, a sort of rapid chattering sound but with something hollow about it. It’s a sign of pain. The “infection” scenario was looking more and more likely, and for one reason or another I suspected peritonitis, an inflammation of the membranes that surround the internal organs. But S― was not only certain I was wrong: she was outraged at the suggestion. It was clearly “an infection” picked up from the temporary holding pen.

The following day, Monday, I got to my office about 8:45 and was met by S―, howling mad, demanding that I do something about the canaille who work for the animal care section of the College. It seems that she had demanded of them that they immediately drop everything else they were doing and clean out the stalls, then bring two new goats over from her reserve flock. The Animal Care Supervisor was a man with extensive animal management experience but unfortunately also a deep loathing for S―. This was engendered through previous encounters with her queenly demeanor and her unexpressed but fairly obvious opinion that he’s a fellah, that is, a peasant barely fit for shoveling dirt. In return, her regarded her as a puffed-up Pseudo-Princess who relied on her looks and an air of authority to push people around. Oil and water; or, perhaps more accurately, matches and gasoline.

He was reluctant to move any new goats into the holding room, arguing not unreasonably that if in fact there was some sort of infectious agent present, as S― was claiming, it would be unwise to endanger any other goats. S―, whose tone managed to imply that the infection was due to his incompetence, and certainly not her fault, was hopping mad that he had―again―defied her express wishes; much worse, that he’d had the impudence to say "no" to anything she wanted. I was caught in the middle.

All this time, while the Animal Care Supervisor and S― were more or less at each other’s throats, poor Goat #44 was clearly in extremis. She hadn’t died on Sunday night, but was clearly unhappy that she hadn’t. She was “down,” that is, she was unable to stand, very obviously hoping to check out of this earthly life and begin her romp in the sunny pastures of Goat Heaven―the sooner the better. I agreed with her. I told S― that we were going to euthanize the poor thing, ASAP.

Nevertheless, before that could be done S— insisted that we settle the issue of whether or not the lab staff were going to clean out the stalls and move the two replacement goats. Things had reached a yes/no stage, with S― demanding to talk with the Animal Care Supervisor’s Supervisor. That would be the University Veterinarian who was—unfortunately—a brand new Assistant Professor in my department. Assistant Professors have about the same status in the hierarchy of command in a university as Second Lieutenants do in the Army. They technically have authority but just as in the Army wise old Sergeants know when to ignore it, in a University so do senior technical staff.

The University Veterinarian was going to have to tread carefully, but to her dismay she had been given no warning that an Egyptian tornado and a furiously angry Animal Care Supervisor were about to descend on her, accompanied by an overburdened professor who was earnestly hoping not to be noticed; one who would have been delighted to slip away, but was―like any sane person would be―terrified that doing so would bring down upon him The Wrath Of S―. That person, of course, was me. I just wanted to kill poor #44 and get her suffering over with.

We spent the next half hour in the University Veterinarian’s office, while both sides presented their case and I did my best to imitate a piece of state-owned furniture (which in a way I suppose I was at the time). The University Veterinarian then asked for a few minutes to discuss the matter with the Animal Care Supervisor, so I hauled S― out, to start the process of putting #44 out of her misery.

Now, had #44 been in a pasture, I’d have gone to my truck, got out a .22 rifle, and killed her on the spot. But the Dean, the University Provost, and the Code of Virginia all take a fairly dim view of faculty members toting a rifle into a state lab in the first place, let alone offing a sick ruminant with it, then carrying the rifle out again. Popping noises seem to hurt their ears and they’re probably afraid of ricochets off the cinder block walls of the pen: so that quick and easy way out of this world of pain was denied her.

I was morally certain that someone in a veterinary college, especially one with an active program in herd health, would have a captive-bolt humane killer. This item of equipment could be used indoors safely, and wouldn’t carry with it the stigma of being a “firearm.” I was stunned to learn that we didn’t have any such thing in the entire college. The standard method of execution even for large animals was “blue juice,” i.e., euthanasia solution. It seems no one even shoots horses anymore, at least not in Virginia universities. We poison them instead. About 5 years previously I’d almost bought a humane killer from Navy Arms (which was having a real fire sale on them) but had been dissuaded from doing so by the thoughts of what Mrs. Outdoorsman would have said had I done so. That fruitless search meant another half-hour of agony on #44’s part, when all is said and done.

In the end what we did was to sedate the poor beast so we could kill her by “exsanguination”; that is, opening up her carotid artery and bleeding her out as she slept. It’s fairly fast and certainly painless, but #44 had a couple of further trials to undergo before she drifted off into Morpheus’ arms.

First we had to take a blood sample, so that we could try to get a blood culture done for bacterial organisms. That took some doing, and some additional sticks, with me holding #44’s head and S― stabbing around looking for the jugular vein. Then #44 had to get two sedation drugs and an anticoagulant to allow the bleeding-out to be complete: another half hour. Eventually she was unconscious, more or less, and we did the deed. I unhappily assisted in the procedure. S― made the skin cuts, pulled up the artery, I clamped and tied. Once the cannula was in place, with #44’s life’s blood spilling into a pail it took perhaps half a minute for everything to be over.

Then we had to get her to the necropsy facility. In the planning for the College―or what passed for planning, since our College, like Topsy, “jest growed” with buildings added higgledy-piggledy ―someone had actually had the foresight to build a tunnel between buildings. When you are planning to roll a bloody gurney down the hall bearing a dead goat on top like a Spartan warrior coming home on his shield, it’s comforting to know that you aren’t likely to be observed by clients who’ve brought Fifi in for her annual checkup and shots. I insisted we have the decency to cover #44’s poor husk with something, so a large garbage bag was pressed into service as a shroud. Off to the necropsy room we went. There we deposited her on a table, and I went off to class.

In the meantime, the University Veterinarian had managed to come to a Solomonic decision regarding the fate of the next two goats, and where they were to spend their final days. I don't remember what the decision was. I had escaped more or less unscathed, but she got to take the heat from the Animal Care Supervisor.

Before I went home that day I stopped in the necropsy room to ask the pathologist what he’d found. “So, Bob,” said I, “what killed my goat?”

“Exsanguination,” he replied. Bob was something of a comedian.

If there had in fact been an "infection," the carcass had no sign of it. There was no peritonitis―so S― was right about that much, at least, but there was no sign of anything else, either. Various samples had been taken of tissues to be examined under microscopes but nothing was found. I have no doubt whatever that I will never know what killed #47 and was killing #44 until we put an end to her but the pathologist was of the opinion that it was the drug she received in the experimental protocol; S― hooted with laughter when I told her this. She remained certain that it was an “infection” and that the imbecilic and incompetent staff of the animal care facility was the ultimate source of it.

Of course, what really doomed #44, #47, and all the others between #1 and #50 (some of whom had yet to step up to the plate, so to speak, at the time of #44’s demise) was that they had the misfortune to be born goats. I’ve done a pretty fair amount of killing, but #44’s death bothered me more than most. There was as much humanity and mercy in it as we could provide, but regrettably that was precious little, thanks to the procedural and administrative wrangling.

Goats #44 and #47 were not abused, but neither were they especially well served. They were housed in clean and warm facilities, they were fed adequately, nor were they ever struck or beaten. But they weren’t regarded as sentient beings, just as things to be poked and prodded on a regular basis, whose blood was drawn as S― saw fit, poisoned and subjected to rumenotomies for S―’s convenience and at her command.

Two decades have passed since Goat #44 went to her reward. God is supposed to have given Man dominion over the animals. I'm not the least bit religious, nor do I hold any brief for the concept of animal rights, but I do feel that those goats―all 50 of them, but especially #47 and #44, were asked to bear more than their share of the weight of S―’s research. I only wish that I could have ended things a little more quickly and with less of a preliminary administrative struggle.