Saturday, May 31, 2008

Brett the Vet - Flies and Fat Tails

A drive through the Karoo is not for the faint-hearted. Even if you can afford the fuel, burning it helps to destroy what remains of the beauty.

The herds of wild animals have already been decimated. Many plant species have disappeared due to overgrazing. Dust bowls of broken ostrich souls unfold. Untold misery lurks in the muted depths of multicoloured battery hen houses: not safe, no mates. Normal looking sheep that have not had their tails hacked off in lambhood are considered odd.

Growing awareness of injustices towards animals is being driven forward by consumer demand for humane treatment of farm animals. The world is moving towards ethical production. International Organic standards forbid mutilation of animals on humane grounds. Unfortunately, farmers, who must deal with the practicalities, are often the last to develop alternatives to institutionalized cruelty. When problems occur with animals in our care, ‘quick’ solutions are found that often inflict pain and suffering.

The archaic management procedures that replace good animal husbandry of herds and birds include routine dehorning cattle, teeth clipping and tail docking of pigs, debeaking and declawing of laying hens, and tail docking and mulesing (cutting away skin around the breech to prevent wool growth which reduces the risk of blowfly strike) of sheep: All done routinely en masse without anaesthesia or pain relief. These illegal practices are condoned by profit driven organisations where mutilations are deemed necessary.

If acts of violence on farms are to be eliminated in favour of good agricultural practice (GAP), it helps to first understand that animals who are not usually pets, like sheep in a flock, are individuals with distinct personalities no less sensitive or intelligent than man’s best friend.

Research has demonstrated that sheep separated from their original herd will recognise photographs of other members of that herd years later! Sheep are as expressive as other mammals to the perceptive audience. They are able to recognise (and demonstrate) emotion in their own and other species. They feel pleasure and pain.

Advances in law present chances for changes in attitude and action. An interesting example is the decision taken by the Australian government to ban tail docking and mulesing in sheep after 2010.

These mutilations were suggested in a bygone era to decrease the risk of blowfly strike, a painful condition caused by the invasion of flesh eating maggots in wool sheep. Flies are attracted to the breech area especially when the wool is contaminated with diarrhoea or urine.

Now there is a drive to find humane solutions to prevent the blowfly problem. Optimal health and perfect management seem difficult to achieve. Painless mutilations are too costly. But selective breeding programs have been shown to alter anatomical conformation, significantly reducing fly strike, and improving immunological resistance to internal parasites, and blowflies. This highlights the trail of tragic consequences encountered when selectively breeding animals for single traits, like maximizing wool production in merino sheep.

Winter woollies conjure creature comforts and warmth from less than cosy sheep when the mercury dives. A lift from luscious lamb loin stew Karoo style will do for a few who knew what to cook by the book. Yet regret the best flesh is set on a carcass with a long tail and bewail the glib necessity to have lopped the link.

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