Thursday, January 1, 2009

Brett the Vet - Once Upon a Crime

On a beautiful midsummer’s night when the crescent moon was aligned in a triangle with glowing planets, my little dog, Max vanished on my farm just after dark. I searched along the river, in the forest, up the koppie and around the house but he was gone. The following evening I retraced our steps for the umpteenth time with Beauty, the other dog living with us on the farm.

There were no clues explaining his disappearance, until we reached the house. Beauty started twitching uncontrollably; within minutes she was suffering excruciating convulsions. Immediately, I knew she had swallowed poison; I needed to act quickly to save her life. A teaspoon of salt poured into the back of her throat induced vomiting instantly. After administering antidote intravenously, she calmed down, and recovered fully after a few days.

A week later I found Max where he’d crawled away and died in fits of agony. He was riddled with maggots, some of which had died around his stomach, indicating evidence of the poison that killed him. He was the sweetest creature I’ve known, whom everyone adored. It breaks my heart to know that he was indiscriminately murdered. My dogs are my family and his death has been a devastating personal loss.

The horrific realization that animals are not safe even on my remote, organic farm highlights their vulnerability and the fate of so many innocent creatures. The disappearance of carnivores in the area, like the otters (not seen for two years), raptors, birds, mongooses, polecats, jackals, and many more, fills me with sadness and despair.

The gratuitous violence committed against life wild and free is thoughtlessly condoned among certain people. Lethal poisons are freely available. Poisoned bait is widely distributed, can be placed anywhere, and is evidently easily shifted to other locations: Poison will kill every living thing that ingests it - so even a child could find poison, eat it and die.

People ask me for advice on how to protect their pet dogs. Watching them 24 hours a day is no guarantee. Muzzling them may work. Training a scavenger to not eat carrion is difficult. The prohibition of poison, discouraging and scandalizing its use is the only practical solution in the long term. Cruelty to animals is a criminal offence. It is unacceptable that farmers are tacitly exempt from barbaric behaviour where they are custodians of land that should be abundant with life.

Everyone who cares can make a difference through positive action. Concerned members of the public should appeal to farmers, retailers, restaurateurs, and government to stop encouraging the routine use of poison in farming. Consumer demand for ethically produced food is increasing rapidly. All the major supermarket outlets are responding, providing essential information about food origins.

Some modern, informed farmers understand the complexities of predator control. They no longer use cruel and antiquated lethal methods because they try to maintain the vital ecological balance of the environment. There are many proven methods to protect sheep legally that don’t threaten the community or the natural balance of life. Only when farmers proudly insist on farming humanely with genuine compassion,weto see real progress in agriculture.

I urge farmers to stop using poison (and gin traps), and to adopt the non-lethal options open to them. Information describing effective, proven alternatives is available from many sources, including the Landmark Foundation (tel 083 324 3344) which has published a book, Predators on Livestock Farms.

Cape Nature Conservationconjunction with The Endangered Wildlife Trust (tel 011 486 1102) has issued a manual on holistic management with details of non-lethal predator control, created specificallyguide.

Dr Brett Bard BVSc MRCVS

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