By Ellie Milnes
I’m a cattle vet in New Zealand. On Thursday night, one of my farmers was walking a mob of 500kg steers over a bridge when part of the barrier collapsed. Eight animals fell about 15 metres into the river at the bottom of the ravine. They survived the fall and swam to the bank, but were stuck in a totally inaccessible area – steep 20m+ cliffs on both sides, river too overgrown for boat access.
The farmer got the gun out yesterday morning ready to shoot them from the bridge rather than leaving them to starve in the ravine, but decided to call my clinic first to ask if we could think of any alternative to rescue them. I showed him the photos in the drugs course manual of the rhino being airlifted, and we made a plan to sling them out.
We found an agricultural contractor with a Bell Jet Ranger who was keen to help, I guess because it made a change from spraying paddocks. Three guys and I climbed down the cliffs with a chainsaw and pole syringe, immobilised the animals with xylazine/ketamine/butorphanol (couldn’t get hold of any deer immobilisation drugs), blindfolded and hobbled them, chainsawed trees to make a vertical window, then brought the chopper in over the top of the ravine with a 30 metre strop to sling the animals out using my 8 metre casting ropes to tie the legs together. Three of the steers thought it would be a fantastic idea to leap in the river and try to drown themselves after they had been injected, so we all had to jump in to keep their heads up and hobble them underwater. It took us just under an hour to lift them all out by their feet and drop them in a safe paddock. I treated with flunixin and antibiotics and they are doing brilliantly – one animal is slightly knuckling over at the fetlock but we think it injured itself in the initial fall and is still weight bearing so should be fine.
The farmer is stoked. If it hadn’t been for the Malilangwe course, especially the lecture where you taught us about airlifting animals out of inaccessible areas, I would have told him to shoot them straight away – and I never would have had the courage to brief six big Kiwi guys, immobilise 8 animals at once, and run the operation myself. None of us had ever seen an animal slung under a chopper before (including the pilot, which frightened me a bit) and lots of things could have gone wrong, but we were lucky and it was BRILLIANT, all thanks to you people.