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ACCORDING to last year's BEVA survey, equine vets have the riskiest job in the UK. We are officially more injured at work than prison warders or fireman, and we don't even have the authority or access to handcuffs of the former, nor the uniform and ‘phwoar factor’ of the latter as compensation. I have to confess that my injuries over the years have probably contributed to those figures. I have been rendered unconscious in the line of duty on more than one occasion, although my suspicion of doctors has mostly kept me out of hospital thus far, despite the best attempts of paramedics to usher me away in an ambulance.
Equine vets are generally a pretty tough breed and will be found back at work at the earliest possible opportunity, often sporting a fetching array of sutures, bruises and self-applied support bandages. It is a serious subject though, and while it is probably wrong to make light of it, one of the most bizarre injuries I sustained never quite made it into the survey – mostly because there was no box to tick marked ‘attempted toe amputation by dead donkey’.
The call came during a suspiciously quiet morning. ‘We've just gone to check our donkeys and one of them is down and we can't get it up, can you come straight away?’. Having little else to do, I hopped in the car and sped off to the donkey's assistance.
Now, I should probably mention at this point, for the benefit of those safely ensconced in the risk-free world of small animal practice, that donkeys are not like horses. Their reputation for stubbornness is justly acquired, and they are quite happy to use any of their available weaponry (a decent set of teeth and four rather hard and pointy hooves) to repel the advances of the vet.
However, I could be forgiven for thinking that the current patient was unlikely to give much cause for concern. The reason the owner had been unable to rouse the donkey and get it to its feet was that it was, pretty much, dead. In fact, it breathed its last as I was explaining as much to the owner. I was just standing next to its head to make sure there was no mandibular pulse when the donkey gave a sudden and violent agonal gasp and, before I knew it, its jaws had shut around my foot.
As its incisors clamped down through my wellingtons and bit into the base of my big toe, I was in excruciating pain and convinced that my toe had been severed from the rest of the foot. I grabbed its jaws in an attempt to release my foot from the donkey's death grip, but to no avail. Unable to speak, I gestured for the owner to grab its top jaw while I grabbed the bottom jaw and we both pulled in opposite directions, but still we could not free my foot. A small crowd had inevitably gathered by this time and, as the donkey's teeth bit deeper and deeper and I got paler and paler, they stood around scratching their heads and making completely unhelpful suggestions. Someone even tried to take a photo of my predicament until they saw the furious glare on my face and quietly put their camera away.
Eventually someone who had been paying attention in their school physics lessons did come up with a useful suggestion: utilise the power of levers. A broom handle was found and pushed through the gap in the donkey's mouth where a bit would sit. Two big men pushed down on the end of the handle, the donkey's jaws opened and finally my mangled foot was free.
As it turned out my toe was, to my great surprise, still attached to my foot. However, my wellingtons were ruined, my socks were only fit for the bin and I had a beautiful imprint of a set of donkey incisors deeply engraved into the flesh of my foot. You can still see the mark to this day.
The donkey may have been deceased but I nonetheless suspect that the final score, as on most other donkey-related occasions, read: Donkey 1, Vet 0.
I would like to issue some general safety advice at this point, even though I fail to see how adequate restraint, an experienced handler, or avoidance of standing directly behind the animal could have prevented my specific injury. All I can proffer to my equine colleagues is this warning: avoid donkeys at all costs, even when they're dead. They'll get you somehow!
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