As I described in my post The Case of the Boom Box Bird, my duties as a USDA port veterinarian required that I monitor the movement of livestock in and out of the U.S. One of my most memorable experiences was overseeing the exportation of dairy cows to Saudi Arabia.
In the 1980s the Saudi Arabians were using their vast fortune of oil money to develop western amenities in their country. One project was to introduce modern dairy farming techniques, complete with American bred Holstein dairy cows. The Saudis contracted with various sources of California dairy stock that were flown out of San Francisco International Airport, my duty station.
Once a month, about 100 pregnant dairy heifers (a heifer is a young, female bovine that has never given birth to a calf) would arrive late Sunday afternoon at the Cow Palace in Daly City on the San Francisco city border. As the heifers were unloaded from the livestock trailers after their 3-4 hour journey from a cattle broker in California’s Central Valley, I inspected each heifer individually to verify its health status. It was not unusual for me to reject some animals for various health reasons. They were fed, watered, and allowed to rest before returning to the broker Monday morning. The healthy heifers were divided into groups and assigned to pens that allowed ample room to stand, walk and lay down and contained plenty of food and water. I maintained watch to ensure they ate and drank and that no rejected cattle were secretly added to their ranks by the drivers.
At 10-11 p.m. the heifers were again loaded into the livestock trailers and driven to the airport as I followed behind. The trucks and trailers parked near a hanger of a private cargo company on a tarmac distant from the airport runways. The tarmac backed onto SF Bay. The cargo company did not have equipment to process cattle so I was always improvising by having them fabricate cattle chutes from wooden pallets to safely unload the cattle into cargo pens.
Five heifers at a time were ushered down a ramp from the truck into 8 feet by 8 feet wooden crates that were 5 feet high. It was the ultimate in containerization 10 bovines in each container (all the heifers were pregnant)! Generally things went smoothly, but this night I was working with an inexperienced cargo crew that did not know how to work cattle. Cattle are best worked calmly, with low voices. This group was animated and loud and had no idea how to work the cattle in the chute down the ramp. We were near completion of loading all of the heifers in their pens when one excited heifer got startled in the chute. The cargo help panicked and got loud and she jumped the chute. Rather than stay calm and move slowly, the men rushed the heifer. As normal for cattle, she bolted and headed straight for the bay. Thank goodness it wasn’t toward the runway. Despite my pleas to slow down they chased her right into the water and she swam toward San Leandro on the east bay.
I had no idea how I was going to retrieve her from the bay, let alone get her guided to the hanger and cattle crate. The crates still had to be loaded on the 747 cargo plane and ready for take-off at 5 a.m. Monday morning. Fortunately the SF Bay is very cold. After her adrenalin wore off and she began to chill, the heifer returned to the tarmac. Her swim had given me time to round up more help and instruct everyone about cattle etiquette. We formed a human chute and worked her slowly back to the hanger and into the crate. The rest of the early morning went as planned. The crates were loaded into the aircraft, the cargo was given my last inspection, especially my prodigal heifer, and the plane was buttoned-up. It taxied off for an on-time take-off for the 15-hour flight to Saudi Arabia.
As dawn replaced night, I relaxed. Driving to my airport office to begin the week, my thoughts went immediately to plans for the next shipment and how to prevent another swimming heifer.
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Dr. Ken Tudor