Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.
Regular readers will be glad to know that this week has been better than last. I want to thank the people who reached out to me after reading what I wrote. I’m still a bit short on local friends, but I have spoken online and on the phone to both old and new friends this week, which has really meant a lot. Some of my colleagues have been supportive too, and to them, thank you so much.
It’s been a busy week. I was out on two welfare inspections on Monday and another on Wednesday. The inspections themselves don’t take long, though there can be a fair bit of driving. Writing the reports and dealing with the aftermath often takes longer, though as there was nothing too challenging, the reports themselves were less urgent than checking the animals weren’t suffering. I will be going on holiday in three weeks time and there’s definitely a feeling in my head that my main aim at the moment is just to keep going until I get there. One of the things I learned early in my career was that I can continue to function on the surface, even when there’s turmoil inside, but that’s wearing a bit thin right now. I will ultimately be fine, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.
On top of the welfare visits, I received an e-mail about a dead sea eagle, which needed to be tested for bird flu. There have been a few confirmed cases up here, and most have been in sea eagles, presumably because they are at the top of the food chain. When people report dead birds, we have to go out and swab them. Up until now, I hadn’t done any, so as with any new procedure, before I could go out, I had to find out what equipment I needed, whether we had that equipment, and once that question was resolved, I needed to find out how to do it.
Because it’s a high risk infection, Mattilsynet is monitoring the situation as part of its OK program. The correct protocol, on finding a dead bird, is to leave it where it is and alert us. That hadn’t happened in this case. The bird had already been scooped up and was in the freezer of one of the council offices in our region. Perhaps I should warn you that the rest of this blog is going to be about my (to me) amusing encounter sampling this dead eagle, so if that isn’t your kind of thing, you should probably look away now!
There are a lot of occasions in Mattilsynet where we are asked to do things we haven’t done before. Quite often you will be doing it without being shown how, because we’re all so spread out that there isn’t always someone local to show you. In order to help us cope with this with regard to the OK program, there is a massive word document, updated annually, with descriptions of what samples you need to take, how to take them, how to send them off to the lab and which lab each needs to go to.
In addition to this sheet, which I quickly accessed, I made a point of asking colleagues for any tips or helpful comments. Quite often, these are not colleagues who are sitting beside me, who could come out and show me, but are sitting in an office a few hours drive away, and have their own jobs to do. Thomas was in Svalbard this week, but fortunately, he was able to tell me exactly where the bird flu swabs were. I should have known myself probably, as he and I had discussed this before, but my memory is awful at the best of times, and the best of times probably isn’t a phrase that applies right now.
Anyway, having established the fact that we did, at the very least, have the swabs I needed, I was able to get back to the man who had contacted us about the eagle. I sent him a message saying I would be out on Thursday morning and cc’d Line as she had forwarded the message to me. Line was in Svalbard as well, but fortunately she saw the e-mail and sent me a gentle reminder that I should probably ask Kommune man to take the bird out of the freezer to defrost a little.
I did give some consideration to the defrosting. This week has been quite warm. When the sun is shining in your windows for a large part of the day, it can get very hot inside. If he took the dead bird out of the freezer and put in in a warm room overnight, it would probably be quite grim in the morning. With this thought in mind, I told him to take it out on the Wednesday afternoon, before he went home.
As I said above, I am still (more or less) functional at the moment, but new things are always more challenging when you are tired. Knowing that I was, I had spent quite a lot of time poring over the instructions, trying to make sure I was confident in what I was doing, before heading out. It all seemed straightforward enough. I had to take two swabs, one from the throat and one from the cloaca. In addition, I had to remove the left wing, through the shoulder joint, and send that off too. There was a polite picture of this procedure on the sheet alongside the instructions. It didn’t look too difficult. I gathered together my kit: scalpel, forceps, swabs, gloves, facemask and forms, took them out to the car, and set off.
I always feel, that as a vet, it’s important to look competent and to approach things as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. This rule probably applies even more when you’re dealing with potentially deadly diseases. It crossed my mind, that before I arrived, I should stop the car and have one last read of the procedures. As I read through the text again, I realised that though I had the kit for dissecting the wing, I had forgotten to take a plastic bag to pack it into. I’ve been a vet for a long time now, and one thing I have learned is that, even if you don’t have absolutely everything with you, it’s usually possible to work around it or find a substitute that will do. Casting my eyes around the car, I realised that I had packed my disposable gloves into a plastic bag. Better still, it was a ziplock bag, so easily sealed. Thanking the gods of veterinary substitutions, I emptied out the gloves, put a few in my pocket, and continued on my journey.
Kommune man seemed very helpful when I arrived. I thought we should probably fill in the forms before we started. The required details included the GPS co-ordinates of where the eagle had been found, as well as details such as age and sex. Fortunately, someone at head office had realised the realities of the situation, so I was able to tick “don’t know” for the latter two. The dead bird was in a different building he told me, so once the form was mostly filled in, I followed him outside, down some stairs and into a garage, where there was a black bin bag on the floor, sealed with brown tape.
I unwrapped my scalpel, which was of the flimsy, disposable type, with a plastic handle. It crossed my mind for the first time that perhaps I should have brought a spare or better still a sturdy, abattoir-style, sharp knife. The polite picture of the dissection had shown a smallish bird, carefully laid out on its breast, wing effortlessly outspread, with a neat incision over the shoulder, where the cut was to be made. Those doing this gentle procedure had presumably not had to chop through two layers of dustbin bags before they began. Still, it was over an hour’s drive to get back to the office and I had to get this sample taken and sent off by two o’clock. I had arranged with Konstantin that I would send it off from the abattoir. There was no way I could go back now.
As I unwrapped the bag and started to look for the cloaca, I realised that I had perhaps made a second error of judgment. For some reason, I had thought carefully about how bad it would be if the bird was too warm overnight, but hadn’t really considered the possibility that overnight wasn’t really long enough to defrost anything left in a cool place. Any cooks among you who have been faced with a still-frozen turkey on Christmas day, will probably recognise that it takes quite a long time to thaw a large bird. It also struck me, as I contemplated the huge talons and the sheer size of the body, that the small plastic bag I had so gratefully emptied of its gloves, was not going to contain an eagle’s wing. I guess it’s probably a reflection of how tired I was, but I had seen the picture and had been vaguely visualising something with a wing that was a bit bigger than a chicken, but an eagle’s wingspan is huge. Even folded up, it was going to need something more like a bin bag. Looking up from where I was kneeling on the floor, I asked Kommune man if he had anything, and to my relief, he disappeared to get one.
It took me a little while to actually find the cloaca (where both the urine and faeces come out). There was a thick layer of feathers obscuring everything, and because the bird was frozen into a twisted position, I couldn’t stretch it out flat to see where the midline lay. When I finally did locate it, I found that everything was way too stiff to be able to insert a swab. My problems were compounded by the fact that the bird flu swabs had obviously been designed with the possibility of checking out blackbirds or maybe a budgerigar. The stalk was incredibly thin and bendy. When I tried to insert it, it was obvious that any pressure would cause it to break.
Abandoning the cloaca for a moment, I thought I would have a go at the throat and come back to the bottom end later. The instructions about where and how to swab the throat had included another polite picture, this time of a duck, its bill gaping, revealing the clean and tidy structures of the cartilage and the tissues that open and close to protect the trachea.
At least the neck of the eagle was defrosted enough so I could straighten it. It was an impressive bird, close up, and I prised open the hooked beak and looked into the throat, only to find it was filled with gunk. I’m not sure if what I could see was a part of the eagle’s last meal, but it was obscuring my view, and I began to scoop it out. There was a surprising amount of it, and I was aware the entire time that if the bird did actually have anything nasty, all this material could be contaminated. Finally, it was all gone, though it was still a very long way to the back of the throat and what I could see really didn’t look much like the equivalent structures in a duck. At least I could get the swab in though, which was an improvement on the other end, so I took the swab out of its packet, swivelled it inside and outside the tracheal opening, placed it carefully in the liquid transport medium in the tube provided, broke off the tip as instructed, and replaced the lid. Step one complete!
Changing into a new pair of disposable gloves, I decided to tackle the wing next. “Turn the bird over onto its breast and stretch out the wing to find the shoulder,” said the instructions. The obvious trouble now was that nothing here was stretching out. There were also thick feathers in the way. An eagle’s flight feathers are really quite impressive, close up, but as I grasped the weedy scalpel again, I was very much aware that I couldn’t afford to blunt the thin metal of the blade. Assessing anatomy and the position of joints is also quite easy if you can move them all. Trying to do so when the whole thing is frozen stiff and under a thick layer of fathers, not so much. Feeling around with my fingers, I made a cut down over where I thought the shoulder joint probably was, and began not so much to carefully dissect, as to hack away in the hope that I could cut the wing from the body without making a complete tit of myself. Though it took all my feeble strength to prise the wing out from the body far enough to get in underneath it, I did at last manage to slice through the frozen muscle enough to finally remove the wing. Sliding it into the plastic bag, I let out a small sigh of relief and turned my attention to step three.
The cloaca was still frozen to the point where I couldn’t get my gloved finger through it. I was supposed to put the swab inside and move it around until there were visible bird droppings on it. Even if I could get the swab through, the droppings would be just as frozen as everything else. First though, I had to gain access. It would be easier, I thought, if I could see what I was doing. And so I made a cut at the opening. Fortunately my scalpel was still intact and sharp enough. After only a few moments’ dissection, I was able to insert my finger and the swab. Pressing the swab against the thin wall of the cloaca, I was glad to find that my finger was warm enough to melt some of the bird droppings onto the swab. Withdrawing it with relief, I put the second and final swab into the medium, snapped it off and twisted the lid firmly into place.
Despite all the delays, it was still morning as I flung all the equipment in the boot of the car and set off towards the abattoir. Trude is an expert at sending off samples, and I was sure she would be able to help me with this. She has the codes for the computer and would know how to print me out a label. Doubtless, given time, I could work it out myself, but time was something that was beginning to be in short supply. Donning yet another pair of disposable gloves, I carefully lifted out the swabs and the black binbag containing the wing from the car boot and headed inside.
There were no polystyrene boxes big enough for the wing. Of course there weren’t! It took about two minutes to establish the fact that I was going to have to head back to the Finnsnes office, where I knew we had much bigger polystyrene boxes for sending off fish samples. The packages have to be both sealed so that no liquid can escape, and also insulated enough so that, with a couple of cool packs, the whole thing can remain sufficiently chilled overnight that the sample arrives without being denatured.
As I drove back to Finnsnes, I was wracking my brains about the label. You have to go online to the parcel service and select the specific service you need, which in this case was for bird flu samples to the Veterinary Institute in Ås, to be delivered overnight and arrive in the morning. It’s important that everything is correct, otherwise it’s easy for your samples to go astray. I was still deep in thought when I received a text. It was from Trude, and a quick glance revealed that she had been into the website, ordered the correct service, and sent the label to my e-mail. It struck me, not for the first time, that there were times when having truly competent colleagues on your side can make life a million times easier than it would otherwise be.
I took a photograph of the final package, which was probably the largest thing I’ve ever taken into the post office. As you can see, it takes up most of the back seat of the car and that eagle’s wing took up most of the length of it.
I took yesterday off. Monday is also a bank holiday in Norway, so I am hoping that by next week, I will be rested enough to be back on better form. Despite my eagle experience being something of a comedy of errors, I’m pretty sure the sample itself was taken adequately. I guess I’ll find out in the next few days whether it was positive or not. Anyway, I’ll leave you with some pictures of scenery and flowers. After the long winter, everything is now green leaves and rushing water. Hope to see you next week.