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Emotional toll on humans especially high
Texan says U.S. vets battled foot-and-mouth in U.K.

April 22, 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Barry Shlachter

In November, a state veterinarian helped design a fictional scenario in which an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease engulfs Texas before quickly spreading to Mexico and Canada.

Four months later, Dr. Ken Waldrup of the Texas Animal Health Commission was dropped into the real thing, working 10-hour days and telling family farmers that he had come to wipe out all of their animals and destroy their livelihood.

The bearded, lanky Texan was among 160 foreign veterinarians rushed to Britain to help overwhelmed authorities deal with an epidemic that would require more than a million head of livestock to be killed. He returned to Alvarado, 25 miles south of Fort Worth, from his monthlong assignment April 6.

In Lancashire County's Vale of Lune, he found pyres of carcasses that burned for almost a week, a disease spreading in ways he hadn't heard of and a very different bureaucracy.

On just one day, 14 farms were depopulated where Waldrup and four other American vets were working.

"All five of us agreed that this was the worst day of our veterinary careers," he said.

During his make-believe outbreak in Texas, Waldrup didn't encounter the human toll.

But in Lancashire, he met real families who were trying to keep emotions in check as carcasses of their sheep and cattle were hoisted upon pyres of railroad ties, wooden pallets, coal and straw, and then set aflame.

"Please don't talk to me," a farmer's wife named Liz Dingley told Waldrup on learning that a 9-day-old, "beyond cute" bull calf would be euthanized with the rest of the herd.

"There were tears down her cheeks," Waldrup said before quietly rising from a table at his Alvarado home, pulling a paper towel from a roll, removing his glasses and drying his eyes.

Another day, he supervised the destruction of 700 animals, and then with two British vet students assisting he gave lethal injections, one by one, to 600 lambs.

Lambs were injected, while cattle, sheep and goats generally were put down with a slaughterhouse bolt gun. But on one farm, Waldrup was asked to painlessly inject a goat that had been the family pet for 14 years.

There was little rest -- just two days off over a 30-day stretch. Waldrup said only ZZ Top blaring on his rented car's cassette player and the occasional glass of Strongbow cider provided respite from the grim task of informing farmers that their livestock were infected, and then returning to destroy them.

Over the years, the Vale of Lune's enduring beauty has attracted landscape painter JMW Turner and such poets as William Wordsworth and John Ruskin, who declared it "naturally divine."

But the river valley was in a psychological funk over the devastating outbreak when Waldrup arrived March 6. Reflecting the prevailing mood, public outcry pressured two partners not to rename their pub "The Slaughtered Lamb," complete with a sign depicting the Grim Reaper and a baby lamb, and offering "food to die for." All was inspired by the 1982 cult film "American Werewolf in London." Acknowledging the deepening crisis for Lancashire farmers, the publicans were quoted in the local press as concluding that "our theme is simply not funny now."

In the battle against foot-and-mouth disease, the British have some advantages.

Like every European Union country, Britain issues detailed maps that pinpoint each farm, a crucial timesaver in such a widespread epidemic, Waldrup said. The United States lacks such maps.

And unlike here, British government vets have the authority to quarantine people, not just animals, while private veterinarians can be mobilized to join the state-run control effort. (Some British civilian vets refused to participate, citing philosophical opposition to killing herds instead of vaccinating them. Vaccination would spare most animals but would close world markets to British animal and meat exports because it could mask the symptoms of the disease.)

On the other hand, animal rights activists are more aggressive in Britain.

"We got bomb threats," Waldrup said. "I was taken aback by this."

Although the outbreak has been cited by critics of modern "intensive" agriculture, Waldrup said Britain doesn't possess the sprawling feedlots of Texas. Should the disease strike here, the number of Britain's destroyed livestock would pale in comparison.

"About three weeks into this, when the entire British cull was 130,000 animals, I made the comment to the folks in Preston [Lancashire's main city], 'I'm not trying to be arrogant but, sorry, that's four Texas feedlots.' "

As a precaution, he could not come into contact with cattle for a week after returning to Texas.


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