Flystrike

Words and in-text art by Rebecca Fowler
Background art by Winnie Jiao
vet science

Flystrike

13 August 2018

CONTENT WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY, DEATH, PTSD, GORE

 

 

Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

 

 

By the end of it, Mary didn’t feel any love toward the sheep. She didn’t want to hold their slimy bodies, cold and wet, abandoned by their mothers. Most didn’t even know how to suckle properly. She had given up trying to help lost lambs.

Mary’s golden retriever Leo is like her son. She often thinks of him as an angel. He is an idiot, and crazy. Not many people see how sweet he is—he is unique, not like any dog she has ever met. Quite untrainable. Mary knew she would always have him. He made it easier for her to leave vet school after her farm placement.

The purpose of discharging a firearm from close quarters at an animal’s head is to kill the animal instantly. The free projectile achieves this by destroying the part of the brain which controls breathing and other vital functions: the medulla oblongata (the brain stem).

Mary was up north. Dry country. Recent rain gave way to cracks of green.
I’m so excited about this year’s clover, Evelyn said.
Evelyn cared a lot about her clovers—probably too much. She was a 70-something-year-old widow. The farmer. No children. Mary wasn’t studying horticulture but Evelyn grilled her on the scientific names of gums and grasses.
This is a silver gum. You know what this tree is? I told you what it was just before.

They took a tour of the fields. What are all those white things? Mary asked. Decomposing lamb bodies, Evelyn said. Their bodies are cartilage. They dissolve into the grass.
There was a mixture of different sheep. Some cows, a few bulls and chickens. The sheep were Evelyn’s own special blend—mostly inbred. Many of them were mutant. Sheep with five legs. Blind sheep. Sheep with missing eyes. Sheep with one leg longer than the other. Triplets, twin lambs. Evelyn saved one lamb from being put down, for Mary’s sake, supposedly—not because Evelyn wanted to.

Evelyn didn’t like blood. Mary and the farmhand Jack had to deal with the surplus of lambs—they didn’t sell well. Too defected. The most deformed ones Mary took to the shearing shed. She penned them. They were shot between the eyes—at least 20 a day. She watched three get their throats slit.
Good experience for a vet student, they said.
The sheep weren’t stunned. They would twitch fiercely for about ten seconds. Mary still hears their hooves banging on the wooden planks. The one’s whose throats has been slit made sounds. The other lambs could sense that it was their time, only the small, blind or deaf oblivious. Mary could see it in their eyes—they could feel the knife until it hit their spine.

Heart races, breathing accelerates—remind yourself that you’re not there—the flashbacks don’t change but Mary has learned to change her reactions to them. She is a third-party observer, like watching a movie. Sometimes she still cries, still becomes unresponsive, but only for a moment. The images in her head don’t last as long. They seem further away. PTSD episodes and attacks plague her multiple times an hour. Then daily. Then weekly. The flurry of nightmares, bringing with them a phobia of sleep, slowly start to dissipate. The occasional night terror—hooves banging the wooden planks—seeps through the cracks. They are expected but not what they once were. Mary, too, is not what she once was.

To cut the jugular veins, grasp the jaw or ear with one hand and insert the knife behind the jaw while drawing the blade edge outward and out through the pelt. This will sever the jugular veins and carotid arteries.

The farmhand, Jack, was a rough sort of guy. Mid 30s, from up north. Mary didn’t feel safe around him—he asked questions she didn’t want to answer. Did she have a boyfriend? That sort of thing.
He hated Evelyn. He hated the sheep, was cruel to them. To stop his dog barking at the sheep he would beat him with a PVC pipe. Sometimes the dog escaped and went on a killing spree, so he was mostly tied up. Jack told Mary that he put dogs down when they start to smell, usually at around five years old.
Mary and Jack would have to find sheep that had gone lame or had flystrike. Flystrike is when flies lay eggs on soiled wool or open wounds. The sheep who aren’t treated are eaten by the maggots buried under their skin, feeding off their flesh.
They would take the fly-struck sheep to what Mary called the Death Swamp. She was promptly told not to call it that. It smelt horrible. The eyes and skulls of the sheep were empty—eaten out by predators. Their bodies were bloated.
They put the sick sheep on the ute tray and shot them off. Some didn’t die. When Mary and Jack returned, they had to shoot them again.
Don’t tell Evelyn, Jack said. We’ll get in trouble.

Mary wanted to be a vet because she loved animals. Her family nudged her, just a little—but enough. It was a challenge. Teachers told her it was too hard, she wouldn’t get in. She missed out by one point with an ATAR of 96. She worked harder—a year of animal science, a HD average and she was accepted into veterinary school. Mary wanted to help people who love their dogs as much as she loves Leo.

The lucky sheep were the ones who got treated for flystrike. They were taken to the shed to be shaven and given a chemical that treated their skin. Some of them didn’t make it. Those ones were called Ringbark because the infection had spread right around like a tree trunk. They weren’t going to live.
The Ringbarks weren’t dealt with straight away. Some were left lame for two or three days—until Jack felt like getting around to it. One ram couldn’t walk well, potential flystrike on the spine. Jack got angry—started to kick him.
The sheep still didn’t walk. Jack screamed at the sheep, beating it. He grabbed it and dragged it on its ringbarked back fifty metres to the paddock entrance. It didn’t move. Breathing deeply.
Is it dead? Mary asked.
I don’t care, he said. We’ll see in the morning if it stands up.
The next morning, the ram stood up. But Mary couldn’t forget what she saw.

The chickens were also Mary’s responsibility. They didn’t lay for a while—she didn’t know they needed to eat egg shells for extra calcium. Evelyn punished her for that.
There were dead crows tied to the fences, warding off larger birds of prey. They smelt like death.
There were foxes, 28s and galahs on the property. Beautiful birds. Evelyn loved bird watching. But these birds took up too much space, she said. She hated it.
There were hunters. Bird bodies could be found underneath most trees.
Get out of the ute, Evelyn would say to Mary. She’d tell her to sort through whatever mess of a species had been shot through the chest and report back.

Several arteries that run within the bone itself will be cut when removing the horn. Grasp these arteries with a forceps and pull them until they break off inside the bone. The clot that forms will prevent further bleeding. You will have created a hole into the frontal sinus. It is a painful procedure, and is best left to a vet or dehorning professional.

The worst of it was being tricked into dehorning a sheep. An immoral practice. It’s like cutting off a fingernail, they said.
The sprays of blood all over the walls, on Mary’s face and shirt, led her to believe otherwise. The ram screamed, tried to pull away. Blood trickled down its face, dripping into its eyes.
Actually, it’s more like cutting off a finger, they said afterwards.
They winked.

Mary hadn’t been eating all that much; Evelyn barely ate. The neighbours joked about how little Mary must be getting fed—they weren’t wrong. She was always hungry. At one point the water got contaminated with larvae. The bath is full of wriggly worms, Mary told Evelyn. I think you have a problem with the pipes.
Don’t be a princess, Evelyn said. When I was little we bathed in the dam.
Mary bit her tongue but thought to herself that they also had cholera when Evelyn was little.

Mary went to sleep not long after the sun went down—around 7pm. Sometimes they watched Antiques Roadshow first. She was up again at 4am. She slept in an attached sleep out, dusty and cold. The floors creaked. She tried to think about her sanity. About the day. Was she doing the right thing? She didn’t have phone reception. She couldn’t call family or friends—would they think she was doing bad things? She thought of leaving but didn’t think she was allowed. She didn’t want to offend the farmer. She didn’t think the university would accept her reason. If she left now she would have to start all over again on another farm. She didn’t want to fail the prac. She was afraid, with no-one to confide in. Her days were filled with silence.
We don’t like talking all that much, Evelyn said. You talk a lot. Unnecessary questions.

Mary didn’t bathe for the last few days. She lasted two days without drinking water. Migraines persisted. As soon as she cleared the dirt track on her way out, Mary took off at 130kph in her beaten up red Yaris. Driving away, she knew she was leaving parts of herself behind. The first thing she bought in town when she left was two litres of water and a litre of milk.

When she got home, nobody was there except for Leo. She kept to herself for two days, the sterile grey sheen of the modern suburban house her haven. When her family returned they could sense that things were bad, but Mary didn’t talk specifics at first.
Contact the school, her parents urged.
She didn’t. It was school break, there weren’t any staff on campus. Maybe she should have emailed. But it was her problem—other students had talked about their farm practicals. Slamming piglets against fences to euthanise, sheep farms where the sheep’s eyes were falling out. It must have just been part of the process and her burden to carry. Maybe she wasn’t strong enough to stomach the reality of farming.

When semester resumed, it became increasingly difficult to study. Mary stopped attending lectures. She increased the time and distance she exercised. She swam 3km a day. Ran 6–8km. An hour of skipping, push- ups and crunches often at 3am or later. Lectures were watched online at double speed. Nothing was sinking into her brain. She felt stupid. Other students must have thought she was. She was the 83rd ranked student out of 86.
Stay, her family and friends persuaded.
Stay, her pride told her. You worked so hard to get here.

Six months later Mary emailed the university to make sure no–one went to that farm again. She was told that the partnership was terminated, that Evelyn had resigned from the university program. Maybe even she knew how bad it was. Evelyn had been conducting figures and data on the back of envelopes—she didn’t really know about money. It was just her way of living, a small operation of 5,000 unhappy sheep. Not a normal farm.
Can you relay some specifics? The university asked Mary.
But she has already been burnt by their processes. They had rejected her application for retrospective withdrawal due to her PTSD. She failed four out of five units. Mary wasn’t ready to tell them. Not now. Knowing that no one would return to the farm was enough.

The universe had been talking to her on the farm—and after. Sometimes through bees. She learned later that this was a coping mechanism. Bees were outside her bedroom window on the farm. They symbolised purity. Life. She identified with them, viewed them as holy. A marker from a higher power. Mary has one tattooed on her bicep now. Thin black lines. Needling pain. A reminder. Sometimes she isn’t sure if she actually saw bees or not, even when she got back to the city. But they were everywhere. If a bee landed on her or if she saw a photo of a bee, it was a good omen—a sign she was on the right path. Once she found eight bees buried in the sand, scattered along the beach. She saved them and put them in a tin, to make sure they were real. When she opened the tin, they were all dead.

The university didn’t prepare her—or anyone. Students who alerted the RSPCA of animal cruelty were ridiculed. Unnecessary, over the top, their peers would say. Mary was being such a city girl.
Vet school was the first time Mary had seen anything other than a domestic animal—dog, cat, rabbit. This had been her first farm practical—she thought it must just be farm life. She had no prior knowledge or expectations.
She was a sheltered city kid.

The magnitude of death in the classrooms got to her. Labs were white tiled, the fluorescent lights cast a yellow glow onto the floor. Metallic tables and drains were everywhere. Metallic death. Particularly visceral in a reproductive dissection class. Aborted foetuses and uteruses filled the room, most of them fresh. Mary couldn’t comprehend that multiple animals of different species were dying with a womb full of healthy foetuses. She doubted that that many animals had died of natural causes. One girl casually stroked a horse’s genitals. Mary couldn’t focus—couldn’t absorb information. The lights were too bright in the lab. There were some plants outside—Australian flora, gums—but the lights trapped her focus in the lab. The room was crowded with students in white lab coats. Mary talked to the other students instead of dissecting. She was very slow, too precise in her dissection. Couldn’t keep up.

In her grey carpeted room Mary tries not to sleep. Guitars line the walls and a collage made by a friend adorns a grey wall. She can’t sleep. A mixture of a mania and an extreme fear of closing her eyes. She listens to music, exercises—push ups, ab-crunches, planks—well into the early hours of the morning. Eventually she passes
out from exhaustion. When she sleeps she falls into terrifying nightmares—she wakes at 6:30am drenched in sweat, sometimes screaming. The nightmares are so real she can’t tell them from reality—hooves banging on the wooden planks—they are violent. Mary starts to be the one mutilated in her dreams. She wakes and rushes to get to hospital—she felt her fingers get cut off.
Actually, it’s more like cutting off a finger, they said afterwards. They winked.

 

 

 


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