Jilly D.

Chronic. Rain. Wasting. Dear. Rain. Deer.

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on May 1, 2014 at 2:04 am

966592-R1-01-2AWhen the state regulations for deer farms changed due to the introduction of Chronic Wasting Disease, Sam had his hands full. The Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Environmental Conservation both set forth new mandates and inspectors to our farm.

Because chronic wasting disease cannot be detected in live animals, the only way to determine if a herd is infected is to take sacrifice 10% of the herd each year so the vets can test the brain and lymph nodes. Sam was not eager to kill his animals to prove they weren’t sick.

The DEC officer, John Hill, arrived early. I put another pot of coffee on the stove. I noticed his weapon in his holster. Hill wasn’t sure what he was dealing with here; a couple of survivalist nuts who were friends to wild Whitetail deer?

The animal inspector for Ag & Markets, Kathy, arrived shortly thereafter. I invited them in for coffee while we waited for the vets. Dr. Nytch we had met before and they were sending a woman vet too.

100_1030After a couple sips of coffee they asked Sam a million questions. Where did that Whitetail buck come from? What date did it arrive here? How old is the animal? How many European Red Deer are on site? How many males? Females? Ages? In conjunction with New York State, the federal agencies pushed tagging all animals for a national inventory system.

Sam asked nearly as many questions as the DEC Officer, vet, and animal inspector. Sam spoke clearly and frankly; in short, he shared his negative opinions of these new policies and procedures. John Hill remained very calm and quiet. Sam stood up to get another cup of coffee and passed by his loaded shotgun leaning against the wall. I watched John Hill put his right hand on his pistol handle, slowly bending his elbow backwards. Sam went into the summer kitchen and retrieved the coffee pot and leaned over John’s shoulder and offered him another cup of coffee. Hill took his right hand off his pistol and waved no to Sam’s offer.

Sam had prepared for this visit for several days. He had to corral the animals and send them through the new chute facility he’d built. He’d obtained the set of steel poles, squeeze chute, gates and hinges from a young farmer who married and left the state. Erecting this contraption was an amazing puzzle to me but Sam had the pieces together in a couple days. These containment facilities are constructed out West where they use them in the national buffalo roundup and to cull animals from herds to be sold or sent to the butcher.

920443-R1-19-20AAnimals are spooked by certain colors, sounds, and shadows. No creatures like to be cornered. Sam considered the construction from the perspective of his animals. He erected the pens and gates on the western edge of a large paddock so in the mornings when the animals would enter, the sun would shine inside without shadows. The shed building constructed around the chutes and gates took the form of 5/8ths of an octagon. No corners.

Sam built a wide opening in the paddock fencing that led into the containment building and hung a gate that could be closed behind the animals once they entered. A series of sliding gates, like spokes in a wheel, could be opened and shut allowing one animal through to the next section. The passageway constricts until the last gate opens to the squeeze chute.

A black canvas curtain appears before the animal’s eye level. From either side the cushioned sides squish the animal and suspend them slightly off the ground. Just below the padded cushion is an  opening in the metal works. You can slide this drawer open and reach in to test or treat the animal without risk of injury to yourself or the animal. When the TB test is done, worm medicine topically applied and big plastic ear tags pierced through their lobes, the squeeze chute is released and curtain drawn back to release the animal back into the paddock free.

966966-R1-19-20ASam’s inventiveness in building this original containment facility also impressed John Hill, Dr. Nytch and Kathy, the animal inspector. Our neighbor, Pete, Sam’s nephew Jamie and Mike White, who we’d hired out of Addison, Pennsylvania, to dart our animals arrived to help corral the animals. First they had to knock the big stag out.

Mike White is a burly man with years of experience farming cattle and deer. He also had a federal license to secure the narcotics used in this unusual line of veterinary services. Mike walked the fence lines observing the herd of Red Deer.  He stopped when he had a clear shot. Ping. It hit but fell right off the big guy. It took another fifteen to twenty minutes of waiting and watching. Second dart stuck in his shoulder.

Nobody moved. We watched this massive stag suddenly swagger. He started moving toward the pond. If he fell into the pond he would drown. Too heavy for all these men to drag out and far too dangerous if he wasn’t fully under.  Jamie stood outside the fence nearest the pond. Standing 6 foot tall and about 200 lbs. Jamie raised his hands above his head and grunted loudly to deter the stag from his direction.

The stag stopped and swung his head to look at Jamie. Then he swung his head and turned his whole body around and took two steps forward. The third step was onto his front right knee. The left knee buckled under. His body plopped down with a thud.

“Wait a minute more,” Dr. Nytch said. “Don’t go in there yet. We have to make sure he is really out. Watch that he doesn’t roll on his side. His lungs can fill with fluids quickly and he’ll suffocate.”

Just then, the stag rolled over on his side like a dog getting comfortable on the hearth. Dr. Nytch, Mike White, John Hill, Jamie and Sam went into the paddock. Dr. Nytch approached the stag and watched. The rest of them starting to corral the hinds toward the gate into the containment facility. Sam got two in right away. He slid the next gate open when the two stayed. He’d put fresh green grass inside along the way for them to eat. Then he opened the big gate again.

Three more hinds and one of the yearling bucks entered. Sam let them into the next section with the first two.

Dr. Nytch called Mike and Jamie to help roll the stag over. At least 400 pounds of human exertion against the big guy barely rolled him so his head was upright.

Bull elk in full velvet“Watch your back,” Pete called out to the three of them near the stag. The other yearling buck was stotting fast, around and around in circles, heading their way.

Nytch, Mike White and Jamie all turned their attention to the stag and formed a line with arms outstretched between them. He went right into the gate to avoid them. Sam swung the gate shut.

The others then came in quickly. European Red Deer are herd animals. They do not like to be separated from one another. Where one goes, they all go.

Sam led each animal through the gated passageway to the squeeze chute with gentle precision as he slid open and closed the gates. Working together as a team, Kathy inserted the ear tags, Sam put the worm medicine on and Dr. Nytch poked them with the TB test. Within seconds, each animal was released back into the paddock.

When the procedures were complete, everyone sighed in relief.

“Good to go. See you in three days.” Dr. Nytch took his muck boots off and put them in the truck of his vehicle.

TB testing requires a re-check. It started raining and it didn’t stop for three days. The paddock was ankle deep mud from the torrential rains.

“This isn’t going to work,” Sam said to me on day two.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s too muddy. We are never going to be able to get them back in to re-test.” Sam thought aloud.

It kept raining. It rained all night. The path the deer had beaten around the edges of the paddock fencing were now ditches running with water.

Sam called the state officials and tried to get a waiver of some sort due to the weather. TB tests were scheduled for today. No one cancelled.

On a grey April morning the same cast of characters appeared with the exception of the DEC Officer. John Hill felt confident he wasn’t needed after working with Sam three days earlier. Pepe, the woman vet who never showed up, however, was supposed to be there in his stead.

Deer are not stupid and they have memories. Our deer were not going so easily into the chute based on natural curiosity. They knew what to expect and they were not anxious to repeat the stressful experience. Instead they slowly plodded through the muddy pasture and milled around together tightly.in the center of the field.

The men walked inside the fence lines and then towards the center. They could get only so close before one would dart out in any direction and all the rest would come thundering after. After several attempts, the deer were getting agitated. Then one bounced right into the chain link fence and the others quickly averted the steel mesh wall.

The next swing around the herd took headed straight for Pete. Pete backed up and crawled up the fence backwards. He flung his feet up in the air and a stag narrowly missed him; crashing into the fence instead.

“Get out of here.” Sam said loudly. “Go on, guys. Let’s all get out of here. We are going to have to let them calm down.” Sam stormed out of the paddock. The others followed. Everyone backed off and headed inside for coffee or to their vehicles

Sam got out his buckets and went in the barn for grain. All deer eyes were focused on Sam. He went into the containment facility and you could hear him pouring the feed in a line from the section just before the squeeze chute to the gate. He dumped the last of the grain in a small pile in the middle of the open gateway. Then he walked back and left the containment facility.

“I’ll have another cup of coffee,” Sam said as he walked in the cabin. He sat at the table, quietly. Poured creamer and sugar and stirred. Took a few sips. Then he went outdoors alone.

I heard the gate slam shut. A couple minutes later he came inside and told Dr. Nytch his coffee break as over.

All but three went in on their own to get grain. Didn’t take long for them  to get corralled.

Jamie was the “release” man; tall and strong and patient he was perfect to lift and move the squeezing mechanism. Dr. Nytch just needed a visual of the TB inoculation site. No reactions. Kathy, recorded the animals’ tag numbers, dates of tests and signatures.

The first two animals were checked and released. The yearling stag was next up. As Jamie let him loose, he bolted out into the paddock into the muddiest section. Snap. His front legs went into mud knee deep, but they didn’t come back out.  As his back legs came forward into mud, the involuntary movements broke his back. It took several seconds to realize what had just happened. The stag stumbled and collapsed.

Sam, Dr. Nytch, Jamie and Kathy kept going with their procedures; moving another animal into position. Didn’t they see what had happened? They were murmering. I wanted to scream. I ran inside the house where I could hide. There was absolutely nothing I could do that wouldn’t make matters much worse.

An hour later, everyone but Sam paraded into our little cabin.

“Now we are all done here for a full year. All the paperwork has been completed. It looks like we may have two down. You will call us tomorrow or the next day and we’ll be back for the brains and lymph nodes,” Dr. Nytch said to me calmly. Kathy distributed copies of all the documents to everyone at the table. I sat there stunned; my face all puffy and eyes blood shot red.

Sam finally came through the door. “Are we done here now?”

“Yes, Sam. We’re all done. Thanks and we’ll be in touch.” Dr. Nytch shook Sam’s hand. “That’s a beautiful containment facility. Works like a charm. You really built a first rate system here.”

When everyone was gone, I sat silently at the table with Sam.

“Get me a beer,” Sam said. He popped it open and guzzled half of it at once. “Pete has gone for his gun. He’ll be up shortly to shoot the two stags they killed with their silly insistence on doing this in the mud.”

I heard the shots. Just two. Pete skinned and gutted them. A highly skilled and lifelong hunter, Pete has killed and eaten most every kind of meat animal in North America. Pete got up on the roof of the containment building and used sharpshooting techniques to take out just these two suffering creatures.

Sam helped Pete hoist the carcasses onto hooks near the ceiling in the cool meat room inside the barn. Sam picked up the heads and put the severed lymph nodes into a bucket; storing them inside with the dry-aging meat.

Can’t legally sell the meat because our meat room is not a USDA facility; we don’t own a government approved stamp; there was no inspector present to report a humane slaughter. We eat our own meat. The government couldn’t take that.

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