Rather randomly, on a recent Saturday, I took the opportunity to have a nose around at the open-day of one of Defra's veterinary laboratories. Initially, part of my motivation in attending was to see if I could find someone to mischievously take issue with over Defra’s forthcoming and grossly ill-judged badger cull, but I put this out of my mind long before my arrival, knowing it would be as futile as debating American foreign policy with your average rednecked GI. I arrive and can't help but feel a little out of place. Aside from all the white-coated vets and lab-types, most of the people milling about are members of the over-subsidised farming industry, eager to check that the department is staying in line. There are one or two horsey-type people too, who arrive in dazzling SUVs, which sit a little oddly next to the farmers' muddied Land Rovers.
Alpaca farming in the UK, but it eventually ends, and we get to don our protective clothing for the part of the open day the degenerate in me is most eager to see. We are led through a yard to the towering dissection laboratory, which we enter through some 20-foot-high doors. The reason for this lofty entrance is the crane inside the laboratory, which can reach outside into the yard to lift some of the heavier livestock carcasses – such as cows, or on occasion, should there be a mysterious death at the local zoo, giraffes – onto the dissection tables.
“It is extremely rare for us to get any animals which are still alive at this laboratory,” announces the gruff vet showing us round. The rather poorly disguised cattle execution cage outside, just within reach of the crane, undermines him somewhat.
For now, on the said tables, sit a number of partially dissected corpses, ranging from piglets and calves to barn owls and lambs. The gruff vet begins walking us through a half-finished dissection, that of a calf which ‘mysteriously’ died. Pneumonia is the gruff vet’s diagnosis – which he underlines by pressing down on the expired calf’s exposed respiratory system, which responds by oozing out a thick mayonnaise-like substance – which he attributes to a failure to wash the umbilical chord of the newly born calf with iodine: standard farming practice.
“So,” he concludes, “like most of what I see here, this is merely a management problem born out of laziness or incompetence, rather than anything more significant.”
The gathered Farmers look shifty, and examine their blue-bagged feet.
After the gore, we are allowed to have a good look round the rest of the laboratory. Having examined some heavy duty saws, I notice a further colossal pair of doors at the back of the room. I go to investigate. Behind the doors, I find another large room – as big as the one I have just come from – but it is almost entirely taken up by a huge grey machine. It looks a bit like the evil-twin of Bertha.
“That’s the furnace,” says one of the laboratory staff who has followed me in. “We have a burning day every three weeks or so; get rid of everything that’s past through the other room.”
“It’s…. big!” I note.
“Cows are big,” she shrugs.
I notice yet another large door behind me, which makes up for the height it lacks in comparison with those that have preceded it with its quite apparent thickness and rather exciting steering wheel-like twist handle.
“And that’s where we refrigerate everything that’s waiting till next burning day,” she explains, noticing my interest. I nod meaningfully. “We tend not to open it for visitors. It’s a bit smelly in there.”
“Go on,” I urge, and, with a sneaky look round, she relents.
The door slowly swings open and, once my eyes adjust to the gloom, I can pick out the stacks of wrapped up swans, which the earlier talk mentioned were coming in in huge numbers lately due to a bird-flu vigilant population. I enquire why, if we are still bird-flu free, so many dead swans are being found.
“Oh,” she explains, “They don’t die more or less than any other fowl, but are a hell of a lot easier for your dog walker or fisherman to spot than your average dead mallard.”
“It doesn’t really smell,” I observe.
“It bloody does,” she laughs, “Stick your head in.”
I lean forward, and take a cautionary sniff.
“Close it! Close it!” I gag, as a wave of an execrable scent overwhelms me, and I battle to resist the urge to retch. A few people who have since followed us in and are poking around at the opposite side of the room housing the furnace, a good 20 feet away, turn round and wrinkle their noses with a “what in Christ's name is that smell?” look on their faces. Clearly, I have a head cold. Vindicated, the woman pushes the door shut.
I hurry round the rest of the tour of the various other less-and-less interesting labs, trying to put the smell out of my mind and unable to help the feeling they have got the best bit out of the way too soon.
5 weeks ago