Back in 1963, when I was in the penultimate year of my veterinary training, the veterinary school was presented with a circus giraffe with a nasty cough. There being no accommodation in the loose boxes the animal had to be kept in the truck in which it was normally transported from one venue to another. The truck was parked in a corner of the school’s car park.
After several days of inaction by the medical staff four of us students decided that the poor animal needed a bit of fresh air. Ken, the originator of the idea, went to the professor in charge and suggested that we took the beast for a walk. After a few minutes consideration, he gave us guarded permission. We tied four reins together and attached them to a head collar. Ken climbed the ladder, spoke reassuringly to the giraffe and fitted the collar. With two students on each rein we enticed the nervous animal out of its confinement and, two seconds later, chaos descended.
The giraffe, seeing a far horizon for the first time in a week, took off through the car park dragging us through the serried ranks of parked cars at a gallop. We careered out of the car park onto the impressive approach road leading to the impressive façade of the school building. Immaculate lawns bordered the wide carriageway with prominent notices invoking severe penalties for encroaching on the hallowed turf. Unfortunately, giraffes do not have literary skills; it cantered onto the carefully tended greensward, took several deep breaths and dropped dead. The image of ten feet of giraffe falling sideways with a resounding thump remains burnt on my memory. After a few minutes of shocked but respectful silence we decided that Ken had better go and inform the professor of the demise of his patient.
The result was a swarm of white-coated laboratory technicians surrounding the body taking every pathological sample known to man.
Within a few hours we had the diagnosis — tuberculosis! Among the many problems that this diagnosis raised was the fact that the veterinary school’s prize flock of Clun Forest sheep were grazing the field on the opposite side of the approach road. Having persuaded the local slaughterhouse to remove the body it was decided to use a flame thrower to kill off any stray mycobacteria which may have infected the sheep. For the rest of that summer our ‘crime’ was plainly advertised by the charred outline of a giraffe alongside the Palladian entrance to the building.
There was an interesting sequel to this story. Tuberculosis takes three different forms — avian, bovine and human — and the giraffe had been infected by the human form. The circus was eventually tracked down but the giraffe’s handler had since left the circus to work as a garage mechanic in Birmingham. When he was visited by the public health authorities he mentioned that he had been troubled by a cough for a couple of years. He was subsequently treated for TB and made a complete recovery.
Our youthfully irresponsible, but altruistic, actions had led to the unfortunate death of a beautiful animal but, probably, saved the life of a son, husband and father.