Cases of life and death for Yorkshire vet Julian Norton

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On Wednesday of this week, we saw three little birds. This was not a recreation of the famous Bob Marley song, but the reality of a day as a mixed practitioner in a typical independent and traditional practice in North Yorkshire.

The first two were already in the diary. A rescue centre for birds of prey in the North East had contacted the practice. Two birds, under their care, had died suddenly. They needed to have post mortem examinations on both birds and had been struggling to find a veterinary practice that would or could help.

A barn owl was brought into the vets by a lorry driver. Picture by James Hardisty.

A barn owl was brought into the vets by a lorry driver. Picture by James Hardisty.

“The trouble is, they’ve all gone corporate,” explained the exasperated staff member, who had been charged with driving south to deliver the dead birds. “Nobody is interested in doing a post-mortem examination. Thank you so much – you’re the first practice we could find who has been able to help us out.”

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I felt like apologising for the disappointing apathy that had clearly descended on some members of the veterinary profession to the north of Boroughbridge, but it wasn’t a problem for which I could claim any responsibility. I cannot condone the changes that the profession has undergone in recent years, and all I could do was offer my best help under the circumstances.

Both of the birds had been very old – the vulture in its late twenties and the buzzard approaching forty, but since they had both died without warning and at the same time, the rescue centre needed to confirm that nothing was amiss. Although I wasn’t an expert on birds, I would at least be able to try to ascertain the cause of death and obtain samples to send to the lab if I was in any doubt.

Both had been in the freezer for a week but had been given the chance to defrost before my appointment. I met the birds and their custodian, Steph, outside the practice, as I returned from lunch.

Steph handed over the large polystyrene box in which the birds had travelled and, several minutes later, I had one diagnosis – the buzzard had a precariously thin heart wall, a large amount of fluid within the abdomen and a swollen liver. These were classic signs of right sided congestive heart failure and this was almost certainly the cause of death. The vulture, however, left me guessing. There were no obvious lesions. I hoped old age was enough of a reason to put on the certificate.

Carrying out post mortem examinations made rather a depressing start to the afternoon, but it quickly improved with the appearance of the third bird – a barn owl, brought in by a lorry driver. The owl had collided with the lorry, leaving it injured and stunned by the side of the road.

In a collision between a lorry and an owl, there is only going to be one winner. The beautiful bird was limp and lifeless, swaddled carefully in a towel and nestled in a box by the lorry driver, who wanted to help as best he could.

“It’s been floppy and limp ever since I picked it up. I think it’s badly injured. I feel awful – it just flew out and I crashed into it. I hope you can sort him out?” the poor man said, clearly upset.

I carefully picked up the swaddled bird, worried that this might be the third bird of prey not to make it out of the practice today. As I started my cautious examination, the bird opened its eyes, stretched its wings and did a full circular lap around the consult room, before landing gracefully on the table.

This was an immeasurably happier ending to the day’s encounters with birds than I had expected!

The Yorkshire Vet continues on Channel 5 this Tuesday at 8pm.