The Elk Hunt

D. E. Larsen, DVM

We worked to stay concealed in the sparse cover as the 4 elk cows came down to the flat in front of us. We could see the bull hanging back, very cautious, and unsure if the apples were worth the risk. He is a large bull, a 5 point, with beautiful antlers. Finally, he slowly came down the hill and moved out onto the flat.

Frank stepped out and took the shot. Pop! It was a good shot with the dart buried into his hip. The bull jumped but returned his attention to the apples quickly. 

“It won’t be long,” I said. “This new drug should have him under control in a few minutes.”

Capture guns were just becoming available in the 1970’s. These guns used Nicotine Sulfate as an immobilizing agent. Nicotine Sulfate was a drug with a very narrow margin of safety and no antidote. It was, in fact, dangerous to both the target animal and the people doing the shooting.

One of our favorite drug salesman, Fred, told a story involving his experience with a capture gun using Nicotine Sulfate. Fred had stopped at a clinic on his routine rounds. The veterinarian was just getting ready to go on a farm call when Fred arrived. The veterinarian was going to castrate a 600-pound hog. He had just purchased a capture gun, and this was going to be the first time he used the capture gun. And he was using Nicotine Sulfate. He invited Fred to go along with him on the call.

They got to the farm, and the people had the hog in a small shed. The veterinarian loaded the gun with a 600-pound dose of Nicotine Sulfate. This shed had a couple of doors and a window. The veterinarian was at one door, and he sent Fred around to the other door to move the hog into a better position. The veterinarian aimed and fired the dart. The dart glanced off the hog and hit Fred in his lower leg. Luckily, Fred was wearing a pair of cowboy boots. The dart stuck in his boot near the top, discharged and shot the dose into his boot.

Had that dose been injected into Fred, who was probably 150 pounds if he was soaking wet, it would have undoubtedly killed him. Rapid emergency care probably would have been to no avail. On the trip back to the clinic, they stopped at a dumpster behind a restaurant.  The veterinarian dumps the capture gun into the dumpster, and nothing more is said.

Today we are using Sernalyn, a new drug for us, with this capture gun. Sernalyn is a disassociative anesthetic, twenty times more potent than Ketamine, the commonly used drug in this class. Because it can be used in a small dose, it works well in a capture gun dart. It is a very useful immobilizing agent. It’s problem; because of its concentration, it has a very high street value and is on the chopping block to be discontinued.

Today we plan to cut the antlers off this bull. Last week when this guy started to rut, he killed one of the small Sika Deer bucks in his pasture. One swipe with the antlers, and he pierced the little buck’s chest, putting an antler tine through his heart.

The bull continues to eat a few apples after being darted. Then he staggers slightly and turns in a tight circle. As he stumbles around the flat area, he notices the 5-gallon steel bucket that had been used to carry the apples. Frank had set the bucket down in the pasture after spreading the apples around the area.

The bull approaches the bucket and turns his head as he tries to get a good look at the bucket. Then, with a flick of his head, he pierces the bucket with his antler and picks it up. Walking around now with a 5-gallon bucket on top of his right antler. He staggers toward the small group of cows.

The cows recognize that things are not right with the bull, and they quickly trot back up the hill. The bull stumbles and goes down to his knees, then he settles to the ground. He stays on his sternum briefly and then flops to his side.

I approached the bull with caution. Kicking him on his butt to make sure that he is completely immobile. I remove the dart and pluck some hair around the injection site. It looks fine, but I flush it with Betadine just to be sure there is no infection.

Moving to his head, I apply a hefty dose of ointment to both eyes. This class of drug suppresses the blink reflex, and the ointment is needed to protect the surface of the eye from drying. 

Then I do a clinical exam, check his teeth, heart and lungs, gut sounds, testicles, and penis. Everything is normal. Then I hold off the jugular vein with my left hand and draw blood with my right hand. There are few lab normals for most of Frank’s animals, and we routinely ran blood samples through the lab every time we captured one.

I cut a 4-foot length of OB wire to use to saw the antlers off. Antlers have no blood supply after the velvet is gone. This makes the procedure much easier than dehorning a cow. I cover the eyes, not because he is seeing anything but to protect them from dust from the saw.

I attach saw handles to the wire and seat the wire saw at the base of the antler. Starting with slow, long strokes, to ensure the proper placement of the cut, I begin the removal. Dust flies, and the typical odor of burnt bone rises from the base of the antler. I increase the speed of the saw as smoke rises from the cut. The base of these antlers are nearly 2 inches in diameter and are solid bone. It doesn’t take long, and both antlers are on the ground. The wire saw is white-hot and curled from the heat.

The antler is an interesting structure in nature. In elk, they start to grow, nourished by the velvet that covers them, shortly following the time they are shed. They grow rapidly, you would think that you could almost see them grow if you could corral a bull long enough. They are solid bone. Can you imagine the benefit to mankind if we could understand and harness the process of that much bone growth in that short of time? Applying that process to fracture healing would be a game-changer.

We position the bull elk on his sternum and put more ointment into his eyes. He is already starting to come around. 

Frank and I chat a bit as I put things away in the truck. His biggest concern is the potential loss of Sernalyn.

“It is probably not a potential loss, I hear it going to be discontinued,” I say. “Ketamine has become a popular street drug. There are multiple names for it on the street, Special K is probably the name you hear the most. Sernalyn is 20 times more powerful than Ketamine, it apparently has tremendous value on the street.”

“What are our options?” Frank asks.

“Rompun is always there,” I say. “It is not the best, but we will always have it. Using a combination of Rompun and Ketamine might work on these elk pretty good.”

“What about the drugs you see on the wildlife shows?” Frank asks.

“M-99 is what is used most of the time on those shows,” I say. “It is currently a Class I drug and not available for practitioners. It is costly. I don’t know what that means but expensive. And in reading, it is not as good as it looks on TV. Those shows have the advantage that they can edit the disasters out of the show.”

It doesn’t take long, and the bull is up. He is a little confused initially, but it only takes a few minutes for him to be back to normal. He heads up the hill to the cows, and I head back to the clinic.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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