By Greg Johnson
It was the kind of phone call West Virginia veterinarians usually don’t get.
“We’re sending 2,200 Holstein heifers to Morocco on a cargo ship,” his caller informed him. “An accredited veterinarian has to go along, and the one we had just cancelled. Would you be interested?”
An ocean cruise with 2,200 cows? Dr. John Wilson had grown up on a Greenbrier County farm and he’d been around cattle all his life, but he’d never imagined crossing the Atlantic with a vast herd of them. As the Lewisburg vet weighed the offer, his caller sweetened the pot. “It pays well.”
The company offering him this opportunity, T.K. Exports of Warrenton, Virginia, had been shipping livestock around the world since 1982, and it had a solid reputation. He asked a few questions and learned that the passengers were pregnant dairy cows. They were originally timed to calve after their arrival in North Africa, but their departure had been delayed for three weeks, which meant that some would give birth at sea. He would be expected to handle the calving, oversee health protocols and administer vaccinations and medications.
The adventurer in him was intrigued. He knew he could leave his practice at the Greenbrier Veterinary Hospital for a couple of weeks without a hitch, since he had other vets and assistants. “Sounds interesting,” he replied. “Let me talk with my wife. Maybe she’ll fly over and meet me, and we can take a little vacation.”
A few days later, the Livestock Express chugged out of Delaware Bay with 40 tractor-trailer loads of cattle that had come from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they were in quarantine. The sky was blue, the water was calm and his 2,200 charges were models of bovine cooperation. The 40 or so Filipino crewmen seemed competent and friendly. Dr. Wilson stood on the deck with a smile on his face, watching dry land disappear and congratulating himself on signing up for the voyage. The only thing that had given him pause was the Port Authority’s mandatory piracy training. They weren’t allowed to carry guns on board, and if armed pirates scaled the ship they had been instructed to fight them off with water hoses!
A few hours later they reached the Atlantic, and all hell broke loose. It was late September and a tropical storm was turning into a hurricane and churning its way up to Nova Scotia. The vessel lacked the stabilizing equipment that keeps modern cruise ships and yachts from pitching in rough waters, and passengers from getting seasick. The huge, 10-deck ship slammed head-on into gigantic waves, and bobbed like a toy tugboat.
“I’d secured all the drugs in my cabin. I woke up in the middle of the night and drugs and supplies were flying everywhere. It was total chaos. I couldn’t sleep. I could hardly stand up. I knew the cattle were having problems, too.”
He checked and found some splayed on the metal floor, unable to get up. Working with the crew he rigged a hoist and attached it to the steel beams above the animals and pulled them to their feet. Some were going into premature labor. He raised heifers from the floors and attended to deliveries. “Some of the cows had lost their calves and you had to start milking them. We had a portable milking machine, but we had trouble using it because the boat was rocking so much.” He’d been warned that on a voyage with this many cattle, three or four might die. They lost 25. The crew followed the usual procedure, slitting the dead animals’ stomachs so they would sink and dropping them overboard from the top deck with a crane. It was a grisly scene.
“They were worth about $4,000 each, so we lost $100,000 worth,” he calculates. “That might seem like a lot of money to pay for a cow, but when you think about what you’ve got to go through to get them there, you can understand why they’re so expensive. A cooperative of small farms had purchased this shipment. They like American dairy cows because they produce more milk than their own do.” The only happy note was that 25 calves were born during the Atlantic crossing.
The storm lasted 32 hours and delayed their arrival by three days. Vicki Wilson was waiting in Morocco for her husband to show up, and she was making some interesting discoveries of her own. “Women don’t go out in public there, especially by themselves. You see crowded cafes, but all the patrons are men. Even in the shops the women stay in back and they don’t come out to wait on the customers. The men run everything. If you ask a woman a question, the man answers it. I run a business and I’m used to going places and doing things on my own, so it was hard to accept.”
Two others were waiting for the ship with her: the owner of the export company, and another vet who would take over when the livestock arrived. The Moroccans expected these men to communicate and negotiate for her, even when she was spending her own money. When she spoke up, she was often ignored. “The Sheraton had a bar, which was unusual since Muslims don’t drink. I ordered bourbon and the bartender said he didn’t have any. I ordered wine and he said he didn’t have wine either. He didn’t want to acknowledge me. Eventually he brought me a glass of water.”
The boat finally docked and John’s veterinary duties were officially over. The couple spent three days touring, and even took a camel ride, but Vicki never felt comfortable in the male-dominated culture.
Far more intriguing to the Wilsons, if less dramatic, was a subsequent trip they also took at the invitation of T.K. Exports. They were en route to Florida, where they planned to spend the month of February, when the doctor received a phone call inviting him to travel to Russia the following week to consult with farmers about their livestock. This time he was dispensing expertise, not treatment.
“We went to Kazan, about three hours east of Moscow, on the Volga River,” John relates. “Kazan is one of the largest cities in Russia, but out in the countryside you have all this land that used to be Communist collectives, farmed by peasants. When Russian industry was privatized, the high-ranking bureaucrats were given the chance to buy up the farms, and loans to do it. So you’ve got people who have thousands of acres and big farming operations who don’t know much about farming.”
As they visited farms, John noticed that while Communism was dead, bureaucracy and red tape were still alive and well. “Their purchasing system is filled with graft, and they have to bribe suppliers to get what they want. Bribery is considered okay, as long as you don’t ask for too much.” Some of the farms he visited had the latest high tech equipment, but the farmers weren’t educated in modern animal husbandry and care. Dairy cows that should have been producing 30 liters of milk a day were only producing 14. He found the Russians open to his suggestions, but at the same time he wondered if the complexity of their system would allow them to make the necessary changes.
The people were warm and inviting, and they were wined and dined grandly. Vicki was intrigued by a local grocery store they visited. “We had to drive 30 miles to the store,” Vicki remembers. “It wasn’t very big, but there were two aisles of vodka and an aisle of beer. There was a whole aisle of desserts, and one little section of frozen foods. The beef was just beef - no grades or cuts. But they had American household products like Tide detergent, and Gillette razors and Crest toothpaste.”
When John finished his work they spent three days touring Moscow before returning to the States. They found the capital city very sophisticated, in stark contrast to the countryside they had just visited. Vicki was pleased to discover that plenty of Russian women owned businesses.
Both of Dr. John Wilson’s international veterinary adventures were the result of last-minute phone calls, when he was offered an interesting opportunity with little time to think about it. John and Vicki realize that hopping on a boat or a plane to a remote destination with only a few days warning isn’t every traveler’s cup of tea, but they’re still open to possibilities, and still answering the phone. They raised five daughters, so if nothing else, they’re flexible.