Antlers of a Dilemma

One sick elk leads to a wholesale slaughter, an angry rancher and a demoted veterinarian.

In April 1994 rancher John Avery of southwestern Colorado noticed that one of his elk herd was ill. Now, more than two years later, Avery himself is feeling both sick and angry. His herd's been quarantined, several elk have had their throats cut or have been shot to death, an animal-rights group has been stirred into action, the state Department of Agriculture has been embarrassed, and a state veterinarian has been demoted.

Today the Hesperus rancher says his livelihood is being severely threatened--all because one of his 200 elk was ailing. After several attempts to nurse the animal back to health, Avery euthanized the eighteen-month-old heifer and sent a tissue sample to Colorado State University for analysis. The results from CSU were inconclusive, but a federal lab in Ames, Iowa, classified the sample as positive for tuberculosis. A state quarantine was slapped on Avery's ranch immediately, preventing him from selling or otherwise moving any of his herd--in effect shutting down his business.

Adding to Avery's financial distress, he says, is the fact that the government is hardly compensating him for the 61 elk that state veterinarians have chosen, on the basis of preliminary tests, to put to death; he says he's getting "ten cents on the dollar." Avery now is suing the government, and his lawyer, William Huggins, is talking tough. At one point, says Huggins, when Avery refused to allow any more of his animals to be "taken" by the state's veterinarians, a government lawyer threatened to come in with helicopters and gun down the whole herd.

"It's like the Waco syndrome," Avery says with disgust. "Once the government gets going, they're gonna burn you."

The quarantine, which is still in effect, forced Avery to engage in what would seem to be an unholy alliance with the Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (RMAD). The frustrated rancher sent a videotape of a June 6 state-authorized killing to the animal-rights group. The tape shows Dr. John Maulsby, at the time chief of the DOA's Bureau of Animal Protection, attempting to break the neck of an elk calf. When Maulsby's attempt to break the calf's neck fails, he is shown cutting the calf's throat. The animal-rights group argued that Maulsby showed "complete disregard" for the animal's "pain and suffering," and it lodged an official protest on August 19. A DOA investigation was launched that same day, and on October 15 Maulsby was demoted to staff veterinarian. Some observers contend that Maulsby was merely following orders and is being made a scapegoat.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that none of the 61 elk in Avery's herd that were killed and then analyzed has tested positive for tuberculosis. Nevertheless, some people--especially those in Colorado's tuberculosis-free cattle industry--support the continuing quarantine of Avery's herd. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association has sent a letter to Dr. Jerry Bohlender, the agriculture department's director of animal industry, to thank him for the quarantine.

While cattle ranchers are happy that the DOA is keeping a close eye on Avery's ranch, others are disturbed by what they say is the cruelty to which the suspect elk are being subjected. Even though Avery's elk are bred in captivity, they still retain their wild instincts. Elk are capable of leaping over slaughterhouse fences, so they must be killed in close quarters. On several occasions, Avery's elk have been shot while packed inside of transport trailers.

"What they do," says Avery, "is walk up to the trailer, which has five or six elk in it, and shoot them like fish in a barrel. I've got videotape of a guy sticking a pistol inside the trailer and shooting off about 36 rounds."

Bohlender defends this practice by pointing out that it's virtually impossible to get live elk out of the trailers in the first place. "The first time we did this," he says, "we spent about 45 minutes trying to haze them out [of the trailer]. They wouldn't move, and I wasn't about to send a man in there to try and push them out."

On other occasions, the vets were forced to throw ropes around an elk's neck and drag it into a slaughterhouse, where workers did the killing. On June 6, however, slaughterhouse workers blanched at the prospect of killing an elk calf. And they let Maulsby and his colleague Dr. Wayne Cunningham know about it.

"The guy told the vets that he wasn't going to kill the calf," Avery recalls. "He told them that they could go straight to hell." Because Maulsby and Cunningham were under direct orders to put the animals to death, it was up to one of them to do it. State vets are not usually called upon to put animals down. "Slaughter isn't our area of expertise," says Bohlender.

Because Cunningham had recently undergone hip surgery and was not in any condition to handle the calf, Maulsby volunteered to euthanize the animal. Under normal circumstances, Bohlender says, the vet would have shot the animal or used a chemical injection. However, both of these options were ruled out. "I've seen bullets go through animals' heads and ricochet," says Maulsby, "and my first priority was making sure that other people were not put in danger." The vets at the scene also vetoed a fatal chemical injection, because if the elk calf proved clean, it might be used for human consumption.

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