On each Clinical Skills afternoon, the 97 of us rotate through four blocks: cows, horses, small animal, and “other.” During this “other” category, we switch off between sheep and pigs, but for some odd reason the schedule in the syllabus never seems to match whatever the instructors have planned. At the beginning of the year, some people trudged all the way to the sheep barn before flurried text messages reached them from fellow classmates, informing them that we were visiting the pigs that day. But now we know the drill: if the first group sees the livestock trailer idling in front of the anatomy lab, that means it’s off to the pig barn!
And yes, the livestock trailer is our mode of transportation to the swine barn. It has hay bales for seats and retains that infamous lingering aroma, but believe me, you welcome the relief from the wind in those winter months! In the fall and spring, out comes the wagon, which is built along the lines of one of those hay wagons you see in orchards and pumpkin patches, except it’s about twice as long. I absolutely love the short trip to the pig barns, on the quiet backroad past ancient long-needled pines and small hay fields.
In the swine barns we’ve practiced identifying pigs by reading their ear notches and moving pigs from pen to pen using hurdles (or pig boards). We’ve also practiced snaring, a minimally invasive restraint technique used when needed to take a blood sample or do a quick physical exam. Everyone loved the piglet room, especially once the swine herdsmen starting passing out baby pigs, one per student. Surprisingly, you don’t scoop up a piglet the way you do a kitten or puppy—instead, you gently grasp a back leg and dangle them. Their muscles relax and they quiet down, and scientific studies have shown that their heart beat slows as well. When piglets are relaxed, they don’t struggle or squeal. Mamma pig needs to stay sensitized to the squealing of her babies, so that if she steps or lays down on one by accident, she’ll quickly get up.
On our last trip to the swine barns, one of the sows surprised us by giving birth in the middle of the herdsman’s lecture. What a way to end the day, looking down on a tiny newborn!