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The View from Here: An extraordinary visit to a desert vet clinic

Mike Gangwer Published on 19 January 2010

I recently traveled to a Forward Operating Base in eastern Iraq, very near the Iranian border. There, my colleague, Dr. Jessie McCoy, DVM, and I completed several missions in the vast expanse of the desert.

This article is about one such mission.



There are a surprisingly large number of animals in Iraq. Goats and sheep make up the predominant specie, with far fewer beef and dairy animals. We often see camels here, in fact we watched several camel caravans slowly moving across the sand. They number just under 100, moving about 20 kilometers daily. Many in the herd are youngsters too, and they walk with a camel cadence just like their parents.

Today, we have traveled along the primary north/south route, a paved road, which once was the great battlefield between Iraq and Iran. There are still remnants of the battles here, from some huge destroyed tanks to the cartridge shell that we find in the desert sand. This part of the province is sparsely populated, and there is no evidence of water anywhere except for the river that flows out of Iran. We stopped to view it from a cliff-top vantage point. There were three large dogs wading across the river at ankle depth. The long drought has certainly reduced water flows here.

Our destination this afternoon is a brand-new veterinary clinic. The veterinarian for this clinic travels here twice a week and delivers animal care. His main office, in a large city, is too far away to reach the Bedouins here. They do not have any way to transport their animals that distance of nearly 100 kilometers, so he comes to them.

The clinic is a two-story building with office and laboratory space on the ground-level floor and living quarters upstairs. There will be a family living here, full-time, watching over the facility and working on the maintenance chores. The family already lives here, in a tent and aluminum siding structure next door. They are thrilled with their new housing with the only requirement they keep it kept up…hence the maintenance written into their contract.

Our visit coincided with the veterinarian at the facility so we could see him in action. In a small pen outside were a group of sheep, perhaps 15 or so, awaiting vaccination and dipping. Several cows were in another pen, and by cows a description is necessary. The cow herd in Iraq, and this is a general statement as there are exceptions, has a real challenge with diet. Their ration is generally unlike anything we feed our cows, and the performance of either milk production or growth or pregnancy shows it. Cows here may graze a wide swath of the landscape in search for food. Nearly all the animals we see that we might identify as dairy or beef cows are painfully thin.


For this reason, their care is symptomatic; landowners here with cows just do not have access to the kinds of feed these animals need. Yes, there are exceptions, and certainly the veterinarians here address the topic of improving the diet of these animals before embarking on anything else. And as stated earlier, sheep and goats do well here as they require less feed and that feed can be poorer quality. Or let me write this: I have been here 10 months and seen alfalfa hay once, and that was fed to dairy bulls at the Abu Ghraib Semen Farm operated by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Our veterinarian today shows us a diesel generator-run cooler with vaccines in storage. Many are delivered to the clinic by the United Nations Development Programme. The challenge is using them before they run out of their expiry and must be discarded. The cooler also has some antibiotics as well as plate culture media for diagnostic laboratory work. The laboratory is relatively spartan, but tissue or blood or necropsy samples can be taken by car to the larger clinic in the city.

I am thinking now of an outpost, for this veterinary clinic is just that. Sitting very near the Iranian border, with a handful of scrub trees and just sand as far as the eye can see, this animal clinic is a waystation for the wandering animal that must have care. It is a start. And it is clearly in the camp of capacity building.

Just before we completed our assessment, a herd of camels held cadence just in front of the highway. Our military personnel got out the cameras and marveled that here we are in Iraq watching 100 camels on their march to the north. Three of them carried Bedouin herdmasters, their white turbans wrapped around the neck and head, flowing backwards as the wind and velocity carried it nearly horizontal. They ride aside the camel’s back, one leg twisted and the other straight.

I was thinking of the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” as well as the old western movies that had cattle drives. Moving animals across the long reaches of the desert, or range, stopping for water and bits of forage, until some destination is reached.

Here today, in the modernity of a veterinary clinic, a few microscopes, surgery tools, and a cooler with medicines, is the ancient past relived in front of us…the camel cadence thundering across the fine desert sand, a rise of dust upward, and the herdmaster in a white turban flowing behind him. The new and old in this one spot, and I am here seeing it all.


Growing up on a farm in Parkdale, Oregon, I never imagined I would be here with these fantastic experiences. But I am tasting the fine sand in my every breath as I stand here, including the ancient history of thousands of such camel journeys. Except today, thanks to you, we have a waystop in their march, and a veterinarian who can deliver care. This is the assessment I come to on this extraordinary visit in the desert. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service
Soil and Water
Ministerial Adviser in Iraq