Five feet tall and 120 lb. is no match for a 400-lb. sow.
Shortly before World Pork Expo, I received a telephone call from David Funderburke, swine nutritionist/consultant based in North Carolina, telling a harrowing story about a sow attacking an employee. “You should talk to her,” he said. “She will be at Expo.”
I did. The conversation still haunts me a bit, but her story is worth retelling.
Georgia Jenkins is petite. And, she's no newcomer to the hog business, having spent 14 years working in three different pork production systems in North Carolina. Currently, she is a production service manager at J.C. Howard Farms, rotating between sow farms, training employees and troubleshooting problems.
A Fateful Day
Jenkins had spent about a month in a 2,400-sow farm, trying to get a handle on a PRRS problem. One morning in early May, she was routinely monitoring the farrowing rooms. A sow, farrowing mummies, had backed out of her crate, but was returned without incident.
After lunch, Jenkins went back to check on the sow. She'd had three mummified pigs, but seemed to be straining. Attempting to assist the sow, she was unable to reach a pig through the butt bar, so she removed the rear gate.
“I've done this a zillion times,” she assures. “If a sow backs up, you just push on 'em and they get back up (into the crate).”
That's when it happened!
“When I took the gate out, she was on me just like a dog,” she remembers. “She knew how to get to me at the back of the crate.
“The first thing she bit was my hand. I was so shocked, I was trying to back away from her, but there wasn't much room, so I tripped and fell. She bit my leg and thigh. It was like when a dog grabs, they bite and shake their head. That's what she did. She kept biting everything she could bite. I couldn't get away from her; I thought, well, I'm going to die!”
Thinking there was no one to hear her screams, she screamed anyway. Luckily, a co-worker nearby heard her and rushed to help. “He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me up so I could jump into the crate,” she remembers. “He saved my life.”
But her leg was a mess — flesh and blood was mixed with urine and manure from the pen. Wasting no time, she was rushed to the emergency ward.
Normally, with an animal bite, the wound is left open. But since she had fallen into the manure and it was a gaping wound, the doctor wanted to suture it.
“He made the great call of doing everything in the OR (operating room), so he got all of the wounds cleaned out well. He kept me in the hospital for the night and gave me antibiotics intravenously,” she says, thankfully.
Seventeen stitches (counted and verified by her children), as well as 10 days of antibiotics and physical therapy to regain the strength in her hand and leg, put her back on the job within three weeks.
As she reflects on the traumatic experience, she reveals some apprehension, but she does so with a purpose — to remind others to keep their guard up when working with large animals.
“I believe it was a freak of nature, not a typical thing to have happen,” she says. “But I want to make people aware that it is a potential hazard and to not let their guards down.”
Settling into a reflective mood, she adds: “When I look back on it, I try to focus on all of the funny things that happened that day — the nurses poking their heads into the room, then quickly leaving because of the smell, the OR staff's many questions about the sow, my job.
“I really wish I could have physically gone back to work sooner. It's kind of like what they say about falling off a horse — you need to get right back on. Mentally, I'm still overly cautious.”
Still, there's no temptation to give up her hands-on swine management job. “I've always loved working with animals, and pigs are my thing,” she says, brightening again.
I am reminded of the popular TV series in the '80s, Hill Street Blues, which opened each episode with head sergeant, Phil Estherhaus, conducting the morning roll call. After reviewing the day's unsolved cases and assignments on the street, the fatherly sergeant would close with this common plea: “Hey, let's be careful out there.”
That is the message that I, and a lucky woman in North Carolina, would like to leave you with — “Please, be careful out there.”