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Ten-minute chat
  1. Sally Goulden


Sally Goulden spends two mornings a week working with swans at the Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, Surrey. She spends another three days a week in companion animal practice. When she is not working or looking after her husband and two teenage sons, she is at the gym, running in Windsor Great Park or being a churchwarden.

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How did you get involved with caring for swans?

I used to work for the vet the Swan Sanctuary used, with cases being brought to his small animal hospital. Around the time I was taking a career break to have my first baby, the sanctuary moved to larger premises with an operating theatre on site. They invited me over for what I thought was a baby bootee knitting pattern swap, and offered me the work. It would have been rude to refuse!

Tell us a bit about your background and training.

I qualified from the RVC in 1984 and went straight into companion animal practice. When I started the swan work in 1988 I had no experience at all with birds, let alone swans. I had to go back to first principles, and the vet I had worked for told me how to anaesthetise them. My first case was a swan with 10-day-old oesophageal damage from a pike hook. This is a three-pronged barbed hook held to another similar hook by a metal trace. I thought if I could figure that one out on my own I would do all right!

How many swans do you see?

Admissions to the Swan Sanctuary come via a network of volunteer rescuers across the UK and even from abroad. The sanctuary also works closely with the Highways Agency, police, rail networks and wildlife rescue organisations. Assistance also comes from the merchant companies and the Crown Estate, which have traditionally owned swans. On a busy day there may be 10 to 12 swan admissions, plus other species of birds, which are impossible to turn away. At any one time there may be four swans in intensive care, 20 in the inside care pens, 30 in the outside care pens, 40 or so in the ‘nursery’ and a flock of up to 200 in the wooded stream and lake areas, awaiting rehabilitation to a protected habitat. The origin of each bird is carefully logged so that the majority of cases are returned to their own territory.

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What sort of conditions do they present with?

Many of the injuries are extensive and life-threatening. About one-third of swan injuries are fishing-related, and one-third are incurred during crash-landings. The remainder have river traffic, predator- and dog-inflicted injuries; intoxication from agents such as botulinum toxin, lead, blue-green algae or sewage and infections such as Aspergillus, internal parasitism and duck virus enteritis. Treatment varies from simple rest and recuperation, to wound management, intravenous fluid support, nebulisation, surgery to remove hooks, fishing line and damaged limbs and bone repair. In the warmer weather the wounds are often infested with hundreds of maggots.

What do you like about your job?

There's never a dull moment! Every case is different, and yet provides a little more knowledge and experience to help work out what to do with the next patient.

What do you not like?

Maggots! Injuries inflicted by humans in mindless cruelty. Getting crapped on.

Why is your job important?

In addition to treating swans, the Swan Sanctuary and I provide education and information about the prevention, care and management of swan injuries and about swan husbandry. The sanctuary is constantly working to raise awareness of swans to the general public in order to improve their habitat and reduce the incidence of trauma.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

Have a second job that pays the bills.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

An anatomy lecturer, Dr Goodchild, said ‘We are all students until the day we die’. My Mum said, ‘When starting an argument with a child you have 10 seconds to decide whether to continue and win, or change the subject and move on’. One of my nurses said that also applies to husbands.

What was your proudest moment?

Every time someone tells me how lovely they think my sons are I feel I'm just going to burst with pride.

And your most embarrassing?

In my small animal job: ‘Do come in Mrs Smith, and bring your son . . . oh, husband . . .’. In my swan work (this was in the early days), ‘Yes, do come and watch the operation. This is the nerve I'm just going to cut . . . oh, sorry! Yes, I think a good soak in cold water will get all that blood out . . .’.

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