Burning Questions

What is the safest way to dispose of a diseased cow carcass—and what does it have to do with the public health?

AT FIRST BLUSH, THE MATTER of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission v. Dr. Mike Vickers seemed to be much ado about very little. In a hearing held in Austin this past February, the TNRCC, Texas’ environmental protection agency, asserted that Vickers should be fined $9,000 because, on two occasions in 1999, he had illegally burned animal carcasses, animal excrement, and medical materials used in the animals’ care in a pit behind his veterinary clinic outside Falfurrias. Vickers explained that, as the main vet in a multicounty ranching area, he had to dispose of a lot of animals that died, many from zoonotic diseases (infections like anthrax or rabies that can be communicated from animals to humans), and he had always burned them to protect the public health. The hearing was so dull that when an environmental investigator from the TNRCC described the “smoldering bag of feces” he had observed in Vickers’ pit, I thought he’d hit upon an apt metaphor for the whole proceeding.

But the more I listened, the more I realized that the hearing was providing a window onto how complicated the business of protecting the public health has become these days. To begin with, none of this would have shown up on the radar if Vickers, a garrulous 52-year-old with white hair and a matching mustache, had been just any rural vet. But he happened to be the vet who had treated the heifer that had died of the anthrax that was the source of the microbes used in last fall’s bioterrorist attacks.

The way Vickers tells it, he was as shocked as anyone this past January when his friends at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M called to inform him that government investigators believed the anthrax that killed five people last fall—the so-called Ames strain—had not come from the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, after all but was derived from a cow that had died in Vickers’ care in 1981.

Vickers recalled that he had sent a tissue sample from the dead heifer to the A&M lab—standard operating procedure among Texas vets to verify dangerous contagions like anthrax. He hadn’t given it a second thought for two decades and was unaware that A&M had subsequently sent a culture of that anthrax to the Army’s biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where biologists testing the military’s anthrax vaccine needed fresh germs. The “Ames” confusion arose because a

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