we followed Stéphane Dilé, country veterinarian “above all out of love for humans”

Between Deux-Sèvres and Vendée, the practitioner meets farmers every day and knows their discomfort well.

To work as a veterinarian in a rural environment, you have to put up with the smells of slurry, chickens being dissected and dog kibble. Stéphane Dilé no longer pays attention to it. “I still prefer it to the smell of sweat”quips the veterinarian, at the head of a clinic bringing together two practices in Moncoutant-sur-Sèvre (Deux-Sèvres) and La Tardière (Vendée).

Brown blouse on the shoulders and stethoscope around the neck, the man of almost 65 could be a country doctor. Only his muddy boots betray a job far from a medical office.

Avoiding blows with horns, running away when a bull rushes at him, removing a calf weighing more than 40 kg from its mother’s belly… The rural veterinarian still treats his patients, mainly cows and their offspring, directly on the farms. This proximity to the agricultural community explains the presence of veterinarians at the International Agricultural Show, which is being held in Paris until March 3.

Stéphane Dilé will not go there this year, busy with his work. Passionate, he also says he is worried about the future of his profession. Night work, weekends, public holidays, in rural areas that are not always attractive… As in general medicine, the image of the country veterinarian, who practices alone and rarely looks at his watch, even if it means working more than 60 hours a week, doesn’t appeal much anymore. Graduated in 1983, Stéphane Dilé embodies this older generation who agrees to travel a few extra kilometers to replace his retired colleagues, thus preventing nearby breeders from being left without a solution.

In France, there were nearly 6,500 in 2022 caring for farm animals, according to the national council of the Order (PDF), or 16.4% of the total number of veterinarians. A proportion which is in “constant decline”, notes the body, while the number of practitioners working with companion animals is increasing. In Vendée alone, the number of “vets who go rural” fell by 25%, between 2016 and 2020, underlines the practitioner, also vice-president of the council of the order of Pays de la Loire.

More than 35,000 kilometers per year

First intervention of the day, Thursday February 1st. Direction a farm in La Châtaigneraie, in Vendée, where a calf is suffering from respiratory failure since a particularly violent flu epidemic which broke out a few weeks earlier. Not sure he’ll recover. The veterinarian’s fingers run along the animal’s flank. At his side, Florentin Gerbaud, a young breeder, frowns. Determined to take over his father’s farm in a few years, the farm worker is worried about the calf. “Because of the flu, thirteen died out of the 42 born here. That’s a lot”he regrets while trying to follow the care protocol dictated by the vet. “I took a stool sample from him tooadds Stéphane Dilé, as if to reassure him. I will keep you informed of the results.”

Stéphane Dilé takes a blood sample from a calf on a farm in Deux-Sèvres, February 1, 2024. (FLORENCE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

At the wheel of his enormous 4×4 which covers 35,000 kilometers every year, this lover of the countryside could talk about breeders for hours. “There, it’s an exploitation who is more experienced in breeding, he introduces before a new visit, this time to Deux-Sèvres. But the son took over alone, he had to downsize and raise fewer animals”. It is the father, recently retired, who receives him in work clothes. It seems that the almost 70-year-old man has never hung up the phone. “Aren’t you retired?”says Stéphane Dilé with a laugh, before taking out his syringes to take blood samples from four calves freshly purchased by the breeder.

Divorces, cancers, low morale… Throughout the interventions, it is difficult to say who, the breeder or the animal, the veterinarian treats the most. He knows everything about the operators, whom he visits at least once a month. “I’ve seen some of their kids grow up, they’re almost like colleagueshe explains. When some people cry on your shoulders, because they are at the end of their rope, you don’t act proud. Above all, I do this job out of love for human beings, not animals.. If I had to make a choice between animals or the safety of the breeder, I would always favor humans”he emphasizes.

“We sometimes notice a slack, if the breeder takes time to call us when an animal is sick, if he falls behind on the treatment of his animals or if he has difficulty paying us. “

Stéphane Dilé, country veterinarian

at franceinfo

It is moreover this privileged link between the veterinarian and the breeders that the Sentinelles association, which fights against the discomfort of farmers, is timidly trying to take advantage of. She approached the council of the Pays de la Loire order of veterinarians to alert them to the subject. “But no procedure has been taken, regrets Stéphane Dilé. This is voluntary and I have not been trained to respond to this type of problem.” Training which seems necessary, when we know that veterinarians are in direct contact with cattle breeders, “particularly affected by suicide” according to a study published in 2016 (PDF) by Public Health France. Between 2007 and 2009, 417 men and 68 women farmers killed themselves, making suicide the third cause of death among these farmers, after cancer and cardiovascular diseases, according to a 2021 senatorial report.

Stéphane Dilé (foreground) on a farm in Deux-Sèvres, February 1, 2024. (FLORENCE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

Stéphane Dilé would like to be better equipped to face this distress. Especially when he’s the bearer of bad news for the breeder, as was his partner, René Planel, in May 2022. Specializing in poultry, the veterinarian had to face an unprecedented crisis: avian influenza, which decimated the region’s farms and caused the slaughter of more than 9 million ducks, laying hens and turkeys between 2021 and 2022, according to the departmental directorate for population protection, cited by West France.

Acting for public health

This epidemic period was marked by 12 weeks of intense work, with only one day of rest every three weeks for René Planel. “The number of dead poultry increased exponentially. There were 31 on Friday, then on Monday, out of 30 000 poultry on the farm, there were only 1,500 left alive.”

“Fighting this epidemic was like a war. Except that after a while, we no longer knew what fight we were waging.”

René Planel, veterinarian

at franceinfo

Working for public health then meant ordering the slaughter of thousands of animals, leaving farms empty and breeders in uncertainty. “Of course, we are less attached to poultry than to a dog, but I assure you that these breeders love their animals. We had to pick them up with a spoon”remembers René Planel, who guided some of them in their efforts or simply offered them attentive listening.

Then the astonishment gradually gave way to incomprehension and guilt. The breeders wondered why this was happening to them above, he says. ‘Why is my livestock affected and not my neighbor’s?’ ‘Why is an epidemic breaking out here and not elsewhere?'” Like a doctor facing a patient, the veterinarian has no answers to these questions. but he must manage the stress and guilt that eat away at farmers. “The poultry industry is very family-oriented, there are many human and social links between breeders. Which explains this pressure not to contaminate the farm next door and the shame that it happened to them.”

Stéphane Dilé (right) and a farmer in Deux-Sèvres, February 1, 2024. (FLORENCE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

These months of crisis have not affected the vocation of René Planel, who returns to work with poultry breeders with a smile, thanks to the vaccination campaign against avian flu implemented at the end of 2023. Like his colleague, Stéphane Dilé keeps this passion for his profession, despite the distances which lengthen with retirements and the nights which shorten.

Even when, woken up in the middle of the night in the cold of February, the all-terrain vet drove an hour and a half to perform a cesarean section and deliver a little calf. “That’s also the contact with farmers, moments of joy and complicity. I have to perform around a hundred cesareans every year, but this feeling remains intact. Moments of emotion which, he hopes, will convince the new generation of veterinarians to take over from him.

source site-14