My love for animals began early…
That’s Tinker you see, my first cat, being oh-so-patient with my enthusiastic affection. My memories of Tinker are all happy – even the time he caught a snake and dropped it in the middle of my sister’s slumber party. I suspect Kelly has less-fond memories of that event.
I have had a lot of pets over the years…
Those are just a few. And, of course, who can forget the Queen of the Road, (and ocean, and sky), Emily…
What all but one of my pets have in common is that they were rejects and cast-offs. My one and only pure bred pet turned out to be a disaster – Mr. Mac was, sadly, not very bright, and his owner had just entered the Teen Tunnel and didn’t have the patience or skill to train a high strung Sheltie, or give him the attention he needed. (A lesson well-learned).
In fact, I loved cats and dogs so much that I eventually found a job as a veterinary assistant at Guildford Animal Hospital. I knew, on my very first day–when one of my new co-workers came to inform me that my shift had ended over 30 minutes ago and I could go home if I wanted to, (I didn’t want to)–that this would be the best job I’d ever had.
And it was.
I spent five years caring for sick and injured pets. Along the way, I picked up a few more rejects. Honestly, you try looking in those big, sad, helpless eyes and see how long you can resist.
All pets are wonderful but there is something about taking in a pet that no one wants, or that someone has abandoned, that makes them extra special. If I ever get down on myself–and we all get down on ourselves sometimes–all I have to do is think of the cats and dogs whose lives I made better just by giving them food, water, attention, and lots of love.
And that goes the other way around, too. When life was rough (ruff?), having a furry friend to come home to, knowing that no matter what an unmitigated idiot I may have been I would still be loved, saved me in more ways than I can count. No amount of therapy could have done for me what an hour with a purring cat on my lap did.
Prez and I are at a point in our lives where we know we’re not ready for a pet again. We take the responsibility of pet ownership seriously, and we can’t bring a cat or dog into our life without knowing we can offer her/him at least some stability.
But we can still help out…
As anyone who follows my antics on Facebook or Twitter already knows, Prez and I took on a litter of three orphaned kittens a few weeks ago. This was arranged through our local SPCA, who also provided us with kitten milk formula (don’t ever give cats cow milk!), litter, blankets, a nursing bottle, a cardboard home, dry and canned kitten food for weaning (still working on that), and lots of helpful instructions.
They came to us as helpless, half-blind, lumps of fur. I suspect Prez was dubious about this latest project of mine but let’s face it – skepticism vs kittens? Good luck, skepticism.
Yes, the kittens are work, especially because this batch have no mother, (unlike most SPCA foster kittens), but they are a constant source of smiles in our house. They are about five weeks old now and getting more adventurous every day.
If you’re thinking, Gee, that looks awesome!, trust me, it is. And if you’re thinking, I need a pet!, then consider bringing a secondhand animal into your life. Whether from the SPCA, any number of animal welfare/rescue organizations, or a pet from someone who has to give theirs up, you’ll feel like a superhero just knowing you’re helping a critter in need. Also, think about adopting an adult animal — there are sooooooo many terrific ones who need a home.
At the very least, go visit your local animal shelter, and have a look. Here are some of the lovely cats we saw at the Nelson SPCA recently…
There are other critters waiting for homes too…
Cats, rats, dogs, ferrets, rabbits, you name it, you can adopt it. So, now that I’ve dazzled you with critter cuteness, let’s see where you’re at and I’ll offer up some words of wisdom.
I’m Ready to Adopt!
Terrific! But, first, ask yourself these questions and answer honestly:
- How much time can I commit? All pets require time to feed, clean, and train, but some animals and breeds need a LOT. Make sure you get one that fits your lifestyle.
- Can I afford a pet? We had a saying at the animal hospital: There’s no such thing as a ‘free kitten’. Food, training, supplies, and vet bills can add up, and that’s just for the basics. If your pet gets injured or has special needs, your expenses can start racking up quickly.
- Am I prepared for the responsibility? This one’s especially important if your pet will interact or impact the outside world. Depending on the animal or breed, this could be a commitment that lasts decades, so make sure you’re ready. And, of course, ALL pets should be spayed or neutered at the appropriate time, unless you are specifically planning to breed them, (which I do not encourage, when there are so many animals at shelters already).
The great thing about adopting an animal from a shelter is that a lot of the basics are covered in the adoption fee, which can save you tons of money and time. Vaccines, spaying/neutering, deworming, tattooing…these are just some of the many things the SPCA provides. Have a closer look here.
I’m Ready to Volunteer!
If you’re not ready for a full time commitment but you still want the joy of helping animals, there are lots of ways you can help out. Local shelters and animal welfare organizations are always looking for volunteers. Want to foster a litter of kittens? Take dogs for walks? Temporarily care for a sick or injured animal? Check out your local organizations. You can get started with the SPCA here.
I’m Ready to Donate!
Awesomesauce! If there’s one thing animal welfare organizations can always use, it’s money. But there are other ways to help. If you have items like pet carriers, food dishes, blankets, or pet toys, that are in good shape, your local shelter might be able to use them. Also, some organizations host fundraising events or even accept reward points as gifts. You can donate to the SPCA here.
Organizations such as the SPCA help everyone. Don’t believe me? Visit any third world country with no animal welfare groups and you’ll see packs of wild dogs running the streets, often carrying diseases, or feral cat populations so out of control that entire wild, native species of birds face extinction. When we take care of our animals, we make life better for everyone.
I’m going to do something I’ve never done here before and leave you with a short story I wrote in 2004. The names have been changed, to protect the wonderful, but this is a short memoir of my time as a vet assistant and some of the things I learned about myself in that job. Just keep scrolling, if you’d like to read it.
**WARNING: This is one of my earliest stories, and I haven’t edited it (no time!), and so it’s a bit rough (ruff?)**
I hope you’ve enjoyed my kittens. They’ll be going back to the SPCA on Tuesday and I’ll miss them, but I also know they will make amazing pets for some lucky owners. If you have a secondhand pet, (or you’ve had one in the past), I hope you’ll leave a comment and tell me about it.
I have had 43 years of secondhand love, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Until next time, I hope this finds you, and your pets, healthy, happy, and lovin’ life!
Just Be There
by Kristene Perron
“How do you do it?”
People used to ask me that question a lot. What they meant was how could I witness, sometimes take part in, so much suffering and death. I’ve seen a lot of dead pets. Some who passed peacefully, naturally, the cycle of their lives having run full course, and some who met with disease or tragedy – usually tragedy in the form of a set of Goodyears and two thousand pounds of steel. You learn to accept it all, not to harden yourself to it but to see death as normal, as everyday. One moment you are bringing a new puppy into the world and the next you are stitching up a cat whose tail has been hacked off by kids as a Halloween prank.
Life at Fairview Animal Hospital was a curious mix of James Herriot and Stephen King. Anyone who has nursed flesh and bone will tell you that the blood, the screams of pain, the cutting and pulling and stitching and poking can be tolerated because of love. I could do it because I love animals. Maybe that sounds too simple. I didn’t always understand it either, even while I was in the middle of it. But one evening on the third floor of Surrey Memorial Hospital I also began to ask: “How do I do it?”
My mother, who was a shell of my mother, was dying beside me. The nurses of the Palliative Care ward floated soundlessly up and down the hall. In every room, someone was dying, just like my mother, and someone sat next to them, just like me, wishing they would go and wishing they would stay and feeling as if there would never be another happy moment for the rest of time. I watched the orthotic-shoe-wearing angels drift by, occasionally poking their heads in to check up on her (and me). They were there to help her die. How do they do it?
On my first euthanasia assist, my animal hospital co-workers briefed me on what to expect. I had to make very sure that I had a firm grip on the leg, (front if the veins were good, back if the animal was sick or weak), twist the hand slightly to accentuate the vein and squeeze until I saw a good drop of blood enter the syringe and the doctor beginning to press down on the plunger. Done properly, the injection would be quick and merciful. The animal would indeed go to sleep, although this sleep was permanent. One final tap on the inside corner of the eye to make sure there was no muscle response, no blinking, and a listen through the stethoscope would confirm a job well done. If the owners were in the waiting area, they would now be called in to spend their last moments with their friend, (after any urine or feces were cleaned up).
Next was bagging and tagging. We used ordinary garbage bags, (industrial size for large dogs) slipped the animal inside, knotted the top of the bag and, if it was a special cremation, we affixed a label with the pet and owner’s names. Regular cremation meant your pet got tossed in with all the others and Special cremation meant yours would be done separately and you’d get a nice urn with the ashes afterward. Special cremation was significantly more expensive but lots of owners chose it, not because of the urn, really, but because they didn’t want their beloved pet lumped in with all the other animals.
The bodies were stored in our morgue, which was a used deep freezer, until the SPCA pick-up day. Once, it conked out in the middle of summer and all the animals melted – a smell I will never forget.
Ruby was a large Croatian woman who had worked at the animal hospital since it opened. She would never advance beyond her position as a kind of janitor but she could give injections, was a tireless worker, and a motherly figure to new girls. after my first euthanasia assist, she shuffled over and looked up at me through thick, prescriptive lenses, with magnified eyes full of concern. I understood that this moment could be traumatic for some people. She was here to make sure I didn’t fall apart after my stint as co-executioner.
“You OK honey? How it did it go?” she asked, patting my arm.
I wanted to smile and say Great and go about my business but I felt that would be insulting or seem callous so I nodded reverentially, “Fine. Thanks Ruby.”
Truthfully, the procedure hadn’t affected me at all. It seemed as efficient and necessary as all the other treatments and procedures I’d been learning. Shave leg. Apply alcohol. Inject liquid. Done. It would feel that way for a little while, but that would change.
Any animal hospital veteran will tell you that the worst part of dealing with pets is the owners. On the subject of death, this holds especially true.
We dreaded rottweiler owners. Rottweilers were popular for a time—kind of a redneck status symbol, rotties their owners called them—and so people took to breeding them for extra cash. Backyard breeders were the types who liked to decorate their lawns with old cars on cinder blocks and often had another side business in their basement involving lights and marijuana. The women would carry a dirty cardboard box load of whimpering, three-day-old pups in for tail docking and an examination, sometimes dragging a couple snotty-nosed kids along, too. The kids looked as much in need of rescuing as the animals. We’d cheerfully take down all the information, oooooh and aaaah over the cute widdle puppikins, and try to slip in a friendly reminder that they should bring in the pups at six-weeks-old for their vaccines and, by the way, did they know that the mother was four years overdue for hers? No? Well, she really should come in and get updated. Parvovirus and distemper are two very serious, highly contagious diseases and rotties seemed to be particularly susceptible to the former.
“Ya, I’ll bring ’er in when I bring in the pups” they’d say.
“That’s great because puppies are really at risk and you don’t want them getting sick.” We’d smile. They’d smile. It was all a big game. They thought we were full of shit, just trying to squeeze them for money, and we thought they were stupid white trash.
Eight or ten weeks later, all the pups would be in the isolation ward, (the very small back room where we kept the morgue), vomiting up yellow bile, sometimes mixed with long white worms, and passing gelatinous gobs of bloody diarrhea. We’d fight to keep their shriveled bodies alive but beyond giving fluids there isn’t much to be done for parvovirus.
Each morning, me and Michelle, the tech, would don our isolation lab coats, gloves, and surgical masks, then take a deep breath and hold it before opening the door to check on the sickly litter. Michelle was a no nonsense woman; she ran surgery like a military operation. I was mostly afraid of her for the first year but we worked alone in the mornings, which meant we depended on each other in a way the other girls did not. The smell of parvo is worst when it has been sitting overnight; it is sour bile and stale blood. Surgical masks don’t block that smell at all. We always hoped the pups would make it, but we usually lost one or two, sometimes the whole bunch.
Once the remaining pups were well, the owners would hug and squeeze them, thank us over and over again for saving them, and leave us a rubber cheque for our troubles. We’d never see them again. Often I was tempted to pull the dead puppies out of the morgue and drop them, unbagged, into the arms of these thoughtless losers.
“Here! Don’t forget about these guys!” I’d say. What would they think looking down at the tiny, frozen bodies caked in dried blood and vomit? Would they ever see their part in the whole fiasco?
It goes the other way too, though. Owners who love their pets too much can be just as cruel. No one enjoys giving the death-poke but sometimes it’s the kindest act you can perform.
Mrs. Cameron was an over-lover. Her boxer, Iggy, was the center of her universe and I could see why. Iggy radiated affection; he needed to be loved and wanted as much love in return as you could give.
Iggy, Pinky the cat (who was black), and Chubs, another dog, were my three favorites. Pinky was missing one of his front canine teeth, which gave him this comical, lopsided look. He would stand on his hind legs, wrap his front legs around your shoulders as if he was hugging you, and rub his forehead against your chin over and over, purring like a maniac. Chubs did a hundred tricks and his owner, Mr.Neil, always brought us doughnuts on bath days. Iggy, the boxer, didn’t do anything special but he never jumped or barked, no matter how excited he was to see you, and he wagged his entire back end, in lieu of a tail, constantly, which made everyone smile, even on the really bad days.
When Iggy lost half his front leg to cancer we kept high hopes. Dogs and cats do remarkably well on three legs and this one was young and fit. When the other half of the leg had to be amputated we started to worry. Michelle and I rigged up a pole system so that Iggy could stay in a run, instead of a cramped kennel, without danger of pulling out his I.V. while he healed. But he didn’t heal. I tried to be quiet whenever I entered the kennel room but Iggy would always spot me and start that furious bum wagging, his mouth hanging open in a fat-tongued, boxer grin. As he shook, bits of blood and fluid would fly from his incision, which refused to seal, and splatter the walls and floor of the run. We changed his blanket at least four times a day.
“Oh Igs,” I’d say and stop whatever I was doing to open the door and give his square head a scratch.
Dr. Murchie practically pleaded with Mrs.Cameron to put Iggy down and that was saying a lot. Murchie hated euthanizing an animal unless there was no alternative.
“Carol,” I once heard him sigh from outside the examining room, “he’s just not going to get better and now he’s not eating.” Mrs.Cameron, who’d been red-eyed when she came in, was sobbing. “I’ll let you look at him first, but I really think—”
“Can’t you just amputate a little higher?” she cried.
Another sigh from Dr. Murchie. “We’ve gone as high as we can go. I know you love Iggy but he’s suffering now and you don’t want that.”
We were all listening, all of us in the treatment area, pretending to be busy, listening and hoping. Our mighty canine patient could no longer stand, though we kept him in the run for comfort, and his ribs poked through his skin like those awful pictures of Nazi concentration camp survivors. At the point where his leg had been removed, there was a grape fruit sized lump of fluid that we could not keep drained. It oozed non-stop and the skin around the incision was an angry, wet red. Iggy was in pain and so were we. To see him lying there in his own urine, trying feebly to wag his hind end brought tears to all our eyes, even Michelle. “What’s wrong with that woman?” she would demand, and storm out, the kennel room door swinging behind her.
We each had our ways of dealing with the horror of Iggy. Michelle had her anger, Ruby her faith in God. Janet, our delicate receptionist with the hand-knit sweaters, had denial. No one talked about Iggy in front of Janet. Pat, mother of four, had life-weary, shit happens acceptance. Julia, our sixteen year-old work experience student, had fear. I sometimes saw her cringe when she had to go into the kennel room. I had humour, my life-long self defense mechanism. Laughter, comedy, they were my weapons and shields against the daily dramas of my job, and everything else in my life.
One time, a locum doctor asked me to bathe and blow-dry a dog that had been in the morgue for two days. The owners had been out of town; the dog was ill and had died while it was boarding with us. Now the owners had returned and wanted to pay their last respects. It seemed ridiculous. Dr.Murchie would have found a way around it, but Dr.Chang could not say no.
I dragged Julia, the work-experience student, in to help me. We unloaded the contents of the morgue to find Mr.Whiskers. Sometimes a bag would split and a frozen head or leg would slip out, which scared the poor girl half to death. Mr.Whiskers was no day at the park, either. His death had been messy and he hadn’t been exactly well-groomed before that. In the tub, he was propped on his back with all four legs sticking up, stiffly, in the air. I looked down at his frosty face, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and stifled a laugh.
Julia was silent as we wet him down and lathered him up. “Well, this is the most well behaved dog I’ve ever bathed,” I said. Julia cracked just the faintest smile.
The fur was still matted after washing, so I grabbed a bottle of conditioner and a dematting comb. We all loved this brand of shampoo and conditioners because they smelled like coconuts. As we massaged it in and the room began to smell like a beach I turned to Julia, “Do you like my new shampoo?” She looked puzzled. I held up the bottle in a TV commercial-like way, “Gee, Your Dead Dog Smells Terrific!”
Julia’s somber face lit up and she doubled over with laugher, as did I. Every time we tried to resume our washing, the sight of poor, rigid, soapy Mr.Whiskers sent us into hysterics again. Despite our ten years difference, Julia and I became fast friends on the spot. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
But there wasn’t much to laugh about with Iggy anymore. Mrs.Cameron wouldn’t budge, her dog would get better, she just knew it. So we watched him die, and we scratched his head right up to the end. It was a good lesson.
Those two weeks I spent in palliative care, at Surrey Memorial Hospital, I sat and combed my mother’s hair, what was left of it, and kept her mouth from drying out by rubbing it with a glycerin swab the nurses had given. I thought of Iggy, of how you just do what you can and get through it.
Some animals are better off dead and, I suppose, the same can be said of humans. Most of our euthanasia’s were terminally ill and so you could accept it. As I got to know the pets and the owners, the quick, shave/alcohol/inject routine got harder. Sometimes, as we did it, I would have to bite on my bottom lip until I almost drew blood to keep from crying. Then there were the cases where the owners chose death rather than an option that would have required more time, work, or money. We all resented these and did our duty with the hope that karma would catch up to these terrible humans some day soon.
There are times, though, when you just can’t go through with it. Maybe it’s been a hard week, maybe a lot of pets have died lately, or maybe someone you know has died. Whatever it is, sometimes you see the needle and the bottle of lydocane and you think No. No more death. Because of this, every full time animal hospital employee has at least one rescue pet. I’d bet my life on it.
Little Buster was my rescue pet. His owners couldn’t afford the surgery needed to fix his dislocated shoulder. I didn’t blame them, it was expensive and there was no guarantee it would work but, still, he was just a kitten. They left him with us to be put down and, because we had a hectic day, he sat in the kennel for most of it, waiting. Every time I passed him he’d meow and rub his head against the bars, his poor leg hanging at an awkward angle. “Sorry Buster” I’d say and give him a quick chuck under the chin “Wish I could help you”. I did wish that but at eight dollars an hour I could barely help myself.
Dr.Murchie brought out all the killing gear; it was near closing time. He asked for a hand and I told him I’d do it right after I took out the garbage. I looked at the tiny tabby with his face pressed to the bars. I can do this. I’ve done this a hundred times before. The garbage felt heavier than normal. How I decided, I can’t remember, I just knew that Buster must not die. Through the surgery window, as I returned, I could see Dr.Murchie holding up a syringe full of purple – only lydocane was purple, as insurance against mistakes. I panicked. I worried that someone else was going to assist with the euthanasia before I could stop it.
“NO!” I ran through the back door, to the metal tub of the treatment area. “No! I’ll take him. I’ll pay for the surgery!”
I had no idea how I was going to pay for the surgery. Dr. Murchie scrutinized me for a minute, then put down the syringe.
“You’re lucky, little guy,” he said and scratched the top of Buster’s head through the bars. I think I saw a relieved smile on Dr. Murchie’s face.
Payment for Buster’s surgery, which actually turned out to be two surgeries, plus his x-rays, medication, and follow-ups, turned out to be an unpleasant issue in my marriage, which already knew its fair share of unpleasant issues.
I renamed my happy-but-gimpy cat Buster Brown, (he was a brown and white tabby), and called him BB for short. BB was as good a cat as anyone could ask for. He never scratched or bit anything, and he loved to cuddle up with me and purr. I credit him with keeping me sane during the countless days and nights that my husband yelled, cursed, smashed, pissed, puked, and passed out after drinking the mickeys he kept hidden in the garage.
BB had a knack for knowing when he was needed. After the divorce, we both enjoyed the peace and quiet, but he was always quick to limp over and jump into my lap if I happened to dissolve into tears. We were broke and broken, but we had each other. Our financial situation would improve but, at the same time, my mom’s health would take a turn for the worse. When that happened, there he would be again, waiting for me after each trip to the hospital, waiting to soak up the tears I could not cry in front of the watching world. BB did what no person could do for me – he was just, always there.
BB died one month after my mother did. Cancer of the chest. It was quick and I was there when Michelle and Dr.Murchie gave him the purple injection he’d escaped four years earlier. I wrapped him in my sweatshirt and tucked my favorite photo of the two of us inside.
I could not assist with the euthanasia’s after BB. Death had come to me with two broad strokes. Death had made its way past the sword and shield of laughter and lacerated my heart. I couldn’t bear to see one more living thing die, not a cat or dog, not a bug, not even a flower. Without a joke or a funny line to defend me, I felt that I might fall to pieces at the slightest touch.
How did I do it? I had started asking myself that question as my mother had run the marathon of death. Her body caved in on itself and, eventually, there were no more lucid moments, just a blank page. If I had the purple fluid could I have done it? Could I have erased her like so many cats and dogs that had been erased at my hands?
I can’t do it, I decided and maybe that would have been the end of it, maybe I would have quit the animal hospital if it weren’t for Mr.Walters.
Mr.Walters always wore plaid leisure suits, which seemed heavy for his frail, old frame. His account with us was never owing. His file was never put in the “Bad” drawer. We knew him by sight and were friendly enough, considering the few words he bothered speaking. To his credit, Mr. Walters followed Dr.Murchie’s advice to the letter. Vaccines were done on schedule and Frenchy, his cat, was always brought in promptly at the first sign of illness. He never wasted money on treats or other sentimentalities but whatever food or medications were needed he paid for without a fuss.
One morning, weeks after I’d lost BB and my mother, I noticed Mr.Walter’s old Chevrolet parked out front as I unlocked the hospital door. He didn’t rush in. He waited until I’d opened the door, turned off the alarm, checked the answering machine, and turned all the lights on before he got out of his car. He had a cardboard box in his arms, not the stained and torn ones that the rottie owners used, but not a real carrier either. He walked directly to me and held out the box.
“I believe she passed sometime in the night.”
I took the box and prepared the usual speech in my head. I’m sorry, Mr.Walters. We’ll take care of her. Would you like a regular cremation or would you like a Special Cremation?
“I loved her,” he said. “She was a real good cat.”
Glancing down in the box to avoid his eyes, I saw that Frenchy was wrapped in a red velvet blanket and her head was carefully positioned on a satin pillow trimmed with lace. There were fresh, red rose petals laid around and over her wasted little body.
When I looked up, there were tears rolling down my cheeks. It was then that it came to me, how I could do it.
There were a thousand tiny ways to make dying, and living, easier for pets and people. A scratch on the head, a glyericin swab for a dry mouth, a hair brush, a soft blanket, a joke, a shoulder for crying on – these things, I could give. Mr. Walters didn’t need a speech, he needed someone to understand.
“I’m so sorry, Mr.Walters. Frenchy was a good cat. I’m sure she loved you too,” I said. We stood there for a moment. Silent. Nothing needed to happen. “You go home. I’ll take care of all the paperwork and mail it to you later.”
He reached out a warm, wrinkled hand and placed it over mine. His eyes were moist with tears, “Thank you.”
I’ve seen a lot of dead pets but some you never forget.
The dying need us, the living need us. Sometimes all you have to do is just always be there.