Tuesday, March 30, 2010
It's Not Ok, Kitty
I once worked in an animal hospital in the San Francisco bay area. My primary duties were in the kennels, caring for the dogs and cats that were boarded there. At times I was called upon to assist the veterinarian with simple procedures on his patients. In many animal hospitals a euthanasia, or E and D (euthanasia and disposal) as it is more commonly called, is considered a simple procedure.
When I took a job in the clinic I did so because I wanted to work with animals. I had a range of experience, from grooming to obedience training, and some previous jobs in veterinary clinics. I had seen a lot of things, good and bad happen to animals in the course of my life. I have been active for a number of years in collie rescue. This means I adopt unwanted collies from animal shelters and pounds. I get them medical attention as needed, give them their shots, and teach them basic obedience commands. Then I try to find them homes.
Frequently a shelter will call to alert me that they have a collie. I will go and see if the dog in question has enough health and sanity left to live in a world of humans. If so, I will bail it out and begin my work. If not, I will usually bail it out anyway and give it a dignified death. In that case I feel that it has suffered enough, and it would be kinder for them to die without trauma than to subject them to a harrowing round of homes that can't cope with their special needs. Many times these people will abandon them to the street, send them back to the pound, or kill them slowly with a combination of abuse and neglect.
So here I was, working in an animal hospital, partly to defray the medical costs of my "orphans", and partly because I’m good at, and enjoy working with animals. For the most part I enjoy my job. I see a lot of things happen between people and their pets that run the gamut between the sublime and the ridiculous. There is also an element of the tragic.
For me, the worst of it is that many of the pet owners I encounter have no idea "who" their animal is, or what it can do. Dogs frequently have no sense of purpose, or personal dignity, because most of the time they have nothing to do, and no one to do it with. I see dogs with flailing, febrile, and wasted minds, which have nothing more interesting to look forward to each day than mealtime. Cats especially seem to be the facial tissues of the pet world. If kitty gets a little funky, why then, we throw her away! After all, we can always get another one for free!
One day I was working in the treatment room. The vet came in from a consultation room with a handsome cat in his arms. He was a fine fellow, mostly white with large black patches. He was only a little tense, looking around curiously and purring in a half-hearted manner. Placing the cat on the treatment table, the vet asked me to hold him. The cat sat on the table, purring as I stroked him.
“What's this guy here for?” I asked.
“E and D,” the vet responded.
“Oh? What's wrong with him?”
“Nothing,” answered the vet. “They’re getting a divorce and they want him put down.” He took down the bottle of Euthanol from its locked cupboard, and began filling a syringe.
I looked at the cat. He was beautiful and healthy. “They don’t want to keep him any more?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that – they just can’t agree on who gets him. Hold him please.” He took the cat's right foreleg and felt along the inside for a vein.
A number of things flew through my mind in the next few seconds. I felt panicky. Should I try to catch the owners before they left and ask if I could keep him? This behavior would be frowned upon by the vet. Not professional you know. Plus, I already had two cats and two dogs of my own, plus the rescue dogs. Would my cats accept him? How would he be with them? Was he ok with dogs? Could I afford another pet? Could I find a good home for him? Couldn’t we just wait a minute?
The cat stopped purring. He had gotten a sense that something was wrong. He struggled a little, and I automatically tightened my grip. “Hold him, please,” said the vet calmly.
The cat gave one small meow, and then redoubled his efforts to get loose. “It's ok kitty,” I said, “Please be still.” My voice was a bit shaky. The vet frowned.
The injection was given, and the cat looked around and meowed again. This was wrong. He should have been sinking quietly down on the table by now. I had helped with dozens of E and Ds. He should not be struggling. He should be quietly dying. His movements were a little uncoordinated, but still strong.
“Maybe you should give him some more?” I ventured, timidly.
Briskly, the vet put the bottle of Euthanol back on the shelf and said, “No, he'll be fine. Put him in a cage.” He rinsed his hands and went out, drying them on a paper towel.
He'll be fine...
I picked up the cat and cradled him in my arms. He clutched desperately at me and gave a quavering cry. I carried him to one of the observation kennels, grabbing a folded bath towel for him to lie on. Putting the towel on the floor of the cage, I started to put him down on it. As I began to lift him away from my chest, he jerked his claws from my sweater, wrapped his forepaws around my neck, and shoved his head under my chin. He cried again. Weeping now, I held him, stroking him over and over, and telling him, “It's ok, kitty.”
People were walking past me - the Animal Health Technician, the other kennel-person, one of the receptionists. No one said anything.
Slowly, the cat began to relax. He began to die. He stopped crying. He began to purr again. I kept on stroking him. The purring grew ragged and faint, and finally stopped. It took over twenty minutes. I held him, weeping silently, gently petting his face, his ears his paws, until I was sure he was gone. Then I wrapped his body in the towel, slid it into the cage, and said, “Goodbye, Kitty. I'm sorry.”
I left the treatment room and returned to the kennels. As I came in, a cat arched its back companionably against the bars of its cage. I reached in and scratched its neck. “Hi Kitty.” I said.