Every workplace has its culture, and every culture has its (unspoken) rites of initiation. I passed through my first major one at the animal hospital where I work as a vet assistant.
I have witnessed the death of an animal.
Funny thing was, I didn’t know it was dead at first.
“Kate,” one of the techs said to me. “I want you to know that there’s a cat coming in with possible renal failure. It’s probably gonna have a lot of bloodwork done before it gets hospitalized, so be available to restrain.”
Okay, gotcha, I said. I was inwardly excited; the techs were just beginning to trust me to restrain animals without supervision or assistance. And this one was a cat. I had proved myself from the beginning better at restraining large dogs because I worked those three wonderful years at Claws and Paws. But cats are more difficult to restrain because they require a more delicate, finessed approach than a tackle-headlock.
Soon, the tech walked back into the treatment area where I had busied myself. She had a pink towel in her arms. She put it on the table and announced, “Seventeen years old. Domestic shorthair, four and a half pounds. Let’s try to get some fluids into her if her veins haven’t collapsed already.”
The image you have in your mind is probably about the same one that met my eyes when I pulled the towel back. A calico cat named, charmingly, Cali, lay on the table barely able to lift her head. Her fur, still full, made her look far more, well, full than she was. I ran my hands down her body and felt every single bone. The tech, armed with needles and a bag of fluid, attempted to draw blood while I held Cali in the usual restraint: one hand gripping the scruff tightly and one hand holding and anchoring the leg from which blood is drawn, while the same elbow kept the cat close to my body to prevent it from thrashing and getting loose.
But thrashing really wasn’t an issue with Cali. So I gentled up my hold on her scruff. Her head dropped. My heart stopped; I thought she’d died. But she lifted it laboriously, gazing at the world from bleary, tired eyes.
“Don’t you scare me like that, kiddo,” I murmured, burying my face in her fur, which smelled sweet. I kissed her and talked to her as the tech attempted draw after draw from both front legs and the side of her neck, ignoring the frequent outbursts of “fuck” and “goddamn oldass cat veins”.
“I can’t get anything. She’s too dehydrated. Her veins are like tire rubber. Let’s get some fluids in her and tomorrow we’ll try for blood,” the tech said, and I changed up my restraint: hands holding the cat’s head by the lower jaw and nose, thereby keeping the head immobile and the mouth shut. Usually cats like this hold less, but Cali no more complained about my hands all over her face than she did about having a needle painfully and repeatedly inserted into her body.
All the while I’d kept my finger on the pulse under her left elbow, but now with both hands occupied by her head I couldn’t monitor her dismally slow heart rate. But I did blow gently into her ears every once in a while; if they twitched, she lived.
“I have to put this IV in her back leg, Kate. I need you to hold her real still, ‘kay?” The tech said. I nodded and focused solely on minimizing Cali’s already minimal movement by keeping her snugged to my body and my hands completely still on her head. Cali and I remained motionless for a long while, listening to the murmurs of the tech.
“Uh. This fluid ain’t budgin’. Is kitty still with us?” The tech asked. I moved a finger from Cali’s jaw to the artery in her neck, already laid bare by the tech’s clippers and the complete absence of fat on Cali.
I felt nothing.
“Uh. I can’t feel anyth--”
“Lemme see.” The tech pressed two fingers to the spot, then pulled them away. “Nope. Kitty has left the building. You can let go of her now.”
I did, but only after I’d kissed her and told her I love you and goodbye.
With effort I compartmentalized and proceeded with the remaining three hours of my shift, which involved a different sort of christening (a story for another time). I allowed the grief to come on my way home, and I cried. I remembered the two deaths I’d witnessed at Claws and Paws, the deaths of my own pets, and the deaths of my human loved ones. Cali is and was no different than my dog or my cat or my grandmother. Cali was born, grew, was loved, and then left this world just like every other living thing has to do.
During the 8-minute ride home I realized something that should have come to me way sooner than it did. The reason why those in the veterinary business care for animals is not for the animal’s sake. Animals can and do live complete lives without human intervention; they’ve been doing it for millions of years. No, the real reason why veterinarians, techs and vet assistants like me do what we do is because of the bond between an animal and its human. It is that bond that created the need for animal doctors in the first place. The moment we domesticated animals was the moment we became responsible for their lives and their futures. And the moment we began to love them was the moment we began to care about their health and their feelings. Yes, we do it for the animal, but if it weren’t for the human who brought the animal in, well... you get it.
Half an hour before my shift ended was the tech’s time to leave. I was restocking supplies in the treatment area when she approached me.
“Congratulations, you have been christened.”
“Whuh?” I asked, blindsided.
“The kitty that croaked.”
“Oh,” I said, refusing to let those emotions out from their box yet. “I thought you were talking about the dog who expressed his anal glands all over me.”
The tech burst into laughter. “Oh, then you’ve been christened twice! Today’s your day, then!”
She left, chuckling, and I felt a momentary spike of anger for her carelessness about Cali. But I understood that she’d probably seen dozens if not more similar deaths; she’d callused up that part of her heart, as she ought to do. And I will probably do the same over time.
But for now, I don’t know how my realization will affect my work with animals or how soon. But I do know that it will affect me deeply and profoundly. I have been changed; I have been christened.