The pig was hairy and twitching out in the parking lot, finally sedated. Traffic hurtled by as Dr. P climbed into the truck bed with a handful of extra-long Q-tips.
“You can hold the dirty ones.”
He got to work, scraping inside of the pig’s ears, and before long, I held a fistful of swabs topped with gritty, black earwax, like some kind of horrifying ice cream cone.
I was 16, and it was early July. While others my age were probably off having those summer flings I’d read so much about in Seventeen magazine, I had spent the past few weeks completing an internship at a veterinary hospital, a component of a vocational class called “Animal Husbandry” offered through my high school. I showed up every morning in baggy navy blue scrubs, old Converse sneakers, and my hair pulled back into a tight bun.
A lot of kids like animals, and a lot of those kids want to become veterinarians. I had always been one of them. Toys like “Pet Doctor Barbie” and “Kitty Surprise” (a stuffed cat whose Velcroed-shut stomach arrived full of bean bag kittens) paved the way. A few summertime marathons of “Emergency Vets” later, I knew it, I was going to help animals for a living.
Had I considered that the job might be uncomfortable for me or that I was a wimpy teenager who could barely handle getting food on her hands while loading a dishwasher? Maybe not. Pet Doctor Barbie came with a smiling cat toy and only a single bandage to put on its arm. “Emergency Vets” usually ended on a happy note.
I signed up for the class and started to hoard Ann Taylor catalogs addressed to my mom just to imagine myself as a professional woman wearing each outfit with stiletto heels and a white lab coat, kittens and puppies peeking their heads out of the pockets.
That’s about where the fantasy portion of the story ends. Day one of the class involved a lesson in “expressing” a dog’s anal glands (squeezing smelly brown goo out of sacs which surround a dog’s anus) to prevent infection. At the hospital to which I’d been assigned, I learned to mop up pee and scrape up poop. From there, the endless stream of odd jobs assigned to me by the lead veterinarian, Dr. P, seemed increasingly vexing and increasingly dissimilar to being covered in puppy kisses.
I started to observe spaying and neutering procedures. Dogs and cats were anesthetized, and then their limbs were tied down to the operating table so that their reproductive organs were spread and centered. I was surprised at how effortlessly ovaries and testicles could be plucked out or sliced away. After removal, they were placed on a tray next to the table, grape-sized and slimy. It was my job to throw them into a special metal bin afterward.
The realization that this might not be the path for me was gradual at first. There were small signs. A client brought in an exotic red fish in a tall, cylindrical fishbowl. Dr. P diagnosed it. “This fish is suffering from anorexia.”
I laughed out loud at what I thought was a clever joke about the simplicity of fish and he stared at me stonily.
“It’s not funny, actually. Anorexia is a serious health issue.”
There was a side yard next to the building where I took boarding dogs out to get some exercise. Once, I was enjoying a few quiet moments with a wheezing English bulldog named CJ when he mounted my leg and started to hump it. I screamed and exploded with stifled laughter as I tried to shuffle backwards away from him. Enthusiastically, he approached again, and I immediately dragged him back inside to his kennel.
The daily sights were weird and gross, but they were also sad at times. I watched the euthanization of a German Shepherd whose hip dysplasia was so advanced that she had to be carried in on a pillow. After her family had gone, she was carefully wrapped up and placed in a black plastic bag. I was instructed to carry her 70-pound body out to the back of the building and to place her in a large outdoor freezer, where she would await pickup by a cremation company.
The more I learned to admire the boldness and problem-solving skills required of Dr. P and his colleagues, the less comfortable I felt. It became clear near the end of the internship, when one day, Dr. P asked if I would like to “help with some newborn puppies.”
Newborn puppies! I required no additional information. I was in. An hour later, I was grinning into a basket of nine brand new pups. They couldn’t have been more than a couple days old. They were hamster-sized, blind, warm little blobs of life, with large, gray spots and tiny black snouts.
The puppies were here for elective surgery called “dewclaw removal” and “tail docking.”
Dr. P explained that the veterinary technician would be removing the dewclaws, toes which grew a little higher up on the arm than the rest of the paw. I was to take each de-clawed puppy and hold it steady while Dr. P docked the tail and then to wait for the vet tech to take each puppy back from me.
Tail docking is a cosmetic procedure that is contested by many, probably because it can be legally administered to newborn puppies who are not sedated or anesthetized. Breeders seek these procedures in order to have their dogs meet certain aesthetic standards of their breed.
However cruel it might seem to me, the vet tech explained that the owner was at least right to seek out a doctor rather than perform the surgery at home. And anyway, the puppies were so new and the pain of the procedure so fleeting that no permanent harm would be done, she said.
I learned all of this in about two minutes.
The vet tech grabbed a puppy. She took a pair of small, scissor-like pliers and clamped the base of each claw, breaking the bone and plucking the thumb fingers off. The puppy squeaked like a mouse. She handed it to me and grabbed another. I held the creature’s bottom up in the air for Dr. P. He took a metal clamp and pressed it down on the base of the puppy’s tail. He pressed the clamp firmly, nearly severing the tail, and with his other hand, he twisted the entire tail until it popped off as though it had been made of Play-Doh. The puppy squeaked and squealed even louder as blood started to spill from the base of the tail.
The vet tech clipped another set of claws off and then took the bleeding puppy from me to stop the blood. Soon the piercing squeal became three squeals, and then four, and then five. As thumbless, bleeding puppies rotated in and out of my hands, they felt hot -- like little screaming balls of fire.
Puppy blood began to smear onto my latex gloves and proceeded to trickle down my bare arm. This was around dog number six. The air felt thick, moist and smelly. The blood seemed to be boiling hot as it dribbled across my skin.
I handed a dog off and started to say, “I don’t feel well. I think I need to step out.” My vision turned gray. I felt foggy and heavy. I tried to turn my body away from the operating table, but it felt like walking through an invisible swamp.
I woke up a second later on the floor between where I had stood and the door of the room. Dr. P was pulling me up by my armpits and helped me to kind of backward crab-walk into the open bathroom across the hall. As I apologized profusely, he told me to sit up on the closed toilet seat and then retrieved some purple suckers from the front desk to bring up my blood sugar. I sat on the toilet, chomping the candy down while trying not to cry tears of embarrassment. I don’t remember much else beyond that point; I assume the puppies made it out alright.
I finished the internship on friendly terms with the staff. I returned to the comfort of another year of high school, eventually starting college as a Journalism major instead of an Animal Science major, like I’d planned. I hadn’t yet realized that that summer would become the strange prologue to years of vocational misadventures and triumphs.
A decade later, my career pursuit occasionally makes me feel like I did that day: defeated, wishing Pet Doctor Barbie had come with a testicle disposal bin instead of a grooming brush.
But now I know that trial and error is the only way to make progress in understanding yourself in the context of the professional world. Learning want you can’t do is just as valuable as realizing your strengths, even if it involves getting covered in poop, blood, or other assorted organic fluids.