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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Care and Feeding: My Summer Job at the Animal Hospital

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Between my sophomore and junior years, I packed two semesters of high school chemistry into eight weeks of summer school. It was insane. On the weekends, when I was supposed to be doing homework, I had a job at a local animal hospital.

At the time, my fifteen-year-old self was certain I wanted to be a veterinarian. My dad, who had grown up on a farm, was skeptical of my choice. He told me, “If you’re serious about being a vet and plan to spend your life around animals, you need to get your boots dirty.” He talked to a veterinarian he knew. Without benefit of an application or interview, I was hired as a kennel boy.

I admit I had trepidations. We were a “dog family,” and it had always fallen to me to clean up the yard. It was awful, especially in the spring as the snow melted and uncovered a winter’s worth of land mines. I retched every time. Neither my dad nor I was certain how I would handle a job where my responsibilities would involve a shovel and excrement. I started the next weekend.

The vet was an old, crusty, no-nonsense guy without any appreciable sense of humor or apparent interest in me beyond the fact that he had done my dad a favor by giving me a job. His clinic building was small. There was a waiting room and space for a receptionist up front, a middle section with the vet’s office, an examination room, and a procedure room, and the kennel room in the back. The kennels, which consisted of four rows of double- and triple-stacked cages, looked more like a maximum-security prison than a hospital.

Twice a day, my job was to take each dog out to one of the fenced-in concrete runs with a central floor drain. While they were in the run, I would clean their cage and give them fresh food and water. Then I would put them back in their cage, shovel out and hose down the run, and get the next dog. Over and over. By the time I finished getting through all the dogs once, it was time to begin again.

Although a few were sick and required some special care, most of the animals were being boarded. A Newfoundland, for example, occupied the same kennel by the back door all summer while her owners were overseas. She was assigned the largest space available but, given her size, had barely enough room to turn around. Thankfully, she was beautifully behaved and never needed any coaxing either to go to the runs or to return to her cage when she was finished.

Since I worked weekends, I was usually the only human being in the building. I was faithful to my duties even though no one would ever have known if I cut corners. I was certain that the dogs wouldn’t tell.

It was tiring, noisy, and pretty disgusting work. Some of the dogs barked incessantly. Dad was proud that I was sticking it out and getting some experience. Mom was probably proud, although she made me take off my work clothes on the back porch each day and drop them directly into the washing machine on my way to the shower.

One Saturday morning, the veterinarian brought a Basset Hound from the front of the building into the kennel room. The dog moved slowly and with effort. He had a graying muzzle and milky eyes.

“Put him up here.” I lifted the dog onto the table which was used during the week for grooming. He wagged his tail, lay down, and rested his chin on my arm.

“Stretch out his front leg.” I grabbed just above his shoulder and extended his paw. The vet clipped some of the hair and found a vein. He wrapped a tourniquet and swabbed the area with an antiseptic. “Okay,” he said, “hold him still.”

The vet slipped a needle into the dog’s vein, released the tourniquet, and injected a syringe of medicine which I assumed was an antibiotic or something else to treat whatever was wrong with him. The vet withdrew the syringe. “Keep holding him,” he said.

The dog lifted his head and rubbed his muzzle against my shoulder. Then he laid his chin back down, shook for a few seconds, exhaled, and slumped into my arms. In a moment, he was completely limp. I let go of the dog and stepped back.

The vet checked for a pulse then washed his hands. “Okay. I’ll be at the club if you need anything. Use one of the plastic bags to wrap him up and put him in the trash bin out back.”

I watched the vet walk out the door. The dog lay on his side where I had released him. As I realized what had happened, my eyes welled up. I had no idea, I thought. I don’t even know the dog’s name.

A few minutes later, I carried him, now wrapped in a large plastic garbage bag, past the Newfoundland, out between the fenced-in concrete runs with the central floor drains, and to the back of the lot. I set him gently in the bin and walked slowly back into the building where I cleaned the table and put away the supplies.

In retrospect, that day and that summer changed me. It made me wonder if the vet was truly oblivious to how the experience might have affected me. It made me grieve for the dog’s family, and I was gratified that I had been able to accompany him through his final moments even though they could not.

On the plus side, I never again had a problem cleaning up our back yard and, when I decided my next job would be in a people hospital instead of in an animal hospital, I was pretty certain I would be able to handle many of the sights and smells.

Euthanizing the dog had put me behind on my schedule but, before I went home, I made certain that every one of the dogs was greeted by name, had received a little extra food and water, and was lavished with some personal attention. It was the least I could do.

This essay appears in the Kern Institute Transformational Times issue of 8/6/2021.

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