It took me a good decade, but I can finally say I think I’m getting this motherhood thing figured out. It was not intuitive for me, not easy or instantly amazing the way it was when I brought home my first pet. With my animals, I knew no matter how challenging things were, we would figure it out and it would be ok. I don’t know why I lacked that confidence with the kiddos. Maybe I’m just part dog.
But no matter! We all have our strengths in life, but the one thing I wish I knew a lot earlier was the idea of resilience, that just because one thing comes naturally to us, it doesn’t mean we can’t take on other things and work our way up to competence. It’s too late for me now: I will never know if I could have been a decent volleyball player. All I know is I was horrrrrrrible at it in school, I dreaded volleyball days in PE, and as soon as I could give it up I did.
But parenthood isn’t like volleyball, a hobby you can dabble in and put away when your back hurts. It’s there, sink or swim, and even if all you do is hobble along, well, that’s all you need to do.
I found myself leaning on my veterinary experience quite a bit those first few years, actually. You draw on your own experiences, so it makes sense. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how many things I learned from the clinic that I could apply to parenthood:
1. Your brain can adapt to an obscene level of noise.
Barking dogs, screaming babies, howling cats, ringing phones, all can be intercepted before they hit your cerebrum by some amazing subconscious mom-filter that allows you to get your records completed or bills done. While others may think you oblivious, the truth is you are an amazing compartmentalizer.
2. Multitasking is an art.
Mrs. Jones is on line 3 and will only speak to you, and she insists she will hold. The cat in room 4 is having a seizure. The man in the lobby is yelling at the receptionist about his dog’s worms, something is bleeding in the treatment area but we don’t know who, and you’re still scrubbed into surgery. Getting used to this level of chaos is the only reason I was able to survive the first years of classroom volunteering, PTA politics, work, groceries, and remembering my husband’s name.
3. Blood and poop are things you can get used to.
I don’t think I even need to elaborate on this, do I?
4. The ones who scream the loudest are not the ones you worry about.
If you’re screaming, you’re breathing. It’s the quiet ones you need to check in on, because it usually means one of three things: they stopped breathing, they are getting in a large amount of trouble, or they are about to have a nuclear meltdown. This rule applies to both pets and their owners. And, I learned, to kids.
5. You don’t need to be the best at something. You just need to want it the most.
In a clinic full of creatures without opposable thumbs, it was astonishing to find out how good some of them could get at accomplishments they weren’t supposed to be capable of. Like, how some dogs could patiently sit in a cage for hours and work at a jiggly lever in order to release themselves and merrily run around the treatment area. Or how some cats could push a jar of treats, centimeter by centimeter, all the way across a table until it dumped its chicken-y contents on the floor. They do it because no one told them they couldn’t.
To me this last one is the most important lesson of all. I remind myself of this often, for myself and for my kids. I don’t want them to be the kid who stops trying to open the cage. I want them to be the one who takes the whole thing apart.
I learned, more than anything, to be this dog.
There’s something happening in the animal world, something sticky and kind of ugly, and we need to talk about it.
You learn to spot patterns when you’ve been around long enough, trends that start in one area but quickly pick up steam in your own neck of the woods. And that, my friends, is what I’m bringing up today: the emerging trend of the Social Justice Warrior, and how that relates to people in pet care.
I think it’s pretty clear that I am a big proponent of animal advocacy, from the first blogathons to my work with hospice and this very site, which I’ve written for seven years now in an attempt to keep an open dialogue on important pet topics. I am a huge fan of people who work so very hard and selflessly to make a difference, and this is not who I am speaking of today.
I have also seen a less pleasant side of people, those who use their issue of choice as a shield to build up their own ego and bludgeon others, often at the expense of those very people who are trying to improve the world for others, while tarnishing their own cause by association.
What is an animal social justice warrior, exactly?
While the term “social justice warrior” started gaining momentum with the Gamergate brouhaha specifically in reference to progressive views and speech, the prevailing wisdom is that the term has evolved to encompass a wide array of armchair activists who care less about outcomes and more about dogpiles. No one has specifically defined what it means in our sphere, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it right here.
It matters to us, as animal welfare advocates, healthcare providers, and educators, because we’re often the ones being targeted. Here’s what I’ve observed, over and over:
- It starts from a good place.
Most of the time, people start on a course of advocacy for an issue they truly believe in: maybe it’s ear cropping, or vaccine safety, or feral cat rescue. Good topics that good people can get behind, which is why it is so hard to call them out. But then something goes sideways.
- Facts become less important than emotion as time goes on and the ‘army’ grows.
As momentum builds with a social justice warrior’s campaign, enemies are identified and the followers are called upon to ‘take them down’ on social media, which can be annoying for a large pharmaceutical company but devastating for a small business owner or individual. Sometimes it’s very hard to dispute the ugliness of the original offense (like the guy who killed Cecil the Lion), but other times the dogpile results in something far worse than the original problem: people losing jobs, people erroneously identified as child predators. By the time the error is identified, the damage has been done.
- Methods are as important as ideas.
When a social justice warrior really gets going, they often work to recruit others to the cause. Sometimes those people demur, not because they disagree with the original idea, but because the seek and destroy tactics make them uncomfortable. They become the enemy. There is no allowance to exist in parallel.
- There is no room for discussion.
This is when you know the game is over, so to speak. Are you allowed to point out an erroneous fact? No. Question a topic? No. At this point, the social justice warrior’s ego has become more important than the actual topic at hand, and no amount of reasoning will change their mind. In fact, it only makes them dig their heels in more. You’ve just given them one more ‘enemy’ to bounce off of.
What does this mean for you, the pet lovers of the world?
If you’re the owner of a small business, rescue, or work with an organization, you may find yourself in the crosshairs for some or other perceived wrong. I’ll talk about what does and doesn’t seem to help in another post, because it’s happening more and more.
How to Spot an Animal Social Justice Warrior
But even you, the general audience out there on the web, has a role to play in this. Before joining a cause or supporting an advocate, ask yourself this:
- How do they respond to constructive criticism? With acknowledgment, or anger?
- Do they have a revolving door of bullies who they claim are always trying to silence them? Do they ever talk to someone with an opposing view in a respectful dialogue?
- How do they encourage action? Do they link to legitimate organizations doing real world work, or is it limited to online petitions, reviews, and Facebook arguments?
- What emotions are they playing to? When you look at their page, do you feel empowered to make a positive difference, or just angry at the world?
If you think this is about one person, you’re wrong. I can’t even point to any one in particular because the truth is, there are too many to list. People like this don’t help the causes, they hurt them. They make animal advocates look bad, incapable of compromise, cooperation, and nuance. Be aware, and ask yourself what the real goals are before liking, sharing, or sending money. Real advocacy exists, but this isn’t it.
We still have lots of work to do, but this isn’t the way to do it.
If you haven’t heard the news, we here in Southern California are finally starting to see the effects of the massive, gargantuan El Nino the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. And I think it’s going to be ugly.
Every time we deal with a natural disaster, everyone runs out and gives people tips for preparing and being ready and most people do one or two things but the reality is, there’s only so much time in the day and so many disasters one can prepare for without going full on survivalist. At some point you have to get on with your day and hope you’re not separated from your family when the Big One hits.
The more likely you are to suffer a disaster, the more likely you are to prepare for that particular situation. All Californians know what to do in an earthquake; it’s drilled into us starting with kindergarten (as were nuclear meltdown drills in the 80s when I lived by the San Onofre plant, but in retrospect I’m not sure what good hiding under a desk would have done, really.) The beach roads by my house are helpfully marked with convenient evacuation routes for tsunamis. And after last year, when my kids were whisked out of school while a massive wildfire bore down on my neighborhood, I also revised my wildfire plan.
I figured since I knew what to do for earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, floods, and nuclear core meltdowns, I had all my bases covered and could relax and enjoy the thunder a little without worrying too much, right?
But no one ever taught me what to do about a tornado.
Around noon yesterday, I got a call from my kids’ school that due to the thunder and lightning, they were not letting kids walk out to their parents like they usually do and each of us would have to individually pick up our kids in the car pickup line or park and go into the school. Fine, I thought, and showed up 45 minutes early to get a spot in line.
About 10 minutes after that, I get a panicked text from my daughter that one of her counselors received a tornado warning on her cell phone.
“Don’t worry,” I texted back. “She probably lives out in the boonies somewhere.”
“SHE LIVES HERE,” she texted back, followed by 10 crying emojis.
Then my phone buzzed. “Tornado warning until 3:45 in your area,” it said. “Seek cover immediately.”
Now by this point all the parents in the parking lot are grabbing their buzzing phones like a scene out of a Steven King movie, looking at each other with a quizzical “What the heck does this mean” look. What’s a warning? Does that mean it’s a little windy? Or does it mean an F-3 is bearing down on our little line of cars?
Meanwhile, my daughter- who has been studying geology in school and has a deep and abiding fear of all natural disasters including tsunamis, super volcanos, and the San Andreas fault, is calling me in tears because she got the text as well and now she’s convinced we are all going to die, and I am trying to reassure her everything is fine while a small part of me started thinking about tying myself to the flagpole with a slip lead.
Being the cautious type, I pulled out of the pickup line and parked the car so I could go inside the sturdy concrete environs of the school and join a teeming mass of alarmed parents, none of whom knew what a tornado warning actually meant. A smaller but hardier number remained stubbornly in the parking lot, because in the Southern California school jungle, The Wicked Witch of the East fate is an acceptable risk when it comes to giving up a prime spot in the pickup line.
My daughter requests that we not leave the school grounds until the tornado warning expires, which happens about half an hour later. Most people do not wait, rolling their eyes at the National Weather Services’ overabundance of caution and running off into the winds, umbrellas inside out. I learn later that most of the county schools were ordered to shelter in place, but not us. Fortunately for all involved no tornado actually materialized, because it probably would have eaten up the vast majority of minivans in the region, leaving no one standing but the school principal and us, while my daughter says, “Told you so.”
On the way home, my phone buzzed again. FLASH FLOOD WARNING, it said. STAY INSIDE. There at least was something I knew what to do with. Avoid creeks.
I came home to find poor Brody curled in our laundry room, the only windowless room in the house. My friends in the midwest reassure me that a tornado warning is a big deal and instead of playing Bejeweled in the car one is supposed to run to the center of the house- in my case, our laundry room- and pull a mattress over your head.
My point in all of this is, you can prepare all you want but there’s still always going to be something you just never thought you needed to be able to handle, and that’s probably what is going to get you. And when that happens-
If that happens-
Look to your dog for guidance. He’s the only one with any sense.
My mother was not a great cook. I think she would happily cop to that. She made spaghetti, burnt steak, and stuck underseasoned chicken breasts in the oven until they turned rubbery. Her mother was not a great cook either. She was Irish, so I guess that was part of her legacy to boil everything until it fell apart and all the taste seeped out, or so she claimed.
However, her father was French, so she inherited a different type of culinary genius: boy could she bake. If I had to choose one of the two to excel in, it’s pastry chef every time. Banana bread. Cranberry muffins. Christmas sugar cookies with just the right frosting:cookie ratio. And her New England birthright, the whoopie pie.
Every Christmas, she would bake piles of these little crack blobs and send them to every corner of the States, where otherwise mild-mannered humans would turn into ravenous wolves and tear into them until nothing was left but a small pile of chocolate crumbs and the satisfied groans of bellies bloated with marshmallow creme. And when my kids were older, they took my place up at the counter to learn the great tradition of cookie decorating:
They weren’t bakery perfect, but that’s what made them fun.
Mom would also on occasion bake macaroons, those pasty, blobby coconut things that stick to your teeth and cling to the insides of your esophagus like phlegm. I was not a fan. But one fateful day I wandered into a French bakery and admired the little pastel rows of goodness and light known as French macarons, and everything changed. I picked up a rose flavored one and a lavender one, and I was hooked.
By MachineKeebler (talk).MachineKeebler at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Before they became wildly popular a year or two ago, they were nearly impossible to find, and I decided that the easiest thing to do would be just to learn how to make them myself. Mom was on board too, ready to add a new treat to her repertoire.
Unfortunately, macarons are known as one of the granddaddies of pastry making, a confection as temperamental as an 80s hair band vocalist. Beat the meringue too long? Ruined. Not long enough? Ruined. Also able to ruin them: temperature too high, too low, overmixing, undermixing, high humidity, Mercury in retrograde, wrong rack in oven, playing country music while baking, etc, etc.
It only made me more determined to unlock their secrets, so last year I procured a cookbook, 5 bags of almond flour, and spent an afternoon in the kitchen with my mother ruining macarons.
After 3 or so batches, we were able to get a cookie sheet out of the oven with at least half of them edible, and we considered this a great success.
“Next year,” she said, “We’ll have this down.”
We never did get to practice together after that.
So a couple of weeks ago, with this echoing in my mind, I realized I needed to finish what we started and make some damn macarons. They are not like making a batch of chocolate chip cookies where you screw it up a little, meh, still fine.
Macarons are an event. You need to prepare. You need to think about things. You need to time everything just so, knowing the difference between firm meringue and soft, how many folds it takes before the stiff batter melts into pipable lava, make sure to bang the tray on the counter a few times, you need to rest the cookie before you bake it so you get those little crusty feet. Getting it right is like finding the keyhole into the Misty Mountain, a perfect meeting of all the right tiny details.
And even when you do all of this right, they still get messed up. Sometimes they slant to the left like a manhole askew, sometimes the foot sticks to the pan and all you get is the top half, or they’re overdone and crunchy all the way through. Piles wind up in the trash. And every once in a while you hit the jackpot and get a perfectly done shell, and then- then, it’s magic. Crunchy and chewy and delicate and unlike any other thing out there, and you think to yourself, I have reached nirvana.
Manic Pixie Baker
I went into manic baking mode this week. Between the 3 dozen macarons I took to a cookie exchange (and lost the contest to a BROWNIE, what the heck is that about?), the teacher gifts, the ones my husband wants to bring into work, I can’t keep them in the fridge before they get carted out. Biscoff gingerbread. Pistachio. Cherry cordial. Eggnog. Nutella. I was a macaron machine.
I could have just gone and bought them, I suppose, or picked one of any thousands of easier cookies to make. But there is something special about giving someone a perfectly tied teensy box of macarons that makes a recipient light up- even when the cookies are imperfect, which most of them are. Because you are basically presenting a box that says, “I wasted 40 hours of my life swearing at a bowl of egg whites in order to bring you this,” and when the person squees in delight, you realize it’s not a waste after all.
In the hours I spent in meditative contemplation over a tray of almond meal, it really started to sink in as to why I felt such a need to get it right, to fulfill this promise to my mom that I would nail this cookie in a manner befitting my birthright. Whether or not they came out perfectly was completely beside the point, an added bonus but not necessary.
They are, simply put, a confectionary metaphor for life itself. They’re never going to be perfect. There’s always going to be one more way you can make them better. It takes time and effort and patience to get to the end and it still may not be what you wanted, but oh, even then, it was worth it.
What you bring to the party, and what you give to others from your own heart and hands- it is worth it. Never stop giving.
I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about gratitude, and what it means to me. I was worried that this, the first holiday season without the person who defines it for me, would be horrible and that I would have no interest in celebrating anything. Which is a valid response for sure, but I was hoping I could dredge up enough energy to participate for my kids’ sake.
And then a funny thing happened. I totally was into the whole gratitude thing.
Although my life has had its ups and downs, I would say I’ve been pretty darn lucky, and I’m the first to admit that. This is the first year I’ve had what I consider a truly devastating event, and even that- well, this is part of the human condition. Love and loss, one of the great lessons we learn as humans, one of the great moments for which pets prepare us.
I am grateful for that. I am grateful that my work prepared me for life to the point which I could address loss head on. Sorrow? Yes. Regret? Nope.
I never could have imagined when I started this little blog so many years ago that the people who would show up have turned out to be the most amazing group I have ever met. You have supported me through low points and high (many of which you never even heard about, but trust me, they were there), given me love and encouraged me to fulfill a lifelong dream, allowed me to walk into that bookstore and see my name on a shelf.
I am grateful for readers who, despite a world full of cynics and narcissists, recognize that we are all on the same side. Even when we don’t always agree on the finer points, we all know that hey, we all love animals and do our best in the best way we know how.
Do you realize how amazing that is? How many people spend their lives in anger, drumming up fury over things just because they need something to fill their lives?
We don’t need to do that, because we have all we need. And that frees us up to experience life in all its beauty, pain, and love. Your support and encouragement has in turn given me even more compassion for the people I meet every day, and that is such a gift.
This is the lesson our pets give us every day, and we carry it with us out of our homes and into our interactions with everyone around us.
It is a beautiful thing.
And I am thankful.
The internet was abuzz this week with word about the changes to Delta’s pet flying policy. And as tends to happen, people got about 75% of the way there before they took a sharp left turn and read it incorrectly. Here is what you need to know:
1. Headlines saying “Delta no longer allowing pets as cargo” are wrong.
As of March 1, 2016 pets will no longer be allowed as checked baggage. This does not mean pets over 30 pounds will be allowed in the cabin. It means they must fly as cargo, which is different than baggage. (More on that in a minute.) The exceptions to this rule will be active duty military travelling to new posts, and certified support animals.
2. The in-cabin policies have not changed.
Pets under 30 pounds have always been allowed to travel as carry-on in approved carriers. This policy does not affect that at all, nor does it allow animals into the cabin that it did not before.
3. Delta Cargo is probably going to be a lot safer for the pet than travelling as baggage.
When a pet is to travel, airlines require a health certificate signed by a veterinarian. One of the worst parts for me is when they require a “statement of acclimation“, stating that a pet is acclimated to temperatures above or below a certain range. I live in San Diego. Pets don’t get acclimated to 45 degrees here.
Even if you are flying a pet from San Diego to Miami, if there is a layover in Denver then the pet may be exposed to extreme temperatures during that period, and that is where trouble usually happens. No matter how you plan, delays and problems occur and most problems happen on the ground.
You would be surprised at the number of people who get upset when I say, “This isn’t safe for your pet. I can’t sign this statement.” Most do not agree to delay travel. They just find another vet willing to take on the liability. 74 pets died on Delta flights in the last ten years.
In cargo, pets will be in temperature controlled holds at all times in air and on the ground, not sitting on the tarmac in the rain and snow (it happens). They will also utilize professional kennel services if overnight stays become necessary. While airlines do temperature and pressure control luggage holds, cargo areas often have a separate controlled temperature area specifically for temperature sensitive cargo, and this is where pets will go.
4. It’s going to be a pain.
- There is no guarantee you and your pet will be on the same flight
- It’s probably going to be more expensive
- The pickup and drop off locations will probably be somewhere other than baggage claim
United has a similar plan in place already if you’re wondering how this will probably look. PetSafe costs in the $200-$2000 range and they have a long list of restrictions for breeds, most notably brachycephalic breeds. (But English Bulldogs shouldn’t be flying in cargo ever anyway.) In short, you’re going to have to REALLY want to travel with your pet.
5. Plan ahead.
Have your ducks in a row in terms of appropriate kennels, health requirements, and travel dates. International travel with pets can require a TON of work. To make it even more fun, domestic travel cannot be booked more than 14 days ahead of time. Those people who start thinking about this stuff a week before they’re supposed to depart are going to be in for a major surprise.
You can read the original Delta blog post here.
The liability of pets in luggage compartments has been a headache for veterinarians and airlines for many years, so I can’t complain about this. Whether this change is due to a genuine concern for pets, bad PR, or financial liability doesn’t really matter to me- all I care about is the fact that this is a good change for travelling pets.
So by now you’ve all seen the videos, right? A person places a cucumber behind a cat who’s blissfully chomping away on some food. The cat turns around, spots the sinister gourd, and jumps about five feet in the air.
The first thing that happened was that a bunch of people thought it was funny and shared it all over the internet.
The second thing that happened was a bunch of experts chimed in warning about how this wasn’t a benign thing, that cats could be permanently scarred, and that people should not do this to their own cats. The Huffington Post called on a cat behaviorist for advice. The AVMA put out a position statement on the controversial topic.
The third thing that happened was another group of people shared the second group’s warnings and began fighting with the first group of people who thought it was funny, and now we have CucumberGate.
Now granted, while I don’t think intentionally scaring other people or animals is a particularly nice thing to do, is it really worth getting all that upset about? Does one startle cause permanent psychological damage?
I unintentionally scare the crap out of my dog every day. Whether it’s a belt on the floor or the vacuum, he worries. Then he gets over it. My kids have been traumatized by Santa Claus from birth until age at least age 5. The first couple of times it was unintentional, then I knew what was coming and did it anyway because #tradition. They still say Christmas is their favorite holiday.
I didn’t have any cucumbers in the house this morning, so I took out a zucchini. I felt comfortable doing this for a couple reasons- first, Penelope is a fearless cat. Second, she’s been watching me cut up zucchini for months now and I thought it was an acceptable risk. As you can see, she didn’t give two hoots, which is exactly what I assumed would happen. If she did get startled, well, I guess I would be a horrible person, but it wouldn’t be the first time I made the wrong call.
- People who don’t think it’s funny aren’t humorless doofs. It’s good to care.
- People who do think it’s funny aren’t sadistic psychopaths.
Unless you’re saying world famous animal advocate and voice of Dory herself is a psychopath, then we’re all screwed:
Yeah, it’s not the kindest way to conduct yourself, but life goes on, right? While I have no problem with people voicing a little, “hey, maybe this isn’t the nicest thing,” I worry when people call something like this animal abuse because we animal lovers have a hard time getting taken seriously sometimes as it is.
I struggle with “that’s not nice” getting conflated with “abuse”, because if that’s where we’re drawing the line I have a few Christmas photos I need to burn before CPS sees them. And so do about 9000 people on Awkward Family Photos.
I was certain when I had kids that my motherhood chip would finally kick in, that I would finally start to react to babies the way I reacted to dogs and cats. Because surely that maternal instinct in my heart had merely been misdirected all these years, and was simply in need of a little oxytocin and fine-tuning to point it to the appropriate species upon which I should lavish my affection.
Now my kids are 11 and 9 and I can say this with absolute certainty: not so much.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids, I love being their mom, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Well, I could, especially on certain days when the attitude is dialed to 11, but I much prefer it the way things are.
My daughter was helping clean up after Emmett when she was 5. I’d say this reflects brilliantly on my parenting but her desire to help lasted till she was about 6. :)
As in, I don’t want more kiddos and never have. When my friends go into Babies R Us to pick out a shower gift, they sigh and say, “Don’t you miss those days?”
And I, inspecting the newest Diaper Genie version and wondering if it would work for cat litter, reply honestly: “No.” I was exhausted and overwhelmed the entire time from 2004-2011 or so.
When I see a pregnant woman waddling by and others remark on her glow, I think about how sweaty she must be, or if her bladder hurts as much as mine did, or if she has complete strangers lift their hands up in shock and go “WHOA!” when she turns around in her ninth month of pregnancy with a 9 pound son and they get a glimpse of the battleship of an abdomen.
Motherhood has changed me in some ways: I look at people’s new babies and I smile. But I don’t need to hold them. I am so, so, SOOOOOO much more compassionate about people with babies on planes. I hold doors for parents with strollers trying to get through. That sort of thing. And I look upon it with nostalgia, but not a lick of longing. No pun intended.
When I was getting my hair done a while back, a woman came in with a duckling. I lost my head at the cuteness and almost lost my hair too because I kept jumping out of the chair to squee. I went home and tried to get my husband, once more, to agree to raising a couple chickens (he said no.)
A woman at my gym brings her chihuahua in on occasion. I never get anything done when she does. (My husband has also said no to a chihuahua.)
The point is less that he said no to more animals and more the fact that I want them, the way I imagine some mothers must see a baby sleeping in a stroller and say to herself, “Oh, I wish I just had one more.”
This morning as I was walking by a cafe, I spotted a family with a black lab sitting at a table about 50 feet away. The dog and I locked eyes, and before I knew it I was on the ground laughing getting dog kisses as the family grinned. I don’t remember how many people there were or what they looked like but the dog was a boy, black labrador, about 50 pounds, with a blocky head and the tiniest bit of grey peeking around his muzzle. He is 9, his name is Brock, and he likes to lay down with his legs splayed behind him.
As I lamented about my hopelessness to my friend Jen, she remarked, “You just have a fuzzy heart is all.” And I think she’s right.
I’m also pretty sure it’s genetic.
Tending to Brody on the day of his pinnectomy.
I have a theory. I think that when we get a pet, they grab a piece of our heart and give us a bit of theirs in return. It’s how we will find them on the other side. And the older I get, the more pieces get replaced; my heart is getting furrier and furrier, and it’s made not only of my own pets but the clients I adore, my friends’ animals I have loved, the strangers like Brock who know just where to find it.
A special day calls for a special ear. And a poem, of course.
Trick or treat!
I lick feet.
Give me something that has meat!
If you don’t, just beware-
I’ll eat up your underwear!
Have a great day and be safe all! I get to go see Danny Elfman perform the Nightmare Before Christmas tonight at the Hollywood Bowl so I’ve got Jack Skellington on the mind 😀
Dear Amazing Veterinary Technicians of the World,
It’s sad that you only get one week to celebrate you and all that you do. The unsung heroes, the client counselors, absorbers of abuse, veterinary emotional support offerers, and in general people without whom these clinics would fall to pieces.
I’d like to offer to you this week an open apology for the transgressions of my past years.
- I ate the last M&M. I’m sorry. I know now you probably hadn’t eaten in 12 hours and really needed it. I also know you figured it out and let it slide.
- I actually wasn’t being helpful when I said I would clean that kennel. Thanks for being gracious. I saw you go back in later and do it correctly.
- When you couldn’t hit a vein and asked me to and I said “Try again! Practice makes perfect!” that was only because I knew if you couldn’t hit it, there was no way I could.
- I now know that your gentle suggestions are not really suggestions. I should have listened the first 15 times you were right.
- If it were not for you I would have walked into 45 exam rooms with my sunglasses on top of my head.
- When I left the room after that really hard euthanasia to “see my next appointment,” I went into the back to cry and left you alone with that sweet elderly lady because you were better at this stuff that me.
- For all the times you took care of me and looked out for my mental well-being, I rarely did the same for you. If I did, it wasn’t enough.
These days I work solo, and to be honest every day I head out I wonder to myself if I couldn’t come up with a business model that allows me to have you along. Because I need you. As I sit in a living room looking in horror at a vein that will not cooperate, I need you.
When I see a little kid making a beeline for the syringes and I only have two hands when I need three, I need you.
When there is a mess and I need to be graceful and take care of it with no one noticing instead of asking the owners if they have any paper towels, I need you.
When it’s been a rough afternoon and I could use a friend to talk to, I need you.
You all are the heartbeat of the clinic. Thank you.
In 2014, a young, vibrant woman named Brittany Maynard moved from the home in California she had known all her life so that she could die on her own terms in Oregon. Diagnosed with glioblastoma, arguably one of the most monstrous forms of cancer in this world, Maynard was willing to uproot her life, put her face out into the world, and share a most intimate decision with a universe of strangers in order to help people understand why someone might make the decision to hasten their death.
With little fanfare and no more than a small sidebar in the local newspaper, California has just become the fifth state to legalize assisted death for terminally ill patients. When I read it, on a plane on my way to deliver a talk on how we deal with death in our culture, I cried. I cried for Maynard, and for my mother (seen here on the left at last year’s Fourth of July bash), and for me.
Like so many others, I was transfixed with Maynard’s bravery in opening herself up to scrutiny and criticism. I put myself in her place and wondered what I would have done in the same situation. As a veterinarian who routinely helps people gently end the lives of pets suffering from terminal disease, the idea is not as challenging to me as it is to many. Especially with brain cancer- something that can rob you of the essence of who you are, turn you into someone else, snaking its way without order or reason through your control panel until your body can no longer hang on.
It is, to me, one of the most petrifying propositions out there.
So when my own young and vibrant mother was diagnosed with the very same cancer not five months after Maynard’s death, I fell to my knees and cried with grief, with anger, and above all with terror. For we, too, live in California, and my mother’s delicate health by the time she was diagnosed did not allow us the luxury of moving anywhere. Three weeks before her diagnosis, she was hiking though Red Rock. Three weeks after, she was bedbound. It happened that quickly.
My entire family was focused on my dear Aunt Michele’s mobility, and no one knew what was brewing with my Mom.
I found myself preoccupied with fear for my mother, and worry about what I might do if her pain and suffering were unable to be controlled. Hospice and palliative care is excellent, but even that has its limits. People I thought were my friends sent me all sorts of horror stories they have heard about this cancer, expressing remorse at the news and the hope that my mother, ever so dignified, would not be one who would lose it all in the fugue of neoplasia.
I am really good at delivering an easy death. I have access to drugs no one else can get, and they are remarkable. We can give them to dogs and cats and rats and horses, but not to people. People have to ride it out on cocktails with middling degrees of efficacy. Our own perceptions make it worse: more than half of palliative care professionals have been accused of “euthanasia or murder” by providing adequate palliation to dying people, because euthanasia for a pet is mercy but for a human is dastardly. We have a long way to go in how we think of these things.
Fearing the Loss of Control
Instead of concentrating on my time with my mother, I spent most of it worrying- what would I do if the meds stopped working? How would I respond if she asked me to help her die? How could I refuse? How could I say yes? I had no reassurance that the necessary tools to control the situation were in my toolbox, and that took away from so many little moments I wish I could have back.
In the end, my mother’s cancer took mercy on her. She died quickly, as she wished, and never once complained of pain. She forgot things, felt sleepy, and drifted off oh so gently into that good night. It was a blessing, strange as it sounds. She willed herself to progress the way she wanted.
Had we been given access to life ending drugs, she would likely have filled the prescription.
Had she filled the prescription, secure in the knowledge that she had some control, she would not have taken them. There is no doubt in my mind. She didn’t need them. It doesn’t change my mind one bit as to their necessity, doesn’t make me any less inclined to cheer this new law and fight any who would seek its appeal. It would not have changed the medicine, but it would have changed the emotion, the fear, and the terror.
Because it’s not the inevitability of the outcome that matters in these situations, it’s the little bits of control we are given in times where so much of it has been taken away.
And that would have changed so much.
The fire came in the night, a storm without warning.
At his home in Middletown, a small town of 1900 just north of California’s idyllic wine country, veterinarian Jeff Smith ventured outside after the worst had passed to find only 8 of the 20 homes in his neighborhood survived the firestorm. With communication centers down, there was no way to determine when help was coming.
He had no way of knowing what he was up against, or the fact that by this time only 40% of the structures in town would still be standing. All he knew was that his community was leveled. So Dr. Smith hopped in his truck and went to work.
The Middletown Animal Clinic, surrounded by gravel that resists catching fire, was miraculously intact. Dr. Smith pulled bales of hay from his feed storage and small buckets to place in his truck, dumping bales of hay and water wherever he could find live animals. The fencing was all gone, burned along with everything else.
Severe wildfires can create their own wind system, creating fingers of flame twirling up to the sky and blowing gales of cinders across roads to catch entire neighborhoods aflame. Dr. Grant Miller, another local veterinarian who serves as Unit Director of the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, was finally allowed in to Middletown the following morning.
“It’s apocalyptic,” Miller said. “It dissolved the entire town of Middletown. The things we saw on the way in…” he pauses. “I can’t even tell you.” With the arrival of a generator and supplies, Smith opened the doors to his clinic and vowed to treat any animal who needed it, for free.
With hundreds of miles of power lines down and roads closed to all but essential emergency personnel for days, the animals were initially left to fend for themselves. Smith treated the many burned and injured animals brought to him, but with the arrival of more veterinary volunteers, teams were able to venture into the area to look for more.
With the small reprieve of rain one day, Miller is convinced it saved the lives of many animals the teams had yet to find. “By God’s good grace it rained an entire inch, and provided some water to these stranded animals. When they’re burned they have insensible losses through their skin. I am in awe of these animals.”
Eight days after the flames, “we’re still pulling animals in,” said Miller. “At first it was a lot of sheep and goats, then steady numbers of dogs and cats. Now we’re finding horses and cows. They’re still finding cats alive in melted cars.”
Teams from the nearby University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine assisted with the treatment and are taking the most severely injured animals in. “UC Davis has taken in over 70 burned animals- mostly cats,” Miller said. “They are functioning as a referral center. I just arranged transport for a puppy. They’ve been amazing.”
The Valley Fire now ranks in the top 3 worst fires in California history; at last tally, almost 2000 structures were destroyed. Lake County is California’s poorest county, says Miller, with an average income of about $35,000. “They were economically depressed to begin with,” Miller says, “and now they’ve lost everything.”
In the face of this disaster, Smith vowed to treat all these animals without cost for as long as their injuries require, an estimated 4-6 months.
“Burns are not easy injuries to manage,” says Miller. “His clinic is going to be the last option when everything else is gone.” When the camera crews leave and immediate disaster response withdraws, this community still will need all the support they can get.
Miller pauses again to reflect on the long road ahead, or maybe just from the exhaustion of four hours of sleep every night for a week. “You look at these animals, and you know how much they have suffered. You just want so badly to turn things around for them, and you would move heaven and earth to make it happen.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for donations to sustain the Middletown Animal Hospital during this period. In addition, Wells Fargo is accepting donations at any location nationwide to Wells Fargo Account, #2872526005.
All photos courtesy Dr. Grant Miller. Used with permission.
Dr. Jeff Smith, Middletown Animal Hospital
Some photos may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.
A mobile home reduced to rubble.
Trucks with much needed hay languish on the side of the highway due to road closure
With little fencing remaining, surviving animals were left to fend for themselves.
Middletown Veterinary Hospital treats all animals.
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