In April 2015, Kristen Lindsey, DVM, shot a cat through the head with an arrow and then posted a picture on Facebook with the following caption:
“My first bow kill … lol. The only good feral tomcat is one with an arrow through it’s [sic] head! Vet of the year award … gladly accepted.”
These facts are not in dispute. Why she did it, however, is. This is why she is currently testifying in an administrative hearing in order to try and keep her veterinary license. At its heart is the question, “Is there any justifiable reason for her to have done that?”
The answer is no. It is an unequivocal no.
I have avoided commenting on the topic because once the image went viral, the reaction was swift and potent. She has received death threats and her family has been harassed. What she did was horrific and wrong, and sending death threats is also horrific and wrong, and I didn’t want to embolden the sentiment that might encourage one more person to do so.
I have yet to read a single sentiment from the veterinary community that attempts to defend Lindsey. What I have read, and it reflects my own views, is that her actions are utterly condemnable and she needs to be removed from the profession. Physically attacked or threatened? No.
But Please, Please Go Away
The reason I am speaking on this now is to clarify the position that just because many of us have not clamored to do the same to Lindsey as she did to (what most presume to be) Tiger, this does not mean we want anything to do with her in the profession.
This was a career-ending action. There is no place in this field for a colleague who thinks it is 1. appropriate to do this in the first place and 2. post it on social media. There just isn’t.
Had she simply disappeared under the radar and gone on to find a job in a non animal-related field, I would never have even written about the case. But she didn’t. She is fighting to keep her license. The VIN News Service is sharing the testimony on Facebook and it is alternatively sad and horrible and infuriating.
She is continuing to try and justify her actions based on what she thought the cat was (feral, intact, rabid, it keeps morphing.) There are no justifying conditions.
She is arguing that if she loses her Texas license, she will not be able to get licensed anywhere else, that she is unemployable. That is a consequence she brought upon herself. The only remorse she has expressed is for herself.
She has forced a hearing at which the presumptive owners of Tiger have to come in with lawyers, be cross-examined, and again view what happened to the cat. She is continuing to cause distress to these people by forcing them to participate in this hearing.
I will continue to state forcefully and with great passion that I do not think violence, or even threats of violence, are an appropriate response to a violent act. But I will also state forcefully and with great passion that Dr. Lindsey, we do not want you in our profession representing what we work so hard to do every day to better the lives of people and animals.
It doesn’t really matter what the board decides in terms of your license, I highly doubt you will ever practice again. So please, for the sake of everyone involved, please- stop this fight to stay within the field. You’ve already shown yourself out.
What do you get when you cross a Dr V with an Apple pencil? (Aside from bad art, but that goes without saying.) A new set of cartoons, that’s what!
When I was in vet school, I was (rightfully) proud of my fledgling career choice. I shouted it from the rooftops: I’m about to be a vet! It’s so cool! Check it out! Tell me everything about your guinea pig!
But of course, with age comes both wisdom and boundaries, as well as an understanding that many people lack both. So without further ado, here are but three of the many reasons that I avoid telling people what I do unless absolutely necessary.
And before you ask, yes, all three have happened to me.
When I was in college, I decided to conquer my fear of drowning by getting certified in scuba diving. In retrospect, I really had no business being there, but I guess that’s what your twenties is for.
At one point during the training, you have to take your mask entirely off and then get it back on. No biggie, right? I was not a water person and had no idea what was going to happen. When I removed it from my face, my nose filled with water and I found I couldn’t inhale through my regulator. My throat was just closed up.
Of course, I panicked. My instinct was to leap up to the top of the pool as quickly as possible and grab a breath of air, but I forced myself to take a moment, realize the problem, and plug my nose so I could get the mask back on and pass the test. But I never forgot the sheer terror of that first moment when your body is screaming at you, “You’re DROWNING you fool! Fly!”
Lots of diving safety training is about how to get safely to the surface when the poop hits the fan, and one of the most important tenets is to work your way slowly and methodically through your problem so you can surface slowly. Running out of oxygen at depth is a big one. If you come up from the depths too quickly, you risk the bends- when dissolved gases turn into bubbles inside your body as the pressure changes. It’s Not A Good Thing. Remaining calm in a trying moment a good skill to have not just in diving, but in life.
Of all the scary things I have been through since then, the near-misses in the car or the dropped pedicles on a fat dog spay, none hit me with that same physical sense of drowning until one year ago, when I got the news out of the blue that my mother had a brain tumor. I was more than scared. I was terrified. I felt like someone had dropped a weight directly on my lap and plunged me down to the bottom of the ocean.
I get why people tend to freeze, or run in circles when things go haywire. The adrenaline does weird things to your body, and it takes real conscious effort to talk yourself off the ledge. I get now why people flip tables and throw things and run off to the Yukon when it gets to be too much, but of course all that happens when the dust settles is you’re left with a new mess to deal with.
When my mother got sick, that temptation to rush to the surface took the form of the blind panic we get when a loved one is facing death: DO EVERYTHING! Biopsy it now! Chemo! Nuke it! GOGOGOGOGOGOGO. It would have been a mistake.
When she died, I held my breath and prayed my father wouldn’t sell the house immediately and disappear to the woods of Maine (he didn’t.) It would have been a mistake.
It’s been a year of slow surfacing, realizing that like many toxic substances in your body, some types of grief simply need to leach out with time. You really can’t come up before you’re ready.
Last year I gave a talk on mourning customs around the world, and I was struck by the fact that so many belief systems have a structure and framework for mourning, but Christianity, the predominant belief system many of us are most familiar with, has none. In Judaism, the mourning period is divided into the first seven days, the first 30, and the first year. The rules about what you should and should not do during each period serves to protect the grieving heart and also give permission to re-enter the new normal of their life. It’s like a decompression chart for death. Unintentionally I’ve been bobbing along on the same timeframe, getting guidance where I can.
In January, my sister surprised us with the happy news that she decided to get married earlier that day to her long-time partner and soulmate. My mom loved this guy and I knew two things: 1. She would be thrilled; and 2. She would find a way to give them a cake, because that is what my mom did.
My aunt was planning her yearly trip to my sister’s hometown of Vegas right around Easter, and sensing the same need as I did for some sort of event, managed to arrange a surprise get-together of the family this last weekend, complete with- of course- a wedding cake. You surprise us with a marriage, we surprise you with a reception. It’s what Mom would have done.
As we sat together in my cousin’s living room, laughing and sniffling, I looked around and realized this was the first time we had all gathered since my mother’s memorial service. And right then, as if an invisible hand swept by and grabbed me by the shoulders, I realized I had just popped to the surface.
There’s such a sense of relief to that first intake of air, and in that moment, as the tension you forgot was there leaches out of your muscles, nothing else matters. The sky looks different, time has passed, but you’re here, you’re still here, and sometimes, that alone is enough.
The phone rings, and I answer it with an admittedly impatient voice since someone sold my phone number to a marketer and I’ve been getting deluged with spam calls all week. I have the phone in one hand and Brody’s tail in the other, as he chewed up his bandage when I wasn’t looking and now I have to re-wrap the whole thing.
It’s Chaplain Gary this time, calling as he does, every few months, to see how I am doing.
I met him once, when he came to the house to talk to the kids when my mom was sick and give them a book. They sat looking at their hands, not sure what they were supposed to say to the stranger who was trying to get them to open up about their fears.
“We’re fine,” they say, because that is what they see me say. It is what all New Englanders learn to do from a young age, saying they’re fine even when their house is on fire, their leg has fallen off and one eyeball is hanging by a stalk. “Fine fine, under control, it’s fine.”
“I just was wondering how you guys were doing with the anniversary coming up,” he says. Ah yes, Easter, the last holiday we shared together as a family, the week before my mom’s seizure changed everything and brought our charmed existence to a screeching halt.
“Fine,” I say, “We’re hanging in.” Brody forgets his distress over his tail and puts his head in my lap, sensing the tension in my voice.
The chaplain calls because it is his job, and I am grateful he is there, but he’s not the one I want to talk to. He cares, but he doesn’t know me. When I see a butterfly zip by out of the corner of my eye and I’m hit with a wave of sadness, I want to talk to my sister. When I wake up from a dream where I’ve been out with my mom doing the little mundane things we always used to do- grabbing a Starbucks, pawing through the racks at Marshalls for a deal, I want my husband to hold me when I explain why I woke up crying. When I greet my Dad on Sundays and we both look at each other a little lost, I want Brody to come up and bully him into giving him treats, because that’s one of the few consistent ways to get a smile.
Grief is a family affair, and we’ve completely forgotten how to do that as a society.
Loss: The elephant in the room
When I started with Paws into Grace, I thought it was such a great boon to offer people a comprehensive list of pet loss support groups, counselors, social workers, psychiatrists. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing, but I was naively surprised when people almost universally declined to use their services. They are there to fill the void of a support system we no longer have and to help those in crisis, but it doesn’t replace our innate desire to turn inward during these times, to those close to us.
I gave a talk last year at a hospice conference about grief around the world, and one universal commonality was the ritual of community, surrounding families like a cocoon as they healed, giving structure and a safe place surrounded by friends to fall apart and, slowly, rebuild. Most important of all, the cocoon, the safe space, comes to the family- not the other way around. It takes a lot of energy to be sad, and who wants to do that in a strange place like a church basement, surrounded by other strangers, when you could be at home in a Snuggie close to the coffee pot and your dog.
I was at Western Vet Conference this week, and I ran into my friend Bill, who even in a rush to get to his upcoming afternoon of talks took a moment to say, “I’ve been thinking of you.” That meant more to me than 50 calls from the stranger chaplain. This is how it’s supposed to work, right?
When someone near to us loses a loved one, it seems these days that our instinct is to run away instead of to them. It is, I think, because we’re scared, we don’t know what to do, and no one has taught us how to scrape someone off the pavement. We don’t want them to know we’ve seen them upset.
We’ve made grief pathological, something ‘wrong’ that needs to be fixed by a professional, implying that we are somehow broken for having felt it. We’re so removed from this part of living that we can’t even manage the basics of grieving, needing booklets and chaplains and groups to manage even the simple things like, “am I normal to feel sad.”
As always, I keep trying to file these tidbits away into something useful for my own work, and in this case it’s dawned on me that it’s not the person who lost a pet who needs the guidance, but their family and friends. It’s a work in progress but it feels right, just as it’s a reminder to me how to be a better friend. I know 3 friends who lost a parent this year, and countless more who lost other beloved pets and family members. One little note from a friend, a Facebook message or a mailed card, means more than 50 calls from a stranger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ever since I started this blog, and even moreso since writing All Dogs Go to Kevin, people write to tell me about their pets who are no longer with them.
They used to apologize for writing, or say they weren’t even sure why they were telling me about their pet, but most people don’t do that anymore. I think they know that they don’t need to explain.
As followers of the blog know, I love birthdays. Birthdays are fun, and I love love love that my birthday coincides with National Dog Day. I always celebrate. This year, though, I could barely be bothered. It was so bad that I got a card in the mail last week from a relative and it took me a full minute to figure out why, exactly, she was sending me one. It was more than not feeling like celebrating, it was as if my brain consciously turned it off.
Part of me wondered if it was because I was finally getting sick of getting older, if my rotten back and increasing-in-number doctor’s appointments were finally clueing me in that birthdays stink. I went about my routine for the day, ran some errands, and came home to scrounge up something to eat for lunch.
And then I understood.
I have never in my life spent my birthday day by myself. Mom never would have let that happen. With the kids in school and my husband at work, it would have been inconceivable to her that I would eat lunch by myself, and we would go out. Always. Today, however, I was alone, and in that moment all the little sadnesses that piled up just felt like more than I was ready to hold.
So when people asked me how my birthday was, I said, “meh,” because it was true, and then I said, “I really miss my mom.” It probably was not the answer they were expecting or really knew what to do with, but it was honest and I had to say it.
2008/03/12 Hot Potato by Jason Taellious under Creative Commons license
Because grief is like a hot potato burning in your hands. If you don’t toss it up in the air to give your hands a break every once in a while, they get burned, and then you drop it and then have to pick it up with blistered fingers. The need to let go of what you are holding onto, for just a second, is all that lets you continue to carry it around.
So when people write, I get it, I really do. Because while many people look at someone walking down the street tossing a hot potato in the air like they’re nuts, wondering why they can’t just put it down, I just nod. It is too terrible and precious to throw away; all you can do is wait for it to cool down. It will.
As a veterinarian, I’ve seen lots of cancers: lymphoma. Melanoma. Osteosarcoma. Hemangiosarcoma. Mast cell tumors. Wait, those are just my own dogs I’m talking about. When I factor in my clients, I think I’ve seen it all.
Dogs get cancer, at very high rates: about 50% of senior dogs die of it, if the statistics are to be believed. Why? Well, if you read overly simplified, graphics-intensive websites by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about, they will tell you that they know why cancer happens: GMOs. Preservatives. Kibble. Microwaves.
I wish it were that simple. It’s not. And the reason that line of thought drives me nuts is that it has sent so many lovely people into spirals of depression when their dog dies and someone on the internet convinced them it was their fault because they, the owner, did something terrible like feed their dog kibble or use a plastic bowl. People end up in therapy because of things like this.
Cancer is not a singular diagnosis; the type and breath of neoplastic disease means there’s often little resemblance from case to case; a transmissible venereal tumor bears very little resemblance to a splenic hemangiosarcoma. If we could pinpoint cancer to one cause, we’d all be rich. And yet, with all this secret knowledge, overall cancer rates aren’t budging.
Because I love a breed known for having one of the highest rates of cancer (is it the fact that Golden Retriever owners feed worse food overall? Or is it genetics?) I watch Brody pretty closely. Knowing that 60% of Goldens get cancer in their lifetime, I spend a lot of time inspecting him for lumps. As we speak, the largest observational study of its kind is currently underway to help us better understand what’s going on. In the meantime, you do the best you can but truthfully, there’s not a whole lot of ability to predict and prevent cancer. Even for the people who home cook organic food (sorry. Do it because you want to, not because it will make your dog live forever.)
You can save money (and life expectancy) by doing some simple things:
Knowing he is an at-risk breed, I do what I can to try and keep Brody healthy. When he gained too much weight on his food, I got the weight off. Obesity is thought to be a risk factor for cancer. Just as importantly, I get his bumps evaluated and when I find one, I don’t mess around.
The dog eats like a king; I give him the good stuff because I care about quality ingredients, though not enough to condemn people who can’t afford it. But even with his high end diets, at age 6, he’s on his second cancer. The first one, a melanoma, was excised two years ago and has yet to recur- because we caught it early. And now we have this: a little teeny ear lump.
I thought it was no big deal, but I got it evaluated anyway. See? We vets do it too. A lump is a lump is a lump. Until you get it microscopically evaluated, you just don’t know. I just got the call last week: it’s a mast cell tumor.
I’m thrilled we got this diagnosis
Am I thrilled Brody has a mast cell tumor? Of course not. They stink. Despite the fact that the visible mass is only half a centimeter, this type of tumor has tons of microscopic disease and is notorious for requiring huge surgical margins for a complete excision. For that little tiny tic-tac mass on his ear, he is very likely going to need to lose his entire pinna. (I’m getting a surgical consult this week.)
However, losing an ear is minor compared to where these things end up when people wait. You can lose an ear, but you can’t lose an entire head, for example. This is small beans compared to what lots of pets need to go through later in the game when masses grow. If we get a complete excision, this should be a closed case. And guess what? It’s so much cheaper than tons of radiation and chemo and massive surgeries. Win-win for the dog and your wallet. I’m not happy he has it, but I’m happy I know now, early.
Why wait? Aspirate that shizz!!
What one thing can you do to guarantee your pet won’t get cancer? There isn’t one.
What you can do is maximize their chances of survival and recovery: Don’t mess around. Dr. Sue Ettinger, veterinary oncologist and all-around brilliant person, has an initiative called Why Wait Aspirate that is as simple as can be: when a vet tells you that a lump is ok to “just watch”, what does that mean? When do you do more than watch it? Here’s Dr. Sue’s guidelines*:
ASPIRATE OR BIOPSY IT!
Easy peasy, no pun intended. Of all the things you can do to help your pet live long and live healthy, none matters more than early detection.
*Photo Credits: Calendar by Michael Hyde, Flickr Creative Commons license; Peas by Isabel Eyre, Flickr Creative Commons License