About four years ago, a coworker at a summer job informed me that the animal hospital she also worked for was looking to hire a fill-in animal care technician for shifts that needed to be covered. As a college student who needed another source of income and who loved animals, I thought it sounded like the perfect job.
My list of job responsibilities is nearly endless and continues to grow. I sort these responsibilities into three categories: not very rewarding, somewhat rewarding, and very rewarding.
The not very rewarding category includes responsibilities such as laundry, cleaning up the many bodily fluids that our animal clients often leave as gifts, opening and stocking awkward and heavy bags of food, and opening and stocking medications.
The somewhat rewarding category includes responsibilities such as helping the doctors and technicians with tasks such as assisting in appointments, taking blood and x-rays, occasionally helping with surgery, and cleaning. (What can I say? There is something satisfying about sweeping up a floor full of hair.)
The only thing in the very rewarding category is animal care. It is by far the most rewarding aspect of my job, but it is also the most challenging. I become easily attached. I genuinely care about the animals that come in and I do everything in my power to help them. I see the sadness and pain in their eyes and my instinct is to comfort and save them, which isn’t always possible. I set myself up to get hurt every day, but I can’t help it.
When an animal dies, it is especially hard if they were hospitalized and in my care right before they passed. I diligently care for them — making sure they are comfortable, their cages are clean, force feeding if they will not eat, and keeping an eye on them to make sure they are doing okay. I am naturally a pessimistic person. Yet somehow, I am optimistic that all will survive — perhaps it is a just defense mechanism.
As much as it hurts to watch an animal die, or to be present when it is euthanized, it is much worse when I come in to work and learn than an animal died overnight. Knowing that it passed away alone and not at home with its family magnifies the loss.
At my job, we offer cremation services. We can send out the bodies to be cremated; whether or not you get the ashes back is optional. If cremation is chosen, the animals need to be bagged and put in a freezer until they are picked up for cremation. Bagging an animal is never a pleasant experience, but it becomes so much harder after having cared for the animal beforehand.
Often, I will volunteer to bag the animals. Is this torturous? Yes. It is horrible to know that you are the person who is putting essentially a member of one’s family into a bag, where it will then be put into a freezer. I prefer to carry the bodies out to the freezer when they are still warm. Although I know they are gone, it somehow feels like there is life left in them when they are still warm. Anything that is less than 40 pounds I will hold in my arms as I carry them to the freezer. I do this unpleasant task because I know I am always careful to place the animals in the bag with gentle care. I can look at it as one final act of kindness.
Despite the fact that I will offer to bag an animal, I prefer that they are taken home for burial. There is something comforting in the thought that an animal is going home with its owners, rather than being stored in a freezer until it’s picked up for cremation services.
A nice option that we offer at the end of an animal’s life is an item called clay paws. We make a clay saucer, and then push your animal’s paw into it so you have an impression of the paw (children often do these in kindergarten with their hand prints). This may seem like a simple task, and sometimes it is, but more often than not, the paws do not come out perfect on the first try. Some parts will be deep, others will barely show, some push out awkwardly and the paw looks unnatural, and really, the list goes on and on. It is very hard to get a beautiful paw print. I will redo these ten times if it means giving a grieving pet owner a perfect clay paw. I am aware that this is all that is left of a cherished life.
The loss of an animal is extremely difficult, but what is harder to deal with is the suffering. It makes me so angry (and I know I am not alone in this, all of my coworkers will agree) when people let their animals suffer, and refuse to put them to sleep because they aren’t ready to let go. There comes a point when sick animals will not recover, but some people hold on too long. A few weeks ago I went into work and overheard two technicians talking. This simple conversation says it all.
Technician 1: “What are we doing with Ellen’s* cat?”
Technician 2: “Watching it die.”
We can attempt to make a terminally ill animal comfortable with medication, if possible, but that is meant to give you enough time to say goodbye. A few hours, or a day, tops. It is not a solution that is meant to last days or weeks. There have been times when I have had to stand back and watch animals suffer and slowly die because an owner sat at home praying for a miracle.
Newsflash: Prayers do not work.
I imagine I will have people who certainly disagree with my last statement, and I don’t wish to argue about religion or prayer, but let me clarify why I feel that way.A few years ago, a woman brought in a 20-year-old cat. She was pet sitting for a terminally-ill friend who had left the state for prolonged treatment. The cat, an all black petite girl named Tabby, had lost the use of her back legs. She had a spinal injury that could not be corrected. The cat’s owner was notoriously hard to contact, and when she finally called us weeks later, she said she was not ready to put Tabby to sleep because she had originally belonged to her elderly father who had passed away.
Tabby’s health started to decline. She lost a lot of weight and was skin and bones. The blood work was not good.Again, we could not get the owner to take our calls. When she finally did call us she still refused to put Tabby down. She believed Tabby would miraculously recover and included the cat in her nightly prayers. Explaining that Tabby was suffering was futile.
Tabby stopped eating and it got to the point that she could barely lift her head. She had long before lost the ability to drag herself into her litter pan and would sit in her own urine and feces. Every day, I would go into work and clean Tabby, give her new blankets, make her comfortable, force feed her, and give her love. This was the only time I have ever openly cried at work. Tabby’s situation had no impact on her owner, who let Tabby suffer with us for two full months before she finally passed away. She purred until the bitter end.
So let me repeat myself: Prayers do not work.
Pet owners like this do not get my sympathy and I have zero ability to fake empathy for someone that selfish. I have wondered how my cold reaction to situations like the one previously mentioned appear to other pet owners.
Sometimes I wonder what pet owners must think of me and my coworkers. Many times I know it must seem like we show no emotion and are unaffected by the loss, but I assure you that is not true. We try very hard to hold it together. We try to comfort you and make the experience as painless as possible for you, the owner. If we start crying, we’re not helping you.
I have sometimes cried in my car on the way home. I have stopped for alcohol on the way home. I have gotten home and cried in the shower so I wouldn’t have to explain why I was crying. What you don’t know is that my job sometimes kills my spirit and I question my ability to continue doing it every single day. What you don’t know is that I really do care. And I carry the pain with me every day.
*Name has been changed.