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The Life & Death Parade

Note: The writer followed each veterinarian for a day. To reduce confusion, he condensed three days’ events into a single day.

Morning at Driggs Vet Clinic. A man arrives carrying his red dog, Rebel, not much bigger than a pack rat. Two days earlier Rebel had consumed a box of d-CON, a rodenticide that prevents blood from clotting. Dr. Don Betts knows that one box of d-CON can kill a dozen small dogs.

Unable to stand, Rebel can barely lift his head. Unshaken, Dr. Don lifts Rebel’s upper lip and finds white gums. Not enough red blood cells are circulating; they are flowing to internal bleeding sites. Rebel’s chest heaves trying to oxygenate the few remaining red blood cells. Blood is filling his right lung and pooling inside like a lake. Despite Dr. Don’s veterinary education and thirty years of experience, a hint of futility shows on his face. He shakes his head. “This little dog is in big trouble.”

A week ago Rebel had shown similar symptoms after the first empty d-CON box. His owner hadn’t thought much about that incident and, unable to afford weekend rates, had not brought Rebel in promptly after this second poisoning. He folds his arms across his chest. “We can’t even afford this,” he says.

Rebel is dying like a rat.

Dr. Don places him on an absorbent pad, towel, and heating disk in a stainless steel cage and hangs an IV bag above the door. Rebel peers out with a worn expression as his chest continues to rise and fall. His owner cannot afford a blood transfusion, and Dr. Don says it might not help anyway. What are Rebel’s chances? “Less than ten percent,” says Dr. Don. And he floats off to examine a couple of horses with skin problems.

Across the valley at Victor Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Jane Linville examines West, a 9-year-old chocolate Labrador. A normally vibrant and friendly dog, West moves like an old man. Something isn’t right, his owner says. West acted odd all night. He would not eat or come inside. The woman wants to make sure he hasn’t eaten a dead animal or rat poison or swallowed a foreign object.

Dr. Jane’s expression of mild concern seems etched permanently on her face, and she exudes composure resulting from twenty-two years of experience. As if West is the only animal needing her attention, she runs blood and stool tests, which are negative. Because West’s kidney and liver functions are normal, Dr. Jane sees no cause for alarm and sends West home with instructions to watch him carefully and to call immediately if his condition changes. Tension drains from the owner’s face. She smiles, and West trots out behind her wagging his tail.

Meanwhile, Beatrice, an Airedale, is lying on her back, tongue lolling out like a piece of meat, each foot tied to a corner of the surgery table. A heart and blood pressure monitor pulses in the background. Beatrice’s owner has asked Dr. Jane to repair a tiny hernia and, while Beatrice is under anesthesia, to spay her. Though the Airedale is beautiful in her own hairy way, her owner doesn’t want a pack of little beauties.

Having donned a surgery cap, safety glasses, and a mask, Dr. Jane cuts through the belly skin with a laser. Tendrils of smoke rise and fill the room with the odor of roasting flesh. A bit of fat has worked its way through the tear in Beatrice’s abdominal muscles, and Dr. Jane removes it and determines that all organs are in their proper place. She has almost finished stitching Beatrice when the suture breaks and she has to start over.

With the hernia repaired, Dr. Jane cuts another incision. Unable to find the uterus with the spay hook, she stares off into nowhere as if seeing through her fingers and finally locates the uterus and draws it out. “Wow, this is a long one,” she says. She removes the organ, stitches Beatrice, and sends her to the recovery room.

By noon Dr. Summer Winger of Circle S Mobile Veterinary Services has already driven with her technician to six clients’ homes and has treated five dogs, three cats, three horses, and a goat. They arrive in their mobile clinic at a home to euthanize Joseph, a 20-year-old gray cat who sleeps on pads covering the bathroom floor because he can’t control his bowels or walk downstairs to go outside. As if convincing herself she is making the right decision, Joseph’s owner says he has enjoyed a rich life.

Dr. Summer peeks through the doorway at the tom whose skin drapes loosely over his bones. He is lying on his side and barely raises his head. As if she has no more appointments, Dr. Summer converses with the Joseph’s owner, asking reverently about the cat’s last years. The woman is still jabbering as she turns away from the scene. What a good cat.

As if she believes every animal deserves this kind an end, Dr. Summer kneels and strokes Joseph from head to tail, which barely flicks. Then the injected sedative relaxes him for the overdose of barbiturates that will stop his heart and push him over. The clock ticks. He takes a breath and settles as still as a stuffed animal. Dr. Summer positions the chest piece of her stethoscope on his ribs. “He went with just the sedative. He was ready.”

His owner stares quietly for a moment, and then smiling slightly, says, “Yes, I guess he was ready.”

The technician slips the body into a black cadaver bag that resembles a garbage bag. She ties a knot in the end, and carries Joseph away for cremation.

After lunchtime Dr. Don scarfs down a sandwich. Before operating on an old English sheepdog, he looks in on Rebel, who is lying prostrate in his cage with eyes closed. A vet tech had taken him outside to urinate, but Rebel could barely stand. He won’t eat, and the urine on his pad is pink.

Dr. Winger’s mobile clinic rolls up to a large roofed kennel, home to a 3-month-old gray wolf pup she had examined a week ago for weakness in the back hips and legs, stiffness in the leg joints, and muscle atrophy. Having researched the pup’s symptoms, she thinks she has a diagnosis—Neospora caninum caused by a parasite in raw meat. If caught soon enough, the condition is treatable but in late stages, fatal. One of the pup’s owners lifts the wolf, who whimpers and sinks back to the concrete.

Twenty minutes after closing time Dr. Don holds the door open for the owner of Festus, a Brittany spaniel who has been hit by a car moving about forty-five miles per hour. The dog pants and writhes but does not bite or growl. His owners, a farmer and his wife, as rural folks tend to do, make small talk and joke, showing little emotion over a dog. But Festus is no ordinary canine. He has been a loyal bird dog and companion for twelve and a half years. He is their third dog to meet its end on the road.

Efficiently Dr. Don glides around the table examining the spaniel, who cannot move his back legs. A sedative injection eases his pain, and he lies still enough for an X-ray. His owners are not surprised that his back is broken; they know what comes next.

“I’m real sorry,” Dr. Don says, and the owner replies that sometimes things like this just happen. A tear trickles down his wife’s face, and she leaves the room.

The overdose of barbiturates lets Festus slip away and go wherever good dogs go. Dr. Don places the body in a cadaver bag, ties a knot, and places the bag in the arms of the farmer, who carries it out like a sack of feed.

It’s an hour and a half after closing time. In addition to Festus, Dr. Don has treated four dogs, two cats, and five horses, and has euthanized a miniature poodle whose owner could not afford to treat its bad kidneys. The dog rests in peace in a cadaver bag to be transported to the animal section of the dump. Before leaving for the night, Dr. Don checks on Rebel. By morning, he believes, the little dog will be dead.

Three days later during physical therapy, the wolf’s owners hear a pop in the pup’s back legs. Dr. Summer’s X-rays show fractures in both. The cause is not Neospora but some mysterious genetic malady causing muscles to atrophy and allowing bones to break.

Although wolves are known for their ability to handle pain, the pup whines even after an injection of morphine. The owners want to pursue any available treatment, but Dr. Summer has practiced for fourteen years and she knows no options exist. While they hold their wolf close, she sends him to the ever after.

Twice during the night Dr. Don drives back to the clinic to check on Rebel, and through the next day he administers intravenous fluids. Rebel’s chest rattles all day and night. On the second morning, Dr. Don opens the clinic door. There lies Rebel no longer laboring to breathe. He raises his head and looks out with bright, clear eyes.


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