By 7:15 a.m., it was just me and the pre-op patients. Even the most obedient, optimistic pets tended to panic at this point. "Okay," their bewildered eyes seemed to say, "I am trying to be a good sport. I haven't eaten in over 12 hours, so, true, I'm a little grumpy, and this morning my water dish was empty. Fine, I thought, these things happen, but when, in lieu of taking me to the park for our walk, my owner, the human who I love and trust absolutely, left me here with you, a short woman-stranger who smells like an eggwich and keeps mispronouncing my name, well, I cop to getting a little blue about that development, and, wow, now it seems I am being held captive in a 15-by-24-foot kennel, still no water I see, in a backroom of Lysol smells and eerie howls. Well, that's just excellent. My life as I know it has ended."
Surely this must have seemed like hell to the animals.
Of course I'm anthropomorphizing pretty egregiously here. But I don't think anyone can mistake a dog or cat's very real confusion and fear. Some pets were wry and morose; others became hysterical (I'm thinking of one Hungarian vizsla in particular, an incontinent freak-out artist. You know who you are, girl; I had to throw out those pants.) And a few patients' reactions were truly haunting. The entire staff of the clinic was emotionally rent by Waffles, a sweet, seven-month-old beagle scheduled for a dental extraction, who stared at us through the cage bars with an expression of baffled innocence straight out of Kafka's The Trial.
"Look," his brown eyes mutely protested, "those allegations that I poop on the rug, they are true, and once I did indeed eat 54 frozen Eggo waffles from a grocery bag that I think the devil must have left on the love seat to tempt me, but overall I promise you, I am a good dog. I am not guilty of these charges, whatever they might be. I don't belong here!"
I hated leaving those animals in the hospital cages. Like their owners, I couldn't resist the nutty impulse to offer English explanations. I'd watch a dog or cat emerging from the fog of anesthesia, groggy and scared, and catch myself thinking, "If only they could understand what has changed for them over the course of this nightmarish day and why the nightmare was necessary." Because then the surgery and all its spooky exigencies (the empty water dish, the bloodwork, the cages, the syringes, the gloved hands of strangers) would fit into a panoramic framework that makes sense.
The veterinarian I worked for was an indisputable miracle worker. She cut out cancerous growths, treated bite wounds, once successfully removed a deflated basketball from a dachshund's stomach. Afterward she sent these patients home with their owners, where they would enjoy food and water and, in some extraordinary cases, a doubled lifespan.
But try telling this to Waffles. "Why?" always seemed like a uniquely human plaint to me until I was confronted with that beagle and his look of uncomprehending sadness. I recognized it. I had felt similarly about certain events in my own life and the lives of my friends and family members.