Karen Russell
Photo: © Michael Lionstar
For two and a half years, I worked as a technician and receptionist at a veterinary clinic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Each weekday morning on the way to work, I'd stop at the aspirationally named Famous Deli down the block, then emerge with my coffee and my half-eaten eggwich onto a scene of biblical pathos. Pet carriers stood lined up on the street outside the locked clinic, a chorus of inhuman lamentation pouring forth from the airholes: barking, chirping, mewling, hissing, thumping. Large dogs howled, and small dogs yipped in circles.

And that was just the animals. The humans made their own riotous cries. A typical crowd on the sidewalk might contain, say, two schoolgirls in lavender uniforms embracing the neck of their Great Dane, the stoic Sir Barksalot, slated for a 4:30 p.m. neuter; a Columbia law professor whispering soothing Spanish to her demonically yowling cat; a tall, red-eyed policeman carrying a pug in a towel. (Once, a middle-aged clown wearing what appeared to be, I swear, a yellow parachute cinched at the waist dropped off his diabetic rabbit, Party Boy Bunny, with me, but our clients were usually en route to more conventional jobs.)

These were the a.m. drop-offs: dogs, cats and rabbits that were scheduled for surgeries, mostly routine—spays, neuters, sonograms, dental work, the kinds of low-risk operations that were almost guaranteed successes. The owners would return to collect them at closing time—7 p.m.—after the anesthesia had worn off.

Of course, once I had opened the doors to the clinic and invited everybody inside, no one had any way to communicate this time frame to the animals. That didn't stop us from trying.

"Don't worry, Mama will be back!" the owners promised.

"Papa's waiting for you!"

"Elmo, the silver lining is you are going to feel much better after Doctor B removes your bladder stones."

Then the dog or cat would cock its head as if to say, "I am a dog or cat. The sounds of your mouth mystify me."

The owners reassured their pets, and I did my best to reassure the owners—a tricky undertaking, even with access to a common language. More than one person moaned, "If I could just tell her, in English, why we have to do this!"

I felt compassion for these people, even as I wished mightily that I had finished my eggwich back in the deli. Nobody wanted to leave an animal with me. Something about the smell of the clinic seemed to hit the dogs with a black, premonitory force, and the humans, who knew exactly what had to happen, were often even more affected than their pets. Grown men teared up. "Thank you for Miss Frisky's chewball and special blankie," I'd say, as politely as possible while physically fighting them for the leash. "No, I'm afraid we don't accept Discover."