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Our Pets, Ourselves

Something about a veterinarian's waiting room gets people talking–about their pets and, inadvertently and indirectly, about themselves.

 

Patient Pippin, who's feeling ever so
much better these days.

We've had to spend a lot of time in veterinarians' waiting rooms lately, because our kitten, Pippin–whose unexpected arrival in our household you read about on this page nearly a year ago–ate something he shouldn't, right before the holidays. It was touch and go at best for a few days, threatening an outcome I'm not sure I would have had the strength to write about here. But a smart, caring vet and Pippin's youthful vigor proved a winning combination. He's back to his old–that is, young and energetic–self, tussling with our other cats, lurking as a lump in the rug to spring a paw out at passersby, chasing after treats like a furry cannonball. And his latest tests came back clean as can be, showing no permanent damage from his unfortunate dietary choice.

The treatment and testing, though, gave us plenty of time to sit in the vet's waiting room and to notice that people waiting to get their animals treated behave differently than when they're waiting in people-doctors' reception areas. Not better or worse, just different.

There's more a sense of a common bond, for one thing. In a regular physician's waiting room, each person sits there with his own private worries. Either the person or an accompanied loved one is sick or hurt, needs a checkup, might have something seriously wrong. It's not the sort of thing you talk about to total strangers, in any case. Or, if you do, the strangers turn away and pretend to be deeply engrossed in a 1997 issue of US News & World Report. You know the kind of scene I mean:

"The doctor says momma here has the cancer of the ovaries," the excessively familiar person shares, much too loudly.

"Uh-huh. Sorry to hear that."

"They might have to CUT HER OPEN before the cancer EATS HER UP."

"Hmmm. Well, back to reading about 1997, excuse me. . . "

With animals as patients, though, sharing is no longer embarrassing. The dog with worms might know you're talking about him, but he's immune to shame about such things: He licks his privates in public, after all. In a vet's waiting room, the human non-patients are somehow bound together by their common concern for the canine, feline, equine and other -ine patients they've brought for care. The old issues of magazines quickly fall away in favor of earnest conversation:

"What's wrong with your cat?" someone will ask–someone who'd never dream of asking, in an MD's waiting area, "What's wrong with your husband?"

 

Inevitably, though, the camaraderie of concern about our animal friends leads to disclosures about ourselves. One time, as we waited to see Pippin, a rancher in his 80s–weathered like old leather, but obviously still as tough and wiry as a fence–sat with a blue heeler he'd brought in. As the conversation unfolded, he explained that he'd found the dog lying outside a cafe, bleeding. No idea what had happened to the dog, whether it had been hit by a car or caught in barbed wire or something else. It looked well fed and had a collar, but no tags. The dog sat patiently beside his acquaintance of only an hour or so, probably in shock.

"He hopped right up in the pickup to bring him here," the rancher said. "He knew what a pickup was, that's for sure."

A woman across the waiting room, who evidently knew the rancher, said she thought he ought to adopt the dog himself.

"Well, I'll get him fixed up and see if his owner shows up," the rancher replied, thinking about it. "Then we'll see."

After repeating her notion that the rancher should adopt the blue heeler, the woman asked about how the man was doing himself. This led to the rancher telling the room what had happened to him–with none of the awkwardness you'd find if he were there to seek treatment for himself, rather than a stray dog. It seems the rancher had been out riding his horse, which suddenly bucked and threw him. But the rancher made it back to his house, took a shower–and then passed out cold from multiple internal injuries.

"That was the last I knew for three weeks," he said.

We all nodded sympathetically at this ordeal, but pretty soon the conversation circled back to the dog. What should the rancher name the dog, if he kept it? "I think you should name him 'Stray,'" volunteered the woman. Folks in the waiting room all nodded, and although we thought this a pretty unimaginative name, we decided to keep this opinion to ourselves.

 

When my wife returned to the vet for Pippin's last round of tests, she heard a couple more stories. One man talked about how he'd been feeding some barn cats–kind but not, as it turned out, necessarily the smartest thing to do. Worried that skunks would get to the cat food he was putting out on the porch, the man built a low enclosure around the food. A few feet high, it was short enough that the cats could climb and jump over it, but high enough–he hoped–to keep the skunks out.

One day, however, he looked outside and saw a skunk sampling the cats' food. Who knew skunks were climbers? The next day there were two skunks–the first visitor had brought a friend. And the next day the food enclosure was host not only to two skunks but also a couple of barn kittens. Proprietary of their food, the kittens were hissing and batting at the skunks–who, thankfully, ignored the cats rather than spraying them, and kept on munching.

Somebody in the waiting room–probably my wife–made a crack about Pepe LePew, the cartoon skunk who falls hopelessly in love with a similarly striped cat.

Another person waiting to see the vet started explaining how she'd come to be the reluctant owner of six dogs. She already had her hands full with three dogs, you see, but then her neighbors sold their house and made plans to move. The neighbor announced that because they were moving, they were going to have their own trio of dogs put down.

Well, the woman just couldn't see letting that happen. So she took in all three of the neighbors' dogs and gave them a home. And here she was now, taking one of the adopted dogs to the vet.

You hear so much about people who are cruel to animals these days. Awhile back in our pets page, we featured a cat who'd been temporarily nicknamed "Road Rash"–his owners had tossed him out the window of a moving car. (I'm happy to report that Road Rash found a home–as it happens, with our senior editor, Donna Clayton Lawder, and is living happily as part of the Lawder family under the much nicer name of Skye.) Our own Pippin was probably dumped by someone, only slightly less unkindly; our house is close to open fields, handy to a major road. But abandoned animals are just the beginning. Especially in winter, all too many people leave their dogs chained up out in the cold. And don't even get me started on cockfighting.

But wait a half-hour or so in a vet's office and you'll see and hear the other side of the story, from people who've gone out of their way to help animals. Sometimes it's not easy to do: Surely the old rancher had enough to worry about, recovering from his own injuries, without stopping to help an injured dog.

Spend a little time waiting for the vet and you'll see how animals bring people together, open them up and make people their best selves.

Certainly, we're mighty glad Pippin found us, almost a year ago. Almost losing him, right before Christmas, made us realize just how glad and how he's done as much for us as we've done for him.

So I wonder whether that rancher wound up adopting the wounded blue heeler–whether the dog recovered, and how the story ends.

I just hope he didn't name the dog "Stray."

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure and
the adoptive father of cats Peaches, Frodo and Pippin.

 

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