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Chapter Two: The Dark Side

I was still on my way to working with animals, studying Veterinary Assisting at my magnet high school. But I was about to have an experience that would make me realize something about myself, and would totally change my approach to working with animals.

During that year, our teacher arranged a volunteer program for some of us to work with a local veterinary clinic, and I began to rack up my volunteer hours hands-on in examination rooms. It was in this clinic that I watched the best vet I've ever known improvise tools to help everything from a hamster to a Great Dane, befriended a blood-donor dog, and learned to restrain animals for examinations. It was in this clinic that I saw the vet save the life of a dog that had been shot. But it was also in this clinic that I saw another side of veterinary medicine, the side that changed the way I would see it forever.

My fellow volunteer and I were doing the usual that morning, just double-checking fecal sample slides under the microscope and studying the names of different medications, when the door from the lobby slammed open and one of the vet techs rushed in, a limp Chihuahua in his arms. We hurried into the examination room, ready to assist in any way we could. The tech placed the dog carefully on the table. The dog's breathing was shallow and rapid, and his eyes were rolled back. I watched as the vet tech frantically called out to the assistant for supplies, along with a hurried explanation: "The owner accidentally overdosed him on flea medication. We've got to get him stabilized or we're going to lose him!" The assistant handed him a syringe with a tiny tube and IV. I watched as the tech attempted to place the IV but the dog's veins were too tiny. The Chihuahua twitched, and the tech tried again. And again, but the tiny vein kept rolling out of his grasp. Again, and it was in! But the Chihuahua had stopped moving. I watched as the tech tried CPR. The vet rushed in—he had been in surgery on another animal — but it was too late. The dog was dead. The vet stripped off his gloves, patted the tech on the shoulder, then stepped solemnly out to give the dog's owner the news.

This was the life of a veterinarian, the rush, the thrill, the reward, the loss. It was worthwhile, this job that weighed so heavily, to know that you were saving lives and helping so many animals. But it was still heavy, and that heaviness hung about me in the air like a dismal fog. It was in the singe of fur in the laser surgery room, in the dizzying brightness of white walls, and in the kennels smelling first of urine and then of disinfectant. It was in the blurry eyes of the drooling cats waking up from anesthesia, and in the feel of sutures beneath my gloved fingers as the vet had us practice stitching up a Rottweiler who had been euthanized.

I will respect veterinarians until my dying breath, but the heartbreak was too much for me. To this day, the smell of a vet office brings back a ripple of anxiety in my stomach. This animal-person life wasn't the one I had dreamed of, and as much as I loved the idea of helping animals and I knew that vets were needed, I realized that veterinary medicine wasn't the path I was meant to take. I was meant to work with conscious, healthy animals. I thought back to early childhood, when my passion for animals had been set ablaze. I remembered sitting on a metal bleacher in an open theater, the seat beneath me cold even though the sun and air were hot. I remembered nervous energy in my chest as the music began, and oh! the surge of joy and longing as I saw the trainers run out and leap headlong into a glistening blue tank of water, dolphins speeding in to meet them and carrying them triumphantly above the surface on their backs. How I longed to be them, with wild animals as my close companions! That moment in childhood was it for me, the breaking-open awakening of a calling deep within. Coming back to myself, I gazed around the white-tile walls of the clinic, and I knew: though I loved all I was learning in the clinic, I did not want to be a veterinarian. I wanted to be an animal trainer.

I also learned one other thing about myself during my time at that clinic: as much as I loved all animals, my interest was really in working with the wild ones. Yes, I loved dogs and cats, but something in me awoke in joy that one day that our patient was a bobcat. Domesticated animals like hamsters, dogs, and cats were great, but they weren't what I was meant for. My heart yearned for the wild, to be face-to-face and hand-to-fur with it.

And soon I would be.

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