The Dark Side of Veterinary Medicine, by Max Hawthorne

As many people who’ve read my book Memoirs of a Gym Rat are aware, I used to work in the health club industry. I enjoyed helping people get in shape, while simultaneously marketing a fitness product I’d patented. But before that, my goal had been to be a veterinarian. It was a lofty one, to be sure. But I was an animal lover and learning how to put Band-Aids on puppy paws seemed a great career move at the time.

Why I Gave Up Becoming a Veterinarian

At the time.

As is my way, I set about accomplishing my task with considerable zeal. After all, I figured I’d found my niche, so the only thing holding me back was me. In addition to annihilating the missing math and science courses I needed to enter the veterinary program of my choice, I started working as a New York vet’s assistant. This was decades ago and I honestly don’t know if he’s still in business or even alive, for that matter, but for purposes of this blog post we’ll call him “Dr. Matthew Gibbons”.

Matthew came across as a nice guy with an adoring family. He was smart and extremely career-driven, to the point he would do what many veterinarians didn’t in the five boroughs: make house calls. It was during the course of making house calls with him that I got to see what being a vet was all about.

As it turns out, per Matthew, a good 50% of a vet’s revenue comes from getting paid to euthanize dogs and cats and cremate their bodies. To be fair, sometimes these animals are old, infirm, and suffering. Based on personal experience, however, much of the time they’re not. They’re just unwanted pets that have become unmanageable or problematic and the owners want them to put down.

Image credit: Creative Commons (Dreamstime)

Of course, every animal wants to live, and they will fight tooth and nail (literally) to stay alive. Dealing with this was where the dark side of veterinary medicine started to creep up on me. It seemed like every day we’d get one or more phone calls to go and kill someone’s dog or cat, and each call was, for me at least, more traumatic than the previous one.

Tasmanian Devil

Sometimes euthanizing was necessary. I remember once, we got a call about a rabid cat that, after it had started foaming at the mouth, the owner had managed to barricade inside her powder room. When we got there I put my ear to the bathroom door and listened in disbelief, as the berserk feline tore the bathroom up like the “Tasmanian Devil” from a Warner Bros. cartoon. This is no joke; it was literally bouncing off the walls.

Matthew, of course, tried sending me in there to deal with the enraged demon. Let me just say that I may be brave, but I’m not stupid. I flat-out refused. “Hey, you work for me,” he barked. “Screw you!” I replied, shaking my head. “You can keep your seven bucks an hour, I’m not going in there!”

Matthew cursed aloud, but the crazy SOB finally had to accept the fact that he was going to have to deal with the problem himself. I remember watching with huge eyes as he prepared to enter the miniature lion’s “den”. He had a noose-on-a-stick in his hands and a syringe of pentobarbital clenched in his teeth. It reminding me of a scene from “Young Frankenstein” as he told me, “Okay, keep this door locked, and under no circumstance open it until I tell you to.”

Was he kidding? With all the swearing, crashing, and hissing that went on, he was lucky that I let him out when he did ask me to!

The Basement Incident

Other incidents were far worse. Another time there was a big, black dog that we had to put down that the owner had locked in her basement. It had ripped open her mother’s face and, as punishment, she wanted it killed. Of course, with us being intruders, the dog attacked us on sight. Matthew managed to get a noose around its neck and had me pin it down while he fought to inject it (mind you, no pain meds, just a straight injection into the heart). The struggle quickly turned into something out of a horror movie. The dog was biting, shrieking, and flailing, Matthew was cursing like a trucker with hemorrhoids because the heavy-gauge needle wouldn’t go in properly, and the owner was screaming at us and crying her eyes out at the top of the stairs.

Things went from awful from horrific when the needle snapped off in the poor dog’s chest and its blood sprayed all over me. But the crème de la crème was still to come. A few minutes after the dog was “dead” and placed in a body bag, the bag started moving.

Stephen King novel, anyone? Fortunately, Matthew’s 3rd injection finally did the job.

Day after day this was how it was, with me coming home physically and mentally exhausted and throwing out whatever blood-and-hair-covered shirt I was wearing. I began to hear the cries of dying dogs and cats in my sleep and started becoming very disillusioned with my chosen career path as a “veterinarian”. I spoke to Matthew about my burgeoning doubts and he nodded and told me, “Yeah, I see you getting upset sometimes when we have to kill the animals, but it will pass. Don’t worry.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“When I was first starting out, I used to get upset too,” he said, grinning and putting a fatherly hand on my shoulder. “But trust me. After a while, you’ll realize it’s just business and then you’ll be fine. Eventually, you’ll be just like me – you won’t feel anything!

You won’t feel anything . . .

I remember walking out of Matthew’s home office and thinking, ‘But, I don’t want to feel nothing. I like animals, and I don’t want to be like you. You’re an automaton, a soulless machine!’

The final straw

The final straw came a few weeks later. Matthew called and told me to meet him at his home practice. When I arrived, he had this elderly dog, strapped down on a gurney in his operating room. The dog was ancient, blind, and suffering from terminal cancer. I could tell it was in a great deal of pain; animals are very pain-tolerant and this poor, little guy kept uttering these piteous shrieks. You could tell he was in agony.

The dying dog’s human family was there, too. There were four of them, if memory serves, and they’d made the decision to put their beloved pet down together. In retrospect, short of putting it on a morphine drip it was the right thing to do. But that didn’t make being witness to the scene any less heartbreaking.

They were gathered around the poor dog, hugging it and crying over it, while the suffering animal feebly tried to lick their faces. I think it was trying to comfort them! You could tell it knew them by their sounds and smells, even though it couldn’t see them. As I looked closer, I noticed that, in addition to strapping it down, Matthew also had a catheter already in its neck, to simplify things when the time came. As for myself, I just stood there like a waiting pallbearer, trying to stay stolid and doing my best to emotionally separate myself from the situation. I knew if I didn’t, it was just a matter of time before I got sucked in and broke down, too. The fact that it wasn’t my dog didn’t matter.

And all the while, there was Matthew, putting on this show of compassion. He would pat each of the sobbing family members on the back as they bent over the poor dog, as if he was trying to console them. I remember him putting on this big, sad face and saying, “I know . . . it’s so awful. It’s like losing a family member.”

I stood there with my jaw drooping, fighting to hide how appalled I was. I’d seen this before. I knew Matthew was only pretending to care, when the truth was that the “service” he was providing was, for him, just a means to an end. He couldn’t have cared less, and I realized then and there that I loathed him.

Then, the moment I feared came. He told the sobbing group, “Well, you better go now. You don’t want to be here when . . .” I watched them nod and say their tearful farewells, dreading what came next. Matthew ushered them out one by one, all the while speaking these soothing words of comfort. It was so believable; his face literally radiated compassion as he closed the door softly behind them.

“Okay, let’s do it,” he ordered, the moment he clicked the lock.
“W-what?” I was so shaken by the sudden change from caring and empathetic to cold-blooded and clinical, I didn’t know what to do. It was shocking and I wanted to leave like the dog’s family had.
Unfortunately, I worked there and had to be a party to what came next. Matthew instructed me to cradle the dog while he gave it an injection, directly into the catheter that was embedded in its throat.
What came next, I will never forget.

When I’d asked him in the past, Matthew told me that the injections he gave animals were painless and they didn’t feel anything. Well, excuse my language, but that was a fucking lie.
The poor, blind, gray-haired dog must’ve felt the pentobarbital hit and knew he was dying. He lifted his head up off my chest, sucked in a breath, and emitted the longest, most mournful and pain-filled howl I’ve ever heard. Believe me, there isn’t a wolf’s howl in the world that could compare to the cry that came out of this dying dog’s mouth. I’ve got tears in my eyes as I’m typing this, just from remembering it.

A moment later, he collapsed and died in my arms.

I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there in a state of shock, holding the dog’s still-warm body with a huge lump in my throat and tears welling up. And what did Matthew say to me at this point?
“Okay, go get a body bag.”
I shot him a look that said, “I will beat the shit out of you.”
He gave me this “yikes’ look and (wisely) decided to go do it himself.

My decision

I left work that night in a stupor, my brain overloaded from what I’d just been a part of. I took the bus home and just sat there, staring into space while my sister’s kitten climbed all over me like I was covered in carpeting. I remember stroking its head and staring into those enormous, all-knowing cat’s eyes. It was like the little fuzzball knew what I was going through. I decided on my next course of action, then and there.

The following day I called in sick. And that same day I sent a letter to Matthew at his office. I thanked him for the opportunity, but told him that I was just not cut out to do what he did. I needed to find another career path, one that I could live with. And that was that.

Please understand; I’m not writing this to trample on your dream of becoming a veterinarian. It’s just that, as a result of what I’d seen and been forced to do, becoming one was definitely not a path I wanted to follow anymore.

Thankfully, I eventually found the path I was meant to tread, and trod it I have. Writing the Kronos Rising series, and spinning tales about sea monsters sinking boats and devouring people may seen dark, but they’re just works of fiction. Nobody’s getting hurt. And that is why becoming a veterinarian never would’ve worked out for me. It would’ve cost me a huge chunk of what was left of my soul. And having taken two mortgages out on it already, I just couldn’t spare that big of a slice . . .

-Max Hawthorne


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