Growing up, I thought I might want to be an animal doctor someday. Not because I had any interest in veterinary medicine. I was just a fan of Dr. Dolittle, the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison. As far as I knew, all veterinarians wore top hats and sang their prescriptions and had exotic patients like a llama with an extra head coming out of its ass.
When I reached sixteen, I decided I better find out what was involved in being a veterinarian before I did something stupid, like apply to medical school or buy a white jacket. So I got a part-time job at a vet clinic on the south side of Chicago. It was one of the largest animal hospitals in the area, with a team of doctors who appeared to be living the American Dream. Or at least the American Dream when compared with ever other man, age 18-to-45, living in the south side of Chicago. My only other male role model at the time – besides my dad, of course – was the drama teacher at my high school, and he ended up getting strangled by a teenage prostitute after having sex in a forest preserve. So, y’know… my choices were kinda slim. A doctor with a Dodge Viper and girlfriend half his age seemed as good a mentor as any.
There was a large staff of physicians at the clinic, but everybody knew that the man in charge was Dr. Carl. He was huge and pasty white, like a snowman come to life, and his hands were so thick it looked like he was wearing mittens. I marveled at how such thick fingers could pick up delicate surgical instruments. Maybe it was his size, but Dr. Carl often forget that the kids who worked for him weren’t quite as indestructible as he was. He’d ask us to lift things twice our own body weight, and then scoff when we complained. “Ah, you’ll live,” he’d always say, trivializing our discomfort.
Once, I saw him instruct a kid to pick up a large plastic bag and take it out back to the dumpster. When the poor kid realized that the bag was filled with used hypodermic needles, several of which had already punctured his soft teenage skin, Dr. Carl dismissed his tears with a wave. “Ah, you’ll live,” he said.
We never saw that kid again.
Thankfully, my duties never required putting myself in actual peril. I was relegated to kennel cleaning. I worked primarily in poop. I don’t know what it is about dogs in captivity, but they definitely defecate more than normal dogs. The number of dogs being housed at the clinic did not match the sheer volume of excrement I had to clean in an average day. There was definitely more coming out then going in. The cages looked like Jackson Pollock paintings. On some days, I’d be so flabbergasted by what the dogs had done, I couldn’t bring myself to desecrate their work with a hose. Some of it was just phenomenal. How do you get crap on a ceiling? What kind of Pilates move is necessary to pull that off?
I eventually figured out that not everybody at the clinic was wrist-deep in dog poo. There was a small minority among the part-time help who seemed to have special status. They were as young and inexperienced as I was, but for whatever reason, they’d been handpicked by Dr. Carl as his favorites. So they never got stuck with shit duty. Instead, they’d get to sit in on appointments, or discuss rare canine diseases during smoke breaks, or if they were lucky, assist Dr. Carl with his surgeries.
You did read that last sentence correctly. Am I seriously suggesting that teenage boys – most of whom were barely passing their remedial science classes in high school, and still believed that farting in public qualified as witty repartee – were allowed and even encouraged to participate in complicated medical procedures like spaying and neutering? Why yes, yes I am.
I watched them from afar, studying their behavior, trying to determine how they’d achieved such undeserved power in the social hierarchy. From what I could tell, the only way to get noticed was by demonstrating your commitment to a career in the veterinary arts. Most of the kids who worked at the clinic were not very enthusiastic. They made it abundantly clear that their interest in animals was casual, and they’d only taken the job for whipit money. If you wanted to stand out, you had to volunteer to do things that the punks and the part-timers actively avoided.
Like the death shift.
Euthanization wasn’t something that any of the doctors enjoyed – even Dr. Carl, with his soulless mannequin eyes. But hundreds of strays were sent to the clinic every month, with precious few families lining up to adopt them, so it was a sad and inevitable reality. I offered to assist with their grim task, thinking that my willingness to get my hands dirty in the trenches would eventually be rewarded. Little did I realize just how bad it could be. The doctors had the easy part. They just stuck a needle into a dog’s neck, pumped some blue liquid into their veins and waited for the induced cardiac arrest. My job required holding down the animal and, after its heartbeat disappeared, carrying it to a freezer in the back, where the bodies were stored until they could be delivered to a local incinerator.
On the bad days, we’d euthanize dozens of dogs. I always hoped it would get easier. I wanted to have the same emotional indifference of Dr. Carl – to prove to him that I could be detached and impervious when faced with life or death decisions – but I just didn’t have it in me. It was like working at an Auschwitz summer camp. Death became the norm, and for a kid who hadn’t lost so much as a pet in his sixteen years on the planet, the pressure began to take its toll. I developed a nervous tic, blinking my left eye for hours at a time. I started drinking coffee, and stopped sleeping entirely. I was like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, except less optimistic.
Months passed, and just as I felt I might be slipping into insanity, my efforts paid off. Dr. Carl called me by my real name and not his usual greeting, “Hey, Squirt.” He enjoyed condescending pet names for his adolescent staff, anything to remind us of our diminutive stature. Peanut, Scooter, Monkey, Tinkerbelle, Freckles, Scrapper, La Petite Banane, and his personal favorite, Shortie. Shortie was shorthand for anybody he didn’t recognize or didn’t care about. If he called you Shortie, you weren’t going to last at the clinic long. But when he referred to you by your actual name, it meant you were moving up the food chain.
My mood improved exponentially. I carried dead dogs on my back like Santa Claus slinging a bag of presents, drunk on eggnog and pedophilic zeal. I was so blissful and self-confident that I didn’t even dread the end-of-the-month corpse pickup. When the freezer filled up, a dude in a van would drive over to pick up the bodies, and every kid unlucky enough to be on shift would have to load the lifeless, frozen dogs into the back of his van. It was depressing work, but now that I knew I was on Dr. Carl’s radar, I was determined to act like a leader. And that meant making a less-than-enjoyable chore more pleasant for everybody.
Here’s a fun fact: When you drop a dead dog into a freezer, it tends to assume whatever shape it had when it landed. So when you pull it out, it’ll be frozen in what I liked to call action poses. Sometimes it looked like it was delivering a deadly karate chop. Sometimes it had jazz hands. Actually, I guess the more accurate term is jazz paws.
As I saw it, mortality is in the eye of the beholder. It’s either something to be feared and treated with somber melancholy. Ooooor… we could help these neglected and abandoned strays leave this mortal coil with just a little dignity and joie de vivre, by letting them perform a spontaneous song-and-dance number on their way to the Great Beyond.
Funny thing, the south side teenagers I worked with weren’t so amused by my musical satires. When I picked up a dog corpse and made him do a spot-on Ethel Merman impression, they just glared at me. Heaven forbid I choreograph an elaborate Fosse routine, or even a Mad Magazine-style parody of “Funny Girl.”
“Don’t tell me not to bark
I’m dead already
Don’t tell me not to claw
My body’s heavy!”
I’m well aware that comedy is subjective, but screaming “Shutup faggot” is not what I call constructive criticism.
Dr. Carl eventually took me aside and said, without saying so explicitly, that I would be assisting him in a surgery very, very soon. I was beside myself with excitement. I’d heard about surgeries from the guys who’d made it into Dr. Carl’s inner circle. If they were to be believed, it was like a John Woo movie. Blood spurting everywhere, lacerated veins flopping wildly like haywire lawn sprinklers. The tension could be so intense, they said, that it was not unusual for grown men to faint.
I lay awake at night, just trying to imagine what that must be like. No wonder the surgery room was so heavily guarded. The doctors didn’t want us to see them passing out, or throwing water on each other’s faces as they repeatedly lost and then regained consciousness. What a spectacle that must be!
In my bones, I knew that this was my destiny. When Dr. Carl recognized my innate talents, he’d grant me more and more responsibility. And then one day I’d call him for an important surgery, and he’d wander in looking old and feeble, staring down at his big mitten hands and muttering, “I just don’t have the energy anymore, Eric.”
I’d flash him a reassuring smile and gently slide the forceps out of his hands. “Don’t worry about it,” I’d tell him. “I’ve got this one.”
Fueled by my fantasies of becoming the youngest and least educated working veterinarian in Chicago, I was a model employee. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for the clinic. Dr. Carl seemed to sense this, and when he was faced with a situation that called for blind loyalty and at least a little stupidity, he knew that there was only one person to ask.
When I came to work on a chilly winter morning, Dr. Carl summoned me into his office. “We have a problem,” he said. His voice was a whisper, like he was sharing a secret that only I could be trusted to keep.
“What can I do?” I asked. It didn’t matter what he wanted. I’d do anything to prove my devotion.
“The van is in the shop,” he said. “We… we’re going to need to borrow your car.”
He didn’t need to explain the rest. The death freezer was dangerously close to capacity. The door couldn’t be closed without putting some elbow into it. The guy with the van who usually hauled away the dead dogs every month wouldn’t be coming. It was up to me.
“I know we’re asking a lot,” Dr. Carl said. He forced a laugh, punching me (what he thought was) lightly on the arm. “But you’re a big boy. You’ll live.”
“I understand,” I said, my voice unwavering. “It’s not a problem.”
As it turned out, it was a problem. See, here’s the thing about frozen dead dogs. When you take them out of a freezer, they’re not exactly… what’s the word I’m looking for here?… malleable. That doesn’t so much matter when you’re loading them into a van. But when you’ve got a ’74 Honda Civic with very limited trunk space and an almost nonexistent back seat, well… it’s complicated.
It could’ve been done. If we’d taken the time and been patient, we could’ve found a way to fit all thirty frozen corpses in the back of my car. You just had to think of it as a furry puzzle. “See, we just put that Doberman right there, and you’ve still got plenty of room below the passenger seat for a couple of Pugs. It’s all about using the negative space.”
But my teenage co-workers didn’t have the patience for analytical thinking. They wanted to be finished with this minimum wage indignity. So they did what anybody would’ve done in a hurry. They shoved. And pushed. And forced the stiff, frozen bodies to fit into a space that basic geometry wouldn’t allow. It didn’t take long before we heard the snapping of limbs and the crackly pop of frozen bones shattering. The corpses surrendered to our panicky assault.
When I glanced into my back seat, I didn’t see a pile of dead dogs. I saw a congealed mass of… something. Flesh and bones pointing in improbable angles. It looked like there had been an incident. Like something very, very, very bad had happened, and I was somehow responsible. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed that these poor dogs had been dropped in a giant blender and then emptied into my car.
As I drove through the south side of Chicago, I’ll admit it, I was a little paranoid. I couldn’t help but think, “This is gonna end badly. A cop is gonna pull me over and I’m going to jail.” I’d read about serial killers who would’ve gotten away with their crimes were it not for a busted taillight. I checked my rearview mirror obsessively. I was convinced that I’d be busted for something innocuous.
“Do you realize your license plates are expired?” The police officer would inform me, peering into my window. “I’ll need to see your license and… wait a minute, what the hell is that smell?”
“Before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain,” I’d say. “Have you ever seen the film Dr. Dolittle?”
It was Dr. Dolittle who’d gotten me into this mess, wasn’t it? I thought about Rex Harrison, and wondered what he would’ve done if he was in the same situation. Well, he’d probably sing about “looking on the bright side,” and then he’d flee to a tropical island and wait for the heat to blow over.
And that’s when I realized: Dr. Dolittle is an asshole.
I delivered the dead dogs, and then I drove back to the clinic and walked into Dr. Carl’s office and told him I was quitting.
“Don’t be such a baby,” he said. “I know this job can be tough, but you’ll live.”
“Fuck you,” I told him.
There were still days when I’d be tempted. I’d fantasize about becoming the next James Herriot, only more urban and less annoyingly British. But it’d all disappear the moment somebody got into my car and their nose would curl with disgust as they caught that first whiff of dead dog.
“What the fuck happened in here?” they’d invariably ask.
Dead dog smell doesn’t ever go away, no matter how much you scrub. I don’t think even Rex Harrison could write a jaunty song about that.