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The Intensive Pet Care Unit

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Sophisticated medicine isn't cheap, and a place like the Animal Medical Center has a big black binder of fees -- it's on a counter next to the sympathy cards (available by species). Everything is included: amputation, tail, $110; induction of emesis, $15; CPR, $100; first visit, pig or monkey, $96. Not that every vet follows the rules exactly. (The Bird Lady -- a sweet, confused older woman who owns many birds, though she can't always remember how many -- paid for one visit with a necktie.) Still, the complicated procedures aren't cheap. Brain surgery for your cat? $3,000. Heart surgery for your Chihuahua? $1,500. Hip replacement for your big brown dog? $3,200. Cataract removal? $1,500 per eye. Root canal? $1,000 with gold crowns. Kidney dialysis? $55,000 per year. You receive an estimate, and put 50 percent down. (The hospital sometimes runs a deficit, making the budget through donations. Everywhere are plaques announcing gifts. kenneth f. williams, 1960-94. he loved men and reptiles, says the one above a bird incubator.) Virtually no one has pet insurance, and someone has to pay. The policy (sometimes not followed) is that people who can't are turned away.

"Will you take financial responsibility?" the tall administrator had pressed the stunned Samaritan who'd scooped up that wounded poodle in the Bronx.

"Are you going to kill it if I don't?" she'd asked. She seemed at the point of tears.

"It probably will be put to sleep," the vet said, though in fact when the woman insisted that she didn't have the means, lifesaving began.

Generally, vets seem an idealistic bunch. There are 50 interns and residents at the AMC, and none earns more than $22,300 (ten do it for nothing). These are lives long intertwined with animals. One vet grew up with a private zoo; his parents had leopards, lions, kangaroos. Donnelly had smuggled pigs and sheep and cats out of labs. And though they've been drilled on payment procedures, their emotions, too, get snagged on the money issue. "It's a tough profession, because every day you know you can help an animal, but you have to go ask the family if they can or want to pay for it," says Dr. Kevin Mallery. He thought of a hamster who needed eye surgery that would cost perhaps $1,000. Some owners look into the guinea pig's or turtle's or, in Mallery's case, hamster's box. "I only paid a few dollars for it," they say. "Let's kill it."

Euthanasia, of course, doesn't happen much at the neighboring hospitals, but here it's often the end of the road. (The black binder of fees indicates the price for euthanasia: $30 inpatient; $72 outpatient.) Sometimes it's a good option -- luck runs out or funds get exhausted. Dr. Prittie, sadly, has gotten bad news for her black mutt. The abdominal mass turned out to be cancer, and the cancer has already spread. And so she is left with a black mutt she thought she'd saved. The owners can't bear to come in, and so she walks him across the street and buys him three hamburgers at a deli. Then she comes back and places a syringe of phenobarbital in the jugular of her new friend, her eyes glittery with emotion.

"I couldn't kill him. I love him so much," says a woman who brings her cat in two or three times a week for lung treatment.

Some vets can't bear euthanasia. "It's the hardest thing I have to do, and I get emotionally worked up," says Dr. Ben Otten, who spent years as a nature counselor at summer camp. "I have to harden myself to keep from completely breaking down."

Patients feel the same. Elaine Lora, a data-entry clerk, had paid $1,047 -- she remembered the exact figure -- to save her dog, Teddy, a few months ago. She couldn't afford that much. She and her daughter would do without as a result. And more bills were on the way. Now Teddy was back in the ICU -- Barton revived him this time with nitroglycerin. "I'll do anything I can," says Lora, sitting alone in the waiting room one midnight. She pauses to wipe tears from her eyes. "As long as it helps."

Veterinary cardiologist Dr. Betsy Bond told Upper West Sider Jane Altman that medicine had gone as far as it could to help Wolfie, her long-haired gray cat. She'd done cardiograms on the hospital's ECG machine -- a human machine, it's programmed to ask for weight and height. She'd operated. Nothing worked for long.

"I couldn't kill him," says Altman. "I love him so much. I can't bear to give him up." She knew her two cats were cats. But, she says, "they push into your life, your heart, your bed." So every week, sometimes two or three times a week, even twice a day, she takes a bus and subway to Dr. Bond, who tries to relieve the respiratory pressure by extracting a few cubic centimeters of the milky liquid that presses against Wolfie's lungs.

The hospital is a free space, a place for pet lovers like Altman and Lora to express themselves. Owners tape get-well cards to their sick pet's cages, like the one on the chocolate Lab's: shake your groove thing, it reads. Often enough, though, especially outside the safe confines of the hospital, animal owners behave as if they're a secret society. Perhaps for rat owners -- "You don't tell many people," says one -- hiding from a neighbor's view is understandable. These are, after all, tunnel bunnies, the same rats that romp in the subway. And ferret owners have reason to keep to themselves, since the mayor has pronounced ferrets illegal. The Health Department, according to one vet, broke down a man's door to behead his ferret, an animal reported to have bitten someone. But even cat and dog lovers sometimes act shy. What made these pet lovers guard their true nature was the emotion they felt for the animal, so weighty and so, in the view of some, misplaced. Elaine Lora's friends were bewildered. "Teddy is just a dog," they'd tell her. "You can always get another."

Friends, though, missed the point. "Pets are members of the family," Lora says of her mutt, Teddy. "He's human, but it's more than that." Among some, sentiments once reserved for an intimate are now routinely shared with a pet. "We were the closest buddies for fifteen years," explains Don Ventura, who'd recently lost his mutt, Alfalfa. Ventura hadn't vacationed in fifteen years -- he hadn't wanted to leave Alf alone. "He was a wonderful thing in my life," says Ventura. "I never felt I sacrificed. I built my lifestyle around him. I don't think I missed out. I was able to enjoy loving and being loved." Others saw a choice in their lives between people and animals, and had chosen animals. "I had one dog," an Upper East Side woman explains, "I used to speak to her like I'm talking to you. I didn't feel I needed people all that much."

A survey by the American Animal Hospital Association asked pet owners, "Does caring for your pet fulfill a need of parenting for you?" Sixty-two percent said yes. "In my life, this is the childlike thing," says Lori Wolff, a social worker, her teacup poodle in her lap. "I know my dog is not a person. But it's who I nurture. It's my childlike relationship. It's not better than or as good as a child. It's what it is." Though for Wolff, dogs were clearly preferable. "They stay at that wonderful age," she says, "maybe 6 or 9 months old, where they're all giggles and joy and play and they don't talk back to you or stay out late at night. You just have all the good things."

Of course, at times, pets are treated too much like people. One day, a gentle Vietnam vet toted in his round-as-a-Buddha spider monkey with a condition that appeared to be diet-related osteoporosis.

"Do you give him much fruit?" Dr. Donnelly asked.

"He likes apricot ice cream" was the tentative reply.

"And vegetables?"

"He likes Mexican food," the vet was told.


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