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The Intensive Pet Care Unit


Donnelly has gotten a needle.

"I'm usually good at resuscitating rats," says Takada. She sticks Junior back in her mouth.

Donnelly puts a needle into Junior's heart, small as an acorn.

"He's got a slow heartbeat," someone yells.

"He's coming back," Donnelly says with delight. The heart monitor shows a steady beat.

The beat, though, is unhealthy.

Takada is again breathing into Junior's mouth.

"Hey, Shawn," comes a visitor's voice from across the room. "Would you do that for me?"

Takada takes Junior out of her mouth. "Not for you," she launches back. "I'd do it for a rat, though." She turns back to Junior. Takada has somehow managed to keep her chewing gum in her mouth and her red lipstick straight.

Donnelly rushes Junior to the crash cart, where the lifesaving equipment is. A different set of helping hands takes over. Junior has a mask over his face. Oxygen is being forced into his lungs. Donnelly compresses Junior's heart with two fingers as if working finger cymbals. It's been twenty minutes.

"Are you feeling a heartbeat?"

"No," says Donnelly.

Takada, still there, says, "Then get the EPI again."

"Someone draw up EPI," says Donnelly evenly, though he worries that too many needles to Junior's tiny heart will kill him as surely as no heartbeat will. Instead, he searches for a fine vessel in the leg or the tiny penis. The heart monitor is leveling. He smacks the needle into the heart.

Donnelly has heard a faint heartbeat with his stethoscope.

"Come on, little boy."

"Yes, yes," shouts Donnelly, who hears a stronger beat. Then, "He's losing it."

"On one side of town, they're putting poison out to kill rats. On the other side, we're doing laser surgery on them for gum work."

"We lost the heartbeat."

Donnelly's lips are tight and thin and sealed. Junior is lying on brown paper on a black pad on a steel cart. "He's gone," Donnelly says quietly.

The leads come off, people disappear. Junior's mouth is ajar; his teeth are perfectly straight, held by the rubber band.

Miss Cintron says she's learned that tears don't help. The fact that her beloved pets -- she's had nineteen rats in eleven years -- drop dead every two years no matter how much care or time she invests forces the issue. "I can't cry anymore. I know tears don't solve anything," she says in an examining room shortly after Dr. Donnelly has delivered the sad news. Donnelly apologized and seemed shaken himself, then thanked her for being so nice. Animals, of course, die all the time at an animal hospital. "You want to save these animals," says Dr. Cindy Bressler. "A lot of times, you don't."

For owners like Miss Cintron who've recently lost their pets, the hospital runs a pet-grief group, a model for groups springing up all over the country. For some, the death of an animal can be traumatic. One member had been in the group for fifteen years, longer than she'd had her dog Scruffy. Some pet owners choose to bury their animals in pet cemeteries; Scruffy's owner reserved the plot next to Scruffy for herself. Some rat and mouse owners bury the rodents themselves; others, at a loss, keep them in boxes in the freezer waiting for a good idea. "Mousicles," said one, who keeps them frozen in shoeboxes. Miss Cintron decided to give Junior up for autopsy, to learn more about the cause of death.

First, though, she'd asked for a little time with him to say good-bye. Junior lies lifeless in the middle of a pad on a steel examining table. The other three rats -- she's brought them along -- are in their boxes on the side.

"Juni," she says. "Sweet Juni." He was her favorite, and she imagined a personality for him, though she points out that she didn't know, not definitively. He didn't seem athletic. But perhaps she hadn't brought that out in him. He was not a lap rat, though he liked being touched. He enjoyed the freedom when he got to roam around on her bed. "He was the first one to respond to my attention," she says. "He was the friendliest. He was happy when I held him." She liked to hug him to her chest, and kiss him.

It was easy to see that a relationship with animals -- rats for Miss Cintron, but for others it was dogs or cats or ferrets or anything really -- transformed lives and made them better. "Love is love," one of Miss Cintron's rat-owning friends says. "Attachment is attachment." And love and attachment gave weekend afternoons the sunny shape of possibility and filled them with activities and friendships, even purpose. "We planned our lives around our dogs" is how Lori Wolff puts it. "We laughed at the people who thought we were crazy."

As the animal-hospital psychologist says of owners whose grief, to some, seems exaggerated, "My patients are heartbroken, but at least they can feel."

Miss Cintron has given up Junior's dead body and moves on. She plans, she says, to spend more time playing with the three that are left. "I want to help them lead as enriched lives as possible," she says, though she sometimes worries they'll hurt themselves with the enrichment products, what Dr. Donnelly calls toys. Still, in the examining room, she gets on with the task of introducing the other three rats to one another. She holds one tightly in one hand, moves it toward the other as if it might be a child's model car, lets it smell the other rat, just a bit, then pulls it back -- enough for today.


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