Dr. Thomas Donnelly, a leader in his field, pokes his head into the waiting room and searches for Miss Cintron. Around the Animal Medical Center, she is sometimes affectionately called the Rat Lady, a distinction she hardly thinks she deserves. After all, she has only Junior, her black rat, and Tony, a brown one, plus two champagne-colored rats. One person she knows through her rat club has close to 100.
Miss Cintron arrived a bit early this morning, as she often does. She doesn’t mind a little wait for Dr. Donnelly, who’s taken care of her rats for years. She takes a chair in the easy-to-clean room with the cats and dogs of every variety, long-haired breeds ill-suited to the local climate – a panting Alaskan husky is there one day – as well as mutts. Dog and cat owners chat amiably, sharing secrets. “I give her sushi,” one woman confides. Occasionally, Mrs. Vincent Astor, who’s lent her name and energies to the hospital’s constant fund-raising, accompanies, in her gloves and hat, Boysy and Girlsy, her quick-footed dachshunds. Dr. Donnelly’s other clients – hedgehogs, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits – arrive in small cages. Bernie Goetz, who once shot four kids on the subway, brings in wounded squirrels and pays to have them treated. Toucans stake out a shoulder, and sometimes a couple of mallards stand, each on its own chair, honking at what must seem an unruly flock.
Miss Cintron sometimes visits the hospital three or four times a month, lugging her rats in plastic containers inside D’Agostino bags. “To me, they’re all my little children, as meaningful, as important to me as a person,” she says, though 18-month-old Junior – she calls him Juni sometimes – may be her favorite. Dr. Donnelly has been especially diligent in tracking Junior’s health problems. “He’s my king,” she says as the vet escorts her to one of the two dozen examining rooms.
People in New York will do anything for their pets – it’s a corollary of apartment life in Manhattan, where a terrier or a Siamese (or ferret or iguana or toucan or turtle or snake – or, yes, rat) can be a shield against big-city loneliness. So it stands to reason that New York’s animals would have their own state-of-the-art care center, right on hospital row, just south of Mt. Sinai and New York Hospital on East 62nd Street. In a sense, the Animal Medical Center is a children’s-book world, a charmed circle; here, animals are cared for as if they were people. Injured pets are wheeled in on stretchers, past plaques honoring hospital benefactors and into the purposeful turmoil of orderlies, technicians, and coolly efficient doctors in white coats, stethoscopes hooked around necks. Does your cat have a brain tumor? The Animal Medical Center offers brain surgery. Cavities? There’s a dentist. You say your snake isn’t eating? Perhaps an X-ray is in order.
In the examining room, a boxy space with jars of Q-Tips and cotton balls, Miss Cintron – her name is Raquel, but Dr. Donnelly has an old-fashioned bent – moves methodically through her concerns, ticking them off her list, her nose pressed close, since she’s nearsighted. Today she is mostly worried about Junior. He is, as Dr. Donnelly explains, a fascinating rat; his medical problems are unending and often difficult to diagnose. Miss Cintron had noticed that he occasionally had blood in his urine. It wasn’t life-threatening – and that’s a life of perhaps two years – but still, Miss Cintron wanted to know the cause. So Junior had undergone three cystocenteses, an intravenous paleogram, special blood work – and nothing showed up. Then he’d had skin problems, and a form of pneumonia. He’s got a medical file two inches thick.
“Chemo in animals is a lot less toxic than in humans. Only 15 percent experience really bad side effects, like nausea or lack of appetite or loss of whiskers.”
Today Junior’s feet are her first concern – one of them has broken out in ugly blisters. Miss Cintron, 56, has strong, handsome features and a taut iron-colored braid, and as she talks she extends a lithe arm that Junior, plump and Twinkie-like, runs along on his pink, skittering feet, including the blistered one. He balances on her shoulder, nuzzles her neck. Junior’s long, hairless tail hangs briefly down her back, next to Miss Cintron’s long braid. She’d tried putting Junior on a diet. He’s a little chubby, and that might be part of the problem. Miss Cintron, a senior research technician at NYU School of Medicine, feeds Junior three times a day. “Otherwise, he gets irritable,” she confides, though she’s trying to feed him less at each meal.
As Dr. Donnelly considers the matter, his nose begins to itch. He’s allergic to rats – to most animals, actually – and he’s taken a precautionary corticosteroid and antihistamine. (He carries an emergency needle with him in case he goes into anaphylactic shock.) He wears plastic gloves, but still he’s affected.
“I think he needs to do a soaking,” says Dr. Donnelly, ignoring his allergy.
“I could try,” says Miss Cintron, momentarily unsure.
“Epsom salts, Miss Cintron,” explains Dr. Donnelly, though he wants to double-check and makes a note to himself – he’s a bit forgetful.
AMC is one of a handful of elite animal hospitals in the country and the largest private one. Reminders of the nature of the clientele are continuous – “Cat loose!” you’ll hear as a feline breaks for freedom, or a dog will lift a proprietary leg against a wall – and yet the institution takes most of its cues from high-powered human medicine. Inside the Elmer Holmes Bobst-endowed door – he’s the same donor who paid for NYU’s red-clay library on Washington Square – there’s a list of over 80 vets in 28 specialties. “Here we don’t ever say, ‘We don’t do that,’ or ‘We don’t have the equipment,’ ” explains Dr. John Broussard, an endoscopist who spent a few dull, financially rewarding years in private practice. These days, under videoscopic guidance, Broussard winds a tube into animals’ bellies, snatching back the many things they manage to swallow. Recently, a dog showed up having ingested two condoms, though the owner admitted to only one at first. And one day, Dr. Andrew Obstler was running around with Wimpy in his arms. Wimpy was a dopey-looking beagle who had jumped out of a moving car, mauling his leg; and as if that weren’t enough, while he lay on the street, he’d gobbled a bottle cap.
In any given week at AMC, a vet might see dozens of cases. “The pace is insane, says Obstler (and he should know from insane, having worked as a Wall Street oil trader before deciding to become a vet). For interns like Obstler, shifts are sometimes sixteen hours, and a veterinary machismo prevails. “You want to see all the big, heavy stuff,” is how one resident puts it. “The stuff other vets don’t see.”
For instance, there was Pugsly, a licking, almost grinning pug from Queens who’d been banging his recessed nose into telephone poles until Dr. Alexandra van der Woerdt, a veterinary ophthalmologist, microsurgically removed his cataracts. (She’d worked on ferrets, birds, and even, once, a snake.) “Now,” says his pleased owner, “he goes right for the Cheerios we drop on the floor at breakfast.”
Then there was the Wheaten terrier who took a limo in from Philadelphia and got hooked to a kidney-dialysis machine (a human one) in a room endowed in the memory of a dog named Bear. Soon the same nephrology department will be transplanting kidneys, using stray cats as donors. (Cats can live with one kidney, so owners whose cats get a kidney go home with two cats – the hospital requires that they adopt the donor.)
There was also a red-eared slider turtle named Gigi, a boy, though the owners didn’t know – motionless on a towel, a syringe of anesthesia taped to its shell, about to have an oral mass explored. (The turtle will awake from the anesthesia gently flapping its legs as if trying to swim away.) Or a high-rise kitty might come in for repairs – they’ve seen cats survive falls of 40 floors. The ICU might have an older cat with a shot bladder in whom vets installed what amounted to a faucet. The owners have to open it three times a day.
Dr. Sean Aiken, once a traveling surgeon, now replaces arthritic hips with shiny steel ball-and-socket joints. He fixes torn knee ligaments – the same anterior-cruciate-ligament injuries that human athletes get. If needed, blood transfusions are available from the hospital’s supply of greyhounds. These animals, saved from racetrack extinction, are kept for two years, then given away as pets. In the basement, the oncology department – directed by Dr. Philip Bergman, who’s just finished training at MD Anderson, the human cancer center – offers radiation therapy from its own cyclotron, one of two on the east coast, as well as chemotherapy. “Chemo in animals is a lot less toxic than in humans,” Bergman says. “Only 15 percent experience really bad side effects, like nausea or lack of appetite or loss of whiskers.”
Dr. Aiken recently took a tumor from his own dog’s jawbone. “He’s so senile, so cute, he can’t figure out why he can’t yawn,” says Aiken. He’s also moved into brain surgery. “There’s nothing out of the realm of what we’ll try,” he says. First, he’d studied up on the procedure, then he got a human neurosurgeon to sit by his side in the OR to give him pointers as he opened his first cat’s skull.
“It’s unusual to have a facility to save animal’s lives,” says Mark Sibley-Schreiber, one of the parents belonging to Tristan, a 15-year-old bichon frise who’s currently in residence in the ICU’s oxygen cage. Tristan has all the problems of a geriatric patient and all the attendant specialists: pulmonologist, cardiologist, urologist, dentist. And now a critical-care doctor too. Mark and partner Paul Sibley-Schreiber rushed Tristan to the ICU one night when he had trouble breathing. “Has he moved his bowels yet?” Paul asks delicately when he’s allowed a few minutes in the ICU to celebrate Tristan’s birthday. Hearing that he hasn’t, Paul turns to Tristan: “You do it on my Oriental rug, don’t you?”
At times, the vets measure themselves in terms of lives saved. A couple of days before, they’d tried to save a ferret, brown and squirrelly, who’d been discovered unconscious in the ICU next to Tristan, the bichon frise. Once, they’d tried to save a twelve-foot ball python, which had to be laid on two gurneys arranged end to end. (They’d searched for its heart in the four feet nearest the mouth.) And recently, they’d revived a bird, though when a resident pointed out, “We already saved one today,” the short, commanding medical director let him know, “You’re allowed to save more than one. It’s like fishing that way.”
One night, Dr. Jennifer Prittie, a very thin, energetic critical-care resident (“I forget to eat,” she says. “I get busy”), brings in a dog from a facility where she moonlights. “The first vet said it was rat poisoning,” she says in a scandalized tone. She’d loaded the black mutt, which had a hard mass in its belly, into a cab and brought him to the Animal Medical Center, arriving toward midnight. “I got him out of there,” she announces brightly.
Then another vet races up a corridor carrying a dirty, tattered poodle like an armful of logs. In a few seconds, the vet backs through swinging double doors and into the resuscitation room. Quickly, Linda Barton, head of the ICU, is there, and so are half a dozen others.
“Car?” someone asks.
“He would’ve been lucky to be hit by a car,” says Barton. The poodle, who’d been scooped up by a motorist from the side of a Bronx road, lies still as a bolster, except for a slight involuntary shiver. An oxygen mask is slipped over his snout. “Get some fluids in him,” says Barton, a farmer’s daughter who never raises her voice. When no one moves, she adds, even more nicely, “Why doesn’t someone work on getting fluids ready?” Someone grabs the electric clippers that dangle from the ceiling and shaves a patch so that a vessel can be exposed, an IV started. A nurse snaps heart-monitor clips to all four legs.
Around the moribund poodle, the tight scrum of emergency workers is intimate, almost chatty. “I’m going to bet he’s about to die,” says a nurse. His heart is working, but barely.
“He’s in bad shape,” agrees Barton, almost to herself. “I don’t think he got hit by a car.” She’s guessing it was a pit bull.
“He got gotten by something,” says someone.
Barton touches the poodle’s abdomen and the dog screams, sounding like a cow, his first real sign of life. “Oh, you hurt, don’t you, baby?” says Barton. There, it seems, is where the pit bull might have done its damage.
He has several puncture wounds, and he’s freezing, and if several things don’t happen in a short period of time, he could well slip away. A rectal thermometer reveals that his body temperature is perhaps six degrees below normal. He’s placed inside an inflatable cocoon filled with hot air.
The dog’s and owner’s names still aren’t known; later, they’ll discover an identification chip implanted in the scruff of the dog’s neck, a method to make sure a lost dog gets returned. In this case, it works. The owner, it will turn out, is in the Navy and will be located at sea, happy to hear that in her poodle’s case, fluids have gotten in, wounds have been fixed, body temperature has been nudged back to normal; that, in general, the dying process has ably been reversed.
Back in the examining room, Miss Cintron is proceeding through her list of concerns. Next is the matter of Junior’s cage. Junior lives in a beautiful, multilevel ferret condo. Unfortunately, it has a wire-mesh floor. Dr. Donnelly believes that this may be part of the blister problem (which is known, technically, as bumblefoot): mesh irritating Junior’s delicate pink feet. But Miss Cintron worries that if Junior is evicted from his condo, “he’ll be bored in a small cage,” she says.
“You could put two rats together,” suggests Dr. Donnelly.
“They haven’t been introduced,” says Miss Cintron, alarmed.
“You could put toys in for him,” Dr. Donnelly continues enthusiastically.
The appointment has lasted nearly an hour, and clients are backing up. Fortunately, Miss Cintron, conscious of the time – “I don’t want to take up your whole day,” she says – jumps to her principal concern, Junior’s teeth. Rats, like Donnelly’s next client, a rabbit, have continuously growing incisors. Usually, rats grind them down. But if the teeth fall out of alignment, even slightly, they’ll grow into the gums. In the wild – that is, in the subways – they starve to death.
Dr. Donnelly wants to take a closer look at Junior’s mouth. He lifts Junior around his plump middle, and Junior promptly pees – he often does that – and drops a couple Raisinet-size fecal pellets. Gloves on, Donnelly pulls Junior’s jaws open. Junior complains. Squeak-squeak-squeak. The bottom teeth are splayed in a V. There’s a small patch of pink gum poking through.
“We could remove that gum with a laser,” Dr. Donnelly says. “The teeth won’t be separated as much.”
“Interesting,” Miss Cintron says in agreement.
“I’ll speak to the dentist,” says Dr. Donnelly.
Dr. Donnelly wants to check Junior’s heart. He reaches for his stethoscope but discovers it’s not around his neck, its usual spot. He’s forgotten his stethoscope, and runs off to fetch it, his eyes watering from allergies.
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.
“He likes Mexican food,” the vet was told.
When Dr. Donnelly explained that he’d have to knock him out for the examination, the vet freaked. But then it was explained that, really, it was like the monkey would be stoned, and certainly not killed. “Oh,” the vet said, much calmer, “he gets stoned with me.”
On the day of Junior’s laser surgery, Dr. Donnelly arrives a few minutes late, rushing up in his usual Gap khakis, blue button-down shirt and Hermès animal tie – today’s features birds. He’s also wearing a hedgehog lapel pin, given to him by a hedgehog-owning client. “It takes an exotic person to own an exotic pet,” you sometimes hear people say. It’s true that someone like Miss Cintron has her quirks: She won’t, for instance, have visitors. “Oh, no,” she says, looking panicked. “I’m a clutter person.” Still, Dr. Donnelly insists, “They’re eccentric, but in a really nice way. I love my clients. They’re funny but innocent,” he says, “and they cherish the lives of their beloved little pets. I can work with them.”
Dr. Donnelly takes Junior from Miss Cintron, leaving her in the waiting room to consult a catalogue of environmental-enrichment products – the rat-toy catalogue he’d promised her.
“I’m not working today,” Miss Cintron calls cheerily, “so I have all day.”
Dr. Donnelly takes Junior off to the exotics department, a small room with a wall of cages. Greggy, a Congo African gray parrot, rides by on Dr. Ben Otten’s shoulder and leaves a whitish deposit on his shirt. Sixteen years ago, Greggy’s owner couldn’t afford further treatment for her asthmalike symptoms. So exotics adopted her. She’s extremely intelligent, like a 6-year-old kid, it’s said, and on a couple of occasions she’s managed to open all the cages, liberating the lizards and turtles, bunnies, birds, who crawl or hop or fly gamely around the overheated room. greggy rules, it says on her cage. An anorexic rat is in the house today. There’s also a cockatiel and a limp ferret whose owner has authorized a myelogram. (The hospital doesn’t act on Giuliani’s prohibition against ferrets as pets.)
“Come on, who’s a good rat?” says Dr. Donnelly, turning to Junior. He sticks him with a syringe of sedative, but the needle bends in the thick skin near Junior’s butt.
“Hopefully that will get him under,” Dr. Donnelly says when the second try enters. “Then we can gas him.”
It’s a busy day in the surgery department when Junior breezes through, heading for the dental suite. Another rat, a nervous one, has been having breast tumors removed. A husky is also on the schedule. Huskies are criers, warns one of the vets. A mutt, a biter, has a big tumor on a leg. Heinous, says another surgeon.
Already the beach is busy. The beach is an area in the OR recovery room, so called because it’s kept warm and also, no doubt, because for once the species lie down side by side, unconscious and picture-perfect – so far, there’s a pit bull who got a severed artery fixed, a ginger cat who had an eye removed, and a bunny rabbit, all of them on a single inflated mattress, as if taking in the sun.
The dental suite is tucked into a corner of surgery, and Dr. Dan Carmichael, the only board-certified veterinary dentist in New York, and his assistant, Shawn Takada, a red-haired Irish woman married to a Japanese man, are already at work. She’s chewing gum and cleaning the teeth of a collie – the owner will be sent home with chicken-flavored toothpaste.
“On one side of town, they’re putting poison out to kill rats,” notes Dr. Carmichael. “On the other side, we’re doing laser surgery on them for gum work.”
Junior is laid out on a gurney on his belly, his four limbs spread, his body toneless. Carmichael wears a blue scrub top stained with what looks like blood. He is a fixer of problems, pulling teeth, getting dirty. He sets the small pad of a dental X-ray in Junior’s tiny mouth. Everyone is ushered out of the room, though Carmichael stays. There’s no way to fix the X-ray between the rat’s teeth, so he holds it. “Shoot,” he yells. He’s got a chair-side developer, which gives the image back in a few seconds.
“There’s no periodontal pocketing,” he announces, then wheels over the laser. Junior is rolled onto his back, his four limbs sticking into the air like weather vanes. The laser – state-of-the-art, says Carmichael – is about the dimensions of an IV pole and bag, though sturdier. Plastic surgeons use it to take out people’s wrinkles.
The laser tip is held like a pencil. From any distance, it doesn’t do a thing. Up close, it suntans. Closer, it burns. Carmichael asks if Donnelly would like to do the operation. “I’d love to try,” says Donnelly. “I did that laser course.”
Donnelly works between the teeth, and in a few minutes, the pink wad of tissue that had poked between the teeth is gone. Junior’s neck is tinted with blood. Carmichael pulls from a drawer a rubber band, the kind used on human braces. He fastens it over the two bottom teeth, pulling them together – orthodontic splinting. With a drill, Carmichael evens the bottom two incisors. The procedure is over and successful.
Then, suddenly, Donnelly lifts Junior’s hind two legs in the air, drops them, lifts them. Someone says, “Oh, shit.” The rat has arrested. There’s no heartbeat, no breathing. Shawn Takada rushes over. She grabs Junior with two hands, as if he might be a musical instrument, and puts his head into her mouth. She breathes.
“I can’t do that,” mutters Donnelly to no one in particular. It’s the allergies. Once, he did just such a CPR maneuver to save a laboratory rat and had to be rushed to the hospital.
“We lost the rat,” someone says.
“Shit,” Donnelly says quietly. He runs for some epinephrine. There are five or six people around now, ready to help, in blue scrub suits and white coats.
“C’mon, baby,” says Takada, momentarily taking Junior out of her mouth. “Breathe.”
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.