Friday, March 30, 2012

The Broken-Eared

This is an installment in the ongoing Vet Tech Tales - Part 2 series.


“Animal Clinic. How may I help you?”

I always dreaded answering the phone when I was covering for Joan, our receptionist. What If the caller asked a question I didn’t know the answer to? I couldn’t very well refer every inquiry to one of the vets. What if I gave someone the wrong information?

My heart sped a little faster at the pause on the other end. Someone trying to figure out how to ask a question never boded well.

“Yeah, um, I was wondering … do you guys treat Dobermans?”

Perhaps I’d misheard. “Dobermans?” I repeated.

“Yeah, ‘cause, you know, some vets I’ve called say they won’t treat them.”

I blinked. That was news to me. “Well, we see them all the time here. What are you needing?”

“His shots.”

I took down the caller’s name, Rick Juarez, and set up a time. Only after I’d scheduled the appointment and we’d hung up did I stop to think maybe it was this particular Doberman other vets refused to treat. Maybe it was vicious toward other dogs. Maybe it had threatened a staff member or two at other clinics.

As the appointment time approached, I warned the vets about my fears. We steeled ourselves for a potential hostile encounter.

I happened to be at the reception desk when Rick came in. Alone. Without his dog. He scouted the room, seeing only one elderly woman with a Pekingese tucked away safely in a crate. He seemed satisfied and approached the desk to fill out the new-client paperwork. While he was occupied, I stole a surreptitious peek out the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of the dog in his car. No luck.

Rick handed back the completed papers. “I’ll go get Rocky.”

I nodded. While Rick headed outside I ducked into the back to get my coworker, Charla -- just in case. She grabbed a roll of gauze we could use as a makeshift muzzle at need and followed me back to the reception desk.

The cowbell tied to the door frame jangled and Rocky lunged into the room, straining against his collar. When he saw us, his nails scrabbled wildly against the slick tile as he fought the leash to reach us.

Charla and I looked at each other, daring the other to be first to laugh. The black-and-tan monster confronting us couldn’t have been more than 10 weeks old. The puppy yipped in frustration. We knelt beside him to share the kisses the gangly youngster was so eager to give.

In hindsight, Rick may well have heard that some vets would not crop ears – a practice many were ethically against – and assumed that extended to not seeing the breed at all. As it was, Rocky returned to us a couple of weeks later to have his ears reshaped from hound-dog floppy to stiff-soldier erect. 

Rocky’s was the first ear crop I ever assisted with. Later, I would do ear crops myself. Later, there would be many things I did – neuters, dentistry, declaws – that owners never realized weren’t being done by the vet. The laws in Texas at the time stipulated only that treatment and non-invasive surgeries needed to be supervised by a vet, not performed by one. And that was generally interpreted to mean a vet needed to simply be on the premises, not necessarily in the same room.   

Even later, there were many things I refused to do because it finally became clear to me they were not in an animal’s best interest. Ear cropping was one. But until Rocky I had never seen it done.

Once Rocky was sedated, I shaved his ears and lathered them with disinfectant. Dr. Norris marked the cut lines using mainly judgment as his go-by. Then, just as you’d cut a dress pattern from a piece of cloth, he cut the ears to shape. I winced as a thin stream of blood spurted into the air from a wayward bleeder. Using a small pair of hemostats, Norris quickly clamped the bleeder off then began the tedious process of sewing together the edges of the first ear – up one side, down the other, repeat on the second ear. Meanwhile I stood by and sopped up the blood pooling along the unsewn cut lines.

Even well-shaped and well-cut Doberman ears do not immediately stand on their own. The cartilage has to be trained to hold the ears erect. After the ears were sewn, Dr. Norris cut two 2-inch swaths from a thick roll of cotton and handed me one along with a roll of adhesive bandage tape. I followed his lead in wrapping the cotton swath tightly, producing a stiff cylinder about 5 inches long and an inch in diameter. We then tucked the bottoms of the cylindrical forms into Rocky’s ear canals and wrapped the pinnas – the loose flaps of ear – around each form, using gauze to protect the still-raw edges before taping the ear from base to tip around the form. Pieces of tape stretched between the ears held the ears up and parallel to one another at the top of the head.

Rocky would have to wear this helmet gear for 2 weeks before we cut it off to remove the stitches. Then we’d insert new forms and re-tape his ears, which he’d wear for another 4-6 weeks barring infection or an over-active pup scratching or rubbing the contraption off.

When Rick came to pick up Rocky the next morning I noticed the bags under his eyes and an overall haggard look about him. I lifted an eyebrow. “Long night?”

“Yeah. Working.”

“A night shift? That sucks.”

He laughed. “Things could be worse.”

“Maybe. Where do you work?”


I knew I was staring. I couldn’t help it. Chippendale’s was a male strip club, the first to open – and only recently at that – in this conservative city of a couple of hundred thousand.  I was barely old enough to get into Chippendale’s doors and here was one of the strippers right in front of me – in the flesh, so to speak.

Only he didn’t look like what I thought one of the strippers might. He had a compact and fit body, that much was true. And his face, with its beginnings of a 5 o’clock shadow, certainly wouldn’t scare anyone away. But when I tried to imagine him rocking it away onstage for a group of screaming women my imagination wasn’t up to the task. Rick just looked normal – and tired. Not like a fantasy guy at all.

It could also be he was pulling my leg. He could just as easily have been a stock boy in a 24-hour store or an attendant for an all-night service station. Maybe “Chippendale’s” was just his come-on line.

“So what’s the tab for Rocky?”

 “Um—” I returned my attention to the business at hand. “Seventy-five dollars.”

Rick nodded, then reached into the deep pocket of his loose-fit jeans and pulled out a wad of bills. All ones.

“Sorry.” He grinned a little sheepishly as he began counting, smoothing out the length-wise creases as he laid the bills on the countertop.

Before that moment it had never occurred to me how strippers spent those tips tucked into their G-strings.

Back in the kennel, l removed a decidedly unhappy Rocky from his cage. I couldn’t be sure if Rocky was more depressed over having been abandoned into our care or being forced to wear the equivalent of a beanie cap – or braces – in public. Even my sugar-sweet “good puppy” couldn’t elicit so much as one wag of his stump of a tail.

When he saw Rick, though, he squirmed in delight, dancing around his owner as soon as I put him down. Daddy! He hadn’t been abandoned after all!

We saw Rocky again to take out his stitches two weeks later, and then, unexpectedly, a week after that. While Rick was at work one night, Rocky managed to scratch the tape off one ear and to dislodge the rolled-cotton form. Not yet built up enough to the point of handling the weight of the erect ear, the cartilage in the middle of the pinna broke down over the next few hours, causing the ear to flop over at the breakpoint. The damage was beyond the ability of tape and forms to correct.

Had Rocky been destined for the show ring, his career would have been over that day. Rick, though disappointed, accepted the outcome with a philosophical shrug. “I only got his ears cropped because everyone does. Give him that fierce Doberman look, you know. But that bent ear makes him look kind of adorable, doesn’t it?”

I don’t think I’d ever been so much in love with a male stripper as I was right then. Any man who could look past the shape of his dog’s ears was pretty much all right in my book.

And another advantage for having him as a client: After a visit from Rick and Rocky, it would be days before we found our cash drawer short of dollar bills.


Karen said...

How sad that people do those kinds of things to animals! Poor little guys. Great story, P!

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Lovely Dobie story. I still miss my clever sweet boys. They took companionship to a new level for me.