It was a warm summer day, and I had been out and about running errands. As I turned the corner to go home, I spied a garter snake in the middle of the street. The snake in the street was as pretty as all garter snakes are—thin, green, red, and shiny with a little yellow. They’re common in my neighborhood; my favorite sighting was one slinking around the juniper bushes beside our house.
Something was not right about Mr. Snake in the Street. He wasn’t slinking anywhere, despite the hot sunshine and even hotter black asphalt.
Snakes are poikilothermic, or cold-blooded. Their body temperature changes with the environment around them, and if that environment is too hot or too cold, they’ll die. It’s not just the temperature extremes themselves that are dangerous; if you feed your pet snake when its body is too cold, it can’t digest the food. The undigested food rots, which kills the snake.
In the case of Mr. Snake in the Street, the asphalt was hot enough to literally cook him. If he stayed there too long, he’d die of hyperthermia.
He moved his head feebly as I watched through the car window. I noticed blood spatter on his head, so I figured he’d had an unfortunate encounter with a car.
I’m a veterinarian, and in my feline-exclusive veterinary practice, I dedicated my work and life to making the world better for cats. My in-home cat clinic was a converted one-car garage, licensed by the city solely for the care of cats.
A snake is not a cat, but that never stopped me from providing compassionate care when it was needed. I grieve for all animals that suffer, whether they’re pets or animals in the wild. I’d never refuse to treat a sick animal in an emergency situation—not only would that go against my own beliefs, but it goes against the Veterinarian’s Oath, too.
When I became a vet, I swore an oath, similar to human medicine’s Hippocratic Oath. The first part of the Veterinarian’s Oath is, “I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering. . .” I couldn’t protect the snake’s health, but I could relieve his suffering.
I parked my car in the drive and pulled on gloves, planning to retrieve the snake and euthanize him. By the time I reached him, he had already died. I gently laid him in the tall grass by the drainage ditch, where nature would take care of the rest.
Injured and dying snakes aren’t the only wild critters I’ve treated. As a volunteer at the Tucson Wildlife Center, I had plenty of opportunities to care for different species.
One of the most common looked like a domestic kitten. Good Samaritans would find what they thought was an abandoned kitten and bring it to their local veterinarian for help. But these kittens weren’t domestic or abandoned; they were bobcat kittens.
Vets are required to have a special license to treat wild animals, so the usual procedure was for the regular vet to examine the bobcat kitten, insert a needle to hydrate it with subcutaneous fluids, and, if the kitten was healthy enough, feed it Kitten Milk Replacer. Then the vet called the Tucson Wildlife Center to make arrangements to transfer the kitten, where it would be cared for by a wildlife specialist until it could be released back into the wild.
My favorite animals at the wildlife center were the Great Horned Owl chicks. Many weren’t injured; they’d just fallen out of their nest. A helpful human passing by had found them and brought them to the center. I took great pleasure in feeding these youngsters. I wore thick gloves and held a piece of mouse with long-nosed forceps. I swear those chicks looked at me with pure hate—they wanted another owl feeding them, not this weird creature with the forceps—but they snatched the food and gulped it down.
When the wildlife vet declared that the chick was ready to return to nature, a volunteer or staff member headed into the desert, found any occupied Great Horned Owl nest, propped a ladder next to the tree, climbed up, and dropped the owlet into the nest. Great Horned Owls are excellent parents and, although their nests are sloppy and a fall hazard for owlets, the adults accept babies that aren’t their own and will raise them until they can fly.
Back home in Colorado, my cat clinic occasionally hosted non-cat pets, too.
A mother and daughter waited in the exam room with the daughter’s pet rat. The rat’s name was Jennifer. She was soft and brown, just your basic rat that could be a pet, snake food, or a research subject.
Rats make excellent pets, but I must confess they are one of the few animals that give me the willies. They’re kind and friendly, but there’s something about that bald, scaly tail with sparse hair that makes me cringe. I also do not care for the yellow gnawing incisors or the malodorous droppings.
It didn’t matter whether or not I disliked rats in general or Jennifer in particular. Jennifer’s people were worried about her, didn’t know where else to go, and I had a job to do. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax so I could listen to what they had to say. When they finished, I knew what the problem was, even without examining Jennifer.
I turned Jennifer on her back, revealing the swelling on her abdomen that her owners had noticed: a mammary carcinoma (breast cancer). The mass was leaking reddish serous fluid, lending more credence to my diagnosis.
The treatment for breast cancer in rats begins with a lateral chest radiograph to see if the cancer has metastasized to the lungs. If it has, it’s game over for the rat; pulmonary metastatic breast cancer is fatal. If it hasn’t, treatment is a mastectomy. That may have a good outcome, but it’s expensive. The average life span of a pet rat is about two years, and Jennifer was well into her second year already.
After discussing these options, Mom and daughter decided to take Jennifer home to enjoy as much time as she had left. As always, I offered euthanasia at no cost for when the time came. I only charged for this service if it was a first time client bringing in the patient specifically for euthanasia.
I never saw Jennifer or her people again—I suspect she died peacefully in her sleep—but I was glad I could help, even though Jennifer was not a cat.
During the years I ran my cat clinic, I was also teaching junior high school science. My fellow science teacher, Chuck, had a class rat named Scruphy. Although the junior high didn’t allow classroom pets any more, Scruphy had been in Chuck’s room for several years, and the school administration was unaware of her existence. Scruphy’s history was exactly like Jennifer’s, but Scruphy was ready to be put to sleep.
Chuck asked if I would handle Scruphy’s euthanasia. Despite fretting that someone would find out that I was bringing a syringe filled with pentobarbital (an ingredient in the lethal injection cocktail used for executions) into a junior high school, I agreed.
In the early morning quiet at the back of the science department workroom, I euthanized Scruphy. With no way to find a vein in a rat, I injected the deadly solution into the liver. Immediately after, I ran outside and hid the syringe in my car.
Next, I did a partial necropsy on Scruphy, excising the tumor from her chest wall. Chuck and I laid Scruphy’s remains on a cart, placed the huge tumor mass next to her body for size comparison, and covered everything with a moist towel. Throughout the day, we asked our kids if they wanted to see cancer in a rat. It was entirely up to them; we wouldn’t force them to look, and we certainly wouldn’t risk traumatizing them.
I was amazed that most kids did want to see the specimens, which meant I had to toss my planned lesson for the day. We had a study hall day instead, while my students waited their turn to see a real-life example of cancer.
Mr. Snake in the Street, the bobcat kits and owl chicks, Jennifer, and Scruphy all needed relief of their suffering, including veterinary care. I felt fortunate to be there, because even though I’d chosen to practice on one species—cats—I was able to fulfill my promise to “practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.” In those moments, there is never a question of shouldI help another species; there is only the commitment to help the animal in the best way possible.