April 17, 2009
Have you seen the movie “Marley and Me” or read the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein?
I had the pleasure of digesting both of these entertainments in the same week! They are best sellers and mainstream America is witnessing the human-animal bond on the Big Screen big-time. Each took its audience to find puppy love. Training (or the lack of it) was part of each story. Marley was incorrigible. Enzo, the canine narrator of “Racing in the Rain,” was the ultimate philosopher dog who educated himself by watching TV.
Enzo felt genetically shortchanged without prehensile thumbs and a small, facile tongue, which would have made speech possible for him.
In fact, Enzo felt that if dogs had thumbs and quality tongues, they would be fit to physically challenge the world better than humans. Many of Enzo’s observations reveal the author’s wit, humor, insight, brilliance, emotion and an uncanny understanding of dogs and life in general.
Enzo knew that his gift of olfaction was superior to most medical diagnostic equipment because he could smell the cancer in his mistress long before anyone knew it was there. But he did not have the facile tongue to warn his beloved family. Enzo felt that in general, “Symptom-driven medicine … is always a step too late.”
He also felt that a diagnosis was almost a decree of doom that one had to act on and die where and when everyone expected. Enzo viewed lawyers with skepticism as they threatened, delayed, stayed and danced their game of allegations and piling paper on their opposition and piling bills on their clients.
Encounters with our veterinary profession also were featured. “Marley” put veterinarians in a good light as compassionate healers. Marley’s vet miraculously pulled him through his first episode of bloat. She was very sincere and kind during his second episode right until Marley’s last breath.
But I did not like the scene where the vet turned away after performing euthanasia without a pat on the shoulder or offering her condolences. A bond-centered euthanasia with soft lights, candles, a rainbow room and some empathetic pet-loss counseling that addressed the children in Marley’s family would have given viewers a glimpse of how involved veterinarians have become in bidding farewell to a best friend.
Enzo’s first encounter with a veterinarian was for dew claw removal. His breeder waited a bit too long for painless removal and the vet recommended pain control, which was refused because of the cost. The vet performed the procedure as the breeder held Enzo, who squirmed from the acute pain.
Enzo recalled that he felt betrayed and victimized twice over—once by his selfish breeder and once by the vet who performed the painful procedure anyway “to get paid.” It makes me sad to see this depiction of the “fee for service” or no service system in practice today.
The high cost of good veterinary medicine was a concerning theme in this book. When Enzo was hit by a car and taken for emergency care, the X-rays showed that he was afflicted with hip dysplasia and severe arthritis. I was relieved that the veterinarian allowed Denny Swift, Enzo’s master, who was a down-and-out race-car driver, to leave a $300 deposit (minus $20 for gas money to get home) after his credit cards were declined. The receptionist was instructed to allow Denny a chance to pay the balance.
I won’t reveal anything about the plots in the stories of either the movie or the book, because that might spoil the experience for you. Just be sure to have some Kleenex handy!
Since animals are so conspicuously in our lives, in our society, in our daily consciousness, it is natural to see more literature and film with the human-animal bond featured as an important part of the story.
I even found myself talking about the human-animal bond in a eulogy for my dear 88-year-old mother-in-law, Evelyn Lifland:
“Evie got into trouble at times … like the time she was attacked by a goat on her niece’s ranch in Florida and by a pig in Hawaii. … Most of all she loved being in her beach house, sitting in front of the fire with cat Fern purring on her lap for hours while she read the paper or watched TV. Fern was a Peter Zippi Fund rescue feral kitty. She liked to spend hours outdoors. But Fern stayed by Evelyn’s side on vigil for two weeks before she passed away. Fern lay next to Evie on the hospital bed for hours until the caretakers came to remove Fern and begin the funeral arrangements. Fern would not leave the bed for days afterward.
“How does a cat show grief? It can communicate only with its actions. We must interpret their emotions. Fern was sad. When hospice workers took Evie’s hospital bed, Fern stayed on Evie’s regular bed for another week. That is when I took her to my house to live with us.”
The racing commentary and the memorabilia in Stein’s book is very inspiring, exciting and fun. It reminded me of our race day last year at the Western Veterinary Conference. Thanks to Pets Best Insurance and its Dr. Jack Stephens, Morris Animal Foundation and Dr. Patty Olson, I had the chance to race a 650-horsepower NASCAR vehicle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It was a shock to most of the men, including my husband, when the speeds were announced. Yes, yours truly won a big trophy and a bottle of milk for being the fastest female driver, coming in second overall in the race. If you get the chance to go Racing to Save Pets with Pets Best, do it!
Alice Villalobos, DVM, looks at relationships among pets, owners and veterinary practitioners. She is on the editorial review board of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics and is an American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians member.
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