Cats and dogs
(Co-authored with Natalia Loginova)

A good home should be more like a small zoo.
Gerald Durrell

N.L.: My craziest dream came true. I spent two months visiting each veterinary hospital of southern Bay Area, filling application forms and answering test questions (which included subtracting two-digit numbers and spelling words like diarrhea and veterinary). And I got a job! During the interview, I was warned about our doctor's explosive personality, tremendous hardships of keeping data, walking dogs, and assisting during surgery. I had no documented experience in any of these areas, but I said I'd do my best.

V.D.: The online classes Natalia had taken came handy. They were purely theoretical, of course, but looked good on her resume.

N.L.: The most difficult part of my new job was getting up at six. I was missing the free schedule of software companies.

V.D: It was difficult for both of us. To get poor Natasha out of bed, I had to make her coffee, then bring her one (sometimes both) of our cats. She was able to get up only if a cat's face was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes.

N.L.: At first I mostly worked in the kennels, feeding, cleaning, bathing, grooming and walking animals. In winter it was easy work. But during the vacation season we usually had more than thirty dogs in the kennels. Every morning I was greeted by deafening noise: barking, howling, banging of metal dishes. Thirty happy dog faces were watching me from behind bars: "Finally! Now we'll go for a walk and then EAT!"

Walking dogs was a long and complicated procedure. You had to know each dog's individual quirks. Some didn't understand the purpose of it all, and waited until the were back in cages to do what they were expected to. Others had established routes and rituals, essential for achieving the desired result. And some had absolutely no training. I only weighed 110 pounds, so rottweilers and mastiffs could easily tug me. They would run around the block, studying every smell within a mile from the clinic, while I was trying to keep up with them. Fortunately, the only people who saw these circus acts that early in the morning were the employees of a bike shop next door. They kept their cool no matter what.

V.D: Poor Natasha! On weekends I helped her walk the dogs, and even for me it was hard sometimes. But she had an amazing talent for working with animals. She could handle even with the largest, most aggressive dogs nobody else could approach.

N.L.: In addition to dogs and cats, we provided boarding for Guinea pigs, rabbits, and other animals. Once someone left with us six adult rats and fifteen babies. After each feeding we nervously counted them to make sure no one had escaped. Still, cats were by far the most difficult animals to work with. Most of them got very unfriendly if incarcerated in an unfamiliar place. Sometimes putting a dish in their cage was like facing a pride of lions. If the owner was cruel enough to want his cat bathed, it took two people, twenty towels, one hour, and a lot of nerve cells. Bathing cats was the most tricky job, and the most stupid. I could never understand why anyone would want his cat bathed: it did nothing but stress out the animal.

Well, the kennels (we called them "doggy jail") were not the main part of the hospital. Soon I was out of the boot camp, and started assisting the doctor. The most common surgery was neutering. I'd probably still be able to prepare a cat for castration with my eyes closed.

V.D: Since that time I never dared argue with Natalia...

N.L.: Vets usually get much more bites and scratches from cats than from dogs. A dog is easy to muzzle, a cat has teeth AND claws. Sometimes we had to make a "cat burrito" by wrapping the animal into blankets. Dogs are easier to control, although small ones can be very unpredictable, and large ones - very heavy.

V.D: I've known many circus performers, animal trainers, and zoologists, and Natalia was the best at working with animals. Still, she always had lots of scars on her hands and arms. She got very tired at work, but I could see that she enjoyed it much more than anything related to computers.

N.L.: I liked the work a lot. But one day our technician got promoted to manager. It was a good illustration of the rule according to which each employee in a hierarchy rises to the level of his incompetence. A very good tech was so aggressive and ineffective as a manager that everything fell apart in a few weeks.

V.D: Their doctor quit and took a job in another hospital on the condition that he'd be able to hire Natalia as his assistant. Then he took a vacation and went home to Canada for two months, leaving her in charge of organizing everything and ordering new equipment. The new place mostly specialized in horses and other large animals; cats and dogs were only a side business.

N.L.: It would've probably been easier to create the small animals division from scratch than to reform it. Everybody had been working there for decades, never changing the routine. Surgery style and sanitary conditions resembled a Crimean War-era frontline hospital. The doctors were unaware of the most basic things: modern antiseptics, new drugs, electronic equipment. Nurses were barely literate: they would write "bordella" instead of "bordetella" and couldn't convert ounces into pounds. When my doctor returned from vacation, he spent six months desperately trying to force others to follow at least the most important rules and regulations. But it was very difficult.

V.D: Every evening, I had to listen to countless horror stories. The worst ones, however, were not about the senile doctors, but about pet owners.

N.L.: Pet owners could be divided into two categories. "Jewish mothers" entertained us with screams "Stop it, it hurts!" (when we were shaving a spot on a cat's leg before measuring blood pressure), or with questions like "Isn't my dog a little bit overweight?" (when the dog looked like a water melon with legs and could hardly breathe). The second category were "hands-off" owners. Most of them made you feel sorry you didn't have a gun. They would bring us animals with wounds full of maggots, or with large pieces of skin torn off while brushing. Some people would have their pet put to sleep rather than pay two hundred dollars for treatment, or would catch a stray cat and ask us to euthanize it "so it wouldn't hang around our house". We tried to save such animals and put them in shelters for adoption. All our employees already had a few dogs and cats each. Vladimir and I decided that I shouldn't "take work home", but our resolve didn't last.

V.D: Natasha called me from work and casually asked if I was planning to drive by their hospital that day. I knew what to expect, and drove there, ready to say that three cats would be too much, that our cats won't like a newcomer, and that our landlord would throw us out.

N.L.: The cat (a six months-old kitten) was listed simply as "feral #33" and was scheduled to go to a shelter. The chances of any cat older than three months being adopted were slim. She was chocolate-black with orange eyes and tiny white spot on her chest.

V.D: Of course, I didn't say anything. We called her Meowgli for wild looks and jumping all over the car on the way home. But later she proved to be very sociable and relatively quiet. She and Shila instantly became friends, but Abrikos needed a few days to get used to the presence of a newcomer. We didn't have any problems with the landlord: he liked cats as much as we did.

N.L.: It was a good thing we had a king-size bed: enough space for everyone. Watching the cats was so entertaining, especially during power outages. Later a baby rabbit settled in our garden, and the cats would spend an hour every day, trying to chase it away by pounding with their paws on the glass door.

V.D: My mother once said to my mother-in law: "Vladimir is so lucky, his wife allows him to have a small zoo at home!"

N.L.: To which my mother replied: "I don't know who is more lucky!"

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