Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I don’t know… how old are you in the fourth grade? My three friends were that old, and I was one year younger, for those people who determine these things had jumped me up a grade already for some god forsaken reason. As social development matters, I paid the price for that compliment throughout the rest of my childhood. But I was hanging with my older friends, and we were down at the horse barn, throwing rocks at the pigeons and looking for stuff to steal or wreck, and generally wasting our mid-summer youth in an age appropriate manner. That’s when we found the kitten.

It was probably 5-6 weeks old, and even we children could see that it wasn’t doing well. That veterinarian part of me remembers it as probably dying from feline distemper, but of course I didn’t know that then. But even as children we could see that the kitten wasn’t doing well. It was clearly dying. And we figured it was suffering. And we determined, via a quick huddle, that our parents weren’t gonna help, for they had far more important things to do. So we figured the job had fallen to us, and we needed to come up with a way to put this suffering kitten out of its misery. 

So we looked around the horse barn for anything that might get this job done. Not surprisingly, we found no barbiturate euthanasia solution, no IV catheters, no sedative drugs, none of the tools I can call upon now. Instead we found a nail, some string, and a stout wall. If you are squeamish, you can skip the rest of this paragraph. Anyway, we failed to euthanize this kitten by piercing its chest with a nail. We failed when we tried to hang it. And when we finally, out of frustration, or ineptitude, or perhaps some primal predatory rage thing, we flung the kitten against the wall until it was quite dead.

At some point in this process, I began to feel quite wrong. But I did get caught up in this thing, and I participated. The older kids were quite into it. And they urged each other, and me, on. Oh, I felt bad about it. I felt bad about it while it was still happening, and that night, and other nights after, and from time to time late at night since… I still do.

When people ask me why I became a veterinarian, I don’t mention this day. By all the odds this day should have landed me in the role of serial murderer or at least a personal injury lawyer. But no…years later I enrolled in veterinary school, and I’ve been working assiduously at this endeavor since. 

Am I making it up to this kitten, or did I actually have a few other motivations to follow this path? I think I had other significant reasons to do this work, but yes, I do think of this kitten from time to time. And every time, despite all I know and all I can do, I fail to save a kitten, I suspect I do feel the presence of that one kitten that I once tried so hard to help, and instead created horror and fear and pain. And I die a little again, and again. Late at night. 

Like now. 


  1. If your childhood self had come to you today, crying, full of remorse and told you this story how hard would you judge him? He's a kid, under peer-pressure, and the original intent was to help before it all went south. He's pooring his little heart out to you and feels terrible, guilty and takes all of the responsibility on him self. What would you say to him? I know I would forgive the child, maybe its time you did too?

  2. Oh, geez. I can feel the pain coming through the computer here. Hugs. Like Jenny says - forgive your childhood self.

  3. I think you've paid your debt and then some. Give the kid a break:)

  4. Long before I decided to peruse a career in veterinary nursing I was hanging out with some friends in the house. My cat had caught a bird in the backyard. I saved the bird from being eaten but it clearly had a broken wing. It was a Sunday and animal control was closed and I knew that this bird had to be put out of it's misery and we debated crushing it with a brick but nobody could bring themselves to do it in such a close up and personal way. I ended up shooting the poor thing in the head with my gun.

  5. Ugh, I am sorry that you had to experience that. I used to feel guilty as a child even when I squished bees and bugs, so that would have traumatized me. You tried to do the right thing in the best way you knew how, with your limited experience and understanding. Don't keep holding it over your own head.

    I actually had an episode like this about a year ago. I was with a friend walking my dogs, and we happened upon a dying baby bird lying in the grass. He had ruptured an air sac, and his chest was stretched almost to bursting with stray air. His body was being slowly devoured by ants and maggots. He couldn't move save for weakly flapping his wings and twitching his feet, which caused him to grotesquely flop around on the ground. We put the dogs back inside the house and went back to figure out what to do with the bird. After calling a local wildlife rescue and finding it closed, I called city services and reported it to animal care and control. They said they'd have someone out to take a look in a day or so. As a CVT, I couldn't just let the little guy suffer. I ended up finding a large brick and crushing his poor, broken body. That still haunts me.

  6. Thank you for sharing that. Quite honestly, I had a dog when I was in my early teens, and he died of heat stroke due to my poor care and negligence, so I kind of feel where you're coming from. I still feel guilty to this day... and there are some days I feel like I'm so obsessive over the care of my current dog so that I can still make up for my past mistake.

  7. When I was 5 or 6, I was obsessed with the idea of catching my cats (a 9 year old and a kitten) and putting them in the trash can outside. I don't know why. Maybe because they were faster than me? One day I finally did catch them both and put them in there. Then my dad picked me up for a weekend trip away. It was summer. I came home to find my mom crying. She had found the kitties in the trash can, and the older one had died but the kitten lived. I immediately told her what I did while I cried hysterically. I felt so awful that my mom took me to see our priest because I was convinced that I would go to hell. To this day, I still feel terrible about my stupid actions causing Garfield to die. I've since spoken with a counselor and a friend and still feel as guilty as the day I learned what I'd done. I wish I could go back in time to tell my 5 year old self that it was a bad and hurtful idea to put a cat in the trash can and spare Garfield the suffering I inflicted on him.

    Erin, DVM

  8. Maybe the deaths of the kitten set you on the path to save others......would you have become a vet otherwise?.....sometimes our actions set our future path, no matter how bad the action, in the end it caused some goodness and saved other lives, that might have been lost.