When I moved to Miami fifteen years ago, I was young, eager, and fresh out of vet school. Looking back, I was also a little naive.
I decided to familiarize myself with the area by working as a relief vet. Relief vets are the equivalent of substitute teachers. They are the ones we call in when we are sick, traveling, or in need of a day off. For vets who are new to the field, it's a great way to get your feet wet. In my case, it was a way of getting unceremoniously pushed into the deep end.
I'll never forget how excited I was the morning I received a call from a facility I'll call ABC Animal Hospital. Their usual vet had a family emergency and they needed someone to cover an especially busy day.
I accepted the offer and jumped into my scrubs, ready to help all of the ailing pets that needed me. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a sullen technician who led me to my first room of the day. When I asked her to give me some background on the case, she shrugged her shoulders and replied: "Puppies. Health certificates. Just sign 'em".
Any animal that is legally sold in the state of Florida must be examined by a licensed veterinarian and given (literally) a clean bill of health.
Puppies and kittens must be healthy and implanted with a microchip. Since it is seldom in an animal's best interests to be separated from their mother before eight weeks of age, the first set of vaccines should be given as well. While they can be sold during treatment for parasites or certain illnesses, these conditions must be documented by the veterinarian. So, I was a little surprised by the dirty look the technician shot me when I noted that the puppies I was inspecting all had roundworms.
"We de-worm everything before they go out," the gentleman who brought in the puppies assured me.
I told him to de-worm them that day, then again in three weeks. This time the dirty look was from the client. To put it mildly, it was awkward. I finished the paperwork and beat a hasty retreat to the next exam room.
A sick cat and a limping Lab later, I found myself in front of the same client, this time with a litter of five Yorkshire Terrier puppies. When I asked him how many dogs he had, he looked at me as if I were the dimmest bulb on the Christmas tree and said, "Uh, I'm a broker. You'll be seeing a lot of me."
Yippee, I thought silently.
While this litter was free of parasites, two of them had patellar luxation, a condition that causes the knee caps to slip in and out of place. Two more notations, two more dirty looks. Another was congested and sniffling. When I pointed this out to the broker, he informed me that the youngster was being treated with an antibiotic that was not recommended for growing puppies.
"So? People don't want these things to grow anyway! Then they won't fit in a Coach purse. But whatever, dude, I'll talk to the boss about it," he said.
Dude. I was pretty sure the day couldn't get any worse. Like I said, I was a little naive.
When the broker was gone I pulled the sullen technician to one side. Who was the "boss" the broker mentioned and why was he selling such sickly puppies?
"Oh," she replied, brightening a little. "He's talking about the owner of XYZ Kennels. They're our biggest account. You didn't know that?"
I assured her that I did not. What I did know was that XYZ Kennels was a well-known puppy mill. Apparently my job was to act as their "pet vet."
I must have looked horror-stricken, because the sullen technician softened a little.
"Look, Doc," - I guess it was better than 'dude' - "You know darn well why these guys sell sickly puppies. Nobody wants to pay $1,000 for an AKC-registered dog. I don't like it either, but it's the way things are. Your job is to sign the health certificates. So, take my advice - head down, mouth shut, and quit being a tree hugger."
Tree hugger. I wasn't even halfway through the day.
Thirty minutes later, the broker was back, this time with two litters of puppies. The first was a litter of rat terriers that, despite the date of birth on their "papers," could not have been more than four weeks old. I politely pointed out that the puppies' teeth had not yet come in, and that while I was certain it was an honest mistake, I could not sign health certificates unless all of the information was correct.
The broker gritted his teeth and presented me with another kennel, this one filled with English bulldog puppies. Like the rat terriers, the bulldog puppies were dirty and smelled of feces. I decided to try a different approach with the broker.
"I get that you guys are trying to turn a profit," I told him. "But seriously, would it kill you to give these little souls a bath? I know it's hard to keep puppies clean, but nobody's going to buy a puppy that stinks."
I was not expecting the response that I got. The broker practically laughed in my face.
"I'll tell you what, doctor," he sneered, lacing the title with contempt. "Let me explain to you how this works. You make sure the doggies in the window are kept in conditions that are just clean enough to not get you shut down. People come in just to look. They see these adorable angels in dirty cages, looking all pitiful, and they just can't bear the thought of them staying just one more night in that awful place. So they 'rescue' them. Everybody wins."
With that, he handed me a bulldog puppy.
"Now if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you did your job," he said.
It was my turn to grit my teeth. I started palpating the little bulldog and immediately found an umbilical hernia deep enough to put my thumb in. So I did my job. I refused to sign the health certificate.
I am always surprised by the number of puppy stores I see in South Florida. Perhaps having been to the puppet show and seeing the strings has altered my view somewhat. I've talked to puppy store owners and brokers about improving the quality of life for their charges, but the bottom line is that these stores are doing a brisk business by meeting a very real demand. I learned a lot about the puppy business that day, and I didn't even work a full day. Which brings me to the end of my story.
At lunchtime, I was summoned to the practice manager's office. I went in loaded for bear, ready to defend myself and my medicine. As it turned out, I had wasted my energy. She handed me a check for half of a day's work and told me my services were no longer required. I was fired.
As I gathered my things, I ran into the sullen technician one last time. Her face showed a faint hint of sympathy as she told me how sorry she was that things didn't work out.
"So what are you going to do next?" she asked.
"Who knows?" I said. "I guess I could always go back to hugging trees."
I could have sworn I saw her crack a smile.