All the best stories have an unexpected twist

Posted in Memorials, Philosophy at 4:52 am by ACR&S

Here’s another tale from the very early days of rescue, sometime in early 2003. WARNING: this one might be considered a bit graphic for delicate sensibilities. Please proceed at your own risk.

One of my guinea pigs died unexpectedly on Sunday the 9th. I called over to the local vet school, to a friend who is a vet pathologist, to get a necropsy done. She agreed, but since this would be done on her own time and for free, I couldn’t take him into the clinic as I usually would for a necropsy. She instructed me to take him to a walk-in cooler located the maze of alleys behind the vet school. This cooler is left unlocked 24-7 for the various clinics to drop off their unclaimed, deceased animals after business hours; the vet students can then practice their budding surgical skills on them. I was instructed to put him in a box and label it, and she would pick it up the next time she was on call.

In her directions, she warned me that “there might be a carcass or two in there”. Now, I’ve worked at a vet clinic, and seen the inside of the clinic necropsy freezer, so this didn’t bother me – usually it means the animal was too big for a box, so you see a black plastic bag with the stiffened limbs of a dead cat or dog tenting up the plastic. This can be disconcerting if you come across it unexpectedly, but it’s not particularly disturbing.

I wasn’t able to take him over that same day, so I kept him in the fridge overnight, planning to take him to the cooler the following day. The next day, Monday, my boss had a meeting with an important sponsor, so I had to dress up at work – something I never have to do. I didn’t take time to change after work, as the vet school was about 45 minutes out of my way anyhow, so I’m traipsing out there, with my dead piggy in a box, wearing skirt and hose and heels.

Now, the cooler is not exactly where she said it would be – it’s supposed to be a big metal door on the left, but instead, it’s on the right. It’s also not marked. I finally see a tiny, hand-lettered sign that says “Refuse Cooler”. Refuse? Whatever. That must be it.

I got out of the car, with the sad little box containing my dead pig in hand. I was immediately aware of a strong smell. Not quite the stink of road kill, but definitely the scent of blood and death. Hoo boy. This must be the right place.

The cooler had this big metal door latch which you lift like an old-fashioned refrigerator handle. One-handed, it took me a few seconds of struggling with it to get it open. I pulled the door ajar and headed into the dimly-lit interior of the cooler.

The next events happened in the span of just a second or two, far less time than it takes to describe:

The cooler was about 10 feet wide, and about 20 deep. I could see the shelves, way back against the opposite wall, labeled necropsy boxes and bags here and there under the single, low-watt bulb. As I stepped over the threshold I saw a gleam at floor level. Another step, and it resolved itself into a horseshoe. What struck me, in that instant before recognition dawned, was that the shoe was shiny, bright metal. The horse wearing that shoe must have been newly shod and kept in a very clean stall for that shoe to be so pristine.

My eyes started to adjust; I take another half-step, and I see that the shoe was attached in the normal way to a hoof and leg. The leg was attached in the normal way to a body. The body was attached in the normal way to a head and three other legs, but also, in a most un-normal way, to a huge pile of intestines and other organs which were stacked neatly between the four outflung limbs. In the middle of the cooler, spanning it completely, was a dead, eviscerated horse.

I took a deep, reflexive breath – a mistake as that filled my lungs with the scent of old, raw meat. I backed over the threshold and slammed the door. I didn’t depress the latch properly and it rebounded open again. It took me three tries to get it to click shut. I think I must have looked a little panicky.

I had to stand on the edge of the loading dock and concentrate on not throwing up for a few seconds. It wasn’t that I was bothered by there being a horse in the middle of the damn floor. It wasn’t the fact that it was dead. It wasn’t even the fact that it was eviscerated. It was the overwhelming triple play: THERE IS A DEAD, EVISCERATED HORSE ALL OVER THE FREAKIN’ FREEZER. It was just utterly incongruous with all those shelves of neatly labeled bags and boxes.

Eventually I steeled myself and went back in. I just forced myself not look down, and focused on holding my skirt clear of the pile of innards. I had to step around the pile, over the front legs, and over the neck to get back to the shelves. A horse is a ENORMOUS animal when it’s laying, disemboweled, across the entire width of a 10-foot-wide cooler.

Despite keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the back wall, I did take in details peripherally. The horse had an IV line draped over its neck, needle still taped in place. It was brown (dark bay for you horsey people) and the mane and tail were neatly trimmed. The eyes were closed. There was no blood – apart from the gaping abdomen, the collapsed ribcage, and the tidy heap of entrails, it might have been asleep.

I put my pig in his box onto the shelf, and did the carefully avoidant little dance back to the door, thankfully without brushing up against any guts at all. On the way home I came to several mental conclusions:

1. It’s not everyday you get to use the word “eviscerated” to tell someone how your day went.
2. I had no desire to smell steak cooking ever again.
3. My vet-pathologist friend is a master of understatement.

Of course, after the shock wore off, I wondered about the horse and its fate. Had it been ill? Why was it disemboweled – was it a difficult birth gone horribly wrong? If there was a foal, did they save it? This was just a macabre minor chapter in my story, but it was the climax of someone else’s tragedy.

To this day, I am struck by the clean, shiny shoes; the trimmed, brushed mane and tail; the closed eyes; the incredible, bizarre neatness of the piled organs. That horse was not “refuse”; someone loved it and cared for it and treated it with dignity, right up to the moment they closed the cooler door on its body.

But sometimes, you just don’t get to find out how the story ends.

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