At the end of 2007, I was sitting on a high plastic stool in the feed prep area, scribbling with a biro on the corner of the admittance card of C390. The radio in the corner played inoffensive, slightly out of date pop music through a soft veil of static and in the corridor beyond one of my colleagues was folding freshly tumbled towels into the linen cupboard. It was called a feed prep area because it was for animals, a food prep area would be for humans, though having worked in both I was equally squeamish about eating meals in either. We just called it the kitchen.
In the far corner beside the bin, which stank in summer, I had learned how to skin, de-limb and de-yolk day old chicks in three quick hand movements. It was remarkably easy to do. You could use scissors, of course, but that involved finding scissors. In the middle of summer in a wildlife hospital, scissors are not always in ready supply. In the middle of summer there’s not enough of anything, not enough time, not enough staff, not enough food, not enough dry towels, not enough clean cages. And far too many orphaned animals. But right now it was winter, and I was wrapped up in a blue mac over blue overalls, my fingerless gloves tucked into one pocket, my latex gloves crumpled on the table beside my elbow. My boots were muddy and so had been left by the door. I’d have to sweep and mop the lino at the end of the shift, no sense in making it harder for myself by tracking animal shit through the kitchen whenever I came in to do some paperwork. So my be-socked toes were curled around the support of the stool as I worked on the biro. The ink would not flow.
At the time, I was sick of it. I earned decent money in child care, my part time job, and the animal work was fun but not nearly as rewarding. Less responsibility too. My first week into the internship, my boss sat me down and gravely intoned that if I didn’t do my job properly, animals would die. Sitting in the hot, stuffy little office, I thought back to the job I was going to leave for wildlife. If I didn’t do that one properly, children would die. But I’d a get a Masters, so I nodded and agreed and now, with a little over four months of placement left, I had been given a new project to turn into a master’s thesis.
There was considerably less shit involved with children. People who think babies make a lot of mess should work with orphaned animals. Or ill animals. Or animals. My hair, just growing out from an ill-advised short crop, was a regular refuge of feather lice and other beasties. Though never yet a bat, despite the myths. My hair, which I was growing long on the self-promise that I’d wear it down more often, was pulled back in a tight ponytail to keep it out of the way. This look, blue overalls, navy mac, welly boots, hair up high, a faint dusting of shit on my face, had become de-rigour for me.
Irritated as the project had made me, there were aspects of the wildlife work that I enjoyed. Namely, the clinical stuff. Dressing wounds and administering drugs were like a balm to my ego. Look at me, look how casually I wield these implements of miracles. Injections were the best, intramuscular the most fun, especially for birds. Do it in the wrong place and you stab through the heart. Working outside there was little opportunity to give an injection, but when you did, the joy of walking purposefully outside with a syringe gripped in your teeth, or gingerly placed atop the feed in a bucket, was unmatched. More often, outside drugs were continuations of antibiotic courses. These most often took the form of tablets. In the winter, I would stuff each animal’s dose down a separate finger of my latex gloves and write the ID number of the animal that needed the course on each plastic coated digit. This was less glamorous. Swans were the most common offenders. There’s nothing purposeful about chasing a large, grimy white bird around a fully enclosed paddock, cursing when it makes it into the water, only to catch it in the mud, hold it down and squat above it, wrestling with your glove to get the tablet out, try not to drop it in a puddle, and then stuff it down the bird’s very long throat. BD (bis in die) was worst. First thing in the morning and then at the very end of your shift, so you’d have to go out after you’d swept and cleaned, to return and clean after yourself again. The ineffectiveness of it grated on my soul.
Inside there was much more opportunity to look important. Microwaving saline for example. Hedgehogs, the little bags of disease, were always needing saline. That involve sub-dermal injections, so easy you could do it in your sleep, but impressive looking enough to any observing students. Changing a dressing involved a mechanical challenge, a puzzle component that was always fun, as well as the need to assess the progress of the recovery. There was also tube feeding, which was a pain if only because it was so tricky. It also looked more like torture than TLC and I did not enjoy it. Although, tube feeding a snake once was fun, if only for the mechanical challenge.
Working in the isolation unit looked very important. White overalls and white wellies, lots of drugs too. All kinds of clinical procedures, as well as assessments, and also a good chance there’d be a vet around to let me try some more advanced techniques. I had decided against the veterinary life but the intravenous injections and blood sampling I did in isolation did make me wonder if I would have enjoyed the veterinary life after all. These procedures could only be done under veterinary supervision, and only because we were working on wild animals. I enjoyed the physical challenge, sensing the pressure of the blood flow beneath the needle, trying not to blow it, trying to deliver the whole dose before the animal got too stressed. The physics of blood flow, the chemistry of hormones, and all of it slotting together to form an animal who feels something. I still love that puzzle. After the solution makes itself known you feel invincible, right up until your cheap Biro fails as you try to write it on the admission card. It’s a hard fall back to earth.
When you need to gear yourself up to every encounter in your day you want the little things to go smoothly. When you’re wiping sawdust from your eyes and spitting out feathers from your mouth, scooping up an admittance card from the freshly mopped floor – that would have to be cleaned again because you’re currently dripping blood on it – the ability to simply write on the card your name and the time you administered the medication is like a small miracle you have tamed and made your own.
After my masters project, I returned to university to complete my course. The backwards way that my university functioned not withstanding, it was odd to go back to the life of lectures and exams after working day in, day out. Lectures mean pens, you need at least three pens to make sure you can continue to follow the discussion leaping around taxonomy. The main writing colour, the highlight colour, and a back up just in case. I became a fan of the gel pens that stained my hands terribly but smudged on the paper less than biros. For all my love of laptops, tablets and phones, I will always have an inkstain on my right ring finger’s knuckle.
I write in my lab books, I write in post it notes, I write on papers to review, I write on my own papers. Pens are part of my trade, cheap pens, branded pens, giveaway pens. My one advice for working in animal welfare . . . keep a pen handy.