Philip Caldwell, DVM (Dr. Phil), is the Urgent Care Medical Director at VCA Desert Animal Hospital located at 4299 E. Ramon Road, Palm Springs, CA, 92264, vcahospitals.com. The following is an excerpt from his upcoming book, The Pet Doctor’s Shoes, available on Amazon in April.
Have you seen Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger? You know, the movie where “Ah-nold” went undercover as a kindergarten teacher and he said the immortal line, “It’s not a tumor!” while a bad mother-in-law was trying to kill him and a ferret saved the day? Yes, I know, it may be difficult to find streaming on Netflix, but you should search it out and watch it if you haven’t. It’s a modern classic and I strongly recommend it.
I had a similar experience to Arnold except I’ve never done any police work, I didn’t get to say any catchy lines, and even though a ferret didn’t rescue me, I probably could have used some help. Actually, the main thing that was similar was that I spoke in front of a kindergarten class about my life experiences as a veterinarian!
Although I don’t have any kids of my own, I generally like them. I get down on the floor and play with them, listen to their long-winded stories, watch their television shows by their side, and enjoy observing the world from their perspective. I guess I try to be a big kid myself and being around them somehow makes it legitimate. That is why I decided to call the number on the phone message that said a kindergarten teacher was looking for someone to come to her school and talk about being a veterinarian. I called the teacher and she said she was very excited that I wanted to be a part of her class. Excited in an over-the-top happy kind of way, as if she had expected me to be a slow learner and saw that I spelled my name right the first time I had tried. After a brief conversation, we arranged a day and a time convenient for us both. It was going to be on my day off but I didn’t mind; it sounded like a lot of fun.
When the day finally rolled around, I wasn’t as thrilled as I thought I would be. I had to get up early (always a drawback in my mind), get dressed like I did for work (nice pants, shirt, tie, and jacket with my name on it), and run by the clinic to pick up some props. I figured that I should have something visual. The kids might not care what came out of my mouth, but if I had some pretty cool stuff that came out of a dog’s butt, I might be able to get their attention. My boss pointed me in the direction of the show-and-tell box. I pulled it down from its dusty location and looked inside. There were a couple of broken skulls, a bottle of preserved worms that were breaking apart, a small handful of pebble-like bladder stones, and a rolled-up X-ray of a pregnant dog. I grabbed most of the items, figuring it was better to take more than I needed. I also snatched up my stethoscope, a thermometer, and some surgical gowns. I even kidnapped the big fat orange clinic cat and stuffed him into a carrier. All he did was sleep and eat all day. It was time he worked for his rent.
I arrived at the kindergarten and was greeted by a friendly woman who was only slightly taller than the kids sitting patiently nearby. She introduced herself as Mrs. Steele. She was bright and full of life and clasped her hands together after she shook my hand. She seemed like the type of exuberant nonthreatening teacher I would have had a crush on during my kindergarten days.
Mrs. Steele turned to her class and said, “Can everyone say hello to Dr. Caldwell?” As instructed, the class said, “Hello, Dr. Caldwell,” to which I replied, “Hello, Class. It’s great to be here today!”—as if I were some sort of pro in the kindergarten speaking circuit. Mrs. Steele explained to me that the children had been very disappointed because their other speaker, a veteran, hadn’t showed up the week before. I asked her if the kids would even know the difference between a veteran and a veterinarian. “Oh, sure they will, they’re smart at this age!”
Honestly, it didn’t matter. If they wanted to hear stories about blood, guts, and glory, then I just had to tell them about my latest surgery.
After I took center stage, I decided to test the teacher’s assertion.
“Can anyone tell me what a veterinarian is?”
A couple of children shot their hands into the air as if their lives depended on it. I pointed one out. “He’s someone who doesn’t eat meat.” “No,” I explained patiently, “that is a vegetarian.” I secretly snickered to myself. I wanted to ask them what a vegetarian veteran veterinarian was and really see how smart they were, but Mrs. Steele was grinning at me and I didn’t want to disappoint her with a cynical adult sense of humor. A couple more hands shot up. I picked a boy in the front row who was making very authentic farm-like noises.
“It’s a doctor who looks after animals.”
“Correct!” I exclaimed, a little too enthusiastically. I think I was getting the hang of this style of speaking.
I went on to explain that I see sick animals all day long and make them feel better. I tried to avoid words like diarrhea, pus, anal glands, and excretions, which would have made my job seem far too glamorous, especially to five-year-olds who probably still marveled at what comes out of their noses.
A little girl, seated to the side, raised her hand. When I pointed to her, she said, “My kitty is sick.” This sounded like a job for a SuperVet, so I moved closer to her so that I could hear her thin voice. “What’s wrong with your kitty?” “He’s sick.” I suddenly realized they are pretty smart at this age. “Has he stopped eating?” She nodded yes. “Does he seem tired?” She nodded yes. “Does he sneeze?” She nodded yes. “Does he cough?” She nodded yes. I wanted to avoid the subject of bodily functions with a five-year-old, but it was going to be difficult if I was going to discern the nature of the illness. “Has he been vomiting?” She nodded yes. I started to wonder if this kid was going to nod yes to everything I asked which gave me the urge to ask if the cat was already dead. Instead, I decided to ask a question in a different way, “What is your cat’s biggest problem?” She couldn’t answer THAT with a nod of her head.
She would have made an excellent witness for the defense, or maybe I was just a lousy cross-examiner. The best thing to do was end the questioning so I told her that she should take her kitty to the veterinarian. She said that he was already at the hospital. I told her that this was the best place for him. She nodded yes. Moving on. Phew.
Mrs. Steele then asked if anyone else had a sick pet. A wave of hands shot into the air. I think everyone had a sick pet, even those kids who didn’t have a pet. I told them once again that they should take their animals to the veterinarian if they thought there was a problem. I pictured all the kids going home and begging their parents to take their dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, hamsters, and earthworms to the doctor just to see if there was something wrong with them. I casually mentioned that I did not see birds or reptiles. A little boy put his hand up and said that he had a fish that wasn’t doing very well. It was now floating sideways. I told him to ask his parents what they were going to do with it. From his frustrated expression, I had a feeling Mr. Fish was going to meet Dr. Toilet in the very near future.
At this point in the presentation, I sensed a lull in the excitement so I decided to pull out my bag of tricks. I passed around the bladder stones, the bottle of worms and the X-ray. They didn’t really care about the stones or the X-ray, but the worms were a big hit. They showed their appreciation with “ooohs” and “aaaahs.” Then I pulled the clinic cat up on a small table, which trumped even the worms. Everyone was instantly transfixed.
“I brought my clinic cat in today to show everyone. His name is Wilbur.”
I opened the carrier and put my hands around Wilbur’s large body. Sensing that he was in a strange environment, he put all four of his brakes on, planting himself firmly in the carrier. There was no other way of getting him out except to grab him by his scruff. I’m sure this didn’t look very good to the children and I imagined the dinner conversation with their parents, “Mommy, I saw the animal doctor strangle a kitty today.” After I extracted Wilbur, I cradled him in my arms as if having to prove that I was capable of kindness toward animals. In a veterinary clinic, I rarely do this; it isn’t a very good way of holding a cat, especially a nervous one, and Wilbur knew this. He leaped away from me and I was so surprised, I didn’t react fast enough to catch him. While the children screamed with excitement, I chased after the cat that I thought was too fat and lazy to run as fast as he did. When I finally cornered him, Wilbur hissed at me like a crazy bobcat. The kids went insane with delight, completely incredulous that something this funny could be happening right before their eyes. Mrs. Steele tried to calm them down but she was drowned out. I yelled over to her to bring me the carrier and like a good technician, she rushed it right over. Wilbur ran inside and I snapped it shut.
“Can we pet the kitty?” I explained that Wilbur was very frightened and that would not be a good idea. I didn’t think he was going to act this way, but Wilbur was obviously outside of his happy place and he was fighting very hard to get back to it. With some cats, there’s no point in arguing.
It wasn’t going to be easy to top the Wilbur chasing routine but I thought I would try. I asked Mrs. Steele for a student helper. She picked out a cute little Hispanic girl who was brought in front of the class. I told her that I was going to dress her up like a real live surgeon! She neither smiled nor seemed upset. Instead, she looked at me with wide brown eyes, as if to wonder if I were capable of such a feat. I put on the gown, then the cap and the mask, and finally the gloves. I hung a stethoscope around her neck to accessorize the look. I thought she looked great, really quite adorable, and I wished I’d had a camera. The class, on the other hand, burst into hysterical laughter. Not only that, a lot of the kids pointed and screamed at her, like shrieking monkeys mocking a poorly dressed tourist in Las Vegas.
The girl stood there, completely paralyzed. Then she burst into a flood of tears. Mrs. Steele ran over and we helped her quickly get out of her costume that made her the target of such public humiliation. I apologized but Mrs. Steele dismissed it, saying “Don’t worry, tears come quickly at this age.” I understood that but being a classroom model was still was a good excuse for her classmates to beat her up in the playground.
Despite the potential drawbacks, I had several offers for another dress-up performance. Thankfully, Mrs. Steele saw my desperate expression and said that we didn’t have time to dress up everyone because I was a very busy doctor! While I was packing up my show-and-tell items, a girl raised her hand. She paused dramatically before talking. “I got my ears pierced yesterday.” I told her how wonderful that was and she showed them to me. She smiled; the mission of impressing the guest speaker had been accomplished and she rocked happily in her seat. Now the floodgates had been opened. A dozen more hands were raised. I pointed to a boy in the back. He immediately droned on about a video game, his father, what he ate last night for dinner, his overall impressions of school and somewhere in there was an observation about his old dog. Mrs. Steele finally interrupted. “Chris, do you have a question for the doctor?” This stumped him. After five seconds of silence, his classmates, figuring that they had given him enough time, shot their hands into the air. Mrs. Steele saved me. “I think this is all Dr. Caldwell has time for today.” I agreed. I told the class that I had to return to my clinic where there were lots of sick animals waiting.
Mrs. Steele asked the children to thank me and, like a robotic chorus, they said, “Thank you, Dr. Caldwell.” I told them that I was very happy to be there, and it had been a lot of fun meeting everyone. I figured I should plug my profession in front of these impressionable youngsters so I finished off with “I hope some of you become veterinarians so you can help the animals just like me.” I saw a few kids with the wheels turning in their brains. Maybe they had been debating their life choices of firemen or ballerinas and suddenly the idea of eventually working with dogs and cats was so much more interesting. Ignorance truly is bliss.
We waved goodbye to each other and I fled to my car. It was like escaping a burning building. I felt like I had survived.
I drove to the clinic to drop off my props and that deadbeat fat cat. My staff asked me how it had gone and I said that five-year-olds were far worse than I had ever imagined. I headed back home and jumped back into bed. I didn’t sleep much. Too many kids were raising their hands, asking questions without asking questions, nodding yes, and screaming like caffeinated hyenas. And there was a lot of guilt about a little girl who was headed for a lifetime of therapy after what I had put her through.
And then I suddenly shuddered. Had I even mentioned where I worked? I pulled the covers over my head and tried to think about nicer things.
Phil Caldwell is a small animal veterinarian who graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1994. After graduation, he moved to Las Vegas where he practiced for twelve years before moving to Los Angeles and then to Palm Springs where he currently resides with his twelve-year-old Pekingese named Chan. In his spare time, he is the CEO of the Savong Foundation, which provides scholarships to underprivileged students in Cambodia. More information about his philanthropic work can be found at savongfoundation.org.
Critter Corner Introduces Small Companion Animals as Potential Pets
Traditionally, dogs and cats are considered by many to be ideal companions, but smaller animals make great pets too. Wallis Annenberg PetSpace recently opened a new area in its Playa Vista facility, entirely devoted to educating the public about other pets like reptiles, rodents, birds, and small mammals that are in need of loving homes as well.
Presenting Critter Corner
Critter Corner is the home of seven different types of animals that are all available for adoption from animal care centers in Los Angeles and the surrounding county.
Their enclosures mimic the habitats they would need for living comfortably in a home. The area surrounding their housing is full of large screens devoted to providing more educational facts and information on these various animals.
While the dogs and cats at Annenberg PetSpace are all ready to find their forever homes, these critters will remain at the space to receive ongoing care and serve as “ambassador animals” for guests wanting an up-close look at these creatures. The team will also provide information on where people can find cute critters like these to adopt.
Annenberg PetSpace is currently closed to the public, due to COVID-19 safety precautions, however interested animal lovers can still take a virtual peek at these little inhabitants. Each week, via Instagram Live, the Animal Care team shares a close look at these critters, as well as adoptable dogs and cats during Pet Encounters.
The ambassador animals of Critter Corner are ready to welcome guests to the space when safe to do so, but interested adopters can find their own small companion animals through their local animal shelters.
To learn more about Critter Corner or adoption opportunities and public programs, visit annenbergpetspace.org.
These critters include:
• Box turtle
• California kingsnake
• Domestic rabbit
• Guinea pig
• Leopard gecko