Twelve years ago I decided it was time to go back to school and finish the college degree I had not gotten nearly twenty years before that. During my first time at college I completed three and a half years of what would have been at least a six year program due to my inability to decide on a major. I started out as an animal science major. I had always assumed I would become a vet, probably a zoo vet. I was not daunted by the courses required for pre-vet studies; I was simply distracted by the multitude of options.
By midway through my first year I had decided to switch to political science. When I signed up for classes the fall of my sophomore year, I declared myself a Russian major. This may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that a) I missed all the deadlines and had to go to in-person registration where only the dregs of classes are left, and b) the only food to eat in the house for breakfast was the remains of a pan of brownies I had made the night before. Yes, those kind of brownies.
I had a brief flirtation with environmental science. I would have switched to microbiology if the school had had such a major at the time. I eventually settled on a double major in biology and philosophy. On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising I did not stick around to get a degree.
Fast forward eighteen years and I was back to thinking vet school was a good idea. I enrolled once again, though at a different school, as an animal science major, this time surrounded by kids who were the same age as my youngest child. My classes were a blend of animal science classes like livestock management, pre-vet classes like physiology, classes I had to take again because the science had changed in twenty years like biology 101, classes I had managed to avoid the first time like organic chemistry, and classes I had to take for distribution requirements like history. For my first three semesters I would despondently review my class choices, this time without benefit of pot brownies, wondering how when I was so sure I wanted to be back in school and studying animal science there were so many classes I had to take that I didn’t want to take.
There were several different concentrations within the animal science major, not just pre-vet, and when I looked at them more closely I realized that the more general animal management track was full of classes that actually interested me. Around the same time I heard about a coveted internship at a large animal research lab that seemed like a good way to get some experience in a field I might be able to work in after graduation. The prospect of a starter job – and starter salary – when I was in my forties and had a mortgage, kids in college, and all the other financial ballast that accumulates when you no longer have a starter life was not something I could see a way to make work financially. Lab science tends to pay better than most animal sciences, even at the lowest level. My lab science professor, who was also the veterinarian for the school’s labs, was very up front about saying that it pays more because it’s hard and no one who gets into animal science because they love animals really wants to do it. What she meant by this wouldn’t become obvious to me until later.
At the time, I got no response from the lab to my inquiries about their internship. My classmates had the same issue, and we heard rumors that they were no longer taking students from our program. My first opportunity to apply my learning hands-on was a stint at the state fair birthing center, which was run by my livestock management professor who was and is one of my favorite people. The birthing center houses cows, pigs, and chicken eggs, and over the eleven days of the fair gives fair goers an opportunity to witness the births of calves, piglets, and chicks, and also an opportunity to pat the chicks and piglets. Swine flu outbreaks at state fairs have since ruled out piglet patting, but for the two seasons I was there we spent our days taking turns narrating the births, and holding piglets and chicks for people to pat and ask questions.
I don’t think I had ever met a pig in person before the fair, and I was hooked from the first day. We had some particularly special sows that year. The state fair pigs come from 4H projects. These kids love their pigs, but they are ruthlessly practical. All of them raise their animals for meat. They cuddle them and love them and care for them, and then they send them to market. One of them kept the meat from his favorite pig every year, and sold the others. Another kept some sausage from each of her pigs, labeled with their names, so she could do a taste comparison.
I can take or leave cows, and I can mostly leave chickens, but pigs got under my skin immediately and permanently. Even when I got attacked by Pigzilla the first year – I was checking her for milk to see when she might give birth, and she woke up from her nap by leaping onto her feet and charging me with mouth open, roaring. I have zero vertical leap but I jumped the five foot fence around her pen in one bound, landing on a group of surprised onlookers. 4H sows (Pigzilla aside) are by and large sweet and used to being handled. Piglets are adorable, but they are much easier to manage – and much less likely to permanently damage your hearing – if you can hold them while they are sleeping. My fellow birthing center workers would sometimes ask me if I could lull a piglet to sleep so they could hold one that wasn’t wiggling and shrieking. They called me the pig whisperer.
Some time after my first time at the fair the research lab of the coveted internship was hiring a lab tech, and a classmate who had graduated before me and who had, unbeknownst to me, started working there, reached out to let me know. The opportunity to work with pigs (and goats and sheep) all day AND make money doing it? A no brainer for me. Turns out I should have used a brain or two to think that through a little more.
By my second day in the lab, I knew I had made a bad choice. I was in the necropsy room – basically a closet with a concrete floor with a drain in it – using a kitchen knife – and not a very sharp one, at that – to cut the hind legs off of the thirty-odd goats that had reached the end of their study that day. There are plenty of euphemisms about death in the world – pass away, cross over, euthanize, put down, just to name a few. Lab science adds a whole new level: end of study, harvest, collection. When we lab techs were talking to the scientists, we used their terms, but when we talked among ourselves we were more direct. “End of study” days we called “death days.” As we were finishing up lunch, one of us would say “Ok, time to go kill those sheep.” My third day there, I worked with a pig for the first time. About ten seconds after it was dead I was up to my elbows in its chest cavity, while one of the more experienced techs talked me through how to remove its heart and lungs by feel.
The lab had a mixed bag of studies, almost all surgical. Some were what are called “acute” procedures, meaning the animal is dead by the time the surgery is over. Some were long term, so the animals had weeks or months after their surgery before harvest day arrived. As techs, in addition to assisting with surgeries, we fed the animals and cleaned their stalls. We prepped them for surgery, we monitored them after surgery, we administered their pain meds. And then we killed them.
Monitoring any animal in post op is intense. Pigs in particular take a long time to come out of anesthesia, and sometimes we would sit with them for hours, checking their vital signs every ten minutes. Literally sit with them, in their pens, often with some portion of the pig in our laps. The first two pigs from one study I was assigned to were in so much pain following jaw surgery that they wouldn’t eat. The only thing I could tempt them with was the syrup from a case of fruit cups long past their expiration date that we found sitting on a shelf in among the gauze and bandages. After the first day they would also eat the fruit, but only if I fed it to them by hand. I was eventually able to wean them on to eating soaked feed topped with fruit cup, and then just the soaked feed. Six months later they had grown from roughly 75 pounds at the time of surgery to 300 pounds. We were in surgery with another pig from the same study when the scientist stopped by to talk to the surgeon about how best to see what they needed to see at end of study. They had done earlier CT scans to look at the results of the surgery in the pigs’ jaws but by now the pigs were too big to fit in the scanner. I forget if it was the surgeon or the scientist who came up with the solution to cut the pigs’ heads off and just take the heads for scanning.
The most surprising part of this story is that I stayed there for a year. It took me that long to realize that I had gotten so far away from who I am that I was about to lose myself entirely. I was so focused on trying to do it well, on what I could learn, on the possible opportunities it could lead to. I was buried under the weight of my own expectations about what it meant to change careers, fear of explaining to anyone else why I spent all this time and money going back to school only to not be able to hack it in my new field, and a lifelong belief that I needed to just suck it up and tough it out, whatever the obstacle. I’d like to be able to sum up the whole experience with a tidy life lesson, but life lessons for me are rarely tidy. Sometimes I have to make massive mistakes, mistakes so big they can be seen from space, for me to get a message that I need to get. Maybe the fact that the pigs are on my mind today means there’s another message I need. Or maybe it just means I’ve finally forgiven myself enough to write about it.