Being a veterinarian, I’m always curious and concerned about the general public’s perception of our profession based on our portrayal in the media. After all, we have gone through great personal and financial sacrifices for a career that enables us to improve the relationship between people and their pets.
American audiences are fatigued by the oppressive news showcasing economic decline and political mudslinging. Networks recognize the power of harnessing the human-animal bond for the camera due to the wildly successful runs many pet and wildlife themed television shows enjoy. Animal-centric stories pull at human heartstrings, despite race, class, and socioeconomic differences.
Staying on trend is NBC, which created Animal Practice, seemingly to make light of many of the scenarios commonly faced by veterinarians and our support staff of veterinary technicians, office managers, and receptionists.
When I heard of the show’s impending premiere, I was intrigued by the prospect of settling into my couch to watch the program as part of my evening wind down. Just how would the show portray those of us who spend our days and nights working in the veterinary medical profession?
NBC’s press release states:
"Animal Practice" centers on Dr. George Coleman (Justin Kirk, "Weeds," "Angels in America"), a top veterinarian with an impressive list of famous animal patients at the Crane Animal Hospital — a bustling New York City veterinary practice where it often seems as if the patients are running the place. Despite his unorthodox style, George has an undeniable gift with animals of all kinds — except the human kind.
The idea of veterinary medical employees preferring animals to people is actually quite common. I’ve heard many veterinarians and technicians state this perspective, yet undertaking our interactions with clients with a less than affable outlook would be professional suicide.
Our clients can sometimes drive us crazy, yet we must always strive to maintain positive relationships with those who are ultimately calling the shots about their pets’ care. If we don’t empathize with and effectively communicate with our clients, the needed trust and consent to provide appropriate diagnostics and treatments for our patients cannot be achieved.
A scenario involving lack of trust and consent between care provider and pet owner occurs in the Animal Practice pilot. Dr. Coleman gets into a verbal altercation with his client, Mr. Waxman, over the costs associated with the surgery needed by Waxman’s dog, Honey. Evidently, Honey consumed a foreign body (environmental object), which lodged in her digestive tract.
After Waxman hears that Honey’s surgery will cost $2,000, he defaults to the unfortunate perspective that he could "buy like six dogs that don’t piss me off for two grand," and "how much to kill the thing [Honey] then?"
At this point, my favorite moment occurs. Coleman states, "When you brought this dog into your home you signed an unwritten contract to feed it, care for it, and, yes, to provide medical care as needed." This is a really important and positive message that should be taken wholeheartedly by the show’s audience. Good job, NBC!
Unfortunately, Coleman’s actions go south from here. After Waxman states his intention to put Honey to sleep and conveys his lack of respect for the extensive education and training undertaken by veterinarians, by derisively referring to veterinarians as "doctors" (using finger-mimed air quotes), Dr. Coleman has endured enough. He removes Honey from Waxman so that her surgery can be performed and her life subsequently saved.
Although I understand Dr. Coleman’s passion for pets and interest in helping Honey, I don’t advocate that veterinary professionals forcibly remove pets from owners unless there are clear signs or very strong suspicions that abuse or neglect has occurred. If a pet owner is unable to pay for a life saving procedure or treatment and is leaning toward euthanasia as their preferred alternative, then ownership of the animal can be relinquished to the hospital/veterinarian.
Honey ultimately undergoes surgery to remove her foreign body — a drink coaster Waxman pocketed at a strip club, which is then used to coerce him into paying for Honey’s procedure. Honey is saved, her medical fees get paid, and she returns to the loving arms of Waxman’s daughter. Seemingly, the professional relationship between Coleman and Waxman has been sufficiently smoothed.
Personally, I enjoy working with the majority of my clients. I often find myself in their company for upwards of two hours per house call. If I didn’t like people, I would not have created my veterinary practice specifically to cater to my clients’ and patients’ needs on their terms (at home, according to their schedule, etc.).
I look forward to watching future episodes of Animal Practice and hope the show strives to showcase the many positive aspects of veterinary medicine’s promotion of the human-animal bond.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Image: Crystal, the Capuchin Monkey, in her role as Dr. Rizzo
Credits for images due to NBC Universal