A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When I was sixteen and a junior in high school, I got a summer job at the old Chicago Hospital near the Loop in the Animal Lab Department. My job was to clean the dog cages starting at 7:00 AM. I put on a rubber suit from head to toe and took a high-pressure hose and powered out the dog poop from something like one hundred and twenty metal dog cages set up in stacks of three. I did the work in two large rooms covered in brown tile on the floor and walls and it took me most morning.
The dog I remember best was a fierce one that did not look me in the eye asking for love and rescue. All the other dogs did. None liked being hit with high-pressure water and I tried to do it as little as possible, but sometimes the poop stuck to the floor or the sides of the cages and they got in the way.
The fierce dog, all black like a Labrador but a mix, growled and charged at me from within his metal cage. He didn’t want to be friends. He wanted to kill me.
At first, I had no idea why the dogs were in the cages. I heard stories that the dogs were picked up running loose at night through many neighborhoods and delivered in old trucks to the hospital at night. I could tell that many of these dogs had been pets. Could they be runaways, or were their owners allowing them to run around at night? I could shout “Sit!” and some dogs would sit. I could reach a hand through the cage bars and most dogs would come forward so I could pet them. They didn’t understand that I was helping them by cleaning their cages. They wanted love and affection, so I would try to give a little to all that wanted it. Still, I had to get the cleaning job done on time. My heart bled for these dogs. I fantasized of sneaking some of them out and taking them home.
When I found out that the dogs were used for scientific experiments, and for practicing surgery by young surgeons, I grew quite disturbed. Was it right to inflict pain and suffering on such loving animals so that knowledge about diseases could be advanced to benefit humans? Was it OK for surgeons to cut them up and let them die so they would make no mistakes when operating on humans? My heart said no but my brain tried to say yes, it was OK. I was young and wanted to be a scientist. I liked science better than religion because it seemed to be able to find universal truths. All over the universe, I’d learned in my physics class, energy equaled mass times the speed of light squared, as Einstein had proved mathematically and scientists had proven by experiment.
One time after cleaning cages I helped two young interns strap a small dog down to a rack belly up, tying his four lets down with rope. They then cut into a large vein in the flank of the leg. I did not know exactly what they were doing but soon found out. They let all the blood in the dog drain out, even asking me to hold up the front end of the rack to get nearly every drop out of the poor animal’s body. The little dog licked my hand and yelped in pain, and then died right as I looked in her brown eyes. This dog was the first loving creature I’d ever seen die, and I will tell you that the way she was tied down, and the way she behaved, was like the Jesus the young minister at my Methodist church taught us about.
The young surgeons said that they needed fresh dog’s blood to use to practice open-heart surgery on another dog later that evening. Without the new blood, the dog they operated on would not survive. They expressed no emotion about what we had just done. Today, thanks to animal rights organizations, animals are no longer treated so brutally. Researchers and doctors have been forced under public scrutiny to modify their practices and find other ways for surgeons to train, such as using computer programs.
That night, in my dreams, the dog I helped kill became Suzy, the first dog our family owned. We had found Suzy dead one winter morning in the hallway of our cold and old Elmhurst house. My father asked me to follow him down the basement steps, and to open the heavy cast iron door to our coal furnace so he could toss Suzy’s body on the burning coals inside. When we got back upstairs, I noticed that my father’s eyes were full of tears even though no tears ran down his cheeks.
The next day, after work at Chicago Hospital and after supper at home, I found myself lying on my bed with the door locked. I had no plan in what I was doing. It flowed out of me. Deep inside my closet, I had hidden some surgical blades I had stolen from the hospital where I worked. I got a package out and hid them under the blanket as I climbed back in bed. I tore open the small package the scalpel blade was in and started running it up and down my left arm, shaving off the hairs on my arm carefully.
I did not like all the hairs on my arms. I thought they made me look ugly. I was sixteen and had never been out on a date with a girl. One question always filled my mind, WOULD ANYONE EVER LOVE ME? WAS THERE ANY LOVE IN THE WORLD?
I thought of Suzy and all those unloved dogs at the Chicago Hospital locked in cages like the worst criminals. I thought of how lonely they must be, of how they always barked in expectation when I turned on the fluorescents in the animal lab to clean the cages. I also thought of the fierce Labrador mix that had found a place in hate in an attempt to obliterate his suffering.
I studied the back of my arm and began to make small slices with the scalpel, careful to avoid the major veins I could see in blue through my skin. I would never be loved, I thought. I was too skinny, too hairy, too ugly. But you are smart in some ways, I felt. Your mind is in control. I began to bleed a little where I made the shallow slices. I made only three. I stared at the cuts for about five minutes, as blood made a slow flow around my arm.
Then I got up, wiped the blood off on a dust rag I kept under my bed and covered the arm with a shirtsleeve. I went to the bathroom for tissue to press down on the marks to stop the bleeding. I applied rubbing alcohol and enjoying the sharp sting. You deserve to suffer, I thought. You are training for how it will be in the world. But you are in control. I covered my cuts with band-aids.
I went back to my room and lay back in my bed. I reached down to the floor by the bed and picked up the book I’d checked out recommended by a friend, 1984 by George Orwell. I did not see the book as about life under an absolute dictatorship but about the life I was living now.
Could I handle my situation? I had the Chicago Hospital job but felt I needed to quit. Luckily I had my other job cleaning an insurance office on weekends, and I could get jobs moving lawns. I was saving and I felt I had a good chance of getting myself out and getting free — free of my depressed and sometimes-violent mother, free of my angry alcoholic father, and free of the cold logic of medical science.
What exactly I was going to do I didn’t know, but I was done with medical science. I was not up to the cruelty. My father told me he could cover college tuition if I could save and cover food and housing.
Copyright 2019 Chuck Taylor