An animal-hater changes her ways, sort of.
By Ariel Horn
By the second month of my junior year, I had grown accustomed to the frenzied cries of yelping dogs being shorn for impending lung surgery.
By the fourth month, I was no longer startled when I saw hamsters cuddled to their owners’ chests like babies, cats strapped to gurneys, and sobbing women holding their beloved dead rabbits in their arms like injured children. (“Why, God? Why take Willy from me when he’s so young? He had so much to live for! Whyyyyyy?”)
Living next to Penn’s veterinary hospital has its kicks. If you don’t mind the perpetual sight of clumps of dog hair on the pavement, yellow snow, and the stifled cries of pained kittens awaiting imminent cataract surgery, there’s simply no better place to live in West Philadelphia. But it took me a while to feel this way.
I moved onto Pine Street next to the vet hospital on a sticky-hot rainy day in August between my sophomore and junior years. In a trashy, made-for-TV special kind of way, it was the perfect dramatic moment my life had always craved. As an English major, my academic career had been spent throwing around words like poetic justice, irony and pathetic fallacy. It was time for me to live them.
Only days before moving back to campus to start my junior year, I had not-so-reluctantly given up my Siamese pet fighting fish, Mr. Yappy, to my responsible four-year-old cousin, who had an impressive range of experience caring for imaginary giraffes. Fearful that I would be a negligent parent to Mr. Yappy while dealing with schoolwork, I threw my once-beloved fish out of my fishbowl, out of my heart, and out of my life forever, as if we had never shared any meaningful moments together in all of our three months. As if my staring at him in the fishbowl and his staring back hadn’t created a bond. As if my tapping on his cheap glass bowl out of boredom, or shining a mirror at him to scare him hadn’t somehow brought us closer. As if my three months of force-feeding him fish food that looked like rabbit pellets every day amounted to nothing.
It was only fitting that my history as an unfit fish mother would slap me in the face every day as I watched elementary-school children hysterically charge through the hospital’s doors with bags of floating fish in their hands and tears running down their cheeks. The painful memories of Mr. Yappy and our happy moments together would torment me every day as I walked home from class—or at least until I replaced him with Mr. Yappy II (or, as I liked to call him, “The Cheaper, Faster, Funnier Fish”).
For a long time, I wasn’t too pleased with living next to the veterinary school, despite my parents’ constant reassurances that Pine Street was the best place to live off-campus. (Coincidentally enough, it was also the only place my parents would allow me to live off-campus). Yes, I appreciated the perks of Pine Street, like any Penn student lucky enough to snag a lease on the popular off-campus property. Every day I could enjoy the picturesque candy-colored brick row houses that allowed me to pretend I wasn’t in West Philly, the way the sunlight hit faux-wood doors in the late afternoon, how students gather on doorsteps daily to chat like neighbors in an old Brooklyn neighborhood.
But somehow, the sight of black Labs with bladder infections cringing in pain just steps away from my house made me feel queasy. My friends advised me to ignore the sounds, the whimpers, the limps. But each day as I walked home from class, visions of the “Animal Bloodmobile” would dance in my head like sick sugar-plum fairies. I had to do something about it—and somehow, euthanasia for all the sick animals just didn’t seem right.
So one day, rather than hurriedly rushing past the hospital to get home as I normally did, I took my time and decided to give the animals a chance. I let my feet trot happily in the pattern of the dog footprints that are embedded in the pavement. I strolled through what Pine Street residents have fondly named Dogshit Park. I watched dogs, hamsters, cats, and rabbits go in and out of the revolving doors. The Circle of Life wasn’t really in The Lion King—it was right here, where lives rolled in and out of the hospital as constantly as Penn students go in and out of dining halls.
Suddenly, the fact that I had ruined two pairs of shoes from stepping in freshly yellowed snow hardly seemed to bother me. There was something interesting about living next to the animal hospital. And despite the fact that all my life I’d hated animals with the very core of my being (Mr. Yappy excluded), for whatever reason, I was changed. I suddenly felt bad for the little furballs. And cruel for having not-so-secretly wished that their vocal cords be removed. Instead, from that day on, the sight of German Shepherds with lamp shades around their heads, shorn Collies, and Golden Retrievers with peg legs and glass eyes has filled me with an inescapable feeling of, well, sympathy.
It turns out that I am lucky to be living on Pine Street, after all. Most college students don’t have this golden opportunity to learn about the traumas of the animal kingdom from an insider’s perspective. Normal students aren’t privy to the special sounds of cats, dogs, hamsters, and rabbits shrieking in pain as amateur veterinarians apply toothpaste-like medicine to the animals’ wounds. Normal students who live on normal streets enjoy the normal sounds of college: the creaking beds of roommates having sex likerabbits in the room next door, their piggish squeals of feigned pleasure, the repetitive barking of fire alarms triggered by people either too careless or too stupid to turn their ovens off. No, I alone have the luxury of listening to hundreds of dogs a day named Pepper or Ginger yip their way into puppy heaven.
No doubt about it, this is the college experience Penn had always bragged to me about in its brochures—life on Penn’s campus was actually changing me. I was growing as an individual. I was learning to care about animals I had always hated. And in a strange way, I was learning on a daily basis how ephemeral life truly is through the constant death of hamsters. Who knows how long we’ll live? From now on, it was time for a carpe diem mentality—to pee on the fire hydrant if I wanted to, like my animal brethren. Who knew if I would have a chance to do it again?
I’d like to say that living next to the animal hospital has made me a better
person. That it has made me want to create a non-profit veterinary hospital for all the sick little puppies in Uganda who can’t afford top-of-the-line healthcare. I wish I could say that after living only a block away from the deathbed of so many furry and innocent creatures I became a crusader for animal rights and now make pins that say My dog walks ME! But the truth of the matter is that living next to the animal hospital hasn’t inspired me to become a veterinarian—but it has made me appreciate every element of my surroundings at Penn. It’s not just at the library that you learn, but, oddly enough, while watching puppies rushed off the Bloodmobile, too.
Ariel Horn is a senior English major and Daily Pennsylvanian columnist from Short Hills, N.J.