We don’t spend eight years in medical school to become veterinarians without first possessing a great love for animals. For me, it doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it has four legs, four feet, and fur. So when the miniature pig craze swept the nation several years ago, I had to have one.
I was the first resident in my quiet, suburban Atlanta neighborhood to become a miniature pig owner. I’m embarrassed to say that I was taken by a fast-talking pet store owner who was raking in $300 a piece for exotic Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs that turned out to be regular pigs. OK, I know I’m an animal expert, but it’s pretty hard to tell the difference when they’re young and you’ve never seen an actual miniature pig before. I named my pig Bubba and took him home. It was not until later that I discovered that he was getting bigger by the day.
Bubba was an intelligent, personable little roan-colored pig, and we bonded instantly. In my first week with him, I learned just how smart pigs are. Within days, I house-trained him and taught him tricks. I also learned that pigs are food-driven. By that I mean if you show it what you want it to do and reward it with a treat, it learns quickly. I taught Bubba to sit, come, and roll over in two days. After that, whenever he saw food, he’d instantly do a trick whether you asked him to or not.
One of the cutest tricks I taught him was the “dead pig” trick. I’d say “dead pig,” and he would fall over on his side, close his eyes and remain perfectly still until I rewarded him with a treat. He seemed to love it, and every time he really wanted something—which was always—he’d run up to me and fall over dead.
Bubba and I went many places together and people saw us riding all over town in my truck. I even took him to work with me at the local emergency veterinary clinic. His presence relaxed worried pet owners and helped relieve tension for the harried staff and me. Children thought he was funny and entertaining and of course, he loved the attention.
One evening, a client came in with a poodle that had been hit by a car. The poodle was in critical condition with a severe head injury and a ruptured spleen. The prognosis was grave. I tried to prepare the client for the possibility that her pet might die from the injuries. She left the pet for emergency surgery knowing that the chances for survival were small. Sure enough, before we could scrub in for surgery, the dog went into respiratory failure and we were unable to revive it.
It was my policy to contact the owner immediately if a pet was dying or as soon as possible after death. My technicians and I tried numerous times during the evening to contact the owner, but we were unsuccessful. As you know, even after you prepare owners for the death of a pet, actually telling them about it is very difficult. Usually, I’d take clients into my office to allow them some privacy and offer a Kleenex or counseling.
That night the poodle's owner returned to the clinic without notice—and she had her children in tow. My technicians explained to her that we'd tried to reach her and that I wanted to speak with her in my office. She was calm at first and explained that she had taken the children to dinner and a movie to help them relax after the accident, and then they stopped for ice cream cones. The children were calm and happily licking away at their cones as they sat in the waiting room.
The events that happened next were a blur.
The client suddenly realized that a talk in my office meant bad news, and she demanded I tell her immediately how her dog was doing. I was busy with another emergency and could not come to the front of the clinic, and my technicians were trying their best to usher her into my office.
At the same time, with an instinct for food that only a pig possesses, Bubba awakened from his nap in the rear of the clinic, instinctively recognized the odor of ice cream wafting from the waiting room and headed for the children. Just as Bubba trotted into the room, the client lost control and screamed, “Where’s my dog? Where’s my dog?” Bubba, seeing the dripping cones filled with ice cream, dropped dead at the client’s feet. “My God, what kind of cruel joke is this?” She shrieked. “You people are sick!” Stepping over Bubba’s limp body, she started herdING her children toward the door.
By this time I had reached the waiting room. Seeing what had happened, I tried to calm the client and get Bubba to stand up at the same time—neither worked. Bubba was enjoying his dead pig trick and patiently awaiting his cool, sweet reward.
“This is not funny. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers,” the client said as she slammed the clinic’s door.
It took five days of apologizing and many phone calls to explain everything to her.
Bubba eventually grew into a full-grown hog and had to go live on a farm. All of my memories of him are fond ones—especially that day. He made me do something I had never done before and have never done since. You see, after the client left, my technicians and I tried to keep straight, somber faces. After all, we'd lost a patient and a client had lost a pet. However, the sight of Bubba getting up, obviously frustrated that he had wasted a great trick for nothing, sent us into peals of laughter.
Linda King, DVM, practiced veterinary medicine for 33 years and currently lives in Georgia.