Rivka Galchen on Fathers and Veterinarians

In “How I Became a Vet,” your story in this week’s issue, a woman recounts her experience, in the veterinary clinic where she works, of a cluster of dogs who have mysteriously all jumped off the same bridge over a creek—the suicide dogs, she calls them. She’s puzzled by this phenomenon, but she has more pressing concerns, since her job is slightly in danger. Why is she not totally well suited to working in this clinic?

It’s an emergency veterinary practice, so the people who bring their pets there are generally not in the best of moods. So the atmosphere is a mix of high stress and boredom. That’s difficult for anyone. But, since human beings are not the animals my narrator is most gifted at reading, anticipating, or managing—I think it’s all the more difficult for her.

The story is called “How I Became a Vet,” and at the end of the story the narrator says she has finally become a vet, but of course she was also a practicing vet throughout. How do you think of that process of “becoming” something you already are, in this story and also outside that context?

My daughter, nine, says that what she finds annoying about people is that they are so people-centric. She also feels annoyed that she was born a human. She kind of writes my stories for me, in the sense that, when I think about her, or talk with her, I feel more interested in the world—more myself again. So I think the becoming-oneself process is sort of like that, iteratively.

And my narrator defines “veterinarian” in a somewhat eccentric way at the opening of the story. She says a veterinarian is someone in close contact with death on a regular basis. That’s not really how I think of veterinarians! But it’s how she does. Stories feel more mysterious to me as I get older, rather than less, so I’m not sure, but my sense is that she feels she has more fully made that contact with death—and so also with life—by the end of the story.

The narrator appeals to the image of her father, through conversations in her head, holding him up as a voice of reason and of joy. In what way is he another animal figure, providing a kind of non-quotidian wisdom throughout the story?

My father’s name translates into English as deer. And I often thought—what an accurate name! For my narrator, I get the sense that her father, fully himself as a human, is maybe too complex, too much to handle at once. But these little alternative versions of him, these little avatars of him in her mind—it works for her. I know I’d rather get advice from a bear, for example, or from an imaginary interlocutor, than from a person in a room with me.

One thing I love about this story is the immersion into the world of animals and the things that afflict them, and how those afflictions are mediated by the people who love them. Are you a longtime animal lover, and what’s your pet status?

I grew up with animals, but for too long—almost a decade—I had no nonhuman animals in my life. Then, in September of 2020, we got a cat. In December, a dog. In May after that, another dog. I promised my partner that I would escalate no further. ♦

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