Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Working for the Great State of California

So it's Tuesday morning, and here I am at the Contra Costa Animal Shelter.

It's a beautiful morning. I love driving in this part of California in the morning, with its rolling hills and intensely blue sky. The heat that singed the hills to their golden brown is absent. It is a perfect morning made only more so by the fact that I am enjoying it on a weekday, enjoying the purposeful freedom of a work errand.

Okay, so it's Tuesday morning, and I'm getting heads. Four, to be exact. Two dogs, and two cats. My job includes a very peculiar type of unpredictability. Bizarreness, really.

Late last week my supervisor told me we needed uninfected brains for the upcoming rabies section of the microbiologist certification training. This was my first clue that I would one day find myself standing in a parking lot in Martinez, surrounded by hills and county buildings. In my hands a hammer and chisel and at my feet four garbage bags of animals euthanized by animal services. Two for me, and two for my supervisor.

And thinking "but I'm a vegetarian."

First the dog, I strain to lift the bag onto the cardboard laid out on the ground in front of me, for the blood. Using a scalpel, I slice through the plastic of the bag and pull the dog mostly out, a brindled pit bull curled stiffly on her side. With one latex gloved hand I work the head to an angle where I can reach the throat with the scalpel, and then holding the muzzle in place I start to cut. Skin, tendons, I reach the jugular and blood pours out onto the cardboard. Finally all that's left is the spinal column.

I take a step back, plant my feet in a wide stance to brace myself. I fit the chisel between vertebrae and hammer until all that's left connecting the head to the body is a thin piece of red which I sever easily with my scalpel. The head goes into a plastic bag and into a biohazard container, the body I heft up and over into a metal bin the animal services tech left along with the animals.

Next is the cat. As I cut open this bag and pull the cat out I say a small sad "oh." It's a young cat, white fur with faint orange wash which darkens at the ears and muzzle. I see bright blue eyes through the partially closed lids and I have an passing impulse to lower the lids completely. It's a lot quicker and easier to sever a cat's head.

My supervisor is done as well, we put away the tools and check for blood splatters on our clothing.

I have to get to work early this morning, to cut the skin away from the head and break open the skull. Once the brain lays exposed in the shattered cavity I carefully reassemble the head, pulling the two halves the skull together and drawing the skin back over them. In less than an hour, two dozen or so students are going to peel the skin away, push the bone to the side, and cut out the cerebellum and brain stem I'm fussing over right now, poking and arranging. Out of time, my handiwork will have to do.

I leave the heads in the teaching lab and bound back up the stairs. My other supervisor is waiting for me in the lab with bags and bags of frozen dead bats.

We look through county after county of bats, picking out the freshest and least damaged representative of as many species as we can find. Finally, satisfied with our picks we begin to fluff up fur and tweeze folds of torn skin back into place. The only examples of Eumops perotis and Myotis evotis are dirty and poorly treated by the county labs. The head is unnecessarily cut from the base of the skull all the way through, splitting the nose. I gently wash the Eumops, worried that the force of the water will tear out the hairs from the decaying flesh. I try to pull the nose back into place, but it keeps slipping off the end of the cut nasal bones. Finally I give up and tie a piece of thread in one last largely unsuccessful attempt to keep the nose straight.

When all the bats are finally laid out on bench paper over ice I'm surprised by how good they look. We've done well as bat morticians, and they look almost freshly dead, neatly lined up on the bright white of the bench paper, a piece of tape stuck below which I've labeled with their scientific name and submitting county. Many of them have fur that is still soft and sleek, I don't often handle the bats ungloved and I am struck by the decadent softness of a particularly undamaged specimen of my favorite bat, Lasiurus cinereus.

I can't imagine a weirder week than I've had so far but I definitely hope this job will prove me wrong. In fact, I've informed my supervisors that my staying is contingent on it.


Adam said...

Any job where you get to knock some skulls around is a good job.

Bernie said...

May I suggest a lovely job at JPL instead? Apart from the lack of blood stained clothing, you also get three wonderful restaurants, willing to provide a plethora of non animal-based food products.
Actually, I retract my statement about blood stained clothing. There was that one time...maybe I shouldn't be typing this, you might be eating.