How did the puppies get there?
Veterinary medicine can be a risky profession. On a daily basis, veterinarians face snarling Rottweilers, spitting Siamese cats, and cows that kick. You’d think veterinarians would be a pretty brave bunch, wouldn’t you? But one thing that makes veterinarians shake in their surgical booties is speaking to groups of children. The Book of Lists states that Americans rate the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death. So at a funeral the person designated to give the eulogy would rather be the person in the casket.
Actually speaking to groups of kids isn’t too bad. It’s the question and answer session at the end that will bring even a courageous veterinarian to his or her knees. I’ve discovered what every elementary school teacher already knows; that kindergartners and first graders ask questions in herds. And they don’t really have the concept of “questions” down yet. When I finish my talk and ask “Do you have any questions?” while trying not to cringe … a single hand shoots up. “I have a dog,” the first child says. “Wonderful,” I say through a frozen smile. Sixty-four more hands shoot up into the air. After hearing each child state the “question” that they have a dog or a cat, I’m desperately eyeing the door.
But there are worse things. The learning curve is steep when it comes to speaking to groups of children. When a colleague of mine was just a shiny new veterinarian – the new guy at the practice got the job of public speaking – he thought it would be really cool to show a class of first graders an X-ray of a pregnant dog. The first hand waved in the air. “How did the puppies get there?” a boy with no front teeth asked. Hmmm … the vet looked at the teacher for assistance. She studiously refused to make eye contact. “Um … the babies grew in the mommy dog’s tummy,” he said. Remember, groups of young children ask questions in herds. Another sticky hand rose in the air. “How did the babies get there?” “Well, the mommy dog and the daddy dog get together and put the babies there,” he managed. Naively thinking the issue was settled, he nodded to the next waving arm. “But where do babies come from?”
By second grade, kids seem to understand the question concept and often have insightful, interesting questions that are still none-the-less challenging to answer. I used to bring my retired racing greyhound, Sage with me for talks. She has since passed away. She would stand patiently while I showed the students how I examined her eyes and ears. I’d open her mouth wide and the kids would “ooo” and “ah” over her teeth. Then Sage did what she did best – collapse in a heap on the floor on her side. This was the best maximum exposure position for being petted by lots of kids. Often it was a struggle to keep Sage from plopping down into the ready-to-be-petted-by-adoring-fans position until I have finished the physical exam part of my talk. Elementary students all over Greenwood probably thought my dog was terminally anemic.
By far the best part about talking to kids is the thank you letters I get afterward. They are adorable. Here is a typical example of one of these wonderful letters that makes it all worthwhile.
Thak you for coming to see us. You are prety and awsum. Plese come again.
p.s. Lev the vet at home next tym.
Another vet talked to a group of fourth and fifth grade Boy Scouts and some of their parents. He said, “Any animal with hair can get rabies.” No oversimplification goes unpunished. “What about bald men?” a boy asked. “Well, they have hair on their arms,” the vet answered. “What if they shave their arms?” the same boy asked. “There is still hair somewhere,” said the boy’s father through gritted teeth.
High school students. Don’t even get me started on high school students. “Do you have any questions?” I ask at the end of my talk. Thirty blank stares. Of course they don’t have any questions; I’m not sure they have a pulse.
Veterinary medicine can be a risky profession. There are pit bulls, pit vipers and public speaking. As I give more talks to groups of children, I learn more about how they think at each age. I’d like to say that I get better at it, for the experience but like patients, no group of kids is the same.
Dr. Anndrea Hatcher is a veterinarian at Olive Branch Parke Veterinary Clinic in Greenwood. She provides medical and surgical care, and boarding for dogs, cats and exotic pets. She graduated from Center Grove High School and Purdue University and her children attend Center Grove schools.