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This is an excerpt from my book Adventures in Veterinary Medicine: What Working in Veterinary Hospitals Taught Me About Life, Love and Myself. It features Virginia, the cat who started my love affair with torties all these years ago. It was first published in 2010.
As those of you who read Buckley’s Story know, Buckley was my office cat at the animal hospital I managed for eight years before she came to live with Amber and I. She wasn’t the first one, though. Not the first tortie, and not the first office cat. Before Buckley, and even before Amber, there was Virginia.
I first met Virginia when I went for my first interview for the hospital manager position at the Middleburg Animal Hospital. The hospital was then owned by Drs. Jack Love and Janet McKim, a husband and wife team. I had spoken to Janet on the phone briefly before my interview, but really didn’t know what to expect. This was in the days before every animal hospital had a website. I knew what I was looking for in a potential employer as far as practice philosophy, and in addition, I was looking for a clinic that had that intangible right “feel.”
As soon as I walked into the waiting room of the hospital, I knew I had found the right place. There was an old-fashioned wooden bench, a rocking chair, and the walls were covered with photos of dogs and cats. A large free-standing cage held several kittens. When Janet came up to greet me, I was even more sure. I instantly liked her. She took me back to her office and began the interview.
After a few minutes, a beautiful tortoiseshell cat walked into the office. “That’s Virginia,” explained Janet. “She’s one of our two hospital cats.” Virginia proceeded to walk over to me, looked up at me, and then dug her claws into my legs and used them as a scratching post. I wondered whether that was part of the interview – a test, perhaps, to see how I would react? In hindsight, I realized that, of course, this was the moment she marked me as her own. I had dressed up for the interview and was wearing a skirt and pantihose. I can honestly say it was the first and only time in my life I left an interview with runs in my pantihose caused by kitty claws! The interview went well, and I left feeling hopeful that I would be offered the job.
A couple of weeks later, Janet called to invite me to go out to dinner with her and Jack. We sealed the deal over dinner, and I spent the next eight wonderful years working at the Middleburg Animal Hospital. And the fact that Virginia was part of the deal only increased my happiness.
She was estimated to be about ten years old. She was FIV positive. FIV is the feline version of the aids virus. It is contagious between cats, but is primarily spread through bite wounds. Casual, non-aggressive contact does not spread the virus, and it is not zoonotic, which means it cannot be spread from cat to humans. However, Virginia’s owners were not comfortable keeping an FIV positive cat and had left her at the animal hospital for euthanasia. Somehow, the hospital staff never got around to it, and by the time someone remembered, she had wormed her way into too many hearts for them to go through with it.
Virginia was the poster child for tortitude, that unique personality of tortoiseshell cats. She had definitely read the manual. She was feisty, independent, and set in her ways. The only other animal she liked was Marmy, our other hospital cat, a sweet, wise old medium-haired orange cat. You could often find Marmy in his cat bed, with Virginia curled around him, squeezed into the small bed with him.
She liked most of the staff members, but this was not always mutual. She thought nothing of using her claws if she felt like someone wasn’t doing her bidding (ie, petting her properly, feeding her on her schedule, or committing any number of transgressions only she knew about). None of these were exactly the kinds of qualities you’d look for in a hospital cat! At one point, early on during my time as manager, there was talk of sending her to a nearby sanctuary for FIV positive cats. I was nervous about doing so, but I set an ultimatum: if Virginia went, so would I. Thankfully, by then Janet and Jack had come to rely on me, and took my “threat” seriously. Virginia got to stay.
She loved me fiercely. She would be at the door to greet me each morning. When I took a few days off, the staff would tell me that she’d been looking for me, and when I returned to work, the look on her face made it clear that she did not appreicate being abandoned like that. She had her routine, and it didn’t vary much from day to day. In the morning, she’d sleep in a cat bed I had placed in front of a sunny window on my desk, next to my computer. She’d spend most mornings napping, but she also made sure that I paid attention to her, often clawing at my “mouse hand” to get my attention. As lunch time got closer, she would park herself on the bench in the exam room adjacent to my office, where most of the staff gathered for lunch each day. She loved to mooch off of peoples’ lunches, with morsels of meat or cold cuts and yogurt, especially peach flavored, being favorites.
For four years, she made my office my home away from home. She showed no symptoms of her disease. Then, in the spring of 2002, she started to decline rapidly. She seemed to lose energy, and her always healthy appetite started to wane. She couldn’t make it to the litterbox in time and had frequent accidents outside the box. She wouldn’t come to greet me at the door in the mornings. An ultrasound showed that her heart and liver were in bad shape.
On a sunny April morning, we decided that it was time. I spent her last morning in the office with her in her bed by my side. When I wasn’t crying, I was calling staff members who were not on duty that day to let them know, in case they wanted to be present for her final moments. I held her on my lap in the office, surrounded by all the people who had been a part of her world, as she took her last breath. I don’t think there are many cats who got the kind of send off she did.
I still miss her. The photo above was on my desk at the animal hospital until I left; now, it’s on a shelf in my office here at home. She was my introduction to and beginning of my love affair with torties. Even all these years later, she still has a piece of my heart.
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