I have gone back and forth with myself on whether to include this chapter, because it does touch on a real-world controversy. Ultimately, I have decided to go ahead with it, because it makes for an interesting study of the issue–an issue that I think deserves additional questions and answers from both sides of the argument.
If you must hate me for asking questions through this narrative, then so be it. Our society encourages us to vilify the opposition to the point of being sub-human, but I would ask you to consider the concept that we are all simply doing the best we can with information gleaned from our different life experiences to make sense of the world.
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Chapter 3: First Days
Thomas was standing at the reception desk, going over billing policies with Sugarberry. Out of the corner of his eye, he kept an eye on the clock above the door, which was now five minutes past when the new employee was supposed to start her shift.
Another five minutes passed before Tabby came bolting in. “Sorry,” she said breathlessly, joining them at the desk. “I accidentally left out a vial of fairy dust last night, and this morning I had a whole fairy convention-shindig-whatever going on in my living room, and Othello tried to clear them out, and it was this whole thing…” She shook her head regretfully. “So what are we doing today?” She looked at Thomas expectantly.
“Well,” Thomas said, realizing that he would likely be treated to many more stories of this nature over the course of their working together. “To start with, there are some new employee forms to fill out,” he said after a pause. “Why don’t you take a moment to get that out of the way.”
“I have them right here,” Sugarberry piped-up helpfully.
“Oh, you know everything about me, Sug,” Tabby said with a careless wave of her hoof. “You can fill them out.”
“No, Ms. Fershund, I want you to do it,” Thomas said firmly. He recognized in her nature a certain disrespect for authority, and knew he was going to have to fight to keep the upper hoof with her.
“And I want you to remember my name preferences,” Tabby said sharply, “but here we are.” Still, she pulled the proffered sheets of paper toward her and picked up a nearby pen,
Seeing genuine annoyance in her eyes, Thomas judiciously decided not to pursue that topic. “When you’re finished, come and see me in the exam room,” he instructed. “We’ll start going over procedures, and hopefully will have an exam or two by the end of the day for hoofs-on practice.”
Tabby turned to the wall and rolled her eyes. She had needed to release her frustration somehow. Thomas was droning on about wound management. Honestly, as if she didn’t know how to determine if a wound should be treated as closed or open! He acted like she was an absolute novice.
Sugarberry poked her head in the exam room, and it was a welcome distraction. “There’s a walk-in, a puppy with a cut paw. Should I send them in?”
“Yes, go ahead,” said Thomas. “I can illustrate my point that…”
Blah blah blah, thought Tabby to herself. He hadn’t been this annoying yesterday.
“Tabby! Hi!” Bluebell, a blue pony with purple hair, pranced into the exam room with her Labrador puppy.
Tabby grimaced as discreetly as possible. Bluebell had been a sort of fan-girl of Tabby’s since junior year in high school. Bluebell had ended up with a broken leg after an ill-advised dare involving climbing the roof, and Tabby had healed it. It was on the sly, of course, or Tabby would have faced ramifications for performing magical healing without a license. After that, Bluebell had followed Tabby’s career with interest, and Tabby always seemed to be running into her shopping, at the ice cream shop, or at church.
Tabby honestly didn’t know what to do with the attention, and so tried to avoid it.
“It’s great to have you back in town!” Bluebell enthused.
“I do live here, Bluebell,” Tabby sighed, taking the lively black puppy off her hooves and holding him down gently on the exam table. “I’ve just been commuting.”
“What happened here?” Thomas asked, beginning to examine the wound.
“I dropped a glass at breakfast and it broke, and he ran through it before I could clean up the mess,” the mare explained.
“It is a deep cut and could use stitches,” Thomas observed.
“Oh, but Tabby, you can just patch him up with magic, right?” Bluebell turned a beseeching look on the pink unicorn.
“Sorry, that’s not in my contract,” Tabby said, spreading her hooves in a gesture of helplessness. This allowed the puppy to wriggle away, earning Tabby a frown from Thomas who was trying to wash out the wound. Tabby quickly recaptured him and kept him in place.
“We’re not licensed for magical healing,” Thomas clarified Tabby’s statement. “Tabby, the monofilament.” She hoofed over the supply.
Bluebell looked sharply at him. “Who are you supposed to be, anyway?” she asked. “I thought Tabby was the doctor.”
“I’m Dr. Fairfax,” Thomas introduced himself. “This is my clinic.”
“Oh.” Bluebell looked surprised. “Well, at least it must have been nice to get a job closer to home,” she chattered as the two unicorns got down to the business of stitching the wound. “You know, instead of running around through the woods all the time.”
“You don’t know my motivations–gahhh!” said Tabby as the puppy bit her. She was trying to focus on the work, not make chit-chat! And now she looked ineffective, bested by a mere pup.
“Oh no, of course not.” Bluebell’s voice oozed respect. “ I just mean, it’s nice to see you again!” She was unflappable.
“Tabby, note that this calls for the broad spectrum antimicrobial topical agent,” Thomas reminded her.
“Yes, I know!” Tabby snapped. Honestly, if he kept explaining everything in minute detail, she was going to have to…
“It was nice meeting you,” Thomas said to the client as the appointment wrapped-up.
Bluebell looked at the veterinarian askanse and reluctantly took his proffered hoof for a hook-shake. “Well, thanks… I guess,” she said, and turned back to the assistant. “See you around, Tabby! Hey, stop by the salsa shop sometime! I never miss karaoke night. Bye!” Then she was off to see Sugarberry about payment.
“You have a fan,” Thomas observed dryly when they were alone.
Tabby rolled her eyes, spraying the counter with disinfectant before Thomas could issue the directive. “We were in high school together and she thinks we’re lifelong buddies,” she replied.
“That’s not the right disinfectant for the counter,” Thomas admonished, and she threw up her hooves in exasperation.
Thomas could sense that his new assistant was touchy about the instruction, but he didn’t know the details of her training and she had to learn his way of doing things.
A challenge came with a new cat exam later that day
“I’m going to need him declawed,” the client, Firethorn, commented.
Thomas gave him a piercing look, and there was a moment of uncomfortable silence. “I don’t declaw unless it’s medically necessary,” he said at long last. There was an almost imperceptible lifting of his assistant’s eyebrows, or it might have been his imagination. “There are other… humane options to try, such as claw covers–”
“My building manager says no claws, period,” Firethorn interjected, frowning. “Why can’t you just declaw? Dr. Martingale in Neighberry does it all the time.”
“Dr. Martingale is–” A hack, Thomas wanted to say (his one encounter with the older veterinarian had not made a favorable impression), but settled on, “–not a specialist in small animals. Declawing is not good for the animal.” Firethorn looked unconvinced, and Thomas continued, “ It’s equivalent to having part of a hoof amputated and can lead to chronic pain and motility issues. The procedure is rarely done in New Pony, only for therapeutic reasons.”
“Well, maybe that’s where you should be,” Firethorn huffed. “If I’d known you were gonna be like that, I would have just gone to Martingale in the first place.”
“Who is your building manager?” Thomas asked, hoping to placate him somehow. “Let me talk to them before you go to Dr. Martingale. Maybe they can be persuaded to adjust their policy.”
“Name’s Bramble. He’s a stubborn old coot, so good luck with that,” Firethorn snorted. “But fine, do what you want. I can keep Simon at my sister’s for the rest of the week. But by Monday…”
“I’ll be in touch,” Thomas promised.
Thomas didn’t engage Tabby in further discussion on the incident, and later in the day she waited outside his office door, debating whether to ask her questions or to leave well enough alone. Finally, she worked up the nerve, knocked on the door, and was invited to enter.
Tabby stood in front of his desk and was silent for several moments, eyeing her boss speculatively.
“Is there something you’d like to say?” Thomas asked pointedly, staring back at her.
“No… yes!” Tabby burst out, then paused. Was she crazy for thinking that this big city transplant was someone who wouldn’t talk down to her for asking questions, for trying to understand all sides of the issue? Then she jumped in: “You’re not going to make any friends coming in here and putting down local customs.” That came out more adversarially than she had intended, but she hadn’t been able to think of a better opening.
“Is this about the declawing?” Thomas said, frowning. “Well, I’m not going to just compromise my ethics if someone asks me to. The animal’s welfare is my primary concern.”
“Hmm,” said Tabby, picking up a pen from his desk and twirling it in her hoof. She settled into silence, but kept darting glances at him.
“Is there anything else?” Thomas finally asked.
“I know you consider us barbarians,” she continued. “We’re not as black-hearted as you would paint us.”
“Not that. Just…” Thomas hesitated.
“Ignorant? Misguided? Irresponsible?” Tabby suggested.
“Well,” Thomas said, looking at her sharply, “claw removal causes irreversible damage and lifelong pain.”
“But is the incident rate of pain greater than unexpected negative consequences in other surgeries?” Tabby challenged. “I’ve known many of Dr. Martingale’s patients who have been declawed, and I’ve never seen one of these supposed cases of chronic pain, lameness, crippling. Have you?”
“Well, no,” Thomas admitted. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And it’s a natural instinct to scratch; you shouldn’t take it away.”
“Yes, well, reproduction is also quite a natural instinct, and we have no qualms in taking that away,” Tabby said bluntly.
“Those procedures lead to considerably higher quality of life, with small incidence of adverse effects,” Thomas said, standing his ground.
“It’s a biological imperative of an animal to pass its genes on, and you’re not doing it any favors as far as it is concerned. Don’t disillusion yourself into thinking you are doing it for the animal,” Tabby continued, holding up her hoof to forestall him speaking. “Spaying and neutering are about convenience for the pony, not the animal, same as declawing. If you are against one procedure, you should be against all. But that often isn’t the case.” She gave him a challenging look.
“I see the point you’re trying to make,” Thomas conceded. “But–”
“And,” Tabby forged on, “what if it’s a choice of being provided for in a home, like Firethorn’s, and being sent to an over-crowded shelter, slated for euthanasia? Isn’t that quite a change in quality of life?” she argued. “I suppose you’ll say that humane euthanasia is kinder than a lifetime of pain. But what if there isn’t pain?”
“You’ve given the topic more consideration than most,” Thomas admitted, “and I respect your line of reasoning… even if it doesn’t change my position.”
“It’s hard to get answers without being condescended to,” Tabby said after a pause. “I’m treated as a monster just for asking. But when has being condescending ever changed anyone’s mind?”
“If you want to understand it more from my perspective, I’d recommend that you spend some time with comparative anatomy.” Thomas walked to a bookshelf and ran a hoof along the spines before selecting one. “Study this,” he instructed, “and we can discuss it.”
“Claws are made of keratin, not bone, so it’s not a direct comparison,” Tabby insisted, but took the volume from him. She had half-believed that this conversation would lead to her early dismissal from her position here, but Thomas had retained a surprisingly respectful attitude. She didn’t quite know what to make of him, but she felt a begrudging twinge of… something.
Thomas left her perusing the textbook and paced across the room to the window, gazing out. That had been a challenging discussion with a fresh viewpoint to consider, and he liked a challenge. Still, would it make it difficult to work together if they were diametrically opposed on such an issue?
But these thoughts flew from Thomas’ mind when he caught sight of something outside his window. “What is that!” he exclaimed.
“What?” Tabby asked, looking up from studying a diagram.
“There’s some kind of wild beast prowling around outside,” Thomas said, watching it warily. “It looks dangerous.”
“What kind of ‘wild beast’?” Tabby looked skeptical, but walked closer to the window.
“Greenish, horns, fangs, spiked back…” Thomas listed its attributes.
“Ohhhhhh,” Tabby said knowingly. “That’s just Othello.” Standing next to Thomas, she waved out the window with a wide grin and then went back to the book as if that had cleared everything up.
Othello… he had heard that name somewhere recently… where? “Is he… dangerous?” Thomas asked tentatively.
“Oh, Othello wouldn’t hurt a–” Tabby cut herself off. “Never mind, you should see what he does to rabbits,” she amended. “But he wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Is he your… pet?” Fairies, that was it. Othello had dealt with the fairies. The story from this morning suddenly took a more macabre spin.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, exactly.” Tabby shrugged. “He is his own master. But he keeps an eye out for me. He’s just here to walk me home.”
“That’s very conscientious of him,” Thomas said, but winced as the beast looked him in the eye and bared his fangs. “Uh… what is he, exactly?”
“Don’t you know a hodag when you see one?” Tabby looked at Thomas in disbelief, and turned to walk out into the hallway.
Thomas trailed along behind her, still not fully convinced that she wasn’t walking to her death, or at least a mauling. “I’ve never seen one in the flesh,” he admitted.
Tabby opened the clinic’s back door, and the hodag bounded over, meeting her on the steps. “Who’s a good boy,” she cooed, scratching him behind the ears. Othello rumbled deeply.
“I didn’t know they were so friendly.” Thomas looked doubtful.
“They’re not, usually,” Tabby said cheerfully.
Thomas held out a hoof for the hodag to inspect. Othello sniffed it and snorted in disgust, shaking his horned head. Thomas drew back. “I don’t think he likes me.”
“He does have discriminating tastes,” Tabby explained. “He might warm up to you. But… he probably won’t.”
That was encouraging. “How did you meet him?” Thomas asked.
“I took him in as a pup after his parents were killed in a terrible accident,” she said matter-of-factly. She did not elaborate, but straightened up and faced Thomas. “Well, that’s all for today, isn’t it? Can I go?”
“Sure…” Thomas didn’t think it would be wise to go up against the hodag. That wasn’t a fight he was going to tackle today. “See you tomorrow.”
“…so that’s why it’s the responsible thing to allow leniency for alternate claw control methods,” Thomas concluded his argument. It was the next day, and he had managed to catch Bramble on a phone call, “iffen it don’t take too long,” Bramble had said.
“It ain’t illegal, is it?” Bramble snorted. “Can’t be that bad.”
“Well, as I said…” Thomas sighed. All his carefully structured arguments, and that was the response?
“Scratched up carpet and woodwork is too much hassle to repair, even with the security deposit. It’s not worth it,” Bramble said. “No, doc, I’m sorry, but my position stands. Now, I gotta get to work. Bye.”
So that was that. Thomas stared at the phone thoughtfully as he replaced the receiver, contemplating the next steps to take with Firethorn.
There was a sudden flash of light, and then Tabby was standing there in front of his desk. “Was that Bramble?” she immediately inquired.
“Tabby! If you must teleport,” Thomas chastised her, “at least observe common courtesy and knock first!”
“Sorry, I forgot,” Tabby said, but not sounding like she really cared. “So, what did he say?” She looked at him expectantly.
“We had an interesting discussion,” Thomas said vaguely. “He has, uh, very strong convictions.”
“He threw you out on your ear, didn’t he?” Tabby nodded knowingly. She did not verbally say I told you so, but her expression spoke volumes.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Thomas admitted.
“What will you tell Firethorn?” Tabby pressed.
“Well, the truth,” Thomas said, “and he will have to accept that.”
“You know…” Tabby said slowly, picking up a pen from the desk to fiddle with as was her wont, “…you do have more modern techniques than Dr. Martingale. If you did the operation, you’d know it was being done in the most efficacious way possible.”
Thomas hesitated for only a fraction of a second, then shook his head. “No, I won’t do it. There’s no justification.” He had his own convictions.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Tabby said, surprising him with her equanimity. “Just give Firethorn a free bag of cat food, and he’ll stop whining.”
“I’m not going to reward–” Thomas started, then realized that she had already gone, teleported away. “Oh, never mind,” he said to himself. What had she even been there for in the first place?
A few days later, Thomas was leaning on the wall outside the exam room, looking over a chart while Tabby was checking in a patient. Having satisfied himself as to her experience, he had relaxed his micro-management and given her more lead.
“I hear your boss got an earful from Bramble,” he overheard the client say to Tabby.
Thomas groaned inwardly. Great, apparently that account was traveling through the local grapevine. He wouldn’t live that down anytime soon.
“They had some matters of business to discuss,” Tabby replied in a cool tone.
“Well, not that I’m one to critique,” continued the other mare, “but it does seem a little forward of the doctor, if you ask me! He doesn’t know how we do things around here.”
“Well, apparently no one from ‘around here’ was willing to step in and take care of our pets,” Tabby pointed out. “So he does have that going for him.”
It was a subtle defense, but Thomas felt inordinately pleased that she wasn’t using the opportunity to vilify him behind his back. There would undoubtedly be more disagreements in their future, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all. He could live with that.