I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I was a child. I was the kid who hand-fed orphaned robin fledglings until they could fly. I once pried open a clam to look for its secrets and belatedly realized that I’d killed this little hard-shelled thing. Oh, how I cried. I learned that sometimes the heart hidden inside is too tender for rough childish hands.
To have the privilege of doing this job, you need to live through several years of post-secondary education including placements and group projects and some really visceral stuff. I’ve been kicked, bitten, scratched and charged. I survived a semester of university where I had to take nine courses when a ‘full load’ is five. I’ve done on-call shifts that were counted in days, not hours. My daughter once called me a badass as a huge compliment. But I’ve had heart-breaking failures and yes, I’ve made mistakes.
But there have been wonderful moments, too. I’ve had the pleasure of serving some amazing pet owners, people who had the humanity to give me a word of kindness or praise when they were going through some of the most difficult times of their lives. I have worked with and learned from some of the most ethical, compassionate and dedicated people I’ve ever met. I’ve seen the miracle of life, and I’ve witnessed the circle of life make its rounds. I have seen grace personified.
Sometimes, something happens that stops you in your tracks. Right now, that something is unfair social media hate, especially toward the people in my line of work.
You know the story. Well, you know the sob story or the angry story, the half-truths, the stomach-turning photos or videos. It goes something like this:
Once upon a time, an evil veterinarian spied a hapless pet owner minding his own business, taking excellent care of Fluffy who was perfectly happy and healthy in every way. Dr. Eve decided that lying to Mr. Hapless, taking his money and then abandoning Fluffy to terrible pain or a horrifying death would be a good way to spend a Tuesday. Mr. Hapless didn’t get any information, he wasn’t given any options, and he spent thousands of dollars only to end up with a dead pet, no answers and a trunk full of anger. Poor fellow.
Hap takes his story to social media, accompanied by photos if possible. Of course, he doesn’t tell you the problem that caused Fluffy’s pain was:
a) completely preventable if he’d actually taken the advice given several times over several years,
b) made worse by his delay to seek help when Fluffy first showed signs of a problem,
c) also made worse because Hap didn’t follow the written and verbal instructions or recommendations he was given,
d) not diagnosed because he refused testing or a post-mortem exam to determine what really went wrong, or
e) all of the above
Hap enjoys notoriety as the instigator of a troll-fest and receives a lot of insincere sympathy from the online village crusaders who have a grudge against veterinarians. Some villagers leap at the chance to say something awful about a person they’ve never met. Some good people try to stick up for Dr. Eve or encourage a more balanced thought process. The staff at Dr. Eve’s clinic watches social media threads that include death threats, suggestions of violence or vandalism against the clinic and its staff, and good old name-calling. They might even receive emails or phone calls from people fraudulently trying to get information, or just reaching out to smack them personally. These people don’t use their real names.
Dr. Eve doesn’t respond publicly because veterinarians are required to follow privacy laws. This includes protecting the privacy of the very people lying about them on social media. Dr. Eve is called more names and threatened again because she is following the law and her personal ethics to protect the privacy of the person who is lying.
Dr. Eve brings in a counselor to help shattered staff members deal with the trauma they are experiencing, she has to hire a lawyer to help get the untrue statements stopped, and she ends up losing clients who are willing to be swayed by the angry rant rather than trust their own perfectly good experience. Sometimes the clinic needs to involve the police because of the threats. Sometimes the veterinarian develops mental health issues and sometimes she commits suicide.
Hap enjoys attention and sympathy. The mob enjoys the moment. Anyone associated with the clinic, including their family members, spends weeks recovering from the trauma. No pet is helped.
Let me repeat that: NO PET IS HELPED. THE END.
I don’t deny that there is some real anger and pain here, but is it truly all Dr. Eve’s fault? Did she make a mistake? Maybe. Was a poor outcome her fault? Maybe.
What if we give the benefit of the doubt and not jump to conclusions? As someone who has been on the receiving end of vitriol, threats, and profanity due to complete fabrication, it hurt beyond belief. It was a while ago now, but sometimes it still hurts in the middle of the night, it hurts when I should be enjoying time with my family, it hurts when I hesitate before trusting another client with my best efforts and emotions.
Do I feel it was warranted to traumatize my staff that way? Hell, no. I understand why the person might be upset, concerned about their pet or even angry, given the situation. But I don’t understand why they can’t show a little humanity, why their problem has to be someone else’s fault, and why they are entitled to tell lies or make threats.
There are options for people who are displeased. In North America, veterinarians have governing bodies. Here in Ontario, the College of Veterinarians of Ontario takes complaints and reviews them. They take every complaint seriously and investigate, looking for concerns about the care your pets receive. There is also the option to go to court, to use facts to show that Dr. Eve is a bad person. And if we all take our duty as citizens seriously, we should use these remedies to make sure bad professionals are disciplined and educated so no one else suffers.
Let me ask you a favor. The next time you see one of those threads, remember the person who posted it is angry. And maybe they have a right to be angry or hurt or upset. Maybe their rant and threats ‘meet community standards’. But think of the other humans, the ones they are yelling about. Those are real people. Those people have feelings too, and maybe they have a right to be angry or hurt or upset. Maybe they have a right not to be harassed by strangers who know nothing about the other side of the story.
I know of clinics that have had to hire security guards or simply close down for the safety of their staff. How much damage does that do, what toll does that take? It’s a moment on social media for you. Take my word for it, the sting and the fear and mistrust in the people you’re judging lasts for months or years.
Sometimes the hard shell of privacy is hiding a tender story, very different from the one you are being told. And sometimes the childish roughness of social media can kill that tender heart.