People don’t want to hear it when you tell them to run over amphibians

Ah – the internet. One minute in which to arm myself with an encyclopaedic knowledge about frogs. 

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Surgery had finished on Saturday morning: what had been scheduled for an hour and a half became a maelstrom of three hours. A client had come in as the place was being closed. Peter, my colleague, had left, suitably pleased with himself at being able to stay in bed, having been on call the previous night. “Oh, the usual thing,” he’d told me, “a couple of phone calls from drunks who didn’t want to pay to come in, but otherwise it was all quiet.”

The client who arrives shortly before closing time is not welcome. The receptionist, the nurse and the vet want to go home. Such cases may take five minutes; they may take 55. The receptionist, a lass who really would rather have been organising her wedding, came in, wearing her face of battle fatigue. The receptionists have to deal with and take money from the grieving, the anxious and, worst of all, the resentful. They are, to extend the metaphor, in the front line.

This receptionist – Joy – was anything but the embodiment of her name. She looked worn and shell-shocked. “You’ll have trouble with this one,” she said. “She phoned Peter last night about a poorly frog. He told her that he couldn’t be bothered to see it and then he told her to run it over.”

Few things surprise me in practice, but this was terrific. Peter, a sympathetic young man, had given the frankest and most practical advice. I wanted to laugh but propriety demanded that I merely smile. But the smile eventually gave way to a sigh, as the difficulty of the looming encounter dawned on me. “All right, Joy,” I said, “ I’ll try to sort it out.”

Think clearly. Frogs. Reptiles? No, amphibians. What do they eat? Meat? Insects? Greens? Critical Care Formula – that’s the stuff to feed to green, slimy creatures. Are they poikilotherms? Ah – the internet. One minute in which to arm myself with an encyclopaedic knowledge about frogs.

And there it was before me: Wikipedia’s frog. Mostly carnivores, can be omnivores. Toads are just warty frogs. And diseases? That’s what I needed to know. Chytridiomycosis. That would do. The client wouldn’t know anything about that. But I would. I felt as misguidedly well equipped as Bertie Wooster when confronting one of his aunts. Emboldened, I went into the waiting room and called in the client.

Ms Bamburgh was a young woman with cropped red hair, a ring in her nose and tattoos on her forearms – depicting lizards, I think, entwined around each other. She fixed me with the face of a gorgon, strode in and slapped a hard lump of dead frog on the table.

“I didn’t run it over,” she stated, revealing a ring on her tongue tip which looked as if it came from a medieval torture chamber. I concurred, given that the body still had three visible dimensions. Nonetheless, I wanted to go home, so I decided to go on the attack.

I pointed out that by not following veterinary advice, she had failed to put the frog out of its misery and had prolonged its suffering. I admitted that running animals over was an unconventional means of euthanasia, but told her it would have ended the suffering promptly in this case. I looked at the frog: it was covered in warts and probably a toad. My unexpected attack seemed to have worked – Ms Bamburgh was backing off. She asked me what I thought had been the cause of death. The warts looked mouldy.

“Chytridiomycosis,” I announced with overwhelming confidence. “A debilitating and fatal condition in amphibians. It’s quite widespread, but fortunately resistance seems to be developing. These white rings are characteristic of the disease. We seldom see them in time to treat them.”

Impressed by my authority, she changed tack: “He quoted me £120 to come out and run over this frog himself. Don’t you think that wildlife should be treated free of charge? It’s a question of welfare, not of money.” I tried not to splutter, advised her to write to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and opened the door. She left the frog on the table – a memento of the veterinary profession’s failure to uphold animal welfare.

I spoke to Peter after the weekend. “I was furious,” he said resentfully. “She rang just before the end of the Brazil-Colombia World Cup game and didn’t even apologise.”

This article appears in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014