Never a dull dog tag
A handful of veterinary technology students troop into the animal science barn, scanning the corrals for their patients. Guided by a chorus of nervous bleats, the young women wind their way toward a band of Russian Romanov sheep. Nervous, the animals try to disappear, bunching together and leaning against the far side of the pen.
The women hush the sheep, cooing and patting and offering bits of hay. When their patients are calmer, the students begin checking for symptoms of ill health. Each sheep bears a numbered identification tag, but the vet tech students can't bring themselves to croon, "Oh, Number 43, you're such a sweetie." So they start thinking up names. Pretty soon they've christened the whole bunch.
Routine sheep checkups continue throughout the semester, the students ever vigilant over their wooly charges. Then one day, vet tech student Amy Ellwein sees something she doesn't like. So she calls up the sheep herdsman, introduces herself and reports, "Luna's eye is all gooey. I think you should have it checked out."
A long silence on the phone is followed by a question, "Who the hell is Luna?" Ellwein has to look up the animal's ID number.
Dressed in a pet-print tunic, her long hair pulled away from her face, Ellwein -- now a vet tech instructor -- rests her elbows on the half door separating the beagle kennels from the rest of Robinson Hall. She watches as a student sorts a cluster of hungry pooches into individual wire pens, using bowls of food as bait. A slip of paper bearing each dog's name is tucked into each dish. This way the student knows who's been fed and who has not.
A non-descript brick building on the campus of North Dakota State University, Robinson Hall is home to parakeets, a mouthy parrot, rabbits, mice, gerbils, a chinchilla, hamsters, 19 beagles and some 30 cats. And every last one has a name.
The highly specific -- some say weird -- naming practices in Robinson Hall pre-date Ellwein's involvement in the vet tech program by nearly 20 years. In 1976, Drs. Tom and Joann Colville launched the program with a brand new building, a handful of students, a dozen donated cats and four beagles.
While cats in need of care were easy to come by, dogs -- at the time -- were not. The plan was to breed the two male and two female beagles and develop a dog colony so the students could practice their skills.
That first quartet of adolescent dogs was so eager to procreate, they couldn't keep their paws off each other. So Tom Colville decided to name them for the controversial 1969 sex comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." Over time, the rules of naming evolved: Rule No. 1. Each new litter of puppies or cluster of cats that arrives in Robinson Hall must be named by a theme. Typically, those present at the birth/arrival have first naming rights. Faculty have veto power.
Rule No. 2. Animals can't be given "normal" human names. This rule came about when the program had a beagle named "Sarah" and a student named "Sarah." Sarah got pregnant. The dog, not the girl. It was just too confusing.
The newest beagles on the block are the crazy-names- celebrities-give-their-children litter: Apple (Gwyneth Paltrow), Hazel (Julia Roberts), Tallulah Belle (Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and Pilot Inspektor (Jason Lee).
The "Scooby-Doos" are namesakes of cartoon characters Scooby, Scrappy and Daphne. Dyna, Electra Glide, Road King and Duce make up the Harley Davidson motorcycle gang. Dharma and Greg, named for the TV sitcom couple, are actually half brother and sister ... it's a long story. Larry's brothers, Curly and Moe, were adopted. And the new breeders are all loners: Bauer, Clyde, Jazzy and Kilida.
Since not everyone -- certainly not new students -- can distinguish one beagle from the next, there's a beagle directory. Each dog has its own page in a large, three-ring binder. Here you'll find vital statistics on each canine, including a mug shot and a hindquarters portrait documenting each one's unique markings.
The arrival of the "celebrity" pups this summer means four of the senior generation -- Mercedes, Camry, Kia, Beamer and Lexus -- soon will be eligible for adoption. With the exception of Chuck -- an epileptic beagle that lived his entire 15 years in Robinson Hall -- most of the beagles spend less than four years in the program.
The breed's modest size and even temperament earned the beagles their place in Robinson Hall. "They aren't the sharpest tools in the shed," Ellwein says, "but they are the sweetest dogs to work with. When students go in to get a dog for a physical exam, it's like they're all jumping up and down saying, 'Pick me! Pick me! Stick a thermometer in me! I don't care!'" Today's beagles don't spend as much time playing patient as their forbearers. The beagles earn their keep, but the real clients often are visitors to the Robinson Hall Veterinary Wellness Clinic.
Ellwein's brainchild, the student-run, instructor-supervised clinic provides physical exams, vaccinations, heartworm tests, cat neutering and other wellness services. Clientele is restricted to Humane Society and Red River Zoo animals and pets belonging to faculty, staff and graduate students in the Animal and Range Sciences Department. "This way," Ellwein says, "a dog that really needs its toenails clipped gets its toenails clipped."
If it's a challenge getting on a first-name basis with the Robinson Hall regulars, keeping track of the transient cats is nearly impossible. Collected from area pounds and the Humane Society, up to 30 felines are de-wormed, de-flead, de-ear mited and de-sexed by NDSU vet tech students each year. As soon as the cats are fixed up, most go back to the Humane Society or find homes with families. A select group of the gentlest creatures, however, are pressed into higher service.
Because the anatomy of a cat's throat is similar to that of a human baby, some vet tech program cats are used in pediatric advanced life support labs. NDSU vet tech instructors and their students transport a few felines to local hospitals and ambulance services, then administer anesthesia while EMTs and physicians practice inserting life-saving tracheal tubes into the cats' tiny throats. As with all creatures used in the program, the animals' health and safety always take priority over science.
Despite the considerable cat turnover, Ellwein revels in remembering clans like the wine kitties -- Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay; the Halloween cats -- Spooky, Raven, Boo and Ghost; and the "Lord of the Rings" felines -- Boromir, Pippin, Theoden and Lady Galadriel.
Domestic or wild, every animal that crosses Ellwein's path will get a name; even baby squirrels brought to her for mending. The squirrels she names for national parks. She has tended and released Denali, Jasper, Arcadia and Hudson. "Well," she says, "I guess Hudson was after a bay, not a park."
-- C. Jelsing