Doing things with scissors to animals: a factual account of dog-spaying in Kazakhstan

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The current wife of our Russian instructor’s ex-husband is a local veterinarian. By some strange coincidence both women are named Marina. Marina the instructor helped me place a call to Marina the veterinarian (as she speaks no English) to schedule Mishka’s surgery [1]. I was asked to provide a sturdy table—not round—and a large sheet. The surgery would take place in our home on Thursday morning at 10 a.m. and I would be the acting veterinary technician. I know no Russian veterinary terminology, though I do have a non-round table and an old sheet.

Later that same evening, Marina the instructor calls to say that Marina the veterinarian would need a trained assistant to perform the spaying procedure. She has performed this surgery on female cats in their homes, but dogs are slightly more complicated. She regrets to say that she will be unable to help us.

While on a run with Mishka the following afternoon, Marina the instructor calls me from the veterinary hospital two blocks from the USAID mission office. She is in the process of scheduling an appointment for Mishka’s surgery. Again, we are told it will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday—though this time it will be at the clinic. “Do not feed Mishka for 12 hours prior to surgery, and bring an old t-shirt with you,” Marina says.

On Thursday morning, Mishka trots happily through the parking garage towards our car. So far, car rides mean hiking, or camping trips.

At 9:55 a.m., we walk with a reluctant Mishka through the front door of the veterinary office. The building is not obviously marked, but there is a public bulletin board in the entryway with photographs and descriptions of animals: lost, found, for sale. We know we’re in the right place. And, tail between legs, Mishka knows she’s in the wrong place.

We walk up the stairs, through an open door and into the dingy, dimly lit reception area of the veterinary office. The receptionist and a client are discussing a bill quietly, in Russian. To our left is a slightly larger room with three stainless steel tables. Veterinary technicians, donning the apparently requisite socks with sandals, are busily working on two puppies. One of the puppies is very sick with a gastroenterological condition. His owner tells us, in perfect English, that we should not let our dog dig in the dirt—this is how her puppy became so sick.

Fifteen minutes later, I scoop Mishka up and set her on a stainless steel table in the only other room in the clinic—one that we assume is reserved for more serious surgeries. In the corner of the room, there is a kitten in a kennel, gently mewing.

The surgeon prepares a syringe to anesthetize Mishka. She asks me to hold the dog still while she administers the injection. As the clear liquid makes its way into Mishka’s body, I notice that the surgeon has dried blood under her fingernails.

There is no heart rate monitor. There is no oxygen. Each of Mishka’s four feet are tied to the stainless steel table with a dirty, white rope, exposing her belly for shaving, and then, surgery.

Shortly after Mishka’s operation begins, Sam and I notice a client giving the clinic’s staff a large plastic bag of apples in exchange for her cat’s visit. The surgeon and veterinary technicians slice and eat several of the apples while performing Mishka’s surgery.

While we wait, Sam and I call Marina the instructor three times—we need her to translate for us. First: so we know how long the surgery will last. Second: to confirm that we do, in fact, take Mishka home with us directly afterwards. Third: to be certain we understand all of the post-op instructions, given to us on a half-sheet of paper, printed in Russian.

The next 24 hours are crucial and incredibly difficult. It takes Mishka nearly two hours after surgery to stand on her own. She vomits in her dog bed, then stares with a hollow, desperate expression on her face, hallucinating as the anesthesia wears off. Throughout the evening, she seeks out both me and Sam for comfort and reassurance. Sam spends the entire night with her, sleeping on the living room floor.

With each hour, and each day, Mishka gets back a little bit more of her charm and puppy energy. Her corset, fashioned by the veterinary technicians out of the old t-shirt, keeps her from chewing on her stitches. I do a lot of explaining to the security guards and shop girls and neighbors in our apartment building who have become Mishka’s friends. “Не щенков” or “no puppies” I say, and get mixed responses [2].

Two weeks later, Mishka fully recovers. Sam and I confirm with Marina (the Russian instructor) that we do, in fact, remove the external stitches ourselves. So we kneel on the living room floor, Mishka between us, and do our dirty, careful work—with a pair of eyebrow tweezers, and the sharpest pair of art scissors I can find.

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Stitches, removed from Mishka’s belly.


[1] In female animals, spaying involves abdominal surgery to remove the ovaries and uterus. Spaying is performed commonly on household pets as a method of birth control.

[2] Spaying and neutering are not popular practices in Kazakhstan where dogs are valued as either status symbols or tools—it makes no sense to sterilize a dog when it could potentially create more dogs (to sell, or to keep as protection). Reproduction, generally, is cherished in Kazakhstan. Young girls are told not to sit on cold surfaces, go swimming in cold water, or sit in drafts, as any of these could render one infertile. This idea is supported by the fact that nearly 20% of any grocery store in Almaty is dedicated to baby products.

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3 thoughts on “Doing things with scissors to animals: a factual account of dog-spaying in Kazakhstan

  1. Diana says:

    Wow, I didn’t realise the process was so painful! Poor little girl Mishka. Looking forward to seeing you and Mishka again xo

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