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True Story

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Philosopher

Fiona Dalzell finds it hard being a philosophical vet.

Ewan, one of the other vets in the practice where I work, announced with a wave of a plump and petulant hand that he was finding vaccinations and free flea checks too dull to bother with. Such things were now to be left to lesser, less gifted mortals. If a check slipped its way onto his appointment list then terrible tantrums occurred. So for the greater good of the rest of the staff, my days slowly turned into torture sessions of parasitology. Double-helixed nightmares of mutant fleas spun round inside my head during those hot summer evening consulting sessions. At night I would totter upstairs to my garret, exhausted from my labours. Then, with a fortifying G and T in hand I would start work on my papers for my degree in Philosophy. With the stereo turned up to drown out the police sirens and squeals from Bardeswell village square below, I spent long happy nights in the embrace of men like Hume and Kant.

I tried to take a philosophical approach to the repetitive nature of the unrelentingly clichéd flea questions. I tried to make it interesting, for myself at least. When the clients asked me how Program worked, I explained the intricacies of chitin inhibition down to a molecular level, only to find my ungrateful audience sidling towards the door and fingering the handle. I made great efforts to be reasonable when clients insisted they had already used Frontline without ever attending the practice. They had purchased some product from Tesco’s, and in characteristic Bardeswellian logic claimed it must be identical, as it too was applied by a squirting action on the back of the neck. On my better days I would explain that the method of delivery was a matter quite separate from the item actually being delivered. On worse days I would hear myself coming out with appalling analogies not quite awful enough to drive my point home. “So what about things you apply to your own skin… Now deodorant and fake tan are applied the same way, but they’re obviously different things, right? The method of application does not denote the nature of the applied product.”

“I paid for a sun bed, like! Wot you saying?”

It was all desperately disheartening.

The same terrible questions would come at me hour after hour. Identical and quite inexcusable incidents of complete ignorance of Cascade would assail me day after day. The refusal to acknowledge the battalions of furtive black invertebrates scuttling through the seborrhoeaic undergrowth of their pet’s coat was a collective denial. Despite the visual evidence to the contrary, all my clients showed a selective blindness to anything in the Ctenocephalides family.

It came to the end of June. My university Philosophy exam was approaching. In my evenings I was studying rationality and critical thinking, immersing myself in Hume, Kant and Descartes. Despite diligently seeking reason during the night, I was driven to the very edge of it during the day by a mind-battering number of free flea checks.

Miss Perkins was my metaphorical last straw.

She clickerty-clacked her way in, metatarsals encased in pink straps over towering pink heels. Weaving through the door on her unstable footwear, she teetered dangerously over a cat basket like a tightrope-walker about to fall to her death. I had to grab the cat basket to prevent an incident. “Right, this is Felix is it? Would you like to get him out of the box? Cheers.”

I read through Felix’s scanty notes while awaiting his emergence. He had never been vaccinated, despite several suggestions to do so, and had only ever been in for dermatological problems. All consultations had been claimed by the owner as free flea checks. I pondered the moral status of someone who obviously spent so much money on make-up and hair products – pointless expenditure by all obvious accounts – and nothing on a sentient being in her care. I then wondered how the study of ethics could apparently be completely ruining me for the purposes of general practice. Everything now seemed illuminated in a Kantian light, and the shadows in Bardeswell seemed incredibly long.

After a few minutes of musings disguised as note perusing, my table was still catless. I looked up. Miss Perkins was clearly in difficulties. Her jeans were missing a vital section of material at the proximal end. To deal with this shortcoming she had fashioned herself some sort of pink belt arrangement, tightly fastened mere centimetres above her upper thigh. Friction appeared the force responsible for decency. However, even the forces of nature were defenceless when she bent down.

Her rump erupted from her trousers, and some monstrous string and frill undergarment sprang into view. I averted my eyes immediately, and looked out the window while she foisted her nether regions back into her inadequate denims. But with these efforts, her bodice of pink gingham, strapless and joined centrally by a shoelace arrangement of vermicelli-thin thread, finally failed in its duties to contain her bronzed bosom.

I looked out the window again, and had the presence of mind to shut the blinds while figurative rearranging restored some brief modesty to the proceedings.

I rescued Felix from his basket. Miss Perkins tried to hold him for me, but any activity at all appeared to precipitate a clothing crisis. If she dressed like this to handle animals, I could hardly bear to think what she might wear to a nightclub.

I parted Felix’s dandruff-ridden coat and watched several hundred fleas sprint away from my unwelcome inspections. Touching Felix induced a frenzy of scratching in him.

“I’ve been on holiday to Lanzarote, like, been away, like,” Miss Perkins said.

“Who’s been looking after him then?”

“Well, no one really, the neighbour pops in, you know…”

“Miss Perkins, can’t you see all these fleas?”

I grabbed one as a herd of fleas stampeded across the fur parting, and thrust it at her. She peered at it, opened her mouth to disagree with me, but seeing my face, sensibly thought better of it. She nodded mutely and clutched her fragile top.

“It is most likely that his skin condition is due to this flea infestation, so we need to deal with that. That should be an easily solvable problem. Have you used any flea control at all, either on him, or in your house, in the last few months?”

“But I have!” she wailed, “I have tried everything! I know he hasn’t got fleas!” She flapped her hands at me, teetering a little on her trotter-like footwear with the effort of speech.

No fleas! Was this woman completely blind? Was that her excuse for her atrocious minimalist dress sense? Perhaps she wanted to appear as if she had made some efforts, albeit misguided, to ensure her pet, to whom she had a moral duty of care, was free of ectoparasites. Maybe she wanted me to think she was not feckless, self-serving and unthinking. Or possibly she wanted to avoid the lecture she sensed was coming.

Sadly for Miss Perkins, the last strands of my patience had worn away like a degenerate cruciate ligament. This inappropriately dressed woman, going on holiday while she leaves her cat to fend for himself in her foodless den of parasite-ridden misery, was making an extraordinary and totally irrational claim. I could no longer tolerate this undisciplined thinking.

Everything?” I asked menacingly. “You claim to have tried every flea treatment under licence in the UK?”

“Yes!” she wailed again, foolishly.

I reached for the Compendium of Data Sheets. Keeping my voice calm I flicked to the appropriate page.

“We will start with the As. Have you tried Advantage?”

We went through the entire list of ectoparasite treatments in the Noah book – not two by two, but one by one. We established that her original claim was both invalid and untrue. We replaced it with the valid and true claim that she had tried nothing. At least we were making progress. I felt slightly better.

“How did you acquire this knowledge that the condition of your cat’s skin is nothing to do with fleas?” I asked next.

“Well…” she hesitated. I think she could perceive that the consultation was not going down the usual anti-inflammatory lines. “How do you know that what you think, is, in fact, true?” I asked her helpfully.

“Well, like my mates all say the same things… Thems cats scratch a bit too, but we knows its not fleas…” she said after a long pause.

I shook my head. She tried again. “Err, magazines and things?”

“Better… The library is a good start. Science uses a process called induction. You need to look at the statement you are making, make sure it is logical to begin with, and then test it out. You need evidence to support your ideas.”

There was a silence that I took for encouragement.

“Now even with logical inductive skills we have to be careful about this, as even if every example now fitted your theory, one in the future might not. Have you heard of Hume’s Principle of the Uniformity of Nature?” I was starting to enjoy the consultation. Miss Perkins might be converted to Kant et al after all. My day might be of some value. “What about justified belief?”

A pink-painted set of nails hesitantly reached for the cat basket. I was worried that she might be loosing interest, so I whisked over the subject of justified beliefs a little too quickly maybe, and returned to Felix. “Now, Felix is hooching in fleas. If you have fleas running around on your own body, they’re very annoying. Is it reasonable to assume Felix might feel the same?”

I wondered about quoting from The Merchant of Venice, “Does not a Jew bleed?” rather than discussing the issue of sentient beings and Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism; but as she did not recognise the famous ideas of the wonderful David Hume, it seemed very unlikely to me that she would have even heard of The Merchant of Venice. “So would it be reasonable to propose we start with the flea treatment, and treat it as a trial?” I asked. Miss Perkins nodded mutely. “So shall we see Felix back in two weeks?” I smiled happily. I could not quite see Miss Perkins rushing out and subscribing to Philosophy Now, but I was certain she might at least make more sensible claims next time she graced us with her under-dressed presence.

The unfortunate Felix had already been unceremoniously stuffed back into the cat basket. Miss Perkins arranged her dismantling garments before grabbing poor flea-bag Felix’s basket and bolting as fast as her bound feet could take her to reception. I heard her at the desk as I cleaned my table.

“That vet, she was talking about, you know, belief and knowledge and stuff.”

“Oh, did she? That’s good,” responded Lesley, our ex-police constable receptionist. “That will be twelve pounds and eighty-three pence, please.”

Miss Perkins did indeed return, but asked to see a man. Felix was even vaccinated. She purchased flea treatments regularly ever afterwards. I would like to think this is because my impassioned discussion of Hume inspired her to go to the library and discover the marvellous world of philosophy, and not as Lesley said, that’s she’s too fearful of seeing me again to risk Felix having a relapse. Whatever the reasons, the outcome was good. Bentham at least would be pleased.

© F.J. Dalzell 2008

Fiona Dalzell is doing a double major degree in Philosophy and English part-time. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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