In Moscow, kitchen-table surgery


Veterinarians: Two doctors raised their incomes by treating sick animals at home instead of at clinics.


MOSCOW -- While Igor and Tatyana Myshkin were taking off their boots and putting on their hosts' slippers, the family was clearing the supper dishes from the kitchen table, making way for the operation.

The family's two children went into a bedroom and turned their music up loud. They said they didn't want to hear the cat's screams.

There was only one scream. It came from Tatyana. A moment before the little gray cat succumbed to the anesthetic, terror descended and she tried desperately to escape, badly clawing Tatyana, who had been gently holding and stroking her.

An hour later, the cat had been spayed and the Myshkins were packing up their instruments, heading for their next appointment. Igor and Tatyana are veterinarians who make house calls. They have no office -- their examining and operating tables are in the kitchens of their clients.

They are emblematic of the many Russians who have found imaginative ways to survive in a country where incomes are steadily dropping and where regulations and bureaucrats are often hostile to the small business owner.

"It's because of our poverty," Tatyana begins, talking about why they stopped working at a clinic and went on the road.

"Our universal poverty," Igor says.

Prices in veterinary clinics are too high for many impoverished Russians, Tatyana says, and clinics don't pay veterinarians very well. So she and Igor decided to cut out the overhead and go directly to their patients. Though they find themselves working late into the night and going without vacations, they can earn more money being self-employed.

"All you need is anesthetic and a car," says Igor.

Because they usually have to work in the evenings when their clients are home, they have given up most hopes of free time, but they have been able to buy a pleasant three-room apartment in a remote if bleak corner of southeastern Moscow. They even have a coffee machine and a dishwasher, rare luxuries for most Russians.

"This year we tried very hard to take off on New Year's Eve," Tatyana says, "but we weren't successful. We had to do an emergency Caesarean for a bulldog."

"We delivered 17 bulldog puppies," Igor says.

"And the mother didn't have a drop of milk," says Tatyana.

A visitor to their 13th-floor apartment arrived on a recent afternoon to a huge clamor of singing and shouting in the kitchen. The Myshkins' two large green parrots, Bolik and Lolita, were in loud conversation. The family also has a horse named Red (kept at a veterinary college's stable not too far away), a 5-year-old pug and an 8-month-old Himalayan cat. Their Rottweiler died not long ago.

Igor, 38, and Tatyana, 35, met when they attended veterinary school together -- a five-year course in Russia. They have a 13-year-old son, cared for by grandparents in the evenings.

On a typical day, they go out to their first call about 4 p.m. and don't return home until 2 a.m. or later. Throughout the morning, their beeper goes off incessantly. They get about 40 calls a day, sending them rushing off to one part of Moscow to stitch up a dog that has cut its leg and to the other end of the city to a cat declining from cancer. They put the cat to sleep.

Vaccinations, putting stitches in, taking them out, operating on tumors. About midnight, a family calls seeking urgent help. Their cat is in heat, yowling so loud they can't sleep.

The Myshkins drive to the other side of Moscow to give the cat a hormone shot.

"It would be cheaper to have the cat spayed than to keep calling us to give her shots," Igor says.

Spaying a cat at home ($14) is a great convenience in a country where the clinics are crowded and where pet owners are expected to take the animal home immediately after surgery.

Much animal care here is do-it-yourself anyway. Pet owners are expected to know how to administer shots, so they can give their animals drugs or vitamins or other treatment after a visit to the clinic.

And Russians love their pets so deeply that even though they're often willing to put up with slow and sullen clinic care for themselves, they want something better for their animals.

"If we are both ill, I take care of my dog first," says Alexander Sidorin, whose family owns a German shepherd named Dick, "because he is like a very close relative. He takes part in everything. He understands our mood. He speaks to us, sings with us, dances with us.

"For me, my dog is a friend who will never betray or cheat me. None of the human beings around me can be that faithful."

The Myshkins concentrate on cats and dogs. "Birds are very difficult to treat," Igor says, "and all we can do is give advice over the phone."

Lately, they've developed a busy pig castration season. Impoverished Muscovites have started buying baby piglets in the spring and raising them in their apartments, taking them to the countryside in the summer. If the pigs aren't castrated, the meat, they say, smells of urine.

"Then in the fall they kill the pigs, crying over it," Igor says, "and eat the meat."

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