At first glance, dogs make fairly ridiculous portrait subjects. They’re not deep thinkers. They’re not complex. Most often, if you see a dog in a painting, it’s playing poker. As statues, they tend to sit on top of hot-dog stands.
As an artist, it wouldn’t seem you’d have to work very hard to capture the essence of a pooch. Consider, though, that few bonds are stronger than the link between human and dog. Many people can take news of an uncle dying without shedding a tear. Nobody shrugs off the death of a family pet.
Inside the Terry Center in Raleigh, one of the largest veterinary hospitals in the nation, you’ll find 30 exam rooms, 10 surgery suites, four ultrasound stations, and a linear accelerator — space-age tools to treat the sickest animals. When you arrive at the hospital, you can enter through the emergency room; dermatology and ophthalmology; oncology and surgery; or cardiology and neurology. Nurses and doctors send prescriptions and lab samples in vacuum tubes that shoot from one side of the building to the other. The emergency isolation room, for the animals with infectious diseases, has its own heating and air conditioning system.
But you’ll also find healing aids that don’t come from medical textbooks inside the North Carolina State University vet hospital — aids that aim to balance out the soul along with blood pressure.
More than 70 original portraits and photographs of animals hang here: tongue-wagging setters, bounding Labradors, and a tabby cat hidden inside a Food Lion bag.
At the emergency room entrance, you discover a spaniel with its head cocked, eyes plaintive, seeming to ask, “If I get ligament surgery, can I lick the gravy boat?”
Down the hall, you see a Doberman in profile, its tongue lolling, its gums black, its collar and tag depicted like jewelry. And in the ophthalmology section, you find a blind couple sitting on a park bench, a pair of guide dog Labs at their feet.
Real pets that either survived terrible disease or faced it with fearlessness inspire much of the art hanging in these halls. In the oncology lobby, 22 portraits of pets that beat cancer hang in neat rows. Lexi the bulldog. Zeus the stern-eyed cat. Skip the terrier in a Wolfpack bow tie.
If your pet has leukemia, lost a leg to a tractor, or needs chemotherapy, these paintings and sculptures offer a comfort you’ll never get from a biplane fluoroscopy unit. Here, healing arrives via both art and science.
If your pet comes to N.C. State, it’s not for a rabies vaccine. It’s not for heartworm pills. These animals get bone marrow transplants and prosthetic paws. They have renal failure, diabetes mellitus, and Cushing’s disease. They need laparoscopy, cystoscopy, rhinoscopy, gastroscopy, and pats on the head.
But when the minds behind the vet school got together last year to add finishing touches, they decided the place needed a little cheering up.
Anyone who’s ever spent an afternoon inside a veterinarian’s office knows how sterile the environment can be, how cheerless it is when there’s nothing to look at but framed, full-color diagrams of diseased canine organs.
When you park at the Terry Center, you’re greeted by the towering statue of Hannah the Newfoundland dog — a 1,200-pound piece of sculpture possessing the grandeur usually reserved for presidents or generals. On a placard inside, you can read about Hannah’s triumph over a faulty heart valve and the replacement part made of cow tissue and titanium that reversed her canine death sentence. Thanks to the vet school, Hannah lived for five years rather than five months beyond her surgery, and her owners Susan and Randall Ward thought no tribute could be more fitting than her likeness in bronze.
Beneath the statue, they laid Hannah’s ashes — thanks for the extra years the vet school granted with their gentle pet.
“You come in scared, not knowing what to expect,” Susan Ward says. “You look up and say, ‘These animals survived. Mine can, too.’ ”
Built for $72 million, Raleigh’s shopping-center-size hospital is dedicated to the modern pet owners who are so devoted to their pets, they’d never consider an MRI too extravagant. The level of care here is so advanced that the CT scan machine rivals those used for many humans. Some of the rooms are shielded with copper. In the intensive care unit, the school installed green lights that are dim enough to let the animals rest, but bright enough to allow the staff to observe their movements.
In a year’s time, the school can handle more than 23,000 animals. When the hospital opened in 1983, it treated 4,000 pets. Many of the procedures draw Raleigh news crews. In 2005, doctors and biomedical engineering professors worked together to affix a prosthetic foot directly into the leg bone of a cat named George Bailey, attaching a spring to give it proper bounce. In 2009, doctors installed a foot for Cassidy Posovsky, a shepherd mix, making him the first dog in the world to have such an implant. And last March, doctors attached a foot to the front leg bone of a Husky named Zeus — the first dog to receive an implant on his front leg.
Much of the vision and money for this top-ranked hospital came from the late Randall B. Terry Jr., publisher of The High Point Enterprise.
About 15 years ago, Terry brought his beloved golden retriever, Nike, to N.C. State’s vet school to get treatment for an ailment that baffled local doctors. Nike lived another nine years, along with a string of Terry’s goldens. Today, they are immortalized in an oil portrait, hung in the boardroom like a portrait of royalty.
You can see Lady Nike with Col. Ajax, Miss Venus, Mrs. Athena, Maj. Rumor, and Capt. Achilles — the females designated by pink flowers. A copy of The High Point Enterprise lies in front of them on a sprawling lawn, the page open to this headline: “Athena Gives Birth to Five Puppies.”
These pictures show a world where spleens never rupture, where legs never abscess. With oil paint and watercolor, they remind a dog lover fretting in the waiting room that wounds heal, bones knit, and shaved fur grows back.
“There’s something warming about them,” says Susan Lilly, executive director of the N.C. Veterinary Medicine Foundation. “You can kind of lose yourself in these pictures.”
Picasso once made a portrait of a wiener dog — a single line that loops to form a floppy ear and a stubby tail. Critics believe he was paying tribute to his own cherished dachshund, Lump.
Some of the most intimate portraits at The Terry Center come from Cindy Reddish of Raleigh, especially Widget, the charcoal close-up of a cat’s face. You can almost swim inside the eyes, rendered the size of saucers.
Before Reddish paints an animal, she asks for its biography. She doesn’t just want to paint it. She wants to know it. Did it chase rabbits? Age gracefully or turn cantankerous?
“I actually don’t care to do people,” she says.
Widget, it turns out, was adopted. At first, she avoided her new owner, but later, she followed her everywhere. Widget had advanced leukemia, and a few weeks after Reddish hung her portrait in the Terry Center, Widget died.
“It makes the most wonderful gift,” Reddish says. “It’s like a memorial.”
But for an artist, the challenge lies not only in drawing out an animal’s character, but also in recreating its unusual body.
Throughout his career, Virginia sculptor Michael Curtis has shaped the august faces of Supreme Court justices and conquering generals. His statue of Thurgood Marshall stands in the halls of the Supreme Court.
Yet he struggled to depict Hannah, a 150-pound Newfoundland. Capturing her exterior in bronze took the same concentration and patience required of the doctors who rebuilt her interior with cow tissue and titanium.
He wanted her heroic, idealized, the portrait of valor in the face of anesthesia and incision.
The head was simple enough. Like humans, a dog’s head is five eyes wide. But the fur haunted Curtis. A Newfoundland’s coat is thick and wavy. You can barely see the dog beneath it. Trying to capture that poofiness in bronze forced Curtis to scrap his entire statue halfway through and start over.
“It was a pain in the keister,” he says.
Anyone unlucky enough to see a loved one wheeled into an operating room, whether that friend is covered with skin or fur, knows how hard it can be to trust the cold hands of science.
With a pet behind a hospital door, it’s a reflex to seek comfort in a more spiritual place — whether through prayer, meditation, or some combination of the two.
Hanging art on the walls of an animal hospital is a concession to the limits of scalpels and lasers, and a tribute to the power of things you can’t touch. Strength lies in the memory of your silver-haired Lab as a couch-chewing puppy, and that memory can be jolted to life by the sight of a watercolor sheepdog on a waiting room wall.
840 miles away, and OK
On the morning of October 3, 2011, Doreen Kennedy woke up in Coconut Grove, Florida, and began to worry. She’d just left her dog, Daisy, alone at the Terry Center in Raleigh to undergo an intensive bone marrow transplant to try to cure her canine lymphoma.
The thoughts wouldn’t stop racing through Kennedy’s head.
Daisy is 840 miles away.
Does she feel abandoned?
Does she know what is happening to her?
Is she in pain?
Are they petting her and talking to her?
She shouldn’t have worried. Buffy Walsh, a veterinary medical support technician, took care of everything
Within a few hours of the surgery, Walsh called Kennedy. Daisy’s fine, she said. That day, doctors hooked Daisy up to a special machine that harvested her stem cells. The next morning, Walsh called again. Daisy made it through the night, she said.
Over the next few weeks, Walsh — or, as Kennedy affectionately calls her, “Nurse Buffy” — sent dozens of text messages, pictures, and emails to Kennedy to tell her that Daisy was all right, that everything was going as planned. When Daisy’s hair fell out, Nurse Buffy explained why. When Daisy vomited or had diarrhea, Nurse Buffy assured Kennedy it was all part of the process.
It’s not just the state-of-the-art medical procedures, such as bone marrow transplants and prosthetic limbs, that attract people to this animal hospital. For many, it’s the top-notch care their animals receive, those text messages and videos and phone calls that let them know their pets are OK.
Daisy, a 3-year-old golden retriever, reminded Nurse Buffy of her own dog, Annie. Annie is also a golden. She is particular about her toys and sleeps by Nurse Buffy’s bed at night.
She was the first dog Nurse Buffy had after graduating from college. The dog who helped raise her teenage daughter. The most “loyal companion” of her adult life.
The day Kennedy left Daisy in Raleigh, Nurse Buffy knew she needed more attention than some dogs. Daisy loves people. She was nervous, anxious, without Kennedy nearby. In Florida, Kennedy was nervous, too.
It was Nurse Buffy’s job to keep both pet and owner calm and confident. Every day, the phone call and message helped soothe Kennedy’s fears. Every day, the pats on the head helped Daisy feel loved.
On October 5, it was time for Daisy’s second dose of full-body radiation. The next day, Nurse Buffy sent Kennedy a picture of her cuddling with Daisy.
How nice is that? Kennedy thought.
A few days later, Daisy went into the isolation chamber. For a week, Daisy couldn’t visit anyone who didn’t wear a full-body suit. The radiation destroyed her immune system.
Nurse Buffy put a radio in the room so Daisy wouldn’t be too lonely.
On the fourth day, Nurse Buffy couldn’t take it anymore. Daisy just kept looking at her with those big, sad eyes. Nurse Buffy suited up. As soon as she sat down, Daisy crawled into her lap and showered her with kisses.
Back in Florida, Kennedy blogged on the website she created about canine lymphoma.
I am very thankful.
A few days before Daisy went home, Nurse Buffy left for New Orleans to go on vacation. As she said good-bye, Nurse Buffy started to weep.
She snapped one last picture of her and Daisy and sent it to Kennedy in a text message.
She didn’t know if she’d ever see Daisy again.
Now she and Kennedy are friends on Facebook. She watches videos of Daisy hiking and running through agility courses. She knows Daisy’s OK.
And when Kennedy got that last picture of Daisy from Nurse Buffy a few days before they were reunited, she knew Daisy was going to be OK, too.
— Sarah Perry
The Terry Center
4700 Hillsborough Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27606
Visit the Terry Center during the College of Veterinary Medicine open house on March 31. The artwork is part of the tour.
Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer who works for The News & Observer in Raleigh. Josh’s most recent story for Our State was “A Promising First Act” (December 2011).