Spay-neuter demonstration snips misconceptions

A team of veterinarians and assistants operate on a dog in the Veterinary Exhibition Building at the Indiana State Fair, with a live feed on TVs for the audience of onlookers to see. (photo courtesy Jordan Huffer/BSU Journalism at the Fair)
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The crowd outside of Purdue’s Veterinary Exhibit has been accumulating steadily for 20 minutes. Onlookers sit or stand facing an empty glass operating room.

Eventually, four indistinguishable people decked out in scrubs and wearing latex gloves file into the display. Their appearance causes a portion of the audience to cheer loudly.

The people are waiting to watch the spaying of a 3-year-old border-collie mix and applauding for Dr. Brenda Bunton, the veterinarian in charge of the routine operation.

The demonstration, meant to educate the public about the importance of spaying and neutering as well as to emphasize the sophistication of veterinary science, has been an Indiana State Fair staple since the mid-1980s, according to Dr. Paul Clemente, who narrates the surgery. Twice a day during the fair, a different cat or dog from an Indianapolis animal shelter will be fixed for the cause.

Although the sleep today’s canine patient experiences during surgery isn’t permanent, 2.7 million other cat and dog residents of animal shelters across America will be euthanized this year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The only 100%-effective way to prevent this is through spaying and neutering.

Throughout his 28 years as a vet-exhibit volunteer, Clemente says the most common reaction from onlookers has been surprise at the lack of gore involved in the surgery. The second most common reaction? Shock toward the care and professionalism veterinarians put into their craft.

“I’ve been practicing for 30 years, and I’ve had people ask me, ‘Do you have to go to college to be a veterinarian?’” says Clemente.

He compares the operation to human medical care. I.V.s, anesthesia and breathing machines all exist within veterinary science. Even rules such as “no breakfast before surgery” apply in the animal kingdom.

Fortunately, misconceptions don’t keep the crowds away, giving Bunton and Clemente a chance to educate the thousands of families flooding into the state fair each day.

Natalie Druelinger and her big sister Gracie sit next to each other on a bench. They face a television displaying a live, close-up feed of the surgery. Although younger than Gracie, Natalie excitedly bobs her head after being asked if she enjoyed the presentation.

Gracie grimaces.

“It was a little disgusting to me,” she says.

Squeamish onlookers leave consistently throughout the show, but curious faces fill any openings.

“When I see blood, I’ll pass out,” observer Linda Bunton says, her back turned to the exhibit.

It takes only two tries before she gives up completely, but her disgust for the surgery doesn’t stop her from praising the important message behind the demonstration.

Danielle Grady is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a Ball State University immersive-learning project placing 25 student journalists at the heart of the Midway to tell the weird and wonderful stories of the 2014 Indiana State Fair.