Rescue cases, randy puppies, lost-and-found cats, uniquely beautiful grooming styles, and an array of colorful characters are all features of “Smiles, Tears, & Thoughts: Behind the Front Desk at the Vet’s Office.” The recently published book is both a non-fiction memoir and a series of humorous short stories. Mostly hilarious—with a few somber sections—the book chronicles the experience of writer Efroim Gurman in the course of his career working as a manager at a “full service” vet, grooming, and boarding clinic in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
A largely Russian-speaking enclave, Efroim’s clinic is popular due to the fact that most of the staff is fluent in Russian. An immigrant from Ukraine, Efroim penned each of these stories with explanations about the differences in culture (such as how Russian dog owners tend to balk at neutering their canine companions), humor, and strong traces of his native language. As you read the English-language book, you can almost hear Efroim speaking in lyrically accented English, which speaks highly of his unique voice as a writer.
The stories contained in this book span several decades and recount cases of rescues, difficult owners, and even a few heartwarming adoption tales. The shining star of the collection is the story of a rotund woman dubbed “Madam Pumpkin” who had great difficulty controlling her unruly and randy young Alaskan husky…whom she refused to neuter on “moral grounds,” and even argumentatively suggested that the vet should neuter himself before touching her beloved dog! The outlandish and outrageous nature of the stories is a huge part of the joy of reading this book, which includes many cheerful illustrations and, at 133 pages, can be enjoyed over the course of an afternoon.
Efroim Gurman was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1948. He earned a Bachelors in Biochemistry from Mechnikov’ University in 1973 and went on to attain a PhD in Physiology of Digestion in St. Petersburg in 1979. He also garnered a degree in the Physiology of Nutrition in 1991 and spent most of his pre-emigration years working at the Military Pharmacology Lab. As of 1992, he served as the Professor and Dean of Canine & Feline Physiology Department of Odessa State University. In 1997, Enfroim and his family immigrated to the United States where he took the position of creative director at Central Dogma Inc. From there, he founded Full Pet Services in 1999 and created the “VetVittles” pet supplement line in 2009.
Efroim is a lauded academic and writer who has published more than one-hundred scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals. He has also published several books including the “Scientific Basis of Cookery” (1992), “Dogs and Drugs” (1995), “Zoo for Everyday” (1997), and “Comprehensive Manual for Individualized Dog and Cat Grooming” (2012) and its improved second edition (2015). Yet most of these books were penned in Russian and none of them had the creative, conversational, flair of his latest short story collection.
Undoubtedly, Efroim’s hobbies contribute to his storytelling ability just as much as his career. He has bred dogs, mastered the art of grooming styles, judged dog shows, and is an avid fan of literature, philosophy, and entrepreneurship. Married with three sons and two grandsons, Efroim actually wrote “Smiles, Tears, & Thoughts: Behind the Front Desk at the Vet’s Office” with his grandchildren in mind.
Recently, he took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the book, his life experiences, and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM) of Entertainment Vine: How did your childhood impact your interest with animals?
Efroim Gurman (EG): I was born this way. My mom told me that being practically a baby I was very gentle with any living being, not only animals but plants too. As much as I remember myself, I was always surrounded with animals. My father worked at the circus and I used any chance to spend time among animals and their trainers there. At the age of ten, I volunteered at the zoo, then the kennel club, took biology as a profession, and finally ended up managing vet clinic.
MM: You are extremely well-educated, but you never officially studied veterinary medicine, why was that?
EG: Beside love of animals I was always curious – I always wanted to find out why? How it is working? Veterinary as well as medicine is oriented on individuals; a vet or MD has to find what is the best for this particular individual. I understand that, it is a great ethical approach. Science is more oriented on general and scientists are more interested in the overall principal mechanism. I thought my research and my monographs will be helpful to many. One more thing: there is not much freedom in veterinary and medicine. You have little room for trial and you have to follow instructions. In certain ways, medical or veterinary doctors try to fix individuals one at a time, scientists work for humanity, for all living beings. I was too curious to find mechanisms of the process and that needs experimentation, which is not always harmless for lab animals – so I became a scientist, not a healer. Honestly, while aging, my ethic priorities were changed and in my last experiments I built the way not to harm my lab rats, but it is too late to change the past.
MM: When you were a young man growing up in the Soviet Union, conditions were very difficult. What are some of the things you had to deal with daily that people living in modern-day America are not familiar with?
EG: You’re right, condition there were (and are) very different and difficult. To avoid trivia, I’d say that the main difference there and here is the meaning of the words. It is no problem to translate Russian into English – many words sound similar and for others there are dictionaries. But behind these terms their actual content is rather different. Read the Soviet constitution – there are not so many words which declare bad things, but their implementations were so different (sometimes opposite) that the life behind the words may have almost nothing in common here and there.
I had an idea to write a “dictionary” not for translation but for understanding. For example, veterinarian and ????????? sound almost the same. In practice, when you have an experience with the professionals here and there you’ll find more differences than similarities: vets here can prescribe any medicine including narcotics if he/she decides it will be useful for the patient because he/she is absolutely trustful person. Meanwhile, in Russia, vets have to perform even a routine procedure with limited access to drugs (often instead of pain killer he/she can use just immobilizing drugs) since law and society does not trust him/her. Here, documents signed by vets is undeniable proof, in Russia everybody knows that for a small bribe anything can be signed. My beloved dog Kathya had HIP displeasure which banned her from reproduction. Back in Russia I could easily get documentation with good results for her, while here being very friendly with several vets I could not do that and even didn’t try to falsify this fact. And the same will be with the meaning of “breeder”, “scientist”, “business” and so on.
MM: How much of a culture shock was it to emigrate to America and do you think your position as a manager at the vet clinic helped you adapt to life in the United States?
EG: I came here being fifty years old – rather late for the new beginning. I did what I could. Of course, there was shock and it was extremely hard to find my place while making living for my family. It is easy to imagine what feelings I got when I had to clean cages after being a professor (and believe me, it was not easy to achieve this level in the ex-USSR due to its anti-Semitism) in my previous life. But I brought here my family and this opportunity prevailed any shock. To adopt to better life here is much easier than to survive there. One thing is for sure – immigrants from ex-USSR can adapt to conditions here while no American will survive in Russia. I’d like to see Snowden after three months in Russia if he will not be backed by KGB!
MM: Many of your stories are about real incidents, do you think your clients will be pleased or displeased to be featured?
EG: I love our customers because we share the same values. People are different, sometimes they do strange, or even weird, things. A little bit of humor lets us keep relationships beyond our differences. Of course, certain situations became upright unacceptable, but during twenty years in business there were only a few such customers. I think my stories being read by their prototypes will please 99% of the people I deal with and I think it is not so bad – nobody can please everybody.
MM: Many of these stories are hilarious…did you intend to write them as comedies? Your prose certainly added to the humor!
EG: You know that I was born in Odessa. For Russian-speaking people, this fact explains a lot. Odessa’s citizens are considered to have a great sense of humor from their birth. Often, they don’t even try to tell jokes or make their stories funny, it comes naturally. Odessa speaks a specific language: it is mostly Russian with Ukrainian pronunciation constructed according Jewish grammar with numerous inclusion of foreign words. Unfortunately, my Odessa is dead now and the city will never be the same. It was something like New York – a mixture of many ethnicities which produced a unique mentality. Yet mixture can’t reproduce itself, you have to keep portions of each ethnicity to produce again and again a certain type of mixture. Pure breed animals can reproduce the same quality puppies. Mix-breeds like Puggle or Labradudel can’t – each time you have to mix parented breeds to obtain similar mix puppies. Once upon a time Odessa had solid inclusion of Germans, Greek, Italian, Jewish and other communities. They were eliminated and Odessisian fleur gone.
MM: Were there any stories that you wanted to mention but didn’t? If so, might you write another book?
EG: My manager’s duties have a particularity: I don’t need to do much in business while everything is okay. When customers are happy with our services I don’t need to interfere- they will thank and tip employees. When there is an unhappy customer, it is then that I have to be involved. Thanks God, such things happen rarely, but I have to be present all the time just in case! Of course, I can’t do nothing all day because my brain has to be busy. So, I sit at my small office, listen to what is going on, and please myself with creating something such as the writing of a new opus or improving the stories from previous days. And life presents me with so many things that deserve to be told that I think another book is unavoidable, at least for my inner satisfaction. Will it be published? That depends on the fortune of this one. According to statistics, a successful writer has to write six or eight books on the same subject and in the same style. I published about this number of books but almost every one of them were devoted to a different issue, more than half of them in Russian. I do not know when and what kind of book I’ll write next, but I think I am an ordinary person and to be interesting to others this future book has to be interesting for me first. To be honest, I already wrote about ten of fifteen stories in the same style of the last book, but we will see what readers say.
MM: You invented VetVittles, so what are these supplements and are you trying to market them widely?
EG: Yes, as a highly degreed nutritionist and physiologist of digestion I see great benefits of this invention. It was initiated as a hobby and curiosity while I conduct my scientific research and I found that floral environment equipping animals (and humans as a part of animal world) with powerful sources of agents to keep and improve their health. Actually, the origin of many standard medicines started out as herbal supplements. Being extracted from natural environment we start rely on chemical analogs of these agents, but there a principal difference: while the pharmaceutical industry has a strong tendency to operate with pure agent and to elevate efficacy of these natural agents in nature, we always use some kind of composition of such agents and often the best results gives not the strongest one but the softer one with optimal coexistence of desirable and side effects. I collected advises from traditional healers, from literature, and from my scientific researches. At vet practice I determined the most common health issues which worry pet lovers. Then I discovered that humans recently (because of many reasons) turned onto herbal supplements. Because pet lovers desire to give their furry family members all the best similar to what they want for themselves, I and my team were lucky to enter the mainstream of the market. If we are right and will do everything properly there is a chance to raise a powerful brand – another sort of American Dream.
MM: Overall, what are your biggest goals for the future?
EG: Pleasure and joy of my soil! I think pleasure is the main goal for everybody. To reach pleasure I need to see my wife happy, I have to see my sons healthy and wealthy, I have to see happiness of my grandkids, I have to be able to do what I want, I have to pet my four-legged friends, and to deserve the respect of those whom opinions are valuable to me. And I have to be busy with something interesting!
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To order a copy of “Smiles, Tears, & Thoughts: Behind the Front Desk at the Vet’s Office,” visit their Amazon page here.
To learn more about Efroim Gurman, visit his official website.