Someone's cat was hit by a car and left to die on Center Street not too long ago.

I saw him as I was driving down the dark street about 10 p.m., and I swerved just in time to keep from hitting him myself. Like most people, I've seen many animals lying by the road and assumed they were dead and couldn't be helped. But my car's headlights had caught the eyes of this small animal as I passed, and I knew I had to go back.I pulled the car up behind him, and as I walked toward the still body I hoped frantically that he was dead. What would I do if it weren't? I knelt next to him and saw that his mouth was open and bloody. His legs were twisted flat on the pavement and his chest was rising and falling arduously with each breath.

Seventh-grade first-aid lectures flashed in my mind and I wondered desperately if it was safe to move him. But he was in danger of being hit again, so I picked him up carefully, cringing as he tried to make a noise. I rushed to the closest house, praying the people inside would know where he lived. They didn't. They'd never seen him before.

I laid the little animal on their porch and used their phone to call the police, hoping they would know who could help the injured cat at that hour. The officer who answered seemed sympathetic. He said he loved animals. I was relieved. All I had to do was wait for the police to come and take the cat to a doctor.

I was about to hang up when the policeman asked, "Do you understand what the officer will do when he gets there?" Suddenly, I had the feeling I didn't want to know. "He will `dispatch' the animal with the use of a club."

I learned later that Utah County has animal-control officers on-call after hours, but not all cities use them to help injured animals. Sometimes they can't be reached, anyway.

I asked the officer where else I could go for help. He told me to try calling a veterinarian. "Do you want us to come pick up the animal," he asked. "No thanks," I said, trying not to sound as disgusted as I felt.

Then I remembered there was an animal emergency number for a clinic in Orem. The woman who answered called a doctor, and the first question he asked was whether I'd take financial responsibility for the treatment. Once I said yes, he agreed to meet me at the clinic.

Incredibly, the cat was still breathing as I pulled up to the clinic, but there were no lights on inside. It had been nearly 20 minutes since I'd called the emergency number. Where was the doctor? I stood outside the clinic and tried to be calm while the cat shifted in the box I'd placed him in. He took deep, slow breaths and seemed to choke as he exhaled. We waited there nearly 30 minutes before the doctor arrived.

When he got there we hurried into the hospital, but the cat was not moving. The doctor pulled out a stethoscope and touched it to the cat's chest. "Well, he's still breathing," he said. He took out a syringe and gave the cat a shot. It didn't move. The doctor checked its heart again. "Oh, he's gone."

I felt sick as I thought it could have been my own cat. But what about the people who loved the cat that had just died on the veterinarian's table? Who could answer to them?

The doctor, I discovered, lives about 40 miles from his clinic. He is part of a team of veterinarians from five Utah County clinics that rotate on-call responsibilities. At least two of those doctors live in Salt Lake County. They stay in their clinic until about 10 p.m. when they're on duty, but if there's an emergency after that, they come from home.

People who take their pets to nearly any clinic in Utah Valley after business hours may find they have to wait for emergency care. Some vets live as close as next door to their facilities, but it takes others some time to arrive.

Injured animals found by strangers aren't likely to get help at all unless someone commits to paying for it. An animal-control officer said that when officers are called to aid injured pets, they decide whether to help based on how serious the damage is and what the chances are of someone paying the bill. And if an animal's owner cannot be found? "The problem with that is (we're) usually going to have to eat the bill."

To some, this attitude seems only practical, but for anyone who has loved a pet, it can seem callous. A life is valuable because someone cherishes it, and it ought to be protected with compassion. It would be easier to do that with a little sympathy from veterinarians and city officials.