I grew up with dogs, cats and fish. I rode horses. My mother’s relatives in Ohio had farms. I like animals, and for whatever reason, most animals seem to like me. My first job as a teenager was working as a kennel assistant in a local animal hospital. I loved it and it was extraordinarily good for me. I learned about animals, about medicine, about people, and about people’s relationships with their pets. It taught me responsibility and great burden and gratification that comes with caring for another being. Three years of work in an animal hospital affirmed a deep admiration for those that work in medicine and recognition of the irreducible power of biology.
In my second week at the animal hospital I helped with my first animal euthanasia, putting an aged and very sick basset hound mixed named Charlie to sleep. He was nearly blind, covered with sores, and suffering from a the dry cough that is a tell-tale sign of heart problems. Charlie had cancer and had stopped eating. When I had to lead him from his cage to the table, he had difficulty walking so I carried him. When I put him on the stainless steel surface, his back legs could not support him. I cradled him and patted his head. He smelled awful. It had been years since his teeth had been cleaned and his skin was mottled.
The vet showed me how to hold Charlie for the injection: parallel to the dog on the right side of his body. I put my right arm under his neck and around his head, with my head down on his shoulder. My left arm wrapped around Charlie, with my hand around his left front foreleg. As I held him by the elbow, it was easier for the vet to find the vein. Charlie did not struggle and he did not object. In fact, I do not think that Charlie was all that aware of what was happening to him. Later I came to recognize the signs of pain, age and discomfort that hobble old dogs.
Once I had Charlie in a position comfortable for the dog and the vet, I watched the injection and felt Charlie’s heartbeat slow and stop. I could feel the dog’s weak breaths become shallower and then stop. It was traumatic, but above all an act of mercy. As the vet explained what was happening to Charlie, I felt relief for the dog.
It was then my responsibility to clean Charlie before giving to his family. I brushed his coat, trimmed a nail, wiped his face and eyes, cleaned his backside, and sprayed him with a cleanser that made him smell healthy and nice. The family had given the hospital Charlie’s favorite blanket, so I pulled it out of his cage and arranged Charlie on it. I then walked to the animal hospital’s anteroom.
A family met me – a mom, a dad, and two little girls – all them red-eyed and weeping. I stepped forward with Charlie in his blanket and the crying started, first for them and then for all of us. It was a traumatic night.
That episode in the animal hospital, plus many others, figured prominently when I read Jessica Pierce’s The Last Walk: Reflections On Our Pets at The End of Their Lives. A bioethicist with a sharp sense of observation, Pierce’s book is a journal of the final years of her much-loved Vizsla, Odysseus or Ody, interspersed with clinical, medical, historical and sociological observations and research of what was happening to her pet and why. We learn about veterinarian care options, what happens when animals are cremated, and how pet hospices offer some owners a way to address animal end of life issues.
The book is a touching account, emotional and sympathetic. It is also deeply problematic, for Pierce’s love for her dog and her inability to end his suffering almost overwhelms her ability to make sense of what is an inevitable process. Pierce would not have lasted long on a farm. Her overarching plea is for us to think of pets, to think of animals, more humanely. The challenge is Pierce is argument is muddled. Wile one might sympathetically view her admonitions as admirable, many questions remain.
The answer may lie in the nascent field of animal studies. A consistently reliable way to make long-term predictions about the direction of American society is to look at new concentrations, programs and studies in higher education. Fields in the sciences and technology move very quickly, and the phenomenon also takes place with the humanities and social sciences. The shift from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies at hundreds of college campuses prefigured the move from women’s rights to GLBT rights in public policy. Animal Studies, as reported earlier in the year by the New York Times, is on the horizon and increasingly popular. The Last Walk is a work within this larger movement.
Beyond the practical and dreadful question every pet owner faces – when is it time to put my pet to sleep? – are the broader questions, which are difficult in a different way. For those of us with and without pets, why does our society have such a strong and growing investment in pets? Is it a function of disposable income? Decreasing gratification from human-to-human interactions? And what are our responsibilities in this new arrangement. These are questions that higher education can help answer.
Thirty plus years ago I wrestled with the ethical challenges of animal euthanasia without having the language or context to understand what I, and the animal hospital I worked, was doing. We simply did not talk about it. Pet owners’ grief was real enough. But what took place at the animal hospital felt different from what happened in funeral homes and with the passage of people. Pierce’s book, thankfully, has done a service opening the discussion. More meaningful answers, however, await. If faculty offer more courses and enough students enroll, those answers – and possibly attendant policies – will not be long in coming.