January 9, 2013 11:38:10 AM
We have much longer lifespans than our dogs, and those of us who love them get to see lots of them off. It's tough. In my work I often talk to people who are sad about having lost a pet, and I myself am inconsolable for a long while after one of our dogs dies. It's happened to Jessica Pierce, too, and she has all the intellectual equipment for dealing with the loss and making the right decisions about it. While her Vizsla Odysseus (Ody) was going through his last years, she was finishing a large college textbook concerning her field, bioethics. She saw the connections between end-of-life decisions for humans and for animals, and realizing that bioethics has not generally concerned itself with how animals get treated, she has written The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives (University of Chicago Press). It is a journal of Ody's last year, a personal and humane memoir, interspersed with chapters on such things as pain, euthanasia, and animal hospice. It is a thoughtful book that poses big questions about both dogs and humans, and doesn't pretend to have all the answers. The book is a good way to appreciate anew that classic dog-and-human partnership, both in general and in Ody's specific case. As she says, it is Ody's story, but hers, too: "It is my story of choosing and not choosing; of action and inaction; of coming to terms with change; of accepting the inevitable; and of holding his life in my hands and trying to figure out what to do with it."
The enormous problem trying to figure out how to help our dogs is that for all their goofy affection for us and ours for them, and for all their proximity to us over the ages, they are still alien beings. That we can only come to an imperfect understanding of what they are going through or what they want is something that Pierce brings up frequently. The difficulty is most acute when trying to determine what when it is time to bring the dog's life to a close. "You often hear 'They will tell you when it's time' or 'You will know when it is time.' But, really? I don't buy this. You don't know and they can't tell you - and no matter what, you will agonize over whether it is too soon or too late. You will never know, not before and not after the fact." It is easy enough to say that a dog in irremediable pain should have its suffering ended, but since we cannot enter the dog's subjective world, it is not exactly clear what pain and suffering mean. If I accidentally step on my dog's paw, he yelps; but is he merely registering sonically his condition so that I might get off his foot, or does he somehow have a conscious perception of pain? It was not long ago that humans thought that only humans feel pain (humans being the self-centered humans they always are) and that nonhuman animals didn't have brains complex enough to have an experience of pain. It is distressing to read that some veterinarians still feel (and still teach) that pain is necessary, for instance, to keep a dog quiet after surgery, so they undertreat the pain. Chronic pain, too, is more difficult to recognize than acute, and is often untreated. Pain was not a big problem in Ody's degeneration, because his lameness and slow movement was due to neurological problems, not arthritis. Pierce asks herself repeatedly as Ody ages if he is in pain. "And even though I've been steeped in the pain literature for the past year, I'm still uncertain." She ponders that some think it takes a leap of faith to apply the word "suffering" to animals: "The leap, for me, is both infinitesimal and obligatory. It would require a much more precipitous leap of faith for me to deny that animals suffer."
Ody is certainly a well-loved dog. Since this is a memoir of his last year, we get to read snippets of memories of what he used to be like, and it is clear that he has gone sharply downhill. One day, Pierce writes, Ody "... got trapped under the trampoline. We couldn't figure out where he was and looked all over the house and up the street. Finally heard scuffling noises and found him under the tramp, unable to find his way out. His days are full of misadventures." Thus ends one day's entry, and the next day's starts: "Ody just tried to drink from the fish pond and fell in. I had a heck of a time fishing him out." And then there are plenty of unfunny urine and feces episodes. "Aging can be hard on animals and on their human companions. But the challenges of aging can invite us to know and love new dimensions of our animals, as we become particularly attuned to their evolving needs. It is a time for us to give back some of the unconditional love, patience, and tolerance that our pets offer us throughout their lives." Bravo, Ms Pierce.
"Euthanasia" means "a good death," and that is what Ody got in the end. It would be nice if our animals just ended things quietly of "natural causes," but natural causes include starvation, dehydration, multiple organ failure, seizures, and so on. For Ody's end, Pierce was able to call upon a house-call euthanasia veterinarian. This makes so much sense; an ailing dog does not have to be hauled into the car and taken to the veterinarian (a trip most dogs dislike anyway), and gets to have the end come in a familiar environment with friends around. That's a good death. Pierce tells about the different regimens used for injections, with creepy commercial names. There's Euthasol, Sleepaway, Beuthanasia-D, Socumb-6, and Somlethal. In Ody's needle was Fatal-Plus.
Of course Pierce details how Ody's death went, and her reactions to it, and that of her husband and daughter. But death is not the end. She goes on to explore what might happen to her beloved dog after death, like taxidermy, freeze drying, or cremation. It is, thankfully, the latter that is Ody's fate, and Pierce gets to talk to a man who runs a human and an animal crematorium (the services of the two are never mixed). He says of his clients that sometimes they "seem put out by the death of a family member. They just want the whole thing over and done with and out of their hair. Not so with pets. People are really concerned that the process is done right and that their animals are treated well, even after death." Then there is memorialization; one firm will weave a handbag out of your pet's hair, and another will turn the ashes into a diamond. And finally she considers Animal Heaven, and the folklore that there is a "Rainbow Bridge;" our animals are waiting for us to catch up to them, and when we get there, we will cross the Rainbow Bridge with them all together to get to heaven. Thus the human reluctance to deal with even animal deaths presents itself as some sort of afterlife. Religious authorities are not agreed about whether animals get to heaven. "Animal heaven poses some difficult theological questions," Pierce writes. "What happens if I have had a large number of pets throughout my life? Will they all run to meet me at the Rainbow Bridge? Will the cats and dogs fight?"
Ody doesn't need a Rainbow Bridge, or a diamond, or even his paw print eternally pressed into the clay keepsake that Pierce keeps on her desk. The Last Walk is his memorial, and he couldn't have a better one. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, and moving examination of an important part of dogs' lives with humans. I bet that I am not the only one who gets this reaction from the book: I have looked in these days with special care upon my superb friend Ponty, and I have thought about the increasing white around his muzzle, and I have reminded myself that the days of us all, dog or human, are numbered, and we must rejoice in each one.