A few years ago I adopted two cats from my daughter and son in law when they put their house on the market and were advised by their real estate agent to get rid of them while the house was being shown. Atticus was a male, the older of the two, and in poorer health. For the first several days after my son in law dropped off the cats he went into hiding. When I finally found him, crouched behind books on a shelf in the basement, I extended a hand to pet him and was attacked. For weeks he only came out to eat after I went to bed. Up until he died just about a year ago I was the only human he would allow to touch him. We developed a routine in the evening when I would go up to my loft and turn on the television. After a while he would tentatively wander upstairs and sit on my lap for a few minutes and allow me to gently pet him, but then would suddenly bite me and scamper off. Every visitor was afraid to get near him.
Daisy has survived Atticus by a year now. She was always much friendlier toward humans, but a bully toward Atticus. When I got her she was obese but is now pretty thin except for lots of loose abdominal skin. Over the past few months she has started wandering around the house making demands on me. I interpret these as insisting on being fed, but lately she just stares at the food I place before her. The veterinarian has started her on medication for hyperthyroidism which he thinks will help her relax a bit. I wonder how sick she actually is, whether she is in discomfort, and if I will know when it is time to euthanize her, if at all. This has caused me to remember other pets I have had to put down, those I have lost to death in other ways or have had to give up for other reasons, and how humans deal with our own death.
Very early in our marriage my wife, Ellen, and I were students at Colorado State University, living in a rented house near the campus with a large back yard. Another student, Alex, had grown up with Ellen in California. His parents and Ellen’s parents had been best friends. Alex’s parents had recently moved to Colorado, along with their elderly, blind and senile standard poodle Louie, when Alex enrolled at CSU. Sadly, Alex’s father suffered a heart attack and died not long after moving to Colorado. I think his mother moved back to California after that. Alex was living in a dorm, so Louie ended up with Ellen and me.
I, like many, am haunted by memories of events that I could have and should have handled differently. Certainly this is one of them. Alex seemed to be very stoic over the death of his father, but several months after his death it became clear that Louie had no quality of life. Ellen, her sisters, her parents and I agreed that Alex should take him to the vet and have him euthanized, but Alex quietly pleaded that he not be the one to do it. A great deal of pressure was put on Alex to accept his adult responsibility for Louie, and he finally succumbed, with my younger sister going with him to the veterinary clinic for support. According to her he was emotionally devastated by what he had to do, and it was clear to me, and at least to Ellen, that the flow of emotions was more for his father, and the symbol Louie was for his father, than for Louie himself. I’m sure Alex never forgave any of us for not having the sympathy and compassion to realize what a trauma this would be for Alex. It must have felt to him as though he were extinguishing the last vestiges of his father’s spirit. I could have easily relieved him of this burden, but I didn’t.
The ordeal with Louie came less than two years after an episode with a beautiful gordon setter whose name I cannot remember, but I’ll call him Earl. A professor at CSU had raised Earl from the time he was weaned until he was nine or ten months old, at which point he no longer felt he could keep it. Ralph, a good friend of ours, asked if we could take him, and of course we said yes. We’d only had the dog for a few weeks when it became clear he was not in good health. He was losing weight, could not keep food down, shied away from touch, and didn’t seem to have very good balance. On top of this, our lease prohibited us from having pets, so we were evicted. At the time I was working full-time waiting to establish residency in Colorado so that I would qualify for in-state college tuition. A few days after we moved into our new tiny house Ralph and Ellen took Earl to the veterinarian. When I came home from work I found them both in tears. They told me the vet told them Earl had severe damage to his kidneys and had to be euthanized. We never knew for sure the cause of the internal injuries, and tried not to speculate.
Ellen’s youngest sister remembered my speaking of a beagle I owned as a young teenager in Pennsylvania. I suppose as a gesture to help us deal with our grief over Earl she gave us a beagle puppy the following Christmas. We named him Salud and kept him while Ellen finished her degree at CSU and took a job in Puerto Rico, took him with us a year later as I continued my studies in Tucson at the University of Arizona, and lugged him along to Albuquerque where I took a job with the public schools after finishing my master’s degree. He was with us for the birth of both our children, Alison in Tucson and Jeffrey in Albuquerque, but at some point in Tucson he had contracted valley fever, and infection with the fungus coccidioides, which had disseminated to his brain. For several years we had kept him on meds to suppress his symptoms, but after moving to Albuquerque and the birth of our son we stopped treatment, and he quickly deteriorated to the point we had him euthanized. There were a few weeks between our stopping his treatment and the decision to put him down where he probably suffered unnecessarily, which I regret, and to which I should have been more cognizant. Salud was so central to our lives until our children were born, after which he no longer got the attention he required or deserved.
While still living in Arizona and before becoming parents Ellen and I lived in a small, run-down duplex with black widow spiders inhabiting the corners in the closets, earwigs in the stained carpet, and a variety of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes in the patchy bermuda and caliche back yard. We only lived there for a semester but became good friends with Bob and Betty, the elderly couple that lived on the corner, and their beautiful silver shepherd mix, Shadow. The details of their relationship are a little foggy but I think they were both either widowed or divorced and had only been together for a few years. Shadow had been Bob’s pet before he met Betty. We got together with them on Friday evenings to drink cheap wine and play poker until Bob suddenly died. In her grief Betty could not deal with Shadow, but told me she also could not accept the idea of Shadow belong to anyone besides Bob. So, she asked me to have him euthanized, and made me promise I would not give him away, adopt him myself, or give him up for adoption by anyone else. I resisted at first. Shadow was a healthy, beautiful, well-trained, well-behaved, and affectionate dog that would have made a wonderful pet for someone, but I had to respect her wishes, I reasoned at the time. I later wondered if her religious beliefs didn’t cause her to think she was sending Shadow’s spirit off to be with Bob. I never asked her, but I think this is probably true. When I took Shadow to the veterinary clinic the waiting room was full, and everybody there heard me tell the clerk at the check-in desk why I was bringing Shadow in.
When we were living in Albuquerque and Alison and Jeffrey were around nine and seven we had a cat named Socrates (So Crates, named for the way Bill and Ted mispronounced the philosopher’s name in the movie). She was a playful indoor/outdoor cat who could occasionally draw a little blood if she too-enthusiastically entertained herself with your hand. One night she was struck by a car. I found her in the street appearing to be near death with an obvious closed fracture of her hind leg. I scraped her off the pavement, placed her in a box, and announced to the kids that I was off to the vet, thinking for sure that the was the end of Socrates. I’m not sure why but the kids ended up going with me, and when they heard the vet say the cat was fine but for an easily treatable clean hind leg fracture I could hardly refuse the $2,000 it would cost to restore her to health. I lost contact with Socrates when Ellen and I divorced but I understand she lived to a ripe old age.
Growing up my family had two different pet dogs at two different times for short periods, both of which we had to give up. When I was 6 or 7 years old my mother’s best friend from college, Grace, and her husband and daughter got a great dane puppy, Thor. My father was quite envious, but my mother much less so. Four or five months after Grace and her family got Thor my father found out that there was one dog left from Thor’s litter – one dog that no one wanted because it had a broken tail, a limp ear, and was well-beyond the ideal age for adopting a puppy. My father might have consulted my mother, and perhaps he did not, but one day he came home with this by now nearly full-grown but untrained fawn-colored great dane that had been named Bandit due to a dark mask around his eyes. As much as my father loved the dog, the burden of training and caring for it fell upon my mother, a burden which she passively refused to carry. After months of wet carpets, piles of feces in the basement and back yard, escapes through the neighborhood, and mice in the bags of kibble, Bandit was given to an orphanage out in the country where he was free to roam the countryside and receive the love of dozens of affectionate kids. My older sister, as I recall, was heartbroken, my mother was relieved, my father was resigned, and I guess I was indifferent.
A few years later I got a dog that meant much more to me. When my parents divorced I was 13 and my father and I moved to a tiny bungalow a few miles northwest of Gettysburg. An impoverished family living next door gave us a beagle puppy as a thanks for my father helping them out in many ways (I am proud of how generous he could be at times.). I named him Ringo and he provided me with great comfort and companionship for nearly two years until my father gave him to the family of a former girlfriend of his in a rural part of the state known for rabbit hunting after he decided we’d be moving to California.
When Leslie and I got together in 1999 we picked up Nikki, a three-month old Australian shepherd mix, from a shelter. She was the smartest dog I’ve ever owned, and at the time we lived in the mountains east of Albuquerque with close to an acre of land for her to run on. Within a year or so a friend at work was giving away retriever pups, so we picked up Sadie, whose mother was a chocolate lab and whose father was a golden retriever. Sadie herself looked like a flat coat retriever. Nikki always treated Sadie like a sheep, and since Sadie was docile she gladly took orders from domineering Nikki. When we moved from Cedar Crest to Four Hills in Albuquerque we gave up some yard space, but we were within a 5 minute walk to open space, and once in the open space we could climb another 10 minutes and be past the point where we ever saw any other people. At this point we could let the dogs off the leashes and let them run. They were older by the time we moved to Denver so they didn’t mind too much (not that we asked them) that we moved into a house with a pretty small patio. We were pretty good about taking them for long walks around Sloan’s Lake, and it didn’t take long before we started noticing both of them losing their pep about 3/4 of the way around the 3-mile trek. This was truer for Sadie, being a retriever and subject to life-shortening disease, than for Nikki. True to her genetics, she developed cancer of the spleen a few years after we arrived in Denver. We took her to the vet after she’d appeared uncomfortable for several days, but the day we took her in she seemed perky and in good spirits. The vet diagnosed her, and told us that her period of apparent good health could last another week or two, but that it was likely her spleen would eventually hemorrhage, and that would be fatal. As predicted, after about ten days of seeming normal, Sadie died one night. We found her in the morning on the kitchen floor. A few months later when Nikki lost her appetite, lost weight, and didn’t want to move, Leslie felt strongly that it was time to have her euthanized. I was a little surprised at how strongly she felt about this, but I didn’t disagree. The house suddenly felt awfully strange, quiet, and lonely with both dogs gone. They relate to humans in such a different way than cats.
Tomorrow will mark six years since Leslie died, after spending 10 days in a hospice facility. She had wanted die at home, and we were both prepared to have that happen until I could no longer manage her pain with the tools the home hospice support people had given me. On December 16, 2016, Proposition 106, Colorado’s End of Life Options Act, went into effect, more than 18 months after Leslie died. The law requires that the patient be able to self-administer and ingest the prescribed life-ending medication, and acknowledges that if the disease has progressed to coma or the patient is experiencing severe and increased confusion or lost the capacity to understand or make decisions they would be unable to take the medication, meaning they would have to let the disease continue to progress. If the law had been in effect for Leslie, based on many conversation we had, I’m certain she would have chosen to exercise the options the law would have made available to her. Ironically, due to the lengths the law goes to in order to prevent decisions or actions being taken by anyone other than the terminally ill, I’m not sure she would have still qualified by the time she would have wanted to take the medication. On the last weekend she was home, between the two of us we were managing her pain well, and she enjoyed visits from her brothers, their spouses, and her son. They all left on Sunday around noon, and Leslie decided to take a nap. When she woke up late that afternoon she had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, was nearly incoherent, and was in obvious pain. Working with the strongest medication I had, and obtaining more during the night, I was unable to make her comfortable or explain to her that against her wishes I was going to have to get her to the hospice facility. Up until the time she went to sleep earlier in the day I’m sure she would not have wanted to end her life. By the time she woke up she was not capable to administering the medication to herself, as is required by the law.
Once at the hospice facility on Monday morning the caregivers worked for hours to relieve her agitation and bring her pain under control. At one point they asked for my permission to sedate her if necessary, which I gave, not completely understanding the difference between sedation and pain management. Luckily they did not have to ultimately sedate her, but I have since learned that it is not clear how much pain a sedated patient continues to feel. Finally by the late evening hours Leslie fell into a relaxed, deep sleep from which she did not awaken but for a brief moment when Lukas, her son, entered the room after coming up from Denver a day later. Several of us in the room saw her turn her head, flutter her eyes, move her lips, then fall still again.
I suppose the superstitious religious beliefs of humans keep us from relieving human suffering in so many ways, perhaps thinking that the agony associated with the end of life is God’s will. I don’t know, but why else would the End of Life Options Act have taken so long to pass, why is it still controversial, why is it still enacted in only a few states, and why does it contain such conservative, defensive language? Reasonable humans do not hesitate to assist animals to avoid pain, and we take action to relieve them of their suffering when we can. In fact, most of us feel we have an obligation to keep animals from suffering. yet when it comes to humans, many who have the power to make decision for us defer or refuse, instead believing that the fate of human suffering is in the hands of a silent and invisible God. These same people will claim when they are coincidentally spared from disaster, suffering, pain, or tragedy in the midst of so many who have not been spared that it is a sign from God. I think my beagles had more sense than they do.