Last night I checked the email address I used when I did a lot of rescue work. I still get one or two emails a month, even though I don’t do rescue these days, so I check it every couple of weeks. Last night there were two emails from another rescuer I’ve known for a few years. The subject line was the same in each email: the name of a dog I had helped her with a couple of years ago and who I had offered to take in at any point in the life of the dog.
The first email asked me if I still was willing to take her. The second, dated a few days later, informed me that the dog had been euthanized.
My heart broke reading that email, even though I’d never met that little dog. I’d always felt a connection with her and at one point thought she was going to come live with me. She’d had tremendous health problems right from the start. She had been picked up by a third rescue group, along with the rest of her litter, while still quite young. They were quite sickly, if I remember correctly, and put on various medications. At the same time they were heavily vaccinated including a rabies vaccine at quite a young age (rabies should never be given prior to 4 months of age, and ideally not before 6 months – after teething is finished).
Not surprisingly, once in her new home she developed a whole slew of issues: separation anxiety, extreme destructiveness, and considerable digestive disorders. Her hind end was also quite wobbly, apparently with serious ligament and possibly joint disorders. Her adopter tried some holisitc approaches (raw diet, chiropractics) but then opted for conventional drugs, which offered faster results. The problems were managed but never went away, and eventually get worse. From a homoepathic perspective, this is not surprising. Suppressed symptoms never go away – they fester, move deeper, and cause worse problems. By the time this dog was three she had become completely incontinent, at which point it was decided to euthanize her.
Could I have helped this dog? I know I would have tried. At this age, however, with all the damage she had, likely it would have been a monumental effort with unknown results. I am probably fortunate that I never received that first email in time to say I’d take her, because I know I would have said yes. I am not in a position to take in anymore dogs, and especially not high maintenance ones. I am still struggling to get Mira into optimum health (a lifelong struggle that will be, I know), and I constantly work at improving Ross’s health as well. I have barely enough time to train Kess, and taking in another dog would have been too much. And for all I know, I might not have been able to do anything to help and had to euthanize this dog myself. So I’m sure everything is as it should be. The dog is at peace, I can focus on my current dogs, and so can the woman who gave up this little soul.
When doing rescue work, I was constantly faced with the problem of having more demand than supply when it came to helping dogs. There are so, so, so many in need that it is completely overwhelming. I had a hard time saying no and often found myself with more than I could properly handle. I never got above 6 dogs, but I know rescuers who end up with dozens for this same reason. Most eventually learn to say no (like I did), those who can’t burn out and end up having to call for help, often with homes stuffed with rescue animals in every corner. I pulled one dog from such a place. They had 150 dogs in one house. It was horrendous.
When a dog comes across my path and I agree to take it in, I put an enormous amount of myself into that dog. This is why I’ve decided to stop doing rescue. I can’t just have a turnstile approach, bringing them in, spay, vaccinate, and out the door. I just can’t. I can’t help but see their chronic disease – which they all have to varying degrees – and know that I can try to help them get better. Then once I see improvement, I can’t bring myself to put them into homes that will then cause their health to decline again. Some dogs I know will be ok, the ones that have stable temperaments so will not end up becoming aggressive. Instead they will develop problems such as hind end paralysis, digestive disorders, chronic allergies, obsessive compulsive disorders that people think are ‘cute’ and so on. They will be loved even when they develop dementia or paralysis, or cancer, and have to be euthanized at age 10 or 11, now considered a ripe old age for dogs.
I wish I could just detach myself and keep that turnstile going. But I can’t. So instead of trying to help a lot of dogs in a small way, I now focus on helping a small number of dogs as much as I possibly can.
The toughest question is: Which dogs do I help? Three years ago I decided to euthanize a young dog who had so many health problems that he was definitely unadoptable. My decision stemmed largely from not wanting to keep him myself. I felt horrible about this, killing him because I didn’t want him. Justin had had a horrible start to life, growing up in a collector situation with 50 or so other dogs in a large cage. Rescued around age two, he was terrified of everything and everyone. He learned to trust me and my dogs. Ross didn’t like him, and I eventually realized that it was because Justin was largely deaf and couldn’t hear Ross’s warning growls. Justin also started going blind a few weeks after I took him in. A blind, semi-deaf dog full of fear can’t have much of a life, and I couldn’t have much of a life trying to keep him in my tiny house with already too many dogs. If I had lived on a farm I likely would have tried to help him get better, but given the circumstances, I chose to euthanize.
Did I make the right decision? It’s done now. Irreversible. Euthanizing an animal is one of the few truly irreversible decision we can make. It’s a scary one and one that I hope not to have to make very often. For an interesting discussion on Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia, read this article: On Putting Spot Down.
I also euthanized Jake, to end his suffering. I’m not 100% sure I did the right thing in that case as well. I think he probably would have died on his own within a day or so of doing the euthanizing. I had stopped his medication when it ran out, a process that was prolonging his life but no longer adding to it’s quality. Deciding to kill Jake was the hardest thing I have ever done. The decision was complicated by the fact that I had been giving him palliative care (flushing his kidneys three times a day), a time-consuming process that controlled my life yet without it would end his. I did this for a year, spending every penny I had and then some. I felt I had no choice, having revived him from his initial acute attack. I couldn’t let go, so kept him alive while I came to terms with saying goodbye. He did have a decent quality of life, so I felt I could justify the interference. At the same time I knew that if I stopped, he’d die, and that would be like me killing him. I felt that if I stopped administering the treatment, I’d have to euthanize to prevent suffering. It took me a long time to come to terms with this.
I held Jake in my arms when he died. My life was busy and I wanted to be with him rather than come home to find him gone. That was my worst fear. Euthanizing allowed me to pick the time and place of his death: a Tuesday afternoon in my aunt’s livingroom, by the fire and listening to Spanish guitar.
As the vet, who kindly came to the house, inserted the final needle, I could feel Jake’s heart thumping softly under the palm of my hand. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump…. silence.
At that moment, the one I had dreaded for 14 years, something miraculous happened. As Jake’s heart stopped, a deep, calm feeling of peace swept over me. It was very, very powerful. I felt it rise from my solar plexus, where his head lay, through my heart and out the top of my head. The only way I can make sense of this is that his soul passed through me as it left his body. I know that sounds crazy, but this feeling of peace – no, elation – was the last thing I had expected. It was the opposite of what I expected.
This deep sense of peace and calm stayed with me for weeks. It was astounding. I had been told by an animal communicator that Jake had one final lesson to teach me before he passed. I couldn’t imagine what it was the time, but I know very clearly now. His lesson was about coming to terms with, and accepting, Death.
Is the little dog I heard about last night now at peace? Most definitely. Was her owner’s decision to euthanize her the right one? I can’t answer that. I don’t know. And it can’t be changed now. All I know is that my heart aches, and that I wish she had been healthy so that none of this was an issue. Then again, had she been healthy, she would have never come into my life and touched my heart.
Goodbye, little one. Rest in peace.