Where the path leads

Even as temperatures dropped and rain washed away the cares of the world, last night I curled up on the couch, huddled together with the cats, and watched a bit of mindless television.  My brain needed a respite from thought.  What better way to provide that than to watch the idiot box.

After about nine in the evening, I found myself once again engrossed with something on Animal Planet.  That station has become a close friend, one who shares so many of my own interests and feelings, so spending time together occurs regularly.

The particular program I watched, Miami Animal Police, is one of many animal rescue programs I enjoy.  Despite some of the horrible situations revealed, despite the cataclysmic inhumanity too often the root of the stories, the premise of the show centers on the hope of those who strive to better situations made unlivable by others.  And therein lies the beauty of it.

But last night’s program touched a nerve that struck me deeply.

Early in the show a juvenile dog—a puppy even—was rescued after having been hit by a car.  Despite evidence of broken bones and open wounds, the canine remained a tender, affectionate patient thankful for the gentle rescuer and veterinary care.  And after setting the broken limb and tending its hurt body, including pins and bars to hold the leg in place while the bones mended, the puppy found almost immediate adoption by a man who fell in love with him the moment they met.

A week to ten days after taking the dog home, the man came back to the animal hospital for a follow-up visit, to have dressings changed, and for a check-up on the healing limb that sported metal appendages like something out of Frankenstein.  The elderly gentleman spoke lovingly of the dog, and every indication seemed to confirm a true, loving heart made brighter by the presence of his new canine friend.

The veterinarian cleaned the wounds and checked the bone-mending equipment while the adoptive parent mentioned some concern about the dog.  Apparently during their time together, he had noticed a troubling decline in the puppy’s health.  The animal seemed to be losing weight despite eating and drinking regularly.  It also had begun displaying some indications of neurological problems.  The DVM immediately suspected distemper because the dog had never been vaccinated and the symptoms represented a text-book case of the disease’s early onset.

Because distemper is fatal, the only thing that could be done was to send the dog home and monitor his condition.  If an improvement occurred—something highly unlikely but not impossible—then all would be well.  If, on the other hand, the dog continued to worsen, the decision most abhorred by all loving pet owners would have to be made.  They would  have to put the puppy to sleep.

Again a week to ten days later, the man brought the dog back to the veterinarian.  This time, the symptoms screamed into the room where they stood.  Nervous twitches, gum biting, and muscular spasms all racked the canine’s body in torturous waves that agonized my heart.  No one could deny the suffering of the creature trying to stand proud on that stainless steel table.

So the time had come.  The doctor made it clear nothing could be done and that the puppy’s condition was in fact fatal and untreatable.  Humanely ending his suffering was the only thing left to do.

The man agreed with tears welling in his eyes.  Although he only had the dog for three weeks, the bond they shared could be felt through the television.  He did not want to lose his new friend, and yet he knew he could not prolong the dog’s suffering.  Doing so would be the crux of selfish cruelty.

On the doctor’s recommendation, the man agreed they should put the dog to sleep right then.  Through her own teary eyes and quivering voice, the DVM announced how unfortunate and preventable the situation was, and then she told the man she would take care of the dog.

And what did the man do?

He said his lamenting goodbyes, showed the dog tremendous affection, fought back his own tears while he struggled to let go… and then he left the room.

He. Left. The. Room.

What an abomination.  In just a short time the dog had grown to love the man.  That could be seen.  A level of trust had already been established.  A level of emotional need already existed.  The bond was real.

And still he left the dog to die alone.  There in a cold, sterile room, twitching in growing agony on a bitter table, trying to stand under harsh, detached lighting, the dog watched the man leave him alone, watched the back of his trusted friend as it walked out the door and left him to his fate.

Nothing could be more abominable.  I cannot fathom the level of heartlessness needed to leave a pet to its death, to betray that unquestionable love and unconditional devotion at the very moment when an animal most needs its human companion.

My mouth fell open in shocked dismay as I watched the man leave that room.  The doctor began to cry despite her efforts to hold back the weeping.  All the while, the young dog, racked by progressively worse neurological symptoms and suffering, stared blankly at the door until it closed.  Only then did it glance at the doctor before staring around the room in quick, unfocused glances.  A question played out in its eyes, a pleading for compassion and an undeniable hint of emotional distress at its newfound aloneness.  While he could not possibly understand what next would befall him, he had to be fully aware of the outpouring scents from those two people, smells that told him things were not going well.

In our own fear we feed theirs; in our own despair we escalate their suffering; and in our lamentations we assault them with our troubles.  That dog knew.  He knew something bad was going to happen, and yet he would have to face it alone.

Why?  Why would anyone betray an animal in that last moment?  Why would anyone commit such an unconscionable act when a final show of love is all that is necessary?

Having a pet is a commitment.  Not unlike marriage, it represents a shared journey in which we humans promise to follow where the path leads.  Even when that means holding a paw through the final steps of this life, such is the contract we sign when we adopt or rescue an animal.  It is not a selfish endeavor in which we assign responsibility based on what we will receive.  It is not a relationship in which we base our investment on the level of return we expect back.

I cried in that moment.  I looked at the doctor as she struggled against the tidal wave of emotions which threatened to overwhelm her.  More importantly, I could not take my eyes off the puppy, and I could not turn away from that final betrayal at the moment when he most needed the man who had given him a home.  I wished somehow to go back in time and to move through space so that I might be in that room to provide a warm embrace, to help carry an ending life through its final seconds, to give unmitigated affection and security in a time when we cannot possibly understand what an animal is going through even as its life slips away.

Allow me to state this in absolute terms: Except in the most critical of circumstances when an emergency prohibits us from being there, nothing can excuse leaving a pet in those final minutes to face death without us.  It is never acceptable to walk out the door.  The very idea of “dropping off a pet to die” is so abhorrent, so unthinkable, so inhumane…  Well, it can never be excused.

Trite though they may have been, I refer you to the top ten commandments for a responsible pet owner.  I especially draw your attention to the last one:

Go with me on difficult journeys.  Never say, “I can’t bear to watch it,” or, “Let it happen in my absence.”  Everything is easier for me if you are there.  Above all, remember that I love you.

If we as humans cannot be there in the worst of times, we do not deserve the best of times.

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