The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Livesby Jessica Pierce
From the moment when we first open our homes—and our hearts—to a new pet, we know that one day we will have to watch this beloved animal age and die. The pain of that eventual separation is the cruel corollary to the love we share with them, and most of us deal with it by simply ignoring its inevitability. With The Last Walk, Jessica Pierce/i>… See more details below
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From the moment when we first open our homes—and our hearts—to a new pet, we know that one day we will have to watch this beloved animal age and die. The pain of that eventual separation is the cruel corollary to the love we share with them, and most of us deal with it by simply ignoring its inevitability. With The Last Walk, Jessica Pierce makes a forceful case that our pets, and the love we bear them, deserve better. Drawing on the moving story of the last year of the life of her own treasured dog, Ody, she presents an in-depth exploration of the practical, medical, and moral issues that trouble pet owners confronted with the decline and death of their companion animals. Pierce combines heart-wrenching personal stories, interviews, and scientific research to consider a wide range of questions about animal aging, end-of-life care, and death. She tackles such vexing questions as whether animals are aware of death, whether they're feeling pain, and if and when euthanasia is appropriate. Given what we know and can learn, how should we best honor the lives of our pets, both while they live and after they have left us?
The product of a lifetime of loving pets, studying philosophy, and collaborating with scientists at the forefront of the study of animal behavior and cognition, The Last Walk asks—and answers—the toughest questions pet owners face. The result is informative, moving, and consoling in equal parts; no pet lover should miss it.
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The Last Walk
Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives
By Jessica Pierce
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Ody shuffles down the hall and stops at the doorway of my office, peering in at me with brown eyes made milky by age. He doesn't come all the way into the room to put a muzzle on my lap or push a nose under my hand as he used to. For Ody the greeting remains incomplete, a reminder that he now inhabits a different world.
I turn in my chair and call him. Though he doesn't come, I know he hears me. His stump of a tail flicks back and forth in reply. I also know, because we repeat this exchange day after day, what comes next. With a snort and a raspy cough, Ody will turn stiffly and make his way back down the hall, the click-drag click-drag of his nails telling me where he is headed. But I don't want him to go just yet.
I stand and step into the doorway. Kneeling, I take Ody's face in my hands. His long ears are like velour under my fingers. I run my hands along his body, feeling the spongy lumps that bulge out here and there, like a super-sized Braille inscription. The lumps, the vet tells me, are fatty deposits called lipomas and are a harmless, if unsightly, manifestation of age. Despite his lumps and skin tags and white hair, Ody is still just as handsome to me as ever.
Repeating another familiar exchange, I lower my face and touch my nose to his. I've always loved his nose, which is improbably colored to match the russet of his coat. I close my eyes and feel the cool roughness. His breath is a reminder of worn and broken teeth and of gums decayed by time. We remain here nose-to-nose for several long moments, and I then I stand up and turn back to my work. Ody shuffles off, click-drag, down the hall.
Ody is just over fourteen, and if you saw him on one of his occasional walks (he walks when the mood is right, and otherwise refuses to leave the house) you would know that he is an old dog. His back legs are atrophied and weak and bend awkwardly, and he stands as if he were halfway toward sitting. Every few steps one of his back legs fails to do its job, and he lands on top of his toes, rather than on his paw pad. Without support of the foot, the leg collapses, and his body dips and sways. This idiosyncrasy is most likely the result of some neurological dysfunction that causes the brain to send the wrong signals to the legs. It is one among several symptoms of "cognitive dysfunction syndrome"—in other words, Ody suffers from dementia.
Ody is nearing death. And the closer he draws toward the end, the more puzzled I become about what a good death would mean for him. It is pretty clear what a bad death looks like, and far too many animals in our world suffer a bad death, dying afraid, in pain, and alone or with strangers.
But what is a good death? The message I get from everything I read and all the people I talk to is that eventually Ody will reach a point at which his life becomes burdensome, and he will tell me, somehow, that he wants to be released. I will take him to the vet and the kindly people there will poke him with a needle and it will all be very quick and painless and gentle. But something about this scenario bothers me, like a splinter just under the skin of my conscience. And the closer Ody limps and shuffles toward this elusive endpoint, the less comfortable I become.
Is a "natural" death preferable, for Ody, to euthanasia? Why is it that we have such a revulsion against euthanasia for human beings, yet when it comes to animals this good death comes to feel almost obligatory? If it is an act of such compassion, shouldn't we be more willing to provide this assistance for our beloved human companions as well?
I worry: will I be able to read Ody's signals? And I wonder: does life ever become so burdensome for an animal that he or she would prefer death, or is this something we have judged from the outside? Is it that their lives become burdensome for them, or for us? The more troublesome Ody becomes—the more he pees on the floor, the more often he barks for no reason at odd hours of the night, the more frequently he stands, confused and panting, in the middle of the kitchen while I'm trying to cook dinner—the more ambiguous the question of burdens becomes.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK
When Ody was about thirteen and a half, I decided to keep a journal about his life. Although he was still in relatively good health, I could see age wearing its tracks onto his body and mind. His health was starting to fail in small ways—he had had mast cell tumors removed from his ear and from his haunch, his hearing was fading, and he had to work a little to stand up. I began to write down the funny and annoying things that Ody spent his days doing, so that I would remember him in color and detail. And I recorded my reactions to watching him grow old. I thought it might help me work through the anguish of someday losing him, and the difficult decisions that I suspected lay in wait for us. I didn't know it at the time, but the "Ody Journal" was the beginning of this book.
Ody's story soon became something more than personal. As a bioethicist, my work has focused on how the biomedical sciences intersect with human values, particularly within the context of healthcare. At the same time as I began writing my daily journal about Ody, I was finishing a large college-level textbook on bioethics. The ethics of death and dying has long been at the core of this field of applied philosophy, and one of the central chapters in the textbook focused on ethics at the end of life. I would sit at my desk, immersed in the literature about human death and dying and hear Ody retching in the background, as the water he just drank got stuck in his throat. I would have to get up from my work, frustratingly often, because he needed to go out and pee, again, or was barking at the door. It became obvious to me that many of the questions under discussion in human end-of-life care were similar to ones I might soon encounter with Ody. How aggressively should I treat his encroaching disabilities? How do I judge the quality of his daily life, as he experiences it? Might there ever come a time when his day-to-day living is filled with so much pain and fear that the humane course will be to hasten his death?
Bioethics has not generally concerned itself with animals, and most certainly not with the aging, dying, and death of animals. But as I began dealing with Ody's aging, and thinking about how to navigate decisions at the end of his life, I realized that end-of-life care for our animal companions is worthy of sustained attention and that pet owners and veterinarians face moral quandaries every bit as complicated as those we face with human loved ones. Yet as I learned the hard way, we are not always prepared for these challenges, not having been asked to think carefully through the terrain ahead of us. No one told me that having an old dog would be hard and that his approaching death would strike so much fear into my heart. I didn't know that planning for his death—knowing how a good death might best be accomplished, what might happen with his body, how I might find constructive ways to grieve—would have helped me do it all better, without so many regrets.
Soon enough, the bioethics book was done, and before me sat, clear as day, my next project: to write about caring for our aging and dying animals. I thought that I might, through research and deliberation, know what to do for Ody, when the time came. And I thought that hearing Ody's story might help others deal with the dying of a beloved animal companion.
I say this is Ody's story, but it is really my story, too. It is my story of watching an animal I love grow old, suffer the infirmities of age, and begin his descent toward death. 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. I began to worry about Ody's death long before he even began growing old. And it scared me. It was always crouching in the back of my mind, like an animal tracking its prey from the shadows: the fear that someday I would have to choose to "put him down," or watch him suffer; that I would have to play God. And that time did come, eventually.
But before we rush ahead, let's go back to the beginning.
Ody joined our family as a ten-week-old wriggling sack of loose red skin. It was 1996. I was thirty. I had wanted a dog since forever, and I finally felt that I was in a position have one: settled into a life that rotated around the home. And once I wanted one, I wanted one badly. Some women in their thirties become obsessed with babies; I wanted puppies. But my husband Chris would take some convincing. I dropped hints here and there, but not too pushy. Not too needy. Subtle at first and then growing more blatant as he grew accustomed to the idea.
I didn't care what kind of dog—any would do. So when Chris mentioned that he might be interested in a Vizsla, without even asking the obvious "What's a Vizsla, and what are they like?" I immediately started scanning newspaper ads and kennel listings. Vizslas are not common, so I was readying myself for a hard search. But within only a few days, I opened the Omaha World Herald to the want ads and saw "Vizsla Puppies, $200." It was a Sign. By that afternoon we had met Ody and his aptly named brother, Tank, the only two puppies left. We watched as the two pups wrestled and bit. One was clearly the boss—confident and way too busy to pay us any attention. The other, the smaller one, was sweet and friendly, and when he could push his way out from under Tank he would waddle over and crawl into our laps. We fell in love with Ody, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Vizsla (pronounced VEESH-l[??]), also known as the Hungarian pointer, is considered a "general utility gundog." Ody, being Ody, is terrified of gun sounds and will start to pant and quiver if you so much as pop a plastic bag or squeeze too hard on bubble wrap. Vizslas are light and sinewy—the average male weighs about fifty pounds. Ody is a particularly stout Vizsla—not fat, but broad-chested and muscular, all seventy-five pounds of his short-haired rust-colored body. People who know Vizslas always remark onOdy's too-short tail. A perfect Vizsla would carry two-thirds of his tail; Ody has about one-third. Whoever did the tail docking must have slipped with the scissors. Still, it amazes me how much he can say with his stump: it embodies his personality and is a clear barometer of his mood. Pointed up (happy, excited), curved down (scared, upset), or pushed out straight as a rod behind him (squirrel mode). When Ody's stump wags—which it does all the time—his whole body shakes back and forth.
According to my Vizsla owner's manual, the breed originated with the Magyar hordes who during the tenth century invaded what is now Hungary. The dogs became prized hunting companions of the Hungarian aristocracy, who protected the purity of the breed through the centuries. During the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II, Vizslas were smuggled out of the country, and eventually they began arriving in the United States. We've always considered Ody an exceptionally regal dog—in looks, at least. And that explains the name Odysseus: a great king—handsome, cunning, beguiling—who undertakes an epic journey. Actually, his full legal name, if you must know, is Sadie's Rigorous Odysseus. His mother was Sadie, and his father was Rigor (with a brother named Mortis) and belonged to a mortician.
The Vizsla is said to be an expressive, loving, and gentle dog. Though intelligent and highly trainable, they are easily distracted and have a proclivity for stubbornness. The breed is highly tactile, and many Vizslas have an odd quirk: they like to hold people's hands in their mouth. Ody has never done this, but he does love to be touching someone whenever possible. He leans against you whenever you stroke his back, always sleeps in the bed under the covers, and fancies himself a lap dog. Vizslas are often referred to as "Velcro dogs," wanting to be close to their owners as much of the time as possible and with a tendency toward separation anxiety. Vizsla books and websites emphasize that these are extremely athletic dogs, requiring a great deal of exercise and stimulation. One source recommends that you run or walk your Vizsla at least six miles a day, preferably more. That kind of mileage is outrageous for most people, I think, though with a smug little smile and a self-righteous pat on my own back. Here, I think, is one thing I actually did right. For his whole life, Ody has been my running and mountain biking partner, and we covered a lot of miles in our day.
As I write this, Ody is asleep on the tan couch to the left of my desk. I feel a little stab of sadness every time I glance over at him, and more often than I'd like to admit, my eyes well up. The thought of losing him hurts, but even more than this, I mourn his losses. I am sad that Ody can no longer run wild through a field of tall grasses or chase the teasing squirrel in the backyard. But how do I know that he has lost anything, in his own mind? Why should I think that his diminished mobility makes him feel frustrated? How well do I really know Ody?
Despite the close bond we share, Ody is mysterious to me. The word that comes up over and over, when I think about Ody, is "inscrutable." And in his golden years, Ody has become, if anything, more difficult to read. In Dog Years, Mark Doty writes, "No dog has ever said a word, but that doesn't mean they live outside the world of speech.... To choose to live with a dog is to agree to a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards." I try to move beyond the world of human language, into Ody's own form of speech, but rarely do I feel confident about my translation. In our relationship, I think Ody holds more cards than I do. Doty goes on to say, "Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment, and the enchanted speak, famously, in private mutterings, cryptic riddles, or gibberish." We have our private mutterings, Ody and I, but when I ask myself questions such as "Is Ody happy?" and "Is he suffering?" I find that I really do not know.
Wondering about Ody makes me wonder about animals in general. Are animals aware of their aging, of illness, of the dusky shadow of the grim reaper following behind them? What is their aging, dying, and death like for them? Very little sustained attention has been given to these questions. The presumption has long been that animals are not complex enough creatures and that dying and death are too abstract for any but the human mind to grasp. Even among those who fight for improved animal welfare, the focus of attention is almost always on the quality of animal lives. And this, of course, is paramount. But we mustn't neglect the quality of their death—particularly because it is we who often orchestrate their end. The ideal of a "good death" applies not only to human beings but also to our animal kin.
THINKING ABOUT ANIMAL DEATH
It is worth inquiring, first of all, how animals actually do die. It is impossible to say how many companion animals die each year in the United States since no one keeps a registry, as we do for human deaths. So this is merely educated guesswork. During one year, US consumers will have purchased or otherwise acquired an estimated 15 million birds, 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million freshwater fish, 14 million reptiles, and 16 million small animals. How many of these animals die each year and by what means is difficult to figure. Narrowing our attention to dogs and cats (since there are no data on other kinds of pets), cancer, kidney disease, and liver disease are the leading causes of death, in terms of disease processes. Yet the main cause of death in dogs and cats in the United States—that is to say, the central mechanism of death for most canines and felines—is undoubtedly euthanasia. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that six to eight million cats and dogs enter shelters each year, and three to four million are euthanized. No data are available for the numbers of dogs and cats euthanized each year in veterinary offices and homes; all we know for sure is that far more die by the needle than by natural causes.
What about the birds, fish, reptiles, and small animals? No one really has any idea how these pet animals die. There is no crime in buying a pet and killing it, as long as you don't do it on purpose or with cruel intent. My guess is that the vast majority of deaths occur through inadequate care. Animals simply wither away, perhaps because they don't have enough heat, or too much, or not enough moisture, or too much, or not the right kind of food. But "wither away" doesn't put quite a fine enough point on it, does it? These creatures—the corn snakes, hermit crabs, leopard geckos, and bearded dragons—die slow and unpleasant deaths after protracted, though perhaps unnoticed, suffering. I call this category of death lethal neglect.
Excerpted from The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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