Some months after Hurricane Katrina, my sister-in-law & I were discussing the clips of animal rescues: the man who hid his snakes in his jacket to evacuate on a chartered bus; the man & dog who swam out together, both matted with oil slick & refuse; animals left behind, and families frantic to find them. Why, she & I both wondered, was it those stories that pulled our heartstrings? Perhaps there was something fundamentally wrong with our empathetic faculties.
For me, the moment came while watching a clip of a man dragging a big green Rubbermaid behind him, as he slogged through god-knows-what to safety. In the Rubbermaid huddled a very scraggly dog of indeterminate breed, and a tabby cat, petrified & damp. I just started sobbing –as if my levees were breaking. After the media saturation of families abandoned, corpses floating face-down, and homes left no more than sieves of stud walls & sashes, it was this man, with his unlikely cargo that broke me down. I believe that animals are proxies for our most vulnerable selves.
Last spring, my partner & I took in a rescued Cane Corso named Bella. We learned bits & pieces of her past: owners who weren’t prepared for her needs, her handing off to numerous homes, her isolation and neglect. Among her previous owners was a heroin addict who overdosed; her body was discovered days later, tended to by her loyal dog. We walked her & loved her; set up a regular schedule of exercise & food; consistently established rules & discipline. But Bella wasn’t thriving. She was dying. Each week we went to the vet, tried various tests, special diets, radiogrammed for obstructions, collected stool samples like precious gems. She was losing an average of five pounds a week. Her ribs crisscrossed her brindle stripes like some sort of macabre map. When we’d submitted the last blood sample, and were waiting for the last possible result, we made the decision. She was barely 70 pounds; and tired out from circling the short city block. It was time to euthanize.
Oddly enough, I thought of my grandmother who died last fall. She’d been diagnosed with acute leukemia, & refused treatment. On her last two days, she was mostly unconscious. Her death-rattle vibrated the house from the rafters to the basement. All we could give her was morphine & wait. I hope that morphine knocked her out –made the world a grey expanse of nothing. I hope it hastened her end; she wanted it to.
I believe the greatest responsibility we have to each other is to recognize the inherent dignity of life. That means also recognizing the dignity of death. Our dog, Bella, couldn’t make that decision. As her owners, we had to.
There is good news here. That last test result yielded an answer. Bella is still with us, topping out at 100 pounds, healthy enough to chase rabbits until nightfall, and dream about them until morning, sharing the bed with us, & the cat. And my grandmother had a good life. And she died, as she wished, at her daughter’s home, surrounded by family that loved her –that perfectly-imagined hospice death. And despite all the stories of cruelty & neglect during the aftermath of Katrina, we have those images of people protecting the innocents, cradling their pets, and their own fears & memories of vulnerability; protecting their manifest selves come hell and high water.
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