When I first decided to move my advocacy to an actual website with content, as opposed to just having a Youtube channel, my plan was to expose people who care for animals to some subjects they might not otherwise know about. I considered myself pretty informed on “animal issues” a decade ago but I just wasn’t. There are a host of serious issues related to companion animals in our country that are just not on the “public radar,” for lack of a better description. Most people who care for and spend their lives with companion animals are focused on what affects them personally and don’t spend much time thinking about issues outside of their own household or community. One of the first issues I learned about years ago was about puppy mills.
Most Americans have heard the phrase puppy mill and don’t give it a whole lot of thought. I want you to think about what it means because whether you know it or not, puppy mills affect us all, even people who don’t consider themselves “animal people.”
Puppy mills are commercial dog breeding operations where dogs are produced in large numbers for profit and with little or no regard for the “breeder stock.” As I have written about before, this is big business in America. Whether a mill has hundreds of dogs or a handful of dogs, they are infusing dogs into the market and into American homes by the millions each year. The products pretty much sell themselves. Puppies are cute and it is easy for us to either not think about where they came from or not care about it.
At the same time that mills are producing millions of dogs a year and making big money off of our love affair with the canine species, millions of dogs are being destroyed in our “animal shelters” each year using our tax dollars. You may think those dogs are sick or damaged in some way. You may even think that they simply cannot be saved because we just have too many of them. The reality is that the vast majority of dogs destroyed in shelters every day are perfectly healthy and treatable and there are homes for those dogs. They are destroyed because that’s what we have been doing in America for about 150 years and it’s just easier to keep doing it than to stop and ask “why?” More and more no kill communities are being created across the country with each passing month and year, but most shelters in most cities are places where animals essentially go to die using our money and while we are blamed for that process. The mind set is that if we were just more responsible, if we cared more, if we spayed and neutered more, if we did not treat our pets as disposable, etc., the animals would not have to die.
It is not a coincidence that millions of dogs are bred in mills and then millions of dogs die in our shelters. Millers, both large and small, put millions of products in front of us which we find incredibly hard to resist and we keep buying them. As long as we keep buying them, millers will keep producing them. And as long as millers keep producing dogs by the million, we will continue to destroy dogs in our shelters who have been overlooked or stereotyped, simply because they are unfortunate enough to have landed in our sheltering system. Yes, there are people who surrender animals to shelters and who should never have an animal in the first place. But not every animal entering a shelter is there due to someone’s callousness or irresponsibility. Pets get lost, people die, people get sick, houses burn down, people lose jobs and people often to not make the best decisions about their animals when life gets really hard and they aren’t thinking clearly. Every shelter animal deserves to be treated as an individual and to be given an opportunity for a new life. To do otherwise blames the animal for the failings of our society and of us as individuals.
I got an email recently from an advocate in New Jersey named Candace Quiles about a dog auction being held in Missouri on August 6, 2016. A miller with a terrible reputation for abuse is auctioning off his “stock” through a company called Southwest Auction Service and Marketing. I was contacted to see if there was something I could do to stop the auction. I cannot. Dog auctions are perfectly legal in our society and they happen all the time. This is what millers do and this is part of the business of puppy milling. Millers breed dogs, auction them off to brokers, individuals or even to rescue groups. Some in the rescue community have been known to pay thousands of dollars for a dog while describing their behavior as “rescue," leaving millers laughing all the way to the bank. Make no mistake. People who mass produce dogs for a living think no more of those dogs than they would any other form of livestock. The USDA is to thank for the mill industry and it is high time that the USDA got out of the business of regulating that industry so we can work to bring an end to them once and for all. Just because farming dogs is easier than farming cotton or soy beans doesn’t make it right. And just because rescuers can come up with 5 grand to "rescue" a dog in an auction doesn't mean they should.* A sale is a sale is a sale.
After I was contacted about the auction, I looked into a little bit even thought I knew I could not stop it. I found the sales list for the auction. If you squint just a little bit and don’t look too closely, you might think this was an auction for used farm equipment or auto parts. It is an auction of living, breathing, feeling, sentient creatures and while those hosting it and attending it may find it perfectly normal business activity, I find it sickening and horrific.
Puppy mills may very well be one of the two greatest public shames in the American society regarding companion animals, the second being our broken animal sheltering system. We consider ourselves animal-friendly. We hold ourselves above other cultures where animals we keep as companions are consumed or bred for fur. But how can we possibly claim moral high ground while mills still flourish in our country and while we still kill dogs by the millions with our collective funds?
Man’s Best Friend. Made in America. Shame on us.
(click on the image to view a pdf copy)
*Position Clarification on Auction Payment for Dogs
I received a comment on this blog from a rescuer related to my position on rescuers who go to auctions. I want to clarify my position in light of her comments to me.
I fully support organizations and even rescuers who work with millers to have mill dogs relinquished to them and which then turn around and work to educate the public toward ending the mill industry. I volunteer for a national organization which does just that. I even support organizations which pay some small, nominal fee to save breeder dogs through direct contact with the miller.
I do not support people who go to auctions and who pay large sums of money for dogs using the label of rescue. I have first-hand accounts from people who have been to auctions and have seen thousands of dollars paid for a single dog. They have seen rescuers buy puppies for huge sums while leaving the parent dogs behind. In some cases, this behavior has driven up the prices. Some millers use shills in order to target those in the rescue community and drive up prices.
Any person or organization which pays large amounts of money for puppies or dogs under the name of rescue is enabling the entire process. You are putting money into the millers' pockets and to them you are no different than a broker or than someone who will take the dogs and sell them to a pet store to then sell to the public. For them, this is not an emotional topic at all. By making it an emotional topic yourself, you are helping them breed and sell more dogs. The plight of mill dogs is heart breaking. But if we behave emotionally about a multi-million dollar industry, we will not change it. If you really want to help mill dogs and end mills, saving dog A, B, C, or D is not having the effect you desire and may very well have the opposite effect.
I do not need to go to an auction to know that buying dogs which come with a huge price tag is not helpful related to ending this industry. Many of my contacts have first hand experience about auctions and their knowledge is good enough for me.
If you think that paying $5,000 for a mill dog to “rescue” that one dog is a noble effort, consider this. You could use that same money to help many more relinquished mill dogs be rehabilitated and find homes while helping to educate the public to stop the industry. And if you didn't pay big money for the sick or injured dogs you see, they may very well be relinquished to an organization which will help them. Some millers rely on rescuers to pay big money for dogs as a result of the very behavior of some in the rescue community.
1 safety harness
5 bags of snacks
6 pairs of socks
We met him when he was just a baby and it was love at first sight. The bond was immediate. We cleaned him up, got him the medical care he needed and began teaching him language skills. We taught him right from wrong and as he grew, he learned to trust and became a key part of our family. Rich took him everywhere. He loved to travel and would sing along with songs on the radio. He was sweet and mellow and while he wasn't gregarious, he was friendly to everyone he met. People regularly remarked on how handsome he was and how well behaved he was. We took him golfing with us and he loved to ride in the golf cart and sing. As he aged and time began to take its toll, Rich put up a ramp for him and modified his diet. When he got sick, we cared for him. When he had an accident, we cleaned him up and assured him that everyone had problems sometimes. When he didn't feel well, Rich made him special food. After his stroke, he stayed in a baby's playpen for days so he wouldn't try to walk on his own and hurt himself. He rebounded from that and while he was never quite the same physically, he was always just so happy. Even when walking became more of a challenge, just the idea of going for a ride led to him do what we called The Happy Dance as he leaped and bounded toward "his" truck with joy. He was with us for 17 years.
If you didn't know me very well, you may think I was talking about our child. And he was our child. He was a dog. But he was just as much a child to us as any human child.
When we say Aspy was our child, some people either bristle at the notion or they just don't understand it. Love for the human species and love for other species are not mutually exclusive. I can love my spouse with all my heart, as I truly do, and still love a dog with all my heart. And to say that our dog was our child does not mean that we humanized him. We did not. It means that much like a human child, we cared for his every need. He had the cognitive function of a child. He was with us from the time we woke up to the time we went to sleep and sometimes during the night if he needed us. His presence was as woven in the fabric of our lives as any other child. And as we try to find our way forward without him, we grieve for him and we miss him as we would any other member of our family, human or canine.
I know there are people who have animals and those animals are mostly just present in their lives. They may appreciate them in some ways and be annoyed by them in other ways. But to truly bond with an animal is a unique experience in life and if you have shared such a bond, count your blessings. Anatole France once wrote that until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened. Yes, yes and yes.
If you have had to say farewell to a beloved dog or cat and you sometimes cry over that loss, even years later and for no obvious reason, you are lucky. If there are days when you think you hear them or see them, you are very fortunate. If you sometimes find your mind wandering to the years you shared and the unconditional love provided to you, you are blessed. Some people will never know that love or that type of bond. I've come to understand that as much as the grieving process tears us apart, it is also something we must honor. Grief is an emotion which is as powerful as the love which creates it.
I love our boy. I miss our little man. He was our child.
1 Christmas stocking
2 rain coats
3 tooth brushes
4 travel bowls. . .
our heartfelt thanks to Ron Wasserman for this lovely piano composition about our loss
simply entitled, "Losing a Friend"
I became an animal welfare advocate about a decade ago after I learned what happens at the shelter in the city where I work and where I was first stationed in the Army in a former life. Although there are many facets to my advocacy, I have spent a great deal of time in the last 10 years working to make Huntsville, Alabama, a no kill community - a place where healthy and treatable animals are not destroyed using our tax dollars. Huntsville is now being treated as one of the national success stories in animal sheltering. It is not yet a no kill community and it is entirely likely that it will never be one. Now that a certain level of progress has been achieved here, the mayor is happy, the city council is happy, the shelter staff is happy and so are most of the public. Better has been declared good enough; me pushing for more is likely an exercise in futility. I have already begun to turn my focus away from Huntsville towards the city and county where I live to try to do some good there.
The good news about the last ten years of my advocacy is that I have met some truly inspired, passionate people who are leading our society to a new age as it relates to how we treat companion animals in America. These are some tremendously talented and smart people and I am proud to say I know them. They are not afraid to speak out for the greater good and have stood up against tremendous opposition from people who claim to advocate for animals but who are really more focused on themselves and or on defending the status quo. The vast majority of them receive no compensation for their advocacy; it is a moral imperative to them and they feel compelled to act and speak out for the benefit of animals who cannot speak for themselves.
The bad news is that this period of time has taken an incredible toll. The amount of struggle I have faced, and the level of toxicity I have found among people who claim to be animal advocates, has been both shocking and educational. I have some regrets about things I did and I know I made mistakes. Advocacy is at its core about passion for a cause and I honestly don't think it's possible to always make the right choices. I can say for sure that there are things I did wrong, but for all the right reasons. I’m okay with the road I traveled. I know I did the best I could considering all the other factors in play and in light of the resistance I encountered from the very people responsible for making changes on their own without the need for any advocacy.
Which leads to the reason for this blog. I've developed a lessons learned type of list to try to help others who think they want to advocate for animals, particularly related to how their local animal shelter functions. Calling this blog a survival guide is a bit dramatic, but I do hope that reading my observations will help someone else avoid my same mistakes. It is not all inclusive and I’m just hitting the highlights.
Decide what you want. Ideally, I think you should be able to state your goal in a single sentence. You cannot fix our entire society or even an entire community in one fell swoop or through magic thinking. You cannot address issues related to companion animals, farm animals and wildlife at the same time. In my case, I wanted to push Huntsville to stop killing healthy and treatable animals in the tax funded shelter.
Do your research. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll never make any headway because you'll have no credibility. You need to become an expert on your vision so you can speak intelligently about it from the hip. Learn the history of the issue you are working on so you know how our society got to this point. Make a decision on what methods you think work best to accomplish the goal, while being prepared to acknowledge that there are other methods which may have value. Network with people who have walked your path before you and whom are considered subject matter experts. You don’t need to be the smartest kid in the class as long as you know the smartest kids in the class.
Find a few like minded people to stand with you - but not too many. I think it is incredibly rare for a single person to be effective in an effort to make things better for animals and with no support when it comes to addressing systemic issues, particularly with local governments. It's just too easy for you to be dismissed as naive or as a zealot. You will likely be able to do more good if you find like-minded people who share your vision and are willing to join you to speak with one voice. Don't make your group larger than it needs to be for the sake of numbers. You run the risk of ending up with people who say they share your values but who truly do not or who talk but don’t do. Those people can be incredibly disruptive and take you way off course, wasting valuable time and energy.
Try doing "the ask" at the very beginning. If you are trying to reform the way your local animal shelter functions, diplomacy and respect are key and you simply must take the high road even if that behavior is not reciprocated. I’ve heard many times that all advocates are abrasive and are too quick to engage in name calling and assigning blame from the start. Not in my circles. I am a firm believer in taking the easiest path from Point A to Point B. If you do not approach those who have the power to change the situation and simply ask them to consider doing so, you run the risk of offending them unnecessarily. Go straight to the source as your first step.
Don't waste time or energy on someone who doesn't care or won’t listen. There is no polite way to tell someone "animals are being destroyed needlessly. Please stop." But anyone who is really interested in saving the lives of animals, as opposed to defending that outdated process, will quickly let you know that they are interested in learning other ways to function and are "all in" toward embracing new ideas, particularly if you can help them understand what methods have worked in other places. You cannot force someone to acknowledge your vision and to work with you if they are bound and determined not to do so. If you hit a wall, don’t keep banging your head against it. Find a way around it by involving the general public in your efforts.
Make your message one about ethics, money and accountability - not about specific people. All animal shelters function with some oversight. In the case of municipal animal shelters which are operated by a city, county or by a contracted nonprofit, those shelters are funded by tax dollars. If your argument is that animals are being needlessly destroyed, you do better to argue that doing so is not consistent with American values, is not a good way to spend money and that those who oversee the shelter are accountable to the people who are paying for it: the public. Even if you believe that a shelter director should be removed, you won’t get far suggesting that unless some actionable form of abuse is taking place. You are better off focusing on the leadership as a whole. If the leadership makes personnel changes, so be it.
Don't listen to the haters, enablers or apologists. Although most people outside of animal welfare circles think that all animal welfare advocates are on the same page, we are not. I firmly believe that there are people who advocate for animals solely for the benefit of those animals. They do not seek or want recognition and the act of having helped is their reward. Then there are people who advocate for animals so that they can say that they advocate for animals. Many of these people can be your worst critics. For them, this is more about people and not offending anyone than it is about saving lives. Detach from those people and don’t let them suck the life force out of you with their negative energy. When you are labeled the source of the problem because you took it on yourself to speak out, don’t get trapped by the tactic of putting focus on the messenger instead of the fact that the message was necessary in the first place. You cannot win with people who point the finger of blame at you while giving the people destroying animals a free pass.
Be prepared to see it through. Once you begin an advocacy effort, the reality is that you can’t just stop if you get tired or discouraged. Be prepared to see it through, no matter how long it takes. Your efforts could take weeks, months or even years. Be prepared to stay on subject and stay committed to your beliefs, even if you are not treated with the same diplomacy you use to advocate for animals. Part of this process is, however, knowing when you have done all that you can. When you reach a point where you are no longer being effective in any way and you are simply repeating yourself to an audience which doesn’t share your ideals, be prepared to move on and know that you did your best simply to preserve your own sanity.
I have been called a lot of things in the last decade related to Huntsville and I know there are some who would not volunteer to be president of the Aubrie Fan Club. I’m okay with that. Because I know that my advocacy made a difference. If I had not begun to rock the boat myself and then found others to help me rock it, very little would have changed. And animals would have continued to die by the thousands for no good reason at all.
Go forth and do great deeds.
I have written before about the concept of pets as property and how that can be a good thing in our current social climate as it relates to legal rights. Yes, our animals are precious to us and they are not property in the traditional sense because we consider them priceless. Because my dog is my property, I have legal rights related to him being taken from me by law enforcement authorities, related to him being stolen from me and related to him being destroyed unnecessarily by an animal shelter. Until we change our laws so that I have rights similar to rights related to children, I am fine with him being called my property as long as I can protect him from harm.
The issue of dogs as a commodity, as inventory and as livestock is, however, a completely separate issue for me and it is one which is infuriating. Puppy mills exist today because we created them. The first commercial dog breeding operations came about thanks to a USDA program implemented decades ago to help struggling farmers. Dogs were promoted as a fool proof cash crop. They are easy to produce and the return on the dollar is high compared to other products. Americans love dogs, so what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Dogs began being produced in huge numbers while being housed in conditions we would normally find inadequate for any animal of any species. The commercial dog breeding industry became big business and it still is today, leading to the creation of a number of organizations which focus solely on saving mill dogs and on educating the public about mills. When we talk about puppy mills, that description encompasses a wide range of businesses and places. Some are large breeding operations with hundreds of dogs who produce thousands of dogs each year. Some are more rural operations managed by those in the Amish culture and yet others are simply backyard operations which go on unseen, unheard and out of the public eye. There is also the distribution system, the most notable of which is a distribution facility managed by the Hunte Corporation which takes puppies from breeders and ships them across the country in unmarked trucks to a pet store near you. A large number of the dogs produced commercially are sold to brokers who then sell them to pet stores. Many dogs are simply marketed through the internet using polished looking websites which present the illusion of proper care and cleanliness. Still others are sold through newspaper ads, on street corners and in the parking lots of large chain stores.
Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, I fully recognized that there is such a thing as a responsible breeder. There are people who breed and then sell dogs while taking excellent care of the parent dogs and while doing all they can to perpetuate breed standards and have healthy puppies for people to buy as family pets or to use in some service capacity. There is a continental divide between a responsible breeder and a puppy mill, no matter the size of the mill. In a mill, the “breeder stock” is housed in unthinkable conditions, often in small wire cages with no flooring. They receive no veterinary care (or very little veterinary care) leading them to develop a host of conditions and diseases. Many have missing eyes from having been sprayed by power washers or tumors from lack of care or nails which have grown so long as to become ingrown. If you were to stop and try to think of a house of horrors for dogs, that would be a puppy mill.
The sad truth as it relates to the mill industry is that all puppies are cute and that we are blinded by the cuteness that we see. Even if we know it’s possible that the cute puppy in the pet store may have come from horrific conditions, we really don’t think about that much because the dog is there and he or she needs a home. I have known of some people who are well aware of the conditions in mills and yet they have rationalized buying a dog from a pet store in order to "save" it or "rescue" it. I have often though that if the puppies came with accurate labels, or were accompanied by a realistic image of the conditions in which their parents live, we would be so appalled we would know better than to buy one, cute or not.
Here’s the thing. Puppy mills thrive because of us. We make them profitable. We create the demand. And they will continue to dot our landscape across our country, keeping canine prisoners in horrific conditions, until we say “enough” and we stop buying what they are selling.
We created mills. We can stop the mills by speaking out against them, by telling everyone we know about them and by simply refusing to purchase dogs which millers see as nothing more than inventory. It is up to us to say, “no. That is not what our culture is about.” We like to think of our country as being animal friendly. The time has long since passed for us to stop patting ourselves on the back for being dog lovers while allowing such an insidious industry to exist in our country and doing nothing to stop it.
Adopt-A-Pet, Inc. is hosting a Puppy Mill Awareness Day event on September 18, 2016, at Buchanan Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often called Puppy Mill Capital of the country. It is a day-long event which will have activities geared specifically toward educating children. The guest speaker is Victoria Stilwell who has written a host of books regarding dogs and who is a dog trainer and television host for a number of series about dogs. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning about puppy mills and how to stop them to consider attending this wonderful event.
I prepared a couple of projects for Carol Araneo-Mayer for her event and am sharing them here. I hope she has a huge turnout and that people come away both educated and empowered. Perhaps if we adults are too complacent to end the mill industry, our children can. Even children know that puppy mills are bad.
Most of us who love and share our lives with companion animals think of them as like our children. They are not human children and if we are doing a good job, we don’t humanize them. They have different needs than children, different instincts and different language skills. We know deep down that they are animals, but they are very much like children on a host of levels. They rely upon us for food, water, housing, medical care, guidance, training, language development and a host of other things which become woven into the tasks of our daily existence. I have read that dogs have similar cognitive function to that of a young child. Feline cognition seems to be a less studied topic, but that may very well be due to the fact that cats have better ways to spend their time than helping us figure them out.
Because our animals are childlike in their dependence on us and their needs, I feel pretty strongly about our responsibilities toward them. I think that anyone who brings an animal into their life must take that decision seriously and be prepared to care for that animal for the duration of his or her life. I am pretty much zero tolerance when it comes to people who tell me that their dog or cat is precious to them, but they have to give them up because of ___________ (fill in the blank). The excuses range from I don’t have time or the dog won’t listen or the cat refuses to use the litter box or we’re having a baby or some other reason. I was in a pet supply store once and saw a flyer for a gorgeous dog which read “New home needed immediately! Moving to Minnesota!” I grunted and asked the woman at the counter, “what? Do they not allow dogs in Minnesota?” I just think that having pets equates to making a promise. You don’t give away your relatives, you don’t give away your children and you don’t give away your pets or, worse yet, surrender them to an animal shelter where they may be summarily destroyed. If they mean so little to you, please. Just don't get a pet or become a foster for a homeless pet instead.
In spite of my zero tolerance for people who treat pets like an old lamp or a used sofa, I am well aware that there are times when people simply cannot keep their pets even though they do love them deeply. People get sick. People die. People lose jobs. Houses burn down. In those instances, my personal hope is that some family member or friend will step up to take that beloved pet (or pets) so that the person giving them away doesn’t lose all contact with them. It could be that they get well or get a new job or get a new place to live, after which their animal can be given back to them. In cases there that cannot happen or does not happen, my secondary hope is that the community in which that desperate person lives is a no kill community so that a local animal shelter or rescue group can help re-home the animal and the person can be assured that their pet’s life is not at risk. People who are going through hard times have enough to think about without worrying about whether their dog or cat will live or die. I also recognize that animals often are incompatible with other animals in a household and need to be re-homed for their own well-being. I have no issue with this at all. I would much prefer that a pet be placed into a new and more compatible home for the benefit of everyone, human and animal.
All this leads up to the title of my blog about preparing for the worst. If you are a pet caregiver, I really want you to consider doing two things now and I hope you will take them seriously.
The first thing I want you to do is to have a plan about what would happen to your animals if the unthinkable happened and you died or got so sick you could not take care of them. Much like people in some religions name Godparents for their children, I want you to really make plans for a Petparent. This can’t just be some wishy-washy assumption that someone you are related to or someone you know will step in and help. It has to be a direct conversation with someone in your life to get them to commit to taking your animals and keeping your promise to those animals in the event you no longer can. I’m not suggesting you have anyone sign a contract. I am suggesting that you have a face-to-face chat or serious telephone conversation in which you get a commitment from at least one person that they will care for your pets if you die or become so ill you cannot keep them.
Although my parents did not die suddenly and we lost them both to cancer in a short window of time, this was part of our planning. My beloved aunt in Texas agreed to take mom and dad’s cats and that is exactly what she did. Tommy and Batty now live in Round Rock and I know that my “Auntie M” loves them dearly. Just making those plans took a huge burden off of my mom while she was battling cancer because she knew the cats would be safe after she could no longer stay. Before Asp left us, we had a similar plan with my aunt. Aspy had been to her house and pretty much ignored the cats (thankfully). She had lost her dog, Phinny, years back and agreed to be Aspy’s Petparent should something happen to us.
The second thing I want you to do is to have both a Plan A and a Plan B to receive veterinary care for your animals either after normal business hours or on holidays. Most veterinary offices work pretty much from 9-5 and only certain days each week. Do you know where you would take your pet or who you would call if you had an emergency? Do you know if you would be able to afford it? If your Plan A for after-hours/holiday care could not help you, do you have a Plan B? Short of having a family member or child who is seriously ill or injured, I can think of nothing more traumatic than to have a pet who is injured or experiencing some life threatening condition outside of normal veterinary hours. Most cities have hospitals where people can go. Many cities do not have emergency veterinary hospitals and only a very limited number of veterinarians are in a position to help their regular clients outside of typical business hours.
We learned this second lesson the hard way just this last weekend. We had our Plan A: our veterinarian. We have known her for two decades and we continued to have her treat our dog even after we moved to a new city. She knew Aspy’s history and she also knew about most of the challenges he faced in the last year of his life. Based on that relationship, I allowed myself to think that she would be available if we needed her after hours or on a holiday. When we let Snake go in 2006, she came to our house to euthanize her when the time came and so it would be more calm and less clinical. I guess I just had it in my head that when we made the decision to let Aspy go, whenever that may be, she would be available to us. She was not.
Aspy had a short seizure in the evening of July 3d. He had been sleeping and it came out of nowhere, at least from what we could see. It was terrifying. Our vet could not see him so we took him to a local animal hospital about half an hour from our house. It was a terrible experience and we were all left tired, drained, upset and confused. We were told Aspy had a mass in his liver, one in his spleen and that the cancer had likely moved to his brain. We were also told the first 24-hours were critical and to monitor him. We did. He did not survive the monitoring period. Aspy had another seizure in the early afternoon hours of the 4th of July holiday. It went on and on and on and I feared his heart would just give out. We could not reach our veterinarian so we took him back to the same animal hospital where we had been earlier that same day and we had him euthanized.
I think Rich would agree that our Independence Day was one of the worst days of our lives and one of the worst experiences of our lives. Making the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is incredibly difficult. Ours was made more difficult because of the distance we had to transport our dog and the manner in which the process was handled once we arrived. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say it was light years away from what I had envisioned in terms of us setting the time and place and having it be an essentially peaceful passing like we arranged for Snake. It was heart wrenching and infuriating and I admit that I am having a really hard time not thinking about it. The veterinary hospital is about a mile from my office and that proximity to the place where I spend most of my waking hours is just too close for me. We will never go back there. I have written a letter to the veterinarians we interacted with to implore them to make some changes to how they handle ordinary customer service issues and specifically how they handle end-of-life situations.
If you truly love your pets, you do not give them away absent some extraordinary circumstances and you behave responsibly so their care is provided for in the event something tragic happens. Make plans for your Petparent. Make plans for after-hours or end-of-life care. Make sure you can afford unexpected veterinary costs. You will sleep better for having done so. And I hope you can avoid some of the trauma we have endured this week. Aspy could not stay. But we would have liked to say farewell in a more controlled way and in the presence of more compassion.
Make plans. And then enjoy your time with your companion animals. Life is fleeting and precious.
We met him over 16 years ago. We saw him in the cow pasture on a parcel adjacent to our then rural home. A small, white dog, lingering close enough to the cattle to stay warm but not so close as to bother them. It took my husband weeks to gain his trust in order to feed him. We hadn’t planned to keep him originally. Snake, our coydog, wasn’t good with other dogs and we feared she would hurt him. But he came to trust Rich, Rich fed him and we housed him separately from Snake as we tried to find a home for him. One day during a “let’s hope she won’t hurt him session,” Snake decided to chase the puppy around our dining room table and they developed a sort of friendship. We named him Asp and he became a member of our family. The bond between Asp and Rich was really beyond description. They were like two peas in a pod. After Snakey left us, the bond grew even stronger and it was as if they were two parts of the same person. Rich often joked that they could speak to each other telepathically and teased me about the fact that Asp sometimes didn't listen because I was speaking "with a cat accent."
I have told people over the years that I think there are times when animals enter our lives as part of some bigger plan. Believe what you will. This is my belief and I cannot be convinced otherwise. Sometimes we cross paths with animals because we are meant to help them in some way, even if it’s just to be a stepping stone to some new life. Sometimes we are meant to share our lives with them and they are meant to share theirs with us as they teach us what we value and how to be better versions of ourselves. We know all along that they cannot last as long as we want and we accept that as part of the relationship. We know they will leave us some day. We just try our best to focus on the present and how very much they enrich our lives just by being there to accept us unconditionally, make us laugh, make us cry and help us cope.
Asp had a stroke last September and it was debilitating. We were less than 24 hours from having him euthanized by our veterinarian and had even called the local business which provides cremation services. We didn’t want him to suffer and we were prepared to put his needs first, as every animal lover must. We decided to go for one last R-I-D-E and when he rebounded, we decided to let him stay and see if he could recover. He slept in a child’s playpen for days so he wouldn’t hurt himself trying to walk on his own and Rich boiled chicken to feed him because he had trouble chewing kibble. As the days and weeks went by, he improved. Life got back to normal for the most part and he was happy and eating and back to being our boy. We knew it would not last, but we followed the lead all dogs show us: try to live in each day and just enjoy the now.
I think most people can count on one hand the worst days of their lives and we are no different. The 4th of July holiday was one of those days for us. Aspy had a seizure on Sunday night and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. It didn’t last too long and we took him to an emergency clinic for help. The vet who ordered his ultrasound gave us the grim news. Aspy had a mass in his liver, a mass in his spleen and it was likely that the cancer had moved to his brain. We took him home and hoped for the best, but it was not to be. We let him go on Independence Day after a prolonged seizure, the vision and sounds of which will surely be seared in my memory for all time. Did we do the right thing? Did we wait too long? Did we not wait long enough? Such are the questions which haunt and plague every animal lover who has ever had to make what Marion Hale once described as That Terrible Decision.
I know we are blessed. I have faith that the soul of our little man was saved and that he is not in pain. Each day was a gift and while life will never, ever be the same, our focus has to be on what was best for him. No matter the cost to us. Some people have never known the type of bond we have shared with our dogs and for them I feel sorry. With great and powerful love also comes great and powerful loss, but we wouldn’t miss any of it for anything. We love him. So we gave him wings.
He asked her, "what gifts can I bring you
to prove that my love for you is true?
I want to make you mine forever.
There's nothing on this earth I would not do."
She said, "anything I've wanted
you have given willingly.
So now there's only one more thing I need.
If you love me, give me wings
and don't be afraid if I fly.
A bird in a cage will forget how to sing
If you love me, give me wings."
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson