April 22nd is Earth Day. A day celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection which was first celebrated in 1970. In our household, it is a day of remembrance as we recall the passing of our beloved dog, Snake.
My husband, Rich, rescued Snake in 1992 with the help of the Lassen County Game Warden in Northern California. She was a German Shepherd/coyote mix dog who spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree with a heavy logging chain. The the only way to save her was an adopter who was experienced with dog behavior and trauma. It took time to take her from a dog who “pancaked” and did not trust people to a dog who was confident and loyal. Snake was a sight to behold. She looked like a German Shepherd in the body of a coyote, all muscle and heart. She was incredibly smart and a true athlete. She lived to chase a Frisbee, jumping and twisting in the air to catch her toy. She was very protective of us, and we were always careful with her around other dogs and other people; she was part domestic dog and part wild child.
Snake had been declining for years and we knew the day would come when we would have to make the decision that was worst for us, but best for her. She had become trapped in a body that no longer functioned well. She had trouble digesting food, was intermittently incontinent and had mobility issues. When she began to have cognitive issues in addition to her physical issues, we knew it was time. On a sunny Saturday morning in 2006, Rich called our veterinarian and asked her to come to the house. This was something we had arranged months in advance, but we did not make the decision until that morning.
I took her for one last walk as I tried to hide my anguish. I worried she would feed off my emotions and be scared. It was a beautiful day, and she seemed to be feeling pretty good, but we knew it was time if we were to save her from suffering and pain. We didn’t realize until later that it was Earth Day. We buried her on our rural property (we called it Snakehaven) in a breathtaking casket Rich had been quietly building for months. (We were later forced to move thanks to a shooting range which opened near our home; Rich undertook the heart wrenching task of recovering Snake's remains so that we could have them cremated to take the with us to our new home.)
Even when we know ahead of time that the ones we love are going to leave us, dealing with that loss is another matter entirely. The void left by the absence of someone you have lived with for so long is both striking and shocking. We told ourselves Snake had a long and wonderful life because those things were true. Having her euthanized was one of the hardest things we had ever done, and so we struggled with the decision. Did we let her go too soon? Had we waited for too long? We agonized over our decision for days, weeks and months.
I've had numerous conversations with people in the last 14 years about the decision to euthanize a beloved pet. Marion Hale once aptly described it as The Terrible Decision. It is difficult enough to lose someone you love to tragedy or under natural circumstances. Losing someone by choice for their benefit to either prevent or alleviate suffering is another matter entirely. We anguish over timing. Should we wait? Is it too soon? We tell ourselves that today was bad, but maybe tomorrow will be better. Sometimes that proves to be true. Other times it does not.
I have come to believe that there is just no good time to say farewell. It is an imperfect process which is clouded by love, compassion, memories and hope. It can be hard to think clearly as we try to force ourselves to choose what we hope is the "right" time. There is such thing in any absolute sense. Any time a decision is made to euthanize an animal for reasons of mercy, that decision is right because it is made from a place of love and sacrifice. It is putting aside our own selfishness and making the selfless decision to let the soul we love go as peacefully as possible.
When the time comes for you to say farewell to your beloved pet, I know that you too will do so from a place of love. Make your best decision based on the information you have about quality of life and once the deed is done, forgive yourself. The passage of time may not heal all wounds. Grief does become less painful in time as you shift from focusing on the void left and you focus more on positive memories, giving thanks for the time you walked a path together.
Our companion animals speak with us through body language and behavior. If they could talk, I feel confident they would tell us what they want and they would say, "please. It is time to let me go. If you love me, give me wings."
We love you, Snakey. Run wild and free. May we meet again some day.
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