Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Death of a Friend

This morning, my boyfriend Sean got a call from his mother telling him that one of their family's three beloved golden retrievers has begun to take leave of her life. She's the oldest one, Samantha. Sam or Sammie for short. She has beautiful red wavy hair and a very sweet face, where the fur has begun to go snowy white in her old age. She lives downstate with Sean's parents and their other two retrievers, Casey and Abigail.

All three of these dogs are huge sweethearts. Sean's family used to breed golden retrievers when he was a kid, and these are the dogs that are left over from that time in their lives. Sam is mother to both Casey and Abigail, though they have different fathers.

Abigail is basically a ten-year-old puppy. She's the youngest of the brood and remains in a perpetual puppy state, which is the role she's always held in the family. She loves attention! She will headbutt you and try to get in your way while you pet the other dogs until you pet her too. She has beautiful red hair like her mother and is very energetic and earnest.

Casey has beautiful, soft white-blond fur and is much more reserved than her sister. She was used for breeding purposes and once lost an entire litter of puppies, and has never been the same since. She now thinks any little pet or stuffed animal (or slipper, or pillow, etc.) is her "baby." The first time I went downstate with Sean to visit his family, he brought his ferrets, Walter and Perry, and set them up in a pen in the basement of his parents' house. Casey was so excited to see them. When she settled down by their pen to be near them, Sean's mother remarked, "Oh, she thinks they're her babies." That was the first time I saw her exhibit this behavior. I later saw that she always carries a stuffed animal, toy, or other object around with her in her mouth, and cuddles with it, bathes it and drapes herself protectively around it in her sleep like its her newborn pup. It breaks my heart to think that she carries this grief over her lost children with her always, even if it is subconsciously.

Sam is the wise old mother of these two lovely ladies. She is patient and quiet, and her family refers to her as the "Mama Dog." She has slowed down quite a bit in recent years. From what I've seen, she mostly lays underneath the table or next to the couch and lets Casey and Abigail run the show until you come over to pet her. She is a sweet soul who is secure in her role as Mama Dog and happy with her human family and doggy daughters.

Sammie is almost twenty years old now and has begun to exhibit signs of a dog shutting down. She's arthritic; she's gone blind. When she began to have trouble with her mobility, Sean's family still held out hope for a while that she could get better. But when Sean's mother talked to him this morning, she told him that Sam is actually getting worse. She can no longer walk at all, and has to bark whenever she needs to go potty. Sean's mother then has to carry her outside to do her business and carry her back in. Sean's parents haven't made any final decisions about whether or not they will have to put her down, but the inevitability of her passing has become an immediate reality. 

Of course, Sean was extremely upset and sad about this news. No matter how prepared you think you are for a loved one's death, it still comes as a terrible blow when it actually happens. Sean's family got Sam when he was eight years old, and he is 26 now, so he really has grown up with her. He told me he wishes he could see her one more time, to tell her how much he loves her. I know nothing can take away the pain of not being able to be with a loved one during their last few days on Earth, but I tried to make him feel better by telling him I think Sam already knows how much her family loves her. And I do. Pets know stuff like that.

After talking about Sam for a while, Sean decided he didn't want to call her a "pet" anymore, now that she was dying. He thinks it seems like the wrong word. I know what he means. Anyone who has ever loved a pet and watched it die knows that it is very serious business. To call this animal who you love like your own family a "pet" seems kind of undignified. "Pet" starts to seem like too demeaning and small of a word to call these beings who bring so much to our lives. Each individual animal enriches your life in their own unique way, and can never be replaced. The pain of losing them is great, but whenever it happens to me, I try to refer to the old adage, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

As I sat with Sean this morning after his mother's phone call, I couldn't help but think of the strange juxtaposition of the animals we keep as pets and the animals we eat. The differences between the two groups seem pretty arbitrary to me. As one of my fellow classmates pointed out in her blog, they still cook and eat dogs in many places in the world such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Over here, we would never think of eating a dog, and yet we eat cows every day of the week. Indians, on the other hand, consider cows to be sacred animals and would never eat them. Deciding which animals are appropriate to eat and which ones aren't really just seems to come down to the cultural context in which one was raised, rather than any specific characteristics of the animals themselves.

I believe each animal, pet or no, has their own distinct personality and essence, just like humans do. It's natural and necessary to mourn the deaths of the pets we've known and loved, of course, but who mourns for the thousands (millions?) of innocent animals who are slaughtered every day in the name of human consumption? I believe, even though we don't get the chance to get to know these animals the way we get to know our pets, that their lives are just as worthy of being remembered, their deaths just as worthy of being mourned, and their existences just as worthy of being honored as those of our pets.

When Sean learned of the trouble Sammie was having with her legs, he wanted to be sure she was not suffering. He had always hoped she would go before she lost the ability to move on her own, but since it didn't turn out that way, he wanted her to at least be comfortable during her last days. "She's so good," he kept saying. "She doesn't want to die."

It's hard to watch or know about an animal suffering when you know you can't do anything about it. When I mourn for an animal who is suffering from natural causes such as illness or old age, I can't help but think of all the animals who needlessly suffer from such atrocities as abuse, neglect, or brutalization in a slaughterhouse every day. By nature, most animals are trusting and defenseless, which makes it that much more cruel for humans to mistreat them so horribly. An animal could never do anything bad enough to deserve the punishment some of them get in this world.

By not consuming any animals or animal by-products, I know I am not contributing to any poor innocent animal's suffering. That alone makes me feel a lot better about my life and who I am. Lately, now that I've finished reading The Kind Life and am not confronted with gruesome facts about animal death every day, the suffering of innocent animals and the damage done to the environment by the meat and dairy industries is easier for me to drown out when faced with food that looks delicious. There are times, for example, when I really want a bite of whatever happens to be around me, either of that amazing-looking Domino's pizza with extra cheese and white sauce, or the turkey, avocado and bacon sandwich, or that bowl of delectable macaroni and cheese from Doncker's. It was my choice to go vegan though, so I never do take that bite, even though I think about it really, really hard sometimes. I try not to forget why I was so passionate about veganism in the first place. As Alicia says in The Kind Diet, you need to get past the fleeting sensory pleasure of eating animal flesh and by-products and think about that animal who gave its life so you could eat, and whose suffering and death you are contributing to by eating that meal.

Sean argues that killing happens out in the wild, so that by eating other animals we're just participating in that natural cycle, the food chain. I understand that, but I would argue that there is nothing really natural about the way we genetically-modify, medicate, kill and mass-produce all the animals we do. I've said before that I don't think there's anything wrong with eating organic, cruelty- and toxin-free meat, eggs, and dairy, if that is your choice, but I feel there is no excuse for continuing to support industries and practices that you would consider unethical.  If everyone decides to turn a blind eye, how is anything supposed to change?

When it comes to the actual killing of an animal, Sean pointed out to me that there can and should be a mutually respectful relationship between hunter and prey. For example, the Native Americans knew that to be respectful to the animal who gave its life for their use, they needed to use every part of the animal. He's right about that, but we both know that the mass production and slaughter of animals in the dairy and meat industries today is about as far from this respectful view of taking lives as you could possibly get. Every life passing deserves recognition and respect, and to ignore this fact is to ignore our sense of humanity. 

If I am ever tempted to eat a hamburger, I just think of our cat Cinder, who, when Sean pets him, goes slack-jawed with happiness. Or my kitty Kai, who cuddles by putting his little arms around my neck and giving me kisses. There's really no difference between them and a cow, and I wouldn't eat them, so by virtue of that fact, I feel I shouldn't eat the cow either. This thought helps me get through my meat cravings, even if it's for something as little as one bite of a sandwich with meat. Even if it's just one bite, with that bite I will still have consumed part of what is, really, a corpse; a part of the body of what was once a living, breathing being with a consciousness and a personality all its own. I don't mean to sound like a hippie, but that's a pretty heavy cosmic burden to bear, if you ask me. One I can do without in my life.

Coda (A.J. Jacobs style): In the midst of writing this post, I discovered from Sean's sister's Facebook page that Sam has indeed passed on. We were sad to hear this, of course, but Sean did most of his grieving this morning, and he's okay. We take comfort in knowing that she is at peace now. R.I.P., Sammie. You will not be forgotten.


  1. wow! Very intense Jessica, I like it though. It explains your deep and thoughtful feelings about animals, and why you wanted to go vegan. It is a great choice, and I have to admit I'm even having thoughts of turning vegetarian or vegan, last night me and my boyfriend were talking about all the farming, pesticides and how horrible some food really is for you! We really got grossed out and are definitely thinking about making some changes! Glad to see your sticking with it!

  2. Wow, Michelle, thank you so much for your comment! That's awesome to hear that you guys are thinking about making some healthier changes to your diet. It is hard, but I think ultimately it is worth it not to fill your body with poisonous crap! Thanks again for reading and commenting :)

  3. Wow it's really hard to loose a pet. I had that same experience about 2 months ago. We had two dogs in my house that I grew up with. One was more of my mothers dog, and the other was my baby. Well my mom's dog, one day started acting funny, and when she went to pick him up he freaked, well he had a slipped disc in his back and was basically paralyzed. After several days of back and forth considering whether to put him down or hope it would get better, We decided the best thing was to put him down. and although it was sad, we knew he would be much better. Well following his death, my dog became very broken hearted and basically stopped living. She slowly shut down, and exactly a week later, we found ourselves in the same prediciment and we were forced to put her down as well. I have lost many people in my life, but I have to say this was the hardest loss. Now, I just found out that my cat who I have had even longer than my dogs, my other baby, has passed away. It's so hard. And although the circumstances are awful I like how you use that to make people see that everyanimal whether it "pet" or not, has its own personality and such and it isn't really right any way you think about it. I think your project and choice to be vegan is awesome. Your very strong to do it. Keep up the good work :)

  4. Ohh, Elissa, I am so sorry to hear that. That is very hard to have to go through. I hope you're doing okay. Thank you for your kind comment :)