Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sometimes death is a gift.

            How do you know when to put your animal down?  This is without a doubt, the hardest decision a pet owner will have to make.  As much as it pains me to see a person euthanize their pet, there are some people who cannot make this decision.  Contrary to what one may think, this often leads my coworkers and I to judge that person even harsher than if they had gone through with the euthanasia.  This may sound counterintuitive.  How can euthanasia to an animal lover be the right course of action?  However, at the humane society, we often see that this is the better course of action.  People surrender animals we know will not pass our evaluations.  We tell this to the customer but they do not listen. 

            I once had a 13-year-old cat that was emaciated, incontinent, and simply put, ready to die.  Her owner could not come to terms with it.  I told her this animal would not pass our evaluations.  It would be more painful for the cat to have her sit in the kennel for several days before our evaluation team could assess her than to put her down now.  The merciful action was to euthanize her.  Or, perhaps even better, let her go home and die in her own time.  Yet, the person in front of me did not hear these words.  The owner could not comprehend it.  This family had too much sadness already.  They had a couple of family members fall ill and as a result had some financial troubles.  The consequence of people having poor lives is that the animals suffer even more.  Still, although my heart went out to them, as one of my coworkers stated, “Take a moment, deal with your shit, and get it together.”  

            Hard decisions surround anyone who lives.  The fact that you have to kill a creature you love very much is just too unbearable for many to deal with.  This is responsible pet ownership though: knowing when you have offered them the best possible life and now it is time to let them give up the ghost.  You can either let them pass in their own time or you can end their suffering with a fatal injection.  That is much better of an action than surrendering them to a humane society.  The word euthanasia in Greek means “good death.”  No person I have ever met would want to go to prison for several days away from everything they have ever known, separated from their family, get led into a dark small room that smells of death, get injected with fatal plus, and then buried with the other carcasses in the landfill.  If the outcome is still the same, why put your animal through the first horrifying part of it?  Many people who surrender their pets believe we can heal them.  But when the front desk clerk tells you there is no hope for your pet because he is simply too old, too aggressive, or beyond care, then you as the owner must take that burden on.  Do not pass it off to someone else.

            When my dog got sick this past year, we asked the vet for an estimation on the cost for our different options.  On the list was euthanasia.  If I could not heal him, I would certainly put him out of his suffering.  Wrong?  No.  Sometimes death is a gift.  When the right time to give this gift is, however, is something that no one will ever be able to tell you.  People who cannot make this decision, I find, lack courage.  That statement is full of judgment.  Yet I see sick and dangerous animals sit in kennels for several days and I know what their outcome will be.  They sit there scared, hurt, and wanting nothing more than to go home.  But they will not get another home.  Their owners did not give them a quiet end.  Instead they chose to have their animal wait; to simply sit and have false hope of walking out. Confused. Wanting love.  Not understanding what is going on around them.  It is not fair to the animal.  It's not fair to the people who work there.  These owners pass off their guilt onto another person, not having the gull to face the decision.  'Coward' just doesn't seem like a big enough word.  

            How can death ever be the answer?  But all life must die.  Man is not God and yet we find ourselves with the opportunity to play that role.  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair that life must end.  But it does.  And someone a lot wiser than me once said, “And that’s what makes it beautiful.” 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Unmasking a Man's Character

            Every now and then I do a transaction that makes my heart burst with joy.  It is so rare, I can really only remember two, maybe, three times it has happened.  It catches me by stock and surprise when it happens, truly leaving me speechless.  At work, I am ready to argue.  I am ready to be yelled at.  What I’m not ready for is gratitude.  True appreciation that comes from the heart.  People who know what is at stake. Who realize they messed up and are dreading the consequences of their actions.  People who understand if something has happened to their lost pet, they will feel very guilty whether it was truly their fault or not.

            The other day I had a women come in 10 minutes to closing.  She came bursting in, frantic looking for her ancient lost beagle.  Hearing that she was coming in, I knew which dog was probably hers.  He had to be at least 15 years old.  Blind, deaf, thin and worn, if no owner was going to come for this dog, he would be euthanized.  The old dogs make me the saddest.  If they are dropped off here and no one comes to reclaim, they don’t get a second chance, even if physically they could probably live for a year or two more.  When they are surrendered the outcome is almost always the same.  For the old strays some are dumped because the owners don’t want to pay for the increase in cost as their pet has gotten older.  Other old dogs just wonder off, confused in their old age and their owners never come looking.

            For this old beagle, he did have an owner who loved him very much.  She came in crying.  As cold as it sounds, after a while you stop letting tears affect you. Compassion fatigue runs deep with us.  As a result, if you want to make it here longer than a month when people start crying, our emotions turn off.  Especially when we know that same person who is crying once they hear that there are fees to get their animal out, suddenly isn’t so grateful, but instead starts screaming at us.  They are no longer happy to have found their lost pet.  They are outraged at the system.  They are hollering at the injustice.  How dare they pay for someone to have picked up their pet, feed it, given it medical attention, and made sure it was safe?

            Asking to see a picture of the dog before we headed back, she stumbled on her phone.  Flipping to one, she showed me the same tired old beagle that had yelped when I tried to vaccinate him.  “Okay,” I said and lead her back.  Showing her the beagle she burst into even more tears.  And then without any warning she turned around and gave me a huge hug.  My heart warmed and turned into a gabbing smile.  “Was she really that grateful?” I thought.

            Yes.  Yes she was.  Even after telling her she would have to pay $96 to get her dog back, she tossed me her credit card and said “I don’t care.  Just charge it.  I guess I just won’t be going out to eat for the next couple of months.”  I stared at her. Stocked.  Smiling.  Giddy almost.  Finally someone who all they truly cared about was getting their beloved old friend back.  For this woman, her dog was not just any old dog.  It was Tanner.  Tanner was a beagle that she got 15 years ago.  Tanner had been hiking with her, seen her kids born, and had a funny howl when he wanted to go for a walk.  Tanner was irreplaceable.  This dog was not a possession but a living member of her family.  This remarkable woman understood that if Tanner was not here, the risk of death increased exponentially for an older dog.  Death she saw would have been final.  Never to be recovered from.  Never being able to see this one dog again she recognized was much worse than paying $96.

            When the paperwork was signed, and the money paid, I went back to the kennel to get Tanner.  He stared up howling.  “What a lucky pup.”  I thought.  I lead him back to his owner.  Joyfully he jumped directly into her arms.  They walked out happily together.  Thanking me several more times before they left, I rejoiced in the fact that our purpose was acknowledge.  We had saved a life and more than that we had reunited a family.

            Often at the shelter, we see so many appalling owners.  We forget that out in our community there are fantastic pet owners.  Our perspective is skewed because those people don’t let their animals get out.  They are responsible and know how to keep their animals in their backyard.  Gates will always fly open because of the wind. A lab will always be able to jump a fence.  A border collie will always get bored and wonder off the range.  But this is the risk of being a dog owner.  How people value their animals when it comes time to reclaim is always reflective of that person’s character.   

            When I was recently on vacation, my husband had the idea of checking out a local humane society.  We ended up not going just because our time got cut short. But he said something to me that took me back.  He said someone once said, “The only true measure of a man’s greatness is how he treats his animals.”  My husband’s point was that while this place seemed wonderful, only their local humane society would unmask the character of the people who lived there.  This measure indicates compassion, empathy, dignity, and to some degree wealth.  Although you don’t have to be rich to be kind, you do have to have some means to care for an animal.  If you can’t afford to pay for an animal, you should admit it is not your right to own that animal.  There are good people out there, who treat their animals not like disposable waste.  The other day, my heart sung with joy to witness this in my community.  There have been other people who are grateful, but nothing compares to this one woman.  Transactions like this stick to my heart like glue.  It gives me courage to keep showing up each day just waiting for the next time I can sing with elation.  

Just a Tired Old Beagle

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Saying Goodbye to You

            Someone really wise once said, “Great friends are made when you go through war with them.”  I know it’s not war, but on a lot of days it feels like triage, at the least.  I am very grateful for the friends I have made in the time working at the humane society.  We see a lot of shit together.  Together we loose our faith in humanity.  We keep clinging on together hoping that the ship still has a chance.  On most days I hear my coworkers say, “What the fuck?”  On other days I see them cry.   On really hard days we go out, get drunk, and scream to the heavens.  Sometimes it is really something quite simple that makes us turn our heads. Yesterday my coworker was filing a lost report.  When she asked the gentlemen what the color of his dog was, he paused, looked at her, and said, “I don’t know.”  How do you not know the color of our own dog?

            People who work at shelters are different.  A lot of them have a fantastic sense of humor.  It’s ironic.  People who deal with such sadness all day you would think would be pretty depressed.  But for the most part we are a happy lot.  Many of us come there trying to figure out our course in life.  Some trying to find their careers, a couple that just need a job, others searching for the best possible way for them to achieve some good.  Despite why staff members come, what they walk out with is so much more.  Some would call it cynicism but I see it differently.  Innocence is lost in place of a new wisdom.  We are not blind to what people are capable of.  Cruelty is a reality we live in.  Still, it makes us shine that much brighter when we see good done in the world.  Seeing death and sadness weaves some good into a person’s soul.  It makes us inexplicitly happy when someone brings us cupcakes, it makes us sing out loud when a good song comes on the radio, it makes us dance at closing time, and it makes us high five one another when the sun comes out.  It makes us calm when there is a moment of peace and nothing is happening.

            A while back I read a book about the way dogs live.  The author of the book simply followed her pet dog around and observed him.  Her conclusion was that all dogs want is to lay on the side of a hill in the warm sun and have nothing happening.  They love to explore and go on walks, sure, but they aren’t restless like a lot of people can become on a quiet afternoon.  They just appreciate the silence for what it is.  I used to think that conclusion was silly.  Who wouldn’t love a grand adventure?   Yet, now, I see my dog across the living room floor, sleeping in the sun, and I know he is at peace because there is so much worse that could be happening.  This understanding brings dogs that have good homes tranquility much like the author noted in her book.

             After working at the humane society, my coworkers and I see what life is like for the animals.  Witnessing this turmoil builds within us that same respect for simple uninterrupted quiet.  I have seen way too many people leave this job. Good people.  It can be very hard to say goodbye to someone who has wrapped up a dead dog or cat with you.  Who has fought beside you to argue with your boss why certain people shouldn’t take home a specific animal.  Who have risked getting written up because we are following our sense of what is right.  We see terrible decisions regarding the outcome of so many animals and share that same sense of helplessness. 

            When my coworkers now leave this job, I can’t help but think they are merely the old dogs in the book purely yearning for a sunny hillside.  A life filled with the absence of chaos.  They know it’s still there somewhere out in the world.  They have seen it.  They return home from their long journey never to truly be the same.  Yet, they can now simply lie in the grass peacefully having learned just a little wisdom from our friends the animals.