Photography, Writing, and Artwork by: Heather Clemenceau
“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation” ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
If I could choose, all my animals would peacefully die the day after I did, because arriving at the decision to euthanize and coping with the deaths is just overwhelmingly difficult. The one thing about our attachments to animals that seems horribly unfair is that we almost always outlive our pets too. The short lifespan of cats, dogs, and even horses virtually assures that we will almost always face the loss of our companions. Yet, we still plan for their continued existence even in death, in the event that they do outlive us. This is even more true if you own a long-lived animal such as a donkey; the possibility that they might outlive you by many years is highly likely.
For most pet owners, the most difficult part of the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is deciding when. But there is no exact right time, and even if there were, we could never know when it was. So that leaves us with only two possible times for euthanasia: too early or too late. The worst thing we can do is to prolongue humane euthanasia because we are not ready to let our animal go. Therefore, we have to find the “ golden mean” between too soon and too late, between premature and overdue.
But if death is not imminent, our conscience tells us we should not euthanize. This is such a great problem for all pet owners, but especially horse owners, since horses are more difficult to place into forever homes and costly to maintain if we can’t afford them. Yet it is so profoundly difficult to contemplate euthanizing healthy horses, even to avoid sending them to slaughter.
Yet the fear of horses going to slaughter is sometimes seen as the impetus to euthanize. Consider the case of Rosie and June, Percheron draft horses who worked for 15 years at the DuPage County Forest Preserve and are now retirement age. They have been put up for adoption, but commissioners at the preserve are faced with the moral dilemma of giving them to people who might allow them to ultimately go to slaughter. If the money cannot be found for their retirement, euthanization remains a possibility, even though they are completely healthy.
The Ministry of Defence in Wales recently defended a decision to put down two guard dogs used to protect the Duke of Cambridge, days after he left his military base for the last time. The dogs were euthanized immediately following Prince William’s final shift as a search-and-rescue pilot at RAF Valley. The MoD said it always tried to rehome dogs but that it had not been possible in this case. The Dogs Trust charity responded by objecting that dogs were not “disposable kit that can be decommissioned at the end of their useful military life.” Apparently these dogs had some medical or behaviour issues that prevented them from being reassigned to other duties or being retired. Yet the dogs were somehow able to perform their duties just days before the Duke left his job in Wales. To me, putting them to sleep is rather comparable to putting down a bomb-sniffing dog who had worked for years in the field just because there were no more bombs found in that particular area.
Killing a pet, even a problem pet, is a difficult decision. “Do no harm & relief of suffering” are ethical standards for veterinarians. There are also many pet owners that do not have spare thousands of dollars, nor have ability for credit. And on the flip side, there are many owners that do not value their pet any more than a broken appliance. Slaugterphiles tell us all the time that they have “killer” horses that must go and many of them will not even begrudge that horse a bullet.
Even with the possibility of slaughter looming, a veterinarian approached to perform euthanasia on a healthy horse would likely be concerned, since they are charged with the humane treatment of animals and are guardians of their welfare – in their own discretion they may refuse such a request. They would be concerned whether the horse was suffering from a non-obvious life-threatening ailment or just being put-to-sleep out of convenience. A progressive disease that is not (yet) life threatening or causing discomfort may not warrant euthanasia. They would be correct, but horses are a special circumstance……..
It has always struck me as bizarre to choose the moment of your animal’s death, to make an appointment to have them killed. Yet this is exactly what we often do if and when we decide that euthanasia is needed. Farmer and horse breeder Rose Reid from Whitby, Ontario euthanizes 4 of her horses for the documentary film “A Century of Horses,” by filmmaker Stefan Morel. The film is currently showing on Documentary Channel / CBC. It’s both moving and disturbing in that while it’s humane, the viewer is left wondering what prompted the decision to euthanize all these seemingly healthy horses all at once. She appears to have other horses on her property, so why did she choose to “triage” these four? While watching the video, I found myself grappling with the belief that she had made an unforgivable mistake and that her whole thought process was stupid. Yet I was not faced with her decision-making process, and can’t blithely negate her feelings since I didn’t have to make the decision.
“Morning without you is a dwindled dawn” ~ Emily Dickinson
When I thought back to the euthanasia of my horse Dalrahza, almost four years ago on October 19, 2009, I realized that anyone looking at her would have seen a horse that appeared healthy in all respects, good condition and body score, clean and well-tended, and still eating well. But what they couldn’t have known was how utterly drugged she was in order that she be able to move much at all – the night before I had given her, with veterinary approval, both bute, banamine, and Previcoxx, a powerful NSAID usually given to dogs with arthritis. I needed her last day on earth to be as pain-free as possible, and knowing she liked to lie down in her stall at night, I needed her to be able to get up again. Putting her to sleep meant that I was putting an end to her falling down in the pasture and being unable to rise without help, injuring herself over and over, turning what should have been a few months of lay-up from a deep-digital flexor tendon injury into years of rehab with veterinary specialists but no real result.
I’ve played the timing of her euthanasia in my head over and over many times, wondering whether it was too soon or too late. I was convinced that as long as I continued putting money into treatment, something would “click” and she’d spontaneously recover. If she could have been safe on her own in the pasture I would have been happy to leave her in retirement. But her age was working against us, and winters in Ontario are even more difficult for horses that are not steady on their feet.
When we’re faced with making a decision, we always think that the presence of pain is the deciding factor in every case. Surprisingly, pain is a component of only a minority of terminal illnesses. A horse that cannot be made to be pasture-sound is a rather obvious reason to euthanize, and they are probably also in pain, but there are other non-specific ailments that are not really painful but are uncomfortable or are situations where the animal has no hope of recovery. Obviously one justification could be the buildup of toxins in the blood due to the impaired ability of diseased kidneys or liver to remove them from the body, intense fear, or serious depression or refusal to eat.
The minute we learn that our pet has an illness that will progress either to death or unrelievable discomfort, we have to ask ourselves, would we want this operation or therapy, and what about the additional or prolonged pain such treatments may bring? A natural death at the end of many surgeries is rarely kind if it means prolonged pain.
For many people, the special significance of death provides a basis for the belief that natural death is preferable to euthanasia. There’s a spiritual impulse to allow nature to “take its course” with one’s pet. A natural death seems to make the pet once again a part of nature. But humane death is one gift that we can give our animals that cannot be given to wild animals, who often suffer terribly in death. In nature, death is often not quick either.
Consider the likely outcome for a rabbit that is attacked by a coyote, or a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest. If it was our animal that was the victim, we would never allow nature to take its course. When natural processes create suffering in our pets that we can relieve, allowing that suffering to continue simply because it is natural seems pretty hard to justify.
In my opinion, perhaps we should not criticize Rose Reid for euthanizing what appear to be healthy horses. Maybe we should take note of her horses’ good condition as a testament to the exemplary care she seems to have provided. Losing 4 horses in one day is surely anguish enough. And although she may have been making a business decision in euthanizing 4 horses at once (including a relatively young horse), she could have sent them to an auction or slaughter instead of providing them with a good death.
At some point in every horse’s life, they get too old to be ridden. They simply don’t enjoy it any more, and even if they do, they are physically unable to continue to carry a rider safely. Being put “out to pasture” is an expression that suggests that the horse is always going to enjoy being out on pasture, when in fact, for some horses, pasture in old age is too hard on them. They may need the mental and physical stimulation that being exercised has provided.
Our most caring option is to subordinate our own interests in favour of the interests of our animal. Sometimes, the inevitability of the aging process can prevent our objective of ensuring everlasting good health for all animals. But if we are going to err in our timing for euthanasia, too soon is far better than too late. It makes sense when you realize that it’s better to help a friend a month too soon than an hour too late. This is because “too late” can be really awful for the animal. When all efforts to relieve discomfort fail to provide a reasonable amount of comfort for a pet, it is time to consider euthanasia. If you can consider euthanasia as part of the total care of an animal, euthanasia is not an act to end a life. It is, rather, an act to end your animals’ discomfort.
A Vow to Make to Your Companion Animal
“I will be your loyal companion from this day forward. Even more important, I will be your protector. You have my solemn promise that I will, to the absolute utmost that my strength and resources permit, protect you against all the hurts that life can hold, whether they be physical or emotional. You can depend on me for this. I will never let you down.
And when any hurts become such that all of my efforts cannot effectively alleviate them, I will place your needs above mine, your suffering over my own, and use the only means left to protect you from those hurts. I will deliver you comfort by bringing your pains to an end, not because I will be ready to let go, but because, to protect you, I will have to say goodbye. I know you will count on me at that difficult time to protect you, and I will be there for you, right by your side.
Should my passing come first, you need not worry, because I will have made all the provisions for your care, safekeeping, and happiness.
Fear not, because when death ends our physical togetherness, our emotional bond will never end. You will be a part of my heart forever. I promise.”