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Letting A Friend Go: We Usually Know When It's Time To Say Good-bye

Even in death animals teach us about love

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Even in death, animal companions can teach us about spirituality, grace and love

By Marc Bekoff'Come on Marc, it's time for a hike, or dinner, or a belly rub."I was constantly on call for Jethro, my companion dog, my very best frienda large German shepherd/Rottweiler mix  with whom I shared my home for 12years. I rescued Jethro from the Humane Society in Boulder, but in manyways he rescued me.As he got older, it became clear that our lives together soon would beover. The uninhibited and exuberant wagging of his whiplike tail, whichfanned me in the summer, occasionally knocked glasses off the table, andtold me how happy he was, would soon stop.What should I do? Let him live in misery or help him die peacefully, withdignity? It was my call and a hard one at that. But just as I was therefor him in life, I needed to be there for him as he approached death, toput his interests before mine, to help end his suffering, to help himcross into his mysterious future with grace, dignity, and love. For sure,easier said than done.Dogs trust us almost unconditionally. It's great to be trusted and loved, and noone does it better than dogs. Jethro was no exception. But along withtrust and love come many serious responsibilities and difficult moralchoices. I find it easiest to think about dog trust in terms of what theyexpect from us. They have great faith in us; they expect we'll always havetheir best interests in mind, that we'll care for them and make them ashappy as we can. Indeed, we welcome them into our homes as family memberswho bring us much joy and deep friendship.Because they're so dependent on us, we're also responsible for makingdifficult decisions about when to end their lives, to "put them to sleep."I've been faced with this situation many times and have anguished tryingto "do what's right" for my buddies. Should I let them live a bit longeror has the time really come to say good-bye? When Jethro got old and couldhardly walk, eat, or hold his water, the time had come for me to put himout of his misery. He was dying right in front of my eyes and in my heart,I knew it. Even when eating a bagel he was miserable.Deciding when to end an animal's life is a real-life moral drama. Therearen't any dress rehearsals and doing it once doesn't make doing it againany easier. Jethro knew I'd do what's best for him and I really came tofeel that often he'd look at me and say "it's OK, please take me out of mymisery and lessen your burden. Let me have a dignified ending to what wasa great life. Neither of us feels better letting me go on like this."Finally, I chose to let Jethro leave Earth in peace. After countless hugsand "I love you's," to this day I swear that Jethro knew what washappening, when he went for his last car ride, something he loved to do,and that he accepted his fate with valor, grace, and honor. And I feel healso told me that the moral dilemma with which I was faced was nopredicament at all, that I had indeed done all I could and that his trustin me was not compromised one bit, but, perhaps, strengthened. I made theright choice and he openly thanked us for it. And he wished me well, thatI could go on with no remorse or apologies.Let's thank our animal companions for who they are, let's rejoice andembrace them as the amazing beings they are. If we open our hearts to themwe can learn much from their selfless lessons in compassion, humility,generosity, kindness, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. Byhonoring our dogs' trust we tap into our own spirituality, into our heartsand souls.And sometimes that means not only killing them with love, but alsomercifully taking their lives when their own spirit has died and life'sflame has been irreversibly extinguished. Our companions are counting onus to be for them in all situations, to let them go and not to let theirlives deteriorate into base, undignified humiliation while we ponder ourown needs in lieu of theirs. We are obliged to do so. We can do no less.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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