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 friend
a large German shepherd/Rottweiler mix  with whom I shared my home for 12
years. I rescued Jethro from the Humane Society in Boulder, but in many
ways he rescued me.
As he got older, it became clear that our lives together soon would be
over. The uninhibited and exuberant wagging of his whiplike tail, which
fanned me in the summer, occasionally knocked glasses off the table, and
told me how happy he was, would soon stop.
What should I do? Let him live in misery or help him die peacefully, with
dignity? It was my call and a hard one at that. But just as I was there
for him in life, I needed to be there for him as he approached death, to
put his interests before mine, to help end his suffering, to help him
cross 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 no
one does it better than dogs. Jethro was no exception. But along with
trust and love come many serious responsibilities and difficult moral
choices. I find it easiest to think about dog trust in terms of what they
expect from us. They have great faith in us; they expect we'll always have
their best interests in mind, that we'll care for them and make them as
happy as we can. Indeed, we welcome them into our homes as family members
who bring us much joy and deep friendship.
Because they're so dependent on us, we're also responsible for making
difficult decisions about when to end their lives, to "put them to sleep."
I've been faced with this situation many times and have anguished trying
to "do what's right" for my buddies. Should I let them live a bit longer
or has the time really come to say good-bye? When Jethro got old and could
hardly walk, eat, or hold his water, the time had come for me to put him
out 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. There
aren't any dress rehearsals and doing it once doesn't make doing it again
any easier. Jethro knew I'd do what's best for him and I really came to
feel that often he'd look at me and say "it's OK, please take me out of my
misery and lessen your burden. Let me have a dignified ending to what was
a 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 hugs
and "I love you's," to this day I swear that Jethro knew what was
happening, 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 he
also told me that the moral dilemma with which I was faced was no
predicament at all, that I had indeed done all I could and that his trust
in me was not compromised one bit, but, perhaps, strengthened. I made the
right choice and he openly thanked us for it. And he wished me well, that
I could go on with no remorse or apologies.
Let's thank our animal companions for who they are, let's rejoice and
embrace them as the amazing beings they are. If we open our hearts to them
we can learn much from their selfless lessons in compassion, humility,
generosity, kindness, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. By
honoring our dogs' trust we tap into our own spirituality, into our hearts
and souls.
And sometimes that means not only killing them with love, but also
mercifully taking their lives when their own spirit has died and life's
flame has been irreversibly extinguished. Our companions are counting on
us to be for them in all situations, to let them go and not to let their
lives deteriorate into base, undignified humiliation while we ponder our
own needs in lieu of theirs. We are obliged to do so. We can do no less.

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