Last Moments with a Companion Animal

A photojournalist captures the profound experience of in-home pet euthanasia.

Posted Jan 01, 2019

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

A couple of months ago, I got an email from a colleague, introducing me to a new faculty member at the University of Colorado, Ross Taylor, whose work seemed to have significant overlap with mine. Ross and I met over coffee and he told me about his work on a documentary about in-home pet euthanasia, which he is making in collaboration with Luke Rafferty. As soon as Ross opened his computer and began showing me some of the images he had captured, I knew he was onto something incredible. I've been researching and writing about end of life care for companion animals for nearly a decade, and I have never seen photographs which so beautifully capture the profound and sacred nature of the human-animal bond, as it plays out during the final moments of an animal's life. I asked Ross to share some reflections on this project, as well as a few of his photographs, with my Psychology Today audience. I've included links here and there so that you can view more of Ross's work.

Tell me about who you are and what you are doing. In particular, I would like to hear more about your film and still photos, which I take it are two parts of a larger photo-journalism project on pet-euthanasia?

I’m an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. My recent work largely explores the documentary intersection between intimacy and trauma-related events. Previously, I was a photojournalist for twenty years and have covered small town America to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kashmir. I was named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association while working as a photojournalist. Website is here: www.rosstaylor.com.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a documentary project called “Last Moments,” which focuses on the human-animal bond – centered specifically around the last moments before, and after, the passing of a pet at home with their owner. It’s an intimate journey into the lives of people and their beloved pets in their final time together.

The project has two components: a feature-length film and a photographic essay. The photographic component, which was a solo project, has been published and recognized in academic circles, as well as some galleries. I’m planning on publishing the photographs with a journalism outlet as well (as of now, I’ve been in touch with The Washington Post about a potential publication). The documentary film, a collaboration with a former student, Luke Rafferty, is slated to be complete in early 2019. His website is here: www.lukeraffertyvisuals.com.

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

What were some of the most interesting things you noticed while you were filming?

I’ve been consistently moved by the intensity of the compassion people have towards their pets. It’s quite emotional. I’ve also been impressed by the level of respect that the veterinarians have demonstrated to the families they work with. They help make one of the hardest days of people’s lives a little easier.

Which photo is your favorite, and why?

There’s one particular image of a woman who is anguishing out loud over her dog, just moments after she realized that her dog has passed. She’s cradling her pet’s face tenderly in her right hand, while her husband and the veterinarian, Dr. Dani McVety, reach out to comfort her. It was one of the early cases I witnessed, and it had a profound impact on me. It was in that moment that I realized the importance of documenting the intensity of the bond. Witnessing her pain also made me much more sympathetic to her, and those others who are going through this.

Bringing a veterinarian into the home to perform euthanasia is one of the most private and intense experiences a person or family will have. Why do people allow you into their homes to witness such a private moment? 

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

It’s a mixture of reasons. Primarily, it’s because of the amazing organizations such as Lap of Love and Caring Pathways who allow me to work with them. As a result, families trust me because I’ve been “vetted,” so to speak, by them. Some families even choose to photograph their pet in the final moments themselves, and they see the value in documentation. I should also note that I’ve photographed no one without prior consent, as it’s too fragile of a situation just to walk in upon.

I also think people can sense that my intentions are pure. I try to be as direct and clear of them, and as compassionate as possible. I work hard at trying to understand where they’re coming from and I want them to know that I will treat them with respect.  Mainly, people just want to feel that they can trust you as an individual.

Additionally, if the families want, I take a family portrait of them with their pet before the procedure. Some families like a final group portrait as a memory to hold onto. I also offer any images from the day if they desire. It’s worth noting, that I always reach out to them afterwards with an email of gratitude, and never send images to them without their expressed wish. I worry that doing so without notice could retraumatize someone.

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

What was the reaction by the vets and organizations when you approached them, and how do they ultimately allow you to work with them?

When I first reached out to Lap of Love, I was struck by how welcoming Dr. Dani McVety was to the idea of the project (the founder and CEO of the Tampa-based organization). Dr. McVety was open to my request, and more importantly, the reasons behind it. This helped, because it opened the door to get to know the veterinarians, as well as the families. Within a few weeks of contact, I began. It’s worth noting that the initial start of the project couldn’t be done without the support of Lap of Love. It’s through their trust in me that this was possible.

There are times that people are a bit hesitant, either out of protection for their clients, or families. Both of which I completely understand. It’s a sacred time and deserves honor and respect.

However, once people get to know me, it’s easier to explain my purpose. In fact, many vets remark how grateful they are that their work is shared. They know the importance of their care and see the need for it daily. I also receive emails from families saying that they’re grateful this project exists. None of this could be done without the families and the veterinarians. They have my respect. 

I think, in the end, it has a lot to do with the fact that we all have a story to tell, and theirs is worth sharing. 

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

What has been the reaction in academia and media circles so far to the work?

It’s been positive. The photographic project was recognized in the Visual Communication Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication this past year, with the top creative prize, as well as published in the Visual Communication Quarterly journal. Some images have been admitted into galleries and currently I’ve been speaking with a photo editor at The Washington Post about a publication.

I’m hopeful that the film will resonate with people once its completed.

Can you address how you work, specifically, in the homes (both ethically and logistically).

I always follow the lead of the veterinarian, and then introduce myself once everyone is settled in. I maintain a small presence and speak as little as needed. Most people already know why I’m there, so unless they have questions, I try to remain as quiet as possible. I want to respect their moment and do not want to do anything that would add stress. If someone asks me not to photograph a specific moment, I also honor their wishes.

I try to move within the flow of everything, watching for visual clues that can guide me in respect of those around me.

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor

What is a core lesson learned from this experience that speaks to the universal?

Saying goodbye is hard. It’s one of the hardest events we experience. Whether it be with a spouse, a family member, a friend or an animal. Love is central to our experience as humans, and it’s often tied with our pets. They’re there for us during some of the most difficult moments of our life, not just the happiest. For many, it can be one of the most stable bond a person makes over a span of years.

It’s from witnessing these sacred last moments together that I have developed a greater respect for the love we hold towards our pets. This isn’t to say that I didn’t before, but now, it’s magnified. The human-animal bond is crucial and provides a richness to life that’s hard to let go.

It’s also deepened my compassion for those dealing with the loss of a pet. I hope this project helps provide some insight as to why. It’s been a life-changing experience for me.

Ross Taylor
Source: Ross Taylor