Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
EUTHANASIA, THE HEART OF THE MATTER
MANY OF US HAVE AN ANIMAL IN OUR LIVES THAT IS “THE one”—unlike any other animal we have ever had. Tundra was mine. She was smart, sleek, fast, athletic, and vigilant. She spent much of her time either checking the perimeter or circling me. I never knew her genetics, but she looked like a German shepherd bred with a Belgian Malinois and maybe some coyote in the mix as well. She was about sixty-five pounds, with ears long enough for a donkey. Her intense dark brown eyes were set in a black mask that turned gray over the years. Always thin, she was built for efficiency. She had impeccable bone structure, although her long back developed arthritis as she aged. She loved to play Frisbee and do the Sunday crossword puzzle with me.
Tundra had gone to vet school with me, and I attribute that to why she lived such a long life. She spent hundreds of hours under my desk in class and in the vet school library, but she was equally at home on the foot of my bed or at the foot of a mountain. Always ready for adventure, she was my girl.
Wherever I went, people expected her to be there. She knew how to run along my bicycle when I biked to school; she’d frantically swim out to me if I went for a dip, pulling at my arm and pointing to the safety of the shore. Her nudging and circling during thunderstorms meant “would everyone please just follow me into the basement.”
She aged elegantly—from twelve, to thirteen, to fourteen. It seemed incomprehensible and unfair that her life span, like all canines’, would be shorter than a human’s. I knew that when the time came, I wouldn’t be able to face the decision myself. I enlisted the backup of two veterinarian friends. They knew I would need help and agreed to be there for us both. I felt as prepared as I could be.
Another year went by, and another, and then, at seventeen, her fate became obvious. Although the week before she had been happy to totter along the wet sand by the lake, I could see that things were changing drastically. She had all the clinical signs of an endgame. An inability to get up on her own and once up, suddenly falling over, standing and staring into corners of the room, walking with her spine hunched as if in pain, a sudden disinterest in her surroundings, stomach partially bloating several times in one day, and lack of control over bowels or bladder. The signs were there. But even being aware of this, and being well versed in veterinary geriatric medicine, making that final decision was still torture. It felt as if I were deciding to remove my own soul.
I desperately wanted someone to tell me what to do. But I knew what to do.
I made the calls. It was a holiday and my friends were out of town. No one could come. I felt surprisingly calm and unfazed. Tundra and I had been through so much together. In the end, it was only fitting that I would have to do this for her myself.
I thought about the first time I saw her. I was living with my fiancé, Matt, at the eighty-acre nature center. We often were called upon to pick up wildlife and release them into the relative wild of the sanctuary. This day it was a wayward screech owl at the Anti-Cruelty Society in downtown Chicago, hoping for a ride back to nature.
I was pacing around waiting for the owl’s paperwork when I caught her eye from the back of her cage. She was watching me. I went up to the cage and saw an angular, fluffy, shy, and adorable puppy. She walked up to the bars and licked my nose.
The attendant said, “Wow, she didn’t growl at you!” I thought she was kidding, but she told me this unfriendly little puppy was slated to be euthanized. Her gentle brothers had long been adopted. All four of them had been in a box found in the middle of a street on the city’s South Side.
I stepped away, forcing myself to think about what I was there for—the owl. I had to get back before traffic hit. Was the owl ready? They were just copying the paperwork. It would only be a few more minutes. I thought of waiting in the outer lobby area. But I could still feel the puppy’s bright eyes on me and we exchanged another intense glance.
I asked if I could hold her. How mean could that little pup be? The attendant said she didn’t think it was a good idea; but when I insisted, she carefully opened the cage door and stepped back. I could barely make out the puppy’s silhouette crouched in the back of her cage. She did look like a wild thing until she leaped off her blanket and into my arms, where she stayed for the next two hours of more paperwork—this time for a puppy adoption. She sat happily in my lap as we drove the owl, and now Tundra.
I had planned to get a dog later, once I was settled into a routine at vet school and had a better idea of what I was up against. That would have been the sensible way to go. But Matt was learning that I wasn’t afraid to let my heart lead the way.
After that moment of instant recognition through the cage bars, my life was never without my little brown friend. In a misguided attempt to be kind to her, I tried a gentle house-training method of positive reinforcement (no crating), which basically meant she had the run of the house. I would never recommend this method to anyone. It doesn’t work. After I gave in and finally crate-trained the little puppy (as suggested by everyone I knew, including Matt), she was practically perfect in every way.
She saved my life literally and figuratively, in so many ways. One time, she became a snarling wolf when a street gang surrounded my truck and threatened me. Her bony body helped me through vet school by teaching me and my classmates every landmark in anatomy. She brought joy in my saddest moments with her flying leaps returning all tossed Frisbees, high or low. During the day, her motions were fluid and continuous like a shark, but at night she was like a sleepy kitten, quietly curled up in the crook of my knee, spooning with me all night.
It was only right that I would be the one to help her through that final moment, as painful as it was going to be. After all, it’s a part of what I do.
My husband, Matt, and my children, sisters, and parents were there. She was on her bed surrounded by a circle of love. I was the conduit for her now. I had to help her leave us. The unbearable tension between being her mom and being her vet felt like a brick on my heart. But I thought I could manage by myself.
When the time came to inject, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do it. I froze. Kneeling beside her with a shaking syringe, I could barely see or hear because of my emotions and tears. That’s when Tundra came through for me again. She never was one for histrionics—a definite “get-it-done” kind of gal. She leaned forward with her long nose and nudged me, as she used to do when she wanted to go outside. Then, for added punctuation, she lifted her paw—in an unusual move—and smacked my hand. Our life together passed between us in a final glance, and then she pointedly closed her eyes.
I took my first breath in what seemed like hours, and became my other self—the veterinarian. After administering the injection, I put my stethoscope to her chest, blocking out everything but my connection to her beating heart.
Still infused with life, her heartbeat suddenly changed direction, carrying life away. At first the rhythm picked up speed and became louder, getting closer like a fast train. But as I listened, it grew more faint, moving off into the distance. My own Tundra, the single passenger on this train, who had followed me everywhere, was leading the way. But I wouldn’t call her back this time. She was free to go on ahead.
With my eyes closed, I held the stethoscope steady. It was the moment of departure. I heard the slowing beats fade like far-off gasps of steam as her train rounded the last curve, passing out of sight and finally out of sound.