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15 September 2002
Letting A Friend Go

By Professor Marc Bekoff - Marc.Bekoff@Colorado.EDU 

July 14, 2002 - Even in death, animal companions can teach us about spirituality, grace and love

http://www.bouldernews.com/bdc/guest_opinions/article/0,1713,BDC_2493_1262768,00.htm l

'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 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.

Marc Bekoff teaches biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He helped Jethro leave Earth on Friday.

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