Our dog, Amir, died a few days ago of lethal injection. That is, my husband and I took him to the vet to be put down. I was the only one in the room, however, who didn’t know that we’d taken him to the vet to die. That’s because I didn’t recognize the enormity of whatever had happened to him a few hours prior: Dr. King, our vet, called it a “catastrophic neurological event.”
Amir was fourteen, give or take, old for a dog of his size and breed, in his case (we think,) an Australian Shepherd. He’d come to us as a puppy courtesy of my father’s housekeeper, who’d decided that we and our children should have a puppy from the same litter that my father’s puppy had come from. Hence Amir, the world’s worst dog, prone to terrorizing other dogs, destroying gardens, stuffed animals, and shoes, charging across the street in traffic, and occasionally sinking his teeth into my hand. On account of his less-than-ideal canine behavior, I’ve been on the receiving end of screaming homo sapiens using extremely offensive language, and regularly been treated to dog-related criticism and other non-useful commentary. Such as “I lose sleep just thinking about your dog.” What can I say? He was my dog, and I loved him.
They’re not people, and we know that, and yet: the best way I can describe the look on Amir’s stricken face after he’d had the stroke (if that’s what it was) that felled him is that he no longer looked human. As if all the love and recognition had drained out of his face, replaced by something far more animalistic, far more brutal and brutish and instinctive than the sixty plus pounds of furry warmth who curled up with me when I was feeling low or just needed a good hug. He’d long since lost his vision to cataracts, but now his eyes were wild and unseeing, his face a skull.
I loved him so.
It wasn’t until I asked Dr. King what I always ask her: “If he were your dog, what course would you take?”– and she answered that she’d put him down, that I understood. Until then I’d been telling myself that he’d be with us for a while yet: after all, though he was blinded by cataracts, partially deaf, and spent most of his waking hours sleeping, he still had a good appetite, enjoyed his walks, and was strong enough to pull me to the other side of the road if his nostrils picked up the scent of something particularly enticing–a dead rodent, say, or a fresh pile of some other dog’s former breakfast.
My mother’s been gone for almost 20 years, and I can still remember the sound of her voice on the phone when she told me that she had to put this or that dog down. The last one was Carl, named after a boy in my then 6-year-old niece’s first-grade classroom. On the phone, when she told me about Carl, my mother was crying. Carl was the last before she too died, but she cried for every one of the many dogs she and my father had, although when George, my first dog, died in 1971, it was I who just about fell apart, and my mother who was stoic. George and I were both 13, and to this day I dream of him.
They say it’s a blessing that we can put a dog down, relieve him of his misery, and I believe that to be true. As my friend Megan put it: “It’s the hardest, saddest thing we are entrusted to do.” Unlike my mother, though, I’d never had to do it before. The procedure is quiet. I was holding Amir, one hand cradling his head and the other on his heart when Dr. King administered the injection, and he went from being a living creature to the remnants of one.
I don’t do a whole lot of social media, but I am on Facebook, where it seems that many people when they lose a pet, post about it. “Spot has gone over the Rainbow Bridge,” is a typical locution. I don’t know about any rainbow bridges, let alone the existence of an afterlife curated especially for dogs. I just hope there is an afterlife of some type, somehow, so help me God, because as God already knows, if any such afterlife (or perhaps more accurately, after-death) exists, it’s far beyond my means to imagine or intuit or philosophize its architecture. But I do know that while Judaism gives us copious wisdom around death, and guidance for burial and mourning when our loved ones die, it has little to offer regarding the death of a pet. Yes, it teaches compassion towards animals, but warns that their souls are not immortal, and therefore don’t go over any rainbow bridges, to heaven or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, when our first dog Marion died at home some years ago, dying at dawn on Shabbat morning, our rabbi understood why we needed to mourn properly, in shul, surrounded by Jews.