Playing God

Not long ago I had lunch with a friend and colleague.  He is someone who has never had animals in his life, save for a brief stint with a dog who ended up being passed on to another family member.  He is interested in bringing another dog into their household, so we spent a fair amount of time talking dogs during our lunch.

I generally avoid animal talk with my friends who do not share their lives with animals.  Life with animals changes your perspective in many ways, and there are aspects about that life that can seem foreign to those unfamiliar with animals.  I have experienced strange looks or puzzled responses in such conversations of the past, which is at the root of my general rule.   But I have never had such a striking reminder of these differences in perspective as I did during this lunch.

Our Tess

As I related stories about the dogs I’ve known, the conversation turned to the story of Tess, a dog we rescued several years ago.  After four and a half years of hard work, training, and medication, we could not resolve Tess’ mental health issues. It was no longer safe for other members of our household, so we made the ultimate decision.  It was in that moment that my friend’s face changed, and he stopped me.

“Wait.  You can have a dog put down for a non-health reason?”

I found myself shocked that this was news to him.

“Yes, you can.”

“It’s not illegal?!”

“No.  In fact, technically you can have an animal euthanized for no reason at all.  Most vets wouldn’t do that, but it’s quite legal.”

The conversation continued this way for a while, as he grappled with the idea that euthanasia is not limited to animals near to death.  Then he said the thing that really struck me …

“But you’re playing God!  You’re playing God!”

I have heard such a phrase in arguments on human life, such as abortion, death penalty, or even end of life issues.  But this was the first time I have ever had someone apply it to the life or death decision about an animal.

When I was growing up, fiction and entertainment were rife with stories where a young person had faced the death of a beloved animal.  The message was always the same – the kindest thing you can do for a suffering animal is to end its life and therefore its suffering.  This idea was not limited to health issues – it was equally applied to a dangerous animal as well.  Of course, in those days the death penalty was also standard for humans committing murder – something that many in society no longer believe in.

Yet, even today a dangerous animal will be destroyed as a way to protect humans or even other animals.  I was once in the position of deciding the fate of a dog who had injured some of our pet sheep and goats, leading to the eventual death of a favorite ewe.  I was swayed by the earnest pleas of the dogs owner, and decided against the death penalty.  A month later I regretted it greatly when another attack landed a goat and sheep in the hospital – the dog did not get mercy twice.

The choice to end a life is never an easy one.  If it is easy for you, then I suggest you visit a therapist.  None of us want to die, and taking any life should cause a great deal of soul searching.  However, I have been in the position of delaying the decision so long that it leads to significant suffering by a beloved animal.  In each case I suffered along with the animal, and greatly regretted the decision to delay.  Each haunts me, even years later.

It is painfully difficult to know if and when it is the “right” time to make the ultimate decision.  There is an old platitude people use in these situations: “They will let you know when it’s time.”  It may be a comforting thought, but hearing that always makes me angry!  Rarely have I had an animal whose spirit gives out before their body fails them.  Perhaps that is fine for a human, who can stay in bed in a hospice environment, while friends and family visit.  Animals do not function that way, and often will struggle and stress if their body no longer functions.  One sheep struggled all night to get up, before we found him in the morning and discovered that his legs would no longer support him.  What followed was an hour long drive to get him to the vet, with my mother trying to calm him while he continually struggled to get up.

All of this I shared with my friend, as we continued our lunch.  Then the conversation took an additional turn.  My friend had recently lost his father, after a prolonged period of suffering where nothing but palliative care could be offered.  Our state recently enacted a law that allows assisted dying in such cases – my friend was not aware of this.  He said that he wished he’d known about it – but then said that he would never be able to make such a decision.  I said that according to our law, he would not have been able to, as it is only the ailing person who can make that choice.  He wasn’t sure what his father’s decision might have been, had he been given the option.

It has always been a puzzle for me, since I was old enough to understand, that we have this cultural dissonance about suffering and death.  It is the kindest thing to end the suffering of an animal, but it is a crime to allow a human to make the same choice for themselves.  Perhaps it is “playing God”, as my friend called it – but the only sure thing about life is death.  It will come to all of us.  Based upon my experience of “leaving it to God” or giving God a little helping hand, I would personally choose the latter for myself, given that option when the time comes.

With the animals, we have to guess.  In that way I suppose you could say they tell you when it’s time – but that is too simple a characterization.  It is up to you to determine when the good hours are no longer outweighing all of the bad ones.  When pain causes everything to be a struggle, even as the flicker of a bright light may remain.  But that is the agreement you make when you take responsibility for that life.

I have watched veterinarians struggle with this part of their job.  They go into medicine to heal, not kill, just as doctors do.  For some of them it is also a loss, as they have often known the animal for many years.  When it came time to say goodbye to our beloved Brita and Kelly, I was lucky to find a vet who did a sideline of in-home euthanasia to supplement her part time work in a practice.  It made for a peaceful experience for all of us, and spared the vets who had struggled so hard to keep Brita alive.  When the time came for Tess, I found that the same vet had made a full time business of euthanasia.  Her view was that it was such a painful time for those who love their animals, that she actually feels fulfilled by helping to make it as stress-free as possible.  I respect her view on this difficult but necessary part of life with animals.

I have recently read many accounts by medical professionals who are struggling with the new law in our state – how can they assist a death, when their goal is to preserve life?  They to refer to the act as “playing God”.  While I understand those struggles, as I live them each time I have to consider that choice for another beloved animal, I would invite those people to truly look at the quality of the life they are preserving.  At least when your patient is human, they can actually tell you when it’s time – when they have had enough.  When that time arrives, why do they deserve any less mercy than a pet?

Be good to your loved ones!


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