It is fun, usually, and people do like reading about animals, but I have been surprised how often my Pet City columns have touched on death — Sonja the terrier, whose formerly homeless human friend came to say goodbye to her on her deathbed; pet sitters who have committed the ultimate error; Rose the Broadway rat, who died in a fall just days after I chronicled her rise to stardom.
If I’d looked back at my own life, and the 80-something animals I’ve shared my home with over the years, I should not have been surprised. Going back to childhood, death — often sudden, bizarre or unexplained — has been one of the most vivid aspects of pet stewardship. One of the main things pets do, it seems, is die.
There was Baby-Face George, a brilliant bruiser of a cat named for a professional wrestler, able to lift latches and open doors with his bare paws. When I was about 10, he disappeared in the middle of winter. We found him in the spring, his body floating in our backyard pool.
There was Waddles, my beloved Muscovy duck. One day, my mother started the car in the driveway and pulled away. She had not noticed Waddles in front of a back wheel. I watched in disbelief as Waddles writhed and twitched, her long white neck contracting randomly.
One day, one of our cats (either Mental Paws or her sister Dental Paws, no one can remember) disappeared into the woods behind our house in the wilds of New Jersey. We found her a few days later with her leg stuck in a hunter’s trap. My mom thinks she died; I recall her surviving but losing the leg. Either way, it was unpleasant.
And there was my white rabbit, L.C., which stood for Little Cuteness. In the absence of a proper rabbit hole, L.C. liked to hide out behind the washing machine. One day she emerged, went into violent convulsions and fell still. A vet and an investigation found the culprit: a box of soap flakes had fallen behind the washer, and Little Cuteness had eaten a fatal dose.
Other pet deaths were less unusual but no less upsetting: watching Mama Gerbil eat some of her extra babies (try explaining that to a 6-year-old); as an adult, helping my wife hold our cancer-ridden dog as he received the shot that ended his life, feeling him tense up and then let go.
Also, do not lend me your pets. A 12-year-old entrusted his rat to me one summer in the early ’90s. It did not survive. More recently, my daughter’s best friend asked us to look after her betta fish. Uncle Chuck somehow found his way inside a snail shell and perished.
These days at our house, we are down to the basics: a cat and a dog. The dog, Barnaby, a basset-beagle rescue special, is approximately 11 years old and not doing so well. Last year, he required emergency, dauntingly expensive spinal surgery. We considered putting him to sleep, but our daughter, explaining that she loved Barnaby more than she did her parents, forbade it.
Barnaby has been having more health issues lately. Every night, our daughter, who’s 12 now, tucks him in — an elaborate ritual that can take 10 to 15 minutes. One recent evening, Barnaby fell asleep early. I asked my daughter not to wake him up.
“I have to,” she said, “just in case he doesn’t make it through the night.”
As she covered him with her coat, I thought back to my old rabbits and cats and ducks and the lessons our pets have to teach us — not just about death, but about love.
Source: NY Times / Andy Newman