BOOKS | The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2012:
The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce Univ. of Chicago Press (1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637), 2012. 263 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
Colorado bioethicist Jessica Pierce in The Last Walk alternates between detailing the last year in the life of her dog Odysseus, Ody for short, and examining the larger moral, philosophical, and practical issues raised by the aging and death of pets–for society and culture, for herself, and for her family, especially her early-teen daughter Sage.
Whatever Pierce goes through with Ody, she thinks about. Among my shelves of books recounting the deterioration and deaths of beloved pets, discussing grief for pets, talking about relevant philosophical ideas, and explaining the considerations that go into performing appropriate euthanasia, none of the rest examine the whole subject of pet death as thoroughly. Among the many expert witnesses whom Pierce calls to help fill gaps in her understanding are philosopher Bernie Rollin, euthanasia instructor Doug Fakkema, and veterinarian Kathleen Cooney. Among the sources Pierce cites are several animal obituaries from ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Advocating what she terms “hospice” care for terminally ill animals, which to many people might mean leaving the animals at a so-called hospice sanctuary to die “naturally,” Pierce actually means providing palliative care at home. She explains that she does not favor “natural” death over euthanasia at the appropriate time, but softpedals the reality that in nature most pets would be eaten by predators at the onset of disabilities, not after prolonged declines.
Pierce anticipates that despite her efforts to understand her experience with Ody, she might make mistakes out of emotional attachment. Exceptionally patient about getting up many times per night to attend to Ody’s needs, and about cleaning up messes, Pierce is apparently unaware–and is not told by anyone–that fits of otherwise inexplicable panting are indicative of pain in dogs. Many pages before Pierce discusses scoring scales for determining the right time to euthanize a suffering pet, I began mentally scoring Ody. In my judgment, Pierce waited about a month too long, if for quite pardonable reasons. My advice to people who care deeply about their animals is that usually by the time they begin to think about euthanasia, the time for it has already come.
With that much said, though, I recently believed the time had come for a dog whose symptoms added up to seven on a nine-point scale. On my way to the vet clinic, the dog rallied. Her score dropped to three. The vet guessed that she might have one more good week–as she did. Even a week later, when the dog again scored seven, she was still ambulatory and still had an evident will to live, but she could no longer eat because of the size of an inoperable tumor, and drugs could no longer reliably relieve her pain.
Often, in my experience, the time to euthanize is self-evident, and the animal is ready to go. In this case, the dog was not ready to give up on herself, though every veterinary indication was that there was nothing ahead for her except more acute suffering.
The weakest section in The Last Walk pertains to animal shelter killing. Pierce has some acquaintance with animal shelters, but her experience does not appear to be recent, and she draws perspective primarily from Redemption author and No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd. Winograd last managed an animal shelter in 2003, when the national rate of shelter killing was nearly twice as high as it is today. Pierce appears to be unaware that most shelters now rarely kill dogs just because they have too many, and kill cats now mainly when they cannot be handled and cannot be put into a supervised neuter/return program. Winograd also often seems unaware of these realities.
Pierce discusses temperament testing to some extent, but entirely avoids the question of what to do about animal-aggressive and/or human-aggressive pit bulls, who cannot be safely or ethically rehomed, and for nearly 10 years now have been the majority of dogs killed in shelters. –Merritt Clifton