The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint - Marc Bekoff (2010)
REASON 3. Animals Have and Deserve Compassion
“The satisfaction that washes over us as we watch our pets sleep is the ancient reminder that when all is well in their world, all is well in ours.”
— Meg Daley Olmert, Made For Each Other
IN THEIR MANIFESTO animals would surely seek to highlight the many areas in which all species are similar rather than focus on differences. Surely, a dolphin, a raven, and a human don’t look the same, move the same, or perhaps even think the same, but these differences are minor compared to what these animals share: for instance, many of the same senses and organs, the ability to think and feel, and essential roles to play in maintaining the health of the world’s ecosystems, large and small. In area after area, humans are in fact discovering that there isn’t a great divide between other animals and us.
Further, animals would argue that different doesn’t mean better or worse. Each animal has evolved for his or her own needs; an animal does whatever is necessary to be a cardcarrying member of his or her species. Yes, some animals are better at using tools than others, and some don’t need them; some animals have more highly developed senses than others, and some run faster or swim deeper. But this doesn’t make them higher or lower, better or worse, on the evolutionary scale; it just means different. Should mice consider themselves better than people because they have a more highly developed sense of smell? Should bats pat themselves on the back as more intelligent than us because they use ultrasound and we can’t?
Humans have a long history, particularly among themselves, of establishing hierarchies that place their own clan or race or species at the top. Yet invariably, these hierarchies rest on definitions that mistakenly equate surface differences with intrinsic ones and that undervalue similarities or discount them altogether. Philosopher Lynne Sharpe points this out in her book Creatures Like Us, when she says that the way we regard and value the similarities and differences among animals typically depends on how we define ourselves. She writes, “Those who define ‘us’ by our ability to introspect give a distorted view of what is important to and about human beings and ignore the fact that many creatures are like us in more significant ways in that we all share the vulnerability, the pains, the fears, and the joys that are the life of social animals.”
Given this, an animal manifesto would demand that every species, and every individual within every species, deserves respect and compassion. No animal, humans included, is less deserving of empathy and kindness simply for being different. In addition, their manifesto would insist that animals are capable of acting compassionately. Still today, animals suffer under the unfair, baseless notion that they are inherently competitive and cruel to one another; that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” On the contrary, lots of scientific research and anecdotal evidence is emerging that shows that animals — rather than being inherently cruel — instead have a natural inclination to work cooperatively and to respond with compassion and empathy. Faced with the pain of others, animals act in ways that display empathy, caring, a moral intelligence, and even a sense of justice.
Expanding our compassion footprint is first and foremost about acting with compassion at all times when we see others in pain or being harmed. In a way, this truly begins when we accept that animals, humans included, are born to be good.
Dog Saves Kangaroo! Birds Feed Fish!
Whale Rescues Diver!
I constantly receive stories about animals helping other animals, animals helping people, and people helping animals — and, of course, of people helping other people. The most intriguing stories are the ones that demonstrate cross-species empathy. That walruses would help fellow walruses is significant, but then again, we might assume that members of the same species would be inclined to help one another; that at least benefits one’s own species. However, what would drive one species to help an entirely different species, one they have no particular need for or relationship with? Indeed, one they might even compete with or, in different circumstances, prey upon? Here are a few news stories that show that compassion comes naturally to many species, and that humans are not the only animals who will help other species and even risk their own lives to save someone else.
Who Is the Walrus?
New York Times, May 28, 2008
“Scientists are gathering evidence that[walruses are] the most cognitively and socially sophisticated of all pinnipeds. . . . Evidence suggests that the bonds between walruses are exceptionally strong: the animals share food, come to one another’s aid when under attack and nurse one another’s young, a particularly noteworthy behavior given the cost in energy of synthesizing a pinniped’s calorically rich, fatty milk.”
Best Mates, the Baby Kangaroo
and the Wonder Dog That Saved It
Daily Mail, March 31, 2008
“By all accounts the baby kangaroo should have not survived the road accident that claimed its mother . . . but then along came Rex the wonder dog. The pointer discovered the baby roo, known as a joey, alive in the mother’s pouch and took it back to his owner. . . .
“The four-month-old joey’s mother was killed by a car. . . in Torquay, Victoria, Australia. Amazingly, the 10-year-old dog — a cross between a German shorthaired and wirehaired pointer — had been so tender with the joey that it was both calm and unmarked.
“‘The joey was snuggling up to him, jumping up to him and Rex was sniffing and licking him — it was quite cute,’[the owner] said.
“The joey. . . is now being cared for at Jirrahlinga Wildlife Sanctuary. . . . Director Tehree Gordon said she was amazed by the trusting bond between the two animals. . . . ‘That Rex was so careful and knew to bring the baby to his owners, and that the joey was so relaxed and didn’t see Rex as a predator, is quite remarkable.’”
Podmates Aided Dying Whale in Its Last Days
Honolulu Advertiser, May 27, 2009
“A pygmy killer whale that beached itself on Maui this month had been escorted for three weeks by a pod of pygmy killer whales, giving marine biologists a rare peek into how the cetaceans cared for one of their own before its death.
“Four or five pygmy killer whales had surrounded their 300-pound, seven-to eight-foot, male podmate and appeared to be flipping on their sides and backs to support the struggling mammal, scientists said.
“When it grew weaker and came closer to McGregor’s Beach, the pygmy killer whales broke off one by one over the next several days and headed back out to the open ocean, where they live year-round in deep Hawaiian waters. . . . It was the first time that marine biologists had documented such ‘pre-stranding, milling behavior’ in pygmy killer whales around Hawai’i.
“ ‘We don’t know so much about pygmy killer whales,’[one scientist] said. ‘So it was very interesting for us to see this very highly evolved social behavior surrounding the care of this one individual by the other whales.’”
The Amazing Moment Mila the Beluga Whale
Saved a Stricken Diver’s Life
Daily Mail, July 29, 2009
“It looks like a moment of terror — a diver finds her leg clamped in the jaws of a beluga whale. In fact, it was a stunning example of an animal coming to the rescue of a human life.
“Yang Yun, 26, was taking part in a free diving contest without breathing equipment among the whales in a tank of water more than 20ft deep and chilled to Arctic temperatures. She says that when she tried to return to the surface, she found her legs crippled by cramp from the freezing cold. At that point Mila the beluga took a hand, or rather a flipper.
“ ‘We suddenly saw the girl being pushed to the top of the pool with her leg in Mila’s mouth,’ said an official at Polar Land in Harbin, northeast China. ‘She’s a sensitive animal who works closely with humans and I think this girl owes Mila her life.’”
Hero Dog Risks Life to Save Kittens from Fire
Reuters, October 26, 2008
“In a case which gives the lie to the saying about ‘fighting like cats and dogs,’ the terrier cross named Leo had to be revived with oxygen and heart massage after his ordeal. Fire broke out overnight at the house in Australia’s southern city of Melbourne,[and] fire fighters who revived Leo said he refused to leave the building and was found by them alongside the litter of kittens, despite thick smoke.”
Stray Pit Bull Saves Woman, Child from Attacker
Zootoo Pet News, November 5, 2008
“The wandering 65-pound Pit Bull mix,. . . which authorities think is lost and not a stray, successfully thwarted a robbery attack on a mother and her 2-year-old son, who were held at knifepoint Monday afternoon. The Florida woman. . . was leaving a playground with her toddler son in Port Charlotte when a man approached her in the parking lot with a knife and told her not to make any noise or sudden movements.
“[The woman] didn’t have to do either to protect herself and her child — a dog mysteriously ran to the scene and charged the man, who quickly fled.
“ ‘I don’t think the dog physically attacked the man, but he went at him and was showing signs of aggression, just baring his teeth and growling and barking. It was clear he was trying to defend this woman,’[an animal control officer said].
“The exceptional part of the story. . . is that the dog had never met or even seen the people it quickly jumped to defend. ‘You hear about family dogs protecting their owners, but this dog had nothing to do with this woman or her kid,’[the officers] said.”
Man Dives In to Save Dog from Florida Shark Attack
MSNBC, September 30, 2008
“A dog is recovering after a Florida Keys carpenter dove in to save his pet from a shark.[The man] said he took his 14-pound rat terrier Jake for a daily swim at a marina last Friday. The five-foot shark suddenly surfaced and grabbed nearly the entire dog in its mouth.
“[The owner] said he yelled, then balled up his fists and dove headfirst into the water off a pier. . . . ‘I couldn’t see the shark when I dived in. . . so I just put my fist together. . . but my hands landed solidly against the back of the shark.’
“Man and dog made it safely back to shore. The dog suffered bite wounds but was not critically injured.”
An Unusual Relationship Between Birds and Fishes
Spluch (Blog), August 30, 2007
“A local security guard recently discovered a peculiar scene where black swans can be seen feeding goldfish near the shore of a lake located in Hangzhou, China. According to the guard, nine black swans will climb onto a raft and start feeding the goldfish with their beaks at 10 AM every morning. The goldfish can always be seen following the swans closely after that. Locals were astonished to find such an affectionate tie existing between the two creatures.”
New Zealand Dolphin Rescues Beached Whales
BBC News, March 12, 2008
“A dolphin has come to the rescue of two whales which had become stranded on a beach in New Zealand. Conservation officer Malcolm Smith told the BBC that he and a group of other people had tried in vain for an hour and a half to get the whales to sea. The pygmy sperm whales had repeatedly beached, and both they and the humans were tired and set to give up, he said. But then the dolphin appeared, communicated with the whales, and led them to safety. . . .
“ ‘I don’t speak whale and I don’t speak dolphin,’ Mr Smith told the BBC, ‘but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea.’
“He added: ‘The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes.’”
[Cetacean expert Philippa Brakes told me later it is certainly within the capacity of these intelligent animals to be able to communicate their distress to the dolphin and for the dolphin to empathize with that distress and lead them to safety.]
Argentine Dog Saves Abandoned Baby
BBC News, August 23, 2008
“An eight-year-old dog has touched the hearts of Argentines by saving the life of an abandoned baby, placing him safely alongside her own new puppies. . . .
“[The baby] was born prematurely to a 14-year-old girl in a shanty town outside the capital, Buenos Aires. She is said to have panicked and abandoned the boy in a field, surrounded by wooden boxes and rubbish.
“Then along came La China, reports say, the dog which somehow picked up the baby and carried him 50m to place him alongside her own puppies. The dog’s owner reported hearing the child crying and finding him covered with a rag.
“The baby, weighing[8lb 130Z], had some slight injuries, but no bite marks.”
Amazing Rescue by a Mother Duck
Who Went the Extra Mile
Daily Mail, June 17, 2008
“Trapped in a dark sewer, the six little mallard ducklings found themselves cut off and facing an uncertain future. Their only hope of seeing daylight again lay with their mother — who they had last seen more than a mile away as they were sucked into a drain.
“Rescue seemed impossible. Yet somehow the mother duck had managed to follow her offspring for more than a mile, apparently listening to their cheeps of distress at manhole covers as they were swept along below ground. Her incredible journey took her across a busy roundabout, countless roads, a metro rail line, a housing estate, two school playing fields and hospital grounds.
“The trail finally ended when she waddled on to Barrasford Close in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, where her chicks suddenly stopped. And it was there, standing over another man-hole cover, that the mother remained for the next four hours until local residents heard chirping coming from down below.
“They in turn launched a rescue operation, removing the manhole cover and using a child’s fishing net to scoop all six from the sewer one by one and reuniting them with their mother in a paddling pool.”
Bear Rescued from Bridge after Nearly Falling Off
MSNBC, October 1, 2007 “
“A 250-pound bear stranded under a bridge near Lake Tahoe was saved by an army of rescuers, a tranquilizer dart and a nylon net bought at an Army surplus store. . . .
“[The bear] was walking across the span on Highway 40 near Donner Summit in the Sierra Nevada when at least two oncoming cars spooked it, causing it to jump over the railing. At one point it was dangling over the edge of the 80-foot-high bridge, but it caught a ledge and pulled itself onto a concrete girder beneath the bridge.
“Officials initially decided nothing could be done, but when they returned the next morning and found it sleeping on the ledge, they decided to take action. . . .
“ ‘I’ve been on a lot of bear rescues,’[one rescuer] said, ‘and this is the most intense bear call that I’ve been on.’”
Moral Intelligence and Wild Justice
Put simply, animals display moral behavior, or what Jessica Pierce and I call wild justice. They know right from wrong. When beings are in need, animals will go out of their way to help them, to keep them from harm, or to teach them how to successfully solve a problem. They can act unselfishly in ways that demonstrate empathy and compassion.
Consider these scenarios. A teenage female elephant was once nursing an injured leg and was knocked over by a rambunctious hormone-laden teenage male. An older female elephant saw this happen, chased the male away, and went back to the younger female and touched her sore leg with her trunk. Eleven elephants once rescued a group of captive antelope in KwaZula-Natal: the matriarch undid all of the latches on the gates of their enclosure with her trunk and let the gate swing open so the antelopes could escape. After Christina Germeni, who lives in Athens, Greece, read an article about my research in a Greek newspaper, she emailed me about seeing a male buffalo in the Okavango Delta in Botswana attack a lioness who was attacking his friend, forcing the lioness to give up the fight and saving his buddy.
During a science experiment, a rat in a cage refused to push a lever for food when he saw that another rat received an electric shock as a result. In a separate experiment, a male Diana monkey who learned to insert a token into a slot to obtain food helped a female who couldn’t get the hang of the trick; the male inserted the token for her and allowed her to eat the food reward.
In other incidents, a female fruit-eating bat helped an unrelated female give birth by showing her how to hang in the proper way. A cat named Libby led her elderly deaf and blind dog friend, Cashew, away from obstacles and to food. In a group of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, individuals punish other chimpanzees who are late for dinner because no one eats until they’re all present.
Do these examples show that animals display moral behavior, that they can be compassionate, empathic, altruistic, and fair? Do animals display a kind of moral intelligence? Yes, they do.
Here’s a story sent to me by Linda Alvarez. Linda wrote about her two dogs, a male named Volt and his sidekick, Lola.
Lola is four-and-a-half-months-old, and she was recently spayed. I brought her home with her e-collar on. She was obviously frustrated with this space-like sphere around her neck. The times when the e-collar seemed to bother her most were, I guess, when the stitches were causing an itching sensation. Periodically, she would start bucking around like a wild stallion and bark at me as if attempting to say, “Hey, my stomach itches. Can you help me out here?” I sympathized, but I left the e-collar on for fear that she might rip off the stitches.
Seeing that I didn’t really do anything to alleviate her problem, she tried the next best thing: Volt. Whenever Lola started acting this way, Volt would watch her; he seemed to be observing and trying to figure out what her issue was. Then, on one occasion Lola came over to Volt, who was laying on the grass, stood right over him, so that her surgical incision was right over his face, and then started to make grunting sounds. Volt propped up his ears, sniffed her stomach, and then started licking her wound. I thought this was awesome!
I’m sure dogs and other animals do this all the time, but I just thought it was fascinating that Lola figured out a way to work around the e-collar problem.
I think it’s also fascinating that Volt showed the simple caring we would expect of any family member. Is this not the right thing to do? Is this not moral intelligence?
Binti Jua’s Rescue: A Sign of Compassion
or Just Good Training?
The popular and scientific media constantly remind us of the amazing things animals can do, know, and feel, and these often surprise us — we didn’t know animals could do that! However, correctly understanding animal behavior is also tricky; sometimes, there are several plausible, alternate explanations, and it’s important to examine them all. When it comes to animals displaying a sense of justice and compassion, the answer typically hinges on a basic question: is the animal displaying what appears to be self-aware intelligence and other-directed empathy, or is the animal’s response unthinking, self-centered, and automatic? Is the animal blindly following instinct, or is the animal making a choice guided by a combination of an inborn predisposition and of learning, which shows that the animal is being flexible and adapting to a specific situation?
Consider the story of a female Western Lowland gorilla named Binti Jua — Swahili for “daughter of sunshine” — who lived in the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. One summer day in 1996, a three-year-old boy climbed the wall of the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield and fell twenty feet onto the concrete floor below. As spectators gaped and the boy’s mother screamed in terror, Binti Jua approached the unconscious boy. She reached down and gently lifted him, cradling him in her arms while her own infant, Koola, clung to her back. Growling warnings at the other gorillas who tried to get close, Binti Jua carried the boy safely to an access gate and the waiting zoo staff. Her face and posture showed deep concern.
This story made headlines worldwide, and Binti Jua was widely hailed as an animal hero. She was even awarded a medal from the American Legion. However, behind the splashy news, the gorilla’s story added fuel to an already smoldering debate about what goes on inside the mind and heart of an animal like Binti Jua. That is, was Binti Jua’s behavior really a deliberate act of kindness — did she know what she was doing — or did it simply reflect her previous training by zoo staff?
In the mid-1990s, there remained considerable skepticism among scientists that an animal, even an intelligent animal like a gorilla, could have the cognitive and emotional resources to respond to a novel situation with what appeared to be intelligence and compassion. Skeptics argued that the most likely explanation for Binti Jua’s “heroism” was her particular experience as a captive animal. Because Binti Jua had been hand-raised by zoo staff, she had not learned, as she would have in the wild, the skills of gorilla mothering. She had to be taught these skills by humans, who used a stuffed toy as a pretend baby to show her how to care for her own daughter. She had even been trained to bring her “baby” to zoo staff. Thus, some scientists argued that she was probably simply replaying this training exercise, having mistaken the young boy for another stuffed toy.
At the time, several scientists disagreed with their skeptical colleagues and argued that at least some animals, particularly primates, probably do have the capacity for empathy, altruism, and compassion and were intelligent enough to assess the situation and understand that the boy needed help. Binti Jua’s manner showed evident care and concern, and combined with her warnings to the other gorillas, displayed an awareness that she held an injured living being and not an inanimate doll. Her prior training perhaps helped her know what to do, but she applied that knowledge to an entirely new and different situation. To support this understanding, the scientists pointed to a small but growing body of research hinting that animals have cognitive and emotional lives rich beyond our understanding.
We ‘ll never know exactly why Binti Jua did what she did. But now, years later, the staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions brings us much closer to answering the larger question raised by her humans certainly don’t. But considering Binti Jua today, we have every reason to believe that she made a deliberate, empathetic choice to rescue the young boy — as well as unintentionally liberating some of my colleagues from the grip of timeworn and outdated views of our fellow animals and opening the door for much-needed discussion about their cognitive and emotional lives.
All in the Family: The Love of Pets
Nearly anyone who has cared for a companion animal (or pet) knows that animals are capable of love and compassion. Domestic animals exhibit these qualities so naturally and powerfully that they are enlisted in numerous programs to help heal and care for humans, to bring happiness and joy to those who are sick, disabled, elderly, or otherwise alone. Dogs, for example, are taken to assisted-living homes and catalyze happiness in people who have little else in their lives. Dogs and other animals also bring joy to troubled children and adults. They truly are our companions, helping us through difficult times — failing health, the loss of friends and family members — just as we do for them. In his memoir Dog Years, poet Mark Doty describes his moving relationship with his two dogs, Arden and Beau, trying to understand and express the complexities of cross-species love, compassion, communication, and understanding. Doty eloquently describes how his dogs helped heal and care for him and his partner during their emotional and physical illnesses, and how Doty later did the same for his dogs as they grew old and died. Consider a study conducted by psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler: she wanted to observe the responses of young children to the distress of a family member, so she went into the homes of a number of families and observed how children reacted to parental distress. However, the behavior of the household pet turned out to be just as interesting as the behavior of the child. When a family member feigned sadness or distress — when he or she pretended to cry or choke — the household dogs would often show more concern than the children, hovering nearby or nudging their owners, or gently resting their head on the distressed person’s lap. In a completely different study, one focused on alleviating stress, Karen Allen, a researcher at the School of Medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, also discovered that our pets might actually provide better support and reassurance than our loved ones.
When it comes to our pets and domestic companions, if the question is “Are animals capable of compassion and empathy?” then it seems we have already answered it.
Measuring Compassion: It’s in the Eyes
As we ‘ve seen, scientists have a hard time coming up with rigorous, replicable experiments to measure emotion, empathy, and love. Indeed, what’s in an individual’s heart is hard to quantify, and is often inexpressible, even among humans who share language, culture, and history. What do we find when we look into the eyes of our spouse, our children, anyone we love?
For this reason, evidence for compassion between animals often relies on anecdote and subjective impressions. Let me share two stories that exemplify this and that highlight the power of eyes. The first was sent to me by Alexandria Neonakis, who wrote in an email:
My entire life has been touched by birds. I am fascinated by them. I’m one of those people who will scream “Oh my God!” and stop on a highway if I see an osprey or a hawk flying overhead. As a twentythree year old, my friends find this kind of funny. They always get a bit of a shock when I yell and pull to the side of the road, and they always sort of give me a bored/exasperated look and roll their eyes at me with the obligatory, “It’s just a bird, Alex.” But to me, birds are something special.
When I was in the tenth grade, I got my first real taste of heartbreak. I was staying with my grandmother while my mom was camping with my siblings. Walking along a street, I saw a bird in the middle of the road. Assuming it was dead, I kept walking, but out of the corner of my eye, as I passed it, I noticed it move its head. I looked back, but at that moment a car was coming. It passed over it, narrowly missing him. He made a small squeaking noise, so I rushed over and put my hand down toward it, not really knowing what to expect. He immediately jumped into my hands. I was startled at first. He was a starling, and this was not normal behavior for a bird. I pulled him close to me and sat on the side of the road to inspect him. He had been hit by a car. His wings were badly mangled. As I held him in my hands, I could feel his heart thumping against my fingertips. I could tell he was scared. So I started to sing to him really softly and pet his back. He looked up at me and watched me as I sang to him. I could feel him calming down, and he became kind of inquisitive, looking at me, cocking his head to the side, kind of like a puppy does. I continued to rub his back. Then in an instant, a change came over him. His heart rate was slowing. I could feel it. He looked at me and his eyes said something that I couldn’t explain in that moment. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. He closed them slowly, and died in my hands. I held him for a long time after he died, singing softly to him, and rubbing his back. Then I carried him home and buried him under a bush in my grandmother’s garden.
I thought long and hard about what had happened in the instant before he died. There was something about the way he looked at me. It was gratitude. But it wasn’t the gratitude a human feels toward another human, or even that which a bird feels toward another bird. It was the gratitude shared only between him and I. It was him thanking me for letting him finally calm down enough to just let go and die, as he was too afraid to calm down enough to just let it happen, as he sat on the road watching death pass over him every few seconds.
Shannon Griffith sent me the following, equally moving story:
Last winter I was walking my dog in the woods near my home. He ended up chasing this gull that was sitting down by the water into a thicket bush. This gull was all tangled up, and the briars were in knots around his wings. I could not have left him because he would have surely been dinner for some other hungry animal. I approached this bird — who was very scared and hissing and trying to peck me with his bill — and I tried to unwrap his wings. I then quietly said to him, “It’s okay, I am here to help.” And he immediately stopped moving, hissing, and pecking. I think he understood me; maybe not my words, but the tone of my voice probably soothed him. I finally got him all untangled from the bushes, lifted him up in my arms — which was an amazing experience — and then he took off like an eagle from my hands. He looked back at me and stared, and it almost looked like he nodded his head. I knew by the way he looked back at me that he was saying “Thank you,” and I simply said, “You’re welcome.”
Saying Good-bye to Jethro:
Our Obligation of Compassion
When it comes to our companion animals, the individuals with whom we share our homes, we all recognize that we have accepted an obligation to care for them, to show them compassion, to the end of their lives. But isn’t it equally true that the entire world is our home, and all beings share it, so that all beings have an obligation to care for one another? Isn’t this what the stories of Binti Jua and Shannon Griffith demonstrate — that all beings feel this obligation, and that it springs forth naturally, innately, even across species? When my dog buddy Jethro died in July 2002, I wrote an epitaph about his life I’d like to share:
Jethro never hesitated to tell me when it was time for a hike, dinner, or a belly rub. I was constantly on call for him, a large German shepherd/Rottweiler mix with whom I shared my home for twelve 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 whip-like 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.
We’re responsible for giving each and every individual the best life we can. Even in death we must let our friends go with compassion, empathy, and love, putting their interests ahead of our own. Because they’re so dependent on us, we ‘re also responsible for making difficult decisions about when to end their lives. 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. His eyes had lost much of their luster and glee.
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, 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 me 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 there 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. Our commitment never ends.
Finally, here is a well-known passage by Harry Beston from his wonderful book The Outermost House, which summarizes poetically how our fellow animals might indeed ask humans to reconceive our life together:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.