Ruby was an 11 or 12 year old Australian shepherd dog who had been kept confined in a trailer and overfed to the point where she was virtually immobile. When my housemate Dina adopted her back in June, they lived together in a cabin in the northern Colorado wilderness. They took long walks through the woods and played in the fresh sunlight and breezes. Ruby began to lose weight and get more fit. She joyously greeted her friend Dina every time Dina returned to the cabin. Feisty and long-coated, Ruby was a working dog with a deep sense both of loyalty and of her rights to her own body; Dina was the only human Ruby permitted to stroke her belly-fur.
When Dina and Ruby moved to Aurora not long ago, it quickly became clear that Ruby had reached the point where her body, severely arthritic and spotted with flesh-pads, could no longer support her fiercely independent spirit. Dina made the difficult decision to have Ruby euthenased.
Having a beloved animal mercifully killed in order to spare her the agony of a lingering, painful death is I think the bravest and most unselfish service a pet-owner can choose. My late partner’s Stuart’s wolf-dog Kaz died in my arms on the emergency vet’s operating table after a deliberate hit and run one Sunday morning broke Kaz’s spine. I felt a window in reality open up and Kaz’s spirit drop through it, and then the window closed, leaving a smooth unruffled surface behind, as though Kaz had never been. This took place about a year after I found Stuart’s dead body in his bedroom, dead via brain embolism.
Years later, I held the head of my blind husky, Moon-Pie, when a Santa Fe vet gave him his final injection. Moon’s hind quarters had failed, as had his kidneys, and he faced his death with a growl and a bark. A few years later I lay with another dog, Bear, who went to sleep peacefully, felled by the same symptoms that had brought Moon-Pie to his end. Then, last year, my husky Blessing died at my feet in our back yard, possibly of cancer (there is also the possibility she was poisoned by a mentally ill neighbor who showed up very suddenly while I was mourning her body with a friend). All these losses came back to me as I sat quietly beside Dina, observing beautiful brave Ruby’s last moments in her old body.
The deaths mount up as one gets older. But the hope I cling to, when my emotional body is wailing in grief and loss, is the memory of what I felt with most of my dogs after their last breaths: the persistent sense of their loving spirit presences around me. I am not such an anthropocentrist that I believe a dog’s purpose is to serve its human caretaker. Dogs, like everyone else, have their own private stories which sometimes coincide with ours and sometimes do not.
But I do know that love is never lost. In a dream I saw my dead brother Jeffrey’s spirit move off into light accompanied by all the dogs, cats, and birds we had known and loved in our Connecticut childhood. We are all one, and Love is the evidence of that; and I pray to Wolf Mother that when it is my turn to shed my own noble, sagging, arthritic animal body, she will receive me into her pack with the same loving playful devotion she showed to Kaz, Moon-Pie, Bear, and Blessing.
And of course, Ruby.