The Dilemma of an Appropriate Death
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
All living beings die. Even what we call non-living things eventually decay and pass into a different form.
Animals in the wild mostly die young, after a short and brutal life. They get torn to pieces by a predator, they bleed to death after an injury, they are crushed by a falling rock, burn in a forest fire, or simply starve to death.
As humans, we have learned to give death the slip, at least temporarily. And in extension, we have extended the lives of our livestock and pets thanks to the science of near-perfect nutrition, excellent husbandry, and outstanding medical care.
At a cost.
And I am not just speaking of money.
When it comes to the end of a life, we have to make hard decisions. Humans, whose minds are awake, make their own decisions, and if they are kind to their children, they leave instructions for if they can't. When people don't leave instructions, and pets never do, it is up to us to carry the burden.
It's a heavy one.
In the last year, I've lost a parent, a close friend, several relatives, my ex-husband, and my dog. The year before I lost my boa Baby. Recently, my cat was mauled, and this week, my red-eared slider is not eating.
So, I've not just had time and occasion to think about end-of-life, I've been forced into making decisions that I'd rather wish had just made themselves.
When it comes to our pets, unless they die suddenly or by accident, by taking ownership, we become responsible for their quality of life, and their quality of death, and often, we must decide on the time and manner of it. There are no easy answers. Each animal is different, and each owner and their circumstances are different.
The following are thoughts that churn in my mind and heart when faced with the impermanence of life, and the necessary decision on what to do about my red-eared slider.
From all angles, this is the hardest one. What's it worth to us? What should it be worth, dictated by our ethics, morals, and societal norms? Is a red-eared slider worth less than a star tortoise? What about that mosquito fish I couldn't catch, and it dried up in the muck? Should I spend 500 dollars on my sick dog, or on a class that will assure I have a job next year? What if it's my kid's future? What if I have 2000 dollars extra this month, how does this change the weights?
In the bigger picture of pet ownership and California non-native wildlife, red-eared sliders have negative value, and the fewer of them there are, honestly, the better for all of us. Except, this last reasoning works great for anonymous beasts, and it completely fails when it comes to pets.
With pets, we have a relationship, a personal emotional attachment. This is why we can eat the meat we buy at the store, filet and grill the salmon we caught for dinner, and take rabbit 56 from the hutch to the butcher. But we cannot stand the thought of euthanizing a sick pet. Having a personal emotional relationship completely upends the economic and environmental value proposition. This is normal. This makes us human.
My sick slider doesn't even have a name. Yet, after 15 years in my pond and many granted requests for petting, we have more relationship than I want to admit to.
With relationship comes responsibility. An animal out in the wild is at the mercy of its environment, it's how it was born, where it lives, and it's kinda random. Once an animal becomes a pet, or we breed it, we take away its freedom, we put it in an artificial environment, and that makes us responsible for its well-being, for better or worse, we are now married. I've met a lot of people who divorced their pets when the going got tough, hoping someone else would foot the bill, take over responsibility, and absolve them from feeling bad about valuing other things more than their pet.
I myself gave away two of my cuoras a few months ago, because I ran out of space and emotional energy. For all its worth and for all I know, their new home is an upgrade. And yet, I feel that I have betrayed them by not keeping them to the end of their days.
My neighbors had a slider and I could not take it off their hands; it's situation was less than ideal, but they kept it, and did their best until it eventually died.
My large red-eared slider, because I took her in, I am now responsible for her. Unlike the cuoras, which are desirable and valuable pets, once you have a slider, it's the end of the road for the animal.
Pain is not suffering. Animals feel pain. But do they suffer, experience that mental emotional agony that comes from things not being as we wish them to be? Do animals feel that? I don't know, so all I have is based on my human experience, and the resulting compassion for their assumed suffering.
I used to think this was the ultimate decision point.
If the animal is suffering, and there is no hope for a cure, that's when you let them go. If the animal is old, and this goes back into value, rather than young with potential and a path of glory ahead, you let them go. But when is pain suffering? When is a life with illness less desirable than its irreversible ending? Animals don't think of this as decisions, they live, they die, in the present, in the fullness of their being.
My boa Baby was very sick for a long time. She was over 35 years old, but there was hope, my hope that she would pull through, until one day it was clear that she had given up.
My dog was almost 16 and in a great deal of pain. She clung to a life that she had lived on her own terms, so we made her as comfortable as possible and let her leave on her own terms.
None of this feels "good", yet, it does feel appropriate.
Appropriate is the best we can do
So, now I have to decide what to do with my red-eared slider. She is sitting on her log all day, not eating, awake, and somewhat interactive. She is not breathing hard, though, I may see a tiny bit of listing in the water, and was that mucus or just spitle around her mouth? She must be at least 30 years old, going towards the limits of her natural lifespan. Diagnosing her probably involves expensive lab work, and the usual treatment for infections includes antibiotics, so I am quickly looking at three hundred dollars or more.
I got a paycheck last week. I love this turtle, but we are not close, a cousin rather than a child of mine. As much as I can tell with a turtle, she is not suffering.
What is appropriate? for her? for me?
I realized that I cannot make a decision without data. I've decided to schedule an appointment with my vet and get whatever diagnostic procedures she asks for, and go from there.
One thing I am sure of, whether this turtle is going to fight to get well or ready to leave on her own terms, it is my job to make it possible with the least amount of suffering.
By Aleks Haecky