MountedMedic, wrote a beautiful illustrated letter to her dog. Farewell, Good boy.
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Filmmaker Sam Green was just about to fly out of Columbus, Ohio when his friend offered to make a quick detour. “She asked if I wanted to see a little pet cemetery that’s across the street from the airport,” Green told The Atlantic. Armed with his camera, Green captured the tombstones of a menagerie of dearly departed animals, some dating back to the early twentieth century. His short film, Julius Caesar was Buried in a Pet Cemetery, featuring an original score from Yo La Tengo, showcases the pets’ final resting place—and the human love they once inspired.
Green said that he finds graveyards for pets especially moving because the headstones tend to be much more emotive than those found in human cemeteries. “You can say, ‘Buster was the best parakeet who ever lived,’” said Green. “With human graves, everything is so much more constrained. People love their animals in such an intense way and are able to express that love in a much freer way than they can about people they’ve lost.”
“You have gone and left such emptiness that time can never fill,” reads a grave for a dog named Jiggs Boy, who died in 1933.
By Kim Painter
Roland Carter, 78, of Stafford, Va., has advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suffers from dementia and spends most of his time in bed. Missy, one of his four dogs, usually is there with him.
“Missy stays on his bed all the time — she protects him,” says Carter’s wife, Barbara, 72. So when she recently told Roland that she was not sure she could keep caring for the dogs, along with him, he was distraught.
“He said, ‘Please don’t get rid of my dogs,’“ Barbara Carter recalls.
Thanks to a program called Pet Peace of Mind, the Carters still have their dogs. The growing program, now offered through 120 hospice and palliative care organizations in 40 states, helps about 3,000 sick pet owners and their animals each year, says founder and president Dianne McGill. Other groups offer similar services, though they may be more limited.
In some cases, volunteers feed and walk the pets or take them to veterinarian and grooming visits. Sometimes the program pays for pet food and other essentials for dogs, cats, horses and even snakes. Many participating organizations will, when needed, place pets with new families, often after owners die.
A serious illness can make pet care difficult. Owners may no longer be able to walk dogs or clean litter boxes.
McGill, of Salem, Ore., says she realized the need for such services nearly a decade ago. She was working for another animal welfare group and heard from a woman who wanted to help a dying friend. The friend was desperate to keep her beloved cats and ensure their care after her death.
“Her son was going to put the cats down because he didn’t want to take care of them,” McGill recalls. “The woman I spoke with couldn’t take them because she had terrible allergies.”
McGill started calling hospices and learned that they often saw similar situations and typically had no way to help.
Pet Peace of Mind started soon afterwards, as a pilot program in Oklahoma. In 2015, McGill launched it as a freestanding charity, offering assistance to palliative care and hospice organizations nationwide.
“There’s a lot of research out there about the value of the human/animal bond,” McGill says. For example, studies show pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of depression and loneliness, according to the nonprofit Human Animal Bond Research Institute.
Hospice and palliative care workers see the power of pets all the time.
“We have patients where all they have is their dog or their cat,” says Terri Roberts, director of volunteer services at Columbus Hospice of Georgia & Alabama, based in Columbus, Ga. “That’s their family. That’s the reason they get up every morning.”
But a serious illness can make pet care difficult. Owners may no longer be able to walk dogs or clean litter boxes; exhausted caregivers may not have the energy for such tasks. Money can be a problem, too. Some people are so determined to take good care of their pets that they may skimp on their own needs, Roberts says.
“We have patients getting Meals on Wheels who are giving most of their food to their animals,” she says.
Roberts’ organization offers Pet Peace of Mind services to clients cared for in their homes and in a 25-bed in-patient facility. Solutions vary, person to person and pet to pet, she says. In one recent case, a woman had to go to a nursing home that would not allow pets. A volunteer adopted her dog and took her to see the woman every week until she passed away.
For the Carters, the most urgent need was veterinary care for their three boxers, Missy, Max and Buck, and their Pomeranian, Molly. Because Roland needs almost constant care, Barbara had been unable to get out of the house long enough to take the dogs for rabies shots and other care.
Capital Caring, a hospice participating in Pet Peace of Mind, sent veterinarian Stacy Horner-Dunn to the Carter home to get the job done. Horner-Dunn also took Molly to her office for a much-needed nail-trimming. In addition, the program has provided dog food.
“It really has given me peace of mind,” Barbara Carter says. “I know they are well-fed, they’ve had their shots and they are healthy.”
And they are still there for Roland, she says: “Sometimes when he gets confused about where he is and he sees the dogs coming to him, he’ll say, ‘We’re home,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, we’re home.’‘’
It is fitting that pet care has become part of the mission of so many hospice and palliative care organizations, Horner-Dunn says.
But animals need to be kept healthy for their owners’ sake. “When pets are sick, it’s not a good idea to have them around people who are sick, too,” she says. Pets who are up to date on their vaccines and dental care and free of parasites as well as other ills are safer, happier companions, she says.
Pet Peace of Mind lists all participating care organizations on its website. It also provides a state-by-state list of animal rescue groups, veterinary colleges and other organizations that might be able to help people who do not have access to the program.
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By Alexis Fleming
The last day we had with Osha the bullmastiff was hard, although perfect for her. We took her for her favourite walk, gave her a meal of her favourite food (pasta) and then lay in the garden in the sun with her, feeding her fruit chews, which she loved. Then the vet came and sedated her and put her to sleep. I was so sad , but I knew it was the right time to say goodbye.
I had heard about Osha through the charity I run, Pounds For Poundies, which tries to stop abandoned dogs from being put down in pounds. When I learned Osha had been dumped in the pound with terminal cancer, I had to take her in. This was October 2015, the same time my dog Maggie died suddenly in a veterinary hospital, which left me devastated. Maggie and Osha inspired me to set up the Maggie Fleming animal hospice, offering end-of-life care for animals, in Dumfries in March 2016. At the hospice, I provide them with a home, friendship, love, comfort and tailored vet care for however long they have left, so they do not have to take their final steps alone. The hospice is funded by charitable donations and I run it with help from my partner Adam, friends, family and volunteers.
Osha’s favourite things were food and sleep, so she spent her last nine months being spoiled with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in bed. She loved to steal eggs from our rescued chickens; I would leave one on the doorstep so that when she went out for her late-night wees she would think she had found treasure.
The vet who put Osha to sleep helped me realise it was the right thing to do. She told me that she sees similar situations almost weekly, when owners are so desperate not to make that heartbreaking decision that they leave it too late and the animals die in pain. The point of the hospice is to avoid that scenario.
I look after a maximum of three animals at one time, so that I can provide the best care possible. It is very time-intensive. Some of the animals I have helped have lived all their lives in kennels, never been hugged or kissed and don’t know what to do when I cuddle them, although they are clearly desperate for affection. My day is busy in some ways – looking after the animals’ practical needs, feeding them and giving them medication or other required care – but it is peaceful in others. Old and sick animals need love and attention, so I spend a lot of time sitting with them, reading to them and cuddling them.
I also care for more than 80 animals at my sanctuary for farmed animals and rescue hens. Many have been worked to death, and they come here rather than the slaughterhouse.There is something so sad about animals that have never known life outside a pen or a cage.
We take animals from all over, but I cannot provide end-of-life care for all that need it, so I offer support to their owners instead. They can phone me 24/7 for advice. Often just talking to someone who understands their sorrow can help people through what can be one of the hardest decisions they ever have to make. Most importantly, it helps families to stay together until the end, which is the best outcome for everyone, especially the animal, which wants to be with the people it knows and loves. Knowing you have done right by your pet, giving back that love and loyalty as you see it safely to the end, is a huge responsibility and privilege.
I have just started an end-of-life care plan for Bran, another abandoned dog, as he is starting to slow down. He was abandoned on the street with a tumour on his spleen when he was about 17 years old. He was given six weeks to live when he came here; that was almost two and a half years ago. But his latest blood results show he is starting to slip into liver and kidney dysfunction. I sit with him for a couple of hours each day, washing his face with a warm cloth, which he loves, and giving him a massage to ease his muscles. I have promised him that when he tells me it is time to go I will listen. I will be there on his last day with all his favourite things and hold him as he slips away peacefully, knowing someone loved him to the last.
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The room is dim and hushed. On the floor before me lies a shaggy bear of a dog. His name is Shep, and he’s some combination of Great Pyrenees and probably German shepherd. His owners, Anne and Rich, adopted him to guard their dairy goats from coyotes, but Shep wasn’t very good at his job and instead became a much loved house dog. I know this because I’ve been taking care of him, as his veterinarian, for his entire life. Now, as he is stretched out before me on the floor, I can see the effects of the cancer that is slowly ending his life.
Shep has osteosarcoma, an aggressive and destructive bone cancer. It starts somewhere in a long bone of the body, silently eating away at the leg until there is nothing left. The leg gives out in a painful and sudden fracture. The cancer then progresses slowly, eventually invading the lungs. Once the cancer is in the lungs, there is nothing left to be done. It is only a matter of days to weeks.
We discovered the cancer when Shep broke his leg. I had a long heart-to-heart with Anne and Rich. The typical treatment is amputation followed by chemotherapy. With that treatment, a good quality of life can be obtained for up to a year or more. There are no guarantees, of course—cancer will do what it wants. Anne and Rich spent two days deliberating the pros and cons, but since Shep was otherwise happy and healthy, they decided to amputate and pursue chemotherapy. He did great as a tripod. Often you had to look twice to notice that he was missing a leg.
That was nine months ago. Now, the chemo has stopped working, and Shep’s lungs are filled with cancer. As he lays on the floor before me, his breathing is labored. Thin, watery blood leaks from his nostrils, and he coughs occasionally. His eyes are dull, no longer the bright, shiny brown that I remember. He doesn’t enthusiastically investigate my hand for treats. His tail doesn’t thump when I softly murmur, “Shep’s a good boy.” The dog I knew isn’t here any longer. His body is a shell.
Anne and Rich are huddled on either side of him, weeping quietly. Anne runs his shaggy fur through her fingers over and over.
“It won’t hurt, right, Dr. Ashe?” she asks me again.
I shake my head gently. “No. I’m going to give him propofol to make him very sleepy, and then I am going to give him the blue injection. It will slowly stop his heart and breathing. He will drift off to sleep and then he will die. He will not feel anything,” I say. I show her the syringes again, even though we’ve already been over this. I use the word die because ambiguity is never good in these situations.
Anne takes a deep breath, looks at Rich, and then nods. It is time.
I place the Shep’s great paw in my lap, check the catheter, and slowly inject propofol. Shep’s breathing deepens, his eyes grow glassy, and his head falls to one side. I give the second injection. His breathing slows. Slows. Slows. And then it stops. Anne gives a strangled cry and lays across his still form. Rich is stoic but tears track slowly down his face. Both are focused on Shep’s body, so they miss what I see—the final gift my patients often give me. As the drugs take hold, I swear I glimpse relief in his brown eyes.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing my parents having whispered conversations about what I interpreted as “youth in Asia.” I’d be half dozing in the backseat of our car, driving through the night, the radio playing, and I would hear their low voices, the urgency with which they discussed it. At the time, I was uncertain why they were so concerned about the teen population of Japan. What did that have to do with death squads and socialized medicine? It wasn’t until years later that I realized what they were actually discussing—not “youth in Asia” but euthanasia. And it wasn’t until I became a veterinarian that I intimately understood euthanasia, the easy death.
Euthanasia was a hotly debated topic for those of us who grew up in the era of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. When I was 19, Kevorkian was convicted on charges of second-degree murder for assisting in the euthanasia of Thomas Youk. Youk was in the end stages of ALS, a disease that ravages the body but leaves the mind intact.
I paid little attention to these debates back then. I was bound for college, with the world unfurling before me. But these questions came back to haunt me almost 10 years later when I started my career as an emergency veterinarian. For what do veterinarians do besides vaccinate pets and treat diseases? We ease suffering. We help our animal companions to the threshold of death, and then we help them through that final, mysterious door. We euthanize sometimes on a daily basis. We do it for reasons of behavior, illness, injury.
And as we do it, we hold the hands of distraught owners and help them make that last painful decision. We offer words of comfort and listen to sacred stories. And we meet each pet’s eyes in those last moments, and what we see again and again is not fear but relief. Relaxation. The end of suffering has come at last. I have seen it firsthand, time and time again. The wordless thank you, as a beloved pet slips into whatever awaits us in the next life. The light dims and then is extinguished. As animal physicians, we are not afraid to acknowledge that death comes for us all and that we possess the ability to ease its final agonies.
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By Michael Marshall
Over the last few weeks, many people have been deeply moved by the story of a female orca who spent over a fortnight swimming with the dead body of her calf, apparently grieving. The story is a dramatic illustration of something that has become increasingly clear in recent years: many animals grieve for their dead.
The orca is called Tahlequah and belongs to a pod known as J, which roams the north-east Pacific Ocean. Her baby died shortly after it was born on 24 July, according to the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.
Tahlequah proceeded to carry the body for at least 17 days, during which time she covered 1600 kilometres. On Saturday 11 August, the Center reported that she was no longer carrying the body. Instead she joined her fellow pod members in chasing a school of salmon, and seemed “remarkably frisky”.
Among certain kinds of animal, such grieving behaviours appear to be quite common.
Grief seems to be most common in highly social animals that live in tight-knit groups. This makes sense: social animals would come to value their friends and family, and accordingly would feel a loss when they die. In contrast, animals that live solitary lives and do not care for their offspring would have nobody to grieve.
Orcas fit the bill: being a kind of dolphin, they are highly intelligent and live in groups. Indeed, there have been previous instances where orca mothers were seen carrying the bodies of their dead infants. The same is true of many other cetaceans, the group to which orcas belong and which also includes other dolphins and whales. Bottlenose dolphins have been seen lifting the corpses of their fellows above water, as if trying to help them breathe.
There is also growing evidence that African elephants grieve. They pay particular attention to the bones of elephants, compared to bones of other species, and become agitated if they come across an elephant’s corpse.
Perhaps more surprisingly, pig-like animals called peccaries have also been observed seemingly grieving for a dead group member. A 2017 study tracked a herd of peccaries after one of their number died and found that they visited her body repeatedly, generally either alone or in pairs. The peccaries sometimes simply stood nearby, and at other times they nuzzled the body, tried to pick it up and even slept next to it.
Some of the most extensive evidence for animal grief comes from primates like monkeys and apes: our closest living relatives.
In one remarkable incident, a female snub-nosed monkey fell from a tree and cracked her head on a rock. Her partner, the alpha male of the group, sat with her and gently touched her. After she died he spent a further five minutes with her, pulling gently at her hand as if trying to revive her, before leaving. His behaviour suggests that he understood something of the finality of death.
Chimpanzees have been seen carrying the corpses of dead infants, often for weeks. In one instance, a captive chimp called Pansy died, after which her fellow troupe members first cleaned her corpse, and then avoided the place where it lay. This behaviour resembles a funeral ritual.
Grieving does not seem to be universal among primates, but this may have to do with the environments in which they live. In hot and wet regions, corpses decay and become unpleasant very quickly, forcing the animals to abandon them. In contrast, monkeys called geladas live in cold places where decay is slow, and have been observed carrying corpses for up to 48 days.
And animal grief can take surprising turns. In some instances, apes have stopped carrying the corpses of dead infants – and eaten them instead. Such cannibalism seems to be moderately common in chimpanzees, but rare in bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans.
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For two days she has grieved, carrying her dead calf on her head, unwilling to let it go.
J35, a member of the critically endangered southern resident family of orcas, gave birth to her calf Tuesday only to watch it die within half an hour.
All day, and through the night, she carried the calf. She was seen still carrying the calf on Wednesday by Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research.
“It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, who has witnessed other mother orcas do the same thing with calves that did not survive.
Robin Baird, research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, in 2010 watched L72, another of the southern residents, carry her dead newborn in 2010.
“It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen,” Baird said.
“You could see the calf had not been dead very long, the umbilical cord was visible. When we were watching, all the rest of the whales were separated by a distance, and they were just moving very slowly. She would drop the calf every once in a while, and go back and retrieve it.”
J35 is doing the same thing, carrying her calf by balancing it on her rostrum, just over her nose. She dives to pick it back up every time it slides off.
Scientists have documented grieving behavior in other animals with close social bonds in small, tightly knit groups, observed carrying newborns that did not survive.
Seven species in seven geographic regions covering three oceans have been documented carrying the body of their deceased young, including Risso’s dolphin in the Indian Ocean; the Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin and the spinner dolphin in the Red Sea; and pilot whales in the North Atlantic.
In one instance, a researcher attached a rope to the carcass of a bottlenose dolphin and towed it to shore and buried it — with the mother following, touching the carcass until she could no longer follow into water too shallow to swim in. There she remained, watching.
Some carried their young in their mouths, some on their backs.
Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca, also watched L72 carry her dead calf, following her at a distance in her research boat until the light faded and it was too dark to see.
“Same thing, it was hours and hours,” she said of that whale. “But I have never heard of this,” she said of J35. “More than 24 hours.
“It is horrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being. It understands the social bonds that it has with the rest of its family members. She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn’t want to let it go. It is that simple. She is grieving.”
The news of the grieving mother came even as researchers are also tracking a 4-year-old in the endangered orca clan that is emaciated. Hanson photographed J50 on Saturday and documented the classic “peanut head” — a misshapen head due to loss of body fat. Her survival is in doubt.
The southern residents face at least three known challenges to their survival as a species: toxins, vessel traffic and lack of adequate food, particularly chinook salmon. When they are hungry, it makes their other problems worse, research has shown.
Gov. Jay Inslee has appointed a task force on orca whale recovery.
Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee, said the task force is looking at a range of solutions, both short and long term.
“The loss of this calf is a sobering reminder of what’s at stake,” Smith said. “And it’s why we’ve convened partners who we believe can and will be best able to identify what we need to do in the upcoming weeks, months and years to save these animals.”
For researchers who work closely with the southern residents, their continued decline is painfully apparent.
“I am on the water collecting poop from animals that are not getting enough to eat,” Giles said. “ I don’t know if people understand the magnitude of what we are talking about here. We don’t have five years to wait, we really don’t.”
She said other members of the whale’s family knew J35 was pregnant, because of their echolocation ability, which they use to find food.
“So they must be grieving, too.”
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