Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Love, Loss, Life

Someone I know told me recently that he has never wanted to share his home with non-human animals, specifically because of his fear of having to deal with their eventual loss by way of either illness or age. I'd been telling him about my own fears over recent weeks concerning my boy Zeus' latest bout with vertigo. The person with whom I was speaking had, in fact, happened to be visiting around a year and a half ago when Zeus' dizziness had first manifested itself in a major way, leaving him uncoordinated and distressed. We'd taken him to the vet's together to have him checked out and we were both worried about my little guy.

Healers as Harbingers

It was good to have someone else along for the first time in years -- good to have someone to help steady my nerves a little. The vet's office has always been an awkward place for me. Where once upon a time it was a place to which I'd bring various younger members of my feline family, whether to treat the odd minor issue or urinary tract infection; it was also a place to go to get a sense of reassurance. Over the years as various cats who've come into my care have aged, it's become a place I sometimes struggle not to dread visiting. I still remember clearly the early morning well over a dozen years ago I'd risen to get a glass of water and to check email, only to find Tarwater unable to move one of his hind legs. A few hours later, I received the worst diagnosis: saddle thrombus -- a blood clot which lodges itself in an artery in the leg. This was followed by the news that saddle thrombus is often associated with serious congestive heart disease and that in Tar's case, function of his leg might never be restored and that amputation might, in fact, end up required. Furthermore, I was told that because of the clot and the detection of a faint heart murmur that Tarwater would not likely be with us much longer -- that he would eventually succumb to stroke or heart failure.

Tar, as it turns out, lived another 10 years with nothing more than a slight limp which never prevented him from reaching the top of the fridge where he would curl up and keep an eye on me as I hovered over the stove. The damage was done, though. This was my first experience with getting "Really, Really Bad News" from my vet; for the first time, a visit to the veterinary clinic had left me more afraid than reassured.

As the rest of the gang aged and a few older fosters passed through, my visits to the veterinary clinic became more frequently punctuated by worry, nervousness and sometimes sorrow. Hyperthyroidism. Eosinophilic granuloma complex. Asthma. Chronic renal failure. Idiopathic vestibular disease. Some conditions (e.g. the asthma) have been manageable thanks to the amenable cooperation of the cats who know me as their favourite can opener. With other diagnoses, though, often comes the reminder -- sometimes even the confirmation -- that time shared together is coming to an end. The truth is, though, that every relationship we take on with someone reaches a conclusion of sorts, whether that someone is feline, canine or human.

Several years ago, walking home from a university class, I saw a woman calling out to what looked like a wobbly black kitten wandering along the edge of a busy street at the tail end of rush hour. I scooped up this little cat, realizing that as tiny and skinny as she was that she was no kitten. I brought her home and sneaked her into my office before my then-spouse could pause his favourite video game. She was filthy, infested with ear mites, had overgrown claws and what I suspected was ringworm. Her breath was horrid enough to nearly make me nauseous. As the ex and I later watched her devour the food I'd given her, we agreed that after getting her checked out by our vet and then making the appropriate calls to rule out that someone wasn't looking for her, we'd gained a new roommate. Her badly abscessed teeth would require hundreds of dollars to deal with and as we led up to the holidays, some friends and family members questioned that we would show willingness to spend money on this elderly little cat we'd named Maudie, whom we'd also come to discover during the blood-work required before her intensive dental work, had failing kidneys.

Wouldn't it make more sense to cut our losses and have "someone else's (abandoned) cat" euthanized, they asked, especially since we had no way to tell how much longer she'd live.
The thing is, though, that "someone else's cat" was now our responsibility and that she had a right to her own life -- a life we'd chosen to share and to weave into our own lives. Maudie had her ups and downs and near the end, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was hard to be perpetually aware of the fact that her remaining days were few. It was almost an exact year from the day I'd found her that she decided to let go. Seven years later, I still remember what it felt like to wake up to her slight weight on my head, with her tiny thumb-sized paws kneading my scalp, and of how I'd sing verses of "Maudie Girl" to her.

As hard as it was to watch her fade in her final days and as much as she was and is now missed, I cannot imagine not having helped this little cat -- not having gotten to know this unique little individual who'd nestled herself so sweetly and firmly into our hearts and memories.
I cannot imagine having allowed the fear of losing her to have prevented me from ever having had the opportunity to know her. Worse, I refuse to imagine what might have happened to her had I not scooped her up from the traffic that day so many years ago.

Why Let Them In?

When we invite non-humans into our homes, we do so for many reasons. I'd like to ask you to consider what's perhaps the most important reason: In the US alone, 3-4 million cats and dogs are killed every single year in shelters. Consider that 5 out of 10 dogs and 7 out of ten cats killed in shelters every year die simply because they are not adopted; meanwhile, up to 30% of cats and dogs brought into new homes each year in the US come from breeders and pet stores. (
You can see some of these statistics here or find similar information elsewhere on the internet.) The bottom line is that adopting a non-human animal from a shelter will quite literally save a life, whether the life of the animal in question, or that of another animal waiting to be taken home. This, in and of itself, is the reason that it's crucial that anyone who has the room in their hearts and homes for a non-human should look no further than their local shelter.

So you want a purebred? Around 25% of dogs relinquished to US shelters are, in fact, purebred. You say you want a kitten/puppy? Talk to any shelter employee or volunteer about what's commonly known as kitten/puppy season in shelters because of the overwhelming numbers of unspayed cats and dogs often relinquished or found with their litters. And if you don't have time to deal with kitten and puppy hijinks, I assure you that the number of adult dogs and cats you'll find -- many of them who are just ordinary loving animals whose only reason for being in a shelter is that they are simply no longer wanted -- is absolutely staggering. No room for a cat or a dog? Adopt one of the many others who also get relinquished to shelters: rabbits, rats, mice, hamsters, birds, et al.

Fear of Loss or Fear of Gain?

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about loss these past few days.
On top of other goings on, dealing with recent vet visits, tests and uncertainty during these past weeks for my pal Zeus' on and off again (and consistently misdiagnosed) condition of the past year and a half has left me working hard to not dwell on heartache. Having loved and lost often over the past few years, I've learned that it's far from anything you get used to and that one loss invariably seems to compound or amplify the fear of another. It also smarts when I see friends and acquaintances trying to wrap their own heads around the potential (or actual) loss of loved ones of their own, whether human or non-human. It smarts even more to watch them deal with the aftermath since it's all too familiar. Although they may become fewer as time passes, there are always reminders.

Every single one of us reaches a point in our lives where we're left to deal with some sort of tear in the fabric of what constitutes our immediate existence. So many different factors influence each individual's own experience with it, that how we're each left dealing with it varies greatly, with the common thread being that awareness in that very moment that the loved one is just no longer "here" in whatever capacity the loved one was "here" in our everyday-ness. We try to find meaning in what's left and, with time, to pick up those threads and to patch the tears however we can. This is all that we can really do.

The sense of loss, however, isn't limited to coping with the final amscraying into nothingness brought by the death of another. Although people walk in and out of our lives constantly as we also walk into and out of theirs, we find ourselves focusing on the few who bring us some level of happiness and and we end up weaving our interactions with them into our mental meanderings about the future. Some become close friends, while others we choose as romantic cohorts to accompany us on this crazy trip called life. Those individuals get factored in. All of the goodness they bring to our existence and the accompanying opportunities for reciprocity get factored into the "stories of us" we unwittingly build for ourselves; our dreams and anticipations spill over and wrap themselves around frameworks we've tentatively assembled, our makeshift ever-afters.

The truth is that as much as we cannot control that a loved one dies, we cannot -- ultimately -- control when someone will consciously choose to otherwise remove themselves from our lives. That's also part of this thing called "living". What we can control, however, is whether we take a chance and open up and risk being loved and risk loving back. What we can control is our willingness to take that opportunity to come together with somebody and to share time together.
We ultimately control who we let in and we completely control what we are willing and able to give to that other. It's all we can do and sometimes, for another, it's everything.

On Loving Non-humans

I've had more than a handful of animal rights activists say to me over the years that there's something inherently wrong in admitting that we derive pleasure from our relationships with the non-humans we adopt or rescue. I've had animal rights activists say to me that there's something inherently selfish about saying "I couldn't imagine not living with a cat", as if to say it somehow implies that we're objectifying cats. I think that really misses the point concerning speciesism and concerning society's general view and use of non-human animals. The truth is that for many of us who share our lives with dogs, cats, rabbits and other non-human persons, those relationships are indeed profoundly meaningful and there is indeed reciprocation. I can't help but think that anyone claiming to me that non-human animals are unable to develop emotional bonds with humans has simply never spent more than a few hours with a non-human animal. And yes, letting a non-human in and allowing oneself to love him or her leaves oneself open to the pain of the eventual loss of that individual, but isn't that ultimately what life and loving are all about?

Please give a non-human animal in a shelter a chance at living out his or her life in comfort and happiness. By giving someone this opportunity, you'll not only save a life, but you will indeed gain a friend. It breaks my heart to know that millions of non-humans in North America alone are dying every year merely for want of having someone let them in. It breaks my heart even more to think that these millions are dying and that they won't, in fact, be missed. They'll just be statistics when they could be a Maudie or a Tarwater -- or a Zeus.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Truth and Ridicule

It is the fate of every truth to be an object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed. It was once considered foolish to suppose that black men were really human beings and ought to be treated as such. What was once foolish has now become a recognized truth. Today it is considered as exaggeration to proclaim constant respect for every form of life as being the serious demand of a rational ethic. But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognized that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics. Ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility to everything that has life.

-- Albert Schweitzer