Philosophy & My Old Husky V: Goodbye Good Girl

isis-2016Isis, my husky, joined the pack in 2004. She was a year old and her soul was filled with a wildness and a love of destruction. I channeled that wildness into running and that (mostly) took care of her love of destruction as well. We ran together for years, until she could no longer run. Then we walked on our adventures—a stately saunter rather than a mad dash. One day in March, 2016 she collapsed and I thought that was the end. But steroids granted her a reprieve and our adventures continued. But, time ends all things.

As the months went by, she hit a plateau of recovery and then began a decline. She could not walk as far, she had to be supported while doing her business and she was sometimes confused about where she was. This worsened as November progressed—she required ever more support, walked ever less distance, and had trouble distinguishing between the outside and inside of the house. Since she was my dog and I was her human, I accepted all this. I stocked up on carpet cleaner and ran the steam cleaner regularly. Since she could not handle the smooth floors, I put down yoga mats for her—I had tried carpet runners, but they drink up the urine. Yoga mats can be hosed off, dried and put back in place.

Though she suffered a physical and mental decline, her will remained unimpaired. When she decided that she wanted to walk someplace, she would struggle with her weakened legs and force her way through vegetation and up hills. If she could not make it up a hill on her own, she would turn her head to look at me and would not move again until I supported her and allowed her to power up that hill. She had the spirit of a true runner; never giving up in the face of a challenge. In the face of time, however, will and love are not enough.

She suffered a sudden decline and completely lost her ability to walk. I would carry her to do her business, but even with my support she had great difficulty. On November 22, things got even worse and neither of us slept that night. I wanted her to make it through Thanksgiving (she loved turkey), but on the morning of the 23rd I saw the pain in her eyes and knew what had to be done. Courtney, a friend of mine from Maine, had sent us some Christmas dog bones and a dog toy. I unwrapped those and hand fed her, placing the toy between her paws. After we had our early Christmas, I carried her to the truck and drove to Oakwood Animal Hospital. While no one really knows what is in the heart of another, I could tell that she had absolute trust in me as I carried her into the office. She knew that I would, as I have always done, do the right thing for her.

Her regular vet was on duty and, after we talked, Isis was put on an IV. As the vet, vet tech and I comforted her and cried, she passed away gently and peacefully. This was the hardest decision of my life, choosing the death of my friend.

Since I teach ethics, I have thought a great deal about this sort of decision. But, the theoretical context of the classroom is rather different from the harsh reality of deciding whether your friend should keep living. While some doubt the use of philosophy, thinking about this matter proved to be very helpful and even comforting in making the decision.

While people are said to own dogs, I never saw our relationship as matter of owning property. Rather, we had reached a mutual understanding and formed a team. Huskies are supervillains when it comes to escape, so they can (and do) end their relationships with humans when they wish. By accepting her, I took on many moral responsibilities. Some of these are analogous to those to my human friends, others are more analogous to those of a parent to a child. These included the usual obligations of keeping her healthy and safe; but they also included the obligation to ensure her wellbeing and happiness.

When she collapsed in March, I had to make the decision whether to try treatment or let her go then. While she was suffering, the medical evidence indicated that she had a chance to recover. Knowing her stubborn will, I believed that she would want to take that chance and power through the pain. I could not be certain of what she wanted; but I went with what I thought she would want. It turned out it was the right call; she recovered and returned to enjoying life.

As I got to know her, I learned that she had a look that meant “I need you to do something for me.” In the past, this usually meant playing with her, getting her a snack or letting her into the backyard to menace the lesser creatures (to a husky, almost all other creatures are lesser).  These things made her happy, and I was pleased to oblige—after all, I had a moral responsibility to her wellbeing because she was my dog and I was her human.

When she had declined to her worst, she stared at me intently with that look. Since she could not talk, she could not say what she wanted. She, I believed, wanted an end to her pain. I might just think that to feel better about my decision—perhaps she was doing nothing of the sort. But, I knew that to keep her alive and suffering would not be to act for her wellbeing or happiness. Medicine is quite good these days, I probably could have kept her going a few months more with painkillers and other medications. But that would be a dull and drugged life, not a life suitable for a soul so full of wildness and a love of destruction. I wanted her to end as my beloved wolf and not dissipate to nothing in a sea of pharmaceuticals. So, I said goodbye to my good girl.

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  1. Sorry about your dog, Mike.

    I can see that she meant a lot to you. My condolences.

  2. I had a similar experience with my cat. She was ill for about a year and the medication from the vet seemed to exacerbate the problem. She would howl at the top of her voice until I spoke to her. Eventually I found her unconscious on the sidewalk outside my house. she was as light feather. She recovered consciousness and made an attempt to sit on my lap with some assistance form me. the next morning I found her dead by her cat flap. The vet disposed of her body at some considerable cost. Looking back on the events I regret allowing her to live so long with such bad health and obvious incidents of some mental torment. She was about 18 when she died and had a good life. She had made the choice to live with us rather than with her sister who also lived locally. It seems once a cat has made that kind of decision there is no stopping them. This has happened to me twice and both cats were excellent. My son is now in a very similar situation with his cat who is obviously seriously ill, I have advised him to arrange for the cat to be put out of its obvious misery but he has not the heart so to do. I know how he feels.

  3. Finality. It simultaneously defines our experiences both as a gift and adversity. It if gives strength and purpose. Thanks for sharing. There is great mystery and discovery ahead and all around.

    Paz y luz. 🐬

  4. An eloquent expression of the sentiments and ethics implicit, totally aside from the obvious deep affection mutually shared by Isis and yourself. Thank you.

    Wifie and I have had Huskies for almost 30 years and now have no less than 7 small wooden boxes containing our much-loved former pack members’ mortal remains on a memorial shelf in our family room. Having lost so many wonderfully unique Sibes over the years, I can look back and state unequivocally that it has never been easy to say goodbye, despite obvious evidence that it is time for one of our team to cross the rainbow bridge. All of our guys, excepting our very first (Laika), were rescues obtained from the NoCal Sled Dog Rescue group in California, and all were absolutely wonderful dogs. Following the NorCal Sled Dog Rescue protocols, we light a small voltive candle for each of them every Equinox and Solstice for 15 minutes, during which time we reflect silently on all of them and the joy they brought into our own desperately chaotic human lives.

    At present, we have two, a 7 year old girl (Nala) and an 18 year old (yes, 18!) senior boy who is on his last legs. ‘Sooka’, was one of two litter-mates that ended up together in the LA animal control facility some 11 years ago and both were scheduled to be put down simply because the pound was overcrowded and it was determined that as ‘middle-aged’ dogs they stood no chance of being adopted (!). Fortunately NorSled was able to whisk them out of danger with less than two hours to spare and we consequently adopted both of them. While Sooka’s brother (named ‘Walter’) shortly thereafter passed on due to a very aggressive form of brain cancer, Sooka remained extremely fit and healthy until fairly recently. He has now lost vision in his left eye, with right eye vision only partly intact, and his sense of hearing has departed entirely. With hindquarters (hip) arthritis alleviated somewhat by TID Tramadol, Sooka is now experiencing some mental confusion, bouts of occasional aimless wandering and loss of bowel/urinary control, although he still takes his twice-daily slow walks around the block and his appetite remains good. These last indicators suggest that Sooka is not ready yet to depart his forever home, but it is clear that that time may not be far away. At 18 years, going on 19, he has already set some sort of Husky record for fruitful longevity and we love him dearly, despite his unavoidable decline.

    Soon, I fear it will be time for that same rather heart-wrenching experience you described of taking Sooks to the vet and helping him cross over as gently and peacefully as possible. Just thinking about your own described experience and all of ours makes me tear-up a little as I say it, but it appears to be the best we can do to help reduce the pain and suffering that Schopenhauer felt was the best recourse in the face of an uncaring, totally detached Universe that is effectively beyond our Earthly understanding.

    As a life-long appreciator of Schopenhauer (as well as of Heidegger and Nietzsche, for what it’s worth), and mindful of the well-intended mercy that we reflexively show our beloved pack members in their extremis, I cannot help but wish that we could have the same benefits extended to us, should we wish or need them at a similar point on our own path through life.

    Sadly, religious narrow-mindedness deems that option to be both ‘sinful’ and illegal, although there are signs that this resistive rigidity is gradually changing somewhat in certain states (so-called ‘death with dignity’ provisions for terminally ill patients).

    I don’t mind admitting that as humanity fills up an increasingly crowded planet to the point of absolute capacity, logic and common sense to me prompt the opinion that some sort of deliberate eugenic compromise is necessary. I do not fool myself into believing that Homo sapiens, despite our much vaunted ‘higher-sentient life form’ status, will survive in perpetuity, for largely in keeping with Schopenhauer’s classic German pessimism, my own feeling is that given the ultimate futility of human life, the best thing that could happen to our planet would be for humanity to voluntarily extinguish itself and let the natural forces of the world restore non-sentient balance to all things. There is, after all, much evidence that the ‘blessing’ of sentience is actually a biochemical fluke.

    Anticipating Sooka’s imminent demise, I find myself reflecting on all this once again, but it doesn’t help alleviate my own selfish, egocentric sense of impending loss one iota! That said, thanks again for sharing the poignancy of your bond with beautiful and unique Isis, Mike.

  5. It sounds as though Isis had a good life, a life appropriate to her identity and nature. As a dog-loving philosopher I too have learned much from those who have shared their lives with me. They continually remind us what is of greater and lesser value in our lives, and teach us by largely by positive reinforcement! How often do *your students* jump for joy when you “did good” by clarifying a difficult concept in class???! How often has it been true that the very best thing you did all day, the greatest joy you contributed to the universe, was during the hour running, walking or playing with your dog? Isis is a blessing in your life, notwithstanding that you must now relate to her across time. My sympathy.

  6. Doris Wrench Eisler

    This is a beautiful story and you did the right thing, all down the line. I am convinced that your dog was able to communicate her will to you and could do so because she read you correctly as well. I’ve always understood that animals have rights to their natural environment, and the right not to be abused by humans, but it’s only lately that I’ve come to realize what a gift they are and how necessary to life. I used to be aware of feeling sorry for them, as in, why are they what they are and not one of us? But now I’m convinced they likely have a deeper consciousness of reality and their relationship to nature, and a greater love of and respect for life. My first American Eskimo would look straight up at the sky every once in a while and hold that pose for ten seconds or so.
    She did this also just before we had to have her put down because her condition, at thirteen, was hopeless:
    The American Eskimo whose life I now share has the same habit of sky-gazing and I interpret it as a kind of ecstasy. He is a demanding dog which I probably would not have chosen had I known the difficult side of his personality: but fate has brought us together and I would no more let him down than he would me.

  7. Thank you for your kind words; it is amazing that Sooka is 18! You have done a wonderful job with your companions.

  8. Dogs are indeed the best.

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