Pets like to be petted. They also like to be patted, stroked, head-hugged, belly-rubbed, and chased around and yelled at for misbehaving. In return, their long-term goal is to NOT outlive their people, which may not seem like much of a bargain. My wife and I have had ten pets through our nine-year relationship, losing half of them along the way. And in spite of their carpet-staining and upholstery-tearing behavior, they are entertaining and individually unique, which binds us so closely to each one of them. And as hard as it is to lose one, it’s just as hard to imagine the house without one. Or two. Or three.
There are fewer things more difficult than putting down a pet. It leaves a void that can last what seems will be forever. When we put our border collie Scout down a few years back, for days I would come home after work and realize he was no longer there to greet me at the door, yet mournfully call out his name. As months passed, we thought we might never take in another dog. But life has a way of making decisions for you when you’re too apprehensive to make them yourself and we were soon given a little dog.
Making a living caring for and surrounded by other people’s sick or dying pets makes it no less painful when your own draws its last breath. In an episode of All Creatures, village vet James Herriot is caught up in that place where no pet owner wants to be, a place that creeps up on you just as you’re getting on with the daily business at hand while pretending to ignore the terminal. Herriot treats the usual morning stroll like every other, walking his aging good friend, Dan the Lab, through the quiet streets of Darrowby and the nearby pastures, coaxing “C’mon, Dan” and affectionately chastising “You stupid dog” when he falls behind. Until one day he turns to see his friend no longer lagging behind. A few paces back, he finds him resting quietly, forever, in the grass. Like most of us, after losing such a good friend, Herriot is unwilling to replace old Dan. But barely a fortnight passes before Herriot’s wife is pressing him to visit a litter of pups she’s discovered in an ad in the weekly circular. It’s obvious what happens next.
In Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat, pensioner Gilliaume Blerot carries his aging and sickly little dog everywhere he goes, inside his coat and next to his heart. Mayor Reynaud admonishes him for fawning over a “soul-less” animal, and during, of all times, Lent, when abstinence and denial are in season. Those of us wiser than the pious mayor realize Noah boarded the animals two by two because they were anything but soul-less. They provide simple life lessons for mere mortals. Because they commonly live and die between the beginning and ending of our own lives, we can better understand what it means to embrace each new day. The old pensioner is eventually compelled to put down his old dog, thus losing the race to the grave he would have preferred to have won. But once again, before too long, he too is happily walking a newfound friend.
It might seem wrong to replace pets with new ones, but that’s truly the best medicine. Besides, there are too many friendly balls of fur out there needing a home, and all of them less selfish and demanding than we humans. More times than not, I realize how thankful I will be to have outlived our pets instead of the well-kept furniture we’ll probably never have.