In search of ponies: Death part of owning animals

“What did you kill this week?”

It’s the question I hear every week when I turn in my column for editing — asked in jest of course.

In response I usually joke back that I’ve set a limit of one a month or some such thing.

But it does highlight an often unspoken truth about life with animals.

They die.

Regrettably and for a variety of reasons, their lives end and probability dictates the more animals you have, the more you experience death.

One of my recent conversations centered on the fact that somehow when you have multiple animals, they all arrive at roughly the same time or in little age clusters — and just as all the light bulbs seem to go out in your house at the same time — animals often seem to age and die together too.

And if you deal with exotic animals such as fish, reptiles and the like, you better be prepared for attrition, especially with often underestimated husbandry.

Or that really cool, super expensive chameleon that’s only 3-days-old to you, could actually be a lizard that was just shaken from a tree in Madagascar, shipped over in a crate and is the equivalent of 80-years-old in the lizard world. Meaning you are now hospice care. You just didn’t know it.

The truth is, notwithstanding inexcusable neglect and mistreatment, even with the best of care, critters are already fighting the odds. They can’t tell you when they don’t feel good, they run in front of cars, eat things they shouldn’t, have genetic problems and get diseases — all things that anyone who has ever made animals a part of their life know all too well.

When I write about the deaths of animals, I am not making light. What I am doing is understanding it, accepting it and finding the messages in those deaths and the lives they represent.

Fatality stories I’ve heard are all over the map — someone who went out to feed and found their horse lying dead when it seemed fine the day before, another who dropped their pampered lap dog while trying to unlock a door, the person who didn’t know the family cat had climbed into the engine of the car or the lucky cat that died curled up in its favorite spot on the back of the chair.

It’s just human that we want someone to blame when unfortunate things happen, but in so doing we are quick to forget everything has a beginning, middle and end —and sometimes you get the page count ahead of time, sometimes you don’t.

In our society we have developed the belief that we must save and prolong life at all costs because it is one of the most valued commodities we have — at least in the “civilized” parts of the world where our sense of self worth dictates as much.

But I do believe it’s sometimes as close to altruistic as we get in our dealings with animals that we allow ourselves to weigh the value of life against the value of quality of life.

When there is nothing ahead but suffering, I find it hard to imagine one could have any ability so beautiful as the one to give the gift of peace.

Sometimes you choose euthanasia in advance of pending suffering and in another cases you wish you had chosen it sooner. I have belabored the decision to euthanize with friends who weren’t sure if it was time and I have faced the decision myself.

And then I have seen an old blind horse slowly and lovingly follow his human companion — the same man that he raised from childhood to parenthood — around the barn for the morning and evening feeding routine right up until the day he died, even though there were those who might think he was allowed to live too long.

Death is a bottom-line part of life, we all know it to be true and yet we avoid talking about it and after all our time and developments as a species, we seem to understand it less and less as we go.

Finding ways to talk about death, explore it and yes, sometimes even find the humor in it, are all part of understanding and accepting.

After all, death — like a photograph — is just a small fraction of time. What’s important is the life that led up to it and what that life leaves behind.