“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”- Anatole France
She weighed slightly less than two pop tarts, 95 grams in total. Her entire body fit into the palm of my outstretched hand. Her name was Jasmine, and she was the first love of my life.
I didn’t realize this until she was gone, and the grief grabbed hold of me and shook me until I couldn’t breathe as I cradled her lifeless body in my hand. I had actually loved this little nuisance, and no one was more surprised by that than me.
I first encountered the quote from the French poet Anatole France (written well over a hundred years ago) at a moment when I needed to hear it the most. We had just returned home after ushering Tao, our amazing 10-year-old Tosa Inu, through the end point of his brief cancer journey.
Feeling like I had been thrown into an icy pond and sinking fast, I attempted to get out of my head by turning on the television. And there was Oprah Winfrey talking about the grief she experienced when she had to put down one of the most beloved members of her pack. She quoted that line (full disclosure: for the last 10 years I thought they were her words until a google search a couple of weeks ago clarified that she had been quoting Anatole France).
I consider myself to be a rational person, so I just chalked it up to a fluke in timing. The television happened to be tuned to Oprah’s network and she just happened to be talking about this exact subject at the same time as we were dealing with something so similar. I have a good friend, however, who says there are no accidents in the universe, and I was meant to hear that message at that exact moment.
But if that is true, then what was the universe trying to tell me? That it is okay to feel profound grief for an animal?
Grief is inevitable when you share your life with a being who will likely live for only a fraction of your life span. However, it is the end of the story and not the totality. When it comes to sharing your life with and loving an animal, I can’t help but think of the Orson Welles quote. “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Many of us have seen studies (such as those published in 2002 in Society & Animals) that compare the death of an animal companion to that of a human significant other. They conclude that in some ways the grief over a pet can be greater.
Grief over the loss of an animal companion is complicated by the lack of empathy and understanding allowed to those undergoing it – especially by those who have never had a pet.
Having such a profound loss invalidated by those around you minimizing it, can be isolating. You may retreat into solitude during the grieving process and hide your emotions. At its worst it can make you question the validity of what you are feeling.
By allowing humans to grieve their loss without guilt or shame, we can validate that the love of an animal companion is significant and important.
My journey to sharing my life with animals was not straight-forward. I didn’t grow up with a family pet that was allowed to stick around long enough to establish the relationship arch that is so important to creating a human/animal bond.
When I was seven a kind-hearted aunt gifted me with a Saint Bernard puppy from her neighbour’s litter. Soon after our first vet visit – paid for by the very same aunt – we were told that the puppy very likely had hip dysplasia which would require expensive corrective surgery or euthanasia.
A few days later the puppy was gone, and I was told it had run away. When I insisted on searching for it, I was told it had been hit by a car. When I asked where the body was so that I could bury him, I was told that he was hit by a garbage truck who picked him up. By the time I got to the argument that garbage trucks don’t drive fast enough to hit dogs, my mother shut down any further arguments by walking away.
My mother was a single parent with five children and there was barely enough money to keep a roof over our heads. This was my first experience with economic surrender – the heart-wrenching decision to surrender your animal companion because you can’t afford the care. Sadly, it wasn’t my last!
As a child I had a strong need to connect with animals, so I was insistent on getting another chance to have a pet. I wasn’t, however, unaware that my family’s financial situation was always precarious, I just didn’t connect the dots around what it takes to support a family on little to no money.
Our household was not like those of my friends who all had two parents and more than one pair of shoes and fridges and cupboards that always had food in them. Other than the couple of weeks every year that our pantry was stocked by the charitable basket from the Lion’s club, we were living hand-to-mouth. Even though the full stress of our economic situation was something my mom took pains to shield us from, my siblings and I were aware that we were poor.
Each of us worked from the age of 9 in the fields surrounding our small town. We babysat, did yard work, and took any part time jobs we could find to make enough money to buy our own clothes and anything extra we wanted. Even grocery store kibble, I realized later, would have been a stretch on my mother’s budget.
A few years later a small black Siamese cat named Mikki was given to one of my sisters along with a big bag of cat food and another of litter. We were able to convince my mom that we would pay for the expenses with our own money. I grew to care deeply for her, and she slept in my bed and showed me affection in that unique way that cats do by purring loudly, butting her head against my chin, and showing an insatiable appetite for affection. Unfortunately, she went into her first heat shortly after we got her and my little brother accidentally let her outside (yelling in panic that Mikki was outside and another cat was biting her in the back yard).
Within a few weeks it was obvious that Mikki was pregnant. My mom, worrying about how she was going to care for a litter of kittens, once again made the decision to surrender her (and her unborn litter) to the local dog catcher. In my mother’s mind he was finding new homes for surrendered pets.
Ignorance isn’t bliss, but it can sometimes be a shield. Many years later a friend found out that our local dog-catcher’s method of animal control was to euthanize all animals surrendered using carbon monoxide.
I’d never considered that a bird could be a pet. One day my sister brought a little green cockatiel home and named her Jasmine. I ignored her for the first couple of days, until she climbed up my pant leg and t-shirt with her beak and claws, and settled down on my left shoulder.
She proceeded to telescope her neck in a cartoonish way like she was bowing to me. I looked at her and she bobbed her head twice and gave me a side-eye. The second time she followed this with a squawk. The squawks got louder, the bobbing got more exaggerated and then she started boxing my ear with her beak.
“She wants you to scratch her neck,” my sister told me. “Why would I do that?” I asked. “She won’t stop until you do.”
My sister showed me how to scratch the pink flesh of her neck which was about as thick as a pencil crayon. I learned that if she didn’t like the way you were scratching her neck she would twirl her head, bite your finger, squawk, and then telescope her neck again.
It wasn’t long before Jasmine decided that I belonged to her and she spent every waking moment perched on my shoulder (and sometimes pooping down my back).
Her morning routine would begin with my mom opening her cage. She would climb the stairs to my room and pace in front of my door, pecking at it with her beak and uttering her one-half note whistle, until I opened the door to let her in. Back in bed she would sit on my pillow and demand neck scratches by squawking and beak-boxing my ear until I got up.
I learned to be a careful walker in those days because Jasmine would follow me everywhere on the floor. She tried to hook my pant leg so she could climb up and get her neck scratched. I learned that birds are extremely intelligent and have distinct personalities.
Over the years my sisters moved out and left Jasmine behind, not wanting to break the bond between this little bird and myself. When I received grant money to attend university, my excitement was dampened by the worry over who would care for her when I left.
The day before I was to leave for University, I slept in because Jasmine didn’t wake me up. When I went downstairs, I noticed that her cage was still covered. I took off the towel and found her lifeless body splayed out on the bottom of the cage. The grief was significant, and it changed me.
But that grief didn’t stop me from loving an animal in future. I married a woman who loved animals as much as I did and we quickly added an animal to our new family.
I am lucky to have lived long enough to see an evolution in how we treat (and allow others to treat) animals. We have much farther to go, but I am encouraged whenever I visit a pet store, take my canine companion to a dog park or even see my neighbours walking their dogs.
Fifty years ago most domestic animals were viewed as something we owned, and if they weren’t being used as beasts of burden (guarding the house or yard), they were rarely given the status of family member.
The idea that a dog or cat had needs beyond food and water, would have been met with incredulity if not outright ridicule. In the early 1970’s all the families I knew with dogs kept them chained in their yards with only a rotting wooden doghouse.
I have learned that animals require more than just food and water to have a healthy life. They require attention, entertainment, exercise, preventative and reactive veterinary care, and the presence of their humans.
I understand now why my mother couldn’t afford a pet when she was trying to raise five children on social assistance. A google search on the average cost of owning a dog in Canada can vary, but a safe assumption puts it at over $300 per month (just basic care). For those working minimum wage jobs or on government assistance, this can amount to a sizeable percentage of their monthly budget.
When something unforeseen happens (like your dog eats a tin foil pan of lasagna and tears his intestines requiring emergency surgery) the resulting vet bills can reach thousands of dollars.
I was an early adopter of pet insurance and having three giant breed dogs with cancer I was fortunate enough to be able to afford their treatment. But even the cost of pet insurance – over $100 per month per pet – can be beyond the reach of many.
When I heard about PAWS and the wonderful work they are doing to help keep human and animal families together in critical life situations I had to find a way to get involved.
Animal companions help us to awaken a part of our souls that recognizes that humans aren’t the only species that matter on this spinning blue marble. Having another being depend on you and appreciate your love and presence can lift a lonely heart out of the darkness. It can make you a better person.
I remind myself at least once a day of Alistair MacLeod’s famous line “all of us are better when we are loved”. I’ve recently added to it “all of us are even better when we love”.