Me, Biggie, And Coltrane: What It Really Feels Like To Lose A Pet
“Well look at it this way. At least you have more time in the day for yourself,” my brother said, glancing into the backseat where I sat staring out the window. Now I was staring at him. “Is that really your bright side?” I asked. He gave me a weak half-smile; I gave him a side eye.
He shrugged. “Well that’s what I think about whenever I don’t have to wake up and walk the dog.” My brother, in his most earnest and well-meaning of intents, was trying to make me feel better. Two years ago, he too had to surrender his terminally ill Rottweiler, whose body was riddled with cancer. He was the one to convince me that it was time to do the same to Coltrane, my own dog. And now here he was, driving me back from the animal control spot on Hunting Park, trying to reassure me that I had done the right thing.
But I wasn’t so convinced.
About a year ago, I had to surrender my 16-year-old cat Biggie to animal control. Biggie, an overweight tuxedo named after the slain rapper, was in horrible pain from his kidneys failing. His age made him too old to treat outside of steroid medicine, which no longer worked. And my once vibrant 13-pound cat was now only a few pounds wet, but also too frail to stand and cried out eerily in pain. I watched as the animal control staffer, a tall burly black guy in a green shirt, scooped him up and nonchalantly carried him through some double doors with the sign, “Only Employees Past this Point” hanging over the entrance. And that’s it. No attempts at faking sympathy or condolences. Not even a half-hearted, “we’ll take good care of him.” Just sign here, don’t forget to take their pet collars or whatever little personal paraphernalia attached to them with you and a “Can I help the next in line, please!”
I don’t blame the workers for their indifference. They probably see dozens of surrendered pets every single day. Therefore, my own personal grief is not unusual or special. But that was my baby and I felt like he deserved more than that, which is why I vowed to myself that when it was Coltrane’s time to go, we would do it like one of my friends, who lives in the more affluent Philly neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. She had her beloved Scottish Terrier put to sleep in the comforts of her own apartment. I wanted that for my pets. To give them comfort in their last moment of life. It is the ultimate gesture of love as well as a personal reassurance to myself that they would pass away peacefully. But of course, I thought the next time I had to put a pet down would be a ways away – you know, when I could afford such creature comforts.
But alas, a year later and a month after losing my full-time job due to budget cuts, my dog would suffer a severe spinal cord injury, one he sustained while running down the icy front steps of my row house. I warned him in the past about his clumsiness. His feet were too big and awkward and wouldn’t be able to sustain the weight of his solid 110 pound American Bulldog frame. I broke down in tears when the vet at the pet emergency center told me that he required surgery and that it would cost around $5,000. I didn’t feel any more relief when the second opinion from Coltrane’s personal doctor said that even with the surgery, there was a possibility because of his age and the existing arthritis in his legs that he still would not be able to walk again. I tried for months hoping that the medicine would work. However, it never got him able to walk again and the physical and financial burden of taking care of a disabled pet was just too much to bear. I was poor. And my financial situation meant that the only humane option was to drop him in the hands of complete strangers in a green shirt, khaki pants, and a stoic expression.
We drove away from the facility and my head was swimming with guilty thoughts. Why hadn’t I shoveled my front steps properly? Maybe I didn’t exercise him enough? What about his diet? Maybe if you fed him more glucosamine-rich foods, his legs would have been stronger. “Aw man, you can’t beat yourself up about that stuff. I mean, you did your best and I’m sure Coltrane knows that,” said my brother. My brother offered me McDonald’s. I felt like one of his kids – actually, worse than one of his kids, as his son, my nephew, sat calmly in the front seat. I scoffed at his suggestion. Then after we got McDonald’s, I felt a little better.
I told a friend of mine of my plan to surrender my dog; she didn’t say anything. Not even a condolence. I tried to ignore how hurt I felt. People can be very dismissive at times when it comes to pets: “Oh your dog died? Well, go out and get a new one.” There is nothing really to do when someone says that to you, except smile awkwardly – although inside you are really upset. Most folks just don’t understand. After all, they are just animals: big, emotionless beings incapable of reasoning, logic, and all the other things that make us humans far superior. But most folks with pets know that this is not entirely true. Coltrane was a hero to me. He once helped me across a small stream when I got stuck on some slippery rocks and I was scared to move. And he stopped – not once but twice – a loose pit bull from attacking us while out on our walk. And he was so compassionate to Biggie in his last days, letting him curl up next to him to help keep his body warm. No, Coltrane wasn’t just a big, stupid dog; he was brave and loyal and in some ways, more humane than most people.
After surrendering Biggie, I told myself that I would never get another cat again. Eight months later, I now have Mr. Bob Dobalina, a brindle-striped cat with an amusingly rumbustious personality. That tells me that this feeling will pass one day and I too will be able to reopen my house again to another dog. But right now, I am feeling very sorrowful and I think I need to honor the fact that a creature, who I had raised and loved, is no longer here anymore. So as of right now, I’m saying I will not get another dog…