The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives

Erika Cudworth considers the ethical dilemmas posed by the decline and death of a beloved ‘pet’

November 22, 2012

It’s only a dog.” It’s a phrase you will hear used by some people who do not live with dogs to make light of the emotional attachments some other people have to the dogs with whom they share their lives. In the course of my research, interviewing people who live with dogs, talking about animal illness, ageing and death is difficult. Some cannot bear to speak of the last days and dying moments of what Donna Haraway, scholar of consciousness, would call the “dog of one’s heart”. I believe there are two reasons for this: distress and reticence. The reticence is protective behaviour. It is to court ridicule to demonstrate upset about some thing that is, after all, “only a dog”.

In The Last Walk, bioethicist Jessica Pierce considers various aspects of living and coping with the ageing and death of a companion animal. She invites us on her journey with one of the dogs of her heart, the elderly Hungarian vizsla, Ody. What makes this book compelling is that the ethical dilemmas around practices of care and the decisions to be made are considered through the vehicle of the “Ody Journal” that Pierce kept of the last 14 months of life with Ody. A key theme is her discomfort with the certainties of what a “good death” might be for a companion dog, the point when human owners - they with the power over life and death - say with certainty that at this point in time, death is preferable to life. As Pierce puts it: “Does life ever become so burdensome for an animal that he or she would prefer death, or is this something we judge from the outside? Is it that their lives have become burdensome for them or for us? The more troublesome Ody becomes - the more he pees on the floor, the more often he barks for no reason at odd hours of the night, the more frequently he stands confused and panting in the middle of the kitchen while I’m trying to cook dinner - the more ambiguous the question of burden becomes.”

This ambiguity, she says, bothers her “like a splinter just under the skin of my conscience”. The effect of the book is to insert such a splinter under the skin of the readers’ own.

At the centre of The Last Walk is the “unknowability” of the non-human “pets” that we are often in a position to make profound decisions about. The structure of the book reflects the passage of time through Ody’s last months, beginning when he was old but in fair health and tracking his deterioration towards death. The early chapters discuss issues of ageing and the difficulties for both animals and their humans with the loss of faculties involved - both the increase in physical vulnerability and the onset of dementia. There is levity here, in tales of Ody’s adventures with the contents of the pantry, for example, alongside an insight into the incredible labour (and patience and kindness) that caring for an old dog involves should it be done well.

What makes reading this book so compelling is Pierce’s ability to set detail of the particular alongside the general. Ody is not an easy dog. In younger years, he was glamorous: “Robert Redford: Incredibly handsome. Red and regal, with perfect angular lines.” Even prior to the difficulties of old age, however, he was prone to anxiety. A “cup half empty kind of dog”, he is “Kierkegaard reincarnated … Dread on a grand scale woven into every fibre of his being.” He becomes, throughout the book, increasingly inscrutable to Pierce and recedes from her. As the book considers issues of animal happiness and awareness of death, pain and suffering, there is a continual questioning of what might apply to certain kinds of non-human animal, to dogs in particular, and finally to this particular dog. This attention to both the differences of species and the differences of the individual species member is what makes this book’s consideration of ethical dilemmas so nuanced.

These discussions are of interest not only to those general readers who live with, and care for, animal companions but also to those whose work involves teaching and thinking about practical ethics. The final chapters on palliative care, the pet hospice movement (of which I knew nothing) and debates on “natural deaths” in contrast to deaths by euthanasia would be of special relevance. As someone interested in sociological animal studies, I find a further strength of The Last Walk in the way the care and treatment of companion animals is contextualised by observations of the ambiguous relationships between people and “pets” in the US and the precarious status of non-human animals. There are discussions of the abandonment and euthanising of companion animals, particularly those who are ill and/or ageing, for the convenience, or in the interests, of those who ostensibly care for them. Pierce raises tricky questions about the notion of euthanasia as a “good death” for dogs, dog owners, veterinarians and shelter workers, and she makes provocative comparisons with the treatment of sick and dying humans. There are ethical inconsistencies I would dispute and issues that are over- or underplayed, but I was certainly provoked to think.

“No-one told me”, says Pierce, “that having an old dog would be hard and that his approaching death would strike so much fear into my heart.” Indeed. When I first heard of this book, I feared I could not face reading it, as one of the dogs of my own heart was elderly and failing, and I “knew” that we were into the last year of his life. I agreed to review it a couple of weeks after we had decided it was best to end the life of Kevin the Jack Russell terrier by lethal injection. So to say that the book had a particular resonance for me is something of an understatement.

I closed the book one evening just after the death of Ody and opened it the next, picking up at the last entry before the final chapter, “Remains”. The first sentence I read was: “I went to pick up Ody’s ashes today at the animal hospital.” That evening, I had collected Kevin’s ashes from the vet’s and unwrapped them from their rather overly elaborate crematorium packaging. The book ends with Pierce’s plans for her “last walk” with Ody, and it certainly helped me think about my own with Kevin, to scatter his bones. Reading The Last Walk was cathartic for me, and doubtless would be for anyone who has loved and lost a non-human animal companion, whether or not it was a dog. The arresting front cover image, simply an empty collar with an identity tag, is just what no “pet” owner wants to leave the vet’s with. I have just such an item in my desk drawer and couldn’t bear to look at it until I wrote this review. Kevin’s collar, I found, was most helpful as a prompt and as a means of holding open the pages of The Last Walk.

Few readers of this review will be as interested in animal studies as I am, but between 40 and 50 per cent of you will live with a dog or a cat. And for those of you especially, I would recommend this gripping, thoughtful and discomforting book. I can’t guarantee that you won’t cry, but don’t worry. Of one thing Jessica Pierce is very certain: it never is “only” a dog.

The author

“People and dogs absolutely start to resemble one another after living together for 10 or 15 years - so do human bonded-pairs, I think,” confirms bioethicist and author Jessica Pierce. “For my photo, I could just as well send in one of Maya, my little 10-year-old pointer mix. What I’m not sure about is whether people and their cats follow a similar trajectory.”

Iowa-born, California-raised Pierce sees writing about ethics as “a form of political action” and says her parents “encouraged me to question and develop (and live by) my values. When I was little, I wanted to grow up to be Jane Goodall.” Pierce now lives in Colorado in “a little town called Lyons, about 15 miles east of Boulder in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains” and wouldn’t live anywhere else, although “in election season, I sometimes fantasise about New Zealand”.

Educated at Harvard University (“cold and formal” but with “a level of intellectual rigour as yet unknown to me”) and the “much warmer, more nurturing” University of Virginia, Pierce now has “a very loose association” with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for Bioethics and Humanities.

“But I am really an independent entity. I stopped teaching about seven years ago, when I realised that writing is what I love most - that, and having total control over my own time. I was afraid to give up the academic title and connection; I worried nobody would listen to me or respect me. But that was totally unfounded. The internet allows me to have a network of colleagues, so I feel pretty connected despite working from home. And I never have to attend committee meetings.”

Although Harvard Divinity School turned her into an atheist, she has “spent the past two decades rediscovering my spirituality. It sounds cliched, but my church is nature. A long run on a mountain trail or a quiet walk under the trees is where I feel God at work.”

In her spare time, Pierce says, “I aspire to having a lush, productive garden but usually wind up with a couple of tomatoes and three or four woody carrots.”

Karen Shook

The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives

By Jessica Pierce
University of Chicago Press
2pp, £17.00
ISBN 9780226668468 and 6922041 (e-book)
Published 22 October 2012

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