Buffy the Kitty Slayer: An Obituary Before the Fact

001After our second child was born, my wife insisted that we get a pet. A pet, she argued, would help teach the kids responsibility, empathy for those things that depend on us, the value of unconditional love, and, eventually, about sadness and death. Having a pet would give them joy and be fun. Losing a pet, she noted, would help them deal with loss later in life.

Good arguments all, but I resisted. I’m no pet person and I had my doubts about any of those arguments. We’ll have the kids take out they trash and make their beds (responsibility), work the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving (empathy), hug and kiss them even when they drive us nuts (love), and periodically steal their toys (sadness), I told her. And all this without pet hair, fleas, and the added expense of another mouth to feed.

Naturally, we got a pet. (My stance on this issue was similar to our conversation about having children by the way. I didn’t want any; she wanted about 6. So we had 2. At least I got the tv I wanted. I was, of course, happily wrong on the child front. Without a doubt, having children has transformed our lives for the better but that’s for another day.)

Sadly, we will, probably within the next week or so, find out if losing a pet helps our kids deal with loss. Increasingly, our dog of 7 years spends her day hacking up whatever lungs she has left. Worse, we are starting to see the lights go out and the fear creep in as she looks at us.

Buffy the Kitty Slayer’s path to our doorstep was a circuitous one. Our first pet, Goldie, a cat rescued from my wife’s parent’s back yard, spent about a year here before our sneezes forced a change. Beautiful, calm, and definitely not hypo-allergenic, Goldie has lived the last 8 years with my parents growing fat and happy.

Never one to abandon her claim that the kids needed a pet, my wife gave two dogs an audition.

Blackie, an Australian sheep dog, lasted a month or two before we found her a ranch with room to roam. I liked Blackie because she kept the kids in line, nipping at their heels, but she needed space. And the neighbor kids were tired of holes in their pants and puncture marks on their ankles. Frankie the psycho dog followed. One day he loved us; the next day he was a mini-Cujo, mocking our fear as we huddled by the back door. When we returned him to the vet, they knew who he was. He is the only pet I know that came with a warranty.

You might imagine we would have learned our lesson. I noted (smugly I might add) that we should abandon the whole pet project and I asked my kids what their favorite toys were, already planning my midnight raid.

Instead, we drove out to the animal shelter and came home with a scruffy, Benji-looking rat-terrier mix with a penchant for running away and killing birds.

And I’m man enough to almost admit I might have been wrong. Certainly, our kids are as responsible as most teenagers, demonstrate their fair share of empathy, and know the value of love (I hope). (I could, of course, stick to my guns and argue about causation versus correlation, but that would seem stubbornly unseemly.) They have great memories with Buffy.

But here we sit. For the second time in a week, my wife and I spent most of the midnight hours petting but otherwise ineffectively comforting Buffy as she suffered through whatever congestion is mucking up her lungs.

Our dilemma, as many know, is that animal science probably has the ability to help. Even now, our vet has Buffy on a variety of pills that are supposed to reduce the fluid and increase the energy level. Our medicine cabinet is starting to look like the pharmacy counter. It’s an odd thing to be taking the same high blood pressure medicine as your dog. More than likely, we could call the vet, schedule a visit, probably do some tests, and prepare for some major medical procedure.

While her care and her health is our responsibility, we are also faced with a decision about other responsibilities. At what point, my wife asks, is the cost higher than the benefit? In a house where budgets are stretched thin, can we really justify $50.00 to a $100 a month for pills?

More importantly, at what point, we ask, are we keeping her alive unfairly, prolonging her life so that we can avoid saying goodbye? When does quality of life supersede quantity of days, months, and years?

And, we remind ourselves: While Buffy is an important part of our family history, she is a pet, an animal. Her existence is not defined by her higher level thought patterns but by a series of evolutionary tendencies—food, safety, survival. When those things are no longer attainable, her existence, her nature, is no longer sustainable. What then, we ask, is our responsibility? What would she have us do when she is hamstrung by illness and she can’t be a dog?

My wife and I have never really struggled with keeping the line between pet and person clear. I’m fairly certain we’ve never been to PetSmart and we’ve never pretended the dog was equal to a child. As products of a certain age and economic past, we grew up with pets who, often, either died violent deaths in the street or simply wandered off to a peaceful (or so we hoped) end. We both knew of pets mercifully killed at home in a back field, out of sight. Mercy, quite frankly, came at the end of a gun.

But those were decisions and things that happened somewhere else. In our families, there was no moral dilemma and the lines of demarcation between pet and person were always clear, and, seemingly, easy for grownups to make.

In the long run, I’m not sure what Buffy has taught my kids about anything, but I’m starting to understand what she is teaching my wife and I about sadness and responsibility. As I sit here today, I kind of wish we could have stuck to stealing the toys. At least we could have given those back.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

6 Responses to Buffy the Kitty Slayer: An Obituary Before the Fact

  1. Pingback: Growing Up Is Over Rated | Consistently Contradictory

  2. nicky301 says:

    We are facing the same thing right now, with our 13-year old chow-chow, Ginger has lived her entire life with us…we watched her being born at a friend’s house,, brought her home upon weaning, and she has ruled the house ever since. she has outlived three companion dogs, but now her hips are going out, she is losing her eyesight, and requires assistance to go outside (when she doesn’t just hang off the side of her bed and let it fall where she stands, which happens more and more.) Today she spent the afternoon outside watching me do yard work, and when I called her to come in, she did not respond. No head raise, no feeble tail wag, nothing. I went over, expecting to find her gone, but she was still breathing…her patch of sun was gone, and the cold ground had knocked her into a near coma. I brought her in, moved her bed closer to the heater, and slowly she revived. Now she is barking for her dinner, business as usual, but there cannot be much left; had I not brought her in, I would have probably buried her tonight, certainly by the morning. We face the same hard choices, with a complication – my wife is weeks deep into chemotherapy, sick as hell right now, and “quality of life” issues have subtle,somber undercurrents these days; decisions about when to give up aren’t as easy as they used to be, shadowed with all sorts of implications. I share your anguish, and your ambivalence. I keep hoping nature will do for me what I am unable to do for her, and soon, but I feel such a coward for that hope.

    • John Wegner says:

      Heading into 2007, we were preparing for my 6th chemo session. Without sounding flippant, it does put a damper on the holiday and I’m sorry to hear that she has to go through treatment. I am amazed, though, at the quality of medical care and the ability of oncologists so keep the faith. There aren’t really words that can sooth, but I wish you and your wife luck as you go through these difficult times.

  3. jmgoyder says:

    This is so sad but it sounds like Buffy is suffering and needs to be put out of her misery. We had to do this a few months ago. I’m sorry.

  4. huntmode says:

    Sorry to hear about Buffy’s health and I know the decision you’re facing. I have always had a deal with my cats and dogs. Being generally broke, I took care of shots and their fertility cut-off, but to each of them, I said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I want you to live long and healthy lives. Do not feel you must stay on my account when the time has come to leave. I never want you to be in pain. But, you will have to tell me when it is time so that I can do my job, which is to make your end as peaceful as possible.” Yes, the decision is tough, but every cat and dog made it clear to me when it was time and I kept my word. And, they kept their side of the deal, living long and giving great love. My heart is with you two.

  5. The Believer says:

    Sorry…there are no easy answers with pets. You have to draw a financial line where it makes sense for you, but since emotions are involved, that’s tough to do. Responsibility, mercy…sigh. All pet owners come to this eventually, but ugh. I’m sorry you have come to it now. It hurts.

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Washington Monthly

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Joanne Jacobs

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