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How Could You? 2

I wanted to relay a recent piece that I came across; written by Jim Willis in 2001 [1], it is one of the top-cited essays of its kind and is still making the rounds 8 years later:

When I was a puppy, I entertained you with my antics and made you laugh. You called me your child, and despite a number of chewed shoes and a couple of murdered throw pillows, I became your best friend.

Whenever I was “bad,” you’d shake your finger at me and ask “How could you?” — but then you’d relent and roll me over for a bellyrub.

My housebreaking took a little longer than expected, because you were terribly busy, but we worked on that together. I remember those nights of nuzzling you in bed and listening to your confidences and secret dreams, and I believed that life could not be any more perfect. We went for long walks and runs in the park, car rides, stops for ice cream (I only got the cone because “ice cream is bad for dogs” you said), and I took long naps in the sun waiting for you to come home at the end of the day.

Gradually, you began spending more time at work and on your career, and more time searching for a human mate. I waited for you patiently, comforted you through heartbreaks and disappointments, never chided you about bad decisions, and romped with glee at your homecomings, and when you fell in love.

She, now your wife, is not a “dog person” — still I welcomed her into our home, tried to show her affection, and obeyed her. I was happy because you were happy. Then the human babies came along and I shared your excitement.

I was fascinated by their pinkness, how they smelled, and I wanted to mother them, too. Only she and you worried that I might hurt them, and I spent most of my time banished to another room, or to a dog crate.

Oh, how I wanted to love them, but I became “prisoner of love.” As they began to grow, I became their friend. They clung to my fur and pulled themselves up on wobbly legs, poked fingers in my eyes, investigated my ears, and gave me kisses on my nose. I loved everything about them and their touch — because your touch was now so infrequent — and I would’ve defended them with my life if need be. I would sneak into their beds and listen to their worries and secret dreams, and together we waited for the sound of your car in the driveway.

There had been a time, when others asked you if you had a dog, that you produced a photo of me from your wallet and told them stories about me. These past few years, you just answered “yes” and changed the subject. I had gone from being “your dog” to “just a dog,” and you resented every expenditure on my behalf.

Now, you have a new career opportunity in another city, and you and they will be moving to an apartment that does not allow pets.

You’ve made the right decision for your “family,” but there was a time when I was your only family.

I was excited about the car ride until we arrived at the animal shelter. It smelled of dogs and cats, of fear, of hopelessness.

You filled out the paperwork and said “I know you will find a good home for her.” They shrugged and gave you a pained look. They understand the realities facing a middle-aged dog, even one with “papers.”

You had to pry your son’s fingers loose from my collar as he screamed “No, Daddy! Please don’t let them take my dog!”

And I worried for him, and what lessons you had just taught him about friendship and loyalty, about love and responsibility, and about respect for all life.

You gave me a good-bye pat on the head, avoided my eyes, and politely refused to take my collar and leash with you. You had a deadline to meet and now I have one, too. After you left, the two nice ladies said you probably knew about your upcoming move months ago and made no attempt to find me another good home. They shook their heads and asked “How could you?”

They are as attentive to us here in the shelter as their busy schedules allow. They feed us, of course, but I lost my appetite days ago. At first, whenever anyone passed my pen, I rushed to the front, hoping it was you that you had changed your mind — that this was all a bad dream… or I hoped it would at least be someone who cared, anyone who might save me.

When I realized I could not compete with the frolicking for attention of happy puppies, oblivious to their own fate, I retreated to a far corner and waited. I heard her footsteps as she came for me at the end of the day, and I padded along the aisle after her to a separate room. A blissfully quiet room. She placed me on the table and rubbed my ears, and told me not to worry. My heart pounded in anticipation of what was to come, but there was also a sense of relief.

The prisoner of love had run out of days.

As is my nature, I was more concerned about her. The burden which she bears weighs heavily on her, and I know that, the same way I knew your every mood.

She gently placed a tourniquet around my foreleg as a tear ran down her cheek. I licked her hand in the same way I used to comfort you so many years ago. She expertly slid the hypodermic needle into my vein.

As I felt the sting and the cool liquid coursing through my body, I lay down sleepily, looked into her kind eyes and murmured “How could you?”

Perhaps because she understood my dog speak, she said “I’m so sorry.” She hugged me, and hurriedly explained it was her job to make sure I went to a better place, where I wouldn’t be ignored or abused or abandoned, or have to fend for myself — a place of love and light so very different from this earthly place.

And with my last bit of energy, I tried to convey to her with a thump of my tail that my “How could you?” was not directed at her. It was directed at you, My Beloved Master, I was thinking of you.

I will think of you and wait for you forever. May everyone in your life continue to show you so much loyalty.

That it’s powerful and inspiring is a severe understatement. Incidentally, I happened upon the letter in Toronto’s pet section of Craigslist – some passer byer deemed it necessary to remind those who looking to part with their “family.”

As a recent and first-time dog owner, I’ve developed a new-found duty to instill a deep and unrelenting sense of caution in anyone looking to adopt a pet: in my view, it is a profound, life-altering decision that is far too often taken lightly. There aren’t nearly enough warning signs out there informing would-be adopters of the true nature of responsible pet ownership – this point can’t be understated and is an entire topic in its own right.

However, the topic also touches on another sensitive discussion that’s been at the forefront of our lives for the last few months: the practice of neutering male dogs. (While much of the philosophy behind the argument can extend across genders, I must admit that we’ve focused almost exclusively on the male ramifications in our research – there are some notable differences between the two.)

There are generally 3 arguments in favor of neuterings: sterilization, behavioral (marking their territory, roaming, etc.), and prevention of testicular cancer. The cited disadvantages are numerous too: increased risk of obesity, a fourfold increased risk in prostate cancer, a twofold increase risk of osteosarcoma (bone cancer), increased risk of hemangiosarcoma and urinary tract cancer, increase risk of adverse reactions to vaccinations, and some cases of hormone-responsive alopecia (hair loss).

The behavioral aspect of the debate is largely irrelevant, given the gravity of the surrounding factors. While respecting the seriousness of the overpopulation risk, I do think that most owners and vets alike approach the neutering debate as “no brainer” under a false pretence of benefiting the animal’s long-term health and happiness. At the most primitive level, I don’t think we can summarily dismiss 100,000 years of years of evolutionary advancement to suggest that removal of this organ somehow improves overall health and wellbeing! Nor do I see any convincing science that supports that line of thought.

But clearly, quality of life, for the wider community (and not the individual in question), is what the debate boils down to. To that end, anyone who’s considering keeping their male intact must also accept the full responsibility that either the dog will not be allowed to run unsupervised or be willing to bear the full consequences of his actions (in owning the full and true lifetime cost of accidental births and ensuring the same quality of life for the litter that was afforded to the father). The implementation of this, of course, present some challenges – and accidents do happen.

An interesting exercise, data permitting, would be to segment the unwanted pet population into groups based on whether they are a result of: a) commercialization, b) indifference and ignorance or c) bonafide accidents between dogs who’s owners have otherwise taken every precaution.

Responsible dog owners have an obligation to review the facts and seek different opinions. With Jim Will’s narrative in mind, and the thousands of similar deaths every day at shelters around the world, decide what makes sense for you and yours – and keep the following words of wisdom in mind too:

Either is okay as long as you understand the pros and cons and get the information from good sources; i.e. veterinarians who are honest. Be careful when reading about some of the ratios on developing cancers in neutered animals. The veterinary literature is fraught with studies that lack power, especially ones in veterinary oncology. You would have to go back to some of those papers and look at how many dogs are in the study and look at statistical significance. I do believe that in regards to hemangiosarcoma (a terrible cancer of blood vessels that can appear anywhere in the body but most commonly found in the spleen), this is a repeatable finding that more dogs that are neutered/spayed are overrepresented.

The most important thing for you to realize if you chose not to neuter your dog is that at some point in the future when he becomes an adult, it may be important to consider neutering your pet as a therapy for an underlying disease. For instance, in diabetes, the presence of progesterone antagonizes insulin, therefore spaying an animal may help better control diabetes that is otherwise difficult to regulate. A perianal adenoma is a hormone responsive disease. If your dog were to develop this benign tumour, it would likely recur if you did not neuter him.

[1] – A note from the Author: If “How Could You?” brought tears to your eyes as you read it, as it did to mine as I wrote it, it is because it is the composite story of the millions of formerly “owned “pets who die each year in American & Canadian animal shelters. Anyone is welcome to distribute the essay for a non-commercial purpose, as long as it is properly attributed with the copyright notice. Please use it to help educate, on your websites, in newsletters, on animal shelter and vet office bulletin boards. Tell the public that the decision to add a pet to the family is an important one for life, that animals deserve our love and sensible care, that finding another appropriate home for your animal is your responsibility and any local humane society or animal welfare league can offer you good advice, and that all life is precious. Please do your part to stop the killing, and encourage all spay & neuter campaigns in order to prevent unwanted animals. -Jim Willis

  • Mark

    Good article Nariman. I thought this was another piece on the reunion of White Wolf. :)

    Good re-enforcement that there’s always another side, even to no-brainers.

    On the other hand, I’ve gotta ask… as humans with day jobs, how informed can we be in a locked debate between experts with arguably ‘good’ agendas (ie. not motivated by greed).

    I think in some cases we may owe more responsibly to our morals than rational energy to weigh the greater good vs. the animal vs. ourselves.

  • Nariman

    Thanks, Mark.

    You’re right in that it’s incredibly exhausting (trying to decide for yourself); but I also think digging deeper to find your own truth over heavily syndicated ones is much easier now than it’s ever been.

    I’m not sure what you mean by owing more to our morals? I can say that I sympathize with the view that unfounded belief is the enemy of truth :) For better or worse, some seek truth above all: I’ve learned to temper this as I age, but it still rears its head in some areas.