The Giver of Death
[Editor’s Note: Some may find this entry controversial, or even distressing. I am not trying to decide this matter or indicate what to think or feel. Instead, I am presenting a thoughtful, well-written, and clear article about the matter penned by one who is involved on a regular basis.
I acknowledge upfront that most traditional Jewish teaching is that animals, and by extension, pets are not people, and do not have souls in the same way that people do. For that reason, some would say that the idea of including pets in this blog as part of the conversation around Jewish end of life continuum matters is inappropriate. There are also those who would declare with just as much passion and conviction that pets are a member of their family, they know that their pet has a soul, and they grieve them just as the loss of any other family member.
Complicating the matter further, what the author describes is a form of euthanasia. The very idea of euthanasia of a person is anathema to traditional values of Judaism, as most understand them. The highest value is often expressed as saving and/or preserving a life. Even so, there have been situations we have all read about when it would have seemed a kindness to some to end a life of torture, or to allow a person to choose to die with dignity. These very situations are very real, and have proven to be among the most difficult and troubling issues faced today, and even have impact in the minds of some in the Jewish world regarding how death is declared and whether specific organ donations are ever possible – serious matters with far-ranging import.
These are the issues underlying this article. Again, neither the author nor I as editor presume to direct anyone in how or what to choose, or what values to support. This is presented as a thought piece, based on the author’s experiences and responses.
As hard as the issues raised may be for some readers, and with all due respect, I am proud to offer you this article written by a congregant and friend. If there is any criticism or censure to be had for including it, it is entirely on me; the choice to publish this entry is mine alone. JB]
I am a veterinarian. I do house calls for pets. I vaccinate cats, counsel owners about flea control, or treat ear infections in the comfort of the owner’s home. The pets are calmer and the owners are happier when procedures are done in the home.
And I do at-home euthanasia. I do a lot of them. I didn’t expect that when I started the house call practice. People who will not call me out for anything else will call me to an at-home euthanasia. For so many pets, the veterinary hospital has bad associations, especially if they’ve been coming regularly for treatments. Many clients want their pet’s last moments to be in a favorite place, and I can help with that. I’ve euthanized pets that were under the kitchen table, in the back yard, or in the owner’s lap.
I am often asked, “How can you do it?” Well, I’m a doctor. I took an oath to relieve animal suffering. If I can’t cure the patient, at least I can stop the suffering, and I tell myself, over and over again, that it’s worth something to be able to do that. That doesn’t change the fact that I, who love animals, am deliberately putting one to death. I am taking away something very precious to a client. No matter how old or how sickly a pet is, it’s still there – until I take it away.
And yet, for so many of these pets, it’s a peaceful end to a long life, an end to pain and suffering and hopeless debilitation. Clients agonize over this decision, which is a combination of authorizing the execution of a friend and doing one last favor to a beloved animal. I offer information, discuss end-of-life issues, quality of life assessments, and anything else they need to talk about, but only the client can make the final decision to let the pet go.
I do everything I can to make the pet’s passing as easy as possible. And before I put the needle in, I mentally recite a short prayer in Hebrew that I composed, that God will bring peace to this dog or cat. If, as the Torah tells us, God cares about birds in the nest and oxen yoked to a millstone, then surely He must care about beloved pets. And even if not, then we hope that He cares about people who are deeply saddened by their loss.
I hate that phrase “put to sleep” as it is used for pet euthanasia. It’s simply not true. If I truly put an animal to sleep – for example, under anesthesia – I fully expect it to wake up. I am not putting an animal to sleep when I euthanize it. I am putting it down, I am humanely killing it, I am helping it to die, I am performing euthanasia, I am letting it pass. I tell parents not to use the term “put to sleep” with children. It’s a lie, and you should never lie to a child. A mother once told me how she explained to her four-year old that he’d have to say good-bye to Fluffy because she was getting put to sleep and he wouldn’t see her again. When he was later told, “Johnny, it’s time for you to be put to sleep,” he was terrified, and didn’t sleep normally for four months.
The hardest thing to hear is silence. When I think a pet is gone, I take my stethoscope and listen for a heartbeat, concentrating as hard as I can, to be absolutely certain that I hear only silence. I won’t pronounce a pet dead until I can hear absolute silence. I sometimes wonder what the client is thinking, as I listen, sometimes for almost a minute, totally focused on hearing nothing.
It’s one of the ironies of life that I receive more nice thank-you notes from owners whose pets I’ve euthanized than from owners whose pets I’ve treated. I do send each client a sympathy card, and regular clients are also notified of a donation to a pet foundation in their pet’s memory. Maybe it’s my way of doing what I can for them, after having euthanized their pet.
So many times I’ve let a pet pass peacefully in its own home, and the owner has told me, “I wish I could go like that, when the time comes.” I never know quite what to say. I’ve been asked, “Will I see my dog in heaven?” I’m a veterinarian, not a theologian, but I try to say something.
One bad week I did five euthanasia procedures in three days. I was feeling horrible that all I could do that week, it seemed, was to kill animals. Yes, I was doing it peacefully and respectfully and out of concern for their ultimate welfare and to stop suffering – but I was still killing them. No matter how I rationalize that I’m doing some good in the world, this is a hard thing for a healer to do.
But when I give death, it so often truly is a gift. Sometimes, as the pet passes on, it will visibly relax and look happier than it has for days. I remember one dog who had been unable to walk for days that wagged its tail as it died. I hope it was thinking of chasing balls again. And I remind myself that being able to give death is a privilege, and one that I am deeply thankful for.
Dr. Ruth E. Chodrow graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and obtained a Master of Science in zoology from the University of Massachusetts. She earned her V.M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Chodrow is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the D.C. Academy of Veterinary Medicine, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and the Blue Ridge Veterinary Medical Association. Her hobbies include calligraphy, needlework, music, and leyning Torah. She is especially interested in animal welfare and the treatment of pet behavior problems.
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