A few weeks ago we picked up a dead dog. It was my fourth day of on-the-job training on the animal ambulance and, in what seems to be becoming a pattern on my shifts, all of the calls that we were sent out on were for animals that were already deceased. The dog – a beautiful Irish setter – was the last call of the day and although it was also the toughest (emotionally speaking) it was also the one that left me feeling most hopeful.
To explain why this was, I have to go back a few weeks further and tell the story of another dog. As I already mentioned, I seem to have the “luck” of the draw that when I’m on duty we get dispatched to pick up cadavers: a pigeon that flew into a window, a duck that got hit by a car, a cat that was found floating in the canal…. It’s all part of the job and honestly I really don’t mind doing it. I’m not disturbed by seeing these animals and take heart in knowing that at least they’re not suffering. At the same time, I expressed to Roos that I was hoping for some more calls dealing with live critters. As odd as it sounds, working with live animals is in many ways more challenging than dealing with dead ones and I’d like to experience some more challenging calls while I’m still under the guidance of a patient trainer like Roos.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. After an uneventful day I got my challenge. The last call we got dispatched on that day was for a dog that needed to be taken to the veterinary hospital to be put to sleep. Apparently the owner had himself recently been hospitalized for a stroke and was unable to take the dog himself. I was nervous before we even got there, not knowing what to expect. What kind of condition would the dog be in and how would I deal with the emotions of the owner? I knew if someone were coming to take my dog to be put down I would be a sobbing wreck and I hoped that I could remain unemotional and do my work in the face of such a heartbreaking scene.
As expected, the scene was heartbreaking but not in the way I had anticipated. As Roos and I walked into the living room I stopped short and tried not to betray my shock and disgust. I could hear Roos quietly gasp and when I looked at her face I knew she was just as shocked and trying to remain professional. What we saw there on a blanket in front of the heater was Rambo, a little Yorkshire Terrier, stinking, more dead than alive, unable to move or lift his head. It was only when you went to pet the dog that he showed any sign of life, feebly trying to turn his little head in the direction of the hand, his eyes so deeply sunken in the sockets that you couldn’t see them. There were more disturbing details, but for the sake of any squeamish readers, I won’t go into them. It was obvious that this poor dog had been suffering for quite a while, and anyone with any sense and compassion would have realized that Rambo should have been put down long before we were called in to collect him. And it wasn’t as if the owner saw this but was unable to act due to his health. His stroke had occurred only two days earlier and his dog had clearly been sick for a very long time. In fact, it was the social worker who called on him to see how he was doing after his release from the hospital who called the animal protection league when she saw the state the dog was in. The owner seemed to not even be aware that the poor thing was suffering. Even when we were there, he acted as if it was simply a matter of old age. I heard later from Roos that the people at the Veterinary Hospital where the dog was taken were also shocked at the state of the animal and said that it was definitely borderline cruelty/neglect.
Fast forward a few weeks to the call to come collect the Irish Setter. Again, it was the last call of the day, and again I had no idea what to expect. All we’d heard was that the vet had been to the house and put the dog to sleep. Upon arrival, we were met by a man with red eyes and a tear-stained face. He led us into the living room where we could see the dog, “asleep” on the floor. Two small children, too young to really understand what was going on were running up and down the stairs, but the parents – a young Canadian couple – were comforting each other, and looking lovingly at their recently deceased friend. They told us the story. The dog had been 12 years old, they’d brought him along with several other much loved pets when they moved from Canada to Amsterdam. He had had hip dysplasia and malignant tumors in his neck. They had the tumors removed but they’d come back and were spreading. They wanted to spare their old friend – who had been in their lives longer than their kids – from any further pain. They were so clearly heartbroken to have made this decision, and the tears streamed down their faces as we put their old pup on a stretcher and carried him to the ambulance. I held back tears myself while they said one final goodbye before we closed the doors.
Roos and I both took a deep breath and were quiet for a minute when we drove off. I admitted to her that I had a lump in my throat and had been holding back tears at the scene. She told me she felt the same way. And yet, as heartbreaking a scene as it was, it gave me hope. After the situation with Rambo a few weeks earlier, it was encouraging to realize that there were caring pet owners out there, people who truly loved their animals and wanted the best for them, even if that was death. That image of the little Yorkie had been haunting me and the anger I felt toward his owner had been building up with no outlet. Seeing this family letting go of their beloved pet with so much love gave me hope and helped me to let go of the anger and disgust I had been holding on to for the last couple of weeks. I know I’ll see more scenes that anger and disturb me. I know that’s par for the course. As long as I can hold on to the knowledge that there are people out there who, like this family, love their animals and do right by them, I think I can keep from letting the bad scenes eat away at me.