I hate blue tarps. This may seem like a strange antipathy. Ask most people what comes to mind when they see a blue tarp, and I’m guessing they will say, “camping,” or “shade,” or “firewood.” When I unfold a tarp and hear that rusty plastic rattle, my mind sees the stains of fluids of decay; I smell death. Blue tarps are shrouds. They cover the corpses of my failures.
I have touched too many blue tarps already this summer. Have overheard too many phone calls where one side of the conversation tells the whole story.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is he old, or…?”
“I see. Yes, that’s too bad. Yes, we can take care of that for you. I’m sorry it’s not working.”
“Will you bring him here, or do you want the doctor to come to you?”
“Well, you can call the rendering company, or there is another number that I can give you.”
“All right, you’re down on the book for tomorrow morning.”
I know what the appointment will be even before our office manager hangs up the phone with a sigh and says, “I’m sorry. You’ve got another one tomorrow.”
I’m sorry, too. I recognize the necessity of euthanasia, and in an intellectual way, I’m glad to belong to a profession that possesses a legal means of ending suffering. But those are abstractions.
At least this caller didn’t appear to be price shopping. Shopped euthanasias are the worst. When a client’s first words are, “What will it cost to put my horse to sleep?” it doesn’t really matter what rationale is given. That first sentence is an all too revealing code for “I can’t afford to keep my horse.” We’ve had too many of those this summer. Too many slightly decrepit, but not-quite-suffering horses. Too many hard-pressed owners burning in guilt. Too many blue tarps.
People are sometimes horrified that I am willing to kill an animal that is not in extremis. Sometimes I am horrified, too. “I went to school to help animals, to fix them,” the idealistic voice in my head cries. Her voice is fading, worn hoarse by years of reality. Reality is not always a shiny place with gleaming horses recuperating nicely in tidy stables and fat, retired ponies grazing emerald pastures.
Today’s reality holds too many unwanted and unusable horses: the old, the intractable, the chronically or expensively lame or ill. Reality is several years of high hay prices, high fuel costs, lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and low prices for marketable horses. In modern society, the horse is a luxury, a reflection of discretionary income that for many is dwindling rapidly. The wanted horse is a luxury, the unwanted horse, a burden.
Under pressure from groups both well-meaning and manipulative, equine slaughter has been outlawed in many states and faces a national ban. Most Americans react with revulsion to the notion of equine slaughter. The idea doesn’t thrill me, either. However, banning the slaughter of horses hasn’t changed the ultimate outcome; the scene has simply shifted to one of prolonged neglect or meaningless death.
Yet, I don’t question clients too closely when they opt for euthanasia. When appropriate, I try to offer other options for a horse that is not clearly suffering. These days, however, options are limited. Rescue organizations are overwhelmed, and I can’t pressure someone to choose between feeding a horse and feeding a child. In the final analysis, I know that this horse will die. Faced with this inevitability, I would prefer his death to come at my hands. This is my job, my responsibility. The owners always offer explanations and excuses. I hate the excuses. Not because I don’t sympathize, but because I do. I join them in this hideous hemorrhage of guilt, grief, and lost dreams. I hate the excuses because part of my job is to take the client’s guilt and make it mine.
So many people ask the same question, regardless of the circumstances of the euthanasia. “Do you think this is the right thing to do?”
I know the answer. There is only one answer to this question. I don’t care what the circumstances are; by the time this question is asked, I have done everything within my power for my patient. At this point, my duty is to my client. “Yes, you are making a good choice for him.” The choice is always right. By this point, the alternatives are worse.
“How can you stand to do this?” More tears have accompanied this question than I care to remember. My answer never changes. “This is both the worst and the best thing that I do. Every one gets to me. Every one hurts. The day that it doesn’t hurt anymore will be the day that I have to find a different job.” Privately, I wonder when that day will come. Every time that plunger depresses, I feel a bit of my soul slide into the vein with that blue syrup. How many times until there is nothing left?