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Under the Blue Tarps

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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?

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • xxxxxx

    Don’t feel like you are losing your soul, think of it as deep caring. As mentioned, the alternatives are worse, so you do what needs doing as a help to the equine. You have already said the truth, there is no place else for them in these time. Many bad things could happen, so this choice is best at this time. I really feel for you, but would be making the same choices to put them down if I could not keep them. No later regrets of “what do you think happened to XXX? if” to think on. It is a final answer and the one I will choose. Thank you for being there for the horses.

  • Monica Whitmer

    One day last October, I stood beside my 38 year old mare. She was blind. I had treated her teeth, but she had lost so much weight over the summer when her long time stable mate died, and I could Not find another friend for her that would not pick on her. I hand fed her grass. I stood beside her bucket begging her to eat her senior feed. She ate to obey me, not because she wanted to. She was sad. She was lonely. She was thin. And winter was coming. My vet came and we all had to say goodbye. He had known this mare and me for over 30 years. It was just the 3 of us, on a still warm October day. She wasn’t in pain at the moment. But the winter was coming, and I could not bear to think of her thin body suffering a deep winter’s chill. I knew it was time. The back hoe was coming that afternoon.

    We gave her the shot and watched her fall to the ground. We cried together. And he told me that when he was just starting out, he asked his senior partner vet if it got easier over time to put a horse to sleep. And the old man said “No, wait until you are putting down horses that you foaled and watched grow up and sometimes nursed back to health. It just gets harder”. And after telling me that, he said “Like today”.

    She was well loved for a lifetime, and died at the hands of two people who cared for her. She was blessed. It snowed two days later. I was glad she was warm in the ground, even if she did have to spend a couple hours under a blue tarp on a warm October afternoon.

    Thank you for people like him, and like you, who offer a peaceful end when it is the right thing to do.

  • Oh my …. oh my … you witness unbearable sorrow and we are so incredibly beholden to you for it. Not only you, but my friend who works animal control at our county kill shelter. Just before she puts the dead animals into the oven, she takes off their collars. And hangs them over head. The rabies tags click and ping like grotesque wind chimes of death.

    You are a brave, courageous and caring person. I don’t cry often, but I did when I read this.

  • Great writing and great comments that brought tears to my eyes too.

    Welcome to Blogcritics, Christy, I hope it gives you a great outlet – and some relief – for stories like this.

    Thank you.

  • Doug Hunter

    Why can’t we just eat horse meat like in other sensible countries? No need to neglect and starve unwanted animals just sell them to the slaughterhouse. No need to pay a vet, butchers pay you. No blue tarps and wasted carcasses, more food for humanity.

  • Doug, you think France is a sensible country then? I’d like to see you square that with your political views! LOL!!

    I’ve actually eaten horse meat and it isn’t really that great. I doubt very much that it will catch on as a mainstream food.

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ve been an equine practitioner for 8 years nowan and I’ve worked around horses for almost 30. This year is the worst I have ever seen in the horse world. This piece definitely reflects some of that sorrow and frustration.

    Doug, (and please no one slam me too hard for this) I don’t disagree with you. While slaughter would not have been the end I would have chosen for my own horse, I was very much opposed to California’s equine slaughter ban. I and many of my colleagues feel that we have seen an increased number of neglect cases in horses that would have otherwise had a market value. To me, that waste is the immorality. I wish that slaughter transport and facilities had been more diligently regulated instead of banned outright.

  • Ok, so I haven’t figured out how my comment posted twice. Sorry.
    Monica, I am so sorry for your loss of your mare. In case it wasn’t clear in my piece, you made a very brave and caring decision for her. I went through the same thing 4 years ago with my own horse. She was 34, and I had owned her since I was 13. Situations like yours are the “good” side of what I do. Never easy, but definitely worthwhile.

  • p.s. Your writing is outstanding. Read through your blog and really am blown away by your writing.

  • STM

    Rosey: “Doug, you think France is a sensible country then? I’d like to see you square that with your political views!”

    Yep, I was wondering too how that one would square up.

    Somehow, I just can’t reconcile the idea of “civilised” France with their penchant for eating horsemeat. I mean, they even have special horsemeat butcher’s shops.

    Aside from all their other failings (and they are legion :), that one automatically means they get crossed off my list of “sensible” countries.

    The fact that they were still messily chopping off people’s heads until the late 1970s is another. Somehow, that image doesn’t square with my idea of civilised either.

    The only other place I’ve eaten horsemeat was is in the old Soviet Union in the early 80s.

    With fresh meat in Moscow seemingly restricted to Tuesdays and Thursdays (or something like that), a waitress delivered what looked like a nice juicy steak to the table next to me in a restaurant.

    I said: “I’ll have what they’re having”. She said: “You’re English aren’t you? Are you sure?”. Close but no cigar on the nationality and it should have been my cue to ask what it was, however my stomach wanted it to be a steak and my brain never kicked in.

    When it arrived, I took a bite and realised it was horse. I ate it, because I think if an animal has died to feed you, you should at least do it the courtesy of eating, otherwise why did it die?

    But Doug, I’d hardly describe the old Soviet Union as a sensible country, and nor would you I suspect especially in light of your political views.

    Meanwhile, Christy is dead right. My view: If you can’t afford to keep a horse, don’t get one in the first place. They’re not toys. If down the track, after making some sacrifices to keep one and you really find you can’t afford it, go out of your way to find some one who’ll take it over.

    Horses spend most of their lives in service to us and deserve to live out their days in a paddock somewhere as they grow old.

    Christy: This week, I rediscovered this film clip and song from about riding horses on the beach in Australia, which reminded be of why I loved growing up in Oz in the ’70s. They are magnificent animals and deserve to be given all care and love.

    Blue tarps would be the furthest thing from the minds of these kids.

  • STM, thanks for posting that clip. Made me smile. Unfortunately, in our area especially, there are simply no more homes for unwanted horses. Rescues and shelters are maxed out and we are in a high forclosure area. If I had my way, every potential horse owner would have to go through an exhaustive economic analysis of horse ownership. But, then, I rarely get my way.

  • STM

    Thanks Christy.

    The place where they are riding on the beach is just above the Sunshine Coast in south-eastern Queensland, on the Pacific east coast of Australia – hence the song title Capricorn Dancer (which I think is also actually the name of a horse), as it’s right on the edge of the Tropic of Capricorn.

    I used to go surfing up there years ago, and on the far northern coast of New South Wales, the bordering state to the south, and there’d be people riding on the beach, roadside fruit and vegie stalls, pineapples, fresh sugar cane, watermelon you could just pick from a field, etc.

    It hasn’t changed that much, either.

    You could rent a farmhouse back then for a couple of bucks a week and people used to build tree houses close to the beach and anyone could use them to stay in. Oh, and there was plenty of roll-your-own goodvibes, if my memory serves correct 🙂

    I must admit I prefer surfboards to horses because they don’t cost anything to keep, but I guess we’re lucky down here in that we’ve really been spared the worst of the global financial crisis.

    Somehow, it didn’t affect us, so the kind of stuff you’re going through up there isn’t happening here to the same degree. I’ve always thought we were the lucky country but on that score, it’s turned out to be true.

    I feel sorry for many of those in the northern hemisphere who’ve been affected by the greed of the Wall St and London bankers, though.

    It’s not fair that their desire to line their pockets has cost everyone else.

    And not fair to the horses you’re covering with tarpaulins, either, or their owners.

    Cheers Christy. Good luck. Nice writing, too, BTW.

  • This article was an intense read, but very well done. I see that you will have no problem with that novel, Christy.

  • Thanks, Caroline!