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By Tania Duratovic
‘How Long Will It All Take?’
Today I found out that one of our loving cats, Pema, has got cancer. It is in her nose and her throat and there is not much anyone can do. On the phone, the veterinarian even offered to my husband that since she is currently under anaesthetic, they could leave her there, i.e., let her die there and then.
I am looking at a photo of her I have on my laptop as I write this. I am in Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal, thousands of miles away from Pema at home in Sydney, Australia, with my husband. Tears are streaming down my face, but not necessarily because she is going to die very soon, but because before she does, she will have to undergo great physical suffering of which I cannot explain to her nor can I do a lot to ease.
The veterinarian, when offering the choice to “euthanize” Pema, did so in the belief that this was a good option to avoid her suffering. However, as Buddhists, doing such a thing is prematurely ending another’s life, i.e., killing, even though one believes one is doing so out of compassion. The suffering that being is experiencing will still need to be experienced somewhere, sometime and may even end up being greater.
But when we as Buddhists choose to “put down” an animal, what really is our motivation? Ending our suffering or our pets’? I know I am totally dreading when Pema’s cancer starts to take more of an effect and she begins to feel the pain and miserableness of it all. I feel for my husband who is all alone at home trying to deal with this. I am torn between rushing home and leaving my work here at the Animal Liberation Sanctuary or staying to take care of the animals’ needs here, which are many. Much of me wants to see Pema, to stroke her, to say soothing words to her, but another part of me doesn’t want to see her deteriorate or have to say goodbye.
Pema for the moment is reasonably OK. She is still talkative, though perhaps a little less, and is still, thank goodness, eating, although has lost a substantial amount of weight. “How long will it all take?” I ask over the phone. I know the answer. There is none – no one knows. Why? Because most people do not wait to find out how long it takes for their pet to die. They choose the option to euthanize.
It Was Apparent That Max Needed Help
We have had this experience a few times, though in no way does it make this time any easier. I recall one cat we rescued, Max. He was quite an old boy, 15, and was a Tonkinese. He was very attached to his “owners,” but the father died and the rest of the family didn’t want to keep him for various reasons. We adopted him knowing that he didn’t otherwise have much of a chance given his age (and his demanding cries for attention!) We had Pema at the time. She was probably about two years old. One evening we came home from our Dharma center and Pema charged down the hall and it looked like she had bowled Max over. He suddenly started to walk a bit funny. This rapidly worsened and he began dragging his back legs. We thought Pema had hurt him accidentally.
It was 11 p.m. and it was apparent that Max needed help. We rushed him to one of the three 24-hour emergency clinics we have in Sydney, which fortunately for all of us, is not too far from our home. Max was in a huge amount of pain.
To cut a long story short, Max suffered some form of paralysis from a clot. The vets gave us the option of “putting him down” or trying this fancy expensive medication, which they weren’t sure would work anyway. We opted for the fancy medication. Before we left Max there in the hospital, we asked them to put some drops of blessed water and crushed mani pill into his drinking water every day and stick a picture of His Holiness on his cage. We gave instructions that if he died, they were to touch his head first with a picture of a stupa we left them. (Anything more would have been even weirder than all this already was to them.) Max survived the night. And the night after that. We visited him in hospital for a week. The staff were all amazed that not only had he survived, but he was starting to get feeling back in his legs. One of the vet nurses decided it was “the holy water.” He declared to us that he had been to Thailand and seen some “Buddhist stuff” there.
Max came home with us at the end of the week. Gradually he got feeling back in all of his legs except for the very tip on his toes on one foot. Pema was happy to see him, although after spending his previous life as the sole cat of the household, I’m not sure Max felt the same about seeing her!
Max also had a heart condition, we discovered, so he was on daily medication for that. Then he developed water in his lungs, so more medicines. But he was still happy Max. About 18 months later, we noticed that he was looking at his bowl of water for long periods of time but not drinking. We had recently nursed my parents’ Siamese cat through renal failure till he died, so we knew the signs. We were sure Max must have it too. But I had to be sure 100% just in case it was something else that we could treat. Reluctantly, my husband took Max up to the 24-hour hospital to see the feline specialist. He had a meeting that afternoon, so dropped Max off before hand to have some tests done and would pick him up on his way home afterwards.
When it came time to pick up Max, my husband asked the hospital staff if he was ready to go home and what the test results showed. It turned out they did not do any tests. They concluded that indeed he did have renal failure and should remain in hospital and really should be euthanized. My husband tried to explain that this was not an option we wanted to take: we wanted Max to come home and die there with us; we have certain religious beliefs which preclude killing and Max hates the hospital and would much rather be at home.
The vet was pretty furious. She accused us of being cruel and negligent and said if she was back home in England, she would have the legal right to keep Max regardless of what we wanted. Fortunately for us, in Australia, she couldn’t do this. My husband tried to reassure her and said that if things get worse, he will call the local vet. She reluctantly conceded and left his cannula in so that the local vet could come around and basically euthanize him. And she then proceeded to ring around all the local vets in the area and tell them about us, these crazy and cruel Buddhists!
It was a very difficult and emotional time. We kept questioning whether we were doing the right thing, questioning what is the right thing by the Buddhadharma and for Max. We asked several of our teachers for advice, but we knew what really was right. We knew that even euthanasia is still killing, unless one has great compassion and can see the karma of that sentient being in question, which I definitely didn’t have. We certainly didn’t want Max to have to go through this suffering again if we decided to cut his karma short in this life. But the biggest suffering really, if I’m honest, was that we didn’t want to see Max suffering. It was our feelings of helplessness and not knowing that kept questioning things. How long could we cope with this? Will it take Max a couple of days to die or a week or a few weeks? That was the most difficult part. No veterinarian could give us an answer.
When Max came home from the hospital, he was quite peeved with us. He hated vet clinics so he turned his back on us, literally, and ignored us. Worse was that he was groggy from the drugs they gave him and clearly resented this also. When the drugs wore off, he actually seemed more comfortable and seemingly grudgingly partially forgave us for putting him through the trauma of the hospital visit. It was clear that the discomfort that he was in was not as bad as the mental discomfort of being at the vets. Pet owners can attest to the loathing pets have for the pet carrier when forced to go for a check up, but the pleasure of the same object for the return trip.
We circumambulated Max around holy objects we have set up in the house for that purpose as often as we could without disturbing him too much. And he had CDs of mantras and prayers playing constantly. He slept a lot of the time. We slept very little. The next morning my husband crouched down to check him and when his knees cracked, Max jumped up. Poor Max. The fright was not comfortable for him. By now it was painful for him to move or be moved. I stayed home from work to be with him all day.
The next morning around 5 a.m. we heard him make a noise. I knew that sound, having heard it before. We rushed out, picked him up as gently as we could, and madly began circumambulating with him, the mantras from the CD blaring out while we also recited loudly into his ears ourselves. Then it was the final spasms and he was gone.
Fortunate Max. His physical suffering wasn’t too long (and so neither was our emotional suffering) and he died circumambulating. Yes, it was a good death for a cat. But Pema? I’m not sure. And being thousands of miles away from her, right now, all I can do is go up to the beautiful stupas here, make light offerings, pray, and place my faith in the Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
FPMT makes it easy to support animals in a variety of different ways. Enlightenment for the Dear Animals, directed by Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt, provides advice, news and links to projects and people who are helping animals around the world. Tania and Phil also serve as coordinators for the Animal Liberation Sanctuary, created near Kopan Monastery in Nepal to house animals that were to be killed so that they may live out the natural course of their lives in peace and gain a higher rebirth.
You can also support FPMT’s Animal Liberation Fund, a fund that directly supports Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s wishes to protect animals from danger and expose them to the Dharma.
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Mandala Publications is the official publication of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international charitable organization founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. FPMT is a vibrant international community, with a network of 160 affiliate centers, projects and services, and members in more than 30 countries.
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