All Dogs go to Heaven?

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The thud of bumper against flesh makes a nauseating sound that tears a family apart.  As we sat together enjoying dinner after a long day of work, school, swim practice and homework, going around the table with our “high point of the day,” we barely took note of the sound of impact outside.  We all heard it, but just didn’t realize that sound, was to be forever part of the horrible memory.

People often find a veterinarian’s compassion remarkable.  You have so much empathy, I’m told.  “You’d think after dealing with this time after time, it would make you numb to it all, but when we brought Callie in last week, you acted like she was your own!”

Whether a body is brought in from a passing at home the night before, a tragic accident, or a humane euthanasia in the office, I know a family will never be the same.  The sweet memories fade into forever ago when confronted with a sudden loss of a beloved pet.

Somehow people often just seem to know that I take my faith seriously.  The cross I wear is tucked under my shirt, and the Third Day silk screen is covered by my scrubs, but I find myself often responding to complicated questions;  Philosophy and theology discussions that my veterinary training ill-equipped me for.  “I know you’re a believer, but why?  There’s so much suffering in the world – if He’s actually up there, why doesn’t He care?”  Often I force myself simply to sigh and remark something about there being so many mysteries.  And all this is true, but I thoroughly enjoy sharing and discussing my evolving theologies with others who are curious, or want to spar with our respective apologetics.

But I simply can’t typically do this at enough length for justice in a 15 minute office visit, so I mainly just sigh, and smile, and agree that it’s a mystery.  But sometimes I’m asked, especially by children, what used to be considered a softball question with a reflex quickie answer.  But now lots of adults also ask me, and I know some of them well enough to realize they want an honest, scripture based answer.

“Dr. Bill, do our pets go to heaven?” or specifically, “Will I see my dear Killian in Heaven?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used to kneel down by the child and say with consoling confidence, “Of course!”  I’d never give it a second thought, but I find myself questioning the reason and logic for pretty much everything I do anymore.  And it began to bother me a little bit.

In simplest terms, Christians believe entrance to God’s kingdom is based on our choosing to accept Jesus as Savior and applying His message as the way to live our lives and interact.  As a pretty serious Christian, I do believe this.  Well then, how on earth could we possibly think animals could get to Heaven, since they have no ability to even make rational choice?  Besides, they don’t even have souls … do they?  So I’m supposed to look down and lie to a child so everyone is happy?  Or say callously with a pat on their head, “No Susie, cats don’t have souls!”  Or pretend that I believe the New-Age Gobbletygoop, “Susie, Heaven will be everything you want it to be, and if you love Callie, she will certainly be there.”  Because we’ll all have our own little heaven of anything we want it to be.  (Although this may indeed be true, for so many members of the “church of me,” where you get to pick and choose what you think should be right and wrong.)

Or maybe I should simply shrug with a smile, and say, “It’s all a mystery!”None of that really works for me.  However I do have two thoughts on the subject.

First of all, I’m certainly no theologian, I’m not even particularly intelligent.  So on a plethora of topics, I choose to yield to others in history who have devoted entire lives to research on philosophy, meaning, and of course theology.  I have many favorites, but at the top of the list is St. Augustine (also know as Augustine of Hippo).

Saint Augustine clearly wrote “that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature … including animals … and all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next. (Sermon 242).

St. Francis of Assisi wrote in “Canticle to Brother Sun,” about what he had discovered in scripture , such as Psalm 148, and he added a personal touch, giving the title of “Brother” and “Sister” to the various creatures. Francis seems to emphasize all the more the viewpoint that all creatures make up one family of creation under one loving Creator in heaven. We are to form one community—one symphony of praise—with our brother and sister creatures.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a woman arriving in heaven surrounded by her pets, and he notes, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love… And now the abundance of life she has in Christ… flows over into them.”

Lewis believes that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their human masters. We give our pets names and they answer to those names (hopefully), and perhaps recognize themselves by them. “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. “And in this sense,” suggests Lewis, “it seems to me that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

Secondly, Scripture itself seems to support this premise.

Consider the story of Adam and Eve before their disobedience as well as the story of the animals, the birds, the trees and plants in the Garden of Eden. Not only Adam and Eve, but the other creatures as well seemed to find peace and happiness in that first paradise. Why then would God want to exclude them from the paradise that is yet to come? (Even if it has nothing to do with their merit, but simply for us.)  Thus, I would have no argument with Christians who believe that the animals and other creatures are with God in heaven, just as they were in the story of the original paradise.

In the New Testament we are told God sees every sparrow that falls, which means he takes notice of each little life. In the Old Testament, we read about a future kingdom where the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat.

And finally, in the Book of Revelation, John describes a heavenly vision of all creatures before the throne of God. In that glorious gathering, he sees more than saved humanity: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever ” (Rev. 5:11-14).

Claire was my 14-year-old daughter’s very best friend.  She came one year for Christmas to chew on the piano bench, and grab the roast from the table, and teach my daughter about unconditional love.  And that she could lean on her Heavenly Father when strength was no-where to be found.

This was the first of many horrific losses my family would face in 2012.  Another death to confront.  Another opportunity to ask, “Why?”  Another reminder to cherish every loved one, and welcome every opportunity to embrace as if it’s the last one.

We believe in a God who understands loss and grief, pain and anguish.  He’s been here, and walked in our shoes, and fills our hearts with hope and joy, confidence and consolation.

Of course dogs can go to heaven.  So many things to look forward to.

Blessings for this Holy Week 2014

Much Love

claire1a

 

 

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SuperSavior Vet

ImageEverything about euthanizing a pet brings me down, and wears on my morale.  I’ve practiced veterinary medicine for 28 years, and you’d think it would be no big deal, but it always is.  I felt called to help animals when I was about 8 years old, and never really seriously considered anything else.  I have devoted my life to doing this the best I was able, and I take my Hippocratic oath seriously.  Advising on end of life decisions is a rather large part of my day.  And when it comes to giving the injections, I don’t do so lightly.  Down deep I really wonder whether or not I really have the right to snuff out life.  Poof.  Just like that.  One minute the little guy is looking at me, sometimes suffering pitifully, sometimes seemingly not in discomfort, wagging his tail.  The next moment, limp and without the spirit of life.  Especially after my own recent losses, I value life perhaps more than most.

Pets are not just “important” to my clients and their families, they often ARE the only family some folks have.  I think it’s hard for some to understand how deeply attached pet owners are to their beloved dogs and cats.  If you’ve never had one, or keep yours in the backyard, you may not understand.  But the vast majority of Americans consider their dogs and cats members of the family.  Certainly this goes a long way to explain why behavior problems and obesity are issues I deal with in the exam room every single day.  We overindulge ourselves, and our children, so why not our dogs and cats?

More often than not I’ve seen an older client quickly fade and die when they lose their pets.  A dog is sometimes the only reason our seniors even get out of bed.  They provide an incentive to get dressed, and get some exercise on that morning walk.  Often a spouse has passed away, as well as friends, and children are distant.  Seeing a bright eyed dog jumping around ecstatically, like you are the most important person in the world, makes life worth living.  That wagging tail, expressing the epitome of unconditional love and acceptance is indescribable.

Likewise, the meow, meow, meow, meow of a kitty means you are the only one that can satisfy.  You are the provider, the bread winner, the hero of their lives.  You keep them comfortable and fed, and protect them from that awful brute that barks and slides around the floor and in general behaves like a complete idiot.  You have the most comfortable lap and know just where to rub under the chin and behind the ears.  The incessant purring and “making bread,” the kneading of the alternating front feet on your arm or in your face screams, “WAKE UP and feed me!”

Although I hate it more than I can completely put into words, there is something about the pain of loss that is so loving.  The circle of life is played out in front of our eyes; the dynamics of living and the struggles surrounding death.

I remember back in school some of my classmates said they chose veterinary medicine over medical school because they preferred animals to people, one in fact “hated people.”  That made me raise my eyebrows in wonder.  (In fact, I spoke to the one who “hated” people at our 20 year reunion, and discovered that he was now in research.  Those he hated so much must have reciprocated, and so couldn’t keep a practice going.)  Which reminds me, I had also gotten that acceptance into medical school letter, and a rejection for vet school.  About a month later, I learned that I had been placed on a “waiting list,” when I got the letter – I was next in line to be called for the freshman class when someone discovered she was pregnant. Funny how the turns life takes so change our journeys.

Anyway, I love veterinary medicine because of the people, not in spite of them.  It’s an honor and a blessing to have a families trust when they bring in that new puppy and kitten.  I smile down at the children who come in to watch me examine and inoculate their new best friend.  I know they’ll sleep together, and sob over a boyfriend breakup and not making the basketball team.  They’ll knock over the birthday cake at the sweet sixteen party, and chew up the $200 baseball bat (as well as mommy’s Coach purse and pee on dad’s shoes).  They’ll look up and love unconditionally when a child is teased at school or isn’t asked to the dance.  With such sad eyes, she’ll sit by the bedroom door everyday until they come home from college or on military leave, and run in circles uncontrollably, jumping up and down and howl with screams of delight at the homecoming.

She’ll benefit from prayers when I need to do an emergency surgery to stop the relentless vomiting, and tears of relief when I call with the news that I had removed the obstruction caused by the rawhide or acorn that they ate, or that the tumor was successfully removed, and everything’s going to be “just fine.”

And she’ll just sit by your side as you weep over the cancer, the job loss, the divorce, and the death that are all part of your family.  Somehow she understands that you just need someone to sit with you.  And hug.  She does too.

And when the time comes when the heart or kidneys fail, her own cancer wins, or the arthritis is just too bad to even stand, she’ll trust you to make that loving decision. Your unthinkable anguish can not be described here.  She has helped you raise your family, been there through it all, and now all you can feel is raw emotion.  We’ll cry together, pray if you wish, say goodbye and hug.

So imagine my surprise, when I’m asked to do the unthinkable.

Everyone in my office knows my feelings regarding euthanasia.  We certainly assume the one presenting the pet is responsible, loving and caring, and has suffered to make that final decision.  So its clearly not my intent to make it any more difficult on such a horrible day.  But I do take my mission seriously, and as such, if I don’t have an existing relationship with the client and understand the condition of their pet, I need to do so.  If you have a dog that’s 20 years old, and obviously in sad shape, that’s one thing, but if your dog doesn’t fit into your new apartment size, or cat doesn’t match the new furniture (I kid you not), that’s entirely different.  Some guys don’t care, if you want a perfectly happy, healthy animal euthanized, and are willing to pay for it, no problem.  But I’m not “that guy.”

Some days we’re just plain busy, and everyone does their job so efficiently that corners get cut.  One day last week was that day.  I finished looking at a lab test, and as I raced through the procedures room to get to my next appointment, I noticed my nurses placing an IV catheter into a beautiful boxer’s arm.  Something caught my attention and I stopped in my tracks, and inquired as to what they were doing.  “Exam room 3 is your 4:15 appointment, apparently he has cancer.”  Hmmm, really?

I pulled the chart off the slot outside of room 3, and discovered we had never seen the pet before.  There was a note inserted from the receptionist that although she had requested they bring copies of previous medical record with them, they seemed to bristle when asked if they had brought them, and said they had “forgotten.”  I opened the door, shook the huge client’s hand and asked about ‘Rocky’s’ condition.  “Oh my wife took him to a vet in Titusville, and they said he has cancer.”  I feigned surprise, and said, “Really? Wow, he looks great!  What kind of cancer?  What kind of tests did they perform?”  The guy actually chuckled as he replied that he had no idea, his wife had taken the dog there.  “What was the vet in Titusville’s name?”  He said her name was Dr. Lorraine something.  I replied, “That shouldn’t be too difficult, there can’t be many veterinarians in Titusville named Lorraine, I’ll be right back,” and quickly departed to do some “Googling” to find a vet named Lorraine in Titusville and get a quick copy of her medical workup.  Less than two minutes later, just as I discovered there were no Dr. Lorraines in Titusville, or anywhere in central Florida, my nurse rushed into my office to tell me that the client “doesn’t need you to do that.”

“Doesn’t need me to do what?” I asked.  “Get the medical history.”  This was all becoming a little interesting.  “Well he may not need me to do it, but I, in fact do need to do it.”

As soon as I returned to the room, I was met by an angry man who entered well into my “personal space.”  He asked, “Is there a problem, doctor?” (emphasis because of sarcasm).  “I understand that this is a really hard day for you.  Trust me, I get it.  But I hope you’ll understand my situation.  We are an animal hospital; we work very hard to save lives, and although we do perform euthanasia, we maintain a policy that it needs to be medically justified.”  His body language took an ugly tone, and he actually stepped even closer to me, and raised his voice to an actual shout, “Are you telling me that I’m willing to pay you for a service, and you’re refusing to?”  His wife slipped quietly out the door, clearly demonstrating the submission this man was accustomed to with his show.  Quite certain that a little intimidation and the almighty buck would convince me, I think he was stunned that I actually took another step towards him, looked him directly in the eye, and said with a softer and gentler voice, “Sir, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.  You gotta believe me, I’m not trying to make this difficult for you, but you didn’t bring in any medical records, and my staff looks to me for leadership.  I have to maintain morale around here.  Taking a life is very difficult on us as medical professionals, and so, in order to sleep at night, I need to be able to justify it.”  He was absolutely furious, and I was quite certain that he was going to hit me.  “So what are you, super savior  vet? OOOH, I’m so impressed!”  He shook his hand in exaggerated fashion with pretend fear.  “So now I gotta ‘F’ing do this all over again somewhere else!”  The terrified dog was now cowering in the corner. Had he seen this temper before?   I remained as calm as I could, which just seemed to fuel his rage.  “Sir, I understand you’re upset, and if you can find your previous medical records, or if you’d like me to examine ‘Rocky,’ I’ll certainly do that.  “And you don’t need to use that kind of language.”

But it was much too late for logic.  He ripped the poor, scared dog by the attached leash and stormed out, threw fifty bucks at the receptionist, and shouted, “You can tell Jesus Christ back there, “Thanks for nothing!”

The funny thing is, no one thought it was funny.  This guy was clearly going to have his dog euthanized today.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially lately.  Regardless of its happy, healthy appearance, it is quite possible that this poor pet had some serious problem.  Maybe in his sorrow, he simply forgot to bring the records, and was too embarrassed to admit it.  I do feel bad that things went the way they did, but I still don’t think I was out of line for requiring justification for ending a life.

Life is precious.  Please remember to remind everyone that you love, that you do.