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Memoir explores tough issue of ending a beloved pet’s life

Jessica Pierce, shown here with Ody, explores the evolution of attitudes toward pets and their demise in The Last Walk.

The Last Walk
Jessica Pierce
University of Chicago Press

At what point would you decide to euthanize your dog? 1. Your dog is deaf; 2. Your dog is deaf and blind; 3. Your dog is deaf and blind, and he falls over frequently, seeming to not have much control of his hind end; 4. Your dog is deaf and blind, has lost control of his hind end, and barks endlessly, often at night; 5. Your dog is deaf and blind, has lost control of his hind end, barks most of the time, and defecates all over the house.

If your answer is "None of the above," then Jessica Pierce's The Last Walk is for you.

Using her experience caring for her elderly Vizsla as a springboard, Pierce, who is a bioethicist and has collaborated on an earlier book called Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, explores the evolution of North American attitudes toward pets and their demise, while delving as deeply as she can into her own feelings as her dog Ody (short for Odysseus) goes into decline.

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Ody is a big dog, and he has two younger companions in the family. His end is not convenient, and it also seems to be the first one Pierce, her husband and daughter have endured as a family.

Pierce begins with what she calls "Ody's Journal," her own day-by-day description of the dog's decline and her feelings about each event. It is readily apparent that Ody has been an athletic and graceful animal for all of his years, and also something of a pain in the neck, since he has had a habit of escaping the yard and running away, of stealing food off the kitchen counter, and of destructive behaviour ("I believe Ody has eaten at least one bedspread in a Steamboat [Steamboat Springs, Colorado] hotel, perhaps several").

Like all journals, this one is more about the journal-keeper than the subject, and the journal-keeper seems soft-hearted, maybe even something of a sucker. The reader longs to have introduced her to more productive training methods years ago. Once Pierce abandons the journal and begins to discuss the issues, her book is more convincing.

The issues are inherently fascinating: What do studies of animals in the wild tell us about whether animals understand death? Are companion animals aware of death, that is, first, the death of others, and second, their own deaths? Is it possible to infer feelings and perceptions in animals without "anthropomorphizing" them? And how have researchers' ideas about the nature of animals changed over the years?

Since, of course, there is a difference between old age and death, Pierce then discusses what we know about old age in wild animals. The data are, as she says, "thin," but old age in the wild seems to mean loss of dominance and hunting ability, premature death ("wolves in the wild may be quite old at age six … even though wolves in captivity can live as long as twenty years"). In pets, the situation is more complicated; the affections and the moral obligations owners feel toward their companions dictate that almost every decision will become a dilemma. This is the subject of the rest of the book.

Pierce and her husband do things for Ody that I might not do for my dogs: When he refuses to come in through the dog door, and stands outside barking all night, they build him a ramp, which he refuses to use, so Pierce starts getting up with him at least twice a night to take him out to urinate. They find themselves washing all their rugs as a result of his accidents; they prepare human-type meals that he likes and give him lots of hot dogs. (I can't help thinking, are these hot dogs and burgers the source of his messes?) Pierce herself is not sure what the rewards are of this special treatment – Ody has never been affectionate, and now he is even more aloof – the other two dogs seem better attached to Pierce than Ody does. So the dilemma becomes a moral and abstract one; Pierce is acting according to her conscience more that she is acting according to her relationship to Ody.

As death approaches, she discusses what euthanasia is, how it applies to well-cared-for pets as opposed to abandoned animals in shelters, what a natural death is, what suffering is, and how animals might or might not experience suffering the way people do. In this regard, Pierce makes some wild statements about veterinary science, veterinary training and veterinarians that I, as a lifelong animal owner, found so unbelievable that I called several vets to see if they could possibly be true. Dr. Bernard Rollin tells her: "Every one of his vet students, by the time they graduate, will have come in contact with someone – a professor, a fellow student, a practising vet – who doesn't believe that animals feel pain."

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A page later, she tells an anecdote about students practising surgeries on dogs, nine surgeries on one dog, without "pain control." One day, lunchtime rolled around, and everyone in the class went to lunch, "they just left the dogs there on the tables."

When I showed these passages to my vet friends (one of whom runs a vet school), their outrage was palpable. One, G.L. Ferraro, of the University of California, Davis, e-mailed me: "Long gone are the days when multiple surgical procedures were allowed to be performed on animals by veterinary students. In regard to pain, pain management is one of the primary concerns of our anesthesia department and they are continually exploring new methods for the alleviation of such discomfort."

This is not to say that Pierce is at the extreme end of erasing the differences between pets and human family members; once Ody is euthanized, she explores the world of taxidermy, freeze drying, cremation and memorialization. One person she talks to, who runs both a human and an animal crematorium, tells her that sometimes people "seem put out by the death of a family member. They just want the whole thing over and done with and out of their hair. Not so with pets. People are really concerned that the process is done right and that their animals are treated well, even after death." Pierce does have the recurring worry that maybe she could have allowed Ody to live a little longer (neither her husband nor any of her friends seems to agree with her).

The Last Walk is not the last word on humans and their pets, nor indeed, human consciousness versus animal consciousness. It is a worthy attempt, but flawed by being presented too personally, too emotionally. The question Ody raises, simply by being a dog I would have no patience for, is: Aren't all animals created equal? Shouldn't the not-so-appealing ones be treated with the same kindness and empathy as the Lassies and the Uggies of the world? Ideally, yes, or maybe, sentimentally, yes, but there are larger issues here that Pierce cannot address, given her own experience. She might have written a better, more complex and detached book if she hadn't included Ody.

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and works of non-fiction.

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