We once had two dogs. They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart. Our big guy died first. Swift and unexpected. He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died. Just like that.
Our second dog was lost without him. For a month following his death she withdrew. She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.
We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves. We all missed him terribly.
But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned. She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay. We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.
There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry. I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it. I find it suspect. The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value. Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.
A case in point:
One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier. She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.
I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed. I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run. He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.
He never flew down on me. I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway. He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital. He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.
Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry. She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her. He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her. He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips. My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.
First her sister told me and then her daughter. How he wept on her body when she died. He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond. Stroke him. Yell at him. Anything. But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs. His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.
Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them. Viciously. Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran in the bathroom to hide. The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.
I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.
Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope. My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count. I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect. They’ve already given us all so much. They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn