Dr. David Amies: Why do we extend mercy to our animal companions, but not to each other?

In his latest post for DWDC's blog, Dr. David Amies reflects on why humans are content to play God when it comes to the lives of their suffering animal companions, but less likely to extend the same mercy and compassion to each other. He argues that we must not allow select groups to dictate how we access our Charter rights, and that when it comes to the desperately ill, a little mercy — not dogma  goes a long way.

Regular readers of this blog may remember a story I wrote a year ago about my daughter Sarah’s very aged dog, Tessie. She had been taken to the vet for a checkup and was found to have seriously wonky blood chemistry. Her markers for pancreatic disease were off the scale. The vet proposed biopsies, lots of investigations and even surgery. My daughter was naturally very concerned as she had lost Tessie’s sister the year previously to pancreatic disease.

Before going ahead with this assault on the poor little dog and her own chequebook, she asked for my advice. I learned that Tessie was behaving normally and did not appear to be out of sorts. Her tail wagged, her nose was cold and she was keen on her supper. I also knew that Tessie was approaching 15 years old — pretty ancient for a doggie. I suggested that nothing be done and that we waited to see what happened.

In fact, Tessie lived for another year, growing increasingly elderly and having more and more difficulty getting about. Her spine and hip arthritis grew worse, and her vision and hearing continued to decline. Three or four weeks ago, Sarah decided that Tessie was not having much fun and so she took her to the vet where she was quietly put to sleep. Sarah, who is immoderately softhearted where dogs are concerned, continues to mourn gently.

The late Elizabeth Jane Howard, distinguished English novelist, wrote movingly about the death of a pet dog in her book Casting Off, the last volume of the Cazalet Chronicles series. The following passage appears in that book:

“When Oliver fell ill and, in the end, in spite of all that the vet could do and his nursing, had had to be put down, he had returned from the vet with the body which he had buried in the wood behind the caravan. It felt as though he had lost his only friend. He had held Oliver in his arms for the last moments of his life, feeling his poor body, his ribs like a toast rack, his fur dull and staring, and then Oliver had looked up at him, his brandy snap eyes still glowing with entire trust and devotion as the vet put the needle in. Seconds later he felt the body go slack. He had managed not to cry until he had got Oliver in the back of the car.”

I have read this passage on many occasions and never fail to be very moved by it. I know that it concerns the end of a mere dog and that we perhaps should not equate the lives of dogs with that of humans, but they are sentient creatures with whom some of us forge very strong bonds. Reading between the lines, it does seem that Oliver was suffering from some sort of cancer for which there was no very practical treatment. His master concluded, therefore, that he was suffering and no longer able to enjoy his doggie life.

A little mercy

Those that have followed this blog will know that I have contributed a few dozen articles, most of which have attracted comments. I am struck with the frequency that those comments make reference to the mercy that we grant to our sick pets through the agency of euthanasia. I cannot help compare our willingness and readiness to provide that relief to our animal companions with the reluctance and hesitancy we offer the same to our human connections. Does this reluctance stem from biblical teaching? After all, the Bible makes no bones about the relative importance of humanity over the rest of the animal kingdom: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

At this point I wish to make it clear that I do not have a religious bone in my body and that I subscribe to no faith. However, the 500-year-old school I attended in England so long ago made jolly sure its pupils could find their way round the Bible!

It is clear that religions feel they have a major part to play in matters of birth and death. They suggest that it is God's work to decide when and how a person should die. This implies that anyone who interferes with this plan, either a sufferer from some disease or a medical attendant, is behaving wrongly. Moreover, some hold suffering to be redemptive, even productive. In my opinion, a devout Christian, Jew or Muslim is perfectly entitled to such views. I am at a loss to work out why such views should have any bearing on those such as me, who have no religious affiliation. I become especially aggrieved when religious agents seek to influence governments to ensure that legislation concerning medical aid in dying either does not reach the statute book or remains as restrictive as possible.

Survey after survey demonstrate that the subscribers to various religions are largely against legalizing euthanasia and assisted dying, whereas those who acknowledge no religious faith at all are very much in favour. We should all remember that organized religion is able to wield considerable power over governments and that it is also well funded. Consequently, those who wish to have the right to decide when, where and how they die must remain on guard and be willing to support the continuing efforts of such organizations as Dying with Dignity Canada.

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta., and a member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council.

(Header credit: Alberto Biscalchin/Flickr)

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