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THE HARDEST CHOICE
by Ken White

Special to The Examiner
08/13/2002

I frequently am asked to answer a question that has no answer: When is it the right time to end the life of a loved animal? It's a legitimate question, but a lousy part of my job.

I first faced this question with Hamish, the much-loved dog of my roommate, 20 years ago. As is so often the story, Hamish went, in what seemed like moments, from an amazingly happy, goofy pal to an old friend in obvious pain. Suffering from cancer, he got to the point where every motion was labored, his nights endlessly restless. Still, he continued to smile when he heard his name, and to sigh with that wonderful full body sigh when he was held.

It was not my decision to make -- to end Hamish's suffering by ending his life -- but I don't think I would have been any better at it than was my roommate. Every time it became clear that he was suffering, one more procedure was suggested, another treatment option looked worth trying. A good hour seemed to erase a day's discomfort. We loved him, like each of you now reading these words loves somebody sniffing your feet or rubbing your elbows. The nightmare of his illness, although only weeks long, was an eternity.

Finally it was clear that Hamish didn't just hurt, he was in real pain. There was no relief available. No more drugs, no miracles, no happiness left. Finally, it was clear that we had waited too long.

I went out and bought him a pepperoni pizza, extra cheese, and fed him by hand, his head on our laps, his smile reminding us of who he had been, the Hamish of before. On our way to the doctor we stopped at the beach, Hamish's favorite place. Unable to stand on his own, I ran with him in my arms. We chased some waves, splashed a bit in the surf, and then sat quietly in the sand for awhile, this wonderful dog and a few of us who had been lucky enough to know him. All of us, including Hamish, I think, knew what was next.

The veterinarian gently gave the shot into a vein on Hamish's front leg. We held him as he went. Surprisingly, his dying was without drum roll, without thunder. His death was peaceful. As we watched him and cried, it was clear that we had waited too long.

I know little more today about the best "how" and "when" to decide to humanely end the life of someone we love. I do know that, in all sorts of ways, it is a gift we are responsible for giving to the animals who give us so much, and that avoiding the decision -- as understandable as that is -- is selfish. I also know that there is probably never a right time, and that each time I've made the choice I've wrestled afterwards with questions such as "Did I wait too long?" or "Did I act too soon?"

The decision has to be made with the animal in mind; that is, we should have been thinking more about Hamish and less about how much we would miss him, how much his absence would hurt. Knowing that he's not the kind of guy to hold a grudge, I stopped feeling guilty. Mostly, then as now, I feel happy to have been with him. I remember Hamish as he lived much more than how he died. And I know that everyone loved lives forever, perhaps in a literal way, and surely in the hearts of those who love them.

Ken White is president of the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, now in its 50th year. Its programs include adoption, wildlife rehabilitation, education and advocacy, community outreach, and animal control, including rescue and investigation. White is one of three writers whose columns appear in The Examiner's weekly Animal Kingdom column. Email: kwhite@sfexaminer.com.

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