When Even the Best Efforts Fail
This is the tale of a face-nibbling cat, a spirited dog, two loving families, and the courage to do what’s right
This is the tale of a face-nibbling cat, a spirited dog, two loving families, and the courage to do what’s right
He was so friendly, in fact, that had he been a member of my own species, he could not have pulled it off, and not just because my husband was standing right there witnessing the whole thing. The Don Juan routine would have come across as trying too hard, dressed as he was in his spiffy tuxedo and intent on batting his jade green, come-hither eyes at me.
But, as cats are wont to do, he swept me off my feet. No sooner had I knelt down to initiate the awkward “hey baby, what’s your sign” dance than he crawled into my lap, placed his white-socked paws on my chest, and lapped my cheek with three “barely there” kisses.
This guy was smooth.
He was also, I would soon learn, abandoned, full of ticks and mites, and apprenticing with Dracula. While I could easily solve his first two problems, the last one would prove more challenging. Though we christened him “Woody,” his confident air earned him a more manly moniker—The Dude—followed later by an attempt to humble him with the diminutive “Dudelet.” During the first few months, he took refuge under the futon and came out intermittently to baste us with kisses that became merely a prelude to a festival of flesh-feasting. Friends who didn’t understand the sensitive guy underneath branded him “Psycho Kitty,” but people with a deep affection for the feline species accorded a generosity more befitting his self-appointed stature. “He’s a sophisticated cat,” said one particularly charitable coworker.
As I write this, the Dudelet lives up to his reputation, hovering over me threateningly because I haven’t yet fed him his midnight snack and it’s already 11:03 p.m. But Woody and I, we have an understanding, and it goes even deeper with my husband, who relates to the Dudelet through masculine activities such as Playstation time, with Man at the controls and Cat acting as bodyguard against the Sony demons. Woody licks the bare skin on the top of his papa’s head; in return, he gets a thorough dog-brush combing that makes his eyes roll in delight. The once random attacks on exposed flesh are now predictable and entirely avoidable; we’re no cat experts, but we’ve become learned scholars in Dudelet psychology. We know, for instance, that a slow turn of the head toward the offending hand means, “Stay back!”—and act accordingly.
We’ve been lucky with our companion animals, and they with us, even though we didn’t always do things in just the right way or even take enough time to figure out what the right way was. We acquired our dog Mattie a bit impulsively, after a friend’s grandfather died and left her behind. We’d never even met her, our lease didn’t allow furry tenants, and we had planned to get a dog some time in the far-off future when, we believed, we would be “settled.” On top of it all, we weren’t exactly in complete agreement on the matter; I was selfish in my obstinate I Want This Dog Now agenda.
And so, given our poorly planned but fortunate pet history, it seemed entirely unfair when last summer a friend of ours who’d done everything right had to euthanize his beloved but increasingly aggressive dog. Jason had been a thoughtful human companion to Boomer from the very beginning. Even his decision to adopt was much more considered than mine, spanning a period of eight months and successive visits to the shelter before he found someone he couldn’t take his eyes off: a nine-month-old shepherd mix with huge ears, expressive eyes, and a thirst for excitement.
Over the next three years, Jason would follow all the best advice; he used a crate to housetrain Boomer, he went home at lunch to walk him, he even hired a professional trainer who made house calls. The two were inseparable, going on long strolls through the park together, attending summer barbecues, and hanging out in front of Sunday afternoon football. At night they would stretch out on the sofa, this six-foot-two man and 55-pound dog, with Boomer treating Jason’s belly like a big dog bed.
Boomer thrived in Jason’s care, going from a crazy adolescent who couldn’t stop chewing on our shoes even while they were still on our feet to a young adult dog who, though still wildly bouncy, finally learned how to chill in front of the TV. He was a good dog who hungered for affection. And maybe it was that insatiability that eventually made him snap—he was so in need of love that when Jason met a woman he wanted to marry, Boomer wasn’t ready to share.
The newly acquired family came with another dog (a sweet lug of a Labrador also adopted from a shelter) and a five-year-old daughter. In retrospect, I should have sensed trouble; I’d seen Boomer behave uncharacteristically at a party the year before, taking food from little children and growling at toddlers. It hadn’t seemed a big deal then; he just wasn’t used to kids, I thought.
I received the story of his behavioral decline in bits and pieces, usually vaguely and with room for mental allowances and possible explanations. First I heard he was snapping at the little girl. Later, too late to suggest a Gentle Leader, I heard he’d lunged at a jogger while on leash, pulling hard enough to reach her with his teeth. This was new and totally unexpected, and from there, it only escalated on the home front, until one night Boomer jumped on top of Jason’s soon-to-be stepdaughter.
I didn’t know all of these details when my friend told me he couldn’t keep Boomer any longer, so my first reaction was to be angry with his fiancée. Just who was this woman anyway, I wondered, and why would she want the man she loved to part with his best buddy?
But as the stories of Boomer’s escapades unfolded and the blurry lines came into focus, I began to hear fear in Jason’s voice. “If I hadn’t been there in the room to pull Boomer away,” he said haltingly, “I’m afraid he would have hurt her.” Months of treats and gentle pats from the girl hadn’t helped, and the almost-attack left Jason’s fiancée shaken and fearful for her daughter’s safety.
At The HSUS, friends of mine offered to talk to Jason, relating tales of similar animals they had known and explaining that, from a shelter’s perspective, Boomer would not be an adoptable animal. And as he had always done for Boomer, Jason did the responsible thing, searching for answers from as many different humane groups as he could find on the Web and in the phone book. With the exception of one woman who sent him away crying—“You’re not going to get any sympathy from me,” she told him—everyone provided gentle but realistic guidance; one shelter in Baltimore even let Jason bring Boomer in for an evaluation by a professional trainer.
By that point, he already knew what to do; he just needed validation from somebody other than me. And there were, thank God, many random and wonderful people who returned to him the same compassion he had always given his dog, telling him the truth even when it was painful: that Boomer probably wouldn’t pass a temperament test, that relinquishing him to a shelter would most likely mean euthanasia and not a new placement, and that even if a shelter or another organization did make the unwise decision to rehome Boomer, his next family may not be so loving or forgiving.
After a final trip to the dog park where he’d tried to hump every animal in sight despite the fact that his testicles had long since been removed, Boomer spent his last moments on a veterinary exam table eating his favorite treat out of Jason’s hand: cheese cubes from a baggie Jason kept in his pocket. Boomer’s forehead crinkled with worry as his eyes tried to register what was going on, those enormous ears perched into an angle of concern over the dwindling supply of cheddar. When it was over, Jason leaned into him and sobbed, whispering, “I’m sorry, Boomie, I’m so sorry,” and lots of other things I couldn’t decipher.
This is the year I finally saw intimately what I had once known only in theory: first, that there are worse things than euthanasia. Thinking about what could have happened to Boomer in the hands of someone else who didn’t love him as much, hadn’t bonded with him yet, and wouldn’t have made so many allowances for his behavior made me much sadder than thinking about what did ultimately happen to him: In my imagination I pictured him on the street again, as he was initially found by the animal control officer who rescued him, stray and skinny and looking for love.
Even as we’ve continued to explore in recent issues “what it would take to end euthanasia,” I already knew that the concept of “ending euthanasia” was somewhat of a paradox. Euthanasia is the end for those animals who, for whatever reason—nature or nurture or both—are unable to live safely or happily with humans. Even when we can reduce to zero the number of animals euthanized for lack of space, there will always be Boomers in our lives. And when we try to help them but fail, assigning blame is not only fruitless; it’s false comfort. Sure, if the Dudelet hadn’t settled comfortably into my home, I could have been blamed for it a thousand times over. But not Jason. He did everything right, and he wasn’t so lucky. No one is to blame for that.
Walking through shelters and visiting with the animals used to make me melancholy; I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that all these sweet beings needed homes and all these people who had brought these animals in just hadn’t cared enough. Now I know it’s often not that simple. And over the last few years another feeling has taken over, solidified by the events of last summer: When I’m in a shelter these days, I can only think of where these animals would be if they weren’t here, warm and fed and loved by people whose hearts beat to a different, more hopeful drummer. In the dogs’ eyes I see a Boomer who may or may not make it into a family, but I know that if they don’t, at least they will end their lives in a place where they matter, in the arms of someone who knows how special they are.
I wish everyone could be as thoughtful and as compassionate and as brave as Jason was. I wish more people would realize that when they adopt a pet, it’s for life, whether that life ends naturally due to old age or prematurely because of an unsolvable medical or behavioral problem. But even Jason had some help, from the countless websites and shelter employees and breed-placement groups and trainers and veterinarians he consulted.
To those who helped him and Boomer, I am forever indebted. You helped me, too, by telling him what I could not easily articulate—and by doing it with compassion. If you hadn’t given him the courage to do the right thing and validated his humaneness and his humanity, that part of Jason may have died that day along with Boomer. But instead, he has recently begun to take comfort in the memory of those words of advice he received in the weeks preceding Boomer’s death. They are, in some ways, all he has to hold onto. And they are what ultimately helped us retain a great supporter of our cause—one which, after all, makes a point of caring about all species.
For all the Jasons and Boomers out there, as well as for all those who have often been too sad or too confused or too ill-prepared to even know how to be brave like my friend was and instead dropped off their sadness at your front door, the Dudelet and I salute you.