To some degree, just about everyone who has ever owned an animal or two knows what Roy and Gretchen Jackson were going through on Jan. 29 when they made the decision to have Barbaro euthanized. Whether it's played out in front of the national media or in the privacy of your home or veterinarian's office, it's an agonizing experience.
My brother and I grew up owning all kinds of animals, including snakes, turtles, dogs, guinea pigs, and iguanas. Many slipped away peacefully, and we found them dead in the yard or their cages. But others developed heart-wrenching complications that forced us to make live-or-die decisions that we had never wanted to face.
When a neighbor's cat caught a baby flying squirrel, and it was alive, I was thrilled. My grandmother had raised squirrels, and they turned out to be wonderful pets. This was my chance. I knew the exact formula needed for the milk, and I fed him with an eyedropper.
But the squirrel never thrived. He must have been injured internally. He faded slowly, and every night I had hives -- big, angry welts on my skin. After he died, the welts went away. I've never had them since.
Then there was Rob Roy, a Shetland Sheepdog that was my first pet. I was 11 and he was 10 when he developed cancer in his mouth. There was an operation. The cancer came back. Mom told me that Rob Roy was going under the knife again, and that he probably wouldn't survive. He came home in a wooden box. It wasn't until I was 16 that I realized my parents had sent Rob Roy to be euthanized.
Freckles was our next canine companion, and before he left us he became known as the dog who would not die. A mutt, he lived until his teens. He got skinnier and frailer, but somehow he kept going. My mother said she prayed every night she would wake up in the morning and find him dead. She didn't want to be the one to end it. But one day, Freckles fell and couldn't get up. There really wasn't a choice at that point.
MacArthur, the family's Siberian Husky, was poisoned by someone, according to our vet. Deathly ill, the big gray and white dog with the piercing blue eyes lost much of his liver function. When I saw him for the last time; he tried to get up and greet me, but stumbled and went down in a heap. It was probably the first time I realized that I could make the euthanasia decision on my own, but he was living with my parents. The veterinarian said it was their call. Give him a few more days, he said, but the wait didn't help. Mom decreed that there would be no more dogs in her household after him.
That's the saddest thing about owning animals. Eventually, they die. They give you a lot of love, but they can also leave you with guilt, remembering the gate you should have closed or the dull behavior you didn't take seriously until it was too late.
Recently, a friend at work lost her Cairn Terrier. He followed another dog out into the road and was hit by a car. The accident left him paralyzed. He needed surgery. The veterinarians said his chances were slim. To give him every chance following the operation, there would be a wait of a couple of weeks. My friend said, 'OK.'
He didn't get better.
Afterward, I asked, 'Wouldn't it have been easier if he had died right after he got hit?"
"Yes," she agreed, "but at least we know that we tried everything we could."
In her time of grief, that was her comfort. I hope it is the same for the Jacksons, who experienced every animal lover's worst nightmare and handled it with grace.