The Business Of Putting Dogs Down
12:15 pm, May 1st | by Sarah Devlin
It started because my dog had just died, and I was getting all of this mail for him. There was a condolence card from the vet’s office, another card saying the practice had made a donation to a shelter in his name, a few more cards from friends. He never seemed more like a person to me than he did after he died. When I adopted him they gave me a discount, because he was almost a year old and most people want puppies. I made up the difference in price with a donation to the shelter. I couldn’t believe the deal I was getting, after all — I had wanted a dog since childhood, and they were letting me leave with him. It’s such a strange feeling to get exactly what you want.
My best friend drove with me to pick him up and her car broke down on the way home, forcing us to wait, sweating, for another friend to pick us up near the junction to the highway. I think that was my first indication that having a dog would be much more than I had bargained for.
Like owning a car, there were many hidden costs to having Jasper in my life. In addition to the usual food and care expenses there were obedience classes, grooming services, toys, boarding costs — and that was assuming nothing went horribly wrong. I knew that pet insurance existed, but it seemed like a boondoggle accessible only to the very rich, and I was still in college and poised to move across the country. He was only a year old, still a puppy. There would be plenty of time to plan for him getting older and more expensive to care for.
Jasper, of course, was oblivious. He was a spry, prickly and attached mutt, the type to start violently and leap to his feet every time I left a room, even if he had been napping peacefully on the floor a moment ago. He was one of the few constants through my last year of college, a cross-country move and a difficult graduate program. Although he was my companion, he wasn’t my baby. I didn’t understand people who considered pets their children, though I did get a kick out of my parents referring to Jasper as their grandson. Every time I would take him to the vet or to a class and hear someone refer to me as “Mom,” I bit back a correction. I didn’t feel like his master, either. He was too independent and capricious, and I was too young and indulgent and afraid to completely assert my authority. I felt like we were occasionally contentious roommates more than anything else.
He was, by far, the most expensive roommate I had ever had. Shortly after I adopted him I paid $100 for eight hours of obedience classes that we drove to complete on Sunday afternoons at a pet supply store in Arizona. He would ride next to me, reclining on the passenger’s seat except when he perked up as we pulled into the parking lot. He was easily bribed (“food-motivated,” the trainers called it, I think out of politeness) and I learned quickly that the easiest way to interrupt an annoying behavior was to offer literally anything that looked edible proffered between two fingers.
The longer I had Jasper, the more his personality emerged, and I didn’t always like what I saw. When he stayed with my dad for a few weeks after I first adopted him he later told me he initially thought Jasper was “sweet but limited,” but found him more interesting as he grew more comfortable. As our time together went on the list of things Jasper didn’t care for grew longer — thunderstorms, sharing toys with my roommate’s dog, people running in our direction on the sidewalk (even if it was recreational), having his easily tangled thick black fur brushed, baths, rain, or any kind of moisture.
After I moved to New York I paid another $200 to have a trainer come to my apartment for a house call when Jasper started refusing to let my roommate, the same friend who had been there the day I adopted him — who knew him exactly as long as I had — take him out with her dog in the evenings. It took ten months for him to come around and let her coax him out again, and it had nothing to do with her or with me. He just changed his mind.
I spent $100 to have Rod the Brazilian groomer, who worked year round in a tank top and shorts in the basement of my vet’s office, transform Jasper from the half-wolf/half-bear hybrid he normally resembled to a skinny, mutton chop-sporting black fox in the summer. Each time that he got his hair cut I would drop him off with great anxiety, expecting to get a text message from Rod about having his nose bitten off or something similarly disastrous. Each time he was happily returned to me looking about 50% smaller, trotting home with an extra spring in his step, the way I imagined I might if I were able to finally shed a fur coat I had been forced to wear all spring. It made me laugh at how much his mood was lifted by a change in hairstyle, like a person. I only got to do it for him twice.
I paid around $1000 (probably more; I’m still in denial) in boarding costs when I went out of town for the holidays, still too new to New York City to burden any friends with the task of taking care of him. God only knows if he would have let them. That he could be so difficult was a source of great frustration, but it made me love him so much too. Of course he wouldn’t let anyone but me take him out in the evenings — I had raised a codependent child! Of course he barked incessantly at the slightest rumbling of thunder, not a huge problem in Arizona but a much bigger issue on the East Coast — I had adopted a dog with generalized anxiety disorder! His quirks and grumpiness almost made me happier than the devotion that I always knew I’d be getting by getting a dog. I liked being the only person who had him really figured out, as much as he could be.
Like me, Jasper’s skin didn’t take kindly to the prickly humidity of New York in the summer, and I was surprised one morning to find that he had licked the fur almost entirely off one of his flanks, leaving raw and red skin exposed to the air. Though it certainly looked bad and felt apocalyptic to me, as it was his biggest health issue to date, it was resolved quickly at the vet with an Elizabethan collar, antibiotics and topical ointment, for about $150.
With this and other expenses I was usually cheerful — they had to happen, after all, and it could be worse! The question of pet insurance slipped further and further into my queue of things to worry about, and soon disappeared entirely. I worried every day about accidents or illness, but it was the kind of anxiety I had dealt with all my life, that hummed along as a low accompaniment to everything I did, like feedback on a microphone. I was so used to chronic worrying that I stopped believing anything serious would really come to pass.
Meanwhile, the pet insurance company ballooned without me. Americans will spend an estimated $55.5 billion on their pets in 2013, with approximately $14.2 billion going toward veterinary care. While scientific advances have made it possible to treat canine cataracts or replace bad hips, the cost of such services can number in the thousands of dollars. Enter the pet insurance industry, placing an unprecedented amount of responsibility on owners’ shoulders — how much should we pay to insure our pets? How far will we go to save them?
In a bizarre parody of the Byzantine system that humans must navigate in order to become insured, pet insurance fraud has risen in popularity along with the industry itself. While human insurance fraud is frequently committed by the insurance companies themselves, the macabre pet counterpoint has people killing their animals in an attempt to collect benefits. In a milder version, they will maim their pets in order to collect, or file for benefits on behalf of a pet that never existed at all. Despite these gnarled branches, the industry continues to bloom, and is indeed poised to grow this year despite many owners cutting back on medical care for their pets in light of the recession. Pet insurance policies often come with a plethora of exclusions for care and may only end up covering the most expensive and radical kinds of treatments, rendering them useless for more ordinary ailments. I was completely divorced from this calculus, continuing to pay out of pocket for Jasper’s medical issues as they arose.
I paid around $150 for the appointment to look at a lump I felt beneath Jasper’s jaw one morning last year, in the early spring. When he ambled over to me looking for attention I liked to put one hand on either side of his face, holding his head, and shake it gently while growling some variation of “You are sooooo cute!” When I did it that morning I felt a mass beneath my hand, larger than a gumball but smaller than a ping-pong ball. It was smooth and pliant, like a piece of fruit or an egg without its shell. Do dogs have Adam’s apples? I wondered stupidly. I tugged and pressed gently at it, Jasper looking at me indifferently, and then called to make an appointment with the vet. I knew I would be paying them to set my mind at ease. He was barely four and had no other symptoms. The appointment would be more for me than him.
After a needle aspirate of the lump was inconclusive (not a surprise, given that they were only able to extract a small sample before Jasper tried to bite the vet tech) we were sent home with antibiotics. Several days later the lump was no smaller and Jasper was having spectacular diarrhea all over the neighborhood. I made another appointment and got another aspirate, the one that would tell his us that he had cancer.
The day the vet called to tell me that Jasper’s results came back, indicating that he had lymphoma, I made an appointment with a veterinary oncologist, who would confirm what I already knew my options to be. It was the most lucid thing I would do for the rest of that day. I left work, clambered onto the roof of my apartment and watched the elevated trains bringing commuters home, twisting stiffly like payphone cords. I stayed so still and quiet that one of the orange butterflies that indundate the city in the spring landed on the back of my hand, sitting with me while the sun went down. I sat there until my roommate got home, and then we split a bottle of gin.
The oncology appointment was just over $200, the bulk of which was for the consult. I had a few options. I could do nothing. I could treat Jasper with steroids, and he would be fine until he wasn’t. I could spend several thousand dollars on chemotherapy, which would require several visits to the vet each week and, if it worked, could potentially put him in remission for a year or two. It was all but certain that his cancer would come back.
When I told people about his situation later on, I always said that I felt that it wasn’t right to subject Jasper to frequent vet visits and injections, both of which he hated, for a recovery that might never come or would be all too brief if it did. This was true, but I also couldn’t afford it. What I could afford to do was treat him with steroids until his cancer progressed too far to ignore, which is what I did.
That summer was very strange. I knew that Jasper was going to die, and he didn’t. Sometimes I would feel a sense of pulling away, of being almost afraid to touch him, like he was a ghost. There were a few nights close to the end when it was just the two of us in the apartment, with my roommate’s dog mostly keeping to herself in the other bedroom. I was so aware of Jasper watching me on those nights. I felt guilty every time our eyes met, like he knew everything.
In those summer months I also felt occasional moments of relief. I was always waiting for bad things to happen, always fretting over something, but in this case I knew exactly how everything would end. I caught myself thinking on some days about things I would be able to do when he was gone, making plans for a future in which he no longer existed. I didn’t know how much time he had, just that I should measure it in months rather than years. I wished for more money. Was I robbing him of healthy years he was entitled to, years he could have had if he belonged to someone else?
His health waned with the summer. As August wore on he became less interested in food and had a harder time hopping onto my bed to be cuddled. There was one day when I was certain I needed to make the appointment to have him put down, but he rallied after I went to the store and boiled some chicken and rice for him to eat instead of his regular food. Several days later there was a steep decline. He spent one night vomiting every hour or so, big clouds of foamy white fluid coming out of his mouth. I would doze for a few minutes, hear him gagging and leap out of bed to lean over him with paper towels in hand, apologetically, telling him everything was going to be okay. In the morning I made an appointment with the vet for that afternoon. I think I had the idea that we would have one last day together, but I mostly spent it lying in bed, worrying about whether or not I was making the right choice — if today ought to be the day.
I had called a car service to take us to the vet, and when the driver phoned to tell me he was waiting downstairs, I knew that I would go through with it. I carried Jasper down the stairs, past a neighbor and her son, who asked “Is he sick?” and into the car.
It is extremely weird to give someone $200 to kill your dog. The vet’s office kindly had me pay ahead of time, so that I could leave immediately afterward. My roommate came along for moral support.
There’s so much I remember from that hour at the vet’s office — saying “come here, skinny mini” while coaxing Jasper onto the scale (he had lost 12 pounds that summer, it turned out), the merciful emptiness of the waiting room and the receptionist’s polite obliviousness to my teary eyes. The vet clucking when we walked into the exam room and I placed him gently on the examination table, “Oh Jasper, you’re like a different dog.” Thinking well, he does have his summer haircut when she said it. It was so ordinary — Jasper whimpered and tried to snap when he felt the sting of the needle holding the sedative, like usual. We all stood there for a few seconds, waiting for something to happen. The vet left the room to give us a few minutes to prepare.
I had thought about what that moment would be like every day that summer, and many days before that. I had worried that I would cry or be otherwise hysterical, because I felt like such a kid that summer, so helpless and sad. But I felt my face drying as I babbled and petted him while Jasper slowly lowered himself to the surface of the table, relaxing. There was a moment when he lay down and his head lolled to the side, still breathing but clearly unaware of my voice or touch. The vet and vet tech came back in the room, moving his leg to check that he was sedated enough not to react to the anesthesia. The vet fed the needle into the little tube by his leg, inserted it, and pressed the syringe down. The four of us watched his chest rise and fall a few more times, and then he stopped.
There is no acceptable mourning period for the death of a pet. I felt defective as the months wore on and I could still feel myself getting instantly tense and upset whenever I thought about the moment I took his collar off of his neck after he died, or when I walked home down the block we had circled together every morning. I felt like my sadness was a glass of water filled to the brim and balanced on the crown of my head, getting jostled and spilling over the edges, getting other people wet.
I had rushed through the paperwork on the day he died, not really paying attention to what they were going to do with him. There were boxes to check: I checked “cremation” and “group cremation is fine” and “no urn, please, that’s creepy.” But in the months afterward, as the cards came, I wondered where he had gone.
This is how I found myself on a Metro North train to Hartsdale, New York on a rainy morning to visit the oldest operating pet cemetery in the world. I had emailed the director to ask if I could come to interview him for a story, but it was really all about me.
I got off the train and walked to the cemetery, which was nestled next to a bagel shop and a Subway. It was built on a hill, with the graves going up like stadium risers as I ascended the concrete steps to the office. The land was right next to a wide, busy road, but after I walked through the gates there was an instant reduction in noise, muffled by all the green grass. I went into the office and was greeted by a tiny brindled pit bull puppy named Sarah.
The director, Ed, brought me upstairs to his office and explained the history of the cemetery. Originally started by a veterinarian over a century ago, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery was built on the land that had been his vacation home, which had been converted into the office we sat in. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the common practice for disposing of a dead pet was to put it out with the garbage (even now, the New York City ASPCA website has instructions for how to properly prepare a dead pet to be picked up with the trash — euthanizing and paying for cremation or burial, however strange it might sound, is a luxury). He had a client who was distraught over the death of her dog, and he allowed her to come to Hartsdale to bury him on his property. Naturally, once word got out, everyone wanted in.
Ownership passed from the veterinarian to two families during the Depression, who eventually began working with Ed’s father, who had been in the monument business since the Civil War and eventually took over as a partner. While his father ran the cemetery, Ed worked as both a CPA for Ernst & Young and a teacher, before coming back to run the family business.
Ed had a nice manner about him, patient and matter of fact. He explained to me that burial in the cemetery varied in cost, depending on the size of the animal and the size of the plot. A cat-sized pet might cost $1600 to bury, while a Jasper-sized dog would be about $1800, with the burial of a large dog costing around $2100. Though the availability of cremation made it an increasingly popular and inexpensive alternative, people continued to want to bury their pets. The most expensive burial he had ever overseen cost $35,000. One man had a mausoleum built for his two spaniels.
He seemed like the type of person who would be good with grieving people, gentle and understanding without indulging any hysteria. He told me he looked at dealing with a mourner “like dealing with a struggling student.” I told him I had been moved to write about the cemetery because I realized, after Jasper died, that I hadn’t really known what any of my options were for burial or memorial. I was trying hard to be professional, to be a reporter, but I could hear my voice wavering as I talked.
Ed told me that some people buried their pets and never come back, while others come almost every week. The cemetery holds events a few times a year, including pet adoptions and holiday celebrations.
“People don’t understand there’s a need for this,” he said. He showed me a printout of a recently completed monument — a small headstone covered in flowery, effusive language, definitely composed by someone who thought of his or her pet like a child. It was a little silly, a little over the top, but it made me glad to know that someone who felt so much had the opportunity to have his or her grief marked, the pet’s presence on the earth and the difference he made acknowledged. Ed told me he said to new employees “You don’t have to buy into it. [But] you have to respect it.”
Before we parted he led me to a second, smaller building on the property, which housed the crematorium as well as a viewing room. There was a room with coffins on display on the shelves. They were kind of cute, in the way that any small version of a larger thing can be. The viewing room, which Ed told me was both to allow people a final moment with their pets and to make sure that the right pet was being buried in the right plot, had a bench sitting opposite a shelf, where the coffin would lay. A box of tissues stood nearby and a copy of the “Dog’s Plea” poem hung framed on the wall. I thanked Ed for the tour, and he left me alone to try to take some pictures in the rain, inviting me to come to one of the cemetery’s future events if I wanted to. When I went on the website to double check a few of my notes, I found scans of handwritten letters from mourners to the cemetery staff, saying thank you.
I’ve started to throw out a lot of Jasper’s stuff. Shortly after he died, I got rid of his bed and the musty blanket he liked to arrange before falling asleep, along with the Elizabethan collar that I had held onto just in case. I continue to slowly delete his things from my life. There’s a metal crate folded under my bed that used to stand, assembled, next to mine, which I used to refer to as “Jasper’s room.” I had paid $85 for it and thought I might sell it online after he was gone. I know now that I will never get around to it, and am reminded of its existence only when I check under my bed for murderers on nights that I’m home alone.
Jasper’s collar, which was given to me by the shelter the day I took him home, sits at the bottom of a tote bag hooked on my bedroom door, where I left it after I came back from the vet that day in August without him. Next to my desk are two dishes with a matching placemat that all say “WOOF” in black block letters on a cream-colored background. They were the first things I bought for him. I don’t know when I’ll feel right about throwing them away.