June 23, 2014

The Old Dog

Chloe is 12 years old, a pale yellow lab. Yellow in name, and perhaps once was, but more properly now she is white. Her breath is loud and I hear it most nights when I go to sleep, as she fancies the floor near my bed as her resting place.

She will arrive twice a day, around 4 and 11. (The first corresponds to my coming home from work, and laying down for a moment's respite; the latter corresponds with my bedtime.) Being tall enough, she will place her head on the side of my bed and pant until I acknowledge that she has arrived with a moment's petting. Soon after she is asleep, splayed out on the floor. Her breath is quieter then but only just.

When she rises it is always with a shudder, then unsure steps carry her forward, arthritic joints yielding to age and the decay that must come. In her breath, though laboured, I hear what I assume to be pleasure. She walks about often and enthusiastically, even running and jumping at times (though not often do these things end gracefully). She appears happy with things, happy to see me, and to share my sleeping place. I too am pleased with the arrangement, and honestly pleased moments before, as I can hear her panting from the end of the hallway. Approaching, and then, always polite, asking if she can stay. (She won't sleep in my room if I'm not there.)

We can't speak, of course. I can't ask her how much her joints hurt, if at all, or how laboured her breathing truly is. I know she seems pleased. That her face seems to appear a doggish smile. (It should be noted that studies seem to indicate that humans and dogs actually recognize these things quite accurately, based on brain scan data.) But that seeming, it must be acknowledged, is filtered through my biases. Certainly we have more tangible evidence than that. The vet says she is healthy, and that, perhaps, is the best we can do.

I say we, because despite this apparent attachment, she isn't my dog, but my roommates' from childhood. These are concerns that they share, as I suppose any worthy pet owner would. She is old, and the questions that must be asked are asked. You know them.

But there again the concept of ownership, of belonging. In the same way one might own a chair, a table, a car. People can like these things, of course. I've heard tell that people can love them, and I won't say otherwise or offer judgment on that sentiment.

But I am uncomfortable with the idea that the life of a sentient being can be equated with these things in any meaningful way. Whether her daily discomfort is negligible or severe, she feels. A car cannot experience pain, or the fear of reconciling it with increasing age. Dogs, we're told, don't grasp mortality in the same ways that we do. And that seems likely enough. Still, she experiences a host of things, not in the same way that you or I do necessarily, but in a way that is no less valuable. While we, as humans, understandably sympathise best with other like creatures (though often we're deplorable at that), there must be some imperative to attempt a similar connection with, at the very least, the creatures we've legally claimed ownership of. They "belong" to us, a phrasing I don't love. But with that ownership must come a responsibility, to do the best we can for them.

So, I don't know. I'm also very uncomfortable with broad sweeping statements on morality and ethical obligations, on claiming I have answers regarding how anyone other than myself should behave. It's a hard thing to get right, life, for all of us. I can't say I've got it figured out in total. But this? This seems simple enough. Do your best for the animals you've brought into your home to share time and space with. It really is the least we can do.

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