Saturday, December 19, 2009

Taking Care of the Livestock First

There's an old rule of thumb in farming: take care of the livestock first. Whether it's feeding, tending to, or providing shelter in a storm, seeing to the animals' needs before one's own is no doubt good farming practice, protecting one's investment and livelihood. It's also our responsibility as their caretakers, something we chose when we adopted or acquired them, a decision they had no part of. That responsibility doesn't stop when the animals get old or infirm. Much as we'd like to hold onto them forever--to make time stop--there's a point at which keeping an animal alive becomes more about us and our needs than about them and theirs.

Verlyn Klinkenborg has a piece in the Times today about making the hard decision to put a beloved dog down. It's an eloquent articulation of all that I believe to be the right course in such things, as heart-wrenching as it may be.

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It reminded me of a wonderful story by David Updike, written in 1978 when he was still in college, "Out on the Marsh." It's a reflection by a young man at 21 about the passing of time, illuminated by his sudden awareness that his dog, Mtoti, has gotten on in years. Here's the last paragraph:

I had been out on the marsh for several hours that day, and Mtoti was tired and followed a few feet behind me. I turned to him and ran backwards, clapping my hands, calling his name, and he worked himself into a run. On the lawn we stopped, and I bent down to hug him. In the afternoon light, I could see that the gray flecks on his muzzle had gone to white, and I realized that he had drifted into old age without my having noticed. I have thought of him all these years as my peer, but it is only now, in the blue light of spring, that I realize he has grown old without me.