Death: The Great Equalizer

We can no longer conveniently deny that animals lack awareness, do not grieve, lack morality, and have no language. They do. In other words, they are just like us.
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For most of his life, my dog, Pickles, has been afraid of strangers. Although age and infirmity have mellowed this tendency, his reaction to the new or foreign has generally been one of suspicion and caution. When approached by a stranger, he lets out a low rumble, then a growl and finally a bark, complete with raised hackles. His message: keep away, the same message his mother repeatedly gave to those who worked at the shelter where she gave birth. Very few people could get near his mother at the shelter. She, too, did not like strangers.

I decided to adopt Pickles when he was seven weeks old and just back from foster care. That was 13 years ago. The shelter's dog trainer was with me. Pickles and his brother, Top-Top, were the last two of a litter of five. As I sat on the ground, his brother came running toward me, climbed on top of me, wiggling his whole body in delight. Pickles stayed back, eyeing me suspiciously. It took a lot of coaxing to get him to come to me. The trainer recommended I adopt Top-Top. "That one," she said pointing to Pickles, "will give you trouble." I didn't need to hear any more. I was sold, but not in the way she intended. He needed me. So I adopted Pickles (and Top-Top) on the spot. He did give us trouble, growling and snarling and barking at strangers. Pickles is, after all, his mother's son.

To us, though, Pickles has always been an angel. When offered food, he opens his mouth slightly, careful to grab only with the slightest pressure, to avoid biting the hand that feeds him. He is affectionate, devoted, loving. We are his peeps. But we are not the only ones.

When Pickles was just a puppy, he came to work with me at the San Francisco SPCA every day. Besides my family, one person he grew up with was my friend and coworker, Mike Baus. He saw Mike and spent time with Mike five days a week. In fact, coworkers who Pickles finally accepted after months of eyeing them suspiciously and were allowed to enter the office considered it a high honor. Pickles was picky about the people he let into his circle, and it came to be regarded as an exclusive club. To be in Pickles' good graces meant you were something special. And once you were in, you were in, forever.

We moved from California to New York and Pickles did not see Mike for three years. When Mike came to visit us, Pickles was outside in the yard. As Mike pulled up in his rental car, Pickles let us know how he felt about this stranger in our midst. Weary, he let out his signature low rumble of discontent. As Mike exited the car, the rumble became a growl. On cue, the hackles came up, but then something else happened. He cocked his head slightly and a look of recognition came across his face. It was Mike! The hackles receded and Pickles celebrated, barking wildly, jumping on him, and licking his face in a way he never would with anyone but our family. To Pickles, Mike was family, the prodigal son who returned after a three year hiatus.


Dogs are not alone in celebrating family. In a workshop on extending the No Kill safety net to wildlife at last year's No Kill Conference, Mike Fry, former Clinic Coordinator for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the University of Minnesota and the former Rehabilitation Manager for the HOWL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Seattle, Washington, told the story of an injured crow.

This particular crow had become entangled in kite string high in an old Oak tree in the yard of a resident of St. Paul. Unwilling to watch the bird suffer, the home owner where the tree grew climbed the tree and cut the crow free. Unfortunately, the kite string had been wrapped tightly around the bird's left wing for an extended period of time, resulting in loss of blood flow and significant tissue damage. The bird could not fly. Because of the extent of the damage, rehabilitation took many weeks. Eventually, the crow recovered and was released at the base of the Oak tree from which he had been rescued.

When his transport carrier was opened, he hesitated for a moment, then jumped out and quickly flew to the top of the tree. Immediately, he began jumping up and down, bobbing his head and cawing enthusiastically. It was a happy dance, celebrating his return home. Within seconds, crows from throughout the neighborhood flew to the tree, where they joined in the dance. Soon the tree was full of bobbing, bouncing and cawing crows, celebrating the return of their friend. Mike credits this incident with a renewed appreciation for the significance of his work as a wildlife rehabber: saving a wild animal doesn't just help the sick or injured animal, but the friends and family members of that animal, too, who no doubt notice the loss of their companion or, in the case of animals who mate for life as many birds do, their life's partner.

Animals are capable of great joy when it comes to those they know and love. So it should be no surprise that they also are capable of great sorrow. In the recent Time magazine article"The Mystery of Animal Grief," the author writes,

A dead crow lying in the open will quickly attract two or three other crows. They dive and swoop and scold--emitting a very particular call that summons up to a hundred other members of the flock. With near ceremonial coordination, they land and surround the body, often in complete silence. Some may bring sticks or bits of grass and lay them next to--or even on top of--the remains.

He also explains how cats will cry at the loss of a mate, elephants will reverently caress the bones of a departed friend even years after their death and dogs and rabbits mourn, too: "[S]orrow following a death has been observed on the farm--among goats, pigs, ducks--and in the oceans..." Indeed, there is great evidence proving that, like humans, animals "honor, mourn and even hold wakes for their dead."

Animals grieve, and grieving requires awareness of a before and an after, a difference between then and now, of possession, or for the purposes of this discussion, the presence of someone dear, and the subsequent loss of that someone and the pain and emptiness that their departure creates. Like us, animals suffer from death--not only do they flee harm that might cause it to themselves, but they feel pain from the death of other animals with whom they are bonded. "In humans," the author writes, "mourning is mediated by the frontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, a deeply seated structure that processes emotions. We share that basic anatomy with many other animals..."

Yet despite the research that shows that animals are aware of death and both fear and mourn it, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) state that killing animals is not unethical if it is done by lethal injection. According to PETA staff, 'it is just like being put under anesthesia for spay/neuter, with the only difference being that the animal never wakes up.' But whether an individual is aware they are about to be killed isn't why it is wrong to take someone else's life. In the horrifying 1978 thriller, Coma, a doctor intentionally put patients into a coma (and ultimately killed them) when they were admitted to a hospital for surgery and were under for anesthesia. The victims had no concept of their own death because they simply never woke up. By PETA's logic, this sort of killing is perfectly acceptable, a viewpoint made all the more absurd by the growing body of evidence that proves PETA's assertion that animals do not value their lives as we do is not true. Not only does their proven ability to mourn prove an awareness of death, but so does the behavior of animals forced to witness the killing of other animals.

A former Los Angeles and New York City pound director once stated that animals "do not have a conception of death," a claim disproved not only by the science, but by the very practices in his own shelters. In fact, go to any regressive shelter, where animals are killed in front of each other because lining them up and killing them in a row is quicker and more efficient. In these shelters, kittens are killed in front of their mother, and mothers are killed in front of their puppies, and dogs and cats are killed in front of others. As employees go down the row, you will see concern, stress, fear, and even resistance on the part of the others. Brain studies of animals in situations involving death show what they show in humans: higher amygdala activation. They know death and they understand its threat to themselves and to others, just like we do.

Animals are only like us--or in Ingrid Newkirk's famous pronouncement, "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"--when PETA, HSUS, and others want others to treat animals a certain way, but not when it comes to the inhumane way they treat animals (as trash to be disposed of). In other words, when they are the ones harming animals, a dog is no longer a boy. Why?

It is easier for PETA to kill, for shelter directors to kill, and for groups like HSUS to defend killing, if they can downplay the gravity of what they are doing by continuing to maintain the fiction that animals are not like us when it doesn't suit them. So long as animals are incapable of grief, so long as they cannot conceptualize death, killing them (if it done by lethal injection) doesn't matter to these groups, effectively eviscerating not just the science, but the entire philosophical and ethical foundation of the animal protection movement. In both their practices and their defense of killing, they model to the American public the very notions they should be working hardest to overcome: the lie that animals have no value and that robbing them of their life is of no moral consequence.

But try as they might, once again, the truth will out. And the truth is simple: we can no longer conveniently deny that animals lack awareness, do not grieve, lack morality, and have no language. They do. In other words, they are just like us. But you do not need to be a scientist to make that connection. In fact, science is finally catching up to what every person who shares his/her life with an animal companion has known for decades.

When your dog dies, you will grieve. When you die, your dog will grieve. That alone should take killing off the table.

Postscript: In one sense, it should not matter whether animals are like us or not. In other words, whether animals are capable of the same range of emotions or the same abilities as humans has nothing to do with whether they have a right to live and the right to be treated compassionately. However, groups like PETA claim animals do not have the "right to life" and maintain the fiction that they are promoting their "welfare" in killing animals by preventing potential future suffering. That this is a logical contradiction is not hard to see (harming animals now to prevent possible future harm), but given the science, killing an animal can no longer be rationalized by the false and convenient cover of "animal welfare." Killing itself robs an animal of something they value, and that is incompatible not only with animal rights, but animal welfare, too, another reason why "animal welfare" without animal rights is impossible: where there is no respect for life, there is no regard for welfare.

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