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Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. Headshot

Life and Death, Mercy and Dominion, to Love a Dog

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To be "at the mercy of" is a strange expression when applied to the animals who live with us. Yet that's what came to mind when my dog of over a decade died. "We can be sure of death; it's the living that's uncertain," my husband said to me. His point, a deeply comforting one, was that I had given this dog of rough beginnings a good life.

We human beings get, for the most part, to determine the quality of our lives. But the animals who live with us are, as we say, "at our mercy." Yet what a strange expression. For "mercy" presumes guilt. To be merciful is to choose not to punish when punishment is due. At least that's the definition that makes sense in the religious language where the term is most at home. Mercy is the prerogative of the one who dispenses justice. And if it is given at all, it is given to the guilty.

Of what moral blunders or ethical infractions could a dog, a horse, a bird, a cat, a guinea pig be guilty? It's silly to contemplate. Failures to obey our commands hardly count. Even "vicious" behavior, when we account for its origins in the likes of fear, abuse, or pain, doesn't qualify as criminal in the cases of the animals whose lives we so define.

It is precisely because of an animal's innate innocence human beings have for millennia used animals for sacrifice, as the vicarious repositories for our guilt. We are now in the season of Passover and Easter, when Jews and Christians recall how the blood of a lamb won the life of human beings. Yet this is not the place for a discourse on sacrifice.

What I mean rather to write about is the privilege and responsibility we have for the animals in our keeping. Not only that, but also how that relationship shapes us. It is not, after all, one-sided. Who we are is partly who our animals help us to be, simply by being themselves. Right now, for me, that is learning to treasure the memory of an old hound and the gifts of present moments as they happen.

Animals do not agonize over their deaths, worrying in advance, or living for what may or may not come after. They simply live while they live. The present is all there is, and it is full. What it is full of, in the case of those animals who live with us, is largely defined by us. We kid ourselves if we think that it is not.

This, I think, is part of what it means "to have dominion," in the biblical language of Genesis. It is to accept and exercise the power we have to determine the quality of lives other than our own and to do so in ways that promote the best for all. In the case of animals, such dominion is paradoxically strengthened by our willingness to be weak, to be open to what the animals themselves may teach us about goodness and what is right.

I don't propose that we should live exactly like the beasts, nor that we should imagine animals to be just like human beings. But what a gift to be reminded that food in the belly, fresh water, and the loving company of a friend can make for a rich life. Not, I should add, that such was the sum of my dog's longing. In the case of my dear departed, the dog was no saint. Sneaking the dessert cheese off an unattended platter while we said goodbye to guests, passing gas sufficiently potent to drop an elephant or at least drive my husband from our bed, straining at the leash enough to put my neck and shoulders out for a week, and so on. But I'd have it no other way.

And I'd have him back, if I could. But my dog was sick. He was old, with a congenital heart defect that worsened with age. He got sicker. We tried to keep him comfortable and succeeded for a time with various medications and lots of attention. Then he got even sicker, quit eating, couldn't walk very well, and drew breath only with great difficulty. So, on Tuesday afternoon I lied with him in the warming sun and stroked his soft speckled ears. Then with the help of our kind veterinarian, he died.

"Merciful"? There are some who would call me a killer, I suppose, in hastening death. But there's that pesky "dominion" thing, again - to decide with intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. So we do the best we can to care for those within our charge, love without reservation, and let them shape and teach us. Then, when we have done our best, we might still hope for our own kind of mercy.

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