by Tasha Halpert
My earliest experience with the death of a pet happened when I was too young to remember it. It became a family story my mother was fond of telling. The way she told it, when I was almost four my parents won a turkey in a raffle, brought it home and kept it in a cage in the yard. I was fond of the turkey and named it Tuty. At Thanksgiving as planned, the turkey was killed, plucked stuffed and roasted. As family and guests gathered to eat and my dad was carving the turkey I piped up: “Where is my Tuty? I want my Tuty.” After that no one wanted any.
When I was small, death was not discussed in front of children. They were more sheltered than today’s children who from an early age see the adult world right before their eyes on television. I learned about it too, but in a way, first hand: seeing the small deaths around me. Baby ducks perished as they hatched; baby chickens accidentally drowned in the water pan; rabbits were attacked by a neighboring dog; and several dogs and cats were run over by cars speeding by our house.
My family lived in the country in a cottage on my Great Aunt Alice’s property. There were many animals, large and small whose living and dying were part of our everyday life. As a result death seemed to me to be quite natural. I mourned, yet not for long. There were always more animals to pat and to play with. I confess that sometimes I was not nice to them. The cat did not like it when I dressed her in doll clothes and tried to make her lie down in my doll bed. The dog did not appreciate this either. Sheeshee, a small white Spitz mix was gentle however, and did not, like the cat, protest too much or try to scratch me. She lived with us a good long time and was much loved. I have no memory of her passing, which makes me wonder if perhaps I was away at school then.
She managed to have two puppies when she was quite young and before my parents had her spayed. Peloto was left behind in Florida where he was born on a working vacation we spent there with my father. Tallahassee lived with us until tragically he was hit by a truck right in front of me. The driver, terribly upset drove the dog and me to the veterinarian to see if Tallahassee could be saved. I remember holding him on my lap and feeling very sad. His internal injuries were too severe for him to continue to live. I buried him with ceremony. Somehow even though I never attended a real funeral until I was 12, I seemed to know about reverently burying a loved animal and praying over its grave.
Our rabbits provided an experience of both birth and death. They were kept in a hutch outdoors. I remember asking my mother one day why one of them wouldn’t come out of the little house that sheltered them from bad weather. She showed me the infant rabbits that were emerging from their mother. That was wonderful to see and I was thrilled. After that I understood where babies came from although not how they got in there. Having animals helps children learn about these things naturally and under gentle conditions. When my children were small they had guinea pigs that helped them learn these important facts of life.
I believe we had the rabbits a year or two. Then somehow a fierce dog got in and mangled the ones he did not kill. When I was told the wounded rabbits were to be “put to sleep” by Carl, my great aunt’s gardener, I was very upset. In tears I walked past the boundaries of our property so as not to hear him shoot them. I remember that for this act of disobedience I was sent to my room without supper and made to go to bed early. Although I missed the rabbits, I did not mourn them for long. I was always encouraged to get over my grief quickly, and usually I did.
Life and death had their place, and so did religion. Each Sunday I accompanied my mother to her Catholic church while my dad went to his Protestant one. On Easter, Christmas and special occasions we also went to his. Although I found my mother’s simple Catholic church to be bleak and cheerless, I enjoyed my visits to my dad’s comfortable Episcopalian one;. Needing my own church for myself I created one where I could go and pray when I wished.
I chose a corner outdoors between the chimney and the wooden wall of the small potting shed and greenhouse where Carl the gardener started plants for my Great Aunt’s garden. To substitute for the hard wooden kneeling benches of my mother’s church, I collected moss to kneel on. I used a brick for an altar and tied two sticks to make a wooden cross. On the other side of the chimney I created a cemetery where I buried small animals and birds as well as one of our cats. That church was my place of comfort. I often went there to talk to God. I also developed a small graveyard where I buried baby chicks and ducks as well as a cat and dog that had perished.
My mother loved her animals. At one time she had two goats. Ebony, the larger of the two was very fond of Mama. The other escaped her tether and ate grass sprayed with arsenic from under my Great Aunt’s apple trees. They told me about her death but did not show her to me. I was often shielded from what was harsh or ugly. Ebony lived quite a long time and even though she had never been bred she used to give milk.
My great Aunt kept chickens as did we. I remember as a very young child being pinned down by a huge rooster that somehow escaped the coop and threatened to attack me as I walked through the apple orchard. Eventually someone came to my rescue and shooed the bird away. Chickens were food, not pets, so there was no sorrow associated with their demise.When they were to be eaten Carl used to kill them. He would cut off their heads with an ax and they would run around the yard headless. Then my mother valiantly plucked the feathers from the warm bird and either roasted or boiled it, depending on the age.
When I was six or seven it became my job to take care of our chickens. I didn’t mind doing it in the summer. There was a convenient faucet near the chicken coop where I could fill their water holder. However, in winter the water faucet was turned off so it wouldn’t freeze. I had to lug heavy pails of water as well as buckets of grain and mash all the way from the barn to the chicken house fifty feet or more away. This was how I earned my allowance so I didn’t dare slack off.
One March I had a brilliant idea. The hen house was close to a marsh that flooded every spring. Daily I filled their water bucket from this convenient source. A couple of weeks later our chickens began to die. At first no one knew why. Then my father called me into the living room. It seems Carl had seen me as I filled the bucket. I expect I was punished. Probably I lost my allowance for a time, though I don’t remember. I did feel very sorry for what I had done to the poor chickens. My parents were even more upset because they couldn’t eat them. I was reminded of that for years.
Worse than the death of Tallahassee was what happened to my mother’s dog Nicky. I was four or five at the time, and I did not eat with my parents but earlier, in my room. I remember the experience vividly. Nicky was my mother’s cherished black and white border collie. He was a bit rambunctious and tended to wander so we weren’t to let him out unattended. One day I accidentally let him out. I was upstairs eating when my mother rushed in. “Nicky’s dead and it’s all your fault.” She sobbed. It seemed that before he could be retrieved a delivery truck pulling into Aunt Alice’s driveway had hit him.
I remember that my mouth opened and the green peas I had just put in spilledback onto my plate. I began to cry. I felt guilty for Nicky’s death for a long time. However, he wasn’t the last dog for whose death I was responsible. Years later when I was driving down a snow banked highway at about 40 miles an hour with my children in the back seat, a great big German shepherd came running right down the middle of the highway toward me. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t avoid the dog. Had I tried to swerve to the right or the left I would have hit a snow bank. I had three small children in the car. I had no choice.
Afterward I stopped my car and went back to get the dog’s collar so I could tell the owner. I dragged the body to the side of the road and drove home. I had made sure to hit the dog hard enough to kill it because otherwise it would have been crippled or maimed and suffered terribly. I felt dreadful. Yet I could not risk my children’s lives to try to save the dog. When I explained the owner thanked me. Apparently the dog had gotten out and had followed his truck. He was not upset with me and I was grateful. While I felt sad I did not feel guilty.
Death is part of life. Life is part of death. I learned this at an early age. Sometimes we cannot help causing the death of a loved pet. Sometimes we have to choose death over life because it is the best choice in a situation. Sometimes we have no choice because we simply do not know any better. I have spent many years of my life learning to be as conscious of my actions and their consequences as I could. Death seems to have followed me even as I have reached out to embrace it when need be. Animals are with us for a short time. Perhaps they are our teachers about the necessity for death. Perhaps we can learn from them to embrace it when it comes to us, knowing that we too are a part of creation and that like them we return to the Source.
St. Stephen’s Church, Bologna by Tasha Halpert