I hate blue tarps. Ask most people what comes to mind when they see a blue tarp, and I suspect they will say, "camping," or "shade." When I unfold a tarp and hear that rusty plastic rattle, I see the stains of fluids of decay; I smell death. Blue tarps cover the corpses of my failures.
I touched too many tarps this summer, overheard too many phone calls that tell the whole story.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Is he old, or ... ?"
"I see. That's too bad. Yes, we can take care of that for you. I'm sorry."
"Will you bring him here, or do you want the doctor to come to you?"
"Well, you can call the rendering company, or I can give you another number."
"All right, you're on the book for tomorrow morning."
I know the appointment even before our office manager hangs up and says, "I'm sorry. You've got another one tomorrow."
I'm sorry, too. I recognize the necessity of euthanasia, and intellectually, I'm glad to belong to a profession that can legally end suffering. But those are abstractions.
Price-shopped euthanasias are the worst. When a client's first words are "What will it cost to put my horse to sleep?" the rationale doesn't matter. That is code for "I can't afford to keep my horse." We had too many of those this summer--too many decrepit horses, too many hard-pressed owners burning in guilt, too many blue tarps.
People are sometimes horrified that I am willing to kill an animal that is not suffering. Sometimes I am horrified, too. "I went to school to heal animals," the idealistic voice in my head cries. The voice fades, worn hoarse by years of reality. Reality is rarely a shiny place with gleaming horses recuperating in tidy stables and fat ponies grazing emerald pastures.
Modern reality holds too many unwanted and unusable horses: old, intractable, chronically or expensively lame, or ill. Reality is high hay prices, high fuel costs, lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and low prices for marketable horses. Today, the horse reflects discretionary income that for many is dwindling. The wanted horse is a luxury; the unwanted horse, a burden.
Under pressure from special interest groups, equine slaughter has been outlawed in many states and faces a national ban. Most Americans are repulsed by equine slaughter. It doesn't thrill me, either. However, banning the slaughter of horses hasn't changed the outcome; the scene has simply shifted to prolonged neglect or meaningless death.
Still, I don't question clients closely when they opt for euthanasia. When appropriate, I offer other options for a horse that is not clearly suffering. These days options are limited. Rescue organizations are overwhelmed, and I can't pressure someone to choose between feeding a horse and feeding a child. Ultimately, I know this horse will die. I would prefer his death to come at my hands. This is my job, my responsibility. Owners always offer explanations and excuses. I hate the excuses. Not because I don't sympathize, but because I do. I hate the excuses because part of my job is to take the client's guilt and make it mine.
At almost every euthanasia I hear, "Do you think this is the right thing to do?"
I know this answer. There is only one answer. Regardless of circumstances, by the time this question is asked, I have done everything within my power for my patient. My duty now is to my client. "Yes, you are making a good choice for him." The choice is always right. The alternatives are worse.
"How can you stand to do this?" More tears have accompanied this question than I care to remember. My answer never changes. "This is both the worst and the best thing that I do. Every one hurts. The day that it doesn't hurt anymore will be the day that I have to find a different job." Privately, I wonder when that day will come. Every time that plunger depresses, I feel a bit of my soul slide into the vein with that blue syrup. How many times until there is nothing left?
Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM, practices large animal medicine in Northern California, with particular interests in equine wound management and geriatric equine care. She and her husband have three children, and she writes fiction and creative nonfiction in her spare time.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.