Caring for all creatures

Caring for all creatures

Unitarian Universalists are providing comfort for ill or dying pets and their caregivers.
Kimberly French


Do I have the right to end the life of a fellow being? Or is it my duty to pick the right moment for the death of my pet, who trusts and depends on me—and how can I do that? Many of the nearly 73 million U.S. households that have pets will grapple with these ethical questions at some point. And they will mostly do it alone. Some veterinarians say euthanasia is how 90 percent of their animal patients’ lives end.

Ten years ago the Rev. Eliza Blanchard found herself in the emergency room at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston after her son’s three-foot-long jade-green iguana had a seizure. “As I looked around the waiting room, I noticed how lonely and anxious all of these pet owners were, waiting while their animals were in surgery or getting emergency care. I thought, if ever there was a need for a chaplain, it was here, in this ER.”

In 2010 fellow UU Heather Merrill, a social thanatologist (specialist in death, dying, and bereavement), founded the New England Pet Hospice, an in-home service for ill and dying pets and their caregivers. Right away she signed Blanchard on as an interfaith spiritual adviser.

Pet owners often get the advice “The animal will let you know.” Rarely is it that simple. When a pet gets ill or just old, veterinary choices may be limited to euthanasia or costly and uncertain medical procedures. A pet may primarily need more care—help getting up, medications or special food throughout the day, cleanup when bowel control is lost—care that owners may be hard pressed to provide.

Many animal hospices are essentially mobile vets who euthanize pets at home. Only a handful offer the interdisciplinary care that Merrill knew from her human hospice work. She designed New England Pet Hospice to give pet owners more choices: consultations on how to make the home more comfortable and what to expect, visiting nurses, administration of painkillers and subcutaneous fluids, respite care, special-diet foods, and adaptive equipment and supplies.

From the beginning, Merrill, a lay pastoral associate at First Parish in Sudbury, Massachusetts, knew she wanted to offer one component she hasn’t seen at other animal hospices—spiritual counseling by a minister with clinical pastoral training.

In one recent case, a veterinary oncologist called the hospice about a cat dying of cancer. “We’ve done everything we can,” the doctor said, “but the owner wants us to keep going with treatment, and that may even kill the cat. But she can’t let go.”

Merrill and Blanchard counseled the owner, learned she’d had her own cancer scare, and listened to the questions haunting her: “What if someone had given up on me? What if my cat dies the way my cousin did three months ago, in horrible pain?”

They encouraged the client, a Buddhist, to be centered on the moment—what was happening with this cat, who was twenty-one and did not have a good chance of recovering. They talked about the great life she had given her cat and how she could give him peace now. After some readings and prayers, they were able to talk about a memorial service.

In another case, the owner of a large elderly dog called. Her vet didn’t know what was wrong but wanted to keep her dog overnight. She felt he’d be more comfortable at home. Blanchard suggested to the owner, who was Jewish, “Let’s say a prayer for him.” Together they sat with the dog in the hospital kennel, and Blanchard prayed for healing, love, and knowledge to help him. The owner decided to leave her dog in hospital care.

The pain and soul-searching felt by pet owners is real and clearly falls in the spiritual realm, Merrill and Blanchard believe. Human hospice professionals talk about four kinds of suffering—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—that must all be addressed.

“Spiritual suffering is not the same as grief,” Merrill says. “When you don’t deal with it, it leads to despair. A spiritual adviser can help make meaning of all the ‘why’ questions: Why does my gentle animal have to suffer? Do they have a spirit? Am I going crazy thinking I’m getting signs from my dog who died? We know in hospice that people always have these kinds of questions, but especially with animals, they can be afraid to vocalize them.”

Blanchard also serves as chaplain to animal caregivers such as rescue workers and vet technicians. Both jobs are high stress and linked to a post-traumatic stress disorder known as compassion fatigue. Employees in veterinary offices often start and end their day with euthanizing animals—decisions they don’t always agree with—and see as many as five times more deaths as other medical providers.

One client, who rescues dogs on death row in shelters, grapples with good and evil on a daily basis: witnessing dogs that have been starved, burned, and maimed by abuse. “It can really wear away at your trust of other human beings over time,” Blanchard says. Pastoral counseling has helped the client balance the horrors she sees with the uplifting side of her job—the altruism from her volunteers and the happiness of the adoptive families.

Blanchard encourages these caregivers to counter the negative images through spiritual practices such as prayer, guided meditation, gratitude journals, or art. “I firmly believe people have the answer within,” she says.

Blanchard loves exploring the theological questions raised by animals in a community ministry she calls All Creatures, based at First Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts. She offers pet loss circles, leads monthly evening worship services that welcome “all faiths and all species,” and teaches Animals Are Us classes. “So many arguments assumed that we had to be made in the image of God,” Blanchard points out, “and we had to keep a firewall between us and all other animals—many of those are crumbling.”

When Blanchard guest preaches, a few people will tell her they’re not “animal people.” She knows many question a ministry focusing on animals when so many people are suffering. Love of animals, or lack of it, can be yet another thing that divides us. “My hope is that my ministry, along with all that science is learning, will open minds and hearts to the possibilities of these relationships. You may not want a dog in your house, but look at all we’re learning. Likewise, there needs to be room that not everyone is going to have that kind of bond and doesn’t have to.”

The Seventh Principle—“respect for the interdependent web of all existence”—is the one she says called her to animal ministry and guides her in exploring questions about how humans relate to animals. “The more we appreciate that ‘animals are us,’” she says, “the more potential we have for greater self-understanding, humility, appreciation of creation, and compassion. Human beings and animals—that’s a construct that we made up so we could feel superior, and at our worst, abuse and exploit animals. We have so much to gain by revisiting that.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (pages 12–14).

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