Peter Dodson, PhD
Professor of Anatomy, School of Veterinary Medicine
Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, School of Arts and Sciences
University of Pennsylvania
Member of the Institute for Religion and Science Advisory Committee
This morning I awoke with the pain of separation following the loss of a dear furry companion of nearly 13 years. We grip so tightly on the ones we love and ache when they are ripped from us. Sukoshi (Japanese—“very small, almost insignificant”) was not a prime exemplar of her breed—a poor-quality, high-anxiety rat-tailed poodle of the sort that would be euthanized on sight by the AKC. Yet she gave love in full measure and was inseparable from her Mom. She nightly enforced chastity in the marital bed, a living, breathing bundling board, radiating not-unwelcome heat on cold winter nights. Her illness came on suddenly. One day we were cleaning up all too familiar effusions from one end of her anatomy or the other, by the next evening she was struggling for breath. At first we treated GI symptoms, but when it became clear that far more grave matters were afoot, it was overnight in the local 24 hour animal hospital. Then a Sunday morning transfer to the superb Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania during which Sukoshi was barely conscious. An ultrasound examination, a diagnosis, and then it was the dreaded decision time. The diagnosis: peritonitis, and a mucocoel (mucous obstruction of the bile duct), complicated by age, low blood pressure and other factors.
Decisions are always difficult: surgery or euthanasia? How much is too much? Dawn and I are certainly not of the mindset that we would do anything – we definitely would not. Every puppy owner knows that the day is coming—we humans have the gift of knowing what the future will bring, and we pay the price for that knowledge. However, 13 years seemed too soon. And we were already heavily invested in the outcome, as three ER visits will quickly do. We opted for potentially life-saving surgery, fully aware that of the many risks, both on the table and in ICU following surgery. We got the call during surgery—the gall bladder had ruptured and the organs were failing due to insufficient blood pressure. What awesome God-like power we had in our hands. Should she live or die? One moment she was breathing, if barely—the next moment she ceased to be. We Christians are people of hope. We hope that, when we breathe our last, that a new life awaits. Will our dear friends be there for us? We can hope so. Such a hope violates no theological tenet that I am aware of. God certainly gave Adam the companionship of animals not to eat but to enjoy. Perhaps by their short life spans God reminds us that true happiness lies beyond. Animals brighten my home, and the emptiness left behind contains many poignant reminders.
Did we make moral decisions? These are tough questions. Our veterinary hospitals offer finer care to animals than is available to many peoples throughout the world. I am pretty sure that Pope Francis would not approve of the choices we made. I hear the cry of the poor. We could feed a family of four for several days in Haiti with what we spent. I will write my checks to Philabundance and Food for the Poor, and go ahead with our plan to buy a school bus for the Zariki School in Tanzania. But my dollars have also supported those who work in the animal care industry—not only the surgeons but the kind veterinary technicians and those who manufacture the equipment and the drugs that lives, both human and animals, depend on.
I think that God understands. But still I want to know, “Will there be dogs in heaven?”