In the flurry of activity of the past few days, I was asked the following question: “How do you respond when someone believes that as caretakers of animals we are responsible to ensure that the animal doesn’t suffer pain any longer than is absolutely necessary when death is inevitable?”
Here are my thoughts, and I share this not to make everyone think like me, but to simply offer the perspective I have come to through experience. I encourage everyone to search inside themselves for what resonates with them, even if it differs from me.
And here is the lovely lady who has given me the courage to speak my truth. Thank you, Maya!
1. I don’t ever try to convince someone otherwise of their own beliefs. Instead, I educate myself on why something does not resonate with me.
It does not resonate with me that death is the solution to pain. Here are two of my favorite articles that speak to this: https://spiritsintransition.org/leaving-life-rhythm-nature/
https://guardianangelhospice.com/medical/the-last-few-days/. There are also additional resources on our resource page.
It is in the human world and hospice care that I found the most information about managing pain and dying. Hospice workers deal with it all the time and do not have the adverse reaction society typically does when it comes to animals, pain and death.
2. I can also say that my experience with Maya really was the worst of the worst pain experience while dying. There was no gray area. It was intense, and at the time, I did reach the limit of what I could handle, so I did euthanize her.
However, if I really listened to her she knew all hell was breaking loose, but she did not want to die. She just wanted me to show up and be. In fact, all of her surrounding herd members were simply holding space for her. No one was freaking out.
For humans, it’s the fear of pain, and the fear of witnessing pain that is a huge trigger. To actually have the courage to go into this area and not hold it away, and not make it go away by euthanizing immediately will reap a huge reward–the ability to truly listen and be present with another being in their moment of transition from this world to the next.
3. When it comes to rehabbing senior horses my only goal is to listen to them. What they say goes. My goal is not to “get rid of pain at all costs”. For some people their goal is “no pain”, and if that’s the primary goal, then I understand why they euthanize so quickly.
We are both operating from different value systems. In the end, we all do the best we can. My only purpose in sharing my experience is so that people know there are many ways to handle death and dying, and this is the way that resonates with me.
Thank you everyone to the tremendous response to my last post, The Top 10 Things I Learned about Death and Dying from Maya. What prompted my 6 month research project on death and dying in horses is that when Maya was dying, she did not at any time indicate to me that she wanted to die. In fact, it was the opposite. Her desire to live was so strong I had never witnessed anything like it. It completely contradicted everything I had ever heard about pain and horses, which was: If they were in pain then it was time to euthanize them. Maya clearly did not get that memo.
What I’ve realized is that we all, both humans and animals, have our own relationship with pain and how we handle it. Many times our own experience of pain gets projected onto the animal. Knowing ourselves, how we experience pain, and how we handle witnessing pain in others is so important. It allows us to separate ourselves from our animals. It let’s them be their own unique being with their own unique experience. When those boundaries are clear, we have a chance at beginning to understand what the animal has to say.
In the over 10 years I’ve spent rehabbing senior horses, the longer I do it, the more I realize that animals really do have their own thing going on in their own experience of the world. Discovering that world is what keeps me coming back for more.
The act of horses holding space for one of their own when in pain or dying has become a familiar scene for me thanks to Maya and the educational journey she sent me on regarding how horses handle death, dying and pain. While as humans we want to fix it, myself included, we can not underestimate the power of just being with someone, human or animal, when there is nothing that can be done except just be there. It is the most helpless feeling I’ve ever felt while loving them at the same time.
Maya has been sending me on all sorts of tangents on the death, dying, euthanasia and grief topics, from holistic medicine, to traditional western medicine, to wild horses, to horses in domestication, to pain, pain management in people, in animals, hospice, palliative care, etc. Have I left anything out? My biggest curiosity is what do people or animals do to handle the situation when there is no fix and pain is involved.
It has been a fascinating exploration, and what I’ve come to realize is that there is no one answer, and everyone is different. When I really delve into these topics I come to the core of who I am and what I believe about God, life and death. When I go there, I realize that I don’t need to make euthanasia part of my value system.
My whole goal in rehabbing senior horses is to discover who they are, and to support them in being fully alive. And when their death comes, to support them in that natural process as well. I do not need to fix “death”, nor do I need to expedite it. But what is possible is to hold that sacred space for the transition all beings will take all on their own at the end of their life on earth, both animal and human.
To let go of judgment of what death should look like and how fast it should be, and how much pain should or shouldn’t be there, and instead embrace what is before me, no matter how difficult. I do not need to force that last breath in the name of pain management, but rather, breathe with them holding that space as they take their last breath when their body determines. I also have many more holistic tools to assist in witnessing the dying process than I did when I chose to euthanize Maya. Do I ever want to be in that situation again? Absolutely not. However, when it arrives for each senior horse in my care, I will be there holding that space and listening for as long as needed.
Thank you, Maya, for giving me an education I never wanted to have on death, dying and euthanasia. It would have been much easier to never have horses and avoid this topic all together. But you keep asking me to expand my boundaries of what is possible, and how much love and listening is humanly possible even in the most dire of circumstances. It hurts like hell, but it most definitely makes me a more compassionate and understanding human being.
In the words of Temple Grandin, “animals make us human”. Love to you Maya.
More wonderful information on what the process of dying in people and animals looks like. This part particularly stood out to me:
“Fear of making our beloved horse friend suffer in pain is the number one concern haunting us and causing us to euthanize. What is overlooked when we are so preoccupied with this noble concern is that many animals would rather be in pain than no longer be alive. We probably all know humans who are in considerable pain, yet that does not automatically mean they want to die right away. Indeed, it is often the witnessing observer who is suffering the most.
If we can let go of our preconceived notions of what a life still worth living ought to look like, of how quickly dying ought to be happening … if we can let go of all of that and more, it brings us closer to perceiving what the animal’s preference is.”
Here’s the full article.
Maya continues to peak my curiosity. In my research on death and dying in horses, I have found very little information on palliative care. It seems the only palliative care is euthanasia. (Only in alternative/holistic medicine have I found any sort of palliative care that I could adapt for pain management in a horse). Unless the dying process is quick and immediate, or not witnessed by humans, then euthanasia very often enters in, especially if there is pain involved.
All of this is understandable, however, what I’ve learned from rehabbing senior horses for the past 10 years is that they have their own experience of the world, and I’m sure they have their own experience of death and dying, which is a normal process everyone, people and animals will go through at the end of their life. Since our western culture has an aversion to pain and the process of dying, it is uncommon for horses to go through their own process of dying and there is very little literature on it.
So I turned to the human world and found the article below. What I find fascinating is the different points in the dying process that can be hard on the people witnessing the death. I can definitely relate to that from my experience with Maya. Just being aware of these things before being in the moment of witnessing a dying process is hugely beneficial.
Witnessing Maya’s death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and yet I would do it again in a second. Thank you, Maya for continuing my education.
Thanks to Maya, I continue to research death and dying in horses, wild horses in particular. From my experience with domestic horses, I know horses have their own rituals when it comes to death and dying if they are allowed the time and space for it. I was thrilled to find this article on one person’s experience of death and dying in wild horses.
When I look back on Maya’s short time with me, I want to take a moment and acknowledge Chaco, my first rehab case who came to me 10 years ago. He was on his last legs and on the verge of being put down by his previous owner. When he came to me, we changed everything from diet/nutrition, living environment, exercise, etc. Today at 36 he is healthy, doing well, and still the leader of his herd.
When Maya came last summer they instantly hit it off. When her health took a significant dive in August, it was Chaco who was with her every moment of every day and night. I made daily trips to take care of her, and that soon became twice a day, and the last week she was alive it was three times per day. What strikes me is that Chaco was never not with her in some way. I know what a toll it took on me. I wonder what effect it had on him. It gave me great comfort that he was with her when I was not there.
The week she died I offered her free choice herbs that were anti-inflammatory and pain relieving. She did one sniff and a tiny lick, but it was Chaco who ate them like candy. Those same herbs today in the dead of winter, when I would think Chaco might want some for himself (being a senior horse that might get a little stiff in the dead of winter), he isn’t interested. It gets me thinking, did he have a symbiotic relationship with Maya, and took them on her behalf? Just something I keep in the back of my mind. Maybe one day I will know the answer.
After I euthanized Maya, her body remained on the property for 3 days due to logistics. Today, I am so grateful for that because it was three days of Chaco still choosing to be by her side even in death. Whenever I arrived on the property, I always found him in proximity of her, even when there was a stench. The morning Maya’s body was picked up just before daybreak, Chaco stood at attention, facing what was happening. Within moments her body was gone. He resumed eating. I never heard him call for her, like I have seen happen with other surviving horses after the death of a horse. My guess is that he knew she was dead, and he knew she was gone, and I didn’t hide anything from him – even her body being picked up.
Here’s to Chaco and the amazing gift of himself to Maya and being there for her every moment of every day. A calm, steady rock who created a level of security and companionship for Maya. What more could one want. Thank you, Chaco!