I’ve had to euthanize several cats, and while it’s always heartbreaking, in every case I knew it was the right decision, at the right time, which made it somewhat easier to bear.
The worst euthanasia decision I ever had to make was for my horse Nick. He was 23 years old and still in excellent health; his age was just beginning to show. He was spending the summer at a friend’s farm in New Hampshire, and I’d been up to see him earlier and enjoyed what proved to be our last ride together. I’d planned to bring him home at the end of August, but Anne suggested leaving him with her for another couple of weeks to enjoy grazing relatively fly-free now that summer was over.
A few days before Nick was to be trailered home, I got one of those calls that kicks you in the gut: “Nick’s been hurt. Hurt bad. You need to get up here fast.” A frantic two hours’ drive later, I saw my horse: scraped and bruised from his struggle to regain his feet after somehow sliding under the electric wire down a small slope and getting cast on his back in a shallow swale. (We never figured out how it happened; perhaps it was a small stroke?) But that was superficial and not of concern.
What froze my heart was Nick’s loss of sensation in his hind legs. He could move them, clumsily, but he couldn’t feel them – he’d lost all proprioception beyond his croup. He could walk, but with each step he swayed terrifyingly close to falling.
Anne’s vet did what she could. We decided to see if he would heal, and when I left at last I clung to some shreds of hope through the leaden misery of replaying again and again in my mind what I’d seen.
For the next few days I kept in close touch with Anne. One night came another frantic call: “Nick’s down in his stall and he can’t get up. I’m getting help. Be ready to come up. Be ready to decide.” That evening we almost made the decision. I waited by the phone, unable to leave immediately, knotted up in helpless worry. But Anne’s neighbors came over and her vet joined the fight to get him back up; Nick tried, rested, tried again; the human crew who refused to give up on him inched this 1,000-pound animal over to the outside door of the stall, got his front legs out, pushed and heaved him farther, farther – and Nick slid out, got up on all fours, and tottered off looking for grass. Anne phoned me, exhausted, triumphant, with the good news, and to report that her neighbors had joined the big red goofball’s fan club.
But the joy from that rescue was fleeting. A couple of days later I drove up to meet Anne’s vet at her farm to discuss what next. I walked down to where Nick was hanging out under the bank barn with Anne’s two horses, the vet by his side. And I knew.
He was glad to see me and he gobbled the doughnut and horse cookies I’d brought him and he wanted his belly scratched (oh, how he loved having his belly scratched! He’d follow you around the paddock slinging his flank at you, demanding more) but he was weaker, I could see that, since the Sunday before when I’d last seen him. He was tired, tired of fighting to go on, and so wobbly he almost fell just moving into position to get his belly scratched.
The vet was so kind. Donna told me she’d seen a much younger horse with the same injury who’d never recovered and that I was right to let him go. She showed me the place on his spine where she believed the injury was. We started to lead him – just with a rope around his neck, Nick was always such a good guy – we were taking him up the slight slope to where I’d chosen to bury him if it came to that. He tried to follow me but halfway up he lost his balance backwards and sagged down. He folded rather than slamming down, lay on his side with his feet higher, picked up his head and tried, started to try to get up. I knelt by his head and comforted him and told him he didn’t have to try any more and told him I loved him and he laid his head back down and trusted me and I stroked his face while the vet gave him the needle and he went so softly so gently he never even drew the harsh agonal last breath. Just… gone.
Anne was at work, distraught because I think she knew what I would decide when I saw Nick. I called her when I made the decision and again afterwards. Donna comforted me as best she could, stayed with me for quite a while afterwards talking and helping me deal with it. We covered his body with a dropcloth and I cut off keepsake strands of his mane and tail. After Donna left I stood leaning on the fence for a while, staring at Nick’s body, and cried. Finally I got his tack into the car and drove to Concord where Anne was working and we cried on each other for a bit. And then I drove home.
That was in September 2005. I’m crying now, reliving it. He’s buried in Anne’s front field. I have a picture of him happily grazing on the spot that became his grave. I look at it every day.