Kids who grew up on farms, like my father in Iowa and friend Phyllis in Pennsylvania, knew all about animals dying. My father’s family were poor farmers, with the kind of small acreage that went out of favor by the end of the 1950’s. An animal who neared the end of its productive life was often put down, because they couldn’t afford to feed an animal that wasn’t producing. Weak and sick animals, especially newborns that didn’t get off to a good start, were tended but often died before an expensive vet visit would be called. Vets came for animals that were contributing value to the farm operation. One of my uncles kept a pony for the kids to ride, but it wasn’t common to have animals around just for fun. Cats killed rats in the barn. Dogs kept away foxes and raccoons and larger predators. Cows were milked. Sheep and pigs were raised to be slaughtered. Chickens laid eggs. Tough old birds beyond their laying years were transformed into chicken stew. Everything had its purpose.
My sisters and I were east coast town kids, and we didn’t have that ordinary contact with the cycle of life and death. Our dog Betsy had to be put down, but she went to the vet without us and my mother simply said she was “gone”. Margaret didn’t like to talk about death, and we knew not to ask “gone where?”.
Vets these days are skilled and compassionate in involving the family when a beloved pet has to be put down, and I think it’s a good thing. Even young kids like my grandchildren need to know that they have an important responsibility to a loyal and faithful family pet, to comfort the animal at the end of his life and see that the animal is not afraid or without familiar people around.
We rise to the occasion, even the young among us, and it’s a beautiful thing.