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Mercy or misery

Your elderly neighbour’s poodle is sick and suffering, and you can hear it whimpering in the backyard. You’ve asked him several times about whether he plans to put the dog out of its misery. But he lives alone and says he can’t bear to let go of his faithful companion. What do you do?

By Kevin Little and Lee Simpson

Author's photo
Rev. Kevin Little is a minister at St. Luke’s United in Upper Tantallon, N.S.


I don’t trust gut instincts, mine or anyone else’s, so I ask my local veterinarian, Dr. Chris MacDonald, about this dilemma. He tells me that he is charged with the responsibility to look out for the best interests of animals. In this situation, MacDonald says it is cruel to allow an animal to suffer. There may be medical remedies to this whimpering, but if not, the animal may have to be euthanized. There is great compassion in his voice.

Lately, I’ve been reading books on eco-theology. The guru of this movement is the late Thomas Berry, who believed that Christian theo-logy is largely to blame for placing human needs at the centre of the cosmos, making creation an afterthought at best and a mere utility at worst. Berry affirms all parts of the cosmos as evidence of incarnation, not just humanity. Imagine the consequences of looking at the cosmos as part of our body, worthy of nurture, protection and celebration.

Consider the Bible verse “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6). This has been interpreted, “If worthless sparrows are known to God, imagine how much God cares for you.” But if creation is at the centre, imagine how important sparrows are to God.

Putting this theological shift into practice, can we imagine that the poodle has as much claim on our compassion as our elderly neighbour?

I would encourage my neighbour to take his dog to the vet and have it assessed. I would offer to go along, to provide emotional support. However, were my neighbour to refuse this alternative, I would remind him that animal control could get involved in this case, as my compassion for his pet has been stirred. Although it would not be my preference to do so, I would call the authorities if he failed to act promptly.

The poodle is my neighbour, too.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.


The suffering of an animal moves most people to a compassionate response. I want to help my neighbour deal with his poodle’s pain. To do so, I must become informed, and so I take to the Internet and the library.

Happily, my exploration suggests options other than euthanasia. Science can provide medications that alleviate pain and extend life. My neighbour may be so blinded by fear — regarding both his dog and the veterinary bills — that he has denied his pup this life-extending possibility.

But, as a realist, I also search for literature to help animal lovers deal with mourning a pet. And as I do, I turn up another nugget of information: there is an animal rescue service for that breed (and many others) with funding for emergency situations. I am armed with facts and assistance.

Finally, before I knock on his door, I mentally commit to joining my neighbour in a commemorative event to mark the passing of his dog: we can go together to scatter poodle’s ashes along the shore where they enjoyed a daily walk in happier times.

But this incident stirs larger questions within me. Why does the plight of this dog affect me more than images of human suffering in Pakistan? Is it because I feel I can actually do something to help, here and now?

Another difficult issue forces itself on me. I have kept watch as those I cared for lay dying. In some health-care facilities, death was a pain-free and dignified process. In others, this was dramatically not the case. Why does alleviating the suffering of a small animal meet with sanction when our ability to do precisely the same for humans causes such alarm?

Time to ponder Matthew 25:40: “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

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