Thursday, January 18, 2007


Silky's Test

The dog was dying. Almost unconscious, she lay on the ground outside the door of our clinic in Jaipur, India. She was a purebred black Labrador retriever - a rarity in India and especially at our shelter. My assistant, Ramsaroop, told me that she had been left by her owners for our shelter doctor to euthanize. Ours was the only shelter in the region where people could bring their dying pets, in the knowledge that their animals would be able to die peacefully and without pain. As many people in India believed it was wrong to take the life of an animal, even if it was terminally ill, it fell to our veterinarians and staff to take on the role of mercifully releasing these creatures from their suffering.
Like so many of the dogs we dealt with, she was so thin she could not stand. I recognized the terrible symptoms of distemper, and knew that she didn't have long to live. Her breathing was labored, and she was so weak she did not want to move. If by some miracle the dog recovered from the distemper, it was almost certain that she would have neurological damage, which could result in either seizures or permanent spasms. Reluctantly, I decided I would have to follow the owners' instructions and euthanize the dog. I asked Ramsaroop to bring the needle.
Ramsaroop returned with the syringe, and I bent down to perform this final act of mercy. As I did so, the dog, with great and deliberate effort, slowly lifted her head so that she could look into my eyes. As she stared at me, I felt that she was asking me for one last chance. She was not ready to die; she wanted to try to live. As our eyes met, I felt a great love and affinity for her. At that moment, I vowed to do all in my power to help her recover.
I turned to a surprised Ramsaroop and asked him to put away the needle. Then I went and fetched a small bowl of milk and placed it under the dog's nose. She showed no interest in it and continued to lie without moving. It was critical that she take some nourishment, so I prepared an IV drip for her. I was about to begin the procedure when I suddenly had an impulse.
I walked out of our front gate and up the road to the small temple next door to our shelter. Inside the plain, square cement temple, under a huge and ancient peepal tree, was a very old image of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, so old that it was no more than a blob of stone, all its features eroded, and its form painted with orange and silver.
There was something in the air of this special spot, perhaps because so many people had worshipped here, and I found myself filled with the peacefulness that emanated from this symbol of the love between human and animal. I stood for a long while, offering my own prayers to God for the black dog's recovery.
I walked back to the shelter and saw the dog still lying there, not moving. Again I fetched the bowl of milk and held it under her nose, which rested on the dust. This time however, she lifted her head, and slowly drank the full contents of the bowl. I was amazed and delighted with this sudden change, but still I did not really believe that it was possible for her to live.
I wasn't ready to give up though. Every few hours, I fed her small measures of food - baby cereal, raw egg, some bread soaked in milk. Each time I fed her, I marveled that she was still breathing. Over the next twenty-four hours, the dog's strength slowly returned. As the days passed and it seemed that she might live, I began to worry that she would be left with a legacy of convulsing limbs, or a permanently nodding head. I watched her carefully for signs of these problems.
But after a couple of weeks, when no neurological damage had manifested, I knew my patient was out of danger. She was able to wag her tail vigorously, to walk stiffly and to smile, looking at me with love-filled eyes that said, "You saved my life."
I named her Silky and decided to adopt her as my own. Her original owners had indicated that they did not want her, even if she recovered and I did not want to send this dog away with strangers. So I took her home to our small cottage built on the grounds of the shelter.
As soon as she walked into our bedroom, I was surprised to see her climb onto the bed. "No, Silky," I said, and went to pull her off. As I pulled on her collar, she growled furiously and tried to attack me, almost biting my hand. Shocked and dismayed, I stood back, and contemplated the situation. It had not occurred to me that she might have an aggressive side to her personality; she had been so meek and docile in the clinic.
Clearly someone had mistreated her. Silky must have thought that I, too, was going to brutalize her.
"Silky?" I asked in a soothing tone. She snarled and bared her teeth in response. It was painfully clear she knew how to be very frightening. I felt hurt that the dog, which I had so tenderly nursed, was now behaving in this way towards me. We were at a crossroads.
I have to show her who's boss, I thought, my mood hardening. She must obey me - we can't keep her if she's a dangerous dog. It was crucial that she pass this test.
Silky stared at me dolefully, no longer displaying any malice. Suddenly, as we looked at each other across a few feet of space, I realized that I was the one who had to pass the test. Others had mistreated her. Now she wanted to know whether I, too, would be a bully and a brute, or whether I would treat her with kindness and understanding.
My arrogance and desire to dominate melted away as I stood humbly before her. I had to win her loyalty now, in this moment. I had to show her, just once, that I was worthy of her love.
I wanted to communicate with her in the way I believe animals communicate, via thoughts and emotions. So I stood there, a few feet away from the bed, speaking to her gently. I explained that she would never be hurt agai n, and that she never need fear again. I consciously held to loving thoughts and images in my mind.
She watched me with her large, brown eyes, perhaps assessing whether she could truly believe me. At one point, I felt completely connected to her - as if we were one entity - both permeated by the same energy that suffuses all life. I was filled once again with the peace I had experienced in the temple.
The moment had come to discover whether I had passed her test. I leaned forward and took her collar. I saw her thinking, watching. She lay with front paws extended forward, her head slightly to one side. I held the collar, and tugged gently.
"Silky, come," I said. Without hesitation, as though she had never been anything but the most loving and obedient dog, she jumped down from the bed.
"Good Silky," I said, patting and fondling her ears. Slowly her tail began to wag.
That was many years ago, and Silky has now grown quite old. To this day, she has never again jumped on the bed. At night she sleeps at my feet on her own small mattress - my devoted companion and guard. And each time she pads softly beside me on a walk, or lays her dark head on my lap, I'm glad that, years ago, I had the wisdom to pass Silky's test.


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