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Pet Kevorkian



He couldn't take care of himself anymore. For the year and a half since the doctors had diagnosed his hard-core diabetes, family members had been giving him insulin shots every day. The living room had come to look like a hospital ward, with his IV bag hanging over his head and his bed covered with disposable linens in case he lost control of his urine while sleeping. Two days before, he'd had his third and worst comalike episode, slipping away but never quite making it over the edge before coming back to a life that wasn't really life anymore. He didn't recognize anybody around him, couldn't get out of bed or feed himself. To say nothing of chasing birds.

Time was clearly up for Tweety, a 13-year-old black-and-white cat who had lived most of his life with Rick Corso. One night last summer Corso realized that Tweety shouldn't be forced to wait out another day.

But as much as Corso hated to watch Tweety suffer, he also dreaded taking the cat to a veterinarian's office to be euthanized. "I had put an animal to sleep once before, and it was not an easy experience," he says. "To be in a vet's office where you're not comfortable when you have all these very private feelings going on is bad enough, but you also get a feeling from the staff like, 'Hey, who's next on the assembly line? We'll put your animal to sleep, then give the next one a booster shot, then clean a cat's teeth.'"

Two days before, when Tweety had seemed to be going down for the last time, Corso's regular vet had been unavailable, so he had taken the cat to see Dr. Amir Shanan at the Allen Animal Hospital in Broadview. During the exam Shanan explained that if Corso ever decided to help Tweety die, he would come to the house to do it, any time, day or night. Since January Shanan had made a couple of dozen house calls to euthanize dogs and cats in their homes, a setting he considers best for the animal and the owner.

Which is how Shanan, who runs both Allen and Chicago Home Veterinary Care, ended up driving from his house on the north side to Naperville at 10:30 one night. At almost midnight Shanan used a two-injection procedure that first sedated the cat--and allowed Corso and his wife, Michele, a few minutes to deal with the prospect of finally giving up Tweety--and then stopped his heart painlessly. Tweety died surrounded by the people, smells, and toys he had known best, and the Corsos got to cry and moan and generally handle the death the way any big loss ought to be handled: sloppily and unself-consciously.

"It was the best way for a cat to go, I'm sure, and for me it was more comfortable," Corso says. "It gave me the opportunity to express my emotions without the stifling feeling of being in public. I'm not an extroverted, overly emotional person who would show my emotions in public, but I felt really sad and tearful. I was able to spend that time with myself and with my wife."

Like Michigan's notorious Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Shanan is a euthanasia entrepreneur who makes death easier for those whose lives have become unendurably painful. The difference is that Kevorkian is dealing with human life, something his critics evidently believe holds all its value even when it's nearly drained away, while Shanan ends the lives of domestic animals-- which are not nearly as sanctified. From his beat-up van to his black-comic paintings, Kevorkian seems to be saying we make way too big a deal about human death. Shanan goes the other way; he thinks we make too little a deal about pet deaths.

"We are talking about the death of a family member who is of a different species," Shanan says. "One out of two households in this country has at least one dog or cat. Pet ownership is a more prevalent relationship than marriage, and it might be a relationship that breaks less often. The pet is an almost universal part of the family structure in our society, so obviously that relationship with a pet has more significance to us than just entertainment value."

The end of the relationship, he figures, ought to resemble the relationship itself--a tender, mutually comforting good-bye instead of a clinical act. Since January, when he took out a Yellow Pages ad trumpeting "Euthanasia at Home," Shanan has euthanized an average of one pet per week--usually for strangers who find him in the phone book.

He's not against veterinarians--he's one of them, after all--but Shanan thinks veterinary medicine as it's practiced today makes sensitivity to a client's grief a too-costly distraction. Shanan recalls only one lecture on grief from his entire veterinary education at Michigan State University in the early 80s. "I'm sure those veterinarians who went to school in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s got even less than that," he says. "It's the atmosphere that was established early in the century, when animals were primarily fulfilling utilitarian functions--draft horses and livestock. It just wasn't part of the formal material to worry about people's feelings." Shanan believes that many veterinarians make time for compassion even though it's a little like throwing bits of their income out the window. Even so his clients and others say the office setting is still stressful for the animal and the person.

Susan Westbrook, who had a dog put to sleep at her regular vet's office in Berwyn several years ago, says she can't drive past the office without shuddering at her memories of the cold, sterile experience. This spring Westbrook called Shanan to euthanize another dog, an eight-year-old Doberman named Lady who hadn't been able to walk for over six months. "I didn't want my last memory of Lady to be of putting her up on a stainless-steel table to die," Westbrook says. "If you're a true animal lover, you treated your animal kindly its whole life; your last good-bye should be the same way. Lady loved us as her family, she gave us a lot of happiness, and I think we owed her that."

At the Anti-Cruelty Society the staff performs about 250 "owner-consent euthanasias" a month. Usually the owner is on hand to provide a familiar voice and touch--which many vets allow at in-office euthanasia as well--but executive director Jane Stern says the clinical setting for an animal's death ought to be the exception and not the rule. "No dog or cat wants to go into the vet's office, even in good health. Home is usually not a stressful place for an animal," she says. "He sees all his familiar things around him and smells all his familiar smells, and it's just like going to sleep."

For people who think death is icky, having a pet put to death at home may seem sort of gruesome, but for several of Shanan's clients it's turned out to be the only way to go. They say they got to deal with their grief privately, they didn't have to haul an already weak and miserable animal across town to a vet's office or emergency clinic, and they felt real closure to the relationship afterward. So far Shanan has even had one repeat customer, Christine Staszkiewicz of River West.

On June 1 Staszkiewicz had Shanan in to euthanize her six-year-old cat, Barney, and five days later she called him back to do the same for her 19-year-old poodle, Nikki. The cat had an ear problem that may have been cancer; it had recently spread into his jaw, which a surgeon wanted to remove for tests. The cat's hearing and balance were ruined. "That wasn't my cat anymore," she says. "He had always been vibrant and under your feet, and now he was just lying there unable to eat. I had to give him water through a syringe. It was too much for him."

When her regular vet wasn't in, she started thumbing through the phone book and found Shanan's ad. A short time later Shanan injected Barney with a sedative and then a lethal, concentrated overdose of an anesthetic. "Dr. Shanan said, 'He's gone,' and I said, 'How do you know?' He said there was no heartbeat, so I stood up and the cat was limp. That was it. Dr. Shanan stayed with me until the pet cemetery came to get the body. He had tears in his eyes, but he had never met me or my cat before that day."

Meanwhile Staszkiewicz's dog had an attack, probably the stroke a vet had warned she was on the verge of. A few days after Barney's death Nikki began falling face forward onto the floor every so often. The dog had been on medications for 15 years, was blind from cataracts, and had to be carried outside at night to pee, but Staszkiewicz hadn't been able to face what she had to do. Until Shanan euthanized Barney. Then she knew she could let go of Nikki the same way. "They lived here--let them die here," she decided.

After Shanan euthanized Nikki, Staszkiewicz borrowed his stethoscope to listen for a heartbeat. Hearing none, she cradled the corpse until the pet cemetery's person showed up. Her fiance tried to console her by pointing out that the dog had led a good life. It wasn't helping. Finally Shanan took the fiance aside and asked him to change tacks. "If you emphasize that the animal led a good life, you're really telling her, 'You have nothing to be sad about," Shanan said. "Your fiancee is in pain and she's going to be for a while. Please don't tell her she shouldn't be sad. What you can do is let her understand that she has lost something important, that she has a valid reason for grieving, and then just be there for her."

A few minutes later the fiance, a Chicago police officer, took Shanan into another room and told the doctor, "You know, I wasn't aware that I was saying something that was taking away from her right to be in pain."

That, says Shanan, is the key: people have a right to be in pain when their pets die--either naturally or by euthanasia. "That animal has loved you unconditionally," he says. "It's a big loss, and very few people are ever prepared for it. We're not even very well prepared for the death of a human loved one, because in our culture we don't like to talk about it until it happens. Some people probably grieve more for an animal than for a spouse or relative, because the relationship was so simple--all love, no other problems to complicate it."

Shanan's main interest is the human-animal bond. He follows the research of a California psychologist who studies the role of pets in child development. She has found that pets provide kids with the same unconditional love that grandparents can offer and are as entertaining and fun to be with as siblings. "At the same time they don't have the negative sides with their pets," he says. "No sibling rivalry, and grandparents can be very set in their ways, limiting the relationship. So having a pet is almost like combining the best of a sibling and a grandparent."

Strangely enough, this comes from a man who grew up without pets. Growing up in Israel, Shanan didn't even start hanging around with animals until he started working on a kibbutz, where he tended cattle and other livestock for four years. He loved nature and was interested in agriculture, so he majored in biology in college. He came to this country to attend the vet school at Michigan State, then moved to Chicago in 1985. Over the next decade as a practicing vet, he became increasingly interested in "the human-animal team that walks in the door of the vet's office" and eventually figured out that many people with pets can't stand the thought of putting them to sleep in a vet's office.

"Some people have thought a lot about it, but they look around and find there aren't other options, so instead they put off the decision," he says. Since first advertising his euthanasia program, Shanan has only rejected one potential client. The caller's wife had just had a baby, and he was worried that their five- or six-year-old cat would hurt the baby or otherwise get in the way. Euthanasia sounded like a solution to him, but not to Shanan. "I said, 'I think there are other options for a cat that age--a cat over ten might have trouble moving to a new home, but yours wouldn't.' He never called me back."

The clientele so far has been mostly childless couples, many of them gay. "What they all have in common is that their pets have been important members of their families," Shanan says. To his surprise, nobody has asked for a memorial service, something he is eager to develop because he'd like to see if it helps people handle their grief. Most pay him to take the corpse to be cremated or buried, although some make their own arrangements. Backyard burial is illegal almost everywhere, so he hasn't seen any of that.

There've been no priests, no incense, no pallbearers for dogs, no overdone floral arrangements--relatively little nuttiness. Just people dealing with loss the best they can. Better, maybe, than people who would rather not watch their parents or other relatives linger beyond hope but see no choice.

"A lot of us who see pets being euthanized when their lives are over see the benefit of euthanasia," says the Anti-Cruelty Society's Stern. "Many of us here feel that we are lucky that we can do this for these animals, and we wish people had the same opportunity to decide."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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