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Staring Death In The Eye
Sumiko Tan
9 November, 2003, The Sunday Times


The night before my dog died, the smell of death was already in the air. It was a suffocating mix of vomit, urine and the Dettol which we'd use to clean up after her.

The stench seared into our nostrils, leaving a salty aftertaste in my throat, though that could also have been the residue of my tears.

When Sunday came, I knew that I had to let her go.

She was already 16, or 112 in human years. That's a mighty long life.

And she'd had a good life. She had food to eat, space to play in, and she was loved.

Her condition had degenerated drastically over the past month.

She was a skeleton covered with biege hair that was shedding by the handful.

She could hardly walk. She slept standing up, her crooked legs splayed, her head crocked near the floor.

Her eyes - badly cataracted and with a small hole piercing the right cornea - were baleful.

Look, my mother said, she's in pain and begging us to put her to sleep.

No, I said, maybe she's pleading us not to do so.

Veterinarians always give this advice when you ask them when your pet should go: quality of life.

If he can still eat, then maybe there's some life yet worth salvaging.

But my dog was no longer eating. And when I found her late last Sunday morning next to a pool of bloody vomit with flies buzzing over it - and on her - I knew it was time to let her go.


I called the SPCA to find out what I should do.

They said that their vet doesn't work on Sunday and that they also don't do housecalls.

They gave me the number of Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital, which is where I take my dogs to, in any case.

The nurse - bless her - remembered my dog's name.

Yes, they do housecalls, she said, and a doctor could come over that day.

A housecall costs $100. Euthanasia is $40. For cremation without ashes, it is $180. You pay more if you want the ashes back, or if you want to keep them in the pet columbarium.

She said the vet would come by before 3pm.

Which meant I had three hours with my dog before she went to doggie heaven, or wherever animals go when they die.


I'd witness putting one dog to sleep before, a terrier who had gone mad.

I knew what to expect: The vet injects an overdose of anaesthetic drug into the dog, and in seconds he is dead.

I was wretched about putting my mongrel Shiroko to sleep for so many reasons.

I'd miss her, for one.

I'll spare you the sentimental details, for every pet owner has many, but suffice to say she was a sweet, low-maintenance dog.

I also knew that if I put her to sleep, the other two dogs would be traumatised.

And haven't I read that when one dog dies, those close to it would follow?

I felt sorry for the shih tzu, who was like a husband to Shiroko. They slept together all the time, back-to-back, and never fought.

Most of all, I was afraid that if my dog were to die, a chapter of my life would go with her.

And what made it worse was that she was not going to die accidentally or suddenly, but that I would be deciding her moment of death.

By putting her to sleep, I was deliberately deleting a big and important chunk of my life. Did I want to do that?

For 16 years is a very long time.

My dog had been with me through the ups and downs of my working life, through various relationships, family happiness and woes.

Anyone who means anything to me would have met her and got her sniff of approval.

If she goes, then so do, in a way, all those good times.

And by dying, she brought home how I, and everyone I care for, cannot avoid staring death in the eye, sooner or later.

She had been nothing but a good dog, and here I was, planning her execution.


The three hours were long, yet short.

One part of me wanted it to be over. Another wished the minutes would stretch.

We put her on the floor outside the kitchen. She lay there for a while, then stood up. Shaky as a drunk, she stumbled into the kitchen.

As was her old habit, she stole the water from my other dog's bowl. We gave her two pieces of chicken. She ate them.

If she could still drink and eat, wasn't it premature to kill her?

But she was also emitting a strange, foul-smelling bloody liquid from her mouth.

She lay on the kitchen floor. We put a towel over her and waited.

Her body was still, and cold to the touch. Her eyes looked exhausted. Even the ticks were fleeing from her body.

Shiroko, I said inside, why don't you die now? At least if you did, I won't be responsible for killing you.

The vet came at 3, with an assistant.

They were both gentle and kind.

I chose not to witness her dying. I went to console one of my dogs. My maid went to console the other. My mother couldn't bear to watch.

It was over in five minutes. They injected her with a chemical, and she was gone.

She looked as if she was sleeping, though her eyes were open.

We wrapped her in a towel, slipped a stalk of hydrangea from the garden between her legs, I paid the fees and they took her away.

"Take care," said the vet.

And, so, there.

The end of a dog's life.

And the closing chapter of mine.



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