a short essay/story about the cost of mercy.
'Not a lapdog but does a lot of it," is how the bulletin board post read. My family had been looking for a dog for some time and my mother found this post on an old-style pin-up bulletin board where she worked. That's how she found Ritzy.
I was in school when my mom and my brothers brought Ritzy home and heard his bark for the first time when I stepped onto the front porch. It sounded like certain death. I didn't open the door. I yelled first to make sure it was safe. Having already been accepted by Ritzy, my family introduced me to him and within minutes I went from being a possibly deadly threat to his new family to having our new ninety-five pound German Shepherd protector's head resting my knee trying to shame me into sharing my bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew. It took all of five minutes for me to love Ritzy.
Ritzy was that 'one dog' that comes along in a person's life that all other dogs are compared to. I had always liked animals. Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits and even ferrets had been family pets and one time or another and had I cherished them all. I loved Ritzy. No dog before or since could successfully compare. He was the ultimate in dog achievement.
The bulletin board post had not lied. Ritzy wasn't a lap dog, but he did a lot of it. At any time, without warning, any member of the family or any friend who frequented our home could suddenly find ninety-five pounds of German Shepherd in their lap when Ritzy had one of his sudden (and frequent) bouts of uncontrollable affection. He would walk me to the door when I left for school in the morning and be waiting for me by the door when I came home. He would 'patrol' the house to keep track of his humans. Sometime he would just stick his head through a doorway to see who was in a room. If the door was closed he would paw at it until someone opened it and assured him all was well. He was a gentle giant. If you were part of the family or someone we accepted into our home Ritzy was a source of constant love and amusement. If he perceived you as a threat to his family he became a fearless and fearsome guardian.
Never has a pet made itself so much a part of my world. Ritzy had a sense for the general well-being of the family that was almost mystical. If someone came home from work more tired than usual Ritzy knew, and paid that person extra attention. If a family member was sick he would watch over them at their bedside. If there was a family quarrel he would put himself between the arguing parties in an attempt to restore peace. When my niece was a toddler and I would babysit her along with my mom, Ritzy would not leave her side from the time she arrived until her parents came to collect her. I think we were his more than he was ours.
Ritzy had been with us for about two years when the seizures started. Afflicted with something akin to epilepsy he would suddenly be overtaken by convulsions and lose consciousness. It was heartbreaking and frightening to watch. Worse, when a seizure ended Ritzy still wasn't entirely lucid. He didn't seem to be fully aware of his surroundings and didn't recognize people. In his confusion he would sometimes lash out in fear, not knowing who he was trying to bite. On a few occasions, he ran away from my brothers and me and we would find him, recovered from the seizure but still confused and afraid. The veterinarians we consulted prescribed medications but they were not effective. The seizures continued and we dealt with them even when they increased in frequency.
But one day Ritzy seized while my niece, then five or six years, old was at our home. As always Ritzy was dazed and overly-defensive when the seizure ended and snapped at one of my brothers who was trying to help him. My niece was never in danger from Ritzy, as she was taken well away from him during the seizure, but by that time the seizures were occurring at about once a month and without warning. We had to consider what would happen if Ritzy became aggressive when my niece was nearby.
We took Ritzy to two additional veterinarians but they could offer no real help. They said Ritzy's condition would likely worsen. Over the next year, the seizures became even more frequent, longer in duration, and it took Ritzy longer to recover. His periods of post-seizure confusion and hyper-defensive behavior also lasted longer. It became clear that one day a seizure would either kill him or permanently damage his brain. After a seizure, Ritzy seemed guilty or ashamed for causing the family so much concern. He would act as though he had done something wrong such as tipping over the trash or relieving himself in the house. It was beyond heartbreaking.
Finally, after a seizure that lasted for over thirty minutes when it took more than an hour for Ritzy to become lucid again the family decided that we could not let him suffer anymore, particularly when my niece's safety was considered. (She had grown to love Ritzy too and liked to be near him.) With much sorrow, we decided we had to put Ritzy down before suffering became agony.
Having a veterinarian perform the horrible task was discussed but Ritzy hated veterinarian visits and, frankly, money was tight. It was decided that the unthinkable act would be carried out by a member of the family. I volunteered to do the job. I would kill my beloved pet. My brother, Rob and a close family friend would be with me to burry Ritzy. We drove to a remote location and I led Ritzy off the road. I petted him, hugged him and fought back tears. If I allowed myself to cry I wouldn't have been able to do what had to be done.
I heard Ritzy's skull shatter us the bullet tore through his head. There was a sickening thud as his body hit the ground. Then it was done. Ritzy was dead. Robotically, I cleared my rifle and made it safe. I didn't look and my brother or our friend as I walked passed them and secured my rifle in the back seat of the car. I sat in the car with my eyes closed as Ritzy was loaded into the trunk for burial on property my family then owned. I don't remember the drive home and I spoke to no one when I got there. Again, like a robot, I cleaned my rifle and put it away.
I don't know if it's possible for a person to turn himself off, but I tried to that day. Once my rifle was secure I went to my room, laid down and slept for the next 26 hours. I have no clear memory of the days or even weeks after that horrible day. I just remember pain and a great sense of loss.
When I die God will judge me for a great many things but I don't think killing Ritzy will be one of them. He was suffering and that suffering would have continued and worsened. If, God forbid, he had harmed my niece or anyone else while in the grip of his affliction I don't think he could have lived with himself. Some people would say that allowing a trained professional to end Ritzy's ordeal would have been more humane. Some would say that using a rifle was an act of brutality. But I stand by the rightness of my action.
Ritzy didn't die scared and confused in a veterinarian's office that he hated. He wasn't killed by someone who viewed him with clinical detachment. He didn't die among strangers. He deserved better than that. He deserved to die among his loved-ones. He deserved those last few moments in my arms. He deserved that his last, precious minutes on Earth to be happy ones. He deserved a death that was sudden and painless at the hand of someone who would mourn him. He deserved me.