Two years ago, on this day, I took one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Only it wasn’t to do with my life at all, but with Bella’s. This is her story.
I can’t even remember when or how Bella showed up at our beautiful riding club. It was many, many moons ago, at a time when there was a lot more kindness around. She was absolutely beautiful, with a slender build and the most loving, kohl-lined brown eyes. It didn’t take me long to name her. Bella had a permanent limp, obviously from some old, untreated injury, but she didn’t appear to be in any pain. She could run like the wind and soon became the unofficial, official “club dog”, who would greet riders every morning, give chase to other wild dogs coming in to the area and then sit in the garden, getting petted, fed and loved by people as they had their tea and biscuits after their morning and evening rides. She welcomed people’s pet dogs on to her turf and frolicked with them on the polo field and riding trails.
During the polo and horse show season, Bella was in her elements with lots of visitors around the club. She would venture to whichever part of the sprawling compound the action was in and would often “hang out” with those of us she knew well. In the winter, someone or the other would bring coats for her and the other dogs to help them through the brutal winter, which is all the more harsh in an open, forested area such as the one where she lived.
A few years ago, she started to lose weight and developed some mouth ulcers. Her beautiful, cream-coloured coat was dull and she had bruises and rashes all over. Some people suggested putting her down. Instead, I took her to a vet, gave her some medication with the help of the local staff who looked after and fed her and by winter, she was back to her splendid form and remained so for another year.
Then, within days of my having lost my beautiful horse-my best friend and partner of 19 years- I received a call from the staff to say Bella was quite unwell and needed my attention. I returned to the club the very next day and took her to the vet. Her mouth ulcers had returned and she was losing weight rapidly.
As we drove to the vet, I asked the caretaker how come her condition had become so bad. Hadn’t anyone noticed? Wasn’t anyone taking care of her? Hadn’t anyone thought to take her to the vet? His reply brought tears to my eyes. Her old ‘friends’ now asked for her to be removed from where they sat having tea, because her wounds were smelling. They didn’t want to pet her. They didn’t want her to play with their dogs. And being the lovely, sensitive being she was, she had begun to sense their aversion and didn’t go up to them anymore. Instead, she would try to find a hiding place, where the flies and insects would not make her wounds worse. The lovely clubhouse, which remained empty for most of the day, a place which was clean and cool and would have been ideal for her to rest and recover in, was off limits. NO DOGS. Especially one who was unwell, old and dirty. So, Bella would try to find a cool spot to rest in, in the blazing summer heat, even if that place was an unused toilet. There she would lie quietly, or try to, while fending off flies, or she would go and roll in some wet mud, getting dirtier still.
For the next three months, I took her almost everyday for treatment. The vets knew her well and were extremely fond of her so not only did they do her treatment pro bono, but also allowed me to leave her at their clinic through the day. It was wonderful for her to be allowed to lie quietly on a soft cushion in an air-conditioned, sanitised room under the watchful eye of the vet. She would be given a good lunch, clean water, biscuits and treats and most importantly, love and respect. She began to wait for me and as soon as she heard my voice or saw my car, she would emerge from wherever she had been sheltering herself and gladly jump in to my car. I made it a point to always sit with her in the back seat, so that for that half-hour drive, I could give her the physical closeness, warmth, love and respect that she had been denied at her home of so many years. I hated going off in the heat to pick her up, drop her to the vet, then later collect her and drop her back home. It took up my entire day and all my energy. My motivation, however, was the thought of those beautiful eyes and loving smile, hiding somewhere, waiting for me, praying that I would come for her. The harder part, was dropping her back home. I had thought that having spent the day sitting at the clinic, she would be delighted to return home where she could roam free and be in a familiar setting. But Bella didn’t feel very much at home there anymore. She would try to jump back in the car when it was time for me to leave and it broke my heart every time I had to tell her she couldn’t. So, I’d promise to return the following day and I made sure I did. I owed that to her.
Like most dogs, Bella had her own special way of showing her affection. She would wrap her paw around your leg or back in the day, she would stand with her front legs on your lap, exuding love.
I wondered why her mouth ulcers kept coming back and why she wasn’t gaining weight. I wondered if this treatment was helping her and if not, then what were we going to do? For a long time, I didn’t verbalise these questions. Three months and little improvement later, the vet and I finally broached the subject and decided it was time.
We met at the riding club one afternoon and Bella greeted us warmly. I still feel that sickness in the pit of my stomach as I recall choosing a spot to bury her and spending those last few minutes pampering her, while it was being prepared. She probably sensed what was coming and moved away from the vet and her helper. But me she trusted and that is why I will forever bear the albatross around my neck, of having betrayed that trust. The vet agreed that she actually looked a bit better that day and hesitated. She told me Bella might be okay for a few more days, maybe a week, but that her treatment and visits to the clinic should stop. I struggled with the dilemma but thought of her hiding away in some bathroom in the jungle, too exhausted to search for water and food and resigning herself to go, alone and unloved. I decided I’d rather it be this way. She went peacefully, lying in my lap, in the back seat of my car, hopefully with the knowledge that she was loved and that she belonged to someone, that someone cared. She went with the dignity with which she had lived.
Two years to the day today and I still question my decision. I choose to believe what the vet told me, that she had cancer and that they could do no more to help alleviate her discomfort, rather than that they didn’t want to keep her at the clinic anymore. I choose to believe that we did the right thing. There is one question though, which I ask myself in retrospect and which I think we should all ask ourselves before deciding to end an animal’s life: Who’s suffering are we really alleviating?
It’s very easy for people to see a sick or injured animal and say put them to sleep. That’s convenient. But is it correct? Bella lived well for over a year after someone first suggested to me to put her down. I chose to wait for the vet to suggest it, if they did, because I don’t believe I have the right to take a life just because that’s the easier thing to do. There are so many cases of animals with amputated limbs or diseases, who go on to live happily for several years after getting the right treatment. Who then, am I, to deny them that?
I hope Bella will forgive me, even though I can’t fully forgive myself. My brain says we did the right thing but my heart questions me every time I think of that fateful day. I wish Bella could have enjoyed the benefits of her wonderful home, with its acres and acres of land, its cozy clubhouse, its staff and members. I feel betrayed on her account.
I can only pray that she is now in an even more beautiful place, healed and healthy and very, very loved. That is certainly how she will live in my heart.