Grief and Letting Go #2: When Hospital and Animals in Rehabilitation Die

The desk bell rings. An Animal Control officer stands there, an animal carrying carton between her hands. Inside is an injured opossum, or a trio of orphaned baby raccoons. A pair of burly electricians tenderly hands over an electrical box. Nesting material bristles from it, surrounding three or four fledglings. A typical day at Sulphur Creek. A scruffy egret, a young Cooper’s hawk with tail feathers missing after a crow attack, a skunk that survived being hit by a car, a set of sick ducklings, all find their way to Sulphur Creek. What happens then?

We rejoice when these animals respond to treatment and are healed enough to transfer to another facility for extended care, or to release back into their native environment. “Go, little one, fly!” I said to a sparrow that sat uncertainly on my hand for a few moments before it realized it could fly free. “Good luck,” I whispered after it.

Sometimes the outcome isn’t so joyous. The little skunk with the sweet face captured all our hearts. She had survived injury and illness. We worried about her slow recovery, low appetite, and inability to stand. Taking turns by her hospital kennel, we hoped, offered animal Reiki, chanted Buddhist prayers, and said Hail Marys for her, as our faith traditions inclined us. At last it became clear that the little skunk would not recover and was masking her pain. Hospital staff made the difficult decision to end her life.

Even though it was “for the best,” these decisions are never easy. Making the hardest decision can be the greatest gift of love. Even so, the death of an animal in hospital or rehab affects people differently. Some grieve, and cry; others recognize it as part of the cycle of life and death and are more philosophical. All return to try again. A hospital volunteer told me, “If it’s in pain I’d rather put it down than have it suffer.” Another said, “At least they’re out of pain and in a better place. We’ve done our best.” And that’s the key: we’ve done our best. Many animals that would have died get a second chance at Sulphur Creek.

We serve together – volunteers and staff – all in service to these animals. Hearts opened and expanded by love also are vulnerable to grief. We give each other quiet support when the difficult decision is made to euthanize an animal after we’ve tried our best to save it. I am grateful the gentle little skunk blessed my life by being in it for even a short time. She and the others will live on in my heart and memory. My fellow volunteers and I will continue to open our hearts to the joy of serving these animals, even knowing our hearts will feel the pain of grief again, and again, and again.

It’s worth it.


Note: This essay was published in the December 2012 issue of Coyote Call, a newsletter for staff and volunteers at Sulphur Creek Nature Center.

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"Your words of wisdom and advice make the grieving process a little easier. Thank you for taking your time to organize such a helpful support system for those who are in mourning."
- Chad S.
"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Gandhi
"There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together." - attributed to Gandhi
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