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Gene Weingarten: Confessions of a compassionate hit man

(Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)

My first hit was on Sam.

We’d seen her shivering in a muddy construction site, in the middle of a thunderstorm, scared stupid. She’d broken free from a crude tether made of twine; some still remained, noose-tight around her neck. She was brown-black, like a Rottweiler, but after a long bath it turned out she was Wiffle-ball white. She was a Samoyed, hence her name.

Sam lived with us and a parrot named Matthew. They despised each other. Matthew would fly to our mantel, pick up in his talons a small soapstone bear, fly over Sam and drop it on her head. In retaliation, Sam would pee in front of Matthew’s cage, trying to frame him for the crime. They were not bright, but they were canny.

Sam liked to wear fancy necklaces, the flashier the better, and strut and preen like Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel.” Matthew liked to join us at the dinner table, where he had free rein. He’d waddle over to inspect our plates and pick out what he wanted. His favorite was mashed potatoes, which he’d stick his head into. When his head came up, he looked like Santa Claus.

Sam died in 1975. She’d reacted badly to a vaccine, trembling and unconscious. As they always do, the vet said dubiously that we could try heroic measures, but ... and I said no. It wasn’t about money, it was because this animal was in agony. I asked the vet if I could push the plunger, and he let me. It was my way of taking responsibility.

Matthew went a few years later. He was in his cage. I was rubbing his neck — he loved that — and suddenly he was upside down, hanging from his perch. I laughed. I thought he was playing with me, until he fell. I drove at breakneck speed to the only avian vet in the county. She told me he was dangerously anemic. For three days we fed him oxygen, and there was no improvement. “We could keep trying …” the vet said, but I gave the kill order.

Then there was Clementine, the overweight chocolate Lab who lived with us and Harry, the young, lithe, un-fancy yellow Lab who looked like a baked potato. They loved each other. Clementine was the only dog I ever knew who was deliberately funny. She’d pin me to the bed and lick my mouth until, exhausted from defending themselves, my mouth muscles became flaccid and I spoke comically, thorta like thif, and the whole family laughed. I gave the kill order to the vet after Clementine’s liver gave out and she began puking chunks of blood. When we got home without her, Harry bayed, walked over to the exact spot she had thrown up, and peed on it. It was his way of saying goodbye.

Harry was next. His hind legs became useless. I carried him from the car to the vet. He weighed 90 pounds, and it threw my back out for a week. I didn’t mind. The very last thing he did was kiss us.

Next up: Mattingly, my daughter’s sweet pit bull, whom we were taking care of. Her legs also gave out, and when I tried to pick her up with my hands under her belly, they scrabbled frantically against the floor. Murphy came over and bit me. Not too hard, but it left dents. She had evidently thought I was hurting her pal. Horrified at what she had done, she ran away and hid. I had to coax her back and explain she was a good girl.

With the famously unconscionable Barnaby the cat, the vet called at 4 a.m. saying his bladder had burst and he had gone into cardiac arrest, and they were performing CPR, and did I want ... “Let him go,” I said, quietly.

I know this column is disturbing, but I am writing it for a reason. Often, well-intentioned people let animals linger too long, painfully long. They think it is for the animals, but it is really to postpone their own grief. Euthanasia, when it is warranted, is the last, best gift we can give our pets.

You know where this is going, of course, and I won’t belabor it. My most recent hit was on Murphy, a funny, quirky, indomitable dog whom I’ve written about countless times. For the past year climbing stairs became an enormous chore for her. She’d look around every single time to make sure there was no alternative, then sigh, steel herself, and barrel up the stairs on spindly, uncertain, trembly legs. She did this every night, merely to sleep in the same room as us.

She was 14 1/2 and had had 5,292 good days, and one ghastly one. When they wheeled her in with the shunt already in place, she gave us a look, her mouth filled with pain, her eyes filled with fear. I believe she was saying: “Please.”

I said to the vet: “Go.”

Email Gene Weingarten at gene.weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at wapo.st/magazine.

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