I love the smell of dissections in the morning. The sweet, stinging stench of formaldehyde floating down a science corridor signals memories of labs in high school and college, of reciting the names of wrist bones and leg muscles with friends as my professor nodded approvingly.
Dissection was a days-long lab, consisting of carefully opening the animal (a rat, a cat, a pig, whatever the school could afford), studying it until the last 10 minutes of class, then closing it back up in a bag full of preservatives, just to be opened and studied again at the next lab. The professor milled about the room, advising students on proper cutting techniques so as not to ruin the delicate muscles under the skin and answering questions on how to identify each of the major glands, vessels, bones, and organs. We shared chuckles at the lab teams that named their specimens, gave them a backstory, even clothed them. If a rare medical situation turned up–a cancer or a pregnancy–the class would gather around the animal’s tray and gaze in wonder as the professor extracted the anomaly from its body.
I remember asking my professor, once, how our school obtained the animals. (I think we were working with cats at the time.) Without much thought, he shrugged, “Ah, they’re probably just strays from the shelter.” With the same nonchalance, I nodded and returned to poking at the opened animal before me. To me, this was not a pet. It was a tool for learning. I may have named it and handled it with care, but it was not the same kind of creature as the living ones that waited for me at home.
Perhaps this was why I paused when I was asked if I wanted to donate my chihuahua’s body to science. As a former student of science, the rational side of my brain told me this was the right thing to do. This was how discoveries were made, and diseases cured.
But I remembered the high school students who were cruel to their dissection animals, who had to be reprimanded by my teacher because they treated their specimens like meaningless toys.
I didn’t want my Henry in the hands of those monsters.
I remembered my own experience in the lab, of looking forward to cutting up an animal to peer inside it, without considering that it was once a living thing.
For a brief moment, I understood the family members who refuse to donate their loved ones’ organs after they passed. I even questioned my own status as an organ donor. It’s easy to check a box and get a heart stamp on your license, but an entirely different thing to be grieving and thinking of your loved one getting cut up moments after their death.
My rational side took over my voice and my mouth so I could say, “Yes. Yes, just do it before I change my mind.” My emotional side shut my eyes tight, willing away the image of Henry—in a tray, on a lab table. He’ll help future vets, I keep telling myself. Maybe they’ll be able to help future dogs.
I was with Henry as he was euthanized. I held him as he went to sleep and passed. But I won’t be there when he gets passed to a student in a lab far, far away. I write this partly as a eulogy for him, partly as a prayer that his future veterinary student will see this.
Henry joined our family in 2012. He was 1.5 year old, past the prime adoption age, and still looking for a family. We were running our Saturday errands, thinking about our whining pup at home. He was begging for a playmate. We knew of Petsmart’s weekend adoption events, and my then-boyfriend-now-husband did something uncharacteristic: a spontaneous proposal to look at puppies.
When I walked through the sad aisle of dogs in crates, “Puppy G” stood out to me. He was eager to meet strangers, eager to lick us, eager to wag his tail and show us just how big his heart was. I asked to see him in a private playroom.
The first thing he did was lift his leg and pee on the wall. I should have known then. But what my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I noticed was that he immediately jumped on our laps, wagged his tail so hard his body shook, and proceeded to lick us all over.
“We have to get him,” my then-boyfriend-now-husband said.
And that was that.
Henry was named after Indiana Jones. I thought it was clever because his birth name was Henry, but he named himself Indiana after his dog, so why not name my dog after Indiana’s birth name? You get it.
I’ve already said that the first time he peed on that Petsmart wall should have been a sign—but I’ll say it again. Because as loving and sweet as that little ten-pound chihuahua mix could be, the first thing on my mind when it came to him was his terrible marking habit.
I could not break him of it. He peed on everything. And even though my other dogs—yes, I adopted another after Henry, creating a family of three dogs—would yap and snap at my guests, I was plagued by the knowledge of my marking pup. He made my furniture and my house smell. He made my blood boil. Every time I awoke and sleepily stepped into a puddle, I would see red.
In those moments, I couldn’t see the pup that only wanted to cuddle. I couldn’t see the dog that couldn’t stop licking my hand. I couldn’t see the tail that wagged so hard that it shook his whole body. I couldn’t see that he was the only one of my three chihuahua mixes who knew how to be kind to strangers—because so much of his early life was devoted to trying to impress the strangers that passed by his Petsmart kennel.
I only saw the stain.
I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself for uttering the words, “I hate that he makes me wish that he would die. I hate that he would make me think that of a dog.”
I could try to justify myself. I could explain that we were renting our home, that we had an infant, that we had few options to change out carpet or furniture during a time that we were just trying to survive. But I cannot deny that I said such harsh words about a dog who loved so hard that he couldn’t eat if he didn’t get a minimal amount of attention.
On July 17, 2018, I opened the dogs’ kennels in the morning as I always do. Henry tried to wriggle out with the strength of his neck. I thought he was caught in his blankets. I pulled him out. He lay on his side.
He couldn’t move.
It was a terrible day to lose a dog. My husband had to work. I had to attend professional development. We were handing off responsibilities based on our schedules. Before we could arrange it in our calendars, it was time. After talking to doctors and running tests, it was clear that it was time for goodbye.
But he was only eight
and it was Tuesday
and we weren’t ready.
The last doctor said, we could run an MRI to diagnose it. But even with that, it may be incurable or he may only have a 50/50 survival rate after treatment and physical therapy.
50/50 sounds good for humans. But how do you explain that to a dog?
Henry loved cuddles and sunshine and peeing on every vertical thing in sight. He would have hated weeks, even months, of time in a hospital kennel, watching the warm summer days slide by.
Through texts and phone calls, my husband and I made a fateful decision that Tuesday.
We said goodbye to the most under-appreciated dog in the world.
Henry lived for love. He couldn’t stop licking. He couldn’t stop wagging. He wanted everyone to be his friend. (Except cats. He hated cats.)
He hated disappointing his friends. He felt deep remorse when he did, even if he didn’t fully understand why. He just wanted things to be OK again so he could be back on his favorite lap. (And EVERYONE was his favorite lap.)
I don’t think I showed him how much I loved him then.
But I miss him so much now.
It hurts my heart, thinking of him in a sealed bag, drenched in preservatives. Just a body on a tray on a lab table. A learning tool for a student.
So to that student, and every veterinary student and medical student who meets a cadaver: I hope that you take a minute—even a second would be fine—to know that this little one was loved. This little ten-pound dog who only lived eight short years has shown me to hug tighter and love deeper. Please be kind to him. Please be gentle with him. Please let him show you how to help others like him.
He was my friend.
My stinky, yappy, sweet little friend.