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Midwifing Death with Love – Applied Buddhism for Animal Care

Photo by Sharavanan Puja
Photo by Sharavanan Puja

This article is the first in a series of explorations of the juxtaposition of mainstream Western cultural values and Buddhist teachings as they relate to caring for animals, including during their end-of-life transition. The reader may find these topics upsetting or controversial in some ways, as the topics of death and dying often evoke a multitude of responses for different people. Although the topics may be emotional, the intention is to offer a broadening perspective on animal care, framed from the perspective of the Buddhadharma and considering that we live in a modern, technological world. The invitation is to allow the concepts brought forth to stir the reader’s mind and heart to expand, informing one’s actions and choices on behalf of other sentient beings.

There are many lived paradoxes experienced as a Western Buddhist concerned with compassionate animal care. It may seem that mainstream and Buddhist views and values around death, for example, are often diametrically opposed when it comes to considering how to help an animal transition from life into their death journey.

Photo by Victor Larracuente
Photo by Victor Larracuente

In reading a webpage of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), I came across a number of position statements that stood out strongly to me as being in opposition to Buddhist views, something I never would have noticed before I took vows. This has motivated me to dig deeper into both my own internal dialogue and outward actions, about what is best for another being and how we make decisions for them. For example:

As your pet’s health declines, you may elect to care for your pet at home—with the supervision of a veterinarian—or you may decide to end his suffering with euthanasia. (ASPCA)

Daniel Lincoln,
Photo by Daniel Lincoln

The first part of this statement refers to in-home hospice care—in most places this is the only form of hospice care available for pets, although this is beginning to expand in some communities. I am finding, in my own experience as well as in that of other compassionate animal caretakers, that in-home hospice care with veterinary advice is the best place for a pet to live out their days. As a Buddhist, I am precluded from utilizing euthanasia by the direct instructions and teachings of my numerous Buddhist masters. The second part of the above ASPCA statement includes a very strong value-based assumption that euthanasia will certainly “end the suffering” of an animal.

The etymology of the word euthanasia is from the Greek, meaning “easy death.” So already the viewpoint in the root of Western culture is that “mercy” killing, or relieving another’s suffering through ending their life stream, is the compassionate route. This assumes that taking a life, thereby cutting short the animal’s natural trajectory with all aspects of pain, fear, and other kinds of suffering, as well as its many joys and mundane aspects, is better than living with the uncertainties we all live with until a being passes away.

Diametrically opposed to this is the viewpoint that euthanasia is killing, and that all forms of killing create negative karma, not only for the killer but for the one whose life is taken. I am not proposing that there is some quick and easy universal approach to this area of animal care. However, if we truly follow the Buddhist path, we cannot drop our vows and refuge in the Buddhadharma when it comes to helping our pets transition out of this life. We must consider the full being: body, mind, heart, spirit, and karmic path, even though we cannot perceive the full extent of these. We must do our best to refrain from killing, most especially premature or unnecessary—“convenience euthanasia”—killing.

Photo by Michele Fadini
Photo by Michele Fadini

As one of my sublime teachers has stated: “There’s no proof that euthanasia ends suffering, since suffering is the mind’s experience and mind never shuts down. Mind is going to experience what it is one’s karma to experience, whether one is alive [or dead], awake, asleep, or dreaming. The only way to alter this is through Dharma practice. And how does one get to Dharma practice? Through purifying karma and creating merit. Animals usually don’t have many opportunities to create merit, so the suffering of dying, when it is an animal’s karma, expiates their negative karma.”*

Her words have been echoed in one way or another by each and every one of my teachers, both Eastern and Western Buddhists. I have even asked about extreme cases, such as animals who endure compound fractures or motor vehicle accidents. Would euthanasia be better in these cases? The answer has been in every case of my asking, an emphatic No. The fear that is engendered by killing outweighs the seeming “benefit” of ending what appears as suffering in the immediate experience of both animal and caretaker. Additionally, the animal’s full karmic lifespan trajectory is cut short, preventing them from exhausting their karma.

Photo by Steve Mitchell
Photo by Steve Mitchell

Two other assumptions I feel we need to examine are that an animal experiences no awareness of the end of life, and that euthanasia provides a painless, peaceful end for a pet who would otherwise continue to suffer.* While these may seem superficially to be the case, we truly do not know what is experienced by another, especially in their mind and subtle consciousness. Researchers have proven that certain animal species exhibit intelligence beyond human capacities, and that we should therefore assume we don’t know everything about what they need, feel, and experience. From the Buddhist perspective, human beings do not have dominion over other creatures, rather we have the necessity to care for them on their terms, as best we can. More and more we are learning that animal intelligence is not inferior to our own; in many cases it exceeds ours in ways we do not yet understand.

Choosing to forgo euthanasia then means understanding on a deeper level what suffering really is in the bigger picture, over one or more lifespans of a being. It means learning about palliative care,** sedation, pain management, emotional and spiritual support systems, and what it truly means to midwife a being through death, much as we do in birth, and as we already do for the human beings for whom we love and care. Subsequent articles in this series will address these aspects and more, including the social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of dying, not just for animals but for ourselves. How we help others transition from life into death is very closely tied to how we view our own impending death processes, and needs much more practical cultivation in Western culture.

Photo by McKayla Crump

Can we cultivate community-based hospices for animals to assist them in dying on their own terms? Can we engender the patience, compassion, and practical knowledge necessary to help ease suffering and to appreciate and tend to—rather than fear—what arises over the course of the journey toward death? Even amid prospective pain and fear, confusion, or uncertainty that may arise in the final precious days of a being’s letting go, there are also amazing lessons and experiences of joy, humor, quietude, and beauty. There is grace in allowing and supporting the natural process of dissolution of elements and memories that we will all experience.

* Lama Yeshe Wangmo, personal conversation, 18 March 2017.

** Palliative care is an interdisciplinary approach to specialized medical and nursing care for those with life-limiting illnesses, focusing on providing relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress.

See more

End of Life Care (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

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