On Animals and Virtue

Her face was almost devoid of color, that same near-white you see sometimes on the chins of old men who have no one left to remind them to wash. She was an unlucky mare, an erstwhile school horse: sway-backed and tired and hungry for love. I was unlucky myself, and did not mind her ungainliness, or the fact that her elderly face reminded me of certain avuncular men I have known, their white beards nearly always pale yellow when you looked at them in the sun. They had that same deceptive whiteness about the face, the old men and this mare. Sometimes I looked at her and for a sliver of a minute could not tell what, precisely, she was.

Her name was Stardust, because of the galaxy of sprinkles on her rough red coat. On the parts of her where the sprinkles were most invasive–her face, her knees, her haunches–she was like the densest regions of the Milky Way.

I had waited for Stardust for years (although before she appeared in the flesh her name was Champ, or Beauty, or Firefly), and suddenly there she was–a mare with a low-slung belly and long lashes and deep valleys above her eyes, signifying ripe age, in a stall that was hers and mine, because my parents had agreed to pay fifty dollars a month for it.

She cost all of three-hundred dollars, could walk, trot, and canter, jumped a little, though not enthusiastically, and had mostly working parts–except for the asthma she came with, the mud fever she would soon contract through my unintentional neglect, and the pink nose that burned in the summer sun in spite of the Vaseline I smeared on it before taking her out.

Star and I evolved that intense bond two awkward and unfriended adolescent girls, when thrown together and given some privacy to air their complaints about the world, are almost certain to develop–except she was well beyond adolescence, and usually silent. We grew our relationship on long, one-sided conversations, small jumps braved together, and my cheek laid against her drum-like middle. Sometimes she curved her neck round to peer at me as I stood by her withers, and shoved me gently with the long plane of her plain face.

I loved my mare without measure. I visited her daily, rode her (sometimes, I fear, against her will), looped up her red mane and tail with festive green yarn. She earned me some fleeting social capital. A girl named Brenda talked about Star as though she were hers. “My horse Star,” she would say as we donned our gym suits in the warm, dank basement of our middle school, and I would respond, “But isn’t that funny, because my horse is called Star.” And Brenda would blush and say, “Well, how do you spell it? My Star is spelled S.T.A.R.R.”

I liked having a thing that made me special and I adored my old red mare, but I hated mucking stalls. The only active thing I liked to do was ride, and sometimes go for short walks, so Star’s stall was often a stinking mess. This was not because I wished her ill. I hope beyond hope it was simply irresponsible youth–and maybe a bit of obsessive-compulsive dislike of stepping in moist bedding and manure–that made me derelict. One summer day her hind ankle swelled up and her bag got hot and heavy and hard, but not with milk, and she could not put any weight on her foot. It was all because I hadn’t adequately cleaned up after her, and the local vet chewed me out until I cried. After a while the flesh on her ankle began to corrode, and I could see her tendons amidst the raw and glistening inner-tissue. After that she lost half her hoof. Finally, she grew something colloquially known as “proud flesh” around the ankle–ugly, lumpy scar tissue, like stubby fingers reaching, grotesquely, out of the wrong part of the wrong animal. All of it was my fault.

And I was guilty of other sins. There were times I forgot to inform my father we’d run out of sweet feed, so Star went hungry. Times I failed to water down her hay–dust made her wheeze and cough–because I was for some obscure reason in a rush. What was equine asthma to me, who had never struggled to breathe?

Star has been dead for thirty-three years. She did not die in that fifty-dollar a month stall my father bought for her. She did not die in my possession at all. I failed her one last time some months before her death, in the worst possible way a friendless girl could fail one of her own, even if the other friendless girl was a horse. My parents decided enough was enough, and told me I had to give her up. I was a tentative sixteen year old, not yet accomplished in the art of opposition. So I gave her away to a family that answered our classified ad for a free horse, a family even less equipped to care for her than mine. I was numb for a while, and then sad. Then it happened that life went on.

I went to visit Star at her new home once, a month after she’d gone. She had an angry rope burn extending from her chest down her front left leg. She flinched when I touched it.

“What happened?” I asked urgently.

The woman shrugged. “We tied Dusty up to that tree.” (Dusty? Damn that re-naming!) “She got caught in the rope and fell down. She was down for an hour.”

“Didn’t you know,” I said, trying to contain my moral outrage, “that you NEVER tie a horse with a long rope to a tree?” I had forgotten the dubious morality of the stinking stall, the frantic searches for something equine-edible when I had ignored or forgotten the empty sack of sweet feed the previous day. I’d repressed that old, agonizing choice between letting a work-weary horse go to sleep hungry and purloining a bucketful of feed from some other girl’s barrel. (I usually made the wrong choice and let Star go hungry, because I was afraid of the other girls–who were, as a general rule, not very nice.)

“Oh, we tie our pony up all the time. He ain’t ever got caught.”

I gazed at Star. Her back dipped, her belly swung lower than ever. Except for the occasional blink of her eyelid against a gadfly, she might have been dead. She looked ancient and bored and indifferent.

“I think,” I told this woman, “you should put her down. I think that would be the humane thing to do.” I had heard the same thing from a fancy vet eight months earlier and had burst into tears. I had looked down at her lumpy foot instead of at his face, and the ruckus in my chest made his words sound small and faraway.

The woman raised her eyebrows and shook her head. “Oh, no,” she told me. “Dusty’s going to have a baby. We bred her. See her stomach?”

It was only hay and bloat in that belly.

I gripped my silent father’s arm. To him, because I could not speak to her, I pleaded: “She’s almost thirty. She’s postmenopausal. Postmenopausal mares don’t have babies.”

But my father had made his decision and was not turning back. The woman was as deaf as the scuffed old weed tree with a rope wrapped round its waist and my horse recently tethered to it–and much more loathsome.

The visit ended with a display of Star’s owner’s limited riding abilities. She heaved a Western saddle, many pounds heavier than the English saddle Star was used to, onto the valley of her back, slipped a curb bit (a cruel one compared to the snaffle I’d used) into her mouth, and hauled herself up. What followed was too painful to watch, and is almost too painful to write about so many years later: a side-kicking, flank-slapping canter around the brushy pasture, Star wheezing audibly because her new owner had not heeded my warnings about watering down her hay. What was equine asthma to her, but a privileged girl’s myth?

The end of Star’s life–a life of labor, mostly, and then a few years of sincere but sloppy love from an unreliable teenage girl–still haunts me. It came too hard and too late. Eventually, her death taught me something important about the virtue of letting go. That when a beloved pet is old and tired, and does not find joy anymore in life, it’s a kindness to wish her a peaceful journey, to kiss her and hold her and then say goodbye. I couldn’t do that with Star, because I was selfish then, and scared. Her last months held only suffering, because on the day a vet spoke some hard words to me, I looked down at the ground and thought about euthanasia as a one-way ticket back to my old, unlucky life, rather than what it might mean to her. As long as I knew Star, and for some time after, my empathy was stunted. I was stingy with my love. Had you told me so then I would have fought you, red in toothsome fury. I would not have believed it. I was a lover of all animals, and of not so many people.

Star died, not with foal, a few months after my visit to her new home. Her death was a terrible anguish to me and also a deep relief, in the way that the passing of a loved one who has suffered invariably is. It meant I could work on my own loneliness and awkwardness, heavy enough to carry by themselves without the added burden of worry about hers. Like the mother of an eccentric child (which, in fact, I later became), I fretted constantly about how she got on when I was not there to take care of her, as shoddy as my care had often been. Her life, in that horrible place we had sent her to, was perhaps nearly as painful to me as it must have been to her, and a persistent reminder of a boatload of regrettable choices I made when my empathy was so damnably weak.

I should have let Star go sooner, and in a more humane way. I wish I had listened to the vet who tried to tell me so. Later in my life there came other pets–cats, dogs–and more loss. There was a beloved mongrel collie-lab-shepherd named Russell, who in his twilight could not use his hind legs. He collapsed on the flight of wooden stairs to our backyard almost every day when he went out to do his business, and–shame on me–I still could not let him go. He loves us, I thought. He’s happy here. I did not have the excuse of being a child this time. I was overwhelmed with a very young child of my own, and I simply could not make the decision to release that dog from his suffering. It was my husband who finally made the decision, while my daughter and I were away, and it came about four months after it should have.

Russell lived his last eighteen months mostly in the gated community of our kitchen, because to the left of the breakfast nook and to the right of the dining room, contiguous to the kitchen, were flights of stairs. That he was with us at all was because we had saved him from a precipitant shot of pentobarbital six months before stairs got the better of him, while his quality of life seemed not greatly diminished. My first husband, who had kept Russell after our divorce (I retained custody of the three cats), called to say things had fallen apart. Russell’s frequent requests to go outdoors inconvenienced the ex’s new wife (he did not quite put it this way, but it seemed clear enough to me). When my forever husband heard about the plan he stormed, “Russell comes to us!”

And he did. We gave him all the love we could in the pauses between work and feedings and stinky diapers and fits of exhaustion. Glancing kisses en route to the dungeon that housed our washer and dryer, which we could only access through his gated environs. Designer dog biscuits when we were flush with cash; Milk Bones when we were broke. Not much in the way of walks, which I think he would have enjoyed, because I had not gotten the hang of negotiating a leash (and the determined if unsteady creature at the end of it) while pushing our daughter’s massive carriage. We could and did offer him the pleasure of free access to the litter boxes–not because we wanted him to eat cat poo, but because the cubby-space under the stretch of kitchen counter to the left of the stove was the only reasonable parking place for the boxes. His foraging for treasure in the clumping litter seemed a highlight of his days, and he did not mind one bit traversing his domain with sandy stuff stuck to his nose.

I found myself a way to observe Russell’s tumbles on the stairs without really seeing them. A little trouble, I thought. A tiny slip. I habitually miscounted when calculating his age. The vet won’t agree to put him down anyway, I told myself, because he is not sick and he is only nine years old. He was closing in on fourteen. On the day of his release from this world, his hind legs stopped working altogether. My husband called me up in New York, where I was visiting my parents, and told me there would be no more walking for Russell. He took a bed sheet, fashioned it into a sling for the old dog’s back end, and hoisted his nether-half up so he could ambulate using only his front legs. Russell was old and infirm but his body had not wasted, and at well over one hundred pounds he was too heavy to carry down the stairs and out to the car. In the little, red, overhot Honda Civic (we had bought it cheap from a friend and it had no air-conditioning, no radio, nothing to alleviate a driver’s–or a dog’s– loneliness or pain) they made their funereal way down Route 1S to the vet who had tended to him over the past eighteen months.

My husband called me in the twilight moments before Russell left us.

“Mommy’s out there, on the phone” I heard him tell the dog. “Mommy loves you.”

I was trying to weep as silently as I could, so I could listen. I wanted to hear something–a moan, a doggish sigh, a growl, a whimper. Something to help me know that he yet, for this tiny moment, lived.

“Talk to him,” my husband coaxed.

“Mommy’s here,” I said in a voice surprisingly small, given the surge of anguish behind it. “I love you, Ruskin.”

On the other end: only a hollow silence.

“Lars?” I said urgently. “Is he still there?” I sensed that he had slipped away.

Lars said, “I’ll call you in a while. It’s all good.” But it wasn’t, really. Because I wasn’t. I was thirty-five years old and no better than I was at sixteen.

So here is how I learned to be virtuous. I spent a long time thinking about Stardust and Russell. I tried to imagine what hunger is like when you have no possible way to relieve it. When you are completely dependent on someone else to provide you with food, and that person fails you. I tried to feel the things they felt when their bodies became broken. I made myself experience, in the partial way a free and relatively un-oppressed human being can do it, that species of fear that must come with having no understanding of what afflicts you, or what sort of trauma is occurring or why, and when it is going to end.

I cannot say I learned what it’s like to be a dog or a horse. (Or even a human slave. Even there, my imagination is not quite up to the task.) But I spent that long time—a period of years, not days or weeks–reflecting on Russell, and on my Star. What their lives with me had been, and their deaths. I recognized the willful blindness, the blunted empathy, the sense of rush I always felt that kept me from tending carefully to their needs, as signs of the worst character flaws. I made no allowances for youth and general bewilderment. I was bad.

This was humbling and humiliating, but it was also productive. Because it taught me what to do for the three cats who grew old with us next. Their kibbles might once have molded in the dampness of their basement eatery, and it might have taken me a little too long to notice, but I am proud to say that I did not contribute to their suffering at the end, merely because I could not face saying goodbye. Emily, Charlotte, and Hobbes. I got to have them in my life for seventeen, twenty, and twenty-one years, respectively, but I did not keep them more than a day longer than I should have.

Surrender to that infinite night is sometimes the greatest mercy of all.

The wonderful thing about pets is that they bear no grudges. Star never held my neglect against me; hungry or not, every time she heard my footsteps she nickered. When I placed my empty palm beneath her mouth she lipped it gently, a horse kiss. And she followed me, too, her soft chin hovering over my shoulder. Without a lead rope, without coercion. With greater trust than I deserved. Russell, too, with his sweet, grizzled face, seemed not to blame me for those long minutes trapped on the middle of a steep wooden staircase, stricken with temporary paralysis on his way back up to our second-floor apartment. In winter, the snowflakes would gather, glistening, on his back and on my head while we waited together for something to happen. He was too heavy for me to budge, so we lingered in quiet solidarity until he summoned the courage to try again. He was brave and he was big-hearted. When I bent to kiss his nose he licked my face and wagged his tail, even when we both knew he was long past spent.


Deborah Vlock‘s essays can be found everywhere from O, the Oprah Magazine, to Cognoscenti, to The Huffington Post and beyond. She is also the author of Pushcart-nominated short fiction and various works of literary scholarship. Deborah writes a regular blog about childhood mental illness on psychologytoday.com, and is currently working on a collection of essays. Learn more at www.deborahvlock.com.