The Friendly Beasts
By Christian Huebner - Washington, DC, USA - 29 November 2011
Emily’s screaming -- ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod -- sounded like delight at first. Aunt Trish and I were in the living room watching old family videos brought out for Christmas when we heard it, and we waited for her belly laugh to round out the squealing. Something quite different came instead.
“There’s so much blood!”
That changed things. Before the sobs could pick up full bellowing force, both of us were up off the couch, peeling through the kitchen toward the back door. We found Emily bent over in the mantle above the basement stairwell. “Henry!” she said.
We followed her gaze down the stairs. In the shadows of late afternoon light, Henry, our family cat, looked up at us with dopey eyes. The white mane of his long calico coat was stained a fresh, bright red. He yowled.
The rest of the family appeared like a rescue squadron. My sister Kate, my parents, Emily’s husband Caleb -- all of us crowded at the top landing like a bunch of startled chickens. Then, in the next moment, action. Mom raced to the phone: “I’m calling the vet. Who can take him?”
“I’m going,” said Trish.
“Caleb, can you drive Em and Trish?” said my mom. Caleb went out to start his car.
“The carrying cage is in the garage,” said my dad. “Hang on.” He followed Caleb.
In three minutes, the house was quiet again. Aunt Trish, Emily, and Caleb had whisked Henry off to the emergency vet clinic. Mom, needing distraction, decided that now was the time to take Kate and make a run to the grocery store to buy cod for tomorrow’s Norwegian Christmas Eve dinner. Only dad and I were left at home, back in the living room, waiting.
Fifteen minutes later, my dad’s cell phone vibrated. It was Trish.
“Hi,” said my dad. He lowered the phone from his ear and put it on speaker. “What’s the situation?”
Even through the crackling reception, Trish sounded hesitant. “Before I tell you anything,” she began, “you should know that the total could come down in a few places, depending on whether they find -- ”
“Okay, let’s just start with the bottom line,” said my dad. “How much?” This was not looking promising. Dad and Trish had not been close growing up. The principal memory that trickled down from those years was of my father chasing his little sister around the house with a fork. When Trish came of age, she started voting Democrat, moved to California, and took a job with the San Francisco Humane Society, running pictures of euthanized kittens in the Chronicle.
“What are we looking at?” asked my dad again.
“Four-hundred and sixty dollars.” The number hung in the air like newly pronounced sentence.
“Keep in mind,” said Trish quickly, “if they do some exploratory work and find they can’t operate, it could come down by thirty or forty. It’s the anesthesia that’s expensive, because his wound is in a place where he won’t stay still for them to look at it -- ”
“Okay,” said my dad. In the background, Emily let out a sob. “Why don’t you let me talk to the vet.”
There was a dead space as the phone on the other end changed hands. My dad turned off the speaker and cradled the phone to his ear. “Yes? Hello. So it sounds like -- uh huh -- uh huh -- so it sounds like it will cost around five hundred to operate on him. Mm hmm. Let me ask you this: how much have we been charged already, just for the visit?” A pause. “Okay, seventy-four ninety-nine. So that’s on top of the surgery fee -- no, it’s included? Okay.” Dad let out a loud breath through his nostrils. “And how much would it cost to euthanize him?”
Forty-two dollars and sixty cents. Sentence affirmed.
Some context helps. Last Christmas, I’d come home to a much larger living room than the one my dad and I were sitting in now. But in the previous year, on the precipice of the recession, my dad lost his job. He and mom cut their losses on their dream house, moved from the golf course into a neighborhood of public school teachers, and started working from home as an IT consultant and a real estate agent. With a couch, a loveseat, and a Christmas tree, this new living room got crowded very quickly.
“Can you pass the phone back for a second?” my dad asked the vet. Another pause. “Hi Trish.”
The time to act was now. “Dad,” I said in a loud whisper. “I have an idea.”
“We’ll just think through our options for a few minutes and call you back,” said my dad to Trish. He hung up.
“Can they give him pain medication?” I asked.
“No, Trish said they don’t have anything that won’t thin his blood.”
“Which they can’t do, obviously.”
“Right.” Dad looked down at the phone in his hands. “Henry is my favorite cat. I just don’t want him to suffer.” The garage door rumbled. “We’ll talk to your mom about it.”
Mom and Kate came into the living room with their coats and hats still on, their cheeks and noses flushed from the cold. “What does the vet say?” said mom.
Three syllables into “four-hundred…” and my mom cut him off.
“No. That’s our mortgage payment for a month,” she said. “That’s food for a month.”
Kate chimed in: “I think we should put him to sleep. I don’t want him to suffer.” We all turned to Kate, sweet, quiet, blue-eyed Kate, who looked utterly unperturbed by the conversation.
“We were talking about the options,” I said. “What did the vet say we could do, dad?”
For the next twenty minutes we hashed it out until we narrowed it down to basically three choices. We could order surgery and hope the vet would be able to fix Henry’s wound. We could give him an emergency antibiotic shot, hope that Henry rallied through the pain and bleeding overnight, then hope again that the regular vet would be open tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, to get the follow-up anti-biotic pills. Or we could euthanize him that night.
“And the pills would only be another thirty-five dollars?” I said.
“Plus the cost of the visit to the vet,” said dad. “We don’t know how much that will cost.”
“It’s cheap,” I said. “I’ve taken him before for a shot and only had to pay ten dollars.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said dad.
Kate stepped in again. “I just don’t like the idea of him suffering and us having to put up with a cat in pain all weekend.” It struck me that lately Kate had been making a lot of jokes about getting revenge for being the passive middle child all these years.
“So that’s a risk we take if we decide to wait until morning,” I said. “There’s a chance he’ll be in pain tonight, and there’s a chance we won’t be able to get him to the regular vet tomorrow, which means we’d have to pay for another emergency room visit for a daily injection of antibiotics.”
“We couldn’t keep paying for that,” said dad.
“So then we’d have to put him down at that point,” I said.
“Think about how many backpacks that would fill,” said my mom. On Fridays, mom volunteered filling special backpacks full of food at Morely Elementary for the discount-lunch kids to take home over the weekend.
Then dad picked up his cell phone, and just like that the conversation was over.
Caleb answered. The newest member of the family after marrying my sister six months before, Caleb was the substantial yet quiet sort. He did a lot of listening, said something when he knew it, and was otherwise content to be quiet. He was, in a word unflappable.
Dad didn’t ask to speak to Emily, Trish, or the vet -- he stuck with Caleb. “What do you think should be done?”
We waited while dad listened to Caleb’s reply.
A day-and-a-half later, on Christmas morning, Trish and I were piloting my mom’s Honda over the Missouri River, through the tree-and-snow-covered bluffs overlooking the riverboat casinos, and into the white-blanketed soybean fields of western Iowa. We were on our way to Grandma’s house. In the back seat, my sister Anna and her husband John Marshall were telling us about their flight up from Texas that morning.
It had been a matter of some debate how to bring Anna into recent events. Anna was the only member of our family who liked to fight. She hated to be touched, except by her husband and by animals, especially cats. She loved cats -- a lot more than most people, actually. We’d agreed over breakfast that the thing needed to be done delicately.
I began: “Something awful happened to Henry.”
This was, I confess, a lot of fun. It reminded me of the feeling when we were kids, after a package arrived, and we all reached to grab handfuls of bubble wrap before anyone else could pop it.
“What!?!” Anna said. The rubber mallet had hit the ligament. Next to me, Trish absorbed a moment of confusion over what had just transpired, then steeled herself to tell the whole story.
“I can’t believe no one told me,” said Anna after she finished.
“Thank you for not telling us,” said John Marshall.
“There wasn’t anything to tell,” I said. “He had a puncture wound, not a laceration, so they couldn’t have operated anyway. Caleb said he was looking better there at the vet’s office -- ”
“He was,” said Trish. She went on a little sheepishly, “I had a little moment with Henry there by the operating table. I told him, ‘okay, mister, you’d better start acting healthy and vibrant now if you want to last the night.’”
“He’s fine now,” I said.
There was a pause, but not peace. “I just can’t believe that no one told me,” said Anna again. “I have a right to know. He’s my cat, too.”
“He’s mom and dad’s cat,” I said. “You don’t pay for him.”
“You mean you guys would have just killed him then and told me later?” She imagined the scene, “oh my gosh, I can just picture dad -- ‘put him down!’” She mimicked a gruff baritone with just a little too much sternness. “Why does he even say things like that? He doesn’t mean it.”
Anna had taken a step toward the candy house of parental psychoanalysis, and like a Hansel to her Gretel, I was both intrigued and wary of where it could lead. “Dad wasn’t the real utilitarian. The first thing Mom said was to think about the rent and groceries and backpacks -- ”
“Backpacks?” said Anna. “Oh please.”
“But,” I continued, “Kate was the hardest one of all. She didn’t want to put up with the misery of a whining, suffering cat all weekend before the vet re-opened.”
“Cat killa!” said John Marshall. He tried to suppress giggles. Anna’s neck stiffened.
“How could mom do that to Henry?” said Anna.
“Deep down, mom has an iron core that is committed to guaranteeing there’s food on the table and a roof overhead,” I said. In my peripheral vision, I could see Trish nodding as she looked ahead at the road.
“We could have all chipped in to pay for it,” protested Anna.
“I called Joe, from the vet’s office,” said Trish, referring to my uncle, “and he said ‘just put it on our Amex.’”
“Yeah, see?” said Anna.
“But I told him, of course, I couldn’t do that.” Trish gathered her thoughts, then continued: “It was really good for me to have to listen to your dad and try to understand the situation from your parents’ point of view -- even knowing we came from such different places. I’ve spent a lot of money on pets -- I mean, a lot of money. I spent four thousand dollars on a cat once when I had no business spending four thousand dollars on anything. If I were in your dad’s position, I’d have just shelled over whatever they told me immediately. But it’s manipulative -- they’ve got you in an emotional situation where you don’t feel like there’s any other option, and you’re not rational. This time, though, there was another option.”
“Do you think,” I asked, “there’s an ethical limit to how much you can spend on an animal?”
“It doesn’t make sense to say that,” said Anna, “because a cat’s life will be worth more to me than to another person.”
“Right. That’s true,” I said. “But even so, is there a point where you could say to someone, ‘the subjective value you’re placing on that cat is so high that it’s objectively immoral?’ Like, think about those cases where the old woman dies and leaves ten million dollars just to care for her poodle.”
“We saw a lot of that at the Humane Society,” said Trish. “We got one cat from a woman who died, and she left in her will that whoever adopted her cat would get one-hundred thousand dollars every year until the cat died to take care of it.”
“I would be keeping that cat on life support,” said John Marshall.
“That’s why we decided in the end that we just couldn’t do it,” said Trish. “It was this ordinary black cat, too, and it would be really hard to even verify that it was the same cat every year.”
We all pondered silently the lengths one might go to keep a cat legally alive until his thirty-fifth birthday. Then Anna said:
“I still don’t think you can say, think of how many backpacks there are to fill.”
We carried on, the four of us, to our mother’s, grandmother’s, and grandmother-in-law’s house. The snow got deeper as we got closer. When we arrived, and everyone else shortly behind us, we sat down to china plates each painted with the gifts of one of the Twelve Days of Christmas and had beef tenderloin, all except Trish, who ate a tuna filet, rare.