A Touching and Honest Story of a Man and his Dog
If you have read my previous stories, Fishing with Chena I, II and III – then you are familiar with her. In those stories I tried to convey the love I felt for her by indirection; that is by fussing about how big a pain in the butt she was when I was fishing the river by my house. If you haven’t read those stories all you really need to know is that she was absolutely beautiful and that I loved her without reservation.
Chena was a free animal. We fed her and she chose our home to be her home. There is no fence so she stayed with us voluntarily. Chena was an outside dog, she did not come in the house. She weighed at least 80 pounds, possibly more; all muscle. Chena ran like a greyhound, stretching way out and eating ground with a pleasure so pure that you felt like shouting with joy when watching, and I whooped and hollered a lot. Our mailbox is a quarter of a mile away, we use an ATV to check the mail. Chena loved to race the ATV to the mail box. As soon as she heard the ATV fire up she would run to wait at the end of the drive for it and then the race was on.
I often clocked Chena at over 25 mph and she always looked like she had reserve to spare. When she got to the mail box after an all out quarter mile sprint she wasn’t breathing hard. She was extremely healthy and fit. Chena had huge jaws and large teeth, the pit bull in her showed up in her head that way. Chena was tan and white with big soft brown eyes. Up until the past few days, she was always gentle and loving.
When I sat outside, as I often do, Chena would put her head in my lap to have her ears scratched. She would close her eyes in rapture until my hand got tired. Then she would lay down on my feet. Sometimes under the chair, but mostly on top of my feet. She would sleep there until I got up. We had a closeness that I can not adequately describe.
I had to destroy her three days ago. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and it has gotten harder with each passing day, instead of easier.
Three days ago Chena raced my wife to the mail box, as usual. But when my wife got back she was crying hysterically. A small Yorkie-type dog was near the mail box and Chena jumped on it and tore it up badly. My wife was yelling and trying to get Chena off of it, but Chena was in a killing frenzy and ignored her.
My wife was stunned from the experience, it was so out of character for Chena. My wife had also told me that Chena had snapped at her twice in the past couple of days when she got near Chena’s food bowl. This was new behavior too. Then I discovered that Chena had gotten into a brawl with some dogs down the road just the day before.
I don’t have a fence, and if I did have one putting Chena in it would have been cruel beyond measure. Chena grew up roaming the river and surrounding fields. There was a time when I tried to tie her, back when the neighbors were complaining that she was too friendly, jumping up on them with muddy feet. It was nothing serious, just annoying. Our neighbors were having a reunion and asked if we could restrain her during that period.
Chena, to my surprise, was a dog Houdini. I could not keep her tied. Her neck was bigger than her skull, she could slip any rope or collar or device, I tried several ways. I even put her in a full body harness and tied her up with it. She was out of that in 30 minutes the first time, and only 5 minutes the second time. She refused to be tied up.
Chena also hated the veterinarian. We took her to be spayed and took her for shots and she always had to be muzzled; she would bark and bite at the veterinarian – to me this was normal behavior for her given that the vet had the bedside manners of Dr. Frankenstein. Whenever we put her in the car she knew we were going to the vet, and she hated it. She had to be drug kicking and whining into the car, and then she would huddle miserably as far back as she could get.
We live on the bank of a large river. It is a remote and fairly wild area overall, but there are about twenty homes along the road I live on, a small isolated sub-division. I live at the end of that road. Those homes are mostly weekend cottages, but there are some full time residents. Among those residents there are small children and frail senior citizens, and of course dogs.
When Chena tore that little dog up, I assumed it was because the dog was scared and tried to run. I have seen dogs do this before; an otherwise gentle dog going into a killing frenzy when something weaker is scared and tries to run. I think it is a vestigial hunting instinct. Something about that type of situation triggers a killer frenzy in them. Most of the people that get dog bitten are children and seniors, perhaps because of their helplessness and their fear. The children especially get scared and run, setting off that instinct.
Chena was too big and much too strong to allow there to be any chance, any remote chance at all, of her attacking a child. If Chena went into a frenzy on on a person the way she did that Yorkie, she could maul and maim and inflict extreme damage. Chena could have easily killed a child. I ran through all of the possibilities with a steadily sickening feeling that there was only one solution.
I couldn’t let her run loose any longer – to do so would have been the epitome of irresponsibility, there were several small children within her normal roaming range. I had no fence, and even if I built one I couldn’t keep her tied up while I built it. Even if I could keep her restrained until I built a fence, fencing her in was the worst form of cruelty to her that I could imagine. I couldn’t let her run loose, and I couldn’t restrain her.
I thought about one of those dog rescue places. Chena would be taken on a car trip to a strange place with strange people and put inside a fence until she was adopted – then she would be taken on a car trip to a strange place with strange people and kept inside a fence. That was worse than me putting her inside a fence. Even then, even if she was adopted, she still would have that potential frenzy waiting to explode on someone, somewhere.
Could I depend on a total stranger to be absolutely certain Chena never hurt anyone? Could I shift that responsibility, or would I only be pretending to shift it because I was ultimately responsible for her? Then too I didn’t know how long it would take to find a rescue place that would take her, and during that time she would be running loose.
I was down to only one solution, only one truly certain solution. Chena had to be destroyed. She had to be destroyed in the prime of her life, in full health and vigor. She had to be destroyed based on what she might someday do, based on a hypothetical situation, her harming a child, or another dog.
This left me with two choices; either take her to a vet or do it myself. If I took her to the vet then her last moments would be what she hated most, being muzzled and inside a cage. Injected with a drug that would cause her to get confused and fall asleep with who knows what kinds of weird images and thoughts in her mind, but hardly pleasant ones.
Or I could do it myself. If I destroyed her myself, she would be happily at home until the final instant. She would be with a person she loved and, God help me, trusted. She would feel no fear, no anticipation, no confusion. She would simply be her happy self and then she would cease to be. I sent my wife to town on a made-up errand. I did not tell her what I had to do. I did not want her to feel that dread. I did not want her home to hear the shot and come running and see.
In my youth, I was an avid hunter. I know guns and I have a hunters knowledge of animal anatomy. I know ballistics and shot placement. I knew just which gun to use, which bullet type, and exactly where to put the bullet. I wasn’t going into this with a lack of knowledge or confidence in how to best do it. I quit hunting over 30 years ago, because I no longer wanted to kill anything, but the knowledge is still there.
I killed Chena—without euphemisms, that is what I did. I killed her. I couldn’t ask anyone else to do this; she was my dog, my responsibility. I owed her at least doing it myself. Getting someone else to do it lacked a certain integrity to her. I owed her a completely painless death. I could not have trusted that to someone else even if I had been inclined to.
In her last moment she was eating her favorite jerky treat on the river bank, wagging her tail as I softly told her what a beautiful girl she was while looking into those beautiful soft brown eyes. Then, faster than her brain neurons could carry the signal, she was dead. She didn’t feel it, there was no pain, it was over too fast for her nerves to send a signal, plus there was no longer anywhere to send a signal to. She felt only her normal pleasure and freedom up to her final microsecond of life.
Her body didn’t even twitch in death, I know that for a fact because I watched for it, to be sure I had done it right. Just like that she was gone forever. The gun shot was immediately followed by my wailing “NOOOO!” as loud and as long as I could, railing against this. It echoed up and down the river as I cried and took care of the final details of disposition.
Chena was simply and immediately gone, and with her a vital basic part was torn right out of me. I hated doing this and knew it would hurt, but I wasn’t really ready for how much pain there would be. I think that denial must have been a defense mechanism that allowed me to get this done, otherwise I would have been paralyzed. A fundamental part of my soul was wrenched and ripped painfully away in that same microsecond that she was gone. I expect it will heal, but not completely, not completely. There will always be a wound there, carrying a pain so intense that I can barely stand it. No matter how many years may pass, this pain won’t leave.
I might someday be able to isolate it away, so that it doesn’t come bobbing up to the surface every five minutes the way it does now. While I wait for that healing though, each day that has passed the pain grows more intense than it was the day before. I am still tearing apart inside. The wound is getting larger, not smaller.
I went fishing the day after. I waded into the river with my fly rod and started blindly and furiously casting. As I walked down the bank I thought for a just a split second, out of the corner of my eye, that I caught a flashing glimpse of her coming running to go fishing and my heart lept wildly for just that split second. But of course that would have been impossible. Eyes full of scalding hot tears can play tricks on you.
I wish I could say something romantic, like I felt her presence, or that she lives on in my memory, or that she is roaming heaven’s river banks now and that those thoughts made me feel better. I thought all of those, but I did not feel better.
The only thing I can say is that I went fishing, without Chena.
It has been several months since I killed Chena. There have been changes brought on by time, easing the pain in some ways, making the pain deeper in others.
For a couple of weeks after shooting Chena the pain was unbearably intense and constant. I grieved hard. After awhile I began to question this continued deep grieving, why wasn’t it letting up? Why wasn’t the inevitable emollient of time doing it’s work?
With reflection, I came to the conclusion that I was punishing myself. The continued grieving wasn’t really a healthy kind of grief, but a self punishment. Except… it wasn’t really that simple either. The grief was also my last fundamental link with Chena. When the grief was gone, I felt Chena would become another relic in the memory attic, an abstraction so to speak, and that abandoning the grief was abandoning Chena. Almost like I had a second chance to keep her alive.
Part of the grieving was “performed” by going over and over whether or not I had made the right choice. I always ended up thinking I had made the only rational choice given all the exigent circumstances; but I was also always unhappy with reaching that same conclusion. I wondered why I kept working the logic over – would I actually feel better if I came to a different conclusion? I decided to see what would happen, inside me that is, if I had come to the conclusion that I had made the wrong choice, that I had killed her when there was another better option.
That took some time to sort out, but finally I understood that even if I had made the wrong choice in killing Chena, I still had only one option; to forgive myself for making a horrible mistake in reasoning, and then get on with my life. As long as I knew that I had made a mistake, but an honest mistake, then I knew it would be better to forgive myself that mistake, learn the lessons to be learned from that mistake, and move forward. No good would come of becoming depressed, or obsessing, or of failing to learn.
Having reached this conclusion I left a lot of grief behind very quickly, because much of that grief had been based on using the grief as a tool of self punishment. Time took care of most of the rest of the grief.
Anyone who has lost a loved one understands that grieving never really ends, it becomes subdued and often buried under the veneer of day to day activity… but it is still there and occasionally pops up and still hurts. Sometimes intensely. But by and large it becomes manageable.
I have a wound deep inside that will never heal, but it has gotten smaller, and it has become harder to get to…but it is still there and won’t go away. It has taken it’s place among the other wounds that we collect simply by living life. It isn’t the greatest wound that I have, nor is it the least. It is the freshest for now, but life will take care of that too. We all carry our collection of wounds with us, and in some ways they help to define us.
I could rewrite “Fishing Without Chena.” If I were to do so now it would become less raw, more eloquent perhaps, and probably less poignant. But, what I wrote was honest and straight from the heart, however I feel about it now, that was how I felt then… so I am going to leave it alone.
Chena was a universe of lessons for me. From the day I got her, to the day I destroyed her, she was a teacher—my teacher. I try to honor her now by living the lessons she taught me.
Truth is, I never go fishing without Chena.