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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics

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Upstairs, in the rehabilitation center, there’s a working animal, a yellow Lab, being treated by two young technicians. The dog, maybe 9, has nerve damage from an infection in her back. One of the women has a pair of electrodes pressed to the dog’s haunch, stimulating the muscles. The other is massaging its chest—“Reiki,” she says. They’re all lying on a heap on a mat, and the dog seems as happy as a dog can be. Across the room, a black Lab named Radar with a mysterious muscle condition has just finished a workout on a treadmill in a water tank. Outside, their owners wait on a bench.

“It really is family,” says Cohen. “It’s not exactly that they think they’re human, but the choices they’re going to make, the protection they’re going to give, the nurturing they feel they owe, is the same as for a family member.”

What Cohen tries to do is clarify the issues in people’s minds, which is not easy, given the confused place of the dog in many urban people’s lives. It brings up all their stuff. “They realize at this moment how many of their eggs they’ve put in this basket,” she says. “How did I get here? Why didn’t I have children? I hate my job. Because you had someone to come home to who appreciated you just the way you are.”

The hospital’s position is “to be as accurate and honest as we can be about what we can do,” she says. The impossible calculus of dog years and human dollars is left up to you—and the possibility is always there that you could max out your credit cards over a weekend and still walk home with a bag of ashes. A friend recently took a 10-year-old dog with bleeding in its intestines to the NYC Veterinary Specialists, an animal hospital on 55th Street. The doctors told him that removing the tumor they’d discovered would give the dog a 90 percent chance of survival. And thus they were trapped in a cascade of escalating medical decisions—five days and several procedures later, the dog was euthanized. The bill was over $14,000. They’re heartsick over the loss of the dog, of course, and the money too—and furious at the hospital. But at what point, once you start, can you turn back with your dog? One lesson: A hospital that makes money on procedures may not be the best one to tell you when it’s time to pull the plug.

The Animal Medical Center, too, takes your credit-card number in advance, possibly because, in the aftermath of a dog’s death, questions of its worth arise: What was it? Why did I love it so much?

All our stuff, indeed. On our way downstairs, we passed a room where I’d had a previous dog euthanized. It’s actually, if such a thing exists, a fabulous place to have a dog put down, at least for the human—the dog, no doubt, would rather stay at home. There’s a view out over the dark swirling waters of the East River and, on the other side, a sward of green, dog paradise.

Scout was a West Highland terrier, Angela’s dog when we met, an exuberant, somewhat cantankerous creature, beloved companion of our New York youth, unwitting enabler of our prolonged adolescence. He was 14 and tired when we had to bring him there, after a tumor and a torn ligament and a winter of rather expensive medical wrestling with a stubborn breathing problem, all this along with taking care of our young son, who’d displaced him in his princely status, poor thing. I put a rubberized smock over my lap—one is never quite free of a dog’s elimination needs—and told him about his happy afterlife on that lawn across the water, which I didn’t believe a word of and he at any rate couldn’t understand—that same human gurgling he’d heard his whole life. The vet gave him an injection to put him to sleep, another to stop his heart. And that was Scout, whoever he was.

Before we took him in, a vet asked, with wide caring eyes, “Is there anything else you want to do?” We did, of course—the hospital’s high-tech armamentarium, its MRIs and minimally invasive techniques, a hospital they’d be happy to have in Darfur—but we didn’t.

How much is your dog worth to you? It’s a hard question to answer.

Right, Stella?


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