On the day before New Year’s Day I was asked by a friend to accompany her to the vet to euthanize her pet of fifteen years. She had been caring diligently and humanely for her cat Tristan over the last year who appeared to have cancer and a neurological illness. A second professional opinion had concluded that to prevent further suffering it would be best to put Tristan to sleep, and so it was done very regretfully, but mercifully.
My friend asked me why we are allowed as Catholics to “put down” terminal animals but not humans close to death. I responded that just as God alone has the mastery over us, God has given us the mastery over animals (Gn 1:28). Thus we can decide the end-of-life of a pet or other creature just as God (and only God) decides for a human being. It is only for one human to care for another; it is never for one human to let another die without care, or to cause another’s death. (Hence, euthanasia is only for animals and it is abhorrent to propose it as mercy or “equality” for man).
My friend’s question was very sincere, not to mention commendable since it showed a desire to be consistent in her faith and to do the morally justifiable thing. She also asked me about animals and heaven. The Church cannot avoid answering such questions unwaveringly of people who feel a great loss in the passing of a beloved pet. I told her that man is a creature made for heaven, made in the image of God with a mind and a will toward heaven shown clearly by his spirit for prayer and worship; but that the animal is a creature made for the world, and while reflecting the love of God, still only with an instinct and appetite for this world shown by its attachment to nature, as an integral part of it. I stated that if there are to be animals in heaven, it is not because they will be resurrected; it would only be because we are resurrected and because God willed it for His and for our happiness; and that it remains the prerogative of God to determine this happiness, while it remains our duty to trust this prerogative.
My friend accepted this because she trusts God and the will of God and because she knows deep down that God will wash away all pain and that He will bring about a joy which is inconceivable to our present minds.
My friend has suffered a great loss because this pet of hers was a feature of stable love during a period of many years of turmoil and trial and tribulation. She understands that it was a natural love unlike the supernatural love she found in God. Still, it was love; a love that brought about affection and care and the desire to care for something beyond herself.
Tristan was a gift from God to help my friend grow in the understanding of love. His passing is also her passing from dependence upon nature to dependence upon grace. She senses this, and so it gives meaning to his passing.
I myself will remember this stalwart little feline saved from the elements by the stewardship of my friend as a unique creature of God – sometimes “Mr. Stripy Pants” and sometimes that sneaky, yellow tabby which once, when I turned my back, stole and ate my unsuspecting pork chop.