Readers who have been around here for a while will recall that I used to have a dog, a fine and patient and only a little bit neurotic dog, whose name was Zeke. I loved Zeke. Zeke loved me in return, and others who have loved me will attest to the fact that this required some work on his part.
Zeke died in February of 2007 after a long and occasionally agonizing decline.
I took increasingly attentive care of him for several months before he died. His daily walks a half-mile down to the local park and back began to require my carrying him back up the hill toward our house. Zeke was of a stature somewhere between Siberian husky and German shepherd. Though he was thinner than dogs of either of those breeds, it still took some doing to carry him a half mile.
His chronic problem, aside from age — he was 16 when he died — was arthritis in his hips. Walking became painful for him, and we tried a full array of pain control techniques, some of which worked for a while. Five months before he died he began to lose weight and his blood sugar crashed, and it became imperative that we keep him abundantly fed. The vets eyed his kidney function with concern. It was abnormal, but the vets couldn’t come up with any explanation other than the possibility of cancer, which they then ruled out with further tests.
Zeke’s appetite was fantastic even as he dwindled. My ex-and I pulled out all the stops feeding him. The end was looming and spoiling him was no longer an issue, and so he ate chicken. And turkey. And ground bison from Trader Joes. He ate dried chicken strips, meatloaf from the supermarket deli, hamburgers (no onions) and barbecue from the joint down the road, as much dry dog food as he wanted.
He’d always been thin, and he’d always been a bit of a picky eater, and yet when he turned down a bite of food I would fret. But no matter how disinclined he was to eat, he’d always accept a dog snack from the cupboard. The Jerky Treats brand was his favorite, to the point where the trade name “Jerky Treats” became, in our household, one of those diluted trademarks, like Kleenex: both generic term and favorite piece of canine vocabulary. Even when Zeke would turn down a de-boned, freshly roasted chicken leg, he’d eat three or four Jerky Treats.
He had to take a lot of pills, too: pain pills, pills to keep the pain pills from hurting his stomach, glucosamine, occasional antibiotics, and worst of all was the amantadine, a drug that was available only in sicky-sweet red syrup form, a flu medicine for children that was also a synergist pain control drug. He hated that last especially, and enjoyed being pilled only a little more, and so we developed a routine. Twice a day I’d corner him, and each pill swallowed got him a kiss on his widow’s peak, and holding still for the syringe of syrup got him another kiss, and then we’d head for the cupboard and get a Jerky Treat and he’d take it outside and eat it.
I felt guilty enough about the amantadine that I usually gave him two or three Jerky Treats at a time.
In December 2006 it was clear that he was done for, but — good dog — he kept hanging on. The vets began to make insinuations about decisions. His back legs were weaker and weaker. His blood work still showed abnormal liver and kidney function, and those scared me, but failure of either of those organs is usually preceded by nausea, or at least loss of appetite. Zeke was still eating well. I’d lost a cat to kidney failure and vowed that I wouldn’t let Zeke go that way, but as long as he enjoyed eating I relaxed about that, a little.
He needed 24/7 care by mid-December. I did some creative scheduling with my enviro magazine editing job, worked at home as much as I could, took advantage of the holidays, and then quit in early January. I slept in two-or three-hour stretches for several weeks, on the couch in the living room where I could help him in and out the door when he needed it, several times a night. He found it increasingly difficult to stand. His right rear leg weak with arthritis pain, his left stiff from compensatory overuse, he was an unstable tripod throughout January. Staying in one place, facing one direction meant turning in wobbly circles every so often. His right leg would collapse and he’d pivot, turn 360 and come to face his elevated food bowl again. He would drop his Jerky Treat on the ground and be unable to reach it. I’d pick it up, hand it to him.
Despite eating more than I did, his weight continued to drop throughout January. He dropped below forty pounds by mid-month: two thirds of his baseline healthy weight. He continued to eat right up until February 2. The vet came to our house the next day. We buried Zeke in the backyard. My friend Matthew came over and did most of the digging.
We put two Jerky Treats next to his face before we covered him up.
The next weeks were a blur, as we adjusted to life without Zeke. The degree to which he had soldered our failing marriage together became apparent. The garden that had been my refuge was now a cemetery. I threw myself into topical writing, venting my loss in political venom. When the news broke a couple weeks after Zeke died that thousands of pets across the US were dying of melamine poisoning, I flinched, then consoled myself that as horrible as the news was, I no longer had a personal stake in it. I had neither anyone for whose protection from such a thing I was responsible, nor a job that would have included reporting on the topic. I was a bystander: horrified at the idea, but not personally affected. I made certain Zeke’s 20 pounds of leftover dry food wasn’t on the recall lists before we donated it to the shelter down the road, and I chatted with pet-owning friends about the issue, and that was it.
And so I didn’t find out until yesterday that it was more than just canned dog food and kibble that were recalled in March 2007 after thousands of dogs died of melamine poisoning.
I didn’t find out until yesterday that Jerky Treats, a product of the Del Monte Corporation, had been included in the recall.
Melamine killed pets by inducing kidney failure due to toxic crystals forming in the kidneys. Most of the deaths were sudden and dramatic, including for instance several animals who died after taking part in an industry “taste test.” Most of the animals who died likely got the melamine as part of their staple food rather than, as Zeke did, in smaller doses as a snack. Zeke didn’t die of kidney failure: the proximate cause of his death was euthanasia. He’d lost his appetite the day before. That may have been due to his ailing kidneys, or it may have been pain from his arthritis, or his injured pancreas acting up. I don’t know, and never will.
But I do know that in the months after he died, as my marriage failed and I lost my home, as I moved away from the only garden I had ever actually owned in my life, as I began to question every aspect of what I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to do it with, I knew that I had gotten that one thing right. As late as last week, in a dark moment, I told myself that I may have failed as a husband, as a lover, as a journalist and a blogger and an editor/publisher, I may have failed as a gardener and a homeowner and a son and brother, I may have failed as an activist and a friend, but I did that one thing right: for five or six months in 2006 and 2007, I cared for Zeke as deeply, as lovingly and carefully and effectively as anyone I knew — or had heard of — had ever cared for a dog.
Yesterday I found that I had probably been poisoning him the whole time.
I don’t feel guilty, or at least I stopped feeling guilty after an hour or two. I knew Jerky Treats probably weren’t the absolute healthiest food in the world for Zeke to eat, but that’s a different issue. I acted in good faith toward him. I gave him what I thought — and was told by the experts — was the best care possible. I organized my entire life around ensuring his comfort and safety, and maximizing his joy even in his last days. He ate better than probably half the people in the country did that January. Had I known even of rumors about toxic contents in anything I was feeding him, I’d have drained my bank account to find alternatives. Zeke had the death I hoped he’d have, mainly comfortable and surrounded by love and calm. I hope I go that well when it’s my time.
No, this isn’t about guilt, or at least not about my guilt.
This is about anger, an anger too slow to erupt, an anger that should have been aroused almost two years ago when thousands of people grieved losses far more unexpected and tragic than the one that staggered me.
They polluted my dog’s food. They polluted Zeke himself. They polluted the last weeks he and I spent together. They polluted the moments of joy each snack had brought. They polluted the last gift I gave him, melamine moldering there in the soil next to his remains where we laid those Jerky Treats as tribute.
They made me poison the one I loved most of anyone in this world. They stole my last bit of solace, the notion that I did right by him up to his end. They stole that from me and I will never get it back, and if I can find a receipt for a package of their poisoned food they will refund to me the six bucks it cost me out of pocket, because the Del Monte Corporation truly wants my continued business.