ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Zoe spent her last days sprawled at the feet of the woman who loved her.
Zoe was a border collie, nearly 18, quite old for a dog. Sprawling at the woman’s feet was about all she could do anymore. Her left leg hung contorted and lifeless, weighed down at the elbow by a bulbous tumor.
Her back legs were so weak the woman had to lift up her haunches with a leash slung under her soft abdomen, allowing her to hop awkwardly on her one good leg down the two steps from the RV they lived in to a grassy patch outdoors to do her business.
Zoe never complained.
“She’s been a really good dog,” said Kitty Lee, the woman.
For months, Lee knew it was time to say goodbye to Zoe, her constant companion since 1999. The tumor had gotten so big, and Zoe had gotten so weak. Her gentle brown eyes were clouding over. She couldn’t hear. It wasn’t fair to force her to live this way just for Lee’s sake.
“She deserves better than this,” said Lee, 75. “She deserves to die with dignity.”
But dignity is hard to pay for.
“I don’t have that kind of money to put her down,” Lee said. “I couldn’t even afford to take her to a vet to see about the tumor. Now it’s too late.”
Lee took Zoe home for the first time back when there was a home, a job, money.
Today, Lee lives on a monthly $800 Social Security check, just enough to pay for groceries, bills and rent for the broken-down RV parked in a West Central trailer court. She is diabetic, has a bad back and injured a shoulder in a fall. She has no family nearby.
Zoe, along with a dog named Jasmine and four cats, are her family.
Neighbor Sally Smith started helping Lee look for a veterinary clinic willing to euthanize Zoe economically and with Lee present.
They found nothing.
“What is she supposed to do?” an exasperated Smith asked. “We found places that would spay this old sick dog for free. But none of them would put her down for free.”
Costs for euthanasia range from about $200, which includes an exam and tests, if performed in a veterinary office, to as much as $800 for a veterinary home visit. Some clinics provide free euthanasia for established patients.
Vetco, which operates low-cost clinics in Albuquerque and Los Lunas, charges about $85 for a 40-pound dog. The cost includes the anesthesia and sedative, plus transportation of the body for cremation.
Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare Department does not provide euthanasia on request but may euthanize if the owner surrenders the animal.
“We evaluate the pets in our custody and make our own decisions about whether the animals should be euthanized,” spokesman James Ludwick said. “When euthanasia takes place, former owners are not present.”
Animal Humane New Mexico operates a clinic providing services, including euthanasia, to pets, with reduced fees based on the owner’s income. In extreme cases of provable financial hardship, euthanasia can be paid in full by Animal Humane’s charitable Angel Fund.
Lee likely would have qualified for that, agency Executive Director Peggy Weigle said.
But Smith said that when she called Animal Humane she was told Zoe would have to be surrendered to be euthanized and Lee could not be present.
“I explained how Zoe’s owner was on Social Security and how sick Zoe was,” Smith said. “They didn’t care.”
What Smith was told, Weigle said, was incorrect. She said she suspects a volunteer manning the phones misunderstood or misdirected Smith’s call.
Owners who qualify for the Angel Fund could still be on the hook for the cost of examinations and tests a veterinarian may require before a pet is put down. Those tests are sometimes needed to ensure there is good reason for the euthanasia, Weigle said.
“We don’t euthanize for convenience,” she said.
Other angels did step in to help Lee send Zoe off with compassion.
Those angels were you readers.
Last week, I asked those of you who follow me on Facebook to tell me about your experiences with the painful – and pricey – decision to put down a beloved pet. Many of you did; many of you offered more than that. Before I had written a single word of this column, you offered to help with donations. Several of you offered to pay for the entire procedure.
One reader called veterinary clinics to plead the case for a dog and a woman she had never met. That reader, Lori DeAnda, found a veterinarian who felt compassion for Zoe and agreed to perform the euthanasia gratis.
That is where Zoe was on Monday afternoon. She died peacefully and with dignity in her woman’s arms.
Something about a dog brings out the best in us, and maybe that’s because we learn a little about the unconditional love they give us.
We grow old together, one faster than the other, and then we must say goodbye. What a shame that sometimes that goodbye is so hard to afford.
A friend of mine reminded me of a saying on a T-shirt that read: “I wish I was the person my dog thinks I am.”
To you readers and the vet who stepped up to help an ailing woman and her ailing dog, you are that person.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.