We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan. Irving Townsend, The Once Again Prince
Animal companions provide us joy and heartache, love and heartbreak, and in many homes they are loved as family. We enter into relationships with animals in most cases knowing we will outlive our beloved animals, and yet we give fully of our lives, our time, and our hearts. While it seems at times animals are too fragile for this earth, our time together is repaid tenfold in the unequivocal love they give.
Dr. Jean Albright, DVM, has been in the vet profession for more than 35 years. She equates the relationship between pet and owner to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, “The Little Prince.”
Citing a passage from the story, Dr. Albright explains her go-to reference for why people love their pets. The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…
“‘I am beginning to understand,’ said the little prince. ‘There is a flower…I think that she has tamed me…’”
“When the little prince talks to the fox about his rose, it is so profound,” Dr. Albright said. “We value what we nurture. Where my cat to someone else is just a cat, to me it’s really special.”
Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there. Dr. Jean Albright
Dr. Albright grew up on a ranch near Custer, Mont., surrounded by animals. “When I was young and was upset, I always went to where the animals were. Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there.”
From the barnyard to the home front, historically pets and their owners have strong bonds. From these ties, pet ownership is thought to provide therapeutic and health benefits to the caregiver. Owning pets is theorized to hold a multitude of benefits, from lowering blood pressure to preventing heart disease and helping individuals fight depression. In studies, people who own pets have also been found to laugh more and have lower levels of stress than those who do not have pets.
Dr. Albright maintains there is a reason for every animal in our lives. “My needy little Australian Shepherd is there to teach me patience,” she said. “My ‘Steady Eddie,’ a greyhound mix, is like the rock in my life.”
For the love of dog
Billings resident Amy Brown has opened her heart and home to many rescued dogs, and said the relationship is mutually beneficial.
“Animals reward our need to love, and you know that you’ve made their life better for the time that they’ve been with you,” Brown said.
Brown and her husband Bill have adopted or rescued eight dogs since becoming married, starting with their respective dogs.
“They were very happy we got married because they were best friends,” Brown said. When her dog passed away, she said Bill’s lab was so distraught she wouldn’t even go out by herself.
“She would just wait for him,” Brown described. They got a puppy and named him Jetson. This pup turned out to be a “nasty little dog,” Brown describes. “The ‘grateful dog syndrome’ (a term Brown uses to describe a rescued animal’s gratitude toward its savior) doesn’t apply when they are still puppies,” she said. Despite all the dog’s quirks, the reciprocal love made it all worthwhile.
“Love won’t conquer all, but love and training do help with most everything,” Brown maintains.
Brown grew up on a farm in Basin, Wyoming. Her desire to rescue dogs stems from her belief that animals need human companions as much as humans need them. “We had some great dogs,” she recalls. Her father—an animal lover—helped instill in her a compassion and love of animals. “My earliest memory is a dog that was always at my side. Sometimes I don’t know that she particularly liked me until I got older, but she was always there protecting me.”
Brown raised her children around dogs and had a Labrador that would lie beneath their bassinets, alerting Brown when the children would wake. As her children grew up around dogs, she found the pet/caregiver relationship taught them empathy. Brown does caution that “children are very curious, and dogs are dogs, and you don’t know when some ancient instinct is going to flip the switch, so you must protect them from each other.”
The Browns currently have three dogs, an old English sheep dog named Lexy, an Airedale mix named Dixie (after the children’s book of the same name), and a feisty and aging Bichon Frise named “Macho” Max.
“The only bad thing is that they aren’t with us long enough,” she said.
When animals pass on, they leave a vacuum in our hearts and small ghosts in our memories. “Another dog never fills that void,” Brown said. “They fill the space and the time, but not the hole.”
Brown lost two of her dogs at the sixth birthday mark. “Once I get past that, I feel like I’m on borrowed time,” she said. In the last months of one of her dog’s lives, Brown said she worked so hard to keep him alive. “When we finally had to let go, just what you do with yourself after it’s been that intense?”
As a vet, Dr. Albright is often asked when it’s time to let go, and she replies, “When you look at them and it hurts more to watch them than to let them go. Then it’s time.” She has “been around the block quite a few times with animals,” but said she still has a very hard time letting them go. “It’s like saying goodbye to a little kid because animals are little kids their whole life.”
Dr. Albright carried one of her arthritis dogs up and down the stairs, holding onto it longer that most people thought she should. “For everyone it’s different,” she said. “That’s one area that I am pretty nonjudgmental. Some hang onto them longer than others.”
Despite the heartbreak of losing pets, Brown can’t imagine her life without dogs. “I wish they would stay with me longer, but I have to believe that it is as worth it for them as it is for me.”
Originally published in Magic City Magazine