Animal hospice care: The Star Thrower

Old Lady
Photo by NatureCommunion

There are many versions of the Loren C. Eiseley story written in 1968 called The Star Thrower. If you are unfamiliar with it, let me recount it for you.

After a terrible storm a beach is littered with washed up starfish. A boy gently picks up one after the other and throws them back into the sea. People watch him with amusement, such a futile task to undertake!

Someone approaches the boy and says, “Little boy, why are you doing this? It makes no difference. Look how many there are! You can’t save them all.”

For a moment, the boy feels defeated, hopeless. But then he bends down, picks up another starfish and flings it as far out into the sea as he can and says,

“It made a difference to that one.”

There are more than 30 million street dogs in India. This is the story of one of them, Old Lady. She was one thus benefited starfish.

Old Lady and her companion, a giant of a dog called Raja, one day suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the streets of Pune in Maharashtra. Even though they accepted food from people, they never allowed them close enough to touch. One day it was noticed that Raja was injured and needed medical attention, so he was captured and brought to a shelter for treatment for a few days after which he was released back in the streets again. A few months later he died. Old Lady felt his loss deeply. Sadness noticeable in her eyes, her own health started to decline. Her balance, coordination and reflexes were no longer what they used to be. That’s not really a problem if you are a pampered pooch but if you live on the street, you suddenly are very vulnerable.

Raja – Old Lady’s companion.
Photo by Bharti Tambe from Animal Adoption and Rescue Team

Gouri Keskar, a volunteer looking after street dogs, who had been feeding Old Lady for about a year noticed that the dog’s eyes looked very tired and that she started to have less interactions with the world, withdrawing into her own as is common among elderly dogs. Old Lady was approximately ten years old. Gouri worried about her safety and wondered if it might be a good idea finding a place for her in a shelter. In the end, she decided it would be overall better for Old Lady to stay in her familiar area where she knew the other strays and the people who care for them rather than uprooting and relocating her to a new, strange place.

Then one day Gouri received a phone call at work, Old Lady had been hit by a car. Even though many Indian street dogs are given a reflective collar to make them more visible in traffic, being hit by a vehicle is a common fate for a stray. Old Lady was alive but barely able to move, stuck under the car that had run her over. Gouri was unable to leave work but the ophthalmologist in front of whose clinic the accident happened and the shop keeper from across the street agreed to help Old Lady in the interim. How they managed to pull the frightened dog from under the car, I am not sure. Still at work, Gouri organised a vet to come and check the wounded stray. He diagnosed a spinal cord injury and gave her a pain relief injection. Understandably, the traumatised dog was anxious and unfriendly to all her kind helpers.

When Gouri arrived a few hours later, Old Lady was happy to see her. The ophthalmologist noticed that the very tip of the injured dog’s tail was wagging in welcome! Though paralysed in her lower end, somehow she mustered whatever nerve connection remained there to greet that familiar face.

As is common in such circumstances, everyone thought it was for the best to euthanise Old Lady. But not Gouri, who had already provided hospice care for three dying dogs in the past; her pet dog, another street dog that had been hit by a car and an abandoned elderly German Shepherd.

Swargarohini is a mountain massif in the Himalaya region of India. Its name means Ascent to Heaven. One day, when Gouri was hiking and saw its peaks in the distance, she learned that on one particular trek there, without fail, a dog appears and accompanies the trekker just like in the popular Hindu mythological story about Yudhishthira who declines going to heaven if his dog is not allowed to come with him.

So, if a dog shows up and walks with a person on their journey to heaven, why can’t we, as care takers, accompany dogs on theirs?” reflects Gouri on the subject of animal hospice care.

Sunrise on Mount Swargarohini
Photo by subhradeep on pixahive.com

Together with two other women from her neighbourhood, Vrushali and Madhavi, Gouri decided to take care of Old Lady. Vrushali and Madhavi’s experience looking after dogs had not previously extended beyond feeding them. So this whole undertaking of caring for one injured in a car accident was quite daunting to them. With Gouri at the helm, it was learn as you go. At times, the confronting and intense nature of the experience was emotionally difficult to process for these first-timers. While challenging for Gouri too, she told me that there was no question, and it was clear to both of them – human and dog – that Gouri would be the one looking after her. Though there did not exist the same kind of deep attachment like she had known with her own pet dog, there had been a heartfelt love connection between Old Lady and her from the moment they first met two years earlier.

The rainy season was in full swing and it was therefore important to find a dry spot for Old Lady. Not an easy task as many people are not fond of street dogs and don’t want them hanging out on their premises. And although Gouri had reported Old Lady’s accident immediately, none of the shelters were able to take her in. As luck would have it, at the back of the ophthalmologist’s clinic there was an unused, covered area where Old Lady was welcome to stay. It was just perfect, the injured dog didn’t need to be moved far and would remain in her own neighbourhood. They made her a bed on a plastic sheet with soft, warm blankets and an absorbent pad layer.

Old Lady resting after the accident.

Still in shock and feeling wary, the same evening Old Lady dragged herself down the two steps off the platform of her refuge, likely in search for a safer spot. She was carefully put back and an old shop sign transformed into a wall to create a safe enclosure to reduce the risk of Old Lady accidentally further injuring herself. It took about three days for her to start feeling truly relaxed there and trust that her carers came at regular intervals to look in on her, change her nappy and bring her tasty treats and food.

The need to be safe is a strong motivator in injured animals to muster what strength they have to find such a place. Somehow the car accident survivor with her paralysed backend had manoeuvred herself down the stairs before someone noticed.

Not only people checked in on her, Old Lady also received daily visits from Simran, a young street dog, who was her friend and had witnessed the car accident. On day six after the accident, however, Simran started behaving differently. She stopped her visits and stayed clear of Gouri, Vrushali and Madhavi, even though one of them had been regularly feeding her, and feeding her well with such special delicacies as chicken and eggs. Simran was very reluctant to approach Old Lady’s space and while she still accepted the food from the women, she wasn’t asking for belly rubs or any other interactions anymore. When the end of a friend is near, some animals choose to be close whereas others stay clear. Some even act aggressively while still others seem disinterested.

Simran witnessed her friend being hit by a car and looked in on her daily.
In the background, Rosie, Simran’s friend.

The first glimpse of Old Lady I got was a photo taken a few days after her misfortune with the car. I was struck by how young she looked and felt puzzled by her name that seemed in such contrast to what I saw in this picture. When I mentioned it to Gouri she said that under their love and care Old Lady’s appearance had transformed dramatically. She likened it to what she has observed can happen to elderly people as their body’s capacities diminish they feel depressed and alone, feeling so fragile, looking after themselves can become a struggle. Then, when they receive loving attention and assistance, they rally. Suddenly they don’t look like they are at death’s doorstep anymore, the tiredness in their eyes vanishes and their spirit sparkles through them once more.

Old Lady feeling loved and cared for.
Photo by NatureCommunion
Old Lady enjoying a sunbath while her carers clean her makeshift shelter.
Sunlight increases happiness, boosts the immune system and destroys harmful bacteria amongst other benefits.

Gouri wanted to get a better idea of the extent of the damage caused by the accident to see if Old Lady would benefit from any additional support. The carers didn’t want to risk moving a dog with a spinal injury to get an x-ray at a vet clinic so as to not potentially cause more trauma. Unfortunately, none of the vets had a portable machine. However, Madhavi’s mother-in-law had required x-raying at home, so that same technician was organised to come to Old Lady. It was discovered that her spine was broken in the middle of her back. Even though they had exercised the dog’s legs gently every day and helped her switch position to keep the circulation and body functions going and to avoid bedsores, it was decided to bring in a physiotherapist to optimise her care.

Making all the difference for Old Lady.
Vrushali, Gouri and Madhavi in this pic with strays Simran and Rosie
Photo by NatureCommunion

Before this could be organised, however, Old Lady indicated that her time had come. This was not a surprise to Gouri but the other two women struggled to understand how such a quick change for the worst was possible when she had been so well. As would be done for people, Old Lady received a smudge of sacred ash on her forehead to invite divine blessings for getting better or having a peaceful death, whatever the case may be. Holy water from the river Ganges was gently sprinkled on her too.

Old Lady was deteriorating in the course of twenty hours. She lost her bladder function and the vet was called to express it for her. That afternoon Gouri sat with Old Lady for a long time, envisioning the dying body surrounded by light, and simply offering the comfort of her presence and prayers for an easy transition. Some beings prefer the solace of their loved ones in their final moments, others choose to go alone. Gouri had a strong sense that Old Lady would fall in the latter category. And so it was. The beloved street dog died while no one was with her.

Gouri had taken the day off work but there was one commitment she had to honour that would take her away from Old Lady for three hours. On her way to the office, as she was waiting at a red light, something unusual happened. A pack of street dogs approached her, circling around and sniffing her and she knew that what had attracted them was the feeling she carried in her heart. They were not looking for any interaction but just wanted to be close to someone who has so much love for their kind.

Something else curious happened that afternoon when Gouri was at the office. Suddenly she had Old Lady’s scent in her nose, not in a subtle but rather strong and unmistakable way. Reconstructing the time of her death later, judging by the rigor mortis that was present when she returned to Old Lady, it seems this olfactory phenomenon coincided with her departure.

Science can’t quite explain yet why some people can hear, see, feel or smell the deceased and calls it bereavement hallucination yet at least acknowledges it as a helpful experience. Studies have shown that those who talk to their lost loved one are more likely to cope better with their grief. Whether one’s sanity gets questioned in this regard depends a lot on the culture you live in. In traditions where your ancestors and the dead in general are an integral part of your life, these occurrences are considered nothing out of the ordinary.

Every morning Old Lady was gently lifted to the ground, her camp cleaned and bedding changed. When Gouri returned after work to a dead Old Lady, she noticed no sign of struggle and knew her leaving had been peaceful as she was still lying in the exact same spot she had rested in several hours earlier. Gouri sat with her dead friend’s body which she adorned with flowers. Then it was time to tackle the next task – to get permission to bury Old Lady. But it wasn’t meant to be and so it was arranged that the municipality service that incinerates deceased street dogs came to collect her remains.

After Old Lady’s death, Simran’s behaviour returned to her usual self, she is asking for belly rubs again.
In the photo: Gouri Keskar, Simran, Dr Vaishali (the ophthalmologist who provided a place of refuge for Old Lady)
Photo by NatureCommunion

Reflecting on the entire experience, Gouri has a sense that the last ten days of Old Lady’s life were about “getting her quota of love and to rest deeply in the feeling of real love which freed her forever.” Gouri said she often used to wonder who would care for Old Lady because she looked so tired and knows it was an act of grace that orchestrated things unfolding the way they did – providing the perfect shelter in her neighbourhood and inspiring the two other women to help. “She really had a royal death,” says Gouri. Immediately after Old Lady’s passing, Gouri felt free and at the same time empty. The blessed unraveling of the final days of this stray filled her with a deep happiness and there was a sense of fulfilment in her heart. On the third day after Old Lady’s death, Gouri started to profoundly feel the loss of the dog’s presence in the familiar spots she used to hang out and take her naps, missing the peculiar way she propellered her tail instead of wagging it from side to side, her sweet floppy ears and looking into her soulful eyes.

Returning to The Star Thrower story at the beginning of this article, one can understand it in the context of the millions of street dogs, to look at what difference can be made individually rather than being stumped and paralysed by the sheer number of them. For me, it also applies to the billions of animals being euthanised as a standard practice for their end of life and that – where appropriate and possible – a real difference can be made by offering hospice care and so allowing the natural dying process to unfold in its own time. The difference benefits both, the dying and their carers.

When dying is considered beyond being a strictly physical event and a being is perceived in its entirety, it’s a deeper and usually more peaceful experience for everyone present. Life can pose many threats and uncertainties but – like spiritual teacher Ram Dass said – “Death is perfectly safe.”

It is common among people who love animals to want to help them and prevent suffering. Often it goes so far, that euthanasia is chosen as a preventative measure against future suffering. A life is quickly declared unworthy of continuing if there is no known cure for a condition, especially if that animal has already lived a long life. What level of interference is justified – for a pet, a stray, a wild animal? When does the interferer’s sense of responsibility become over developed? “The act of euthanasia can provide an opportunity for the avoidance of suffering and ironically becomes an easily purchased way out of the burden of responsibility that we were previously so eager to assume,” writes veterinarian Dr Saranyu Pearson. Hospice care offers an opportunity to let go of this over-responsibility in a responsible way – offering companionship, comfort care and being a witness to a normal process that one day awaits all of us. What if we would replace our fear and unease about dying with curiosity and love, acting in service of another being?

It would behoove us – and consequently benefit our loved ones – to ask ourselves, “Is my desire to help just a disguise for helping myself avoiding what scares me?” It can be an uncomfortable question. Sometimes it might be easier to become defensive about our planned or past chosen actions so we can bypass this difficult query. I am not against euthanasia. I am for raising awareness, expanding our comfort zone and deepening our understanding on the topic of dying.

When researching for this article, I realised what a great divide there is in India regarding street dogs. On the one hand, there are the dedicated animal lover volunteers who help look after the stray’s well-being. On the other hand, there are those who hate them and consider strays unclean. Rabies is wide-spread and there is a fear of being bitten. And then there is also the distinction between desired foreign breed dogs versus the unwanted street mutts or descendants of Indian breeds. Consider this statistic from the Seva Stray website, “If just three out of one hundred people adopted a dog, there wouldn’t be any stray street dogs left in India.” That’s not many Star Throwers at all!

As a side note, I was curious if dogs feature at all among the deities of the rich Hindu pantheon and if so, in what way. Cultural and religious beliefs influence people’s attitudes and so shape their behaviours. When I asked Gouri about it I learned of the widely venerated Lord Dattatreya. He is said to have been a Rishi (sage) without a teacher who self-educated by observing nature, learning from the elements as well as animals. There are a myriad of different depictions of him, but they all feature a cow (representing mother earth) and four dogs (representing the Vedas – holy scriptures). It was interesting to note the similarity to St. Francis of Assisi when I came across this sentence on Wikipedia, “Dattatreya is stated […] to having renounced the world and leaving his home at an early age to lead a monastic life.” In connection to Dattatreya I also read that there is the belief that adopting a dog can pave one’s way to heaven. Be that as it may though we never really know what the future holds, however, we can create our own heaven on earth now by adopting a stray or rescue dog.

Lord Dattatreya
Image via bhagwanphoto.com

I would like to thank Gouri for sharing Old Lady’s story with me in an interview and providing most photos for this article. I have never been to India but Gouri’s words transported me there in my mind and I hope I am doing this extraordinary story justice in the way I have retold it here. To finish, let me tell you briefly about Gouri.

Gouri Keskar, founder of Nature Communion, is a professional Animal Communicator, Counsellor and Educator. She provides remote consultations for animal communication and counselling and is also available to consult for designing educational programs, care of newborn animals and animal hospice care. Her philanthropic endeavours include enrichment of captive wild animals and assistance with hospice care of strays. She is currently studying the Trust Technique to advance her skills for helping stray animals in distress. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram. To contact her, send an email to naturecommunion@gmail.com

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world.
For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

Margaret Mead
In the photo: Vrushali, Madhavi and Gouri with Simran and Rosie
Photo by NatureCommunion

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