The Price of Love

People often ask me what the hardest part of my job is and are surprised that I do not say dealing with death. (The hardest part is having to say no to animals in need of placement when we lack the capacity to accept them.) As a place that rescues and takes in abused, neglected, or otherwise compromised farm animals, we see a lot of death.

Making decisions regarding end of life is one of the most important things we do … and we don’t take it lightly. The decision is about the quality of life, the release from pain, the end of suffering for creatures we love. Our own feelings of pain and loss can never be a factor in the decision.

Don’t get me wrong: it tears me to ribbons every time. Yet these decisions are the price, and the responsibility, of love. The privilege of being a part of their lives is worth the pain of inevitable and eventual loss. Animals live in the present: to “do them right” you must be in it with them, right to the end. We would be terrible cowards to turn away when they need us most. Don’t waiver. Don’t look away. Just love them.

It is always hard, even if it’s the right time, but some are harder than others. Losing someone who should have had much more time is the worst. Someone like Helen.

HelenHelen was nine years old. She came to CAS as a calf, blind and frightened. She soon bonded with a young steer named Rudy, and with us humans. Never a shrinking violet, Helen was vivacious and smart. She was the one to test and break the fences when the mood would strike her. She was always ready for a snack or a snuggle.

For nearly a decade, Helen thrived with her disability, showing no signs of distress until this past summer when our wonderful vet surmised that the pressure behind her eyes was building up and causing pain, and that it would be best to remove them. We had used this procedure with three blind horses in the past with great success. So we made plans to take her to Cornell for the surgery. Cajoling her with treats and a little nudging, staff member Alex and I began the over four-hour drive.

Alex and Helen
Alex and Helen

When we arrived Helen strolled out and we directed her (using treats, sweet words, lots of leaning) into a deeply bedded stall. I gave the vets her history as I introduced them to our beautiful friend, reminding them she was “a 1,000 pound cocker spaniel” and a beloved friend to staff and volunteers at Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

The following day’s surgery went very well and the whole sanctuary breathed a collective sigh of relief. The following day, however, I received a message to call Cornell as soon as possible. Helen had slipped and fallen as she tried to get up while coming out of anesthesia. She tore ligaments and cartilage in one of her back legs. Corrective surgery was not a possibility. Our beloved friend would have to be euthanized. Oh, the irony.

I felt as if a huge weight was pressing on my chest as I told them that Alex and I were once again on our way to be with her. It was a long, heart-wrenching ride. When we arrived, Helen was lying down in her stall, bandaged but not in distress. I softly called her name; she turned to me and lowed a soft response. I knelt down and stroked and talked to her. When Alex came in, she turned to the sound of his voice and nuzzled him as well.

I sat cross-legged with her head in my lap as the vet administered the drugs to end her life. I stroked her and talked to her, saying over and over again, “I love you, it’s going to be ok, baby girl,” until she slowly slipped away and laid her head back and I whispered, “It was my honor to know you.”

How privileged we were to have been a part of this dear animal’s life … and how privileged Alex and I were to have eased her death. My face and the front of my vest were soaked with tears and my chest felt like it would explode. It was a long ride home. Yet as much as it hurt, I would not have missed it for the world. These gut-wrenching goodbyes are, after all, the price of love.



Herd Around The Barn, Love Spoken Here, Rescues, Saying Goodbye


18 replies on “The Price of Love”

  1. Oh Keefe. This kills me. Your beautiful words and compassion reached right out and grabbed my heart. I shed tears for her sweet life at CAS and for you and Alex to love her right up to the end. Helen will be missed. I’m so thankful she knew the love that so many other cows are denied.

  2. My deepest sympathy to everyone involved with Helen. May she Rest In Peace. You know you have done the right thing for her.

    Your comment: (The hardest part is having to say no to animals in need of placement when we lack the capacity to accept them.) is striking. There is no room in so many rescues and sanctuaries for the needy. I have to ask: Why do you want to put 220 NYC carriage horses out of work, when they have jobs that pay their way in Life? Surely, working for a living is not a bad thing. Most of us do it. Why do you want to throw these horses out of work and into the Unwanted Horse Pool? No jobs mean their current owners have no money to keep them. The list of Equine Professionals that support the NYC carriage horses is extensive. Please join them.

  3. You got me good…just how dear Helen got you….so sad…can’t wait to rub tummies and snuggle those animals in May

  4. i am so sorry to read about the passing of Helen. Please accept my deepest sympathy. I know you all love your babies and take very good care of them. I was very impressed when I visited you last summer. I especially love cows and this made me very sad.

  5. I came to the sancuary 2 summers ago, and i met Helen. All the animals there are well taken care of and loved. You all do wonderful things for these animals. RIP Helen, you will be missed.

  6. I am crying as I write this. The irony of Helen’s surgery going well and then the slip and fall and the damage that could not be fixed — and your difficult but inevitable decision to end Helen’s life — all resonated with me. I too have had to make the decision to end an animal’s life (several beloved cats) and it has torn me to ribbons, as well. Being with them at the end seems so hard in thought, but when you do it and are present to comfort them and witness their passing, you know it’s what needs to happen. I will continue to have pets, and will continue to have to make this decision on their behalf. It’s a difficult responsibility, and a decision I’ve never felt good about making, although I’ve know it had to be done, but one that is, as you said, the price and responsibility of love. I still believe experiencing their love is well worth the pain one feels at the end of their lives.

  7. I am very saddened about this. Why couldn’t she operated? Also, there are quite a few cows with prosthetics. Couldn’t that have been an option? The feeling I get by reading your post is that this was a hasty decision, even though I am pretty sure it wasn’t. I know how much you care. Just asking. Rip beautiful Helen

  8. Oh… How that brought back memories of early October, as I sobbed with my horse’s head in my lap while she was euthanized.

    She was rescued off the track and part of my family for 23 years and her only daughter watched and neighed from a short distance.

    It was hard, but necessary. Up until the day before I wasn’t sure that we couldn’t do more, but then she went into total organ failure.

    I always show the other animals, the body– let them understand and say their own goodbyes. Of course, you could not do so but you certainly went above and beyond as sweet Helen died.


  9. thank you for what you do!! I’m a retired nurse with the bulk of my career in Hospice. Many would ask me “Why do you do Hospice?” It is a huge honor to stand or sit on that holy ground of ‘transition’!! Bless you!!

  10. I’m so sorry. Very sad but you gave her a good life. PLEASE keep doing the wonderful work that you do.
    Thanks for sharing. I’m crying with you…

  11. My heart reaches out to all of you at CAS. Kathy, I am glad that you and Alex were there with Helen. I would have done the same thing. It is never an easy decision to make. Take comfort in knowing that you made her passing easier.

  12. I am so terribly saddened by your news. Ugh, it is the worst part of loving an animal..the loss of that animal. I know your heart is breaking but you gave her the best life and I know she loved you with all her heart as well.

  13. tears, lots of them reading this story. can’t wait to visit and meet you all. hopefully this summer.

  14. This is truly heartbreaking, I am still crying even after I wiped the tears away. Helen lived a beautiful life with love and care. She was so lucky. Your sanctuary is truly heaven for those who never knew it existed..

  15. I saw Helen’s story on Vet School. I was truly moved. The next day I threw away all the meat in my refrigerator and have not eaten meat since (about 2 months). Thanks for taking care of these animals and please know you are making a difference.

    1. That is the most beautiful tribute to Helen’s memory there can be. Thank you so much.

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