The Worth of a Life

Happy dog Ellie

A walk in the almost-spring air launched my day. Recent sunny days have banished the snowy vestiges, and Ellie and I enjoyed our separate but simultaneous walks: me with my eyes to the trees; she with her nose to the grass. We breakfasted on our return, and while Ellie settled in for a post-breakfast snooze, I opened the news. The clouds wafted in.

Two stories, each with its own kind of sadness, melded around a single concept that needn’t be sad at all. What is the worth of a life? How you answer this question is a choice. You can change the answer.

A dramatic tale

The first story, courtesy of BBC Vietnam, forms a classic story arc. We’re introduced to the protagonists, a couple who travel on motorcycle with their 12 dogs on a 173-mile journey to flee rising Covid infections. They post pictures of themselves with their dogs during the journey, and became ‘internet sensations.’

When they arrive at their destination, the couple are diagnosed with Covid. While they receive care, they’re separated from their dogs (who are incredibly adorable). They leave their dogs in a quarantine center. Authorities kill the dogs without the couple’s consent, ostensibly for public safety reasons.

Once the story is documented on TikTok, the resulting outrage sparks dissent in Vietnam over the treatment of animals. The couple use donated funds to pay medical expenses and rescue 15 puppies, some of whom were destined for the meat market.

“Some of them looked so bad as they were locked up for their meat, so I bought them and raised them.”

Pham Minh Hung

Whether or not you’re a dog lover, you’re likely to be horrified by normalizing the sale of dogs for meat. Even more confusing is the cognitive dissonance required to view dogs simultaneously as impure (carriers of pestilence) and also as a food source.

However difficult to understand, these views shouldn’t be over-generalized to an entire nation or culture. The importance of this story may not be the incomprehensible de-valuation of dogs, but rather the challenges to these so-called cultural norms. People in Vietnam castigated the authorities for their actions, resulting in the country now reconsidering its health safety guidelines. Mr. Pham and his wife, Ms. Nguyen, opened their home and hearts to rescue dogs, whom they consider their ‘children’. Here’s the heart-healing end of the story:

“I love them so much. Raising 15 children is expensive, but I also get help from good people,” Mr Pham said.

Who deserves an obituary?

Alexandra Horowitz, author, researcher and founder of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, penned a lovely final tribute to her dog, Finnegan. The New York Times published her piece as a ‘Guest Essay’ rather than an obituary, which is the overarching theme in Horowitz’s essay: how do we decide who deserves an obituary?

“If it is exemplariness or accomplishment that qualifies one for an obit, it is clear that any species that is well enough observed will reveal extraordinary feats among its members — from elephants, whose behavior indicates that they grieve dead relatives, to a laboratory rat who elects to free a trapped fellow rat rather than eat a treat to dogs, whose daily presence elevates the lives of the people whose company they keep.”

Alexandra Horowitz

Although most obituaries follow an established template identifying signature achievements, surviving relatives, and guidance on funeral arrangements, the best of them are eulogies that celebrate a rich life with nuance and affection.

I have written and delivered two eulogies in my life, experiences that helped me understand the importance of having noted another life closely. When writing eulogies for my parents, I sifted out those memories that were about me, leaving those times when I was able to observe the unique personalities and abilities of my parents, unencumbered by my needs as their child.

To eulogize a non-human animal, as Horowitz has in this essay and as did Frans de Waal in his book Mama’s Last Hug, the writer must have observed the subject well in order to communicate to others what was extraordinary in this individual.

Horowitz notes that some people are disgusted by the thought of mingling obituaries of non-human animals with humans. This disgust signifies a perceived threat to one’s own sense of place in the world.

“A more emotionally miserly motive, less often stated, might explain animals’ exclusion from Obituary pages. It is the feeling of the need to emphasize the importance of human life over those of other animals — sometimes expressed by ridiculing the very idea of an obituary for something like an animal kept as a pet.”

Alexandra Horowitz

Are we less or more when we recognize and celebrate the significance of the emotional and practical impacts that other animals have on our lives? Horowitz answers this in her final paragraph:

“By being a dog, Finnegan showed me the richness of the world that I had overlooked, and I am forever changed. In life, animals are rarely treated with the respect due these fellow travelers on earth; when they die, we have one last chance to do so.”

Alexandra Horowitz
Friends; dog and companion

Why it matters

The news today also informed us that a new variant of Omicron, BA.2, is showing up in the US as the country starts relaxing health protocols.

We’ve known for millennia that dogs offer humans companionship, love, and well-being in exchange for relatively little in return. We now know that their superior sense of smell could help us identify disease early enough to enable us to save millions of lives, and they’d do it happily.

Who’s better than whom?

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