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Setting the spirit free


By choosing the ideal resting place for a beautiful conure, this veterinarian lifted a burden of sadness from his veterinary clients' hearts.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a veterinarian is that in addition to helping furry and feathered pets, you also get to assist their owners. Whether you're comforting a little girl with a sick pony or an elderly person whose main companion is her cat, it's always rewarding to be there for your clients.

I've learned never to underestimate the bond between pet owners and their pets. So I guess it shouldn't have surprised me when I received a tremendous outpouring of response from the public for a newspaper column I wrote about having to say goodbye.

Almost every pet owner has mourned the death of a pet, which is probably why the column received such a sympathetic reaction. We had a number of phone calls, and a few readers even came into Fairview Pet Clinic just to compliment us on the article's message and share stories.

But I will never forget one older couple who came in because of the column. They were carrying a metal box with a Plexiglas front, and when they drew back the towel that covered it, I could see a beautifully colored conure, a small parrot, resting inside. She was lying against a folded towel, semiconscious and having tremors. The couple had been taking the lovely bird, Renee, to local veterinary clinics for months, but to no avail. They were understandably distressed—Renee had been part of their family for many years.

As I carefully removed the bird from the carrier, the couple told me how much she meant to them. They had lived with Renee for more than 15 years. They told me she may have kept their son from committing suicide and even saved their marriage. With a sinking heart I examined the wee patient only to find she was basically a bird skeleton covered with beautiful feathers. There was really no hope left. They were weeping as I told them what they already knew. As gently as I could, I explained it was time to free the little bird's spirit from a body that no longer functioned.

The couple said they had no idea what to do with Renee's body—they didn't want to bury her in the backyard because they were moving back east. My mind was whirling with thoughts of how to make them feel better about this sad situation.

Suddenly I had an inspiration. I explained to them that each week I go up to the beautiful Ojai Valley in Ojai, Calif., very early in the morning, to play a round of golf. The first tee at Soule Park Golf Course is in a wonderful setting looking down over the valley across a small body of water. "It's a very spiritual place," I told Renee's owners. "It would be the perfect spot to bury the little bird and set her spirit free."

The couple loved the idea, and almost immediately the depressing situation turned into a far more positive one. By the time they left the clinic they were smiling again, thinking of the little bird's spirit flying free in such a wonderful place. I could hear them thanking my receptionist profusely for the veterinary team's help in easing their pain.

The following morning I made a point of getting to the first tee before any one else. I had a garden trowel in one hand and Renee's body, wrapped in plastic, in the other. I quickly dug a tiny grave at the back of the tee under a huge oak tree. Then with two twigs I fashioned a small cross to lie on top. It was a beautiful sunny day so I took a photo of the grave and another photo of the view overlooking a small lake and lovely valley. I mailed the photos to Renee's owners.

In return, I received a heartfelt letter of thanks—something I will always keep. They explained how distressed they had been and how hard it was to come to my clinic. But the thought of freeing Renee's spirit in such a magical place had almost completely relieved their sorrow.

Now, whenever I hear someone say, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," I think of Renee's story. I also remember what an important role we as veterinarians play in our clients' lives. Experiencing and influencing the wonderful and mystical pet-owner bond is an honor not to be taken lightly. You may not be able to save every patient, but you can be there for every one of your clients.

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