This past week, reading Jessica Pierce’s new book The Last Walk, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to one particular, much-used simile. Pierce is a bioethicist by trade and training, and she wrote The Last Walk after completing a science textbook with a focus on end-of-life care. As she worked on the textbook, her pet dog, Ody, was in the end stages of his own life, and Pierce found herself in search of a more literary way to write about her personal experience with Ody while also advancing her analytical convictions about humans’ ethical obligations toward elderly domesticated animals. The resulting book is one part scholarship and one part personal diary, a compelling and convincing argument for compassion that has much to say about both animal behavior and human language.
We live in an age in which wild animals live shorter and shorter lives due to environmental degradation, while large volumes of domesticated animals see their lives prematurely terminated due to shelter killings. (Pierce gives some arresting examples of activism attempting to counter this trend, including the story of a Florida shelter manager who killed a puppy on live television in the hopes of guilting the public into adopting more dogs.) Early on in the book, Pierce calls attention to the common phrase “die like an animal,” used to evoke a death “that is beneath dignity.” The regular use of “like an animal” similes in personal and journalistic accounts of strife does indeed suggest a national consensus that we treat animals with cruelty and disdain. In this week’s news alone,
1. A teenager protests the conduct of police during a traffic stop: “We were treated like animals.”
2. Trayvon Martin’s mother recounts the events leading to her son’s death: “I believe that George Zimmerman hunted my son like an animal.”
3. The family of a hit-and-run victim condemns the driver: “[S]he ran from the scene and left [him] there like an animal.”
Pierce finds the prevalence of this simile troubling. “It would be nice,” she writes, “to live in a world where ‘dying like an animal’ signified a peaceful, respectful, and meaningful death.” In the chapter “Into the Open,” she undertakes a search for an understanding of how animals conceive of death, as well as how humans conceive of animal awareness of death, pulling in Rilke, Yeats, and Mark Doty along the way. These heavy hitters aside, though, it is Pierce whose creative writing most drives the argument of the book, as she documents each week of her dog’s decline, the complexities of her role as caregiver to him, and the process of deciding how and when his life should be over. Her dog’s name, Ody, conjures Odysseus, and this combination of bioethics theory and soul-searching is, ultimately, nothing short of epic.