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Carolyn Butler, co-founder of the Argus Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, tells the story of a Denver family -- a mom, a dad and two sons, ages nine and ten -- whose golden retriever died while in the critical-care unit of CSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital before the boys had a chance to bid him farewell. When the youngsters asked if they could return to the hospital to do so, however, their parents balked, fearing that the sight of their adored pet's cadaver would compound the trauma caused by the death. Making the situation worse from their perspective, the dog had already been placed in the facility's "cold room" -- essentially, its morgue. To put it bluntly, there was every possibility he was frozen stiff.
Yet Butler, who mingles the empathy of a born nurturer with an almost evangelical zeal, didn't let this prospect alter her judgment. As one of the professionals on the leading edge of grief counseling for animal lovers via her involvement in Changes: The Support for People and Pets Program, a crucial component of the Argus Center, she believes that children who suffer a loss often understand instinctively how best to handle their own sadness. So she encouraged the parents to grant this request -- "It sounds like the kids know what they need," she told them -- and following a bit of soul-searching, they did.
After learning when the family was due to arrive, Butler had CSU veterinary students remove the dog's body from where it was being stored and place it in a "comfort room" specifically designed to put clients at ease; it includes padded benches, plants, soothing artwork, even a CD player where relaxing music can be played. The students placed the dog on a soft fleece blanket draped over a table and brushed out his fur to make him presentable. Then, to prevent any untoward shocks, Butler had the family first view the dog through a two-way mirror normally used by student observers before ushering them inside. Some quiet time later, the boys emerged to say that the dog's chilly temperature didn't disturb them ("He feels just like he does when he comes in from playing in the snow"), and added that they were pleased to see that he was surrounded by so many caring nurses and doctors. Their parents were amazed by this reaction, Butler says. According to her, "The kids really taught them the importance of saying goodbye."
The folks at the Argus Center witness a lot of sendoffs like this one. Because of the excellent reputation enjoyed by both the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and its widely respected Animal Cancer Center, a great many pets in desperate shape are brought to CSU -- and despite staffers' most vigorous efforts, not all of them can be saved. The result, believes Laurel Lagoni, who founded the Argus Center with Butler, is a lot of upset animal guardians (to use Boulder's preferred language) who can sometimes feel guilty about the intensity of their reactions.
"When we first started, there was the sense that people who got overly emotional after a pet loss were a little bit wacky," says Lagoni. "That's sometimes still the case today, too. But over the years we've been able to show that these are normal people with normal feelings -- and that it's important to feel that way."
If the donations flowing into the Argus Center are any indication, a sizable chunk of the populace agrees. The Veterinary Teaching Hospital is in the midst of a $10 million fund drive to finance a new wing intended to house the Animal Cancer Center, the Argus Center and Changes, and at present, more than $8 million has already been raised. Thanks for this success are owed in part to celebrities whose likenesses have been used to promote the "Paws for a Cause" campaign, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, dog photographer William Wegman, whose most famous model, a deadpan weimaraner named Fay Ray, died of leukemia in 1995, and Bart the Bear, a grizzly that appeared in movies such as The Edge, Legends of the Fall and Clan of the Cave Bear. (Despite being successfully treated for a malignant tumor at the Animal Cancer Center last year, Bart recently died at age 22.)
The new hospital wing is set to be in place next year, and when it's completed, the Argus Center will become the country's undisputed headquarters for the teaching and promotion of what Butler and Lagoni call "the human-animal bond" in sickness, in health, and in death.
The aforementioned phrase became part of the veterinary profession's lexicon in 1994, when Butler, Lagoni and Suzanne Hetts, a co-founder of Changes and consultant to the Argus Center who's now affiliated with Littleton's Animal Behavior Associates, penned The Human-Animal Bond and Grief, the first textbook to directly address the sense of loss felt by people whose animals have expired. But the tome's pedigree can be traced back to 1985, when Dr. Steve Withrow, chief of oncology at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, realized that many students and vets who frequently interacted with anguished people had little or no idea how best to conduct themselves in such situations. He subsequently asked for help from members of a family therapy training program at CSU; Lagoni, Hetts and several others volunteered to help. Soon thereafter, the service was formalized and Changes was born; it was among the first undertakings of its type in the U.S. (New York's Animal Medical Center first plowed the field three years earlier). In 1992, Lagoni and Butler, who'd joined Changes in 1989, took things a step further by creating the Argus Center, which offers a standardized curriculum that, among other things, trains students how best to handle those times when the Grim Reaper comes knocking at the pet door.