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Next Stop, Animal Heaven

The Argus Center's Vickie Jameson talks with Doug Danger about his sick dog.
Anthony Camera

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.

To that end, the Argus Center and Changes have produced a plethora of articles, essays and advice. Much of it is virtually identical to material intended for those who've lost a human loved one: Packets describe various manifestations of grief (physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual) to help mourners understand what they're feeling and offer guidelines for recovery that take people through six distinct phases: initial awareness, coping, saying good-bye, painful awareness of loss, recovering from loss, and personal growth through grief. But there are also some important differences in approach when it comes to the animal kingdom. A list of "factors that can complicate grief" includes "societal norms that trivialize and negate the loss," "insensitive comments from others about the loss," "little or no support from friends or family" and other items that reflect the feeling among many thick-skinned types that people whose dogs or cats perish shouldn't take it that hard. The Argus Center has also developed ClayPaws, a suitable-for-baking clay disc that allows individuals to make permanent paw prints as a "special memento"; one is given to each family whose small animal dies at the hospital.

The center's most surprising aspect, though, relates to euthanasia, a procedure forbidden for the majority of Homo sapiens sufferers but broadly accepted by the veterinary community and the public at large when applied to animals. The folks at Changes, whose six-person staff is expected to double after the new wing opens, not only allow people to be on hand when their pets are euthanized, but they actively encourage it. "We really advocate it," says Changes counselor Greg Couger. "If we have a bias, it's toward client-present euthanasia." That may help explain why an estimated 85 percent of people with dying pets at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital ultimately pick this option.

For some, the thought of witnessing a euthanasia procedure may conjure up images of executions: Dead Dog Walking, if you will. But Butler believes impressions like these are the very reason people should strongly consider sticking around. "Kids, especially, will imagine things," she notes, "and what they imagine will usually be much worse than what really happens." Children as young as eighteen months have watched their pets breathe their last at the hospital, yet Butler says she's never had anyone, young or old, express regret for having decided to remain -- "but I have had people who've chosen not to be present tell me later that they wish they had been."

Because the Changes counselors want to lessen the possibility of trauma for all concerned, they have developed a euthanasia technique that emphasizes peacefulness over pain: Lagoni calls it "a ceremony that creates a supportive environment for grief." First off, there are the comfort rooms, including a specifically designed stall for large animals such as horses. (The latter space is outfitted with a hammock-like device that the animal is positioned over prior to receiving his lethal injection. When the drug hits his system, he doesn't topple onto the ground but gently slumps into the sling.) In addition, catheters are inserted into animals before clients arrive, thereby preventing loved ones from seeing an animal react adversely to the search for a suitable vein.

The catheter helps guarantee that what Butler terms "a really nice, gentle mix of drugs" gets into the animal's bloodstream quickly; most euthanasias are over in thirty to sixty seconds. Butler can recall only one incident in over a decade when things went much longer: A dog's circulatory system was in such bad shape that it took around fifteen minutes to die. Fortunately, the dog's owner took this turn of events in stride. "We said, 'This is so unusual,'" Butler remembers, "but she just told us, 'That's my dog. She never fit the mold.'"

On most occasions, people will huddle around the dying pet on a floor pad as the injection takes effect; the animal itself is placed on or near a towel, since it will generally urinate or defecate as its muscles loosen. ("We'll just tell them, 'Your pet made a poop or a pee,' and then clean it up," Butler says.) Afterward, clients are allowed to stay with the animal for as long as they wish. Most linger for fifteen or twenty minutes, but some have remained for hours.

The inherent drama in scenarios like these caught the attention of producers at the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, which featured Changes in a November 1997 broadcast. The report, by correspondent Bob Brown, sported at least one significant error -- it stated that 70 percent of the country's veterinary teaching hospitals had similar operations, when that was true of only three or four -- and a key omission: Brown focused on the impending death of Toby, Laurel Lagoni's dog, without ever mentioning that Lagoni was instrumental in starting Changes and the Argus Center. But the segment was undeniably effective, spotlighting Lagoni, her husband, Pete, and their two young daughters as they dealt with their grief, ultimately assisted by Sam, their new puppy. 20/20 host Barbara Walters was so moved by the piece that upon its conclusion, she shared with cohort Hugh Downs the heartache she'd felt after her own dog of seventeen years departed from this mortal coil.

Ever since, Lagoni and Butler, who also appeared in the broadcast, have become in-demand speakers at colleges and conferences all over the country. They hope the new, improved Argus Center will become a nationwide nexus for human-animal grief education, therefore allowing them to reach even more veterinarians. "A lot of other schools can't afford these kinds of programs," Lagoni says. "That's why we'd like to become a resource for them, providing research and mentoring as well as being here to serve clients from everywhere, no matter what state they live in."

In the meantime, the Changes squad continues to preach that there isn't just one right way to react when an animal is nearing the end of the leash. Not so long ago, Butler says, a woman drove her llama from her southern Colorado home to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for treatment. When doctors told her that the creature's condition was terminal, she concluded that euthanasia was in order, but she didn't want it carried out unless a second llama that had been raised with the ailing animal could be there for the final act. Because the American Veterinary Medical Association has regulations against euthanizing an animal in the presence of another (a rule put in place to prevent abuse in laboratory settings), counselors hesitated briefly. But, Butler allows, "we want people to guide the process as long as their requests are reasonable and will provide a positive grief outcome." Thus, the woman drove back to southern Colorado, loaded up her other llama and returned in order to allow her two beloved beasts to nuzzle each other one last time.

"Animals are going to die," Butler says matter of factly. "And we feel it's an important part of what we do to help them die in a meaningful way."


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