Stuart Reid: Has Harry gone for ever?

Harry was given to despondency

We had Harry put down last month, and I still feel like a murderer. The guilt is not so much Catholic, I suppose, as Buddhist. Whatever the case, Harry haunts me. I am woken by his bark. I hear him cough. I think I hear him being sick in the kitchen.

A few days after he had been destroyed, a receptionist from the vet’s rang and said: “Harry is back with us.” I wobbled for the tiniest moment and then understood. The receptionist meant that Harry’s ashes were ready to be picked up.

The ashes now sit on the kitchen dresser in a cardboard box that has just a hint of Fortnum and Mason about it. They are not Harry, however. He is not back with us. So where is he? There is no doctrine on this, but in the view of most sane and orthodox Catholics, Harry is nowhere because he is nothing.

Very well. I see the force of the argument. But allow me to say that when Harry was something rather than nothing, he really was something – a liver-and-white English Springer Spaniel, with freckles, shortish legs and a rather long body and, as a former Guards officer told me, a “good head”. We got him from Battersea Dogs Home on the feast of the Holy Innocents in 2009. He was about eight and had been found in Bexleyheath, starving and dirty and frightened. Battersea had got in touch with his owners – Harry was chipped – but they said they wanted nothing to do with him.

For much of his life with us, he was a happy and fairly bouncy dog, but also very neurotic and given occasionally to despondency and reproachful stares. Maybe he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He didn’t do kisses and cuddles, at least not with me. When I offered him the back of my hand to lick, he would turn away abruptly, like a baby refusing another spoonful of organic glop.

Over the past year, however, he had lost much of his bounce. At the end he could scarcely walk. He had arthritis and a kidney infection, and possibly lupus. It was heartbreaking to hear him try to climb the stairs, but he liked to have a go, panting and pausing and crashing about and scrabbling and sometimes falling backwards.

His last ride in the car was emotionally exhausting. We had to sling two towels under his belly to lift him on to the back seat. I sat next to him. After a few minutes he slipped off the seat and could not get back up, and I could do nothing to help him. He spent the rest of the short journey stuck where he was, bright-eyed and panting, putting a brave face on what he must have feared was a trip to the vet’s. It was over in a few minutes.

My love for Harry was unconditional, but much as I’d love to see him again, I can’t believe in salvation for dogs, because, apart from anything else, dogs have no need for salvation. This mess isn’t their fault. I like to think, however, that dogs may have a place in eternity. What would the life of the world to come be like if there were no dogs – or horses or robins or cats, or strawberries or trees or clouds? If there are trees, there must be birds; and if there are squirrels, there must be dogs.

Enough of this. Love of animals is a good thing, but it can be taken too far, and some animal lovers clearly love animals much more than they love their fellow humans. I am thinking here not just of the animals rights terrorists but also of sedevacantist animal lovers, some of whom seem to take pleasant satisfaction in the thought that the vast majority of human beings are either pagans or apostates and are bound for hell (no pets there), and, while they are at it, insist that there hasn’t been a true pope since Pius XII (or, in the case of what you might call extremist sedes, Pius IX).

One fierce sedevacantist outfit in the United States has posted an essay of more than 7,000 words arguing that some animals (chiefly dogs and cats, it seems) do indeed go to heaven. It is a riveting read, with lots of examples of inspired intervention by animals in the lives of men. I especially liked this: “A farmer in Australia who suffered serious head injuries after being struck by a falling tree branch was rescued by a partially blind kangaroo.” (But shouldn’t that be “partially sighted”?) The two authors of the essay – self-described Benedictine monks – also tell of a dog they owned some years ago who became very ill in old age and had to be destroyed. The night before she made her last ride, she went into the monastery chapel and lay down before the Blessed Sacrament and slept. This was no coincidence, say these sedes, who apparently believe that she was preparing, or being prepared, to meet her Maker.

Word of warning: don’t go hunting for this site without first consulting your spiritual director or your psychotherapist. Better still: get a life.