God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Q: We recently had to put our rabbit of 10 years to sleep. This rabbit was a huge part of our family. We bought it for our kids when they were young and it was our pet instead of a dog. He was wonderful. Always cuddling with us, playing, he was a joy to have.

He was having health issues and we had to bring him to an animal hospital in which we were given the choice to put him to sleep or have him live a life of being an ICU bunny, fed by a syringe, doctor visits every six months, etc. Of course, if we had $10,000 I’m sure we could have kept him alive. What I am struggling with is who are we to make this choice? Isn’t that God’s doing? I also struggle with this about keeping human beings alive. Please enlighten.

— D, via email

A: I know some of my readers are going to check out on a question about the fate of a sick bunny, but I am on your side. The emotional life of people with pets seems to me to be much richer than those who have decided only to care for themselves and their families.

Pets offer unconditional love and require constant and loving care. This is a powerful spiritual bargain and it does not matter what animal people choose as their pet. OK, I draw the line at wild animals with long teeth, and I have not yet seen a lot of evidence of unconditional love from snakes and fish but, that aside, I am an unconditional animal lover. I was trained to be this way by my grandfather, Leo Gellman, who was a zookeeper at the Milwaukee zoo. I even tried to buy a koala for my wife, Betty, as an engagement present (no luck, immigration laws).

We raised guide dogs for the blind and now, where I live in California, we are not only caring for our grandchildren, Zeke and Daisy, but also for our grand-dog, Rocky. I will even admit that once, to help an emotionally challenged child who loved his dog, I actually performed a “Bark Mitzvah” on the pet.

So those are my pet credentials, and I tell you that even if you had the money, treating your sick bunny would have been the wrong thing to do. The reason is that your bunny was not just sick. Your bunny was dying, and the only thing veterinary medicine could offer you was not healing, but merely postponing death and increasing suffering. If you think this is different from the ethical issues at the end of human life, it is not. Medicine is meant to heal and at a certain time healing is no longer possible.

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When that time is reached, for bunnies or for people, the proper spiritual response is to let go. Refusing to let go is actually preventing God’s will from becoming real. Treating without any therapeutic hope is not medicine, it is torture. Do not feel like your economic situation is the cause of your dear pet’s death. It is death that has arrived at your doorstep and it is death that must sorrowfully be let in.

Here is a part of one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems called “In Blackwater Woods”:

“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones; knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

She also has this quote: “When will you have a little pity for every soft thing that walks through the world, yourself included?”