Our Back Porch
In our time, it has become fashionable for people to tell other people what to do, and to punish or attack them for disagreeing or taking a different path. That's not my idea or approach. My greatest gift is that I can think for myself, and I respect the right of everyone else to do the same. I have no need to surround myself with people who agree with me, I learn much more from those who don't.
The animal world has become just as divisive as the political world broken into factions, politics, labeling, hectoring, judging, from the emotionalized rescue movement to embattled breeders to the Animal Rights movement and no kill shelters.
Somebody is always telling me what to do with my dogs, and I am always telling them to get lost. But they never do.
I believe getting a dog or any pet is a very personal and individual thing, I don't tell others how to do it, and I don't accept the intrusions and arrogance of people who try to tell me how to do it.
Animals all tend to think alike, people don't. We are all different. We live in different places, with different people of various moods and beliefs, our animals are unique. There is no one way to do anything, from getting a dog to putting one down to grieving.
But there's this Rainbow Bridge.
In recent years, the nature of animal grieving has changed radically. Animals, once at the periphery of our lives, are now at the center, we increasingly see them as versions of us. We can't bear to go on vacation without them, to go to work without them, to go shopping without them, and many people can no longer bear to part with them at the end of their lives.
Many people tell pollsters that their animals are just like children, and in their grief they have begun looking for ways to prolong their lives with pets, from denying death to keeping them alive through extraordinary and expensive medical procedures, to believing in growing numbers that they will see them again in the mystical afterlife.
Lots of people are getting rich telling pet lovers what they want to believe rather than what they may need to hear. In our world, we can all choose our bubbles and live in them.
Enter the Rainbow Bridge, one of the most popular and lucrative ideas in the realm of animal loss. I want to write today about why I'm staying on this side of that bridge. This has nothing to do with you, or your choices, it is about me and my choices. I don't require your agreement. It is just my belief, you are entitled to yours.
If you've lost a pet, or spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, you have probably heard of the " Bridge,"as it is now commonly called. The word has entered the vocabulary of animal loss, when a dog or cat dies, it is common now for someone to say they have "crossed the bridge."
The term has always made me uncomfortable, I really have no idea what it means. I think it means they died.
The Rainbow Bridge was inspired by the now famous poem of the same name of disputed origin, a poem that helped launch the pet bereavement movement and become a lucrative, multi-billion dollar industry all of its own. This is America, and no popular idea is left unexploited.
The Rainbow Bridge idea is has grown beyond imagination, simultaneously exploiting and comforting people who grieve for their pets, a "spiritual" cornerstone of the booming $69 billion dollar pet care industry. How wonderful to believe that you and your pets will be reunited at the end of life. And how profitable.
The original poem offers a Rainbow Bridge as a mythical overpass said to connect heaven and Earth, and is a place where bereaved pet owners go to reunite for eternity with their lost pets, who await them after their deaths.
Although the original author of the poem, first published in the early 80's is not known, three different authors have come forward to claim to have written it. And no wonder. One even holds a copyright for a variation of the poem.
The Rainbow Bridge is a bigger franchise than Star Wars now, pet lovers love their dogs more and more and emotionalize them in ever ascending and intensifying ways. We are so fragmented and disconnected from one another we need to turn out dogs and cats into ethereal and spiritual beings, come to guide us through eternity. Not too long ago, that was God's job, not border collies and Labradors.
There are Rainbow bridge books, magazines, videos, movies, audio tapes, CD's, mugs, shorts, lava bead bracelets, necklaces and caps, even bridge-themed urns.
According to the poem, once the dogs and cats get over the bridge, there is plenty of food, water and sunshine for them, they are warm and comfortable. All the animals who were ill become healthy and vigorous. Those who were hurt or injured are suddenly strong and active once more. The only thing missing for them are their beloved humans, who they had to leave behind.
All of the dogs owned by their humans play and run and sleep together, and they wait patiently and lovingly until the day comes when a certain human crosses the bridge and looks into the distance, as if looking for his or her pets. There is some recognition. As he or she sees his pets, he picks up speed and runs faster and faster. This can bring many dog lovers to tears, and does.
Suddenly this human recognizes what he is looking at and begins to run to the animals. They all squirm and leap for joy (more tears.) They all cling together again in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. They then cross the Rainbow Bridge once more, this time together, never to be separated again. For people and animals, no more aging, illness, disappointment or death.
The poem doesn't say so, but I presume the humans are also returned to youthful vigor and health, magically cured of the things that killed them, otherwise how could they keep up with all of their happy and healthy dancing dogs? There are now scores of books with Christian themed additions relating to Jesus Christ, heaven, special white angel cats and dogs, and a way to eliminate depression forever.
In these books, it is no less a figure than Christ who is supervising this new life, healing people and animals and giving them new and healthy life. These religious versions of the bridge story make millions of dollars each year.
How interesting that the well-being of the humans is never mentioned in the poem, only that of the pets.
I respect the beliefs and wishes of others, and I speak only for myself when I say I will not be crossing this bridge and hope my dogs never do. It is literally the last thing I want for them, or for me, for them to wait for me for years with one another and then to have them swarm over me for eternity asking to be petted, brought to sheep, run madly in circles and have countless balls and frisbees thrown for them.
How many will be able to sleep in my bed, if there are beds in heaven? And how many will I be able to pay attention to, I've had a lot of dogs?
If I ever do get to heaven, the last thing I want to see is a bunch of jacked-up border collies, crazed from years of having no work, and ball-chasing Labs waiting to pounce on me for all eternity, dropping rubber balls at me feet with no end, ever. And beyond that, and seriously, is this really what I want for my wonderful dogs?
Is my only wish for their wonderful gifts to me to be that they have no other purpose in the afterlife other than waiting for me and playing with me for as long as the universe lasts?
Why does that seem so profoundly selfish to me? When my wonderful dog Rose died, I prayed that she would cross over to the spirit and world and find a golden pasture with sheep stretching to the horizon, and spend her says herding and watching over and protecting them.
How much happier that would make her than waiting by some bridge for years until I showed up, so she could play with me day after day?
Rose didn't play. She didn't romp with other dogs. She didn't cuddle.
She worked, that was her passion, and I hope, her reward. How sad it would be if she were doing nothing with her life but waiting for me, she deserves so much more than that.
If I went to heaven and saw all of my dogs waiting for me, I would turn the other way and run twice as fast as I came to get away. I'd do that for them.
If asked, I say I believe that dogs in particular are spirit animals, their spirts live on and go back home – a Shaman described this place as a beautiful land by a stream, the dogs spirits take the form of blue lights. When they are ready, they enter the lives of other people and mark the passages of their lives. They come when needed, they leave when finished.
My vision is no better or worse than anybody else's, but it is my vision.
Beyond that, I have to say I believe the "Bridge" books that I have read are often shamelessly exploitive. It is neither creative nor help in my mind to exploit loving people at one of their most vulnerable points – when a loved pet dies – and take money from them so they can believe the sickness and death of their pets is just an interruption on the way to animal paradise.
It does not help animals in any way to manipulate and exploit and profit from people in grief and at their most vulnerable.
I believe the help bereaved pet owners most often need is learning how to let go, not how to hang on.
I love my dogs and they love me, I hope, and I honor them by recognizing their great meaning in my life, and then letting them go in peace, when they need to go.
I honor their lives by loving another dog as soon as I comfortably can. Dogs, in my mind, are not meant to stay with us for all eternity, they come and they go, as they mark the passages of our lives.
The hard truth is that dogs do not live as long as we do, and a life with dogs means we will see them die, most of us more than once. I accept that, I respect life.
That is the acceptance required of me to live my life with dogs, that is the contract, that is the bargain.
A dog's life is a beautiful thing, and ought not, in my mind be distorted by exploitation and greed or the sometimes selfish needs and expectations of people.
I want more for my dogs than the Rainbow Bridge, and I want more than that for me. If I am blessed to have an afterlife, there are lots of things I'd like to do besides play with dogs.