2020 eh? What a year. Despite my long and illustrious 26 years on this planet, I (and I’m sure most of you will agree) can safely say it was the worst one yet. Sure, 2019 was bad, the year I finally realised I wasn’t ever going to make it as a professional footballer, but 2020 has really surpassed all my previous notions of an annus horribilis, thanks mainly to coronavirus. Corona not only took away the many happy times we all expected to have in 2020, but also made the sadder times that little bit harder.
On December the 4th 2020, my sister and I made the difficult decision to put down our family dog Simba after 16 years of faithful companionship and a hell of a lot of good times. Since his birth on a Milngavie farm on the 16th of September 2004, Simba lived the majority of his life rent-free in my parent’s home in a small village just outside of Stirling that no one has ever heard of. As children, my sister and I spent eternity begging our parents to get a dog, and when they finally gave in, we could not have been happier; it was our Disneyland moment.
However, while my sister and I were relishing the good times of having a Jack Russell puppy around the house, my parents were having a slightly different experience, getting woken up in the early hours of the morning by barking and having to clean up the thoughtful little brown gifts Simba had kindly left them. There was much talk in Simba’s early days about giving him up, with my parents feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of looking after a puppy. However, as Simba grew out of his puppy stage into the sophisticated and intelligent young man we know and love, they soon grew to cherish him as we did, even if he did occasionally rip apart all the toilet roll in the bathroom and run out the backdoor at any given opportunity.
Growing up, Simba provided me with the entertainment and company that a small countryside village could not. I would often spend hours walking him in the never-ending fields behind our house, with each walk an adventure with endless possibilities. Even as I became a teenager, Simba was there for me as a non-judgemental and intent listener who gave me the chance to air my grievances about how hard my life was and that how my parents forcing me to clean the dishes was akin to crimes against humanity.
I fully expected us to grow old together, often imagining myself elderly and frail, yelling obscenities at Countdown, while a greyer Simba lay contentedly on my lap. I of course had abandoned these delusions by the time I left home to go to university, now filled more with the fear that Simba would die while I was away, especially as his aging became more and more apparent with each sporadic visit home. However, I never received that dreaded call from my parents, and it seemed like Simba would live forever. Even cats are envious of the number of times he had a brush with death, only to come out unscathed. He would love to take his brief chance to dart out the backdoor, which would be open for all of a couple of seconds, and dash out onto the busy main road manoeuvring between the cars and tractors, all in an attempt to squeeze through the neighbour’s cat flap to devour their cat food. He even survived the burglary of our house in 2010, being the only eyewitness to catch a glimpse of whodunnit. Whether he got hush money for taking that vital piece of evidence to the grave instead of snitching will never be known.
We got Simba when I was just nine years old and since then he had been a constant presence in my life, living through many major events, from me leaving primary school, all the way through to me graduating from university. When I did finally receive that dreaded text from my parents in October 2020, saying that Simba was to be put down, it still came as a massive shock, despite his waning years. He had been diagnosed with a tumour on the inside of his nose, which was making it difficult for him to breathe, something the vet had only ever seen once before. As the tumour was growing fast it wouldn’t be long until it would become so large that he would suffocate. In order to save him from this suffering, putting him down was the best and only option.
I was devastated, especially as I hadn’t seen him since February due to the coronavirus restrictions, and now I only had a single weekend to spend time with him. My sister and I decided to pick Simba up from our parent’s house in order to give him the best two days of his life. My dad, who has essentially been shielding out of fear of catching the virus, stated that if we took Simba, he would not be able to return home, clearly anxious that his escapades around Glasgow could lead to a chance of contaminating the house. Thus, Simba would have to stay at my sister’s home, and my dad would never see him again.
We wanted Simba to experience as much as possible in his last days, from the exotic beaches of Largs (pictured above), to the rolling hills of Drymen, all the while spoiling him with as much food as his belly could take. He was even treated to his first ever sleep on a human bed, something that was strictly forbidden at his previous residence. On his final night, Simba slept soundly on the human bed which he now claimed as his own, with no knowledge that tomorrow would be his last hours on Earth. On the other side of Glasgow, in my human bed, my night could not have been any more different as I lay there awake, weighed down by this very knowledge. Due to coronavirus restrictions only one of us was allowed to be with Simba during the procedure and I was torn as to whether I wanted to, and even should be the one he spends his last moments with. I didn’t have an answer as the fateful day arrived. I met my sister and a blanket wrapped Simba, and we began the 40-minute drive to the vet – also located in another village which no one has ever heard of, just outside of Stirling – where we would meet our mother, who wished to say one last goodbye. Simba sat on my lap, clueless that he was on his way to the farm up in the sky.
During the journey, I was overwhelmed with guilt and felt like I was betraying a friend. Was this really the right thing to do? Over the past two days he had appeared far from the dying dog I had been expecting to see. He had seemed his usual energetic self, although much slower than he once was, still willing to fight to the death for a single crumb of food, and still more than able to sniff other dog’s bums. I broke the silence and stated to my sister that this didn’t feel like the right thing to do, and to my surprise she agreed with me. She too had been experiencing the very same feelings of guilt. Relief washed over us as we discussed our options. As scientifically dubious as this was, we knew that our dad would never allow Simba back into the house out of the risk of contracting coronavirus, so our only option was for him to stay in Glasgow. We informed our mum who happily agreed, released from the pressure of having to decide when to end Simba’s life. I felt like a lawyer saving an innocent man from the electric chair. Although we all accepted that the tumour would only ever get bigger and that it wouldn’t be long until we were back in the same situation, even one extra day for Simba seemed invaluable.
And so, Simba lived with my sister for, not just a few days, but for over a month and was treated like a king. At first, he appeared to improve, which I can only credit to the Glasgow lifestyle and the daily consumption of a bottle of Buckfast. However, he took a turn for the worse near the end of November when he began to suffer from seizures as a result of the tumour pressing on his brain and we now had to consider, once again, whether he had reached the point of unbearable suffering. Although Simba was unable to tell us if he was suffering or not, all the signs were there. He was still eating food; however, he had begun to pace around the house at night-time, typically a sign of pain in older dogs, a behaviour not even drugging him up with the strongest of painkillers seemed to alleviate. He wasn’t appearing to get any joy out of life like he once did, and it seemed like all he wanted to do was sleep yet was in too much distress to do so. We felt he was very much within touching distance of experiencing unbearable pain, a line we couldn’t let him cross. Now was the right time. We booked the next available vet appointment, now in Bearsden, and this time it didn’t feel like he was getting sent to the guillotine, but felt more like the injection was the lullaby he needed for the painless sleep he so desperately wanted. Thankfully, this time both me and my sister were allowed to be with Simba during the procedure, although due to coronavirus restrictions neither my mum nor my dad were allowed to travel to say their goodbyes. Simba was always there for me when I was younger, and I’m just happy that I was able to return the favour. The direct translation of the Greek word euthanasia is ‘a good death’, and I feel this is exactly what Simba got. But I still cried like a baby.
This year, our chosen charity is Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity. Dogs Trust focuses primarily on the rehabilitation and rehoming of dogs who have been abandoned and given up by their owners, following the mantra to ‘never put down a healthy dog’. 2021 is expected to be an especially difficult year for Dogs Trust and the like, despite 2020’s explosion of demand for dogs which led to a huge increase in rehoming during lockdown. This has now led to serious concerns that lockdown has become the new Christmas, with many shelters adopting the motto ‘a dog is for life, not just for lockdown’. The fear is that once people return to work, and spend less time at home, many of these dogs will be abandoned, leading to a dog shelter overpopulation crisis. All I can say is, you’ll miss them once they’re gone.