WARNING: There are many spoilers in this review.
Fans of author Jon Katz were pleased at the end of September with the release of his book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, but upon reading, how does this book stack up against others when it comes to sorting through the grief of losing a pet? Going Home is a mix of advice and stories, some about Katz, and others about friends and acquaintances of the author’s that either went to him for advice upon losing a pet, or gave him advice. Those looking for comfort in this book might find some of Katz’s attitudes on animal death not on the cozy blanket they are looking for though, due to some disturbing actions and instances that are recollected.
Perhaps the best section of the book is the excerpt that was published on Slate.com at the end of September, entitled, “The Perfect Day”. This emotional account of one man’s quest to give his dog the perfect day before he died is the perfect way to draw in readers, but the story of Harry and Duke is easily the most heartwarming part of Going Home. Harry knew his dog was dying, so he took Duke out to do all of their favorite things together, a fitting tribute to a loyal canine companion.
People who love animals and are searching to make peace with the death of a beloved pet, or are preparing for that day, should beware that Katz’s personal opinions are also littered throughout the book in a prominent way. First, Katz makes it very clear that human suffering is above animal suffering to him, and uses this to justify putting his dog, Orson, down after the dog bit three people. Katz states,
Instead, I chose to speak for him. To be his advocate as well as an advocate for other people, other children. I had to decide whether I valued human life and safety over a dog I loved.
The book goes on to say that “I felt the only humane way I could be sure that he would never attack another human was to euthanize him.” In a world where animals are abandoned and euthanized on a daily basis for no good reason, this reasoning is dangerous. If read by the right (more like wrong) person, it could encourage someone to euthanize their pet without considering all options of rehabilitation, if necessary. The justification goes on throughout the book, and instead of being a tribute to Orson, it cheapens his story.
In one chapter that encourages readers to consider cost, Katz once again takes another hit on the animal community by questioning the ethics of others that choose to spend large sums of money on their pets to keep them healthy, or in some cases, alive:
“I believe that it’s not ethical or appropriate in this world to spend that kind of money on a dog while so many human beings suffer so much,” Katz writes in reference to a friend who spent $20,000 on surgeries for her pug. While he goes on to say that his friend was not wrong and that it was her choice, a person coming to this book for self-help after losing a pet could easily have just spent thousands on chemotherapy, surgery, or lengthy animal-hospital stays. This kind of reasoning is better left for an opinionated piece on human/animal ethics, not a book on “finding peace.”
Perhaps even more disturbing than the demise of Orson is the slaughter of Elvis, a Swiss steer. Elvis was spared from slaughter once by a farmer who said that after forty years, Elvis was the first steer he couldn’t bear to send to the meat market. Katz took in Elvis in an unprepared manner and ultimately learned that taking care of a steer is hard work, work that he first enjoyed, until he realized that keeping Elvis was impossible.
Adopting Elvis was an act of love, but as I slogged through the devastating aftermath of a broken marriage–all of the emotional and financial consequences–I realized that it was also an act of delusion and immaturity. I simply couldn’t keep him.
What happened to Elvis? He was sent to the slaughterhouse. That said, Elvis’ meat fed a homeless shelter full of teenagers. Even though he had some complications with his legs, Katz stated that Elvis was not in any pain, and that the problems would have ultimately gotten worse; however, the timing of his slaughter just happens to coincide with the author admitting he was irresponsible with taking Elvis in, which sends a bad message: animals can be discarded when it is convenient.
While Katz waxes poetic about how animals are not humans, and that humans are more important, he doesn’t have a problem exploiting a lamb named Bartleby with cute stories and photographs to meet demand from blog readers. Yes, Bartleby was taken in after being rejected by his mother, but Katz readily admits to projecting ideas onto Bartleby, even calling him a “character in a fairy tale”, and saying that as a writer, “a story like that was almost irresistible.” Patting his own back, Katz further relays the story of how ultimately, he did the right thing by sending Bartleby to a sheep farm, where “we understood that he would likely go to slaughter.” Although the lamb was a farm animal, it is a gross insult to gain popularity and recognition on a website and make people fall in love with Bartleby, only to again, cast aside the animal for slaughter. Katz writes that he stopped calling the animal by his name, and began thinking of him as a sheep, and that “we would not grieve him.” Again, for an audience expecting comfort after the death of a pet, this is a brutal way to do it (but not as brutal as a lamb that is shot in the head on page 121).
Although there are some nice sentiments in this book, like the story of Duke and Harry, and a darling letter written by two children who lost their cat, a person seeking comfort after losing a best friend and companion might be more struck by the brutal reality of animal death, especially when it is unnatural, than hearing the words of kindness and tranquility. Although the intentions seem serene and sympathetic, those who experience an indescribable bond with their animal friends may end up surprised with this text.