return to previous page A DAY IN THE DEATH Short Story
One shelter moms personal experience

Pictures taken in 2005-2 years before he passed away

click photos to enlarge

Cinnamon sleeping in a litter box

Cinnamon playing with favorite jingle toy

There are many ways ferrets go. They are euthanized. They go to sleep and never wake up. Sometimes they go semi comatose and put you through hell while they make faces and body movements for which you are never sure what they mean. They linger like that for awhile while you try to reach your vet or at least an emergency clinic to put them down. Looking for a vet in an emergency situation causes even more anxiety because you just don't know if they know the difference between the liver and the spleen or if he will increase the suffering he is trying to end.

Death is part of life. None of us get out of here alive. But what is the cost, emotionally and physically when we play God or even just witness the never ending deaths of these innocent little beings we call ferrets. Ferrets, who should never have been created on this earth for such a short time, with half of their life span sick and dying. You make that conscious choice to rescue ferrets and commit to them, be there for them when it's their time to die. They can't tell you when they hurt, and to what degree. They can't tell you what medicine they need to make them feel better and they can't tell you when they've had enough and just want to go. Certainly not in the two days you're cramming nasty meds down their throat and injecting them with things that prolong their pathetic horrific quality of life until you realize that it's time. So I try to be...aware. Better to let them go two days early than one day late. Unfortunately the only way you figure that out is through experience. I guess that would make them guinea pigs in a sense. I am guilty of keeping them with me longer they I should and I would prefer not to do it again, but I do. For one, because I hate playing God and two, I will never know for sure when it's the exact time to let them go. There is no exact time. It's just that we want them to live so badly - at all costs. Such a terribly selfish act. To ease our pain at the expense of theirs. I've been through scores of them by now and you would think I would learn to detach and handle them with less emotion, less panic, less tears, just less.

Maybe I do. Maybe there is just so many, that the sorrow never goes away.

Then there's always the worry about having access to your vet. What if it happens at midnight? 2:00am? On his day off? Since there aren't very many ferret vets, you can't run to the nearest corner clinic and quickly put them to sleep. Often times they'll linger for hours and die by the time you finally find someone to help you. So we add that other little nagging worry to the list of anxieties that fester, wondering if my own vet will be available when it's time to end their suffering.

Given there are so many sick ferrets here, you just never know from one day to the next what you will wake up to. There is this constant low level ever-present anxiety at every waking moment. You must be thinking I've made myself into a martyr by now. Poor me. Feel sorry for me. Look at what I give up for all these ferrets. Read on and I'll get to that later.

So then it happens. Here we go again. A ferret I've been watching. I know the sign. The lump in my stomach forms and the dread begins to surface. The panic to rise. He's not doing well. Been to the doctor, he's already on medication, and gravy. Lord, God, thank you for the gravy. You know he's old but he still has some spunk, bright eyes, knows when I'm there and chases after me for a bit of play, maybe he has a little more quality of life left if you can get him over this "hump." But if you REALLY know about ferrets, you know that unless you open them up, you never truly know if it's a "hump" or if they are riddled with cancer and you are doing them an injustice by keeping them alive. That's the injustice. It's unfair. You just don't know. Add that to the ever-present anxiety.

And so the dreadful day is here. You wake up and take care of everyone like any other day. Change litter, soiled bedding, poop in front of the boxes, prepare gravy, meds, hand feedings, accommodate the demanding kids wanting your attention. Then you walk to the cage where your sick guy is. You don't know what you'll find so you wait until everyone is taken care of. You do this because, if you need the time to take care of him, you don't have to worry about all the others that need to be cared for too. There are no volunteers here. No one to take over. Just me. What if hes gone? Sometimes I just need the time to grieve, a short break without the distraction of knowing there are so many other kids to care for. Just give me a few minutes to cry and let some of it out before I have to get back into taking care of business mode.

I peek and he's still here. Still alert, maybe lost a little more weight and still having the same issues you brought him to the doctor for. You've been hoping, and maybe a little in denial, but now you need to call on your rational side so you are able to handle whatever comes next. Meds aren't working fast enough and now today, he doesn't want to eat his gravy, first time THAT has ever happened. Not a good sign for sure. You let him out so he has the choice to play, exercise, explore a new environment, just really anything he wants to do so that, what you suspect might be his last hours or minutes, are as happy, comfortable or as positive as they can be. He gets his bath and medicine on his belly to help the urine burn and change all his cage bedding while he's out so it's all clean for him when he's ready to go back to bed. Sure he's dribbling thick lemon pudding-like urine mixed with pus and yes, it's all over the floor and blankets and toys but does it really matter? Is it really a good enough reason to keep him locked away in his cage because you don't want to deal with the mess? I'm tired. Tired is an understatement. But I guess I'm not tired enough to take away his freedom.

I let him do his thing for awhile and go get laundry started, clean some cages. My fear is that he will start to show signs of pain. That is always such an obsessive fear for me. Death doesn't bother me near as much as the pain and not having the ability to take it away while we make the mad dash to the vet to euthanize. Sometimes I think that "low level" anxiety isn't really low at all, it's just a lie I tell myself to keep from having a breakdown.

It now dawns on me that its been awhile and I haven't seen him. I go to check on him - and there is always the dread of wondering what I will find. I see him. He's found one of the warm soft blankets laid out on the floor of one of the rooms in the house where several of the "special" ferrets like to go. Special usually means terminal. There is no limit to providing whatever it is that they want and that includes the freedom to roam wherever they please. But I digress. My sick guy is half in, half out of the blanket - looking at me. I go to pick him up and my blood runs cold. It's going to happen today, I just don't know how or when. The panic begins to rise and realization slowly penetrates the denial. His body temperature has dropped, he is too weak to walk. I don't even question myself anymore. I've been through it too many times. The fear that he is in any pain overrides my ability to stay focused and sane. Where are the pain meds?? Why can't I remember the dose without having to look it up?? Is that a 30 unit syringe or a 1cc?? I can't see through my tears. Where are my glasses?? Please God, please let me get the pain meds into him so he will at least sleep peacefully until I can calm myself and figure out the best way for him to go. Why can't I just be rational and deliberate and go through the motions as I've done time and time again? I finally get the meds going and seconds seems like an eternity while I wait for them to take affect. I take him and put him in a soft sleep sack, then lay with him on my bed while I stroke and talk to him. Well, not exactly talk, more like pleading. By this time, I have already paced around the house trying to calm myself enough to be sure he has everything he needs while the tears just keep coming and coming and coming and coming. My nose is running and I am trying so hard to tell him how sorry I am. Did I do the right thing? Did I wait too long? Did you know you were loved? I can't seem to apologize enough for not being a better rescue mom. After an hour and a xanax, I lay him on my bed, wrapped in a warm fleece - as I do all of them because the fleece they die in, is the fleece they are cremated in - he is still. I can't bring myself to look at him. As he faded away, he did not look comfortable and I could not bear to look at him any longer so I loosely wrapped the fleece around him and paced for awhile. When I returned, I took a quick look to confirm he was gone. I placed him back in the cage wrapped in fleece and waited for my husband to come home and put him in the freezer. It's such a final act. I can't do it myself.

A day in the death of a geriatric shelter ferret. Sometimes I have time to recover. Sometimes it will start all over again the next day.

So, the martyr thing? You have no idea how badly I wish I had never heard of a ferret. Believe me when I say this, if I could turn back time, I would never have started this. I would never have bought that first ferret and never gone on to rescue them. There is no enjoyment. Its not even rewarding. Where is the reward of helping ferret after ferret make it through their death with as little discomfort and pain as possible? If there absolutely must be a benefit, I suppose there may be some satisfaction. Satisfaction in that, during their last few weeks or months, I may have enhanced their life a little, shown some love and kindness and in the end, help ease the suffering of a little critter about to die. I'm not a saint and I don't typically give to others at my own expense. I'm just a normal person like everyone else EXCEPT - I made the mistake of getting involved in knowing about the horrifying, brutal, and cruel acts committed on these poor defenseless, loving, sweet and adorable little animals. As the late Mike Janke once told me, euthanasia is taking their pain and making it yours. Dear God, if that is true, for the amount of pain I suffer when I watch them die, by comparison ferrets should feel nothing less than euphoria during the final moments of their life. At least, I would like to believe that.

And now you know. It is just too late. I can't go back. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. I'm not a martyr. I'm a ferret lover.

Terri Noren
Little Dudes Ferret Ranch
September 17, 2007

back to top

click photos to enlarge

Cinnamon through the tube

Cinnamon totally zonked out