When pets outlive their people
A little over six months ago, an old woman died and left behind two dogs — corgis — now being cared for by her son. It’s a common enough story — I know many people who have taken in a pet after a family member or friend’s passing. My neighbors inherited their dog Teddy this way. In Sigrid Nunez’s beautiful novel “The Friend,” a woman takes in her friend’s Great Dane after his death, and in doing so, works through her own grief. In this particular case though, the old woman was Queen Elizabeth II, the son is Prince Andrew, and the two corgis are Sandy and Muick.
When I heard that the Queen died, in September of last year, I immediately thought of her famous corgis. I was not alone in this. When you type: “what is going to happen to the queen’s…” into Google, the top autofill suggestions are “dogs” and “corgis.” Everywhere from CNN to NPR to The New York Times published stories about Sandy and Muick, along with the Queen’s dachshund-corgi hybrid (“dorgi”) Candy, and cocker spaniel Lissy.
The Queen herself had worried about the fate of her dogs; she actually decided to stop getting new dogs in 2015, not wanting to leave any behind — though after Prince Philip died, she changed her mind, and put plans in place to make sure her children and staff would care for the dogs after her death. Prince Andrew and his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson adopted the corgis, and, it has been speculated, that they took Candy as well, while Lissy will live with the Queen’s dog trainer, Ian Openshaw.
It’s a worry Eleanor Miller shared with the Queen. “That’s the deal,” Eleanor told me one day in 2016. She pointed at Sylvester, her Yorkie: “He can’t outlive me.” At 87 years old, Eleanor had been a life-long animal lover, but when her dog of many years, Amber, died in the early 2000s, Eleanor felt too old for a puppy. Eleanor’s daughters looked in local shelters and found a bonded pair of elderly dogs named Kelly and Jesse. They needed someone with plenty of time to take care of them — and someone who didn’t mind that they might not live much longer. Eleanor was the perfect candidate.
She loved and cared for Kelly and Jesse until they died 24 hours apart (they really were a bonded pair). Then Eleanor made it her mission to adopt the oldest, sickliest dogs in her local shelters — like Bailey, her Spaniel, who was blind and had a tumor on his heart and trachea. It wasn’t easy, falling in love with dogs to have them die a few years later. Nunez writes about the fate of unwanted dogs: “They do us the honor of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.” But Eleanor never saw these unwanted dogs as disposable. Remembering Bailey, Eleanor got so emotional she stopped talking. Still, she was willing to go through the pain, over and over, if it meant she could provide unwanted animals a home — and, hopefully, outlive them.
When Eleanor passed in January 2022, at the age of 92, she had one dog left: an elderly Maltese mix named Milo. Like the Queen, though, Eleanor made sure there was a plan for Milo. Before she died, Eleanor made sure her daughter Lisa would take care of him. Through Lisa, Milo found his way to a quiet home of a friend, and, last I heard, has “a new lease on life.” Maybe Eleanor was still watching out for him.
Because of Queen Elizabeth’s fame and power, of course, people were aware of and worried about her dogs after news of her death, especially after watching Sandy and Muick during the Queen’s funeral. But not every pet has someone looking out for them. Sometimes veterinarians are asked to euthanize animals after their owners die, and shelters are full of pets who have been left behind. Some like Ms. Jennifer — a 53-year-old tortoise whose owner died from COVID — gain celebrity status, and people clamor to adopt them, but many more are unknown and ignored.
I recently heard about a 10-year-old Yorkie, also named Milo, whose owner died around Thanksgiving. Milo, now unwanted, was driven by the owner’s son into the Michigan wilderness and left there. A few weeks later, neighbors learned what happened, went looking for the Yorkie and found him: Milo had survived a month alone in the freezing forest. When I first heard this story, I was angry. Wouldn’t euthanizing Milo would have been more humane? But the more I thought about it, the more empathy I felt for the son — grieving, overwhelmed by the logistics that come with a death (after all, euthanasia costs money, and abandoning a dog is free). Only 9% of people with wills include anything about what should happen to their pets. Sometimes, without arrangements already in place, it’s just too much.
For our pets, and for the humans stuck cleaning up our messy lives, the kindest thing we can do is make plans. Queen Elizabeth knew Prince Andrew and her trainer would take in her dogs. Eleanor knew Lisa would find Milo a home. It is unclear how pets understand death, but what they can understand is absence and change.
“They don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep,” writes Nunez in “The Friend.” “But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.” The least we can do is to make sure that our animals have somewhere to go, after we are gone.