The doctor called in the staff ophthalmologist, who brought in a huge machine and pressed its probe right up against Lila's pupil in a way that made me wince. "Seventy-five," the ophthalmologist said. The two doctors looked at each other grimly. Lila had gone still, stunned or dead I could not tell. They peeled back her other eye and again pressed the probe right to its center. "Eighty-three," the ophthalmologist said again. They turned to me. "Your dog has glaucoma," the ophthalmologist said. "The pressure in her eyes has risen well beyond normal."
Glaucoma. I had heard of that before. It did not seem so bad, I thought. I was wrong. In people glaucoma is manageable. In dogs it's devastating. The pounding pressure winches the canine's much smaller skull, causing a migraine well beyond what humans can conceive. Lila lay rigid with agony, her snout and fur hot to the touch. "The pressure has gone so high," the ophthalmologist said, "it has crushed both optic nerves. Lila is permanently blind."
I left Lila at the hospital that day—and for two days following. I left distraught. On my way out, the receptionist presented me with the first half of my bill: $1,400—money we didn't have. I looked again. My eyes, after all, were working. Fourteen hundred dollars for the ER visit, the emergency ophthalmology consult, the 48-hour boarding fee. The projected costs were on the second page. The only one I recall is the $1,800 charge for some advanced interventions that might be necessary. "Does everyone pay these charges?" I asked. "What happens if people don't have the money?"
"That hardly ever happens," she said. "People find a way to pay."
Owning a dog or a cat was relatively rare up through the 17th century. Now, however, 63 percent of American families own pets, while, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 72 percent of childless couples under 45 have companion animals in their households. Sociologists hypothesize that the rise in companion animals is due to the phenomenon so well described by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, discussing the decline of community in the United States during the 20th century. Pets, it seems, are filling a vacant space in our society, a space that used to be occupied by people in relation to one another and is now occupied by people petting pugs. Still, we could think of this another way. It could be that pets have risen in status for reasons rooted not in decline but rather in progress—in this case progress toward a more sophisticated understanding of ethics and the relative value of life. Traditionally, we have held human life to be of utmost comparative worth, but who's to say that stance is right, or even productive for our planet? A shifting ethos is reflected in the fact that the term "pet owner" has become disagreeable to enough people that it has been virtually banned in a number of jurisdictions as well as the entire state of Rhode Island and replaced by the phrase "animal guardian." According to a 2006 Purina survey, 73 percent of cat owners said they went to a doctor only when very sick or injured, while 96 percent said they would call or visit a vet immediately at any sign of their pet's ill health. Since Katrina, animal activists have succeeded in getting legislation passed that requires rescue personnel to include companion animals in disaster planning. And stories of devoted (or insane—this, the core question) pet owners spending tens of thousands of dollars to fund advanced cancer care for Spot are becoming ever more common.