Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Pets Week-related question was suggested by our own macabre and masochistic Senior Editor, Sean O’Neal:
“What animal’s death in pop culture affected you the most?”
This article is likely to be filled with beloved pets—and rightly so. Like anyone with a heart and a couple of family dogs he’s had to say goodbye to, I’ve been crushed time and again by your Old Yellers, your Sounders, your Where The Red Fern Growses, etc. But my answer to this question actually has to do with an animal no one loved, and who didn’t even have a name. He was just some random cat on The Shield. In the third-season episode “Strays,” Detective Dutch Wagenbach—up to then one of the few sympathetic characters on a show full of duplicitous assholes—finds a cat wandering outside his home, after complaining that its howling has been keeping him awake at night. Dutch reaches down and pets it before suddenly picking the cat up. He then slowly strangles the life out of it while he stares into his eyes, a cold experiment conducted solely to satisfy his curiosity over what it’s like to kill another living being—and then the credits roll. While the sequence offered a glimpse into the darker corners of Dutch’s obsessive mind, ultimately, it didn’t really lead to anything. The cat was never mentioned again, Dutch never turned full-on serial killer (though there are fan theories…), and he didn’t openly exhibit any other signs of sadism for the rest of the show. But it forever colored his character, and—as was its creator’s intention—I found myself unable to shake it, so that even during scenes seasons later where you were supposed to feel for Dutch, all I could think was, “Fuck you, cat killer.” Its effect lingered far longer than any other fictional animal death I can recall. And judging by the fact that Google auto-completes “shield dutch” with “kills cat,” I’m not alone.
Speaking of cat killers, am I the only one who watched Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell and thought the girl kind of, you know, deserved what she got? Not for screwing over the old lady who put a curse on her, but because she stabbed her adorable pet kitten to death in an ill-conceived attempt to break the curse and avoid being dragged to hell. Up until that point, Alison Lohman’s Christine Brown was a tragic character who was being unfairly punished for making one bad decision (like many horror movie victims before her), and the cat was specifically shown being as cute as possible by sleeping in laundry and meowing to be petted. However, once Brown attempted the sacrifice—which didn’t even work—I lost all sympathy for her. I don’t care if you’re literally about to be dragged to hell, you don’t kill a cat that cute.
I’ve long enjoyed the Pet Sematary films, but the sequel has always been my favorite, mostly for the mashed potatoes scene. That’s the only Clancy Brown moment I can stomach, though. Brown, as town sheriff Gus Gilbert, is an all-around jerk, who puts everyone near him under much mental and physical duress before going full-asshole and shooting his stepson’s dog Zowie to stop his barking. The death of Zowie in Pet Sematary II is quickly reversed when he rises from the dead. Unfortunately, the dog comes back just as much of an asshole as Gus, rabidly rampaging through town, mentally terrorizing his loving owner Drew (Jason McGuire), and physically harming anyone else he comes in contact with. In a small moment of victory, he is able to exact revenge on Gus, but is eventually shot again, which is a lot less disheartening and a lot more effective this time, but does nothing to erase the horrifyingly affecting visual of a growling, demon-eyed dog with a gaping bullet wound on his side.
I was once half of a couple’s costume that reenacted the “FEED ME A STRAY CAT” tableau from American Psycho, so take this with a grain of salt: The earlier scene in which Patrick Bateman stomps a dog to death (after taunting and stabbing its homeless owner) puts me off my peanut butter soup and sea urchin ceviche every time. It’s a crucial moment in Mary Harron’s Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, a reminder of the character’s true cruelty that cuts through the layers of black comedy insulating American Psycho’s social commentary. The business-card anxiety and borrowed opinions on Phil Collins are worth a chuckle, but out on the street, Patrick Bateman is fucking heartless. The film ratchets up the stomach-churning effect by first lensing Christian Bale from the homeless man’s POV, then cutting to a wide shot of the darkened alley. With some horrifying, well-placed sound effects, American Psycho leaves the rest to our imagination—and that only makes things worse.
I’d heard so much good stuff that when I sat down to watch John Wick earlier this year, I was really looking forward to all its violence. Sometimes I like a good shoot-em-up, after all. And then, right at the beginning of the movie, the bad guys killed John Wick’s adorable little beagle puppy, who never did anything bad to anyone in his whole short, soft, and kissable life. And that was it for me. I was done. I couldn’t watch the movie after, which was weird. I was all set up for gratuitous headshots and massive amounts of blood, but once Wick’s puppy got it—in a really gross way, I might add—I just couldn’t do it anymore. My husband—who finished the movie—informs me that Wick eventually got himself another dog, but to this day I still mourn for that fictional little pal who didn’t deserve what he got.
Look, I get that it’s become synonymous with clichéd sad animal deaths, but I’m not about to let this list go by without some acknowledgment that the death of Old Yeller is still one of the saddest damn things ever. Sure, it’s been mocked and referenced in shows like Friends and long ago passed into generic pop-culture ubiquity as a touchstone for precisely this question, but come on. There’s a reason for that. Watching poor Travis have to take a gun and put a bullet in his beloved dog is heartbreaking. It slayed me when I was a kid, seeing it for the first time; it caused a torrent of weeping when I watched it again in college; and now, sitting here at my keyboard thinking about it, I burst into tears all over again. Damn you, Disney. (Luckily, I just found this version that mashes up that deeply upsetting dog death with the dog from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it’s made it much more palatable.)
Béla Tarr’s magnificent black-and-white opus Sátántangó, about a small Hungarian village coming apart at the seams at the turn of the 20th century, runs a staggering 450 minutes—more than seven hours, in other words. It’s murder on your keister, obviously, but the film does an even meaner number on your spirit, using that extended timeframe to totally immerse you in an environment without hope or happiness. (I’m really selling this movie, aren’t I?) The most devastating chapter arrives somewhere around the mid-film mark, when a little girl—teased and ignored by her fellow townsfolk—takes out her frustration on an innocent stray cat, eventually poisoning the thing, which staggers around and then drops dead. For cat lovers, the uncomfortably realistic scene will probably be too much to bear; the film was banned for a while in the U.K. on grounds of animal cruelty, even as Tarr insisted that the feline was totally fine. But in the context of the movie, the act is truly devastating—an act of sadism that demonstrates just how far this community has sunk into despair. Tarr films it, as he films everything, in a single, unblinking take, as if he’s demanding that we really see this girl that no else will see, until it’s much too late. Heavy, heavy stuff.
It wasn’t a pop-culture pet I knew and loved, but the dying dog Frank Underwood kills in the opening episode of House Of Cards has had a bigger impact on me than even Hedwig’s death, which I cry over every time I re-read Harry Potter. When Underwood is the first to the scene after a car hits his neighbor’s dog, he delivers his opening monologue about the nature of pain, providing insight about his character and demonstrating that he’s a man of action. He kills the dog, looks into the camera, and says, “There. No more pain.” The scene is there to introduce Underwood, but it’s also a rumination on the responsibility people have to animals, and the unpleasant reality that it’s our job to kill them when the time comes. I had my own (minor) variation of that scene last year when I came across a semi-paralyzed mouse on the sidewalk near my apartment. Its front half immobile, its back legs frantically lashed out like it was trying to run, all it did was spin in dismal little circles, around and around as I watched. That House Of Cards scene flashed through my mind, but I probably would have done what I did next regardless: went to my apartment, wrapped my chef’s knife in a cloth (so I didn’t look like a psycho walking around my neighborhood with a 10-inch blade), returned to the mouse, and chopped its head off. It was gruesome, and for weeks after I couldn’t walk past that sidewalk spot without remembering that poor little mouse and feeling a pang of sadness. But it was dying slowly and painfully, and I would’ve felt worse if I had left it there rather than finishing it off clean and quick myself. Since then I’ve thought a lot about our responsibility to animals, to end their suffering when we can and to have the wisdom to know when that time is. The mouse was hard enough; I’m a huge animal lover, and I don’t think I could kill a cat or dog, especially not with my bare hands like Underwood does in that scene. But isn’t that selfish, to put my own feelings over the suffering of a dying animal?
Robert Neville (Will Smith) is one lonely guy in I Am Legend, but things would be far worse without Sam, his German Shepherd. When not working up the nerve to hit on mannequins, Neville focuses all of his social skills on interacting with his dog. Forget man’s best friend; she’s his only friend. Sam’s a brave dog, but Neville often has to soothe her at night with his rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (with the lyrics, “Don’t worry about a thing”). They’re attuned to each other’s needs and look out for each other on the not-so-deserted New York streets. Halfway through the movie, Sam is attacked on a supply run and later dies in Neville’s arms. That alone is devastating, but he then has to put her to sleep one last time—he chokes her while singing the Bob Marley song.
For those of you who escaped the fourth-grade trauma of Wilson Rawls’ Where The Red Fern Grows, here’s a simplified synopsis: Boy wants dogs, boy works to get dogs, boy and dogs are deliriously happy, dogs die, Mrs. Lubbehusen’s entire class pretends not to be openly sobbing because crying is for babies. It’s not just that the tragic death of Old Dan and Little Ann is basically Old Yeller times two; it’s the manner of Ann’s death, and the more nuanced agony that takes her life. Dan goes out fighting, saving his beloved boy from a mountain lion. But Ann dies of a broken heart, wasting away because the love of her life is gone. I’d seen pets die before in fiction, and I’d cried the requisite tears. But I’d never seen grief treated like a lethal force, an infection that sets in when the part of you that lived in another person (or dog) is killed, leaving you incomplete. All the pretty plants in the world can’t cover up the brutality of getting an early taste of that awful flavor of loss.
The Neverending Story was a lesson in nihilism masquerading as a children’s movie. As such, the death of Atreyu’s loyal steed Artax in the Swamp Of Sadness makes perfect, beautifully despairing sense as a story element—your childhood friends can’t save you in the dismal quagmire of adulthood. But when you’re 4-years-old and expecting a rousing fantasy adventure, it is a cold bucket of water that assures you in no uncertain terms that everything you love will eventually die. (Watching it as an adult, the most affecting part is the palpable terror of the horse during what must have been the sort of thing that makes an animal’s life flash before its eyes. The second-most-affecting part is how everything you love will eventually die.)
Well, someone’s got to say it, so it might as well be me: Seymour Asses, Philip J. Fry’s beloved dog on Futurama. He was as great a fictional pet as you could ever hope to have—he could even sing along to “Walking On Sunshine”—but in the end, he was dedicated to a fault. When his master was deep-frozen, he waited outside Panucci’s Pizza, waiting in vain for a reunion that would never come. And you’ll excuse me if this is short, but I can feel the tears welling up already, so I’d better stop now.
Please keep in mind that the question was which animal’s death affected me the most, not necessarily what I found saddest or most touching, and also note that the Futurama dog was already taken. Now then: by 1997, poor endangered animals jumping out of the way in disaster movies had become a recognizable cliche, especially after the dog who narrowly escaped death in Independence Day. Don’t worry too much about the literally thousands of people swiftly but painfully consumed by fire, director Roland Emmerich seemed to be saying: At least this dog survived for some reason! So imagine how impressed I was, as a young cynic/jerk, that in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg went out of his way to show a T. Rex having clearly consumed the bit-player family dog just moments after said dog provided a cutesy sight gag by retreating to his doghouse after hearing the dinosaur’s roar. I still remember the visceral satisfaction I felt in the movie theater that Spielberg was ballsy enough to turn a cute joke into a nasty one, and I think about it every time a cute pet gets spared from something horrific. And of course, in real life a dog being eaten by a dinosaur would be horrifying. But then, so would the near-extinction of humanity from which Emmerich cheerily attempted to distract the year before.
If you’ve got to go, go out singing. That’s one of the unspoken morals of Charlotte’s Web, among the many spoken morals, like “Make your life mean something” and “Befriending a writer may keep you alive in hard times.” I’m being flip because to this day, Charlotte’s death of spider old age touches me deeply: the way she reprises her song about the passing of time and the cycling of seasons before quietly slipping off the screen into oblivion, accompanied by the distressed cries of her pig friend Wilbur. E.B. White’s children’s book is a beautiful classic, but the 1973 animated version was one of my first beloved movies, and the dialogue as weary Charlotte looks back on her accomplishments with quiet triumph, then philosophically lets go of life, still breaks my heart. If anything, it hits me harder as an adult than it did when I was a kid, and had no real idea what death meant, except that the story was about to wrap up.
“I have cried twice in my life. One when I was seven and I was hit by a school bus. And then again when I heard that Li’l Sebastian had passed.” Parks And Recreation ended up working a terrific gag out of the town of Pawnee’s out-of-proportion adulation of a miniature horse, and the horse’s untimely passing may be the second-funniest sitcom animal death behind those turkeys from WKRP In Cincinnati. So like Jesse’s pick, this wasn’t a terribly sad death, but it affected me nonetheless, although not until several years later, when Parks produced one of the best sitcom finales of all time (although the show ended up being renewed for one more season). “Moving Up” is a feel-good victory lap of an episode, packed to the gills with beloved recurring characters, cameos (Michelle Obama), and resolutions for virtually every character in the ensemble. The episode ends with a valedictory moment, an outdoor concert that ends on an unexpectedly touching moment: the whole cast, assembled on stage, singing a tribute to a Li’l Sebastian, who appears as a Tupac-style hologram. As these characters swelled up with emotion for their beloved dead miniature horse, I found myself doing the same. After six seasons, I realized I cared about these (fictional) people, even to the point of caring about their horse, and very few television shows have ever broken through my veneer of cynicism that completely.
Death is a prominent theme in the Harry Potter series. The first book kicks off with the murder of Harry’s parents, and his friends and mentors drop like flies over the course of his young life. But in a series full of bloodshed, one death in particular stands out: Hedwig. Even before Harry arrived at Hogwarts, his temperamental Snowy Owl served as a connection to the magical world. She was a faithful servant, a loyal friend, and pretty much the only character who stuck by Harry in both his Muggle life and his Wizarding one. So when she takes a killing curse to the chest in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows it’s pretty damn devastating. Even worse, Harry has to blow up her body as part of a distraction tactic. In doing so he destroys a symbol of his childhood—and of mine as well.
I have a powerful memory of taking A Day No Pigs Would Die off the shelf at my grade school’s library, having read it a few months before, and just sort of staring at it, in awe of its power over my brain. (I was probably 9 or 10.) I only remember the basics of the story, but essentially it’s that a young boy is given a pig to raise as a pet, and at some point his father—a butcher—has to kill it, because the family needs it for food. The boy has to participate in the butchering, too—y’know, to help him become a man. I’m pretty sure I sympathized with the plight at the time—the pig had to die so the family could live—though that seems an odd premise now that I’m slightly older. Looking at Amazon and Wikipedia now, I’m seeing that the book is apparently controversial for what has been described as “pig rape,” a scene which is (thankfully) gone from my memory. Here’s part of an Amazon review to stop you from getting considering this one for your child’s grade-school reading list, in case the book otherwise seemed tantalizing for some reason: “However, there is a *very* graphic pig mating scene (let’s call a spade a spade, it was pig rape) that is inappropriate for *my* child. It could have been handled far more gently instead of graphically describing the pig’s screams and bleeding as the stud pig attempts to breed with her, description of the boy pigs engorged genitalia as it pumps away at the girl pig, inclusion of the boy pig’s owner saying something to the effect of ‘next time she’ll be beggin for it’…” I’m glad I only remembered the murder, I guess.