Ricky tribute photo resizeA few years ago we joined a tradition. Like a growing number in our multi-cultural community, we saw in the Mexican anniversary of La Dia de los Muertos an opportunity to remember our own dearly departed.

In our case it was our pets of yesteryear we wished to commemorate. No slight to our human ancestors was intended. It seemed, however, as if the dogs and cats formerly part of our family were in more need of sustenance in any afterlife. Or perhaps it was more to do with our own need for comfort.

Speaking for myself, I envisage my human forebears well able to take care of themselves in whatever spiritual dimension they now occupy. On the other hand, who takes care of dogs and cats in the great beyond? Is there a class of angels assigned to dog walks and endlessly throwing toys stuffed with catnip? OK, a slightly absurd notion I agree. But if you’ve spent years anticipating canine and feline needs it’s hard to let go.

So each autumn, as late October darkens desert evenings, we buy marigolds, the flower apparently favored by returning spirits, and retrieve from storage our Day of the Dead paraphernalia. Umpteen framed photos take their place on the temporary altar in our dining room, and dishes of water and treats await the summoned specters. Pride of place in recent times goes to a digital frame which conveniently recalls images of dogs dating back to childhood (which, I should say, was quite a long time ago).

This year’s observation, scheduled as usual for November 1st and 2nd, and as usual extended a few extra days, has been a particularly poignant one. Three weeks ago Ricky, our celebrated Chihuahua/poodle mix, departed this life. Animals, in our experience at least, seem to pass on quickly rather than linger. That’s probably the best way to go, but the shock and distress for their people can be hard to take.

As it happened, we were already embroiled in one critical situation when news of Ricky’s diagnosis reached us. My wife Nancy was recovering from cancer surgery on the other side of the country. One evening our neighbor phoned our temporary digs in Boston to say Ricky wasn’t his usual upbeat, assertive self.  A visit to the vet and then an ultrasound confirmed prostate cancer spread to a lymph node. Nancy and I agreed, I had to return home to care for him.

At first, Ricky wasn’t too obviously ailing. He was still up for a morning walk and I could still tempt him with morsels of favorite foods such as pasta and rice. But gradually over the next two and a half weeks he grew less inclined to eat. His wooly white body, never more than 15 pounds, turned to skin and bones. A rattle of the leash no longer prompted a rush to the door.

In a normal family context, watching a loved one of whatever species lose appetite for food and then for life has to be one of the worst experiences imaginable.

Eventually the options were reduced to what is generally considered the kindest. A traveling vet came to our house, and on my lap, in the familiar surroundings of our patio, with our other two dogs in attendance, Ricky left this world.

Considering the sorrows we hear about every day, it may seem indulgent to mourn a relatively elderly dog. But loss is uniquely personal for those directly affected. No one else suffers quite the same vacant spaces in heart and home, or fleetingly glimpses the ghost where a short time ago there was a curled up bundle of fur and the steady pulse of sleep.

Once a pet psychic told us that Ricky was not a dog who dwelled on the past. We had more than a few chuckles over that. There seemed to be truth in it all the same. Ricky had more reason than most to be affected by early traumas. We first encountered him in a rescue group. Photos from that time show him as a tangled skein, eyes invisible under bedraggled fur. Unseen in the photos were the ticks clamped to his tender parts. He had already been returned by one adoptive family because he didn’t get along with another pet. With us however, he almost instantly became a member of the family.

As cats and dogs come and eventually go in the course of our lives, we’ve tried to avoid favoritism. Each to his or her own, however, and sometimes that means one gets treated differently from others. Ricky’s forte was the outdoors. Age or infirmity or disinclination tended to restrict our other dogs. Ricky, on the other hand, was game for any trail or campground.

Even in the preparation stage, when appropriate clothes and footwear were being selected, he quickly figured out whether he was invited. If a suitcase emerged from the closet, he settled into glum inertia, knowing he wasn’t involved. Let it be a daypack and hiking boots though, and he was waiting at the garage door.

For over a decade there hasn’t been a walk or camping trip that didn’t feature Ricky. He and I followed trails for miles through the Superstition Mountains, kayaked across Canyon Lake, climbed Picketpost Mountain, to say nothing of daily walks in parks and other favorite haunts. In other words, there’s not a place I can go where I won’t be treading in his paw steps.

Dogs have a relatively short lifespan, we know. For that matter, so can loved ones of other species. We love nonetheless, knowing it can’t last forever and yet willing to pay that price. It’s worth it, no question.

Ricky, Canyon Lake edit 2

Something To Kibble About

 With all the information there is about factory farming you’d think someone would have come out with dog food that is vetted for humane conditions for the creatures that provide the ingredients.

There are, of course, several vegetarian brands of kibble and cans. But even a vegan canine companion has to admit that dogs sometimes hanker for the taste and smell of meat.

Well, if they have to have flesh, at least let it be flesh that comes from an animal or fish that had a tolerable life and at death didn’t suffer more than could be avoided. OK, so I can’t say for sure what is a tolerable life. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve conveyor belts, force feeding, overcrowding and cages and pens too small to allow free movement.

Can I find such a food source? Without scanning the highways for road kill, it’s frustratingly hard. There are several companies that boast of “quality” ingredients, which I’m all for. Who wants their dogs to have to absorb pesticides and growth-enhancing chemicals if it can be avoided?

When it comes down to it though, every company I contacted gave “commercial farms” as the source of their ingredients. By that I assume they mean business as usual. And that’s just not good enough. If these companies put so much emphasis on treating Fido well, then how come none of them are working for better quality conditions for the other creatures that provide their livelihood?

* * * * *

(I’ve got to stop writing downers. No more postings about death and loss on this page for a while. That’s my new year’s resolution. It’s hard not to want to pay tribute to those who have departed. All the same, here’s to a new year full of upbeat, heartwarming encounters with other species. )

Death in the Aftermath

The first death I experienced that had great impact on me was that of my dog, Sheltie.

By the standards of much of humanity, the death of a dog might seem as if it should be inconsequential to a 22-year-old.

But at that time no companion, excepting my mother, had shown me anything like the devotion and empathy of that dog for so long. Fourteen years was, after all, more than half my lifetime.

That evening, after Sheltie had been put to sleep, we walked as usual along the country lanes near our home. My godmother consoled my mother, and I walked ahead. There was an emptiness about everything around us. It was as if the branches and hedges were stage props. If there was sound or sight of wildlife, I have forgotten. All I wanted was to feel the presence of a familiar spirit trotting beside us, something to give meaning to this sudden fracture between past and present.

I had always been a bit of a romantic in that way. I remember, at the age of eight or nine, reading C.S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, and being convinced that there was a portal near our house into his magicalkingdomofNarnia. No allegory would satisfy me. I suppose you could call me a literalist when it came to the supernatural. There just had to be, I was sure, something beyond the everyday.

Light was fading as our path wound up into a field flanked by a wood, and I have a distinct memory of horses standing with their breath misting in the cooling air. I watched, transfixed by the supple energy in their bodies, the awareness in their eyes, the power of the moment in which we stood.

I think I stroked their necks — at least that’s my recollection. Perhaps I was hoping that four-legged creatures would have a greater insight into death than I had. If so, I failed to understand what they had to impart.

Well, anyway, I failed to understand at that moment. Decades later I have experienced several such deaths, among them those of my mother and godmother. Again, it’s nothing that would impress most of the population of the world probably.

Each time, however, I wonder at the suddenness and the irreversibility of the loss — the life that was there and then is gone. The voice silenced. The ties to life dissolved. The presence evaporated.

These days, of course, there are photos and recordings of various kinds — and that can be a consolation for sure. But still I’m startled by the ebb and flow of existence, the lives that come and the time that goes.

In my garden, once in a while, I find the carcass of a pigeon or wren. It lies there as debris, with ants dissecting the remains. As far as I can see, no other pigeons or wrens stand in mourning. They must have other things to do. Fledglings to raise perhaps. Fledglings who will never know what those carcasses once were — the vitality, the awareness, the need to live.

What else can we do but accept what has happened? There is no other way. I lived for that brief time with those transient companions. The memories have become as much part of me as the words I speak or the image I see when I confront the mirror. Sometimes I look in places where they used to be, and I smile. Just a few short years or months or weeks ago, I think, they were there. Then I move on, as most of us must do, having found/forged a path through the emptiness.

* * * * *

On The Passing Of A Companion

Those who have bonded with a member of another species, be it dog, cat, horse or whatever, know the brevity of life. Perhaps only the death of a young son or daughter can bring home that knowledge with such devastating impact. A lifespan that lasts only a few years, and yet beats with personality and vigor, leaves a profound vacuum when it is gone. Absence seems more unreal than the strangest dream. The world is never again the same. Consolation comes slowly, if it comes at all. The life that remains is all the more precious for seeming more fragile.

* * * * *

Halloween Brings A Dark Stranger

An impulse took me beyond one of my regular walking haunts. The morning sun illuminated a classic Arizonan desert landscape of cactus and mesas. Surely my home office could wait for me to drive a couple more miles and take in the views of the mountains east ofPhoenix.

My four dogs – a bichon, two bichy poos and a geriatric Springer Spaniel – had completed their routine saunter along the concrete path at the scenic vista parking lot. Anticipation was sated. They were content to humor me.

A couple of miles further into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area, I pulled on to the shoulder eager to contemplate the distant Four Peaks range. Hitching up Ricky, the energy bunny of bichy poos, I clambered along a rocky promontory until we had a hawk’s view of arroyos and hoodoos.

On a weekday, before sightseers are on the road, the clarity and silence are such that even a bird call resonates. So a muted woofing from my other bichy poo, Sparky, back in my SUV, caught my attention. I looked for a reason, a cyclist perhaps or a coyote, but saw nothing. Sparky has a hair trigger in any case, I concluded. He’d bark at his own stocky shadow.

When Ricky whimpered by my side, however, it was a different matter. Ricky never cries wolf. Sure enough, no sooner had Ricky’s feathery tail begun to sway than a black shape bounded between the rocks towards us. All that registered with me at first were alert ears and an ample wag. Indeed, the wag was about all that could be called ample. From a seemingly large head, the body contracted into washboard ribs and a waist that might have been the envy ofNew York and Paris runways. How the back end stayed attached to the front was a marvel.

Despite its skeletal condition though, this was a dog that clearly knew its own mind. And thus, as we returned home, we found ourselves with a hitchhiker.

Closer examination once we reached home revealed the newcomer to be a female who’d had puppies and appeared to be mostly lab. Her 27 pounds were well under lab weight, but there was no telling what her optimum size was before she began living rough. Her age I judged to be two or three, based on the tartar on her teeth and speculation

With our own four canines to cope with, my human companion and I quickly decided that a permanent addition to our household was not on the cards. Sheila the Springer had been found in the desert a year beforehand, and predicting her lavatorial routine was a challenge in itself. Sparky, the bichy poo, had recovered from Valley Fever and an operation to replace a cruciate ligament. But he still had to be handled a little delicately, certainly with more consideration than a boisterous lab might be inclined to show.

The decision seemed clear, and so I began contacting local rescue groups. With foreclosures adding to the usual pressures on shelters, however, it seemed all that was forthcoming was encouragement. Foster homes were already overflowing. Hearing of foster parents who already had large packs to look after made me feel a little bashful about approaching them with my own extra burden.

I reconciled myself to the notion that I’d be looking after the exiled lab myself, at least for a few days. But the one thing I wouldn’t do if I could help it was bond. It would be difficult enough fitting a new muzzle into our tightly knit circle. I would have to stay firm, look after her but always with the idea that she was a temporary addition.

To that end, we decided that she would remain “the nameless one.” If we christened her, it would surely be a step nearer attachment. The other resolution was that she would live outside – autumn now sapping the desert heat – and sleep in the garage. Allowing her to become a house dog, I could see, would be another step towards permanency. Fortunately, she seemed unfamiliar with dog doors. In her eyes apparently, the rest of our brood simply disappeared into the wall once in a while. I was not about to enlighten her.

In retrospect I was ill prepared for the task of fostering a stray. Although our bishypoos had been homeless before we knew them, they had come to us through a shelter and seemed relatively unaffected by their experiences. We sometimes speculate about their pasts but of course we’ll never know. A dog psychic told us once that Ricky harbored no grudges, and indeed his happy-go-lucky nature indicated just that. Sheila the Springer, intercepted on another desert walk, has only three requirements – food, water and sufficient floor space to sleep.

The nameless one, on the other hand, was needier and had more pent-up energy than a candidate for extreme makeover. After devouring a couple of bowls of food, she set out to explore her new surroundings. Familiar as I was with small and elderly dogs, I was constantly underestimating the curiosity and capability of this new arrival.

Our house has a deck accessible by wooden steps. A gate prevents our dogs from going up there, but it was no barrier to nameless one. The patter of paws from above betrayed her ascent, first to the deck and from there on to the roof.  No doubt it was an elementary climb after the hazards of granite outcrops and cholla thorns.

No less of an attraction was our goldfish pond. I think I can confidently say now, based on recent research, that goldfish are immune to heart attacks. Otherwise, that angular black muzzle and those golden brown eyes looming above them would surely have caused multiple seizures.

Nightfall was no relief. My initial plan was to confine her in one of those plastic traveling crates during designated sleep time. The crate was lent to me by my neighbor, and had already been mauled somewhat by a previous occupant. No problem for nameless one. She simply gnawed on an existing hole until she broke out. I was forced therefore to let her have the run of the garage.

In the morning – early in the morning, when her barks awakened me – I found that she had interpreted “run of the garage” slightly more liberally than I had intended. Paw prints on the roofs of our vehicles revealed her nocturnal wanderings. She had reached heights – or depths, depending on one’s perspective – I had rashly considered beyond her. A chewed container indicated a sortie along my work counter, while a scattering of purloined cat kibble on the floor was evidence of a record-breaking assault on a shelf a good six feet off the ground. Then of course there were the inevitable puddles and piles to clear up.

Even as she summoned my attention to these activities, shortly before dawn, remorse was clearly not on her mind. Instead she showed her delight at seeing me again by flinging herself against my legs in what might pass in the lab world for a bear hug and then rolling over for a belly rub. Her separation anxiety, I realized, was chronic. And no wonder. Who would ever know what she had endured out there among the coyotes and cougars? It was a wonder she could sleep at all.

Over the next few days she began to calm down. She put on three pounds and looked more lab-like rather than the Halloween ghoul she had appeared to be on first meeting. At night, she took to her bed as if it was something familiar from a previous chapter in her life. The fish even felt marginally safer.

Still, the fact remained that she was a foster child. Local rescue groups were on notice that we really were anxious to put her up for adoption before we got too attached to her and her to us.

While we were waiting for a vacancy, it was suggested to me, perhaps we should get her scanned for a microchip. In view of the remote place where she was found, I thought it to be nothing more than a formality. Collarless dogs are often dumped at city perimeters. Apparently their erstwhile owners think they go off to live with the coyotes. Why should this situation be any different?

As the vet tech ran her scanner over nameless one’s back, there was an instant bonanza. She was chipped. I was stunned. A phone call revealed she had a name, Mallory. It also revealed an owner’s name and number, and the rescue group from which she had been adopted previously.

Two days later, the owner had not responded. But the rescue group would take her back and find another home for her.

As I drove Mallory into Phoenix, I couldn’t help feeling that I was betraying her. Despite my resolution, we had bonded just in the week we had been together. She had won me over with her affection and intelligence and that stoic good humor that makes dogs such an uplifting, irreplaceable part of so many people’s lives.

I can’t begin to fully appreciate the emotions of those who provide foster homes on a regular basis. Each parting must be bitter sweet. The sorrow of losing a companion outweighed, hopefully, by the prospect of a fresh start.

As we said our goodbyes, I could only hope that Mallory would bear no grudges and that fortune would bring her the happy, caring home she so richly deserved.


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