I had intended to come back and write a post in response to all of the activity on the last one. I was really impressed with the conversation in the comments section – considering what a hot topic the use of prong collars is, you all deserve a big pat on the back for keeping things civil. While I was mulling over what to say, life got in the way and it moved to the back burner – honestly, vying for attention with a whole lot of other things I have sitting there. Between getting CPAD off the ground, the farm, kids, dogs… on and on – well, you get the picture. All of it came to a screeching halt yesterday when my daughter found another lump on Mary, though, and after this morning’s visit to our dear vet I just can’t seem to take a deep breath without pain.
How to communicate what and who Mary is? Often these stories start out with the sadness and tragedy of the former life, the exaltation of the rescue and continue with the blow by blow of the rehab, ending with the happily ever after. In Mary’s case, as in several of the most deeply affecting journeys of my life, there is no redemptive ending, no brilliant success, nothing that makes it all better. I can only tell you what I know, what I’ve seen and felt, what I tried to do – and in the end what life handed her.
This is Mary.
More accurately, this is Mary in the great outdoors, enjoying herself on one of the bazillion rural offleash walks we’ve taken – about 2 years ago, I’d say. I take so many pictures, being a photographer, that it’s hard to keep track. Mary is, if you can’t tell already, a Golden Retriever. She was born under the ownership of a puppy miller. This man liked to keep dogs in grain bins on his property, a few different breeds. He made money by breeding these dogs every heat cycle and selling their pups. He also had a family who liked GRs. They kept two pups from Mary’s litter, Mary and her sister. The adult daughter explained to me when I arrived on the scene 7 years later that they had wanted to keep Mary outside like her sister was, but Mary wouldn’t stop running away. Into the grain bin she went.
I’ll spare you the details, but the short version was that Mary had stopped producing for the miller at the age of 7 and so he, being the bottom line man that he was, had decided to shoot her. The adult daughter we met that day told me that she had asked him if she could find a home for Mary instead. 1 Kijiji ad + 1 curious woman with a particular feeling in her gut = Mary alive. I’ll never forget the first moment I saw her and her wiggly, appeasing body that was the color of ripe wheat. Somehow we got her into the car and she lay flat as slate against the back seat. Her teeth were all ground down, she was overweight, her coat was dull and brittle – and she had a massive cyst on her back end. She’d been used up, barely nourished, exploited, neglected, deprived, abused…. and then when she couldn’t give anymore, thrown out with the trash.
It’s stories like Mary’s that keep rescuers up at night, keep people fighting for animal welfare law changes, keep some of us on the forefront of education and advocation. She is one of the reasons why it’s getting harder and harder to buy dogs in pet stores, for instance. She’s a statistic, and in the scheme of such things, she was one of the more lucky ones. She got basic vet care, she was fed, and she had some shelter. What she didn’t have were three things she needed the most – stimulation, freedom, and the company of people. Golden Retrievers are well known for their desire to be close to their people and it’s one of the reasons why people in turn love them so much. I don’t know how many puppies Mary produced in the years she was in that bin, nor do I know how many of them went to a good home or on to a life similar to hers. All I do know is how this life of extreme deprivation and force breeding affected her.
Mary was terrified of the world. She sat by the car, stared into space, shook and rocked. We finally had to pick her up to bring her indoors. The sight of her body shaking and rocking, of her sitting by the wall, panting and staring off in to nothingness was to become a familiar one. I set her up with a soft bed right beside where I slept, and she refused to leave it except for the quickest trips outside to relieve herself. We got used to her barreling through and into things in her rush to get back to her safe space. She trembled when we touched her. She didn’t use her nose for anything, didn’t sniff, didn’t explore, didn’t even seem to know what it was for. She panted, stressed, all of the time except for when she was sleeping or eating. She inhaled her food and broke into the food bin, no matter how well we secured it. Twice I woke up in the middle of the night to find her foaming at the mouth with bloat. She had eaten so much that she looked ready to give birth to an enormous litter. We couldn’t confine her or she would panic. She didn’t like large or tall men, and my husband had to keep his distance. She didn’t like other animals, especially any who wanted to get to know her. Her space became her little island of security and I began to despair of ever expanding her horizons.
One day, months later, she stayed out with us on the yard a bit longer. Then I caught her smelling the grass, following her nose to some hidden treasure. My son went stalk still outside one day, gesturing wildly with his arm; Mary was on her back with her feet in the air, wriggling in the grass with a blissful look on her face. We just stopped and watched, tears welling up. That day was a day to have a party. Mary was finally being what she was born to be – a dog.
With time, Mary became a solid and integral part of our family. She struggled to remain engaged with life; easily overwhelmed, she’d retreat to her safe spot by the bed. When we did a few renovations and moved rooms, she fell apart. The safe space was in THAT room, and to move set her back significantly. I know now that she has PTSD, but at the time I was heartsick that I’d messed life up again for her. Despite that, she learned the thrill of wandering walks beyond our property; just the rustle of the picking up the leashes for the other dogs got her pushing her fears aside to dance at the door. She let a couple of the smaller dogs sneak on to her bed from time to time. She held her own when our other medium sized bitch decided to be a bit difficult with her. Nothing could quite get Mary’s attention like the clatter of dog dishes and she made sure that we knew that she was first in line. Any extra human food bits were enough to get her feet dancing and teeth chattering. I’ve had to learn to be very discreet and calm about treats of higher value than kibble as Mary can’t quite see straight when they’re present.
Mary gives her all to people. Food and walks may have always been good motivators for her, but nothing in the world compared to squishing herself up to your side and the absolute euphoria of being caressed and whispered to. Eventually, every visitor was expectantly greeted by a golden mass of adoration. There was no key to this; simple time, trust and her innate temperament did the job. After 3 years she decided that she could expand her safe spot to one near the kitchen as well so she could be a bit closer to the action of the family. She even jumped up on the bed for a few impromptu cuddles, something she had never done before.
Just before Christmas 2013, during some routine grooming, we found a lump underneath one of her nipples. Further exploration came up with 3 more very small ones just beyond the next nipple. Having just taken a course in canine reproduction, I knew that the fact that Mary had been spayed late in life meant that this was likely mammary cancer. The vet confirmed it. Given that the lumps were small and that she was not quite 11 years old, he felt that she was a good candidate for removal and that it would likely give her at least one year more. We went ahead with the surgery.
The recovery was really rough. I woke in the night to find Mary shaking and rocking, panting as she hadn’t done for almost a year. The bruising was extensive and the incision site became infected. The pain was severe and despite the medication for it, Mary’s coping behaviors rushed back – her eyes wild with confusion. My heart broke in a million pieces; I had done the wrong thing putting her through this. I solemnly swore to her that I would never again, that I would let her go when the time came no matter how much it hurt me.
Last night, while I was busy with life, my daughter was giving Mary belly scratches and found another lump. Our vet found a lot more little ones this morning. I really thought she had looked better post recovery, but if I’m honest it was only briefly. She was slower again on our most recent walks and I could see in her eyes that she was struggling. Just thinking about it is like little jabs in my gut. Thinking of living here without her this soon is a 2 x4. I wanted so much more for her. I wanted the light to shine in her eyes as it should, I wanted her to feel completely carefree. I wanted to fix what she lived through, wanted to give her back what she lost – in heaping, generous amounts. I wanted what couldn’t be – restoring what was stolen can never truly be done for a being who went through what she did.
If I’m not around much in the next while, or if I am but seem a bit absent or shallow, it’s because I’m trying to make Mary’s life ending read differently than her beginning or even her middle. There is a resignation about her, a wisdom that I have yet to achieve. Even in this time, my dogs remain my biggest life teachers and I imagine that Mary will meet her death with more dignity and acceptance than I will – she’s showing it already. My heart and my head are locked in a struggle of titanic proportions, not mitigated at all by the fact that I’ve been here before and will, mostly likely, be again. To love our animals as we do means that we inflict pain on ourselves because very few of them live as long as we do. Falling in love with dogs like Mary is even more painful because there is no time that I can say she was really, truly alright. I couldn’t fix the brokenness and that fact alone makes me want to rage with frustration at the unfairness of it all.
Life is fleeting for all of us. There are no guarantees, and few consolations for some of the earth’s creatures. Do me a favor and give a little extra to those you love, let them know how much you care, on behalf of Mary who pushed past her fears to find the love she’d always craved. Mary’s time may nearly be at an end, but if her story inspires even one other person to love a little harder and make a difference, I hope that it won’t have been in vain.