Sammy Dammit the Wrong Dog passed away at approximately 4:30 p.m. on Good Friday, 2 April 2010, after a brief illness. He was six-and-a-half years old.
Sammy came by his first and middle names quite naturally. It was what you’d holler when you discovered the chewed-up glasses, CDs, Mama’s needlepoint cushion, or the puddle of urine on the floor.
“Sammy! Damn it!”
Then you cleaned up, repaired what could be salvaged, or replaced the proverbial stuff. Dogs will be dogs, and they get over with quite a lot when they give you that guileless look that we sometimes refer to as “hang-dog.”
Sammy—named after Miz Possum’s cousin—came by his last name through circumstance.
On 1 October 2003 or thereabouts, in the late afternoon, Lupe the Ninja Terrier went nuts inside the Possum Den, barking and scratching at the front door. I went onto the front porch to investigate. Two tiny puppies—one light brown and one jet black, were trying to climb the impossibly steep steps.
Miz Possum called out inside the house. “What’s going on out there?”
“Hey!” I replied. “We got puppies!”
“What are you talking about? What puppies?”
I was out of my wheelchair and butt-bumping down the stairs. Miz Possum came out, carried the pups onto the porch, and I rejoined her in short order. As she stroked them and we speculated where they might have come from, she looked at me. “We don’t need puppies. We have a dog, a three-legged cat, and a box turtle.”
“You want I should take them off in the woods and abandon them?”
(I knew then that the battle was half-won.)
An examination showed the brown one to be a girl, and the black one to be a boy. While I checked the plumbing, Miz Possum prepared warm milk and some of Lupe’s food for the foundlings. “We’ll keep them tonight, and find out where they came from tomorrow,” she said, as she put the bowls down for them.
(I knew then that the debate was over. I never argue with my Significant Other, but every once in a blue moon I can slip one over on her. The pups actually won this one, just by the sheer cuteness of their beings.)
I prepared a box for them on the porch. We didn’t think they’d try the front steps, as they were quite intimidating to small critters. They were fed, and subsequently sleepy. They’d be fine.
The next morning, the puppies were gone. I had scarcely announced this when Miz Possum had me down the front steps, wheelchair and all, and into her car. We were off on a puppy hunt. We stopped to quiz strangers enjoying autumn walks along the roadside. We discovered secluded housing projects we didn’t know existed on the far side of Mull Mountain. I hung out the passenger’s window, calling, whistling, and scanning the ditches. We went as far as Jonica Gap, which is a considerable spit-and-whistle from the former Possum Den at the base of Mull Mountain. We found nothing.
As we were driving home in despair, Miz Possum suddenly whipped a turn into the front yard of a modest house. “Look!” she exclaimed. “Puppies!”
Two little black pups were frolicking on the lawn with their light brown baby sister. Nearby, a medium-sized shaggy mutt and their mama lay watching. I recognized the adult dogs; they belonged to our former next-door neighbors, Jeff and Dawn.
Miz Possum was out of the car and checking out the puppies when Dawn came out of the house and approached the car. I brought Dawn up to speed on our doggie visitation of the day before and the afternoon’s frantic search, whereupon she laughed and said “We ain’t exactly dog-poor. You see one you like, help yourself.”
Miz Possum brought one of the black puppies back to the car and deposited him in my lap. As she stepped away to chat with Dawn, I stroked the dog and noticed that his fur was more fluffy and less shiny than I remembered it to be. When Miz Possum and I headed home—about a mile away; a considerable odyssey for six-week-old pups—I remarked that we might have the wrong dog.
“You’re nuts,” she said. “This was the only boy dog there. The other black one was a female.”
When we got home, we fed him, and I again speculated that we had the wrong dog. At a loss to explain how this might be so, I accepted a mild rebuke and hushed up.
The next morning, I fed the dog on the front porch, and watched him carefully. There was something different going on here. He ate differently, and when he was finished, he moved to a place on the porch and assumed a different posture than the other black dog. (The day before, we had named the other black dog “Spike”, in honor of film director Spike Lee, who was making a fuss about Ted Turner naming one of his networks “Spike TV.” It seemed like the thing to do at the time.) I became more convinced that the dog I was keeping company with on the front porch was not Spike, and when I went back inside, I reiterated to Miz Possum that we were in possession of the wrong dog.
“You are insane,” she assured me.
I wagged a finger. “Just wait,” I said. “In another hour, Spike will turn up. That ain’t him.”
It took about three hours, but eventually my faith was rewarded by Spike laboring up the front steps to join his brother. I called Miz Possum onto the front porch, and proudly announced that we now had two new dogs.
When she had transcended her disbelief and accepted the fact that we now had a pair of canine bookends, I examined their paws for a size estimate.
“How big are they going to be?” she asked.
“Big as a house,” I chortled. “Bigger than Volkswagens.”
“So how are we going to feed them?”
“I’ll do without jelly to go with my peanut butter,” I replied. “What, are we gonna take the ‘wrong dog’ back and say we don’t want him?”
A good winner knows when to shut up and be gracious.
When the blessedly mild winter arrived, the pups got to live inside. Lupe is a small dog, and they constantly approached her for attention. Having never raised puppies of her own, Lupe responded with warning growls of dismay that she was no longer the only dog in the household. A new pecking order was eventually established. Spike remained “just Spike”, but Sammy became known as “Sammy Dammit the Wrong Dog.”
One fine day in the early summer of 2004, when Spike and Sammy were half-grown, I drove down to the mailbox a quarter-mile away on the corner. Coming back up towards the house, I saw the dogs taking off after one of the many deer who would wander into our spacious yard. I thought nothing more about it, but when they didn’t come home that night, Miz Possum and I grew worried.
The next morning, Sammy was waiting beside the front door for someone to come out. He had a large diagonal gash across the top of his nose. It looked like a claw mark. His manner was subdued, as though something had frightened the bejabbers out of him.
We never saw Spike again.
We made up photographic posters and plastered them everywhere. We checked with Jeff and Dawn, and made phone calls. We crawled the roads between Jonica Gap and Blue Ridge to see if Spike had been hit by a car if they’d made it to the main roads. This time, there was no happy ending. Our best conclusion was that Spike and Sammy had encountered something large and fierce on the woods, and Spike gave all so Sammy might escape. This is mountain country, and the denizens include black bears, panthers, red wolves, coyotes, and bobcats. Sammy took a bodacious swipe across the face from something, and it changed his demeanor for the rest of his life.
Sammy grew into a very large dog. I used to joke that Lupe could stand under him in a rainstorm and not get wet. He had a head like a bear, legs like a horse, and the lean body of a blue-tick hound. For all his rambunctious behavior—stampeding through the house like a herd of buffalo, and inadvertently knocking stuff off tables with his tail—he had an amazing delicacy when accepting treats or asking for attention from strangers. He once stole my glasses off my face without waking me when I was snoozing before the TV. Even though he grew to be three times Lupe’s size, he never growled at her or threw his weight around. Although he was primarily “the yard dog”, he got to come inside on cold winter nights and sleep with me. He and Lupe would share the bed without fighting—with one notable exception—and he always lazed around like a huge, oversized puppy at those times. I have serious regrets that I never captured one of the Kodak moments when he and Lupe were snuggling beside me.
He had a bark like a cannon going off, and was never shy about giving voice to other dogs in the neighborhood or sounding off if a critter ventured too close to his fenced yard. He also had a mournful howl that he would deploy on occasion, usually when the moon was full. He had the full dog’s vocabulary of 400 words of English, and I understood the nuances of his barks to a tee. He’d never win a dog show competition for obedience, but his exuberance and loyalty overcame what more sophisticated owners might regard as flagrant disregard of propriety.
Two weeks before Good Friday, Sammy became disdainful of food. Then, he stopped barking when Miz Possum would leave for work, or other scheduled visitors would arrive. We changed his food back to his favorite kibble. We put Lupe out into the yard with him for companionship, thinking he might be depressed or on a hunger strike. Nothing worked.
Finally, we brought him into the house for observation. He seemed distracted, and still refused food. We checked his teeth. We gave him a worm purgative. Nothing. In the last week, he lost one-third of his body weight.
On Thursday, 1 April, we dragged him to the vet. I will come to cherish that car ride, with him sitting between my legs and staring eagerly out the window at each new sight, sound and smell. Right now, it just makes me start crying again. The vet took blood and other samples, and said they’d call. We were given antibiotics to administer every twelve hours. He got one upon arrival home, and another one that night. Even though the weather was warm, he got to stay in.
That night, he was too weak to climb into my bed. Nevertheless, he slept on the floor beside me until dawn. He had looked better at bedtime, and before I rose that morning I heard him lapping water from Lupe’s bowl downstairs. Once I was up and about, he kept coming to me, not with whines or whimpers, but wanting nothing more than an ear rub, which I gladly gave. Still, he refused food or water, preferring to lie on the living room rug or walk up to put his head in my lap.
Shortly after 4:00 that afternoon, Miz Possum helped me poke another antibiotic tablet down his gullet. She left the room. At 4:15, he sat at the open door onto the deck, and stared into the distance. I opened the screen and invited him outside, but he refused. We anthropomorphize our pets, but I wonder now if he knew what was going to happen. A few minutes later, he lay down beside my easy chair, where I had moved to watch TV. He looked like he was going to take a nap and gather his strength. I had a chicken patty cooked, cut up and ready for him in the kitchen, should he get hungry enough for it.
The TV was not loud. I heard him take two thready, rattling breaths. At the third one, I looked over at him. They were not sighs. He was not breathing. I came out of the chair with loud wails and went to him. Miz Possum tried to do CPR while I cleared his airway. He was gone.
I have had a succession of dogs in my life; they have been my constant companions. I have outlived them all, save Lupe, and known the pain of losing them to the inevitable. My neighbor Tom, who helped with the burial today, lost his canine companion of ten years a short time ago. He says he won’t have another. I have watched people die, and known the unique agony of the murder of a parent. I know my father understands when I say that this loss, at this moment, hurts more than I can describe. He was a Beagle lover; I’m just a large-dog aficionado. Labs, Retrievers, Dobermans, Alsatians, mutts, and since I became a wheelie, Lupe the Ninja Terrorist/Terrier.
Sammy’s mother was a “rescue dog” who was taped into a cardboard box and tossed in a local river to die, after a childhood of abuse. She survived, and eventually gave me the gift of almost seven years of companionship with her offspring. Sammy was middle-aged by human standards, and died far too young. I am wrecked with wondering if I could have done more for him.
According to the vet, Sammy died of acute kidney failure. This was possibly due to a genetic defect of his mixed parentage, which was ecumenical, to say the least. His system was so poisoned, and so many things were out of whack with his electrolytes and blood chemistry, it’s doubtful that he could have been saved if canine ICU treatment had been applied immediately.
There may be a legacy for Sammy beyond my donations to the local no-kill shelter. At about the same time Sammy fell ill, Miz Possum brought home a bag of cat food. She works at a local community service agency/food bank. People rarely donate pet food, but a couple of weeks ago someone brought in bags of dry pet food. Miz P. brought home a small bag of cat food, not for Roxie the three-legged cat, but as a supplement for the dogs’ food. I gave Sammy one straight bowl, which he enjoyed tremendously. Thereafter, I put a handful onto his regular dog chow as spice, since cat food is more pungent and spicy than dog ration. The veterinarian assures me that a single bowl of cat food could not have caused the kidney damage, although you should be advised that long-term cross-feeding of high-protein cat food will significantly harm a dog.
The vet also reminded me that several years ago, dry pet food manufactured in China was recalled because it contained melanin, which causes renal failure and death in domestic animals. The product—under several different names—was recalled from the shelves. However, as Miz Possum has mentioned on several occasions, people donate human food to the food pantry which is beyond its expiration date. Although the staff members are diligent about checking the quality, security of packaging, and expiration dates of people food, no one has yet thought to check the labels of rarely-donated pet food. This will change on Tuesday, when Miz Possum will obtain a bag of the questionable cat food, and we will have the lot number—and hence the place of origin and other data—of the dry product. There is a chance that this is something left over from 2008, which is the date the vet cited as the time of the importation of the contaminated Chinese pet food. For his part, the vet knows where to look this up online, and will be waiting for my call once I have my hands on the label, brand name, and lot number of this wayward pet food. We will cross-check this, and the results will be published here and elsewhere, regardless of whether there is a threat. Other pet owners need to know, one way or another.
Sammy rests now beneath a huge short-leaf pine on the up-slope of Scorpion Hill. That is now “Sammy’s Tree”; he will go back to nature, and become part of a living thing. Thus it is with all of my critters, thus will it always be.
If there is still some of this contaminated Chinese crap-food still out there, and if diligence after-the-fact of Sammy’s death can save even one other pet owner from the emotional train wreck I am having, then this gentle, special dog will have served a noble cause with his too-short life. Don’t cross-feed, check your labels, throw out the expired stuff, and stay tuned for news if there is still poisonous stuff in circulation.
Sammy, I’m gonna miss you, buddy!