Fergus was a one-trick puppy, but it was a doozy, a monster über trick at the 1080 backside cab rodeo flip level. When he noticed strangers on the street he would perk up, assess the situation, make a bee-line for the least dog-loving person in the group, and turn on the dictionary definition of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” as he wagged his tail, turned in circles, and gazed up adoringly at the humans. Resistance was futile. If I had a dollar for every “aww so cute” it would have put him through Harvard. If the group were outside a restaurant or, better yet, carrying takeout food, winning their interest while the smell of cooking lingered in the air was transcendent canine ecstasy. It never ever got old.
Around 18,000 years of unnatural selection led to this apex predator of pet affection, an adorable dog. We’ll never know when or where he needed to turn on the charm to survive, or how his winning formula went wrong, before we adopted a scrawny sickly 8-month old mutt off the street whom the SPCA had infelicitously named “S crappy.”
The downside was Fergus had no great loyalty to his ostensible owners. The three times he managed to hop out of the car he took off for the hills like a jackrabbit, knowing he could lure a meal and a new living arrangement without breaking a sweat. We were lucky that each time an interesting smell distracted him long enough so I could tackle him. He was never off-leash on the street again, and even on-leash he’d wander expectantly into stranger’s open doors and garages looking for a new relationship. Depending on the kindness of strangers was his modus operandi, so he was the least grateful dog we’ve adopted.
His charm power meter had limits. At parties, after 45 minutes of showing off I’d find him recumbent and pensive in a corner. I feel the same way (“You can’t expect me to keep up that level of charm, I’d have a heart attack” — Play It Again, Sam); sometimes we’d curl up together. He was probably wondering what more he had to do for the adoring crowds to lift him onto the dining table in acclamation.
Fergus quickly learned to do the basic dog command repertoire: sit, down, shake, high five, and turn. When we got Nuala, a far smarter angry lesbian bitch, he struggled to keep up. He would “Go to your mat” if he liked the mat in question, but “Fetch the ball! Not the rope, the ball! Not the stuffed toy, get the ball!” ended with him wagging his tail in a transparent “I’m blonde and cute, you can’t expect me to discern the quiddity of objects!”
The darkness for him was narrow but deep. He was terrified of thunder, and despite how rare thunderstorms are where we live, his brain worked overtime to connect all kinds of events with it. Fireworks displays would make him desperate to find one unsatisfactory hiding place after another, his heart shaking his body from side to side like a rubber ball in a box. But then firecrackers too, so after a single crack he would turn tail and pull on the leash towards home. For the week around the 4th of July we would have to carry him outside. He learned to be scared of balloons that someone might puncture and even bubblewrap that someone might pop, and then any kind of package that might have bubblewrap, so that he would run away from deliveries and presents while Nuala would scrabble at the box hoping it contained treats and toys. The best thing about growing old was he couldn’t hear far-away explosions, but ’til the very end he could smell from a block away whether a party at the park had balloons (please, no further!) or not (yay!)
The narrow gap between our house and the neighbor’s is the only one on a long block, making it the cross-town route for cats with irresponsible owners and urban wildlife – possums, raccoons, skunks. Fergus believed his job was to alert us loudly and often to these interlopers (whereas a burglar would be a welcome opportunity for flirting and adventure). As his eyesight failed, any imagined motion would send him into intruder alert mode.
Fergus’ kidney function deteriorated but he soldiered on diminished, with regular subcutaneous fluids from nurse mom. This week he became jaundiced probably due to liver failure, and he stopped eating. Staying at the animal hospital for intravenous fluids was an (expensive) opportunity for him to meet new people, but we were not going to subject him to invasive procedures. After two days with no clear diagnosis, he was still trembling in pain and not eating, with only a slim chance that antibiotics might restore him to, at best, a feeble dog with kidney problems. As his guardians and friends, we chose to kill him. A shot of propofol (the choice of Michael Jackson) and he was at peace, then a shot of barbiturates and he was gone. It’s an awesome terrible power to wield over another, but I fervently hope someone does it to me when I’m near my end. It is utterly inhumane that we don’t extend the same dignity in death to ourselves that we do to our companion animals.
Two weeks ago: an evening stroll, lights ahead, a group of people outside a pizza restaurant (!), and another chance for Fergus to delight strangers and strengthen the bonds between man and animal. It never grew old.
Goodbye my ward, my companion, my true friend.
wuff wuff wuff