Once I heard a story where an old man remembered his life through each dog he had. At the time, I thought the story was interesting. Now, I know it makes perfect sense.
Over the years, I’ve had several dogs. My first dog, Trixie, will forever be the dog I associate with being a child and growing up. Additionally, I learned how to manage a human aggressive dog that affects my thinking to this day. My second dog, Rusty, sparked my interest in the world of dogs, adopting pets (she was my first rescue) and wildlife. She also taught me about high prey drives and escape artists. A third dog, Jerry, taught me about dog aggression. Both Rusty and Jerry will always remind me of the period when I become an adult.
Daphne Comes into My Life
After I graduated college, I had no pets for over a decade. While I would see Rusty and Jerry at my parents house for the first few years when I visited, this was no substitute for having a pet. At the time, I rented apartments that allowed no dogs. Even if my landlords allowed dogs, I lived alone and worked too many hours to have one. My life was missing something very important for a long time.
Over the years, I would visit Petfinder and look at the dogs I wished I could have. It was forbidden fruit. When my wife, Estrella, and I were dating, we would occasionally look at Petfinder together and even visited an animal shelter I would go to in high school. Again, this was all a fantasy as none of these dogs could come home with me.
A few months after Estrella and I got married, I started a job where I worked long hours. At the time, I was out of work for many months due to the financial crisis and the related recession. This was not the job I wanted, but it was the job I needed.
One Sunday in late December 2009, I felt bad about not spending time with Estrella due to the many hours I worked in this new job. Since we lived very close to Bergen County Animal Shelter, I suggested we visit to do something fun. As we did before we got married, we had no intention of adopting a pet when we walked into the shelter.
Upon entering the dog section of the facility, we ran right into Daphne in a glass showcase kennel. Immediately, I was in awe of her beauty and her athletic physique. Estrella took a photo and Daphne barked at her. Estrella didn’t like that! Soon a shelter volunteer greeted us and tried to sell Daphne to us. It was quite convincing. How could I tell her we were just there to spend some time and were not going to adopt a dog?
Subsequently, we looked at the other dogs on the adoption floor. We were shocked to see so many pit bulls. Prior to this I did not like pit bulls. After my family got Rusty, I became a voracious reader of every dog book I could find. In my local library I came across a book from Richard Stratton. Richard Stratton clearly glorified dog fighting. Additionally, he portrayed pit bulls as a supernaturally powerful animal with a perfect temperament with people. In other words, pit bulls were a super hero caricature. Over the years, I would see other books and hear people say similar things and how all other dogs were worthless compared to pit bulls. Basically, I associated pit bulls with these distasteful people. When coupled with the many negative pit bull stories in the news media, I disliked pit bulls.
All these negative pit bull biases went out the window that day. As we walked the kennels seeing so many pit bulls, my desire to save the animals most needing help came out. Over and over, we walked back and forth looking at the dogs and read the information on their kennels. We became obsessed! That night, we played a game where we’d say to each other “if you were going to adopt a dog at the shelter, which one would you choose?” As time went by, the list grew until we picked around our top 10 dogs!
Over the next week, Estrella went to the shelter every day after work. At that time Bergen County Animal Shelter had different management and was very friendly to adopters. Estrella and the shelter veterinarian bonded and she even allowed Estrella to see dogs not on the adoption floor. When we looked at our lease, we found out we could have any dog we wanted. By the time New Years Eve came on that Thursday, Estrella and I were ready to adopt. In just four short days, we went from killing some time at the shelter to going to adopt a dog.
The shelter brought three dogs to us in a fenced in yard. Daphne, who was our second choice before this, immediately kicked a tennis ball to Estrella. When Estrella threw the ball, Daphne ran like a bullet to fetch it. Estrella was sold. I had to convince her to even see the other two dogs, Sylvester and Miles. After seeing these dogs, Estrella and I decided to pick Daphne.
The shelter mentioned Daphne was a “special needs” dog. First, we were told she seriously injured another dog who somehow got into her kennel. Second, Daphne had incredible amounts of energy and would require tons of exercise. Third, she would throw up in the car almost immediately. Perhaps these were the reasons she spent a year at the shelter and was there the second longest of any dog? We couldn’t care less, we wanted her! The shelter told us to come back on Saturday, January 2, 2010 to adopt her since the facility was closing soon.
On the day we were to adopt Daphne, we ran to PetSmart and got tons of pet food and supplies. When we got to the shelter, it seemed as if the shelter tried to convince us not to adopt Daphne. First, the shelter told us she became very aggressive with the veterinary staff as they prepped her for adoption. Then a new employee, who I would learn much more about years later, tried to convince us not to adopt Daphne. Again, our minds were made up. We were doing this!
The shelter volunteer who loved Daphne took a long time to take her to us. Estrella said he looked quite sad. Was he going to miss Daphne or did he think we couldn’t handle her? As someone who managed an aggressive dog as a child and two challenging dogs as a young adult, I knew I was ready. While Estrella didn’t have this experience, she was always adept at handling life’s challenges. Finally, we adopted Daphne and drove her to our home five minutes away. Within 30 seconds, she threw up in the car!
Daphne immediately showed us how amazing she was that first day with us. She was obsessed with playing ball and insisted we join her. Our reward? A dog who would cuddle with us on the couch!
Over the next several months I continued to work long hours in the stressful job. However, Daphne with her high intensity energy was ready when I got home. Despite Estrella walking Daphne for long distances, Daphne still wanted more. I would throw her ball inside our townhouse endlessly, play tug of war and play wrestle. When we play wrestled, Daphne was so quick, balanced and athletic, I was simply in awe. When we were lucky enough to find a nearby dog park empty, Daphne showed us her athletic ability and fetching skills.
On weekends, I would walk Daphne in the Saddle River County Park in Saddle Brook. When we got her, it was impossible to walk her near people or other dogs. If we did, she would lunge at them. Her reactivity was off the charts. Nonetheless, we adapted.
Once the sun set later, Estrella would bring Daphne to this park every day. They would do a long walk around the park and then engage in extended fetch sessions on the ball field. On weekends I would join as well. We’d usually bring a tennis racket and hit the ball as far as we could. Daphne would run full tilt and would take seemingly forever to tire in the summer. We’d also bring a cloth frisbee and Daphne would catch it in the most acrobatic ways. In fact, people would often stop to watch her and be in awe. We’d have to end before she’d run herself to exhaustion. In the winter time, this dog seemed to almost never tire out. Simply put, she was a superstar canine athlete with the heart of a champion.
We also hiked and found a lake for her to play fetch in during the summer.
Daphne Inspires Us to Help Animal Shelters
Over these first few months with Daphne, I continued to visit the Bergen County Animal Shelter web site. First, I wanted to see if the other dogs we looked at got adopted. Subsequently, I’d look at the new dogs arriving and wondered what their story was. Were they special in their own way like Daphne? Eventually, I remembered a shelter existed in Newark. I wondered if a smaller suburban shelter like Bergen County Animal Shelter had so many amazing pit bulls, what would a larger urban shelter have? Each day, I would then look at Associated Humane Societies-Newark’s Petfinder web site as well. After seeing some intriguing dogs, I mustered the courage to visit the shelter on President’s Day in 2010. Unfortunately, I hardly spent any time in the shelter due to me running late for a doctor’s appointment. Additionally, the deafening barking noises in the kennels drove me out. I knew I’d be back one day.
Seven months later I convinced Estrella to go with me to Associated Humane Societies-Newark as a late birthday present. Despite it being a Sunday, the shelter seemed devoid of adopters. We fell in love with dog after dog. One dog, Lonzo, a leggy pit bull like dog was our favorite. At the same time, we knew no one was coming for these dogs and they were just waiting to die. How did no one know about these wonderful animals like we knew about Daphne? The next day Estrella called me at work and told me she started a Facebook page called Friends of Newark NJ Animal Shelter. Our lives and Daphne’s would change forever.
Each week, we’d go back to AHS-Newark. At the time, the shelter had no volunteer program. To get the dogs out for photos and exercise, we’d pretend we were interested in adopting a dog. We’d spend hours at the shelter and many more at home trying to save the dogs. After a few weeks, the workers caught on to our game and gave us keys to the dog kennels (each was locked). During this time, the public came in droves to help the shelter. AHS-Newark had to unofficially allow volunteers. People came to walk dogs, do adoption events and photograph and market cats. Rescues contacted us to pull animals. We held successful food and supply drives. Things were improving.
Over the next two and a half years, we worked seemingly 24/7 to save AHS-Newark’s dogs. I’d write down the cage card information of all 100 or so medium to large size dogs each week. Additionally, I’d follow-up with the front desk to see what dogs left alive and what dogs the shelter killed. Even to this day, I remember how my heart broke when I heard the front desk person tell me “euthanized” for so many dogs and how I felt relieved when I heard the words “reclaimed”, “adopted” and “rescued” for others. At home, I’d compile the updated inventory list of dogs to ensure we could give adopters and rescuers accurate information about what dogs were available (very few were on Petfinder due to the shelter not having enough people evaluating dogs). I would also get the most difficult dogs out of their kennels for Estrella. Estrella would evaluate dogs, photograph them and take photos. Additionally, she created Petfinder profiles, ran the Facebook page and dealt directly with the shelter, adopters and volunteers. At the time, I told Estrella she should run the shelter based on how hard she worked and the fantastic job she did.
Around this time, I got a job that I wanted. I would work long hours in New York City, but it was something I enjoyed. Between the job, our volunteering and taking care of Daphne, I had little free time for anything else. Estrella was just as, if not more, busy. Despite this, we were very happy making a positive difference.
Daphne would soon experience our work directly. After about six months volunteering at AHS-Newark, we decided to foster a dog for a rescue. At the time, we were terrified about it. Daphne was the dog who we were told seriously injured another dog at Bergen County Animal Shelter. Also, we had seen how she reacted to strange dogs on our walks. Were we going to cause a disaster?
We selected Booker as our foster. Booker was an 85 pound older American bulldog with a sad story. At the shelter, he appeared unhappy and was not in great physical shape. Also, we were told he was used as a guard dog (he was not aggressive at all) by a landlord in abandoned apartments (the separation anxiety we would learn about seemed to confirm this). We were certain he had zero chance to make it out alive. For Daphne, we thought he’d be a perfect fit. Not dominant enough to challenge her, but big enough survive an attack by our supposedly dog aggressive pit bull.
On the day we picked Booker up from the shelter, we had a plan to introduce the dogs. We took them to Saddle Brook County Park and started walking them far apart. Over a period of time, we gradually walked them closer together. They seemed happy! Would this continue? When we came to our tiny yard at our townhouse, we placed both leashes down. Daphne and Booker wrestled and then Daphne rolled around on her back beneath Booker. This was going to work!
During their time together, Daphne was the boss. Despite being around half Booker’s weight, Daphne would win their regular wrestling matches. She’d stand toe to toe with Booker, out-maneuver him and hump him! Booker took it all in stride and enjoyed his new very active friend.
Each day, Estrella would take both Daphne and Booker together for long walks. Booker went from a sad and slow moving older dog to a happy vibrant boy. Perhaps Daphne’s energy rubbed off on him? People would come from everywhere to ask about him. Booker went from an old dog “no one wanted” to a highly desirable dog. We began to realize people really wanted bully breeds. After only a few weeks, Booker found a home.
Our next foster dog would be a huge challenge. Major was a two year old 75 pound pit bull. Unlike Booker, Major was a dominant dog and much more athletic. At AHS-Newark, his striking good looks captivated us. At the same time, we knew large pit bulls fared poorly at this shelter. Outside the shelter, Daphne confirmed our suspicions that these two were going to be a handful. When Daphne and Major met, Daphne nipped Major on the head after he got in her face. As we did with Booker, Estrella and I walked Daphne and Major together for long time moving progressively closer together. Finally, we got the dogs together, but this time it was more like a truce than true love.
Daphne and Major got along, but the two always battled to see who was the boss. The two dogs would have epic wrestling matches. Despite Major weighing around 75% more than Daphne, Daphne would go toe to toe with him and hold her own. Usually, she would out-maneuver Major and tire him out. However, Major still would not accept Daphne being the top dog and we had to actively maintain the peace between them. When we walked Major and Daphne together, both dogs acted like they owned the joint. It was truly amazing. As with Booker, we quickly found a great adopter after a short period of time.
Soon after adopting out Major, we fostered Chance. Chance was an energetic pit bull-Labrador mix that spent a long time at AHS-Newark. Daphne clearly did not like Chance’s Labrador type energy. Estrella and I had to keep a constant eye on Daphne to ensure she behaved. Miraculously, she did. While we were on vacation, the rescue we fostered for adopted Chance out.
Several months after we adopted Major we purchased a home. As with everything at that time, Daphne was a key part of this decision. We would only buy a home with a large flat yard Daphne could play ball on. Additionally, the home had to be near places where we could hike. After a long and difficult process, we found a home with a big backyard and a pool. To get this home, I had to accept not having a usable garage to put my car in. This was a huge sacrifice for me as I love cars and always made sure my previous rented apartments had one. Once in the home, the very first improvement we made was to get the backyard fenced in. Daphne now had a yard to play ball in everyday. In the summer, she could swim and fetch balls in the pool.
After a couple of months in the home, we fostered Beanie. Beanie came to AHS-Newark as a few month old puppy and grew up in the shelter. As with other dogs we fostered, we knew we had to get him out. Beanie ended up as a perfect match for Daphne. He was a little larger than Daphne, but had a good amount of energy. Additionally, he was not threatening. Daphne found someone she could roughhouse with and be comfortable with. She truly loved Beanie. As with other dogs we adopted out, we found a great adopter. Beanie would be very happy.
Over the next several months, we fostered a couple of other dogs that rescues pulled from AHS-Newark. Gouda was a lovable and goofy dog Daphne did not know what to make of. AJ was a smaller pit bull Daphne felt comfortable with, but was not rough enough to have the fun she enjoyed. Still they had many sweet moments together.
Our Lives Change Forever
Nearly a year after moving into our home Estrella gave birth to our son Gavin. During the time Estrella was in the hospital, I rushed home numerous times to take Daphne out. After Gavin was born, I put one of Gavin’s blankets from the hospital in Daphne’s bed. Daphne was always tense and “iffy” around strangers. Honestly, we were concerned how she’d react. When we brought Gavin home, we had Daphne sniff him. She seemed indifferent and that’s how it would be when he was very young.
Daphne’s life changed initially, but not by too much. Estrella would still take Daphne for walks, but now they’d be alongside Gavin’s carriage and would move at a slower pace. I’d continue taking her for hikes, playing ball in the backyard and swimming in the pool.
Daphne continued to show her heart and courage. When we hiked Daphne’s huge prey drive was so intense that she’d even try and pursue black bears! Daphne also subdued a large chow chow that charged at Estrella and the carriage Gavin was in during a walk. When strangers came to the house, they were greeted by a dog determined to defend the place (luckily having the person throw a ball to her got her to warm up). On the other hand, Daphne would be scared of certain inanimate objects.
Gavin’s birth would totally change my volunteering activities at AHS-Newark. While Estrella continued to volunteer until only a few weeks before giving birth, I took over the things she did after that point and still continued to do my things. That meant, I evaluated dogs, took photos, wrote adoption profiles, administered the Facebook page, worked with rescues, counseled adopters, coordinated adoption events, compiled the records of dogs in the shelter and dealt directly with AHS staff. My life was crazy. The dogs I met during this time still stick in my mind.
During this period, our relationship with AHS-Newark deteriorated. When we volunteered at AHS-Newark, we knew the organization was completely dysfunctional. The shelter frequently provided poor care, did little to save the animals, operated using a 1970s style sheltering philosophy and needlessly killed many pets. We never defended the shelter, but bit our tongues to keep helping the animals. While I previously heard of Nathan Winograd, who is widely regarded as the leader of the no kill movement, I began reading his blogs voraciously. It seemed as if he described my exact experiences at AHS-Newark. By this time, we could stay quiet no more. We raised our concerns to shelter management and to other volunteers. It was clear shelter management had to take decisive actions to end the killing. We could only save so many animals with the shelter frequently acting against us. As AHS-Newark would do to so many other volunteers, the shelter banned us. To make matters worse, the shelter did so in the most cowardly way as explained in our Facebook post at the time.
My volunteer work would go on without AHS-Newark. Given I had a lot of success saving pit bull like dogs at one of the state’s largest and most notorious shelters, I thought others would welcome my help. After inquiring about helping numerous inner city shelters, such as Paterson Animal Shelter, Passaic Animal Shelter and Elizabeth Animal Shelter, I was saddened none of these facilities even allowed volunteers. Several others allowed volunteers, but did not want my assistance. Therefore, I began using our Facebook page to aggressively market dogs from a number of northern New Jersey animal shelters.
Once again, we had lot of success with social media promotion. In particular, we aggressively promoted Liberty Humane Society’s dogs for its Maddie’s free pet adoption events in 2013 and 2014. For several weeks, we promoted the event by posting the shelter’s dogs many times a day. Additionally, we created albums based on dog size and personality type. Liberty Humane Society ended up adopting out 120 dogs and cats (57 dogs and 63 cats) in 2013 and 128 dogs and cats (47 dogs and 81 cats) in 2014. People wanted homeless animals and pit bull like dogs like Daphne.
During this time, we yearned to volunteer at a shelter. One day, I came across Jersey Animal Coalition and contacted this South Orange animal shelter. At the time, the woman who did the Petfinder profiles and adoption photos was getting foot surgery. They were happy to let me fill in.
Jersey Animal Coalition was a dysfunctional shelter. When Estrella and I visited, we nearly cried to see large numbers of distressed dogs in small kennels and crates. Many dogs spent not just months, but many years at the facility. Even though the shelter was “no kill”, it didn’t properly implement the no kill equation to ensure animals quickly left the shelter alive and received elite care while at the facility. We were determined to help. Once again, I started evaluating dogs, taking photos and marketing them on social media.
While volunteering at Jersey Animal Coalition, I received the opportunity to become a board member. During my time as a board member, I made it clear the organization needed to remove the day to day management as well as many long-time board members that led to the organization’s poor treatment of animals and inability to implement the 11 no kill equation programs. Additionally, I strongly opposed the shelter transporting in massive numbers of puppies while adult dogs languished in the back of the facility. After a little more than two months and attending just two board meetings (one of which didn’t even have the board members responsible for the mess), I resigned when the shelter refused to change course. At that time, I was also told my volunteer activities were no longer welcome.
Soon after, numerous volunteers contacted me about Jersey Animal Coalition deteriorating even more. At the time, I told them to report their concerns to the New Jersey Department of Health and to request an inspection. Several months later the New Jersey Department of Health inspected and found serious problems. Ultimately, Jersey Animal Coalition closed after it did not fix all the issues.
Daphne Inspires Me to Become an Animal Advocate
After my time with Jersey Animal Coalition, I was at a crossroads. Would I go back to my life before volunteering at animal shelters? Certainly, I had a very bad taste in my mouth from experiences with AHS-Newark, Jersey Animal Coalition and other local animal shelters.
Each day I contemplated my next move, Daphne would remind me I had to do more. When I saw her, I thought of the many dogs that desperately needed a voice. At the time, I read many great no kill blogs, such as Nathan Winograd, KC Dog Blog, YesBiscuit!, Wisconsin Watchdog, Out the Front Door and Dogged. Additionally, I also regularly read successful wildlife and economics blogs. Soon the light bulb would go off. While I could save dozens of dogs a year directly, I could help save thousands of dogs each year if I could get shelters to implement lifesaving policies. I needed to create my own no kill advocacy blog.
In January 2014, I created the NJ Animal Observer blog and Facebook page. At the time, I wondered if anyone would listen to me. Most people seemed to blindly follow large and dysfunctional animal welfare organizations, such as Associated Humane Societies and NJ SPCA. Initially, the blog was similar to many of the other no kill blogs where I merely expressed opinions. Several months later I wrote my first data driven blog called We Can Save All the Pit Bulls. At the time, this was one of my most viewed blogs and Nathan Winograd shared it. Later that year, I used a data driven approach to write about the Helmetta Regional Animal Shelter. That blog was by far my most viewed blog at the time. More importantly, the local reform advocates used the material to assist their effort to reform that shelter. In fact, those local advocates would go on to become a major force in reforming animal sheltering and animal cruelty enforcement in New Jersey. Subsequently, I would use this data driven approach to evaluate almost every animal shelter in the state.
The animal shelter reform movement in New Jersey began to grow. Local animal advocates contacted me and we exchanged ideas. They fought to reform local animal shelters. Some reformed. Several other really bad ones closed thankfully. In 2013, which was the year before I started NJ Animal Observer and other animal advocates came to prominence, New Jersey animal shelters killed 23,490 dogs and cats (4,509 dogs and 18,981 cats). In 2018, New Jersey animal shelters killed 9,832 dogs and cats (1,895 dogs and 7,937 cats). Over the course of five years, killing decreased by nearly 60%. Even when compared to prior trends, things dramatically improved. New Jersey’s kill rate decreased at a rate 2-3 times greater after the first four years I created NJ Animal Observer compared to the four years before I started the blog. This improvement was even more startling since its harder to decrease kill rates when they become lower (i.e. the animals still being killed are harder to save).
Animal advocates didn’t directly save these animals, but their efforts helped others do so. Advocates pressured elected officials and shelter directors to pursue policies that saved lives. Once those policies went into effect, shelter workers, volunteers and rescues could do the hard work to save those animals. While we still know more must be done, we’ve made tremendous progress.
Daphne’s Life Dramatically Changes
As Gavin grew, our focus on Daphne decreased. Estrella couldn’t take Daphne for daily walks when Gavin got too big for a stroller. We also toned down the length and intensity of her ball fetching sessions in the backyard due to several mild cranial cruciate ligament injuries to her knees. Nonetheless, she continued to be a spectacular star by making catches that put Willie Mays famous “catch” to shame. Additionally, she continued to swim in the pool during the summer.
We could no longer foster dogs due to our concerns Gavin could get in the middle of a fight between Daphne and another dog. Instead, Estrella helped rescues and owners rehome their dogs. Once again, we found people sought dogs others said “no one wants.”
Daphne’s life would change yet again after we brought a cat named Pepper into our home. Due to Daphne’s intense prey drive, both animals could not be out together. We had specific procedures to keep both animals apart given the potential for disaster. While Pepper would become my “office cat”, Daphne would spend several hours alone each day while Pepper ran through the whole house. Ultimately, we would do it at times when Daphne typically napped. Still, Daphne made the sacrifice.
Estrella would soon foster mother cats and their litters of kittens. Now, we had to keep Daphne separate from both Pepper and all these cats. This was in addition to the two small dogs each of our next door neighbors would often have run loose in our front yard. We were always on alert! As we found out with pit bull like dogs, people wanted cats and kittens too!
Despite these changes, Daphne bonded with us even more. In particular, she really loved to be around Gavin. Perhaps, it was because they spent so much time together? Whatever it was, she enjoyed sharing the couch with him. Even with him doing typical kid things, she shrugged them off. If he got really out of hand, she quietly walked away. With us, she became more and more affectionate.
Over the last few years, life changes made it more difficult to focus on Daphne. Estrella changed her career and worked many more hours, especially nights and weekends. As Gavin got older, he had more school work we had to help him with and other activities. Of course, we still played ball in the backyard and in the pool during the summer. However, our long hikes became far less frequent. Still, Daphne cherished her time with us.
Our World Comes Crashing Down
Last summer, as with past ones, Daphne had a blast. On most days, she’d swim in the pool to fetch her ball. When we were in the pool, Daphne would run laps around to entice us to throw the ball into the pool. As a result of all the swimming and running, Daphne was in amazing physical shape.
In late August, we went to spend a week in Wildwood. As a child, I loved Wildwood and was eager to share the experience with Gavin. Additionally, Gavin got to spend much of the vacation with our friend and her two daughters. Several days into the vacation, we all went to the boardwalk to go on the rides. Seeing Gavin and his two friends have a blast on the rides was one of those wonderful moments a parent has. Everything seemed perfect. After awhile, we decided to get pizza on the boardwalk before going to another pier with the really fun rides.
While eating dinner in a crowded boardwalk pizza joint, I received a text from the person watching Daphne. Daphne was having a very difficult time getting up and walking around. As I sat at the crowded table, it was hard to process the news. Still, I began to worry. After we finished up, I went back to the place we rented to take the leftover food and everyone else went to the rides on other other pier. I received another text stating Daphne had bloody diarrhea. My heart raced as I knew something was gravely wrong. As I walked back to the pier, I googled the symptoms that confirmed this was an emergency situation. Once I got to the pier, Estrella and I rushed back to the place we stayed at. I quickly left to make the two and half hour drive home.
Once I got home at midnight, I carried Daphne into the car and rushed to the emergency veterinarian. When I got there, the staff immediately took Daphne in. As I sat there, I wondered how everything changed so quickly. How could Daphne go from swimming several days ago to this? Was I at fault for not worrying about the few times Daphne decided to cut off her swims a little early this year (which I attributed to old age/minor arthritis)? How did things go from absolutely perfect to a horror show so quickly this evening?
The emergency veterinarian soon came out and delivered devastating news. Daphne had canine hemangiosarcoma, which is an extremely aggressive cancer that grows on blood vessels. The tumor ruptured and she would bleed to death if we didn’t act. I had to decide if I would euthanize her or spend significant amounts of money to try and save her. The veterinarian advised me that attempts to save her may not work, and even if they did save her, she’d only live for a very short period. Unfortunately, Estrella had fallen asleep and I had to make the decision for both of us. Daphne could not die like this. I had to give her a chance. That night, the emergency veterinarian gave her a blood transfusion and stabilized her until they could determine if they could remove the tumor in the morning.
We received some good news the next morning. Daphne’s tumor was located on her spleen. Since Daphne could live without a spleen, the veterinarian could remove the spleen and the tumor. She went into surgery immediately after we agreed to move forward. Later in the day, we learned Daphne’s spleen removal surgery was successful.
That day I researched canine hemangiosarcoma extensively. Everything I seemed to read was dire. As I experienced, most owners also never knew their dogs had the disease until their tumors ruptured. Dogs having their spleens removed only survived 1-3 months without any other treatments. Even with additional chemotherapy, dogs typically would only survive 3-6 months. Additionally, I learned Yunzhi mushrooms, which are found in the I’m Yunity supplement, and Yunnan Baiyao, a Chinese herbal supplement, also were helpful. At a minimum, we’d give Daphne the two supplements and consider chemotherapy after consulting with a veterinary oncologist.
Since Daphne was stable and would need to spend a few days recovering at the veterinary hospital, I returned to Gavin and Estrella in Wildwood. Since our friend had left with her two daughters, our family would spend one last day together down there. While we were distraught over Daphne, we had a welcome distraction to prevent us from obsessing over her situation.
Soon after returning home, we picked Daphne up from the veterinarian. Initially, we were alarmed as she could barely get up and was wobbly when she did. Additionally, she was urinating on her bed. Had we made a grave mistake going through with the surgery? Did we keep her alive for our and not her benefit? Luckily, we’d find out these symptoms were due to a high dose of the sedating pain medication she received. Within a couple of days, she was ready to start her life again.
After consulting with the veterinary oncologist, we decided to do chemotherapy. We learned most dogs have few side effects compared to people. As with past veterinary visits, we’d have to sedate her and make her wear a a “hannibal lecter” style muzzle. Once the sedation wore off, she didn’t seem too affected by the chemotherapy. In fact, she’d routinely play tug of war and fetch with me.
On a Sunday in late September, we got the opportunity to take Daphne to the beach. After learning of Daphne’s illness, we promised her we’d take her to Wildwood next summer if she was still alive. Since we knew that was not likely, we jumped at the chance to take her to Sandy Hook on an unusually warm day.
Over the next several months, Daphne became incredibly affectionate with us. Did she know we saved her life? Did she know her time with us would not be long? Whatever the reason, we cherished these moments.
Last January, Daphne passed her first post-chemotherapy appointment with flying colors. All her blood test results were great and she seemed healthy and happy. The veterinary oncologist recommended we aggressively continue treating Daphne’s canine hemangiosarcoma. In addition to the I’m Yunity mushrooms and Yunnan Baiyao, we gave her the drug rapamycin, which had some limited evidence of being helpful for the disease. The veterinary oncologist also decided to add metronomic chemotherapy, which uses a low dose oral chemotherapy drug, in one month’s time. We were hopeful Daphne could spend many more great moments with us.
Once again, our world crumbled down in late February. Suddenly, Daphne became very weak. She started to have trouble getting around. When we brought her back to the veterinary oncologist, we knew what we’d hear. Daphne’s cancer had come back and spread. The oncologist had no other treatments and consoled us and gave us a pet hospice and in-home euthanasia service pamphlet. When I asked her if Daphne would be in pain, she said no. Instead, she told us Daphne would be very weak, and would get weaker, like when people have the flu.
Making matters worse, I was scheduled to go to Austin in two days to present at the American Pets Alive Conference. This would be the first time I presented at an animal welfare conference. Additionally, I was scheduled to speak with some amazingly talented people. Needless to say, I had been looking forward to this for months. As I wrestled with my decision, I realized I might not get home in time before we had to euthanize Daphne or when she passed away on her own. Additionally, I knew Estrella could not provide Daphne the care she needed on her own. Therefore, I had to do something I never do, cancel less than two days before I was scheduled to speak. Thankfully, my friend Davyd Smith from No Kill Colorado filled in for me.
Over the next three weeks, Daphne would amaze me yet again. Daphne began to eat less and less and became progressively weaker. She stopped eating dry dog food first, then the can dog food, then the cat can food and then various dog treats. She went down and up the stairs very slowly. When she went to the bathroom, she couldn’t squat very long. Despite her difficulties, she still came down to be with Gavin and me when we played video games downstairs. For some reason, she really enjoyed hanging with us on the couch when we started doing this around a year or so ago. Was it she liked being with us when we had fun? Whatever the reason, she mustered the strength to come down the stairs and would do a slow trot and use her all her energy to hop on the couch. When we took her out to poop, she would pull energy from nowhere to slowly walk around 50 yards away to a little wooded area. How was she doing this?
By mid-March, Daphne stopped eating entirely on her own and became incredibly weak. We resorted to squeezing baby food into her mouth. Unfortunately, she would only eat a little bit and it would come no where near her nutritional needs. She lost a tremendous amount of weight. Now, we’d have to carry Daphne up and down the stairs to go to the bathroom. She could only walk a few steps to go to urinate and defecate. Afterwards, she was exhausted. At home, she would sleep the whole day. She could no longer get up on her own. Still, everyday, she’d lift her head up for us to bring her to her feet so she could walk a few steps to our deck. Even in her grim condition, this was something she looked forward to everyday. Was it seeing the pool and backyard she played in so much? Was it the sounds of the birds, the wind or just the fresh air? Whatever it was, she fought to experience this. One day, she even found the strength to bark at a nearby train.
Soon Daphne would get even weaker. We decided it was close to the time to euthanize Daphne. Due to Daphne’s fear of veterinarians, we knew the procedure had to be at our home. I scheduled an appointment with an in-home veterinarian service, but we had to wait four days. Frankly, I didn’t even think Daphne might live that long. I contacted another veterinarian who would do it in three days and scheduled an appointment. When it came time for the first appointment, we canceled it. We were not ready. That evening, Daphne began to have a harder time breathing. Based on my experience with people at the end of their lives and the many hopelessly suffering animal records I’ve reviewed over the years, I knew it was time. The next day, when our second appointment was due, we again struggled going through with it. Could we give Daphne a couple a more days? After hearing Daphne’s labored breathing, we knew we couldn’t wait another three or four more days. This was the time.
Estrella carried Daphne and her bed to the deck around noon after it stopped raining. For the next few hours, Daphne would rest in the place she loved. When the veterinarian arrived, Daphne didn’t even look up. We spent some time alone saying good bye to her. When it was time, we both held Daphne while she laid on her dog bed on the deck. In contrast to Daphne’s past veterinarian visits, Daphne hardly reacted. When she smelled the anti-septic the veterinarian used, she looked back for a second and then went back to rest after we reassured her. Daphne never noticed the injection of the sedative or the euthanasia drug. She simply breathed lighter and lighter until she passed. Estrella cried and I felt crushed inside. As bad as it was seeing her leave us, I couldn’t think of a better place and more peaceful way for it to happen. Still, that didn’t take our pain away.
Since Daphne’s passing, I still sometimes think she is here. Unconsciously, I think its time to take her out before bed time. Similarly, before bed and when I wake up I look at the spot where she slept to see if she is there. Often times, I look to the couch to see if she is there. These habits are ingrained in me. They don’t break easily.
Going back to the story I started this blog off with, Daphne has taught me many things. Daphne will forever be connected to starting a family. Additionally, she led me into the world of animal rescue and animal advocacy. Most importantly, she taught me to fight for the things and ones I love. That’s a lesson I will always hold dear to my heart.