Sunday, July 13, 2008

Death In The Family

I’ve seen how I want to die. Swiftly, calmly, whilst eating some favourite tidbit. If only humans could ring up the vet when their time comes.

A few months ago I wrote that Muka, our faithful companion, had gone blind. Sadly, on Friday we said our final goodbyes.

With her big bat-like ears, she had the sweetest nature, especially with children. But as a rescue dog, brought up on the dog-gang warfare of Los Angeles, she just had to sense another dog in the area and she’d start snarling. She could only be walked on a lead.

Mind you, even if she’d been the most sociable animal, she’d still have had to be leashed. You can go hundreds of miles in California without finding a decent open space to exercise your dog. America, land of the free and supposedly a nation of animal-lovers, is in fact a Guantanamo of anti-dog restriction. They’re banned from beaches and parks, condemned to exercise on streets or tiny areas of bare earth called “dog parks”. It’s tragic to see beautiful specimens, bred for the fields, forced to trot on hot pavements chained to their jogging owners.

Muka seemed happy enough with her lot. For a time she and Joanna lived in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood. Olivia de Havilland lived in the same building and liked to stroke Muka’s ears when they met in the lift. Later, when Poncho the cat joined the family, the two animals became inseparable. Poncho used to bat Muka’s ears with her paws, and they slept in the same bed.

When Jo and I moved to London, the pets came with us. My house overlooks dog heaven, Hampstead Heath. I feared the worst: Muka’s aggression would have us drummed out of town. Worse, I already had a spaniel, a breed Muka vehemently detested. So on arrival at Heathrow we drove straight to Dr Roger Mugford, the animal behaviourist.

Roger has a magic device that harmlessly blows air in a dog’s face every time it misbehaves. Ten minutes, two puffs, and Muka had accepted the spaniel. But the massed wagging tails of Hampstead were another matter. A week later we stood on top of the Heath, with Muka, magic device on collar, looking down at the lush acres below. Slowly we unbuckled the lead. Her big brown eyes stared at us with disbelief. “Go on, then”, I said. And off she went, running in huge joyous circles, a big doggy grin on her face. At the age of 15, her first proper run. And from that day, on or off the lead, she never growled at another dog.

Last year the Northumbrian winter brought on arthritis, so the runs grew slower. But her ears still pricked up every time she saw us, especially when we offered her favourite “treatie”, a thin tube of rawhide that her jaws could demolish in seconds.

After she went blind she bumped into doors and fell down stairs, but gradually her sense of smell restored a decent enough life. That was her downfall. One day she sniffed out a sealed tub of liver training treats. The maximum daily dose was 4 grams. By the time we found her she’d munched through half a kilo. Muka’s liver never recovered. The smell in the house was appalling, but we kept her going for a month on a diet of rice. She was wasting away.

When I took her to the vet I think she knew it was time. In the waiting room I produced one last rawhide treatie. She held it in her mouth like a lollipop, too tired to chew. As the vet shaved the hair on her leg for the injection, she gently sucked on the rawhide. As the blue poison went into her bloodstream she looked at me, then slowly sank to the table, lollipop still in her mouth. I could swear she was smiling.

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