Nine years ago today I lost the dog of a lifetime. I didn’t even realise that he was until he was nearly half way through his life. Maly was a collie/shepherd, the offspring of an unplanned mating a friend’s dog and a reluctant acquisition on their part. My friend was in an abusive relationship that would contribute greatly to her early death. Much of the abuse spilled over to affect Maly, indirectly and directly. He began to look to me for comfort and assurance and frequently, regular exercise. As I became more aware of the domestic circumstances, I suggested that perhaps I take Maly on. At the time, I was freelancing as a professional performer and this was used as a, not unreasonable, excuse for refusal. Maly ended up becoming a piece of property which neither side would relinquish but which neither really wanted. Eventually my friend moved out of London, exacerbating her isolation and her domestic problems. She died just three and a half years later.
Knowing that she was terminally ill, she had asked me to take Maly but I had nothing in writing and, in spite of looking after her in her final months, her family shut me out at the last. Her partner and most of her family were drunk before they got to her funeral. I made the decision to simply walk off with Maly and take him back to London. I got him microchipped the next day and began the long, slow road to rehabilitating what was by then, a very traumatised 11 year old dog.
Maly died on his 16th birthday, just five years later. They were undoubtedly the best five years that I will ever have with any dog and all too short. In that brief time, he discovered a love of competing in shows, usually walking away with the trick class, being the brightest dog and fastest learner that I have ever encountered. He was Your Dog Golden Oldie of 2009 and I still get a thrill when his images are used in the magazine.
I had taken a job in a vet at the time Maly became very ill. I nursed him at home on a drip for five days and, on a gloriously sunny March 1st, exactly 16 years after he was born, knew that I could do no more. My colleagues, a vet and the senior nurse, came to my house and together we ended his life and took his still beautiful but lifeless body into the practice for storage.
The following days were ones of raw, agonising grief. I felt as if I were a fish that was being gutted alive. I woke myself up calling for him. I spent a long weekend in the country with friends staring at the sea for hours, numb with misery. If they hadn’t fed me, I doubt that I would have bothered to eat. I had dealt with many bereaved clients at the vet and discussed final arrangements with them. I knew that I could not bear for Maly to be reduced to ashes. I began to search for someone to set his skeleton.
It took weeks. I called museums and veterinary schools but it seemed that the few people who possessed the necessary skills had either retired or given up the work.
Then I found Luke Williams at Skeletons UK. Not only is Luke an extraordinarily talented young man whose work is in demand all over the world, he is one of the most sensitive people I have ever come across. He kindly picked me up from the station after an horrendous journey (apart from the emotional impact, taking a frozen dog on crowded trains without help is not to be recommended). We ended up in the pub sharing gallows humour as a release from all the tension, although I still shudder when I go through Birmingham station remembering how hard it was to transfer to the local train. He explained every step of the process and afterwards even sent me images in a book, keeping me updated throughout the months that the work takes. I was just about to ask Luke to preserve Maly’s heart, but he anticipated my wishes, enabling me to bury it in the garden of the house where he was born along with a ‘time capsule’ telling his story.
Finally the time came when my beautiful skeleton was ready. This time, I managed to get a lift there and back. Maly-bones now looks over my bedroom. I confess, I converse with him all the time and always rush in to see him when I have been away.
A year after he died, I took on a rescue Siberian Husky. I felt disloyal, guilty and sometimes even resentful of him for some time after. I deliberately took on a dog that I knew was in a bad way and was a huge handful as it left me less time to fret over my lost love. He died three months ago at a ripe old age, leaving another gaping hole in my life.
I have been longer without Maly him and miss my Sibe more than I ever thought possible. They have both led me to places and situations that I would not have imagined and I am now awaiting a successful mating that will lead to my new puppy.
Maly was a typical collie-type in that he was inherently noise-sensitive. 11 years of abuse added to his distress, and it took me a long three years of patient desensitisation and counter-conditioning to help him recover. I was proud as punch when he walked past a stand of guns with barely an anxious glance in their direction. Fireworks used to be a nightmare and I was profoundly grateful when my Sibe proved to be bombproof. He even slept through an attempt by a drunken, drugged woman to break down my front door in the early hours, including 20 minutes where she kept her hand on the (loud) doorbell continuously.
Most owners won’t be so lucky, which is why I’ve made a submission to the current parliamentary select committee enquiry into changing the law on fireworks. Pressure to restrict the sale and use of fireworks to organised, licensed displays has increased over the last few years and, in spite of refusing to act on it when last investigated, a new petition has triggered another enquiry. Please add your signature to the petition and add your voice to the enquiry submissions so that we can look forward to an autumn and winter without sleep-disturbed nights and trauma in our companion animals and wildlife.