Monday, August 19, 2013

In Memoriam: Mugwort Alphonse 2003-2013

“Hey Miles, do you want to be a dog rescuer?”

It was a simple question. I’ve always had pets around, usually cats when I was a child, but dogs entered my life when I was 29, and I adopted my first snake around the same time. And Snooze has been involved with wildlife rescue and rehab, and at-home animal care for years, long before we ever met. So when we got together, I became involved with rescuing squirrels, possum, a snake trapped under a house, you name it.
And we had space in the house for another dog.
“Um, sure,” I said, “what do we do? Where is it?”
“At my work,” Snooze said. She was working at a vet clinic, and a dog was being boarded there. “You’re getting a dog.”
“Ah. Fair enough, what kind of dog?” In the past, I’d known several dogs, and had been the human companion to Silme and Tristan, a pair of wolf hybrids.
“Boxer/Staffie mix,” Snooze said. “He’s a rescue from a dog fight camp.” ‘Staffie’, I was savvy enough to know, is the code word for ‘pit bull’ when you don’t want to say Pit Bull. American Staffordshire Terriers are another of the pit bull family.
“Um, sure,” I said again. “Yes, I’ll rescue him. What’s his name?”
“Muggsy. He was rescued from a dog fight camp, and had been fostered by someone else. But he kept getting away from there, and kept going back to this other yard. That guy keeps returning him, and he keeps getting loose again. So he wound up at the pound. They have a law that they’ll euthanize pits, no question. But – and this is typical politics – they brought him to the vet to make sure he’s healthy, before they kill him. Gotta love Mecklenburg County. But Mecklenburg County’s animal control board has no jurisdiction in Iredell County. So he’s coming to live here. You’re rescuing a dog.”  
So the next day, when Snooze came home, she helped a large, dark colored dog out of the car. I’d heard all the horror stories about pit bulls and viscous dogs and all that, and to some extent I believed it. So when I saw this dog coming up the lawn, I was a little apprehensive. His head was HUGE, and he had a stocky chest, and the very obvious brindle markings. Like narrow tiger stripes, where someone had gone back over the orange with dark rust brown paint. As he was walking up the path, I remember thinking that two things I knew about pit breeds are that you usually can’t see the whites of their eyes, and that they do not have as expressive eyebrows as some dogs. They appear… reserved. Wary. And yes, Muggsy had the dark eyes and the not-so-expressive eyebrows. Was this something to be cautious about? Or was I just being stupid?
I swallowed my fear and opened the door.
“Look Muggsy, here’s Daddy!” Snooze said, in her skillful pet-soothing voice.
Muggsy looked at me, and I looked at him.
I was in love.

I knelt down to greet him, and Muggsy reached up and gave me a big slobbering kiss.  There’s something about pits, they love to kiss. Well, lick. Slobber. All over you. Muggsy was GREAT at that.
I looked into his eyes, and traced my hand down his back.  And felt the scar.
“What’s this?” I asked. He was a rescue from a dog fight camp, so who knew what he’d seen. Or experienced. On his back was a wide, red scar, that ran from the back of his neck to two-thirds down his back, and side scars ran down the flank.
“Whoever had him before, they poured gasoline on him and lit him on fire, to make him mean and crazy. A fighter. That’ll probably never heal.”
Muggsy was standing on his hind legs, front paws on my shoulders, slobbering me with more kisses. Big, mean fighting dog, this one.
“Where’s – where’s the owner – the dog fighter guy - now?” I said, hoping I’d like the answer.
“Doing time. Sadly he’s not doing time for abusing dogs, but for cocaine possession. But I’ll take what I can get.”
And as Snooze tells it, while he was there, another dog came in, a poodle that needed a blood transfusion. Muggsy had only been there maybe 90 minutes, and he lay down quite still as the vet drew a pint of blood from him, to help save this poodle’s life.  
Thus began my relationship with Muggsy. That’s the name he came with, although it was originally spelled Mugsy. I liked two G’s, so Muggsy. Like in the Bugs Bunny cartoon, with the tiny gangster with the enormous fedora. “Happy Boithday, Muggsy!”
But I wanted Muggsy to be short for something. And I wanted to make him mine. My dog. So we retconned his name to be Mugwort Alphonse Batty, Muggsy for short.
We learned that he was born on September 19th, 2003. September 19th is also International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which I always thought was funny.

Those first few weeks we learned a lot about Muggsy. I’ll never know his childhood, but for the first year he was with us he had nightmares. He’d cry in his sleep. Moan and wail and almost-bark, and twitch and whimper. We’d wake him up to remind him he was safe, and he’d lick our hands. And I sometimes play video games, which occasionally have gunshot sounds. Those didn’t bother him. But if I held something shaped like a gun, even a toy one (I don’t have any real guns), he’d get very nervous and back away from me slowly.  We did have to teach him not to chase other pets off their food. Starvation is one technique dog fight breeders use to teach aggression in dogs, and Muggsy had obviously been a victim of such treatment. We did have to teach him that it’s okay to share food, that he will get his own. I’ll never know all the horrors of his childhood,  but I promised him that those days would never return. Unlike many pits you see, and I am so very glad of this, he never had his ears docked or his tail clipped. I hate that look.He had big goofy floppy ears, and a tail that would bruise your kneecaps.

Muggsy was remarkably talented. He could – we learned the hard way – scale and climb  and leap over a six-foor high chain link fence. Our dog pen held all the other dogs, but Muggsy knew how to get out. We really didn’t want him getting out, because (a) pit, (b) big bad burn scars on his back, and (c) big dog running towards you with his mouth gaping open, would be enough to make many people dial 911 in terror. And we had no illusions, we knew, his breed, his appearance, his breed’s reputation, one phone call and we’d be minus one dog. So we did our best to keep him safe.

Muggsy loved people. Everyone was his friend. He’d eagerly greet anyone, with that whip-strong enthusiastic tail that could shatter kneecaps, a three-mile-wide pitty grin, and those kisses! I eventually got him to ease off on the kisses. Big soulful eyes that always make you feel welcome.
A few months after Muggsy came home, we went to a friend’s house for a cookout/hot tub party/bonfire. Muggsy came along, so we could judge his interaction with strange people and environments. (We’d checked with the hosts beforehand, who told us that he was more than welcome.)
One of the other people there had a black lab puppy, named Cinder. Cinder was only a few months old, and a quarter, if that, of Muggsy’s size. Muggsy quite happily let Cinder climb all over him, bite and his nose, his ears, his tail, run circles around him and do it again. If we’d had any fears that interactions with another dog would lead to a violent reaction, but watching him play with Cinder, we knew that Muggsy was never going to be a fight risk.
The following year, we took Muggsy to a pagan festival weekend. We brought his ball along, so he’d have something to keep himself busy. That ball, by the way, was one of the loves of his life. A “Jolly Ball” is made for horses to play with. It’s as big as a basketball, with a handle, and made of molded rubber as opposed to being filled with air. Crush it, squash it, flatten it, it always pops back into shape.  Muggsy and I would spend hours playing fetch with that thing. So at the festival, EVERYONE took turns throwing Muggsy’s ball for him, and he loved all the attention. Lots of running and fetching, lots of happy pitty smiles. Lots of hearts warmed and friends made.

Snooze has been doing pit bull advocacy seminars for years, and Muggsy was a shining example of what such a breed is supposed to be like. She’d often bring him along to speeches. Friendly, devoted, loyal, loving, playful, considerate, intelligent… these are the traits you’ll see in a pit bull breed of dog. As we’ve both said, many times, a dog is a blank slate. If you raise a dog with love and care, you’ll get a loving, caring dog. If you raise a dog with anger and aggression, you’ll get an angry, aggressive dog. “It’s not the dog’s fault if the owner is an asshole!” is a phrase I’ve heard Snooze use at least once.

Muggsy’s scar was always a talking point when he met new people, and that almost always worked to his advantage. They’d see the scar and ask what it was about, and we’d tell about his early years in the dog fight camp, and the gasoline. And they’d see this happy, silly dog roll over and lay on his back, begging for tummy rubs. "Oh, just give me five minutes with that loser....." and we'd nod in agreement. Only one or two times did anyone try to warn us that any pit bull is just a time bomb, and you’d never know when it might go off.  Yeah, right. Have you SEEN this dog??

Muggsy and I were friends from the first three minutes together, and that relationship only grew stronger. If I was more than fifteen minute late from work, he’d wait by the door. Daddy will be home soon, I just know it! 
We’d sit on the couch together and watch movies, go for long walks, sleep side by side… Muggsy was my companion, in every way a dog can be a man’s companion. He understood me, and loved me. If I sneezed, he’d be in my face, concern in his eyes, licking my cheek.  Muggsy knew me better than most humans know me.

He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009. We saw a lima-bean-sized lump growing on his front leg, and another on his back hip. We went to the vet, and they took blood and samples and ran a biopsy. Yes, it’s cancer, yes, it’s malignant. We had the tumors removed, and the follow-up was clean. Muggsy could add cancer survivor to his list of accolades.  I won’t deny that the surgery was exhausting for him, and worrying for us.    

In late 2012 we saw a new growth on his belly, and a spot growing on his gumline. The tests came back benign. Yes, he has new tumors, but no they are not malignant. Just keep an eye on them, the vet said. Give him Benadryl, that’s been known to inhibit tumor growth. So we did, and they did.
By now Muggsy was eight, almost nine. A bit older, a bit slower. Statistically, the boxer/pit mix has a life expectancy of ten or eleven years, so we were counting our blessings.
We took him to the ATTS Temperance Test, where dogs are put through a series of encounters and experiences to judge their reaction. Loud noises, walking on strange surfaces, sudden bursts from seemingly aggressive people.  Muggsy took it all in stride, and passed the test with flying colours. ANOTHER credential to his resume!

And he kept on making friends. He charmed everyone he met, human and canine alike. Muggsy was a dog among men. He was cool. He wasn't just cool, he was Samuel L Jackson cool.

But his tumors got worse. By June of this year, we knew that they had probably passed the point of reasonable surgery. And at his age, chemo was out of the question. (I didn’t know they could do chemotherapy on dogs!) We had a scare in July, when he suddenly lost the ability to move his left side; his nose was dry and his gums were pale, pale white, and his belly was swollen and distended.  Off to the vet we went, and we learned that he very likely has tumors on his spleen. Or a ruptured spleen, which could be leaking blood into his abdominal cavity.
Ultrasound a few days later confirmed it – he had metastasized tumors growing on his spleen and his liver, and they were causing internal blood lost.
Snooze and I knew that surgery was out of the question, and I’d done research and found that a splenoctomy in dogs is only a temporary cure – a dog needs his spleen; they usually die within six weeks of having one removed.
So we knew, we’ll love him and care for him, keep him warm and safe and comfortable, until he’s ready to go. And when he’s ready to go, we won’t stop him.

Last night he was in pain, moving about and breathing with great difficulty. At one point he looked at me with sad eyes – not accusatory, but remorseful. “You’re my hero, my Superman,” they said to me, “you can fix anything. That’s what Daddys do. Why can’t you fix me?” Oh Muggsy.
He went from the floor to the carpet to the chair to the bed and back again, trying to find somewhere that didn’t hurt. He didn’t understand that this isn’t something you can move away from.
He finally laid down by my side, my brave, loving, noble dog, and died at 5:00 this morning.

Muggsy, you never stopped being my best friend, my hero, my companion, and my muse.
And you never will.
You are walking with the Horned Man now, my friend, and I shall visit you often in my dreams.
And one day we shall walk again together, and chase a rubber ball. And laugh.

My father died earlier this year – 2013 has been a year of suck – and he wanted two short passages he’d written, to be read at his eulogy. I’m reprinting them here.

Never Forget

The dead do not always leave us lonely unless we choose to think so.
They leave themselves as we knew them: their spirit, their words.
We grow with their help, not just from the past, but through them within us,
From what they know now.


When we mourn for those who have died we mourn for ourselves; we are the losers, left without them, our lives emptier for their going.
If we are honest we should rejoice. They are done with this ragged life ad now are nothing, or alive in heaven, by their believing.
As we remember them is what we have; that, we should treasure. We were the better for their being with us; we should grow in that loving.

To Mugwort Alphonse Batty: I will always love you.