As an animal rescue photographer, pieces of your heart are torn away every time you meet a dog in a sad situation. Those “no win” scenarios, where you know your heart is going to be left bleeding and on the floor, are the worst.
And then you meet a dog like Sarge.
A few months ago during our regular rescue shoot at Tulsa Animal Welfare, Dr. Gordon asked me to look at a dog brought in as stray. Myself and a couple volunteers went back to see this super sweet senior Pit Bull. His tail wagged a million miles a second as he slowly walked over to us. I noticed right away his back legs didn’t work very well. I asked what was wrong and they said he was really old, at least 10 or more, and probably had a disk or spinal issue. I patted his head and gave him kisses, but knew this was one of those “no win” scenarios. The poor guy was elderly, he had a degenerative back issue, and the shelter was filling up. I felt pieces of my heart begin to tear away.
We all went back to photographing the other animals when Lisa Varshay, one of my volunteers, came in and excitedly said, “I’m going to take Sarge home!” She and Dr. Gordon couldn’t bear to see his life end at a shelter, unwanted and unloved. So Lisa made an incredibly selfless offer to provide hospice care for him. Even though she knew – with his advanced age and debilitating condition, it would only be a matter of time before he left this world – she was still willing to give him the comfort of a home. The Elder Bull, now named Sarge, went home with Lisa the next day. I brought her a crate and orthopedic bed a day later, Dr. Gordon provided meds and food, and Sarge was all set!
A month of joy
For the next month, Sarge blossomed, acting like a puppy with a sense of wonder and playfulness! “It was pure joy for me, watching him enjoy the feeling of grass on his back, as he wiggled like a pup,” Lisa said. “He loved the frisbee, and even though he couldn’t run very well, he’d still chase it! He played with my nephew, Alex, and loved biting the water out of the hose as I filled the doggie pool for him. Sarge even fit right in with my existing pack of dogs and would cuddle on the couch, waiting his turn for those face rubs that made him smile.”
For that month, Sarge lived the life every dog deserves – he had a full belly, a soft bed at night, a yard to run and play, and doggie friends to cuddle with on the couch. His antics were the fodder for Facebook posts and late night texting to share his latest adventure. No matter what had happened in Sarge’s life before, this Elder Bull was living the life he was meant to live –being loved and cherished.
Eventually, the phone call came. Lisa contacted me, saying Sarge was exhibiting the signs we all dread – he wasn’t interested in eating, going out, or those daily cuddles. I contacted Dr. Gordon and they scheduled a time to put Sarge to sleep. I went to see Sarge and to photograph him, so he would be forever remembered as the wonderful dog he was. Taking the photos that day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Each time I’d look through the viewfinder and see him, tears would well up in my eyes. When he cuddled in Lisa’s arms and closed his eyes in bliss, my heart felt shattered in pieces. All I could think was, “why do they have to leave so soon?”
“Thirty days ago, I knew when I took one look in his eyes, Sarge was coming home with me. I knew it wouldn’t be forever and eventually the day would come when he’d begin to show signs it was time,” Lisa shared. “Knowing our time was almost over, Sarge and I partook in a longstanding tradition in my house. For every dog I’ve loved, when I knew it was their time, we would have a pancake breakfast together. As I watched him licking the plate, my eyes welled with tears, wishing we had just a little more time together.”
“Later that day, Dr. Gordon arrived and as she got things ready, I sat on the floor to spend the last few moments with Sarge. My heart was hurting and the tears were flowing. I told Sarge, ‘Run free, sweet boy, run free.’ And then he was gone. I know many would never think of fostering an elderly dog, but I can honestly say allowing this majestic dog to feel the comfort of a home and to be loved was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was a privilege,” Lisa continued. “I know that his time with me was short, but Sarge’s impact will last forever.”
There’s a poem that says: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog, they take a piece of my heart with them. Yet, every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” –Unknown
Thank you, Sarge, for giving us pieces of your heart.