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Barron, In Memoriam [Two Drink Minimum]

November 16, 2010

I’m taking a moment for myself here, nothing specifically about birds will follow. It’s a “Two Drink Minimum” pseudo Irish Wake to celebrate the life and times of my dog, Barron. I’m offering (virtual) drinks and stories about one of my best friends. I recommend listening to the Grateful Dead (preferably Ripple) as you read.

I’ve been a dog person for . . . well, ever. It was inevitable I would one day have a dog, I just didn’t know when. I did know that the midst of my grad school career was not the time, until one summer morning when I turned off of State Route 16 onto a side road just outside of Fayetteville, AR.

My research assistant, Sara, and I parked on the side of that side road to check the bluebird nest boxes located on the Williams’ farm, something we did every few days. What was different on this morning was the small, mongrely puppy sitting in a shady spot next to the dirt road. He got up, his too-long-for-his-body tail wagging side to side as we headed down the driveway to check the first nestbox. He didn’t follow, just sat down again when he understood we weren’t there to pick him up. When we returned two hours later he was comfortably lying in the same spot. He raised his head, recognized us as the ones who weren’t there for him, and laid his head back down on his crossed paws.

A few days later we parked on the side of the side road again. We found him at the end of the driveway, again. He stood up as we headed down the driveway, this time following us down the quarter-mile long driveway but never coming close in spite of Sara’s coaxing. We stopped to check a nestbox, he stopped and waited. We walked on, he walked on. If we turned and walked towards him, he turned and walked away from us. Eventually we got to the house where Mrs. Williams told us he’d been sitting at the top of the driveway for four or five days, waiting for whomever abandoned him to return.

On the next visit he didn’t greet us at the top of the driveway. We found him down by the farmer’s house cavorting with their family dog, this time clean and fed. “Want him?” they asked. “He cleaned up nice, once we got the ticks off.”

“I wish I could, but you know . . . ” I responded. “I mean, I’m a student and all.” I had big but undefined plans for after I graduated, I may spend time in South America or something. The dog didn’t care, he joined us on our loop and when we got back to my car he made his way back to the Williams’ house.

This went on for the rest of the summer. Every trip Mrs. Williams asked, “Do you want him yet? I taught him to lay down.” Every trip he had learned a new skill. One week it was sit, the next he’d mastered stay. “You know what he does now? When his water bowl is empty he brings to the porch and waits until I fill it up. He’s a smart one. You really should take him home.” Every trip I replied, “Wish I could, but you know. . . .”

Every trip, he joined us on our loop. Every trip we bonded more, he was acting like my dog and I was acting like his human. And one morning in late August I went home with a dog.

During the next fifteen years we were rarely apart. He spent a lot of time with me on the University campus, running around the arboretum chasing squirrels — there was the time he actually caught one and had no idea what to do with it – or hanging out in my office while I taught a class. There were the daily trips to local birding and dog-walking hotspots, his favorites were Lake Fayetteville, Lake Wedington, and Centerton Fish Hatchery — he hated swimming, but he loved to wade. There were weekend camping trips around Northwest Arkansas, and week-long trips to New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. There were the trips back to New York for winter breaks, the Thanksgiving trips to coastal Virginia; there was even a trip to Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

When we moved to New York, where I had started working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we explored dog-friendly birding sites across the Southern Tier. (Don’t tell, but back when the Cornell Lab included office space in a maze of trailers he’d periodically come to work with me, hanging out in my cube while I worked.)

Throughout most of those years we (Barron, my wife, two cats, and I) lived in mostly cramped quarters with little or no yard. I often whispered to Barron that one day we would buy him a house with a real yard, one with woods, fields, and trails. We’d have our own yard to explore on days we couldn’t drive to a park. When he was eight years old we moved into a house with four acres, bounded by woods and fields. It even had a pond. Everyone, especially Barron, was happy.

We had mostly amazing times and experiences but now they were interspersed with moments of sadness. He stopped his favorite activity, chasing the squirrels from under the bird feeders, when it got to be too hard on his joints. At one point he couldn’t make it up the stairs anymore to sleep in our room at night. There was the decision to stop taking him on car rides, even short ones, as the trips were too stressful. He lost his hearing somewhere throughout all of this and cholesterol deposits started to cloud his eyes. Throughout it all he maintained his easy-going disposition, accepting that he couldn’t do all of the things he used to do. But it was all just part of life, and he was cool with that.

Last spring he was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, meaning the nerves between his brain and hind legs were no longer carrying the signals efficiently. His brain said “walk,” the front legs started but the hind legs didn’t get the message until several seconds later, making his gait like a drunken sailor. He got weaker in his hind legs. On May 28 he took his last walk with me around our loop, another painful moment when I realized he would never join me on our daily bird walk again. He still got around, just not on walks that were too long. His condition seemed to have stabilized, and he continued to accept this stage of his life. Better than I did, anyway.

Eventually he couldn’t handle the two steps that lead from the family room to the kitchen and dining room, nor the tile floors in those rooms. We had to get used to him not lying underneath our feet waiting for a sample of our dinner. His world had been reduced to a single (though large), carpeted room and a small area in the backyard.

I have only fuzzy recollections of early November, other than it was clear he was quickly getting worse. His back legs were suddenly extremely wobbly when he tried to walk, they stopped supporting him while he stood. His breathing grew labored from simply standing up. He started to pace incessantly, at least as best he could, as though lying down was uncomfortable but so was standing. Four months shy of his sixteenth birthday it was time to say good bye.

Since that day we’ve spent hours looking through photographs. Scenes of Bear in our various homes and backyards, of the places he traveled, the people he knew. We’ve been sharing stories of our trips, of the things that made him uniquely Barron. It probably goes without saying we’ll think of him often, and as I dredge up memories of the bird trips we made — one day I should figure out his life list, which is probably pretty good though he never seemed to care – he’ll make appearances here again.

So, in stereotypical Irish Wake style, I raise my glass in tribute to my most consistent, most tolerant, and most accepting birding companion of the past fifteen years, and more importantly one of my most consistent, most tolerant, and most accepting friends. Wherever you are, I hope you’re chasing squirrels again, and that you catch every last one.

Barron, April 2009

Barron, 1995-2010

Barron was an unknown mixed breed, at least until recently. Read here what a genetic test told us about his lineage.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Mikolajczyk permalink
    November 21, 2010 02:01

    Hi Mike, I’m toasting your Baron right now and giving my 12 year old mutt, Dexter, a hearty hug right now. You have my sincerest condolences. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better tribute. I hope you plant a fair tree in his honor. I will hug my dog a good deal tighter tonight in respect for your loss. Hopefully we learn something from our friends and then are able to move on, though it may hurt us in the process. I’m sure the passing of my friend and the tree that will mark his passing will wreck me when the time comes. You have my deepest sympathies. “Ripple” is as far a tribute as one could hope for and I know it well. I’m truly sorry for your loss. -AJM

    • November 21, 2010 11:32

      @Adam – thanks for your kind comments, and I’m glad to hear Dexter is getting extra-special attention — our canine companions certainly deserve it. Through the heartbreak of losing a friend like Barron we are smiling and happy about the time we shared. We’ll be planting a special tree in his honor in the spring, though the way my daughter’s plans are going we might wind up with an entire landscaped garden.

      Thank you again for your thoughts.
      -Mike

  2. November 29, 2010 23:29

    Wonderful photography!
    You would be welcome to contribute and help to begin a new endevour called “World Bird Wednesday” a chance for bird photographers to share and spread word of their blogs to others!
    Visit http://pineriverreview.blogspot.com/ and check it out!
    Springman!

  3. December 4, 2010 12:01

    So sorry about Barron. I lost my pup after 12 years – one of the hardest times of my life. Good memories are great things.

    • December 4, 2010 16:42

      Hi Wendy,

      I’m sorry to hear about your loss. It was difficult to see Barron go downhill in his later years and as you mentioned it was extremely hard at the end. I am thankful we are able to share time with our pets to create so many wonderful memories to relive.

      Best,
      Mike

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