How Two Dogs Saved The Internet’s Top Cartoonist’s Life
The year was 1994 and I was still relatively new to southern California. I had sold my successful bus tour business in Washington D.C and moved to Los Angeles to try my hand at screen-writing. Not much was shaking for me for the first few years. Except the ground. I settled in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley area. I can clearly remember being awakened about five a.m by my golden retriever puppy Otis who was barking wildly. Otis slept on the bed with me but he had hopped down onto the floor to begin his ranting. This was no ordinary bark but I took him outside anyway into the back yard which met an alley. Otis kept barking and was clearly agitated but did not relieve himself. I rubbed my eyes and looked around and there was dozens (if not more) cats walking around in circles in the alley. I had never seen this before. They were clearly not acting the way I normally see cats behave, but it was as if they were trying to escape something. Otis’ barks continued loudly.
The next thing I knew I was thrown to the ground which was rumbling. It felt as if I was in the center of a volcano minus the heat. Then I heard loud crashing sounds. My home and a few others on the block had caved in. Part of the roof was at ground level and the rest was hanging in various places. It no longer resembled a roof, and shingles were strewn everywhere. The wall had caved in where my bedroom used to be and a giant ceiling beam lay across the bed where I had just been sleeping not more than 10 minutes earlier. The ground continued to shake and more structures were falling apart. Otis had quit barking but the cats continued in their circle. I would learn within hours (on my car radio) I was experiencing the devastating Northridge Earthquake.
I was unable to get inside of my home for a few days. The ground continued to shake on and off for another few weeks. I had lost everything. I was alright about the furniture and other material things, as they could be replaced, but family albums, memorabilia that dated back to kindergarten, childhood videos, college and travel collectibles were never to be found again. So I rented an apartment, which was not easy, as they were being filled rapidly. The apartment would not allow animals, so first I had to find a good home for the dog who had just saved my life. Fortunately, from an emotional standpoint, as much as I hated to lose this wonderful animal, he was not one with which I had a lot of memories, since I was away from home so often and he was still a puppy. I still felt a great sense of loss, but, after placing an ad in the paper, Otis drove off in the shotgun side of a brand new Rolls convertible on his way to a huge home and yard in the hills of Malibu. The man taking him had been an animal-lover and owner for years, and the two got along famously immediately. Though my heart was broken, I knew Otis, who, no doubt saved my life, would be in good hands.
I called the insurance company but the wait would be long, that there were a lot of others ahead of me, but to be patient. Then my mother called from Mississippi to alert me she had contracted an incurable form of cancer. She needed me there. I left, and did not resolve any of my valuables. But I will always remember the beautiful blond golden retriever puppy who saved my life, sensed the coming danger, and alerted me. I would definitely not be here writing had it not been for Otis.
Being back home in southern Mississippi after being gone for so long was hard on me. I had worked around the country in corporate America, in places like New York City, Washington, D.C. and several other metropolitan areas. I was now very different from my childhood friends who had never left home. It proved difficult to form friendship bonds because of lack of similar interests, hence not a lot of conversation. It was almost as if we spoke another language. But I learned to tolerate that too, and maybe it was a good thing, as it gave me more time to focus on taking care of Mom and a sales job I took at a local television station.
Mom died in 1997. I was devastated and was becoming very depressed. Some college friends now living on Cape Cod, invited me to stay with them for a week. I did. They kept me my spirits up with movies, dinners etc. One of the movies was the Oscar-winning one with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt “As Good As It Gets” in which a dried-up, crusty writer (played by Nicholson) has his life changed by taking care of a neighbor’s (Greg Kinnear’s) dog, learning unconditional love.
After the movie, I realized that the character played by Nicholson could have easily been me.
I had been a writer most of my life, (as far back as fourth grade, writing everything from sit-coms to movies, to short stories to, finally cartoons). I had wanted to start an offbeat cartoon project similar to The Far Side, but was too drained and depressed to launch it, plus, I was too depressed to work, and just sat at home for months and watched the news (which led to more depression).
Finally I got out and started volunteering at the local university equestrian center, cleaning out barns and feeding horses. One very stormy day, with tornadoes in the vicinity, a pack of three dogs showed up. I fell in love with one immediately, who looked just like Benji, but he was a bit scared of people. He obviously had been abused and/or hit by a vehicle and his hair was one big mat. His coloration was superb, and his soulful eyes showed he wanted love, and had a lot to give. They begged for help. I could tell this one was a survivor. We left food and water out for him every night since he did not want human interaction, and he would eat and drink a little and slept in the barn with the horses. He barked at thunder, hence his name “Thor, Dog Of Thunder”.
My vet friend said she would take him home and revive him which might take a month or so, if I would adopt him, otherwise, he was ready to be put down. I was not in a good space, I felt, to take care of an animal, but I agreed. Little did I know that one day, that animal would take care of me. She shaved his mats, put him on drips, and cared for him in her home night after night. He finally came around.
Since I keep a journal, I have looked back to it and saw numerous passages, “Having a hard time finding a reason to live”, or “Depression is omnipotent in spite of therapy and medication,” etc. I was not suicidal, but I could easily see how someone who can become that depressed, can think of it as an option. But every time I did, I looked down to see this Benji-looking shaggy dog with his big brown eyes, only wanting a bit of food, a roof, and affection. I did not realize the effect this would have on my mood which was so negative at the time.
Almost a month later, he was socialized, loved to be petted, ride in the car, go everywhere with me, lay by my side, and even sleep in my bed. He was housebroken. Though still scared of thunder and loud noises, it wasn’t long before I realized this was not just a pet, but a gift from God. He knew my every mood. I was working from home, and like magic, creating my cartoons after four years of no creativity.
For the longest while, I could not see the connection between pet care and increased creativity. Finally it started to all make sense. He not only loved me, but his playful antics made me hysterical with laughter. It was as if he knew he was doing them, simply to put me in a good mood.
He stayed right by my side, always smiling. If I called his name, he would wag his tail, come over to me, I would lean down, and he would kiss my face and keep smiling. The look seemed to say, “Keep doing what you are doing Rick, one day you will see. Good things will happen for you.” I felt this was all my imagination, but I continued my daily rituals with Thor. He could be very playful and manipulative. When he was in the mood to play, he would let me know that just a kiss was not enough. He wanted me on the floor with him to play, roll around with him, or play with any of his favorite toys. I always obliged. Oddly enough, the longer I had Thor, the more productive I became.
As the months went by, and finally the years, I noticed my cartoon venture had grown rather large. Out of the blue, emails were coming in asking me for my autograph. “Why?, I thought. What have I done?” Thor continued to smile as if he knew. It was what he had done. He was slowly helping me regain my creativity and spirit by offering me something I had never had…unconditional love. When my mood was down, he automatically came to me full of kisses, and would jump on the bed and sleep with me, right by my head on my pillow if I really felt bad. He knew when I felt good, his smile would return and he would lead me to my computer, as if he knew, that was where I was going to “make it”.
I followed Thor’s direction, which often led me to my computer. I would follow him there and he would keep standing until I sat at the chair and began working. Then he would lay down next to me for hours. He rarely left my side.
The vet estimated Thor was about eight years (by his teeth) when I found him. Four years later, he developed some sort of disease that made him act catatonic and simply stare at walls. He would not even respond to his name or eat much. I rushed him to the vet who made an immediate diagnosis: “juvenile seizures” and that he would have to be put on barbiturates daily (and other medicines) and would live a short, and not a very good quality of life, and to prepare to put him down soon. I had been feeding him the highest grade dog food.
I immediately got on the Internet and started researching. I finally found a controversial veterinarian surgeon/author in Australia named Dr. Ian Billinghurst, who had written several books on what is known as the b.a.r.f diet (bones and raw foods) and I researched more about it. There was not much science behind it, but the theory made good sense, in that a dog’s digestive system had not evolved that much from when they were still wolves, just as a cat’s had not since they were lions (the diet allegedly works for both). This would be the first time I had ever tried something so dramatic with no science behind it. The first month was terrible. Though Thor devoured the food, his elimination was very discolored, a lot of diarrhea and vomiting, and lethargy.
One day I woke up and he had jumped on the bed next to me. He was ready to play and play a lot. We played for hours on the floor. He was not only his old self again, he was a brand new dog. His elimination was working properly again. He quit vomiting. When he was ready to eat, he led me to the fridge. He ate only raw fruits, vegetables, meat and bones. He was now turning 13 and walking five miles a day with me. This would continue until he was eighteen, and it would be done so without one illness nor vet bill. I stopped his vaccinations, and started giving him homeopathic nos odes and for heart worm protection, walnut hull tinctures. He thrived. He remained the happiest, healthiest most energetic dog I had ever owned, much less seen in my life He was so special that shop owners came outside just to talk to “Thor” when I took him on his long walks. They simply could not believe a dog that old could walk so far, without being out of breath, and have such a love of people. His energy level was becoming that of a puppy, like I’d never seen him before, and his attitude, was getting even more positive, if that could be possible. Whereas he used to be very finicky about his food, and monthly vet visits were the norm, both those issues were gone. He *loved* eating everything from watermelon to raw pork bones to raw green tripe, and devoured it like the wolf his ancestors had been.
Thor continued to prod me to work hard. He even stood by me through 3.5 years of college. I went back (online) at age 45 after a major heart attack. Friends who kept him for me when I was in the hospital told me he simply laid in the corner with his head on his front paws. He was almost totally inactive except to go outside to do his business. When I came home, he was happy again, but actually sensed I was unable for awhile to get on the floor to play so he jumped up on the bed to be with me while I recovered. Never bothering me if I was too tired, but just being there for me.
By the time Thor turned twenty, he started developing minor heart problems so I put him on some special herbal tinctures (never the capsules or tablets which offer very little medicinal value) that I also took and still take, including samento (a rare potent form of cat’s claw), cayenne, hawthorn berry, and several others. This kept his disease at bay, but he was beginning to be unable to take the long walks. Finally, about a year later, it reached another stage which was more serious. I finally had to take him to the vet and put him on heart meds. I knew this would eventually affect his liver and kidneys, but at least he stood a chance before that happened. He lived almost another two years. He continued taking walks, albeit short ones, until his very last month. His quality of life, remained high as did his attitude and love of life and people.
The vet told me he felt Thor did not want to be put down, though I was prepared and even asked him to. He advised me that Thor had made too many comebacks, and to give one last try, a “flushing out” as his kidneys were failing since I was now having to give him heart meds. I was so worried he might be in discomfort, I was ready, though reluctantly, to have him put down. The vet talked me out of it, saying, that unless there was liver or kidney damage, he was going to not suffer pain.
But he was very weak by now and I knew he didn’t have long to go. So just in case, I asked the vet to provide him pain meds that I would administer at home until he died, that is, if he did not make a comeback as he had several times before.
They gave me morphine to administer to him every four hours. I lay on the floor with him as he could no longer jump on the bed. I set the alarm clock for every four hours, and put the pill down Thor’s throat. He showed no signs of pain, and the vet advised me what he had was not painful; that heart ailments and such do not manifest in animals the way they do humans; they simply grow tired
and numb; and, to be sure, the morphine would prevent any pain in case the liver had damage.
I gave him his morphine around the clock and stayed on the floor right by his side stroking his back which he seemed to appreciate. I fell asleep about 3am the next morning after giving him, what would be his last dose. When I woke up, Thor was not breathing, yet he still had a smile on his face. I could feel the tears building in my eyes. “I kissed him, and told him I loved him very much, and how much he had done for me.” The dog that a vet begged to rescue, ended up rescuing me.
I wrapped him in a blanket and had built a small coffin out of a wooden box. I dug a hole
on a mountain in the backyard of my building in Hot Springs, Ar where Thor’s body lay today. This was his favorite place to go hiking with me. There, he chased squirrels, possums, armadillos, barked at soaring eagles, and ran around sniffing all the scents that nature has to offer. I cried on and off, nonstop for almost a month. I still have sad days almost three months later.
I had a headstone made and wrote the epitaph, “Here lay Thor, the best dog on the planet who brought me and so many others so much joy. May he rest in peace”.
Thor is out of any pain (he may have experienced), and is in a better place. I get relief knowing that.
I try to think back to all the good times I had with this amazing animal. They cannot be described in words. Even my local pristine corporate bank, down the street, Bank Of America of all places, not only wanted, but demanded that I bring Thor in at every visit. No matter where I went, everyone wanted Thor there too. He was that special.
I even had a wonderful girlfriend not long ago for several years named “Rosy” who had a fear of dogs due to having been attacked by one in her youth. I had talked about “Thor” to her. She lived far away, but we visited often. She came one day, and met Thor (when he was about twenty one) and he loved her immediately, rubbing against her leg, demanding to be petted by her. This only surprised me a little, as I know that dogs have a 6th sense of person’s fear and sometimes bark or attack. But she was not scared of Thor in the least and bent down and hugged and petted him. They were immediate friends. This was a good sign, as, though Thor loved almost everyone, if someone came even close to me that he did not have a good feeling about, he would bark nonstop. I believe Thor sensed that Rosy knew how to practice unconditional love, felt it, and responded to it.
This was in our apartment, his space, where he could be very territorial with people and other animals, but he accepted her immediately, and vice versa. And her dog fear had been an acute one, and for good reason. It was now gone. She credits Thor for that, and I saw it happen immediately. The two made friends fast.
Some days go by and I think of his final months which were difficult for me. There was no more playing together. It was taking care of a geriatric animal, using the same skills I had learned taking care of my dying mom; something that was my responsibility, something I knew I would never regret doing, but not something that is necessarily easy or fun. But I make myself think of all the good times, the long daily walks. His reaction when I grabbed the leash to go for the walks (jumping up and down and smiling) drives across the country, even to Canada. He just loved being with me, and vice versa.
In retrospect, all the stress and the strain of the care-taking phase was rewarding. I was able to do everything I could for both the person who gave me life (my mom) and the dog who eventually taught me how to live and give unconditional love.
These are things that I can assure you money cannot buy, and they are worth so much more than money, they are not even in the same league. People with money are a dime a dozen (no pun intended); people who practice unconditional love are like finding a needle in a haystack. Thanks to my long-time friend “Thor”, I am becoming one of those needles. Otherwise, it would have never happened. I will miss you, “Babydog” (that was one of his many nicknames that he loved to hear), and remember you the rest of my life.