I was both frustrated and disappointed upon my arrival at the Animal Rescue League—Mya, the dog that Tony, my boyfriend, and I were planning to take home had already been adopted earlier that day. That is, until I saw him, laying quietly in his cage. I have a thing for tan dogs, especially tan German Shepherd mixes, and this dog definitely fit that description. However, he was terribly thin; his hip and shoulder bones were popping out and I could see each vertebrae on his spine. I wondered about his background, who or what left him this way, and hoped it wasn’t too bad. I walked closer, kneeled down, and called him to me. It took him a second, but he got up and politely came to my hand. His dark eyes were filled with trust, which astonished me. I glanced at his kennel papers for his name: Maculay Culkin.
I immediately called Tony, who really loved Mya, and excitedly told him to bike down to the shelter. As I anxiously awaited for him to arrive, I visited the other dogs. There was a white husky whose flawless beauty intrigued me, but after learning some breed traits as well as knowing he’d attract many other adopters, we chose not to visit with him. I eventually wandered up back to Mac’s kennel. I read through his papers and discovered he was recently seized by Animal Control from an East Liberty house and was having his second birthday next week. He was a little younger than what we wanted, but his demeanor was so calm I was sure he wouldn’t have the intense energy that’s typically attributed to younger dogs.
When Tony arrived, we spoke with the Adoption Counselor and took Mac into a playroom. He was friendly, peaceful, trusting and loving. He just hung out with us. We were curious about his paws, as they were flat like the Grinch, unlike other dogs who appear to almost stand on their tip-toes. The Adoption Counselor told us it was due to being confined to a crate for extended periods of time—he didn’t have the opportunity to build muscle in his feet. We also learned that, in more extreme cases, the dog’s muscles are so underdeveloped they can’t even walk. We talked more about Mac’s background and learned he was originally adopted as a puppy to a woman who had later given him to her daughter. Her daughter failed to take care of him and now here he was in this room, with us.
We continued talking and playing, and eventually noticed that his tongue had purple spots, indicating he was probably mixed with Chow Chow or Shar Pei. By this time I was in love—hearts over my head in love—but Tony was reluctant to make a decision. He was still upset about Mya. We agreed to think about it overnight and visit the Western PA Humane Society and Animal Friends tomorrow before making a decision.
We returned home to our other dog, Jackson. I was happily telling him all about Mac and how he might have a new brother! It was Jackson’s birthday and what a better present than a life-long pal! Tony and I talked further and I really liked Mac, but Tony continued to be hesitant; he didn’t think he was affectionate enough. I told him I would go to the shelters tomorrow and keep him updated.
As I visited the other two shelters, Mac was running through my mind. Out of the hundred or so dogs I saw that day, he seemed to be the most “my type” and I knew in my heart that he really needed a loving home. I called Tony and said I wanted to do a meet-and-greet with Mac and Jackson. He agreed and told me to keep him posted.
I came back to the Animal Rescue League and asked to visit Mac again. While in the room, I picked up a brush and started grooming his tiny body as slowly and gently as possible. He was so thin and fragile, I was scared I might hurt him. Sitting with him again solidified my decision. I went up to the Counselor, told him I’m really interested in adopting Mac and asked if we could do a meet-and-greet.
Jackson is still a young guy, he was only one at the time, and (still) is, for lack of a better word, crazy. I was worried Jackson’s rough play might hurt Mac, but the Counselor assured me he would be fine. Even though it was an incredibly hot day, we took them outside to one of the fenced-in spaces. Jackson instantly started speeding around, and spirited Mac looked interested in following suit. The Counselor let him off his leash and he started bounding towards Jackson. This brought a tear to my eye; I was so happy to see him joyful after what I’m sure was a life of agony and loneliness. I was sure they’d instantly become best buds, so I quickly sent Tony videos and pictures of their playtime. He was super excited and told me to adopt Mac.
Being cautious of having Mac come back, the Counselor asked me if I was sure Tony agreed with adoption. He wistfully told me of what happens to dog’s personalities after entering and exiting shelters; I can only imagine how confused and sad the animals must feel.
I filled out the adoption paperwork and expressed concern to the Counselors about getting him to the proper weight. They explained feeding him three times a day would help, but to seek additional information. After signing the final papers Jackson, Mac and I happily headed home.
After arriving in our apartment, I slowly walked curious Mac around to show him his new surroundings and tried to think of a new name for him (we weren’t big fans of our dog being named after a childhood star). Jackson was ecstatic to have a new friend in the house and would not leave Mac alone. I was a little worried about their constant roughhousing and also extremely tired from my sleepless night so I took Jackson to Doggie Daycare at the Golden Bone.
After a minute of coercing I got Mac to cautiously get on the couch with me. He laid down and we both fell asleep. The funny thing is, I would never do this with Jackson for fear he would chew something (probably valuable) to pieces; but I could tell Mac would not be a problem.
I was flooding Tony, and my sister, Renee’s, phones with pictures of Mac and the three of us were trying to figure out a name. After several suggestions Tony and I decided on Fitzgerald, named after one of our favorite bands, Fitz and the Tantrums, and we’d call him Fitz or Fitzy for short.
I, of course, shared a few pictures of him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and asked my friends and followers for advice on weight gain. Alli from Biggies Bullies told me to feed him puppy (or fatty) food and supplement with cottage cheese. We started feeding him three times a day when possible, occasionally supplementing with cottage cheese.
Jackson and Fitz got along so well. The second they woke up they began playing, always running around, wrestling and more or less jumping off the walls; this did become a little hard to control, but it was so cute we didn’t care. After a few weeks they finally adjusted to being with each other and slowed the playing, but still started many games throughout the day. Jackson’s favorite game was tug-of-war with the many toys they destroyed together. I don’t think Fitz had a favorite game, he was just happy to be playing.
The first few months we had Fitz he had a bathroom problem. He was constantly going in our living room where he was housed during work hours. We eventually attempted pee pad training, but he was often still going wherever he needed. We weren’t sure if he had a kidney problem, was just not used to having water or needed intensive training, so we brought it up at our initial vet appointment. The vet took blood samples and all tests came negative. She explained that he is still learning to not go as soon as he drinks water. We decided to keep him in a large crate while we were out until he learned how to hold his pee and tell us when he needed to go outside.
We also brought a small lump on his right ribs to the vet’s attention, we didn’t quite remember seeing it when adopting, but it didn’t just pop up. She felt it and assumed it must be a rib that healed wrong in his past life. I was relieved to hear it was nothing to be concerned about, but sad that he had to deal with physical pain while confined to a cage.
The vet weighed wary Fitz and we were shocked to learn he had not gained a single pound in five weeks! We were feeding him a good amount more than we fed Jackson and were also giving him additional treats and cottage cheese. She ran a few blood tests again, and they came back with no problems. She told us to feed him a larger quantity of food each day. We then began feeding him four or four and a half cups of food each day.
Fitz quickly settled in and was truly enjoying each day. He finally began gaining weight in his stomach, but was still bony; we guessed he was a little deformed from living in a cage so long and needed to gain muscle. We took him to Doggie Daycare once a week with Jackson, but I would watch him on the livestream and he did not look too comfortable. I was hoping he would warm up to it and start enjoying himself.
At home I became, as Tony said, “Absorbed with him”. He and I would cozily lay on the couch together; I always laid down, turned on my side and gave him enough room to snuggle-in right beside me. I would pet him, kiss him and blow on his face, he in turn would cuddle with me and give me kisses. Tony joked with me that Fitz became my blanket. I think this is true, my life is less warm without him.
Many moments with Fitz stick out in my head: the comical weeks it took him to finally “sit”, the funny way he would move from side-to-side when you scratched his backside, his interest in the neighborhood cats, how he would excitedly make an odd howling sound when I got home from work and countless others. A favorite moment was a snowy trip to Schenley Park. The four of us went on a walk around the lake that sits below Phipps and Fitz was so lively and energetic. He wanted to chase after every bike, the cyclists flying down the trail really excited him. I gave into his desire and starting running with him down the hill all the way back to the car. He rarely felt the need to run, so this moment must’ve been really thrilling to him. We plan to go back to Schenley when it’s warmer and have a picnic for Fitz there, I even considered spreading his ashes in that spot. I believe that’s where he was most alive.
Not long after that day Tony came to me and said he thought Fitz’s lump was much larger than it was originally. I looked at it, said I wasn’t sure, but concerned, made a vet appointment. That night I stayed awake googling lumps in dogs and felt sick about what I was finding. I was scared for Fitz and my mind was racing with thoughts: Could we afford this? How long would he be with us? Would we have to remove a leg?
I told the vet of the possible broken rib, and he thought it didn’t seem dangerous. He said it could be bone cancer, “not to scare me”, but with his age doubted it. They would have to run some tests to be sure, but I wanted to talk it over with Tony first. I also asked why he wasn’t gaining weight when we were feeding him so much, and if the he still needed to gain muscle. He replied that Fitz’s weight wasn’t “scaring him” and he probably just needed to fill out and gain a little muscle. He nicely called Fitz a “gentle soul”, he and the vet tech had such kind things to say about both dogs.
Even though the vet said Fitz was healthy I was not feeling confident and again went to Google, this time with “dog bone cancer”. Again, another sleepless night. After reading the symptoms and seeing some photos I knew that is what the lump on Fitz’s side meant and my stomach fell. It made me incredibly sad, but I did not know where to start.
Tony worriedly talked to our friend, Dave, at Golden Bone when he asked where Fitz was for Daycare. He recommended we visit the vet where he takes his dogs, Dr. Gerson at the Point Breeze Veterinary Hospital. Dave assisted us in making an appointment for Christmas Eve.
Tony needed to work a half-day, so I had to be strong and accompany Fitz alone. I felt sick, nervous and very anxious; I didn’t want to know the truth. Ignorance is bliss, and I still didn’t know for sure that Fitz had a terminal illness. As the time ticked near, I started crying for fear of the unknown. Eventually we got in my car and I drove to the vet.
Dr. Gerson asked me why I thought he may have bone cancer, I sadly pointed at his obviously lump, then explained he is beginning to limp in his front, right leg, has smelly breath, is almost always laying down, has never gained the proper amount of weight and a few other symptoms. He then began to examine Fitz and performed a needle aspiration to find what was inside his lump. He was not able to tell exactly what it was from the specimen and chose to take X-rays of the lump. I was not allowed in the X-ray room and was anxiously sitting in the waiting room for more information. Dr. Gerson asked if they could sedate him as he was moving around too much for the X-rays to be clear. I agreed, thankful that he didn’t suggest anesthesia.
When I saw Fitz next he was very drowsy and his was mouth hanging open. I had to carry him to the next room and was worried he might pass away right then. Dr. Gerson explained the prognosis did not look good and directed me to AVets in Monroeville, an Emergency Vet. I was upset to hear this, but felt I already knew. Dr. Gerson kindly provided me with a helpful gift certificate for AVets.
I frantically drove home to get Tony, explained where we were going and why, and then had him drive so I could comfort Fitz in the backseat. Dr. Gerson had called and explained our situation to the AVets so after initial questions, they put us in a waiting room. The three of us laid on the freezing floor for hours. Due to the cold temperature and his mindset I put Fitz on my lap. Finally the doctor came in.
He solemnly petted Fitz, saying “Hey Fitz, we need to chat”. We, of course, knew this was a bad thing. He explained the X-rays showed the cancerous lump was eating away his ribs. He could possibly do expensive surgery to remove this, but it was risky as would end up removing a large chunk of his rib cage, causing breathing problems. Plus, even if we did surgery, he would most likely not live much longer. We briefly discussed this further, but came to the conclusion we would provide Fitz with a great life until it became too much for him.
We were both very upset; Tony cried, I cried a little, but was mostly dizzy and felt out-of-my body, just as I am now writing this story. I just couldn’t believe our loving dog, that we nearly just adopted, was given a death sentence. This meek pup lived a horrible life for the first two years, and now can’t make it up with a long, happy life.
The following day was Christmas, and we were determined to give him the best Christmas ever one as it would be his last. We gave him a dapper holiday tie and a bandana, he was definitely dressed for the occasion. We took him first to my parents, where he trotted in the snow with my family dog Chipper, and ate his fill of table food. My family members were happily giving him love and enjoying his company, I could tell he was extremely grateful to be there.
Next, we headed to Tony’s family’s gathering where he was spoiled even more. He was given whole plates of food and everyone there petted him at some point that night. After filling his belly he eventually laid down and the young children sat with him. Tony’s cousins were very upset and crying over him. I was glad to find they cared so deeply for him; but I was just thankful he was right next to me: living and breathing
The next two weeks were hard and stressful. We were so glad he was still here, but never sure if that day was “the day”, I often cried to him. His condition continued to worsen, we had to really excite him and gently pick up his legs to get him back indoors, his eyes were producing mucus, we had to resort to pee pads, and he barely got up during the day. Eventually I made the appointment, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
I let my contact from the Animal Rescue League follow-up group know Fitz was going to be put to sleep. She was so caring and thoughtful during his last days, I really appreciated her kind words. She told me she believed Fitz was meant to be with us, which really means a lot to me.
We solemnly woke up on a rainy Saturday, knowing what was ahead. Fitz and Jackson were laying on our couch and I crouched down and quietly told Fitz the story of when we adopted him. He stared into my eyes with his soft, dark chocolate eyes and began licking my hand, I was brought to tears. Eventually the time came and we reluctantly headed to the vet.
We arrived, sad and scared, and were choking back tears as a woman came to pet him. She talked of how sweet and nice he was; just like many strangers before her. She asked if everything was okay, I squeaked out “no”. As we were taken into the back, things began to get really tough. The vet explained the process and it all started to happen. She listened for a heartbeat, glanced up saying “He’s gone”, then we were left sobbing over his lifeless body.
Tony and I wrote messages to Fitz on his box and Renee gave me her goodbye words. Tony and his dad dug Fitz’s hole on his parent’s land and I watched as they buried him in the ground. When the weather becomes warm again I’d like to plant flowers by his grave; he was always surrounding me with happiness, now I’d like to surround him with the same.
Fitz was the most kind and gentle dog I’ve ever known. He was always happily trying to please us and showering us with love. It’s truly shocking that he could be so forgiving and friendly towards humans after the horrible way he was treated in the past.
I’m so thankful we got to have him in our lives, if only for five months. I feel we were meant to adopt Fitz. If we would’ve adopted Mya who knows what would’ve happened with Fitz. If he would’ve stayed in the shelter, they may have noticed his lump growing and unfortunately put him to sleep. Or perhaps his potential other family might not have wanted him after discovering the lump. Whatever the case, I’m so glad the four of us had five amazing months together. I’m especially grateful for Jackson’s impact on his life. Jackson taught him how to play, for when I offered him a bone on Day 1 he had no idea what to do. He brought so much into our lives, and I remind myself each day to “be like Fitz”; be kind to others, not judge anyone and forget the past.