Zoo Musings: Ernie


This is an old article written over 20 years ago. It was written when I was a docent at the Burnett Park Zoo in Syracuse NY and writing for “The Inside Track”–the newsletter especially for the volunteers.

ernie

 

I would guess the main reason many of us are zoo volunteers is because we love animals. We have our favorites and become attached to them. We all seem to share feelings of sadness when an animal dies, even when we may not know that animal personally. How often have we heard of an animal’s death at a meeting and all sigh and groan together sharing the loss? It touches our hearts more than it might most people. And so, many of you out there will understand how my life has been effected by the recent loss of my dog Ernie.

Of the volunteers that I know, many of you share your lives and homes with pets. You all know that I do too: my pony, my goats, my four cats and until recently, my dog. All my animals are wonderful and contribute in a special way to my life, but I have to say that none touched me like my pup.

Ernie was about five years old and came to live with us as a puppy from the Humane Center. He was about 11 weeks old, had been there a while and was pretty goofy looking. I fell instantly in love and told my husband he was the dog for me. We knew he might get big being a German Shepard/terrier mix and he ended up tipping the scale at 70 pounds.

He was my constant friend, sticking by me through an extremely difficult pregnancy. I was home all the time (throwing up mostly) and ol’ Ern was by my side despite my unpleasant behaviors. We shared that first year together pretty much alone and that attachment was to remain permanent.

I said he turned out the be a big dog, and his goofy puppy appearance transformed into a mature goofiness (still the floppy ear and a full-blown beard that become home to many a grossness). Hannah (my daughter) arrived and Ernie accepted her happily despite my Mother-In-Law’s warnings of the dog who chewed off the baby’s milk-laden fingers. Not my pup–he was one of the family.

A day came when I realized that his big galutedness needed some taming–I might have thought it was cute that a 70 pound dog jumped up to greet me, but my Mother-In-Law most definitely did not. So off we went to obedience class. Others didn’t have faith in Ernie, thinking him big AND dumb, but I knew he would rise to the occasion and show everyone how wrong they were. He was a comparatively old pupil, but I was undaunted because I knew of Ernie’s desire to please. And show ’em we did. He was a star pupil, learning everything put before him, not bothering with the other dogs and not peeing in class. He always knew when we were going to class and would get all juiced up–it was our time together and we loved it.

I still say we got robbed.  He only came away with second in his class. The judge had her eye on him when he did his one wrong thing and missed the wrong doings of the dog who took first. The whole class was shocked Ernie didn’t win and I was disappointed. But it didn’t seem to bother Ernie in the least.

He came to be my running buddy. When we moved to Otisco my dream came true and he and I were able to jog together in the woods. He would get off his leash and be able to experience the ancient feelings of his ancestors as we romped through meadows and woods. He’d always answer my call, even when face to face with a deer because this was the part of him that was bonded with me. I loved to be able to let him run free in safe territory and always believed it wasn’t fair to let an animal roam where they could get hurt.

But I got lazy… The quiet of Dutch Hill Road lured me into a false sense of security. Very little traffic, barely any pedestrians to follow and only an occasional fellow canine traveler. The winter up here has been brutal with wind chills of 20 below, snow almost waist deep, so I got complacent. I began to let Ernie out to do this thing by himself. Only for minutes at a time–he was never one to like to be out by himself–even in warm weather he’d whimper to come in to be with us. He’d stick around…..

On the last day I saw him alive, I had just let him out for a pee. I was on the phone and was looking out the window at him. He was in the driveway looking toward the road with ears perked (even the floppy one). I chatted a couple more minutes, but I must have sensed something because I rung off so I could call him in. I did–he didn’t answer. I got my coat on and started outside. I stepped out into the driveway and looked toward the road and in an instant took in the scene: a scene I can’t forget and wouldn’t wish on anyone who has a dog they love.

A truck, my neighbor and my dog lying in the road. He was in his death throes by the time I got to him. I was hysterical and consumed with grief. My pup was gone. No chance to say goodbye, to hug him, to love him one more time. My road is quiet, but not quiet enough.

My neighbor offered to take him (he owns a farm) and without thinking, wrapped in my sorrow, I said OK. Now I wish I hadn’t. I almost went that night, learning he was still on the truck, to wrap him in his favorite blanket and say goodbye. Friends talked me out of it, but I wish I gone. I do have his ashes now and ordered a dogwood bush to plant when warmer weather arrives, but the emptiness I feel is vast and my guilt lurks close to the surface.

For awhile all I could picture when I thought of Ernie was that last scene of the road. Some nights ago though, I was coming home late at night. I turned onto Dutch Hill and a winter fog was rolling in. I had a tape in, a new one bought to help calm my nerves. I reached the top of the mountain, the place where he had been hit. I stopped and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw the fog rolling before my headlights and let the music fill my heart.

In my mind’s eye I saw Ernie running, loping through the woods as he loved to do. I turned up the driveway and realized the last time I saw him alive he was listening as though something was calling him. I got out of the truck and heard a dog barking somewhere on the mountain. I listened to the dog, surrounded by the silence of the night and hoped that someday I would run with Ernie again.

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