The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Ode to a childhood pet

I distinctly remember the way that, when my family entered the apartment where she was being fostered, Maddie’s ears lifted as she trotted over to greet us. After a long search to find a dog that perfectly fit into our home, it took only a couple seconds of knowing Maddie to understand that she was going to live with us forever. Within two weeks of first laying eyes on her, Maddie became my family’s first dog.

Maddie and me, two days into her stay with the Corbins. 2010. (Contributed by Eleanor Corbin)

We lost Maddie a year ago this month, and I have come to realize that pet loss, particularly for college students, is a rather common experience. Many families make the decision to adopt an animal around the time my parents did, when the children are getting to an age where they can contribute to taking care of the pet. As a result, when it comes time for that child to age into college, the pet is already towards the end of their life. 

A quick look through other college newspapers reveals that pet death and pet aging deeply affects many students as they leave home for the first time. One student at Brandeis University wrote an article about navigating the declining health of a pet as a college student who is not home as it is happening, as her childhood goldendoodle, Buddy, was just diagnosed with cancer. A student from Kenyon College wrote an article about the guilt she feels over losing moments with her recently passed childhood cat, who died while she was away at school. 

I certainly did not see Maddie as much in her final few years as I did when I lived at home, and as unavoidable as this was, I still deeply grieve that time I did not spend with her. As we approach the anniversary of Maddie’s passing, I wanted to take some time to remember my childhood dog and thank her for teaching me so much about loving an animal. 

Both my parents grew up with dogs. My dad, who was from a hunting family, grew up around trained retrievers who swam out into freezing lakes to grab ducks with their soft mouths. My mom grew up with my Grannie, who could never turn away a stray when it showed up on their doorstep. 

That being said, as I approached eight years of age, my parents had never seriously considered the idea of adopting a pet. They generally doubted my sister and I’s ability to care for the animal, and felt like they had enough on their plate dealing with the two of us as it was. 

Then when my dad’s job forced us to move cross country for the second time in two years, my parents felt like this was the perfect time to use the promise of a puppy to soften the blow of once again uprooting our life.

When we moved the last of our boxes into the new home, my sister found an organization called PetConnect Rescue. This group creates a network of shelters, foster homes and volunteers to save animals at high risk of euthanasia. When an animal is slated to be killed, they send out messages to this network and try to relocate the animal to a new temporary home — for anyone considering pet adoption who lives near the DMV, they are definitely an organization worth checking out!

Maddie, as part of a litter of seven found near an overcrowded shelter in Ohio, quickly came onto the organization’s radar when the healthy puppies were listed to be killed due to a lack of space. Volunteers quickly relocated the group to a shelter with extra spaces in Maryland, near where my family lived at the time. Maddie spent a week there before being moved to a foster home, where she stayed for an additional week before the fateful day when my family swung open the apartment door to meet her for the first time.

Maddie, like Snoopy, always preferred to sit on top of her dog house rather than inside it. 2012. (Contributed by Eleanor Corbin)

Maddie was a Labrador retriever mix. We never did find out what else she was mixed with, but whatever it was made her longer and shorter than your average Lab. She was so long that if you stood back and looked at her from the side, her back appeared to sag a little in the middle. At the time, she was entirely black and soft like velvet. Her ears folded forward perfectly like a dog in a painting, and her tail was so powerful that over the course of her life, she sprained it five times from getting too happy. Her paws were webbed like the dogs my dad grew up with, so that they could swim better through the icy water, but Maddie never liked water, so we never forced her. No dog is perfect, but Maddie was perfect for my family.

Maddie spent her first day with us under the kitchen table, scared of her new environment and unsure of whether she could trust us quite yet. But when my mom took the little dog, who had lived in apartments and shelters her whole life, into our fenced-in backyard and let her run off leash, she instantly came to life. After sprinting several laps around the yard weaving between the trees, she stopped, tired, and slept in our house for the first time. From then on, Maddie trusted us entirely and endlessly.

My dad took a minute to warm up to our new family member. I remember a younger me crying after he said Maddie was worth “the same as a goldfish” just a few days after welcoming her into the family.

Maddie and my dad after a decade of best friendship. 2018. (Contributed by Eleanor Corbin)

I can confidently say, however, that this did not last long. Within a year, my dad was spending every evening watching television with her at his feet, and he slipped her table scraps more than anyone else in the family. Soon, both of my parents started calling Maddie “your sister” when referencing her in conversation. By the time I entered college in 2020, Maddie had spent a decade as my third, and favorite, sibling. She had been with us through several more relocations as the most loving dog anyone could ask for. She never tried to run away, and if the gate came open, she would sit in the front yard waiting for someone to come home and let her back in. 

The last time I saw her in August before I left for my third year of Grinnell, Maddie looked much different than the puppy we had brought home 12 years ago despite being the same dog I had always known. Her soft brown eyes had become clouded with cataracts, her pitch black fur was almost entirely gray and her back legs were beginning to give up on her. So when I said goodbye to go to the airport, I knew I might have been saying goodbye for good, as I had every time I left home since she began to age so visibly. 

As a result of Maddie’s declining health, I was not entirely surprised when one morning that December, on a drive from Iowa City back to Grinnell, I got a call from my mother, in tears, only able to say, “It’s Maddie.”

I knew that with an almost 14-year-old Lab at home, any number of ailments could have sent her to the vet. I expected to hear that my mom was currently in the waiting room of a vet hospital somewhere — that they were going to have to put her down. But instead …

“There was a mountain lion last night, it came into the backyard,” my mom continued. “It got Maddie.”

In all of the times I had prepared myself to get this phone call, this is never what I expected to hear. “Is she alright?”

“No,” she said. “She’s gone, Eleanor, it took her.”

My mom went on to explain that after using the doggy door to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, Maddie had been ambushed and dragged off by a nearby mountain lion. 

The last few years have brought drought to the Los Angeles region, which has forced animals into human areas in an increasingly desperate search for food and water as it becomes sparse. Complaints about black bears near homes doubled between 2014 and 2015 in the county. It is an increasingly common experience to see packs of coyotes in the middle of densely populated areas far after the sun has risen.

The picture I took of Maddie, by then an old girl, the last time I saw her. 2022. (Contributed by Eleanor Corbin)

When these animals start to search in human populated areas for resources, interactions with wildlife in residential spaces become more frequent. My neighborhood, located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountain range, has experienced this phenomenon repeatedly as we are situated directly on the border between the natural and human world.

As my mom woke up that morning and went downstairs to feed Maddie breakfast, she was instantly concerned when the little dog did not come quickly at the sound of my mom’s footsteps. Even in her old age, Maddie was a food-motivated girl. 

She searched the entire house before venturing into the backyard, where she found the bloody evidence of the attack, but still no Maddie. She stood in our yard calling for her for ages, hoping to hear her off in the distance, injured somewhere. 

She later got a call from our neighbors across the street. Their security cameras had caught the event the night before — a mountain lion dragged a dead Maddie across their yard and into the canyon. And just like that, our dog was gone and we never saw her again.

I pulled over to the side of the road and felt as though my lungs would no longer take in air. I had prepared myself for her passing, but not like this. Maddie was a gentle dog who never bit anyone even by accident, so to hear that she had faced such a violent end felt unfitting and undeserved. 

We had spent over a decade trying to give her a happy life surrounded by a loving family, only for it to end abruptly and alone. I could only think of how scared she must have been. I could not imagine stepping into that house without being greeted by a wagging tail.

It took for some time to pass from the incident to separate my grief for the loss of Maddie from my feelings towards the mountain lion. I now try to focus on remembering Maddie for the truly wonderful dog that she was rather than the way she died. I believe that my family gave her the long, happy life she deserved.

Me and Bly, who my friend’s mom saved from being a stray in Nebraska. 2022.

Maddie, the little dog who was saved when strangers came together to move her across the country, found a permanent home amongst a family who also had to move across the country to find her. As my first pet, I learned so much from Maddie about how to care for an animal. 

I adopted a cat in the past year, naming her Bly in honor of American journalist Nellie Bly. As I navigate taking care of a pet by myself for the first time, Maddie’s memory is always with me.

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Eleanor Corbin
Eleanor Corbin, Editor in Chief
Eleanor is a fourth-year political science major with a concentration in statistics. Nine out of ten times she is ready and willing to discuss embroidery, types of loose-leaf tea, and metal music. Best approached with her favorite candy, cherry Twizzler bites, in hand.
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    GrannieDec 23, 2023 at 12:03 am

    Ella,this is your Grannie saying through tears of sadness mixed with gratitude that you have managed to capture in your wonderful story the essence of sweet Maddie. She gave us all so much unconditional love and left us with such special memories of time spent with her. Thank you.