Wednesday 28 September 2011 was a perfect spring day in Hobart, Tasmania. By 9:am it had reached a balmy 23°C. It was the first day in September we had experienced warm weather. Already the wattlebirds squawked raucously in the nearby flowering gum trees as they swung from limb to flower-laden limb. The garden blazed with brilliant colours from bulbs and a cherry tree was in full blossom. Meanwhile, zillions of Silver Eyes and Blue Fairy Wrens, their wings glistening jewel-like in the sun, squabbled for possession of the birdbath to momentarily splash in its shallow water. While all this was going on — Max our eighteen-year-old Corgi-Collie haphazardly stumbled down the few shallow front steps — to eat his last breakfast.
That was the very best breakfast he had ever had in his whole life: chocolate-coated Cherry Ripe, scoops of ice cream, uncooked chicken thighs, a spoonful of boiled rice and a raw egg was mixed in the with the meal. When he had finished, he repeatedly licked his bowl for a last taste. Max was oblivious to the splendid view and to the antics of the birdlife in the garden because he was blind, deaf and demented. However, he could still feel the sun on his thick fur and could smell the few crumbs that had fallen from his dinner bowl. After such a delicious meal he was happy enough to return inside for his nap. He didn’t know that in a few hours he would be dead.
The previous Monday a vet had observed him for over an hour and had told us the sad news: Max couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, suffered crippling arthritis and his dementia caused him to be constantly alert and stressed, unable to relax. While we were talking he continually patrolled the floor, unable to remember that he had repeatedly revisited the same areas. Whenever one of us approached, he reacted with a startled, severe response — just like a short, strong seizure. While his general health was reasonable he had poor quality of life — it would only get worse. On the basis of our discussion we decided he should be put down and the vet agreed. The vet arranged for his “release” on the following Wednesday — at our home. We were told the vet would arrive around midday.
While Max lay snoozing on the carpet of our study, my husband and I reminisced about his life. He was a stray that was picked up by the Dog Pound in January 1994. At the time we owned Samantha, an elderly Labrador Cross who was lonely after her partner had recently died. We took her to the Dog Refuge and tried her out with a few canines to see how they reacted to her. Max was the only one who came up and gave her a friendly ‘lick’. He was estimated to be about fourteen months old and we were told he was a lively dog. Nothing else.
Max was more than lively — he was hyperactive and nearly drove us to distraction with his demands for attention. Poor Samantha found him a nuisance too, but she was so good-tempered she put up with his antics. Five months after we adopted Max Samantha had to be put down because her back was paralyzed and she was unable to walk. I cried when she died. However, Max couldn’t care a hoot. He perfunctorily sniffed her lifeless body and wasn’t the least upset over her departure. We missed Samantha, especially when we had to collect the newspaper from the bottom of our long drive. That was Samantha’s job and she did it well.
I didn’t really bond with Max until I took him with me to visit a friend on a bush block at Tinderbox in Hobart. We allowed him to roam unfettered, to run up hill and dale, climb cliffs and swim in the river without being restrained. Subsequently, he and I worked out some kind of understanding about each other. That evening, at home, I allowed him to jump up on my lap, and from that night we got along just fine.
Over the years I gradually learned more about him. Mainly he loved to run free. Every time we came across an oval he delighted in performing endless victory laps. That habit was something his former owners probably taught him. He was also fastidious in his bowel habits; when we were out, he never soiled the footpath but backed into grass or verge to do his business.
Whenever our son visited, Max would immediately jump high up his chest to be caught in his arms. Occasionally we were jealous of Max’s affection for our son. They would go for long walks together exploring the slopes of Mount Wellington. When they returned, Max would be exhausted and smiling, content to sit at the front of his kennel, panting with tongue out but happy about his and Morgan’s adventures on the mountain.
On our walks Max was socially engaging with other dogs and quickly made friends who weren’t at all affronted when he came up to sniff their backsides. A day at the beach was a great social occasion for him. Should we throw a stick into the water he was adept at locating it and returning it to us, his eyes gleaming, anticipating another retrieval challenge. He was in fatigable in his prowess chasing and catching sticks even if they were held high — so high we thought he would he would never latch onto them. But he managed to wrest the stick and chew it up in defiance. He was the boss.
There was a wicked side to him, too. He enjoyed watching our hens that were safely enclosed in a cage. We thought he loved them! Came one afternoon when I let the hens out to forage, forgetting that Max was around. Quick as a flash, Max pounced on one hen and in the blink of an eye he cracked its neck. Crafty Max had figured that by making the hens familiar to his presence, they would not run away should he come near. When we chastised him he just grinned at us. I wondered if there was a bit of fox in him because at night his shone green in reflected light.
Two years ago our land was invaded by a rabbit plague. By then, Max was losing his eyesight. Whenever I saw a rabbit, I would call out to Max: ‘rabbit, rabbit’ and he would make chase — often in the wrong direction, particularly if there was more than one rabbit endeavouring to disappear. Nonetheless, Max persevered. One evening he had been gone for a long time, when he appeared slowly crawling up our driveway. As he came closer we could see he was dragging something in his mouth; it was a rabbit, almost as big as Max and was headless. Max laid the gruesome carcass at our feet. He was absolutely whacked by the effort. We were so proud of his prowess!
As the years passed, our sprightly pet gradually showed signs of failing to keep up with our son’s outings on the mountain. One afternoon our son returned, greatly distressed and panting, with Max in his arms. The dog had collapsed halfway into the walk and needed to be carried home. Soon after, cataracts had spread over his eyes; he lost his hearing, and recently became so weak he could no longer manage to jump onto my lap at night. It was pitiful to see him try and fail…
Our reminiscing was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing. It is noon. The moment has come for us to be in the present. I usher in the vet and her assistant. They stand for a while and then sit on the floor close to Max who looks relaxed. After he is injected with a sedative he trembles and shudders in my arms. Mercifully the shaking stops and he is soon asleep. The vet shaves his paw and inserts a cannula to administer the lethal injection. It is all so peaceful. Just like the day.
Vale Max. You had a wonderful life and a dignified death – you are gone in the flesh but you have left us with a treasure house filled with rich and happy memories of your time with us.