A note from the author: I held back from publishing this true story for several months, mulling over potential reactions from readers. Eventually I decided that sharing this inspiring story was more important than appearing foolish.
One Saturday morning in early January of 2006, my husband called me to the kitchen window. “Look at that dog by our mailbox. I think it's a stray,” he said. He knew that I'd be interested because I'm a regular volunteer at our county humane society, and that I always take action when I see a stray pet.
I could see the dog sniffing around a popular poop spot for our dogs at the base of our long driveway, which is about 200 yards from the house down a lumpy hillside. The stray dog looked like a black Lab. I scrutinized the dog, and then another shape caught my eye.
“I see two dogs. I see a black dog sniffing around by the mailbox, and I think I see a second dog across the road in the hayfield, just sitting there. I think both of them are strays. I'm going down.”
I filled a bowl with dog kibble, threw on my winter coat, boots, and hat, and left the house. As I neared the first bend in the driveway, I could see that the second dog was facing our house, still sitting. I continued down the driveway, and startled the first dog, the black Lab. That dog lifted its head in alarm, and after giving me a brief look, bolted across the road past the seated dog, and into a tree-lined gully, disappearing. The second dog continued to watch me walk down the driveway.
Now I could see that it was a brown dog. It looked like it might be a chocolate Lab. I passed the mailbox, crossed the road, and headed into the field toward the dog, whose gaze was fixed intently on me. It sat like a statue.
I watched the dog and wondered why did it just sit there so calmly, watching me? It seemed unusual behavior for any dog. Was this dog safe, I wondered. As I approached the stray, I noticed its blue collar, and observed that it was probably a chocolate Lab. I could also see that it was a male dog. I crouched down and slowly approached, extending my right hand, palm down, to offer him a sniff. Looking at the ground, I watched his expression carefully from the corner of my eye, looking for any sign of aggression, but there was none.
Finally he moved when I was a foot or two away. He wagged his butt on the ground while sitting. He happily bobbled his head from side to side, and smiled hugely at me, showing his tongue while panting. His eyes sparkled as he looked into my eyes. He gave every indication of recognition, which I knew to be impossible. It was clear that he was beautiful, perhaps more that just beautiful. “Why, you look just like my Sunbear!” I told him.
Let me interrupt my story to tell you about Sunbear, “my” dog. I have never met the real Sunbear, a young chocolate Lab who died of neglect in West Virginia in August of 2002, many hundreds of miles away from my home in Wisconsin. He had been trapped in a townhouse laundry room for six weeks, and neighbors did not report hearing him (maybe they did not hear him—we will never know). He was discovered near death by a former resident of the townhouse, and he died three days later despite extraordinary efforts by veterinarians to save him. I read about the animal control officer Gene Fields who persistently tracked Sunbear's owner across several states and found him months later. I read about the 400 people who wrote letters to the judge asking for justice for Sunbear, and the West Virginia legislature that enacted stronger laws against animal neglect because of his case.
It was only in April of 2004 when I read about Sunbear's story on the internet, soon after his owner was convicted of animal neglect. When I read about Sunbear's ordeal and saw the pathetic picture of his starved body, my heart broke. Actually, I think it shattered. I had never been so affected by a story in my life.
Sunbear experienced extreme emotional and physical deprivation for 42 days: 1-he was alone; 2-he was confined to a small room; 2-he was in the dark; 4-he was waiting for his owner; 5-he had no food; 6-he had no water; 7-he was just a room away from neighbors who apparently did not hear him—for who could listen to a dog bark or whine for days and weeks on end, and do nothing? This last thought drove me wild with grief.
For weeks I grieved for Sunbear as I imagined his suffering, but those feelings eventually transformed into a passion to start a web site about him that would encourage people to observe and report animals in distress. “Watch. Listen. Call.” became the slogan. You are reading Sunbear's site now.
I have “adopted” Sunbear in my heart. I put an extra dog rug in my husband's and my bedroom. I started fasting one day a week and wearing black on that day to remember his suffering. I started talking to Sunbear, and I asked him to visit me in my dreams. I have called out to him across the miles and across the years. I have called him repeatedly, obsessively, desperately—I couldn't help myself. These little acts of devotion helped me overcome my grief; of course I didn't expect anything to happen.
But I should have had more faith in miracles. Sunbear heard me, and he came!
“Why, you look just like my Sunbear!” I told the stray dog, while I placed the food bowl on the ground so I could stroke his ears and face. I was overcome with his enthusiastic yet mannerly greeting, and I wanted to pet and hold him.
He finally rose and walked forward to delicately sniff my boots and jeans. He slowly walked around my right and then my back side, sniffing all the way. Then he stopped at my left side, faced forward, and sat down again. He immediately leaned on my left leg, and looked up into my face, smiling and panting. I put my arms around him, hugged him and rubbed his chest. He seemed so very happy to see me, this stray dog.
“You are so beautiful! Where do you live?” I asked the dog, not expecting a reply of course. I don't remember every word that I said to him as I petted him. I observed his condition, which was well-fed and clean. I looked for collar tags but there were none. I kneeled and hugged him and stroked his ears with both hands and hugged him again. He smiled into my eyes and leaned on me, this stray dog, as if he were glued to my leg.
The sun was shining and the world around us seemed perfectly still. I don't know why it took me so long to realize, but the thought finally dawned on me: Sunbear! Sunbear!! This was my Sunbear!!! The moment seemed to stretch on and on. The snow twinkled brightly in the sun and sparrows chirped. The dog's fur was so warm and soft. His eyes radiated love and peacefulness. I felt fully embraced by his obvious affection. I felt extremely gifted by his incredible visit. The awestruck feeling will stay with me forever.
But my happiness was cut short, as the stray dog had no plans to stay with me. After a few minutes, he abruptly rose, turned away, and trotted briskly into the gully where the first dog had disappeared. The change in his behavior was sudden and unmistakable. Sunbear had vanished, and the stray dog had no interest in me. The visit was over.
I understand now that Sunbear isn't really gone. The simple, loving act of Sunbear visiting me briefly is proof that he lives on in spirit, and that he heard my calls. Knowing that he hears me is enough.
Eleven days after Sunbear's visit, my beloved 15-year-old horse Ricky died suddenly of acute colic. I had raised him from a colt, trained him, and I had cared for him every day through his life. This devastating event would have been unbearable if Sunbear hadn't showed me that animals live on in spirit and they can communicate with us. What an incredible gift! Sunbear's visit has completely changed my views about death, and life.
What about the stray black and chocolate Labs? I called the neighbor whose land the two dogs had crossed, and learned that they belonged to adjoining neighbors on the far side of his property. I learned that the two dogs often explored our valley. I have since seen the two dogs twice, but I smile because instead of visiting, they typically bolt toward home if they sense they are being observed.
I contacted the owner of the dogs to ask if I might take a photograph of their chocolate Lab (named Beau), and he agreed. Beau's handsome face is pictured at the top of this page. When I saw the chocolate Lab again, did he show any sign of recognition? No. Was he calm and beneficent, as he had previously appeared to me on that incredible day? No and no! He was highly energetic as Labs are, and even getting one usable photo was difficult.
My days continue as before. I work on Sunbear's web site nights and weekends, and I've started a non-profit organization to support it. The rug that I dedicated to Sunbear as a dog bed lays next to ours. I take such warm comfort from the knowledge that my departed animal friends live on. They can hear me, so I talk to them. When I am finally released from this world many years in the future, my arms will be stretched out to greet them all, and I will be smiling.
© 2005-2016 The Sunbear Squad; All rights reserved.
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