From the moment Ursa claimed us during a visit to a farm in western Maryland — "Let's just go look," my wife said — the Dalmatian breathed new life into our family, including our older dog, Snowflake, a mutt, who, like us, could not help but be energized by her playfulness.
She became inseparably attached to my daughters and me, and especially to my wife. Never mind that I was the one to feed her, walk her and clean up after her, she quickly became Mommy's little girl through and through.
We used to feed Ursa and Snowflake together. She would finish her bowl and then start sneaking bites from his. We eventually learned to feed them separately, but not until she had beefed up to a whopping 70 pounds, too much for a small Dalmatian.
Food has always been the most important thing in Ursa's world. Over the years, she supplemented what must have been her boring dog food with gummy bears and M&M's, jars of spaghetti sauce (which she somehow opened without breaking) and once, on my 40th birthday, a 1-pound box of Godiva chocolates.
About three years ago we had our only major health scare with her. For reasons unknown, her stomach literally flipped over inside of her — a condition called bloat — and only a late-night trip to the animal hospital and surgery saved her.
After that, she was right as rain until about a year ago, at age 14. The vet was fairly certain she had cancer. Ursa weighed in at 31 pounds. A year before she had been a very healthy 45 pounds.
My wife and I decided that we wouldn't keep Ursa with us longer than we should. We made that mistake with Snowflake, who stuck around for 17 1/2 years (about six months longer than he should have, based on his quality of life). We promised ourselves we would put Ursa to rest when she stopped being happy to see us, could no longer get around, was undeniably in pain and, most tellingly, had lost interest in food.
Three months ago we returned from an outing to find our fridge door mysteriously open and two things awaiting us on the kitchen floor: an empty container from a rotisserie chicken and an exhausted but satiated Dalmatian. The chicken, bones and all, was nowhere to be found. We were simultaneously upset and impressed, and we breathed a sigh of relief when a week had passed with Ursa showing no ill effects from her feast.
Then we returned from an outing to find that an entire loaf of Mazzaro's cranberry-walnut bread had disappeared from the middle of the island in our kitchen. Ursa greeted us happily, tail wagging. She didn't even have a big belly. After all, what's a measly loaf of bread to a devourer of chickens?
The next morning, though, we found her retching, her belly hard and swollen, just like that awful night three years ago. We called the vet and were told to bring her in.
I put Ursa in the back of my wife's car and jumped in the rear seat to keep her company. Lying on her side, she started having trouble breathing. Once again we found ourselves racing to a pet hospital, this time thinking they might have to pump her stomach.
About a minute from the vet's office, I looked down at her and said, "Oh my God, I don't think she's breathing." When we pulled up in front, I hurried around to carry her into the office.
As soon as I picked her up, I knew she was gone. Her body was still with us, but the precious spirit that had enriched our lives in so many ways for 14 years had slipped away right before my eyes. The vet checked her, but there was nothing for us to do but hold her close, kiss her sweet face and cry.
There are pathways to our hearts that only an animal can travel. They are living beacons, guiding us toward the better parts of our nature. Their purity of spirit keeps us humble. Their mere presence draws us out of ourselves. Their ridiculous charm lightens our hearts. Their unshakable trust challenges us to be patient and loving.
Though we would have had to put Ursa to sleep within the next month or two, her abrupt departure saved us from having to make that awful decision. For one last time she protected us, as she had done all her life.
Tim Rozgonyi is the Times' research editor. He can be reached at [email protected]