PALM HARBOR — A four-month tale of a man and a wild dog came to a close last week. Hundreds of people followed the story on Facebook, from the risky capture to Wednesday's final heartbreaking entry.
Some would say that in the end the man took a chance not worth taking, that the dog ultimately was not saved. But in the story is one overwhelming affirmation: Something mysterious and powerful connects men and dogs, even against the strongest odds.
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This wild dog was a 2-year-old male captured March 15 along with its mate at a yard waste dump in Tarpon Springs. Over 18 months, Suncoast Animal League in Palm Harbor had rescued 28 puppies there. Their lair was a dugout cave beneath a tree stump. The female looked like Benji. The male looked muttsy, skinny and brown, like Bart Simpson's dog.
For a long time, director Rick Chaboudy left the adult dogs alone. They were too wild and probably sick. A happy ending with an adoptive family seemed time-consuming, expensive and unlikely. But when a road extension threatened the dogs' habitat, he changed his mind.
Chaboudy has a sometimes controversial reputation for hopeless cases. The league must spread its thin resources across hundreds of dogs and cats. Should it focus on most adoptable? Or the worst off?
"We all know we cannot save all the animals," a donor wrote on the league's Facebook page. "Are they even adoptable? I believe there are instances where euthanasia is best."
Chaboudy chose to go all out for the wild dogs.
Both had to be darted for capture. They were feral as could be, never touched by a human. While the puppies were parceled out to volunteers for home care, the grown dogs had to be housed at Keystone Kennels in Tarpon Springs to see if they would even tolerate human contact.
Chaboudy named the 8-year-old female Willow. He named the male Cedar.
People all over the country followed their progress online, one day, one lick of peanut butter at a time.
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Three days after the March rescue, Chaboudy visited the dogs. He sat 2 feet from Cedar. Cedar would not look at him. He inched forward. He said he was trying to tap "the goodness inside him." He wrote on Facebook:
I was able to pet him with the gloves on. After a couple of minutes, I took the gloves off and petted and massaged him bare handed.
That was the pattern. Cedar accepted Chaboudy first. Willow copied.
A few days later, Chaboudy brought Kong toys coated with Jif peanut butter. The dogs accepted the treats, but acted indifferent to him.
I don't know if they care whether I show up or not. But I do, just in case it does matter to them.
After 10 days, the dogs licked the peanut butter from Chaboudy's fingers.
He wanted a kiss.
• • •
By mid April, Cedar had accepted a collar and leash. Willow had not. Cedar let Chaboudy walk him around the kennels. Willow did not. She did something that Chaboudy called the "Willow Boogie."
She jumped, she spun, she twisted, she moon-walked, she did the Swim, the Mashed Potato, even the Freddy.
He soothed her with more peanut butter.
At the end of April, they got their first bath. Willow "freaked." Cedar "partly freaked."
Cedar learned to shake hands.
• • •
By May, trust was growing. Chaboudy took the dogs home. It was a risk. He had pet kittens. He had found skeletons of cats the dogs had eaten at the dump site.
He came home late from a Rays game and found the dogs asleep in his bed alongside four kittens.
I had to carve out my spot on the edge of the bed.
Cedar accepted his first belly rub.
Cedar gave Chaboudy his first kiss — plus three more.
• • •
In June, Willow was spayed and Cedar was neutered.
In July, the dogs heard fireworks for the first time. Chaboudy suffered with them.
He posted photos of Cedar hiding under the bed covers.
On July 11, Chaboudy posted a note of worry. Both dogs had heartworms. Cedar was to get an injection the next day. His youth and good health made him a low-risk candidate. But when heartworms die, they sometimes cause clotting.
Keep the little man in your prayers.
The plan was to put both dogs up for adoption after they'd completed their treatments. But Chaboudy decided on a change. Cedar would not be adopted out. He already had a home.
• • •
The final post was a terrible shock.
Cedar had begun coughing on Tuesday. The worst had happened — he had developed blood clots. Chaboudy rushed him to the animal hospital, but on Wednesday Cedar suffered cardiac arrest and died.
In all my years, I've never been closer to an animal as I was Cedar. … Cedar was the thinker, the strength and the stoic one. He was responsible for the breakthrough. … We remember every tiny victory and Cedar always led the way. …
His Facebook audience mourned with him.
"What was remarkable was Rick's ability to see inside an animal's soul," said Josepha Supow, Cedar's Clearwater veterinarian. "His way is very special — a lot of patience, a little humor, back off, then try again — that's how he does it.
"Wouldn't that be a beautiful way to run the universe?"
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.