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Remembering Shasta

Shasta

Shasta, Christmas Day 1999.

My ex-wife Karin had our Siberian Husky, Shasta, put to sleep yesterday. It was for the best. Shasta had a cancerous growth on her leg that kept regrowing and wouldn't heal, was partly blind and deaf, and lately was having a great deal of trouble just moving around the house. The veterinarian recommended that Karin make the decision, not only for these reasons, but because he found fluid in her lungs as well -- she didn't have long left to live, and would have suffered greatly.

But I'm writing this entry not about Shasta's death, but rather about her life.

In the mid-1990s, Karin and I were still married and had just bought a house here in North Carolina. We knew we wanted a dog, and Karin was researching possibilities. She found a no-kill rescue shelter in Nebraska that seemed like our kind of place, and the shelter had recently taken in a female Siberian Husky. This dog had wandered into a little town, malnourished but just as friendly as she could be, wandering down the sidewalks, into and out of shops, and responding warmly to people. The people at the shelter took her in and started looking for a home for her. It was clear from talking to them that this was a dog they all wished they could keep for themselves.

From the photos, we could see that the dog was beautiful, though still gaunt from her time on her own. They estimated she was a year old, though they couldn't be sure how long she had been fending for herself. They interviewed us, decided we were a good match, and we made arrangements to adopt her. There was a direct flight from an airport in their region to Charlotte, so they shipped her there rather than to Raleigh-Durham (which would have meant changing planes). Karin and I made the drive down in our van to pick her up.

In Charlotte, when we took her out of her crate, we saw she was even more beautiful in person. Being underweight made her look dainty, in a way, and I always thought of her that way as a result. She hopped up in the van and seemed delighted to be with us -- many huskies remind me of bottlenose dolphins in that they look as if they're always smiling, and I suspect that perhaps they really are, that it's not just an accident of the evolution of their facial structure.

We named Shasta after a husky we had met years before at a party held by acquaintances of ours in San Diego. They had a husky named Shasta, but who was often called Shasta the Wonder Dog for various reasons, notably her habit of 'speaking' when spoken to. We always remembered Shasta the Wonder Dog, and when we got our own husky, we never seriously considered any other name for her.

That first night with Shasta, before turning in for the night, we were talking about whether we should allow her to sleep on the bed when, out of the blue, she hopped up there on her own and made herself comfortable. She had a habit of crossing her paws when she laid down, which seemed very ladylike and never ceased to amuse me. Karin and I looked at each other, looked at Shasta, and I think it was me who said, "Well, it looks as if she made the decision for us." With her crossed paws, and smiling up at us, we couldn't imagine refusing her anything. In the end, though, she decided she was more comfortable on the floor, and always slept there, not far from us.

In all the time I was with her, I have only one memory of Shasta being aggressive with any of us. It was in the first day or two after we brought her home. I can't remember what I was doing, but it was something she didn't like, and she turned to yelp at me. When she did so, her teeth grazed my hand. It was nothing, but I decided to be firm with her, and alpha-rolled her on the spot. She responded perfectly and she never did anything of the sort ever again -- despite the presence of our three kids, whom I'm sure tortured her when we weren't looking.

Shasta wasn't aggressive, but huskies have reputations as big babies, and she was no different. Someone would barely step on her tail and she'd cry out like they were ripping it off whole -- though she wouldn't nip at them. I took her in to have her tattooed for security purposes, and it took four of us to hold her down, and you would have thought she was having surgery without anaesthaesia from the way she was crying. The veterinarian, the staff, and I were all laughing, actually, at how much she complained.

Shasta was incredibly intelligent. We knew she was smart, but we didn't know quite how smart until the first or second Easter after we adopted her. We hid eggs for the kids around the house -- both hard-boiled eggs and the hollow plastic kind filled with miniature candy bars (the little ones from Hershey). We tracked down all the real eggs, but missed a few of the plastic versions. We left Shasta at home and went out for part of the day. We came back to find plastic eggs popped open and empty candy bar wrappers nearby -- not torn-up wrappers, mind you, but unfolded wrappers with their candy missing. It was hard to believe a dog was capable of such a thing. We decided to see how she did it and placed more candy in plastic eggs and set them out in front of her. In our presence, she acted innocent, as if she had no interest in them. We had to leave the room and spy on her to see how she did it. After she thought we were gone, she carefully picked up an egg in her mouth, gently bit down until it popped open, fetched the miniature candy bar out of it, then used her paws and her teeth to carefully unwrap the candy.

Shasta didn't 'speak' like her namesake, but sometimes, if I pretended to howl, she'd howl along with me. I wondered if she dreamed of running with huskies, or hunting with wolves. I'll never know, though I do know that when we tried hooking her up to a sled one winter to see if she'd pull one of the kids, she acted like we were from another planet. So much for having sled-pulling in her genes.

With the cats in the house, Shasta was always gentle and tolerant. We brought home a rescued longhaired kitten named Saffy for my son Duncan, and once she came out from beneath Duncan's bed -- which took a while -- she gravitated towards Shasta. They became friends and always were until Saffy died a few months ago.

Somehow, as with so many dogs, Shasta was perfectly capable of distinguishing between friends (like our cats) and prey. She didn't have much opportunity to hunt, because we didn't have a fenced yard most of the time we owned her, but we did when we lived in California in the late 1990s. The kids were out back and yelled for me to come. Shasta had caught a squirrel and had it in her mouth. I was actually proud of her for catching it, but the kids didn't want to see her eviscerate an animal, and I was worried about parasites and disease in any case, so I had her drop it and led her away. But when she had the squirrel in her mouth, she looked more than ever like she was truly smiling -- like she was the happiest dog in the world.

I knew that Shasta wasn't going to be around much longer. I had offered to be the one to take her to the veterinarian, but it was easier for Karin to take her. Writing this, I wish I could have been there for her, too. I'm sorry she's gone, but I'm glad she's not suffering, and I'm very glad she was able to die peacefully, with dignity, and with a loved one there.

I haven't owned a pet since I moved out eight years ago -- I've moved too often, and even when I've been settled for a while (as I am now), I'm on the road too much to have a pet as a single person. I do want a dog again someday when the time is right. I don't know what kind of dog I'll end up with, but I know that if that dog is as beautiful, as happy, and as loving as Shasta was, I'll consider myself lucky.

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Comments

Most dogs receive neither love nor safety, but you gave Shasta a life full of both.

Thanks for the kind words -- they're much appreciated.

Thank you for writing this.She was a wonderful dog and I doubt that I will ever have another like her. And thank you for giving her to me all so many years ago.

Great tribute to an obviously wonderful friend and companion.

Frank, I'm really sorry to hear about Shasta - you'd said that you knew this was coming, but that's not much comfort on the day, for either you or Karin. But you both obviously gave her a full, rich and happy life - hold on to that and the joy you can take in the thought.

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