My Shadow

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My Shadow

By k.t. Frankovich ©1997 from Animal Rights Online, 8/1/99

I remember the first day I saw him, just as clearly as if it were yesterday. One of those crisp clear memories, snuggled deeply into the crevices of my mind, always waiting to surface for an instant replay. Reminding me, of the incredible bond we shared.

He didn't walk, he pranced. Head held high, his regal black body glided through the air effortlessly, tail billowing in the hot breeze. Yet, despite his majestic ambiance, it was pathetically obvious, he was starved. Another homeless dog, wandering aimlessly in the forest, searching for garbage cans to rob.

The odds of survival were stacked against him. Domesticated dogs cannot fend for themselves in the Ocala National Forest. They are easy targets for hunters, easy prey for wild panthers and alligators. Even the change of seasons in Northern Florida becomes a brutal enemy for starving dogs. The hot summer temperatures rapidly drop to below freezing during the winter, leading to a cruel death for those too weak to survive.

As I stood there watching him glide by, careful to keep his distance, with big frightened eyes staring at me, I knew he was in desperate need of water and food. His thin coat had dulled, the fur appearing dry and matted. Obvious signs of severe dehydration and malnutrition.

I hurried up the rickety old steps leading to my trailer, in an effort to get him what he needed. However, my poor eyesight and crippled body would not permit me to move fast enough. When I got back outside, he was nowhere to be found.

It was three days before I saw him again. Suddenly, there he was, gliding by in the field behind the trailer. This time I was prepared, having water and food ready to rush outside. But, when I reached the field, he turned and glanced at me, then bolted off into the forest.

I knew the mere act of feeding him was not going to be easy. Right then and there, I had to make the decision of whether to plow through the snake inhabited woods after him, or wait, and hope he survived for another appearance.

It did not take long for me to decide. I climbed through the barbed wire fence, ripping my shirt in the process, and began the long hike into the forest. Through the weeds I stumbled, not knowing what I might come upon, driven by the thought that I was his only hope of survival.

Animals feel and suffer just as much as human beings. All I could think of was how terrifying it had been when I had been forced to live in the streets of Miami. How well I remember those horrible hunger pains and the fear of being hurt by a stranger. The betrayal when people passed by, and kept on going, as if I did not exist. How well I knew this animal.

I walked about three quarters of a mile, aware I was deep into the secluded woods, but there was no sign of the dog. I sensed he was watching from a safe distance. So, I set both bowls down on the ground and backed away. Waiting quietly, hoping he would make an appearance. But, he did not.

The next day, I did not wait for him to appear. I gathered more food and water, then carefully made my way towards the secret feeding place. It did not surprise me to find the bowls empty, although there was no sense of relief. Any wild animal could have helped themselves to the feast. There was no indication the dog was anywhere around, so I left the new supplies and departed.

I have devoted over twenty-five years of my life to rescuing homeless and abused animals. During the course of my lifetime, I have seen horrors too tragic to repeat. Dogs hit by cars and left on the side of the road to die, with broken backs, often laying there for days upon end. Dogs doused in gasoline, burned so badly by the chemical, their naked skin blistered and purple. Dogs chained and beaten senseless, with broken bones, cruelly left in the sun, with no water or food. Hundreds of tales of inhumane torture and suffering.

Often, it embarrasses me to be a member of the human race. I had no way of knowing, as I left the woods that day, within hours I would witness another brutal act, perpetrated against the dog I was trying to save. Walking down the dirt road, which leads to my friend's trailer, I suddenly heard a stranger's voice explode the peaceful silence. Wildly screaming profanities, it sounded like a mad man on the attack! Much to my horror, I looked up and saw the man standing in his yard, swinging a shovel as hard as he could, at the dog I had hoped to rescue. The animal was cornered against the fence, head hanging down, as the blade slammed against him, repeatedly clobbering him on top of his head! I screamed with all my might! My voice, ricocheting above all else, startling the man for a moment, giving just enough time for the injured animal to run. I hurled every obscenity I could muster at the abuser, with clenched fists raised high in the air! Heart pounding, face red and angry, I bombarded him with fury, intimidating him as much as I could! The drunken fool was stunned and bewildered. Fearful, I would call the police. Or, grab the shovel from him, forcing him to endure the same kind of torture. The frightened human monster withered away from me. I felt no sense of remorse when he suddenly dropped the shovel to the ground, and fled to the safety of his trailer!

I did not know how badly the dog had been injured. However, I knew the brutal attack would take its toll. If he survived the injuries, it was likely he would never go near a human being again, no matter how starved or ill he was.

It has always amazed me how humans have placed such little value on trust. It is one of the most important things in life. Yet, once destroyed, it can never be regained again, with either humans or animals.

Every single day thereafter, I made the journey into the woods with fresh supplies. For two long weeks, I did not see any sign of my friend. I was beginning to give up hope of him still being alive. The blows to his head had certainly been bad enough to have caused massive internal injuries.

Then, late one afternoon, after setting down the fresh food, I turned around and discovered him staring at me in the distance. My heart leaped for joy! He stood very quietly, watching my every move. I backed away from the food, and sat down on the ground, keeping my back towards him. Ignoring the animal was a subtle sign, indicating I was not there to do harm. I sat there a long time, not knowing if he was still watching.

Dogs use two different methods to communicate with. They use bodily gestures as a sign language, what I call the canine-sign. I know it well, exactly what each movement means. Barking, growling, and whimpering are used to express emotion. I decided to seize the moment, try to communicate in the language he understood. So, I laid down on my back, slowly rolling over to my side, with head and arms tucked. In plain dog language, I was telling him I was submissive, and not aggressive. I mimicked a whimper, a helpless cry, hoping he was close enough to hear. At no time did I dare to lift my head and look in his direction. That would have been the wrong gesture to make, causing him to doubt my body-signs as a devious trick. Within a few minutes, he began to bark. That was good. He had decided to communicate. I could tell he was standing about 20 yards behind me. He was no different than a frightened kid, trying to ward off a stranger by yelling. The obvious message was the same as a person saying "Hey you! This is my place! Leave me be."

I moved slowly, gradually sitting back up, pausing before moving to a standing position. I was being as cautious as I could be, avoiding direct eye contact. Human beings are the only creatures upon the earth who use direct eye contact, without it meaning a threat. We teach our domesticated animals to do the same. However, to a wild animal, or a domesticated animal which has been forced to revert back to wild instincts, direct eye contact is not a comforting signal. It is a direct challenge to engage in battle.

The barking continued, and from the sounds of it, I could tell he was nervously pacing back and forth. He was feeling uncomfortable with my movements, particularly when I was in the standing position.

This is not surprising when one understands that, to four-legged creatures, standing on two legs means danger! Bears rear to their hind legs just before they charge, as do horses; and, it is not uncommon for two big dogs, engaged in a fight, to rear to their hind legs.

I had one thing working in my favor, as I tried to establish communication that day. My body is crippled from polio, which is a tremendous aid in rescuing terrified animals. It is impossible for me to move quickly. I cannot charge an animal or burst into a fast run. When animals observe me, they instinctively know I am no threat.

For over a year and a half, I faithfully made the mile long journey into the forest every single day, regardless of the weather. Always hoping, someday, I could get close enough to this homeless dog to rescue him. However, that did not occur. His fear of humans was just too overwhelming. Eventually, it got to the point where he would come if I whistled to him, always staying just outside of my reach whenever I set the food down, or decided to stay and talk to him. He was a good listener, intent on hearing everything I had to say. Patient with me, even when I just sat there quietly, wishing he would let me touch him.

The more I got to know him, the more he intrigued me. He was a frightened animal, not an angry animal. It was obvious he was a gentle soul because he never growled or made any threat of an attack. He was always careful with his bodily movements, cautious not to look me directly in the eyes. When we got to know each other, as much as he would permit, he began to greet me with a slight wag of his tail. Often, he would even muster up a slight coy grin.

Oh yes, he could grin, just like a human being. He didn't say much, preferring to listen, quietly observing, and keeping his feelings to himself. I didn't mind. I knew that being homeless makes it too difficult for an individual to communicate. Too much constant shell-shock and trauma, with no let up, always adding to the tragedy at hand.

I remember the day he found another canine friend. A lost female Chow joined him. She was just as cute as she could be. A dainty, shy, little strawberry blonde, who had just grown out of her puppy stage and entered adolescence. They played in the forest together, shared their food, and never left each other's side. It used to make me chuckle how he would wait for her to finish eating, before helping himself to the food, regardless of how hungry he was. Always the perfect gentleman. Always tending to her every need.

He adored her, as if, she were the easiest creature to love, on the face of the earth. Never had I seen such precious caring or tender devotion.

She was as terrified of people as he was, and would not permit me to get close. I respected her wishes and stayed my distance. How my heart ached to take these two love bugs home. I used to dream of that day. But, it never came.

Tragedy struck quite unexpectedly. One morning I walked out of my trailer, to discover her dying by my fence. Within minutes of reaching her, she took her last breath, and passed away in my arms. It was the first and last time my hands ever touched her. She had been poisoned.

I buried her in the backyard, while he watched from the field, laying on the ground as if too overcome by grief to stand. He only lifted his head once, to get a better view, when I gently placed her body in the grave. For a brief moment, I heard his anguished moans and cries. It was so pitiful, I just wanted to run to him, comfort him, hold him in my arms. But, that would have been impossible. He could not rid himself from the fear of my humanness.

He went downhill from that point on. His spirit had been broken. His body was beginning to show signs of weakness. He was losing weight too rapidly, showed little interest in eating, and before I knew it, the second tragedy struck.

He showed up one morning, at the back of my trailer, with a gunshot wound to his head. The bullet had gone through his cheek, from one side to the other, leaving a big open raw wound. I pleaded and begged for him to let me help him but he would have none of it. He stayed farther away from me and often went off in the opposite direction. I brought him soft food, hoping he would eat. It took several days before he even made an attempt. I put antibiotics in the food, mixing it up well, so he would have no bitter taste. Slowly, ever so slowly, the wound began to heal.

He was shot a second time, shortly afterward. Just like before, the bullet passed all the way through his cheek, and exited out the other side. His jawbone had been broken, shattered from the impact of the bullet. He was rapidly losing too much weight and becoming dangerously thin. I increased my forest visits to three times a day, hoping he would not go off to die. I even thought about setting a trap but the problem was, I knew he was too smart to enter a cage. I had to dismiss the idea.

The third time he was shot in the face, just about did me in. Whoever was trying to kill him, was determined to succeed. I knew he could not survive being shot again. I was desperate to gain his trust but nothing worked. He shied farther and farther away from me.

Finally, on the eve of Easter, my long and weary rescue attempts abruptly came to an end. I went outside to lock the gate and there he was, lying next to the fence, waiting for me to find him. His right front leg had been horribly mutilated. The huge gaping gashes so deep, the bone actually protrude in several areas. The injuries were so massive, I could not tell if the bone had been completely severed or not. Muscle had been torn to shreds and his entire body was caked in dried blood.

With my heart racing and tears streaming down my face, I opened the gate up, and stepped towards him. Even though he was dying, he struggled to stand, in an effort to stay his distance. He was so weak, he simply toppled back to the ground, staring up at me with terrified eyes. I backed off, hoping he would crawl through the open gate.

It took forty-five minutes for him to crawl - struggle inch-by-inch - through the gate and into my yard. But, he finally made it. Once inside the fence, I quickly closed the gate, and rushed to his side! This was the moment I had so patiently and desperately waited for. The instant my hands touched him, he quivered in fear, squinting his eyes shut, as if expecting to be harmed. Ever so gently, I stroked his head and whispered, " I love you with all my heart." Tears rolled off my face and fell onto his. He opened up his eyes and gave a slight wag of his tail. He knew he was safe.

With the help of a friend, we rushed him to the Animal Hospital. After being examined, the vet diagnosed him as having been attacked by a large animal. In all probability, either a bear, panther, or wild boar. It could even have been an alligator attack. The doctor quietly suggested it might be wise to release him from his pain and put him out of his misery forever.

I could not agree to that. This animal had struggled too hard to live; fought off incredible pain, suffered devastating losses, and had miraculously survived. My decision was to try and save him, hoping his wondrous spirit to live would prevail.

He went through a long and grueling operation. Even though the leg had been saved, for seven long days, he hovered between life and death. Finally, on the eighth day, he showed signs of improvement. I brought him home two weeks later.

The homecoming was hard on him. He spooked easily and was terrified of everything. It was very difficult watching him react with so much fear. Especially heartbreaking, to witness the sheer terror in his eyes, and the sudden cringe, when I moved too quickly around him.

Within nine months, he had blossomed into a picture of health. A huge, majestic Newfoundlander, who at the time of his rescue, weighted a mere 43 pounds. Today, he weighs close to 100 pounds. His coat is incredibly thick, soft and so wonderful to touch.

He is an amazing animal - remarkably intelligent, with a wondrous sense of humor. He still has his coy little habits. His favorite is to nudge me on the leg, then toss his head up so he is looking directly at me, with his famous big grin! His tail does not wag timidly anymore. Now it is the royal plume which never stops swaggering.

He knows there is something wrong with my eyesight, and has taken it upon himself to act as my eyes. When I am walking towards an object I do not see, he grabs the back of my blouse, gently pulling me the opposite way. If I mistakenly put something down in the wrong place, he will stand in front of it and bark, until I discover the error. He always knows where my purse is. If I can't find it, all I have to do is ask him. He goes right to it and barks.

He is my constant companion, never leaving my side. He is unbelievably gentle, not a mean bone in his body. Best of all, when I hug him, he hugs me back with his huge front paws, burrowing his head in my chest.

I think what makes me smile the most, occurs just before I turn off the light at night. He goes to the closet, carefully takes out one of my shoes, and brings it to the side of the bed. He then drops it on the floor, lays down, and places his head on it, as if it were a pillow. There he sleeps peacefully, until the following morning.

It will never cease to amaze me, how much we are alike. Once outcasts from society, not worth rescuing by other human beings, we both share the fear of strangers even today. I often recall the many people who passed me by in the streets, without so much as stopping, as I sat helplessly crippled in a wheelchair, with my young son at my side. It was quite obvious from our filth and gaunt appearance, we were homeless. Many times we were chased off and threatened by proprietors and store managers, all because we were caught searching their garbage cans for food. Those memories can never be forgotten, as I am sure, my wondrous loyal friend would agree.

We are both quite safe now, being in the company of each other. Our small home is nestled in the heart of the forest and protected by a tall privacy fence. There will be no more nights spent outside in freezing cold, or hot suffocating days without water. Best of all, there will never be another terrifying moment lived as abandoned, starving, outcasts.

We belong to each other now. He is, and always will be, my precious Shadow-Man.