In Lieu of Flowers


When the owner of three dogs dies unexpectedly, a rescue anda family come together to ensure their care
By Ellington Starks

Some rescue stories stick with you.

This one started with an email from a woman in Texas. She explained that her brother, in Iowa, Gary, had died unexpectedly, leaving three Springer Spaniels in need of homes. They were living outdoors; a neighbor was feeding them, and help couldn’t come soon enough.

By the weekend, I was on the road, kennels in my vehicle, a three-hour trip to meet Gary’s ex-wife and grandchildren at his house.

The dogs were in the yard on separate chains, and they were excited to see us. When I unhooked Roscoe and walked him to my vehicle, he looked back at his brother as if to say “don’t leave Chester behind.” I assured him that Chester was coming too, as was their mom, Saiko.

After a tearful hug goodbye, I headed north, Roscoe and Chester kenneled in the back seat, Saiko on the front seat next to me.

A typical end of the story would go like this: Arrive at foster homes, get groomed, see a vet for vaccination updates, find adoptive homes. But their story wasn’t so cut and dried.

Surprise Diagnosis

I delivered Chester and Roscoe to their foster homes and took Saiko to my home for fostering. The grooming happened in short order. Vet visits too. But bloodwork done on Roscoe and Saiko came back with a surprising result: Heartworm positive.

Heartworm. It’s exactly as it sounds: worms (up to a foot in length) living in the heart. It’s a death sentence if it isn’t treated. The disease is passed by mosquitoes and is treated with a costly and dangerous process that injects a poison called immiticide to kill the worms over the course of several months. In the meantime, the dog’s exercise must be restricted to prevent the dead worms from clogging the arteries and lungs.

According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, 300,000 dogs in the U.S. are infected with heartworms each year.

For years, I’ve been coaching adoption applicants about heartworm and the importance of prevention in the form of monthly chewables (along with flea and tick preventative). But this was the first time I took a dog through that treatment. And now I had witnessed first hand how prevention is better than risking the alternative.

Luckily, for both Saiko and Roscoe, treatment was uneventful and successful. It was probably harder on me to withhold all the balls from ball-chasing Saiko than it was for her to spend three months without them.

Heart of the Matter

So this rescue story has an important lesson and a happy ending too. All three of these special dogs found ideal forever homes and are living lives that Gary would probably approve of.

I kept his family updated along the way, and they supported us, too. This was included in the obituary:

In lieu of flowers the family will accept memorial donations for the Springer Rescue who are fostering Gary’s three beloved Springer Spaniels, Saiko, Roscoe, and Chester—his devoted companions for many years—and finding them forever homes.

And a personal note from Gary’s family read:

Gary died quite suddenly and unexpectedly and left behind 3 Springer Spaniels that were in great need of care and love. … To know that they were going to be loved and cared for by such special people gave my family great peace at such a difficult time in our lives.

It was difficult to let go of them because they were a part of Gary, so to be able to see and hear the updates only confirmed that we had done the right thing for them. So thank you to all the heroes who had any part of their loving care. … We are forever grateful that whatever time that they are here on this earth will be happy times for them.  

Those heroes mentioned included four foster families, four veterinarians, one volunteer who researched treatment costs, several financial donors and three adoptive families.

It was the best kind of rescue. One that saved three lives and touched many more.

Ellington Starks is editor of the Wagazine and a state coordinator for English Springer Rescue America, Inc.