Life with - and without - Piccolo


To my friends around the globe who love dogs and know how much they mean to me.


Pickles, formally known as Piccolo Pachiavelli Chatterjee del Jagatpur, passed away very unexpectedly one week ago, on May 20, 2010, at our home in Ahmedabad.


I saw him first in the spring of 2009, lying on the road in the hot, dusty, village of Jagatpur outside Ahmedabad. In fact, what I thought I was looking at was a dead dog, lying as he was in a crumpled, emaciated, twisted heap. As fate would have it, I had to pass through the village on a regular basis to get to a class I was attending. The next day, I saw the carcass again, but further down the road. I thought some dogs had dragged it down there to eat it.


On my way through Jagatpur the following week, I came across a scrawny puppy near the village tea stall. I asked the driver to stop so I could feed him some biscuits. As I was doing so, I heard a dragging sound off to my right. I looked up and couldn't believe it. It was the crumpled canine heap I had taken for dead, straining to pull himself over to me -- or, rather, to the biscuits I was feeding the pup. I could see that he had been run over. His back was broken, as were his hind legs. He was bone-jarringly thin and caked all over with mud and filth. I was shocked to see a creature in such a condition. The top sides of his back legs were raw and bloody. They had no skin left on them as a result of dragging himself around. I couldn't believe he was still alive, let alone able to make it over to me. He devoured the biscuits and whatever else edible I could find in the car.


For the next two weeks I brought him a full meal each time I passed through Jagatpur. "Crumplestiltskin", as I initially called him, didn't seem to be friendly. It wasn't that he was aggressive towards me -- it's just that he didn't display any overt signs of warmth or appreciation, other than scarfing down the food I brought him as quickly and desperately as possible.


When my class was finished, I was terribly worried about what would become of Crumplestiltskin. How would he possibly survive? We had just moved out of a hotel in the city and into a house with a big walled garden. I decided that if he would let me pick him up and put him in the car without biting me, I would bring him home to our garden and give him somewhere comfortable to live -- or die -- with dignity. I would have the vet examine him; she could euthanize him there if she decided there was no hope for him.


My heart was pounding on d-day as I approached Jagatpur. First of all, I didn't know if Crumplestiltskin would allow me to pick him up and put him in the vehicle. Secondly, I knew I would have to do it fast. Unusually for India, the locals had not exactly been friendly during the previous two weeks whenever I stopped to feed the dog. Remarkable only for its bleakness, the village appeared deserted until I showed up. Then, out of nowhere the villagers would instantly emerge and converge, forming an intimidating circle around me while I fed the dog. They were pushy and curious in an aggressive, almost hostile manner. It didn't feel good. My plan felt like some kind of commando hostage rescue operation. I prayed my socks off all the way there and choreographed the whole thing in advance with the driver. We rehearsed in our heads: stop, jump out, driver opens back door, I grab dog. If dog bites me or tries too hard to fight, we abort the mission. If he doesn't, I throw him in the vehicle, driver slams door, we jump back in the van and wheel it out of there.


Amazingly and miraculously, it all went according to plan. When we got to Jagatpur, Crumplestiltskin was waiting for us in his usual spot down from the tea stall. We pulled over, jumped out of the van, and moved into position. I went straight to the dog, took a deep breath, and took him by the scruff with my left hand. To my immense and immediate relief, he looked at me with his deep, dark, beautiful eyes and offered not a shred of resistance. I then scooped up his hind end with my other arm, walked over to the van, and placed him on the quilt in the back of the car. The driver shut the door, we hopped backed in, and tore out of there before anyone knew what was going on. Wow, mission accomplished. Spent adrenaline flooded my veins and made me wobbly.

When I got Crumplestiltskin home, I put a folded quilt out in the shade in the garden on which I placed his emaciated body. He collapsed into an exhausted, relieved sleep.


Over the next two days I realized it was not that Crumplestiltskin was unfriendly; it was just that he hadn't a shred of strength left with which to do anything other than cling to life. The vet advised deworming, feeding and rest. As for the prognosis, we would just have to wait and see. What I also began to learn shortly after getting him home was that in this crumpled, broken heap of a skeletal dog was a well of love, devotion, gratitude and personality the depths of which I would be lucky ever to experience again.


As for his name, we knew "Crumplestiltskin" was only temporary. We were committed to "uncrumpling" him and blessing him with as good a life as we could, for as long as he was with us. On his second day at home, as he looked at me with those incredibly beautiful, dark, expressive eyes, it jumped out and practically screamed at me: "Piccolo!!!" I don't know why, but it was just perfect.


Over time, as perfection inevitably gets worn and tattered, "Piccolo" became "Pickles", which eventually became "Pickles the Incontinent of the Subcontinent" as we realized his bladder control was sporadic at best.


Within a matter of weeks we took in two adorable small puppies we found on a construction site near our home. Not to be outdone by the little charmers, Pickles made sure they knew he was top dog, and took pleasure in bossing them around. As they grew bigger, he grew stronger. In retrospect, getting our pups Button and Penelope when we did worked to renew Pickles' zest for life. He had a new pack to manage, and a new reason to live.


When Hugo, the skinny little pup who was eventually triumphantly adopted by Sarah and Ryan in Canada, joined the mix last fall, Pickles did a great job babysitting and playing with the little cutie. He adored little Hugo (now "Pete") and was so happy to have him in the pack:


When the puppies were old enough, we began taking them for walks in our neighborhood. Pickles couldn't come, of course. He managed quite well dragging himself around the garden and the house as long as he had protective leg bands on, but the road surface was far too rough for him. He would wait at the gate, peering through the gaps, howling and whining until we returned. We knew we had to do something ... and we did. Pickles eventually got a high-tech, custom-made wheelchair from Doggon Wheels in the US. It was hand-carried from Texas to Ahmedabad by his Uncle Coke, and it was fabulous.


Here's an exuberant Pickles on his inaugural expedition:


Pickles loved his wheelchair so much, he was absolutely ecstatic. Normally it takes a dog a while to get accustomed to a wheelchair (we had one before, for a paralyzed dog in the US.) Not Pickles. The first time we put him in it and took him out he was actually squealing for joy! I've never seen anything like it. Talk about gratitude. Whenever we would pass a street dog on our walks, or one would pass us, Pickles would break into a sprint and make chase. It was like he was trying to make up for the time he lost while he was incapacitated. It was hilarious. The street dogs were all afraid of him, even the tough and dominant ones, because in his wheelchair Pickles looked like something that had just dropped down from outer space. They would all run away at high speed, which made it even more fun for Pickles. He became quite a little celebrity in the neighborhood. His exuberance was a joy to behold.


Along with his new wheelchair, Pickles got from America another miracle of modern technology -- waterproof, breathable doggy diapers. Once we got his diapers, Pickles was able to enjoy the inalienable canine right of every house dog: that of lounging on the living room sofa. Formerly, due to his incontinence, he could only watch from his washable bed on the floor as Penelope and Button relaxed on the sofa or the easy chairs. But now that he was leak-proof, not only could he come up like them; he was given the prime spot ... on the couch with me (or was it me who now had the prime spot next to Pickles? Somehow I think it was the latter.) Daily sofa snuggles and naps with his mom became standard fare. Pickles was overflowing with life. To survive what he went through in Jagatpur and bounce back with such joy and determination was one thing. But it was a sheer marvel to watch him blossom into doggy exuberance once he had both his wheelchair and his doggy diapers. Andrew would say to me, "Is it my imagination or is this dog even happier than he was before?" These two items increased his quality of life to such an extent that he went over the top on the happiness scale. I could tell he felt like a real prince.


At night, when it was time for the dogs to go outside for a last tinkle before bedtime, I would carry him to the back patio while Button and Penelope, the junior Duke and Duchess of Squirtsworth, scampered on ahead. Piccolo would relax into my arms with no resistance and assume what always struck me as a regal stance, as if it was fitting and right that he should be carried. Only at this time would his ears go out sideways -- just like Yoda's -- and during this nightly procession it always struck me that I was carrying the veritable reincarnation of some ancient, high-ranking Buddhist sage or lama. "Kundun, Kundun," I would whisper into his ear, and kiss his face. (Kundun is a title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed.) In return he emanated sheer lotus-like bliss and tranquility.


Soon he became a celebrity in the greater city of Ahmedabad. Vasundhara Vyas Mehta, a journalist at the Times of India who has written some fabulous street dog stories this past year, arranged for Piccolo's story to run on the front page of the Times. It was great. All kinds of people wanted to meet him, and others wrote to me asking where they could get wheelchairs for paralyzed dogs. Then, just last week, Pickles' story ran state-wide on the Gujarati TV station, GTPL, as part of a feature about Indian street dogs. They came to film him at our house. Piccolo truly made an impact on people's perception of these noble creatures who, sadly, are poorly regarded in India.


Tragically, one night last week I received a devastating SMS while I was away from Ahmedabad: Pickles had died.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock, for the detestable realization that Pickles, one of the focal points of our existence and the wholly unexpected light of my life, was no more.


Now, as I navigate my way through the potholes of grief, I'm starting to surface long enough to recount something of his effervescent life, and what happened to cut it short.


Three weeks ago, when I was still in Ahmedabad, Pickles got quite ill. It turned out he had eaten a dead rat that had been poisoned (not by us). He was vomiting everything, finally old blood, and got extremely dehydrated. He was on two intravenous drips per day, anti-biotics and so forth. I was scheduled to leave for Vietnam, but had decided to postpone my departure in order to care for him. After a few days his blood work came back ok, indicating that his organs were not damaged. His wonderful veterinarian felt that he was out of danger by that point, and cleared me to leave.


Our driver, who looks after the dogs when we are away, was staying in the house and taking Piccolo to the vet every day for his meds, rehydration drips and so forth. Although he had lost a lot of weight, Pickles was healing nicely and finally felt well enough to eat again -- plain yogurt was all he was interested in initially. I was so thrilled that he was on the mend.


However, within a few of days of regaining his appetite, Piccolo became very constipated and dehydrated and started vomiting again. The vet put him back on the IV drips and gave him a laxative. The next afternoon, at the vet's office again, Piccolo, although dehydrated and by now very thin and tired, was active and not in pain. The driver took him home, then went out to do some errands. When he came back late that night, he found Pickles dead. He immediately called the veterinarian, who was shocked and devastated. Piccolo's vet had walked with us every step of the way since we got Pickles, encouraging us and helping us nurse him back to health. Any other vet would have given up hope for him when I first plucked him off the roadside. Even I thought he was probably a euthanasia candidate at that time. It was his vet that convinced me otherwise, and for that I will be eternally grateful to her. She had helped renew Piccolo's lease on life, and here she was confronted with the shocking news of his death.


She rushed to the clinic in the middle of the night and had the driver bring Pickles' body in to do a post-mortem. She called me later to tell me that, tragically, it was not his illness that had killed Piccolo. She found that he had eaten one of his protective leg bands. It had become lodged in his digestive tract and caused a complete blockage. She could see from the condition of his gut that the leg band had not been in there for more than 72 hours. What must have happened was that once Piccolo was well enough to eat again, he was getting yogurt but was still ravenous (although he was refusing bread) and wanted something more. Somehow he got hold of one of the leg bands, ate it, and it soon obstructed his gut. When it finally got to the point of blocking his digestive tract, he would have experienced excruciating pain, and then shock, before dying. Apparently his mouth was filled with dirt and mud when the vet started the post-mortem. So before he died, Piccolo had been trying desperately to do something to clear the blockage and stop the pain by trying to eat dirt. A fighter till the end.


The permutations and contortions of grief are cruel and unpredictable. For instance, I cannot help but dwell repeatedly on the irony that Piccolo managed to survive terrible trauma as an ownerless street dog (being hit by a car), with no help from anyone, only to die as a pampered pet as a result of ingesting something I designed (the protective leg bands) to augment his quality of life. What's that they say about good intentions?


Oh the regrets I have, about not taking him for a million more walks in his wheelchair, which he loved so much; about not kissing him a million more times; about not letting him eat more rawhide bones. God, when death hits you like this, as a totally unexpected shock, it is a terrible thing.


In any event, these details -- the kind that threaten to drive one mad with remorse and endless analysis -- are now moot. My Pickles is gone, and I am struggling to deal with the devastation. Feelings of guilt, horror at the intensity of the pain he suffered, the needlessness of it all, how I never should have left him in the care of someone ill-equipped to look after him, that he died alone shrieking for his last breath, struggling to survive, etc. etc. -- these all emerge with monotonous regularity and pummel me into a quivering mass of anxiety, dread and nausea. The road from gut-wrenching grief to the beginnings of acceptance is not a linear one. One moment, you surprise yourself by managing to talk about it without breaking down. You think you're starting to heal, to get past it, when you slam into another unexpected chasm of pain and the whole thing starts all over again. So goes the mental torment.


In my grief while I was crying out to God about this, about why he didn't jolt me and make me think to ask for an x-ray or ultrasound of Pickles' abdomen in time to save him (something for which I'm having trouble forgiving myself), I got an overwhelming sense that "there is a reason", but that I'm not capable of understanding it. I said to God, "so you mean I'm too stupid to understand why?" "Yes, if you want to put it that way" was the answer, "and there's a reason for that too." (It often occurs to me how much damage we humans have wreaked with our current "intelligence" level. If we were any smarter, we'd really be in trouble.)


The notion that there is a reason why this happened, that it might just be positive in the greater scope of the universe, and that such things are beyond me at this point, gave me some consolation in my despair. But then, through the head games of grief, I started to think I had made it up just to let myself off the hook. A day later I got an email from my dad in which he wrote "I hope and pray that you will come to realise that what happened was not your fault or punishment, but rather one of those acts of fate or destiny or the Lord's will---however one wants to look at it---which we are not capable of understanding but can only accept." That, and the outpouring of love for Pickles that has come from my friends and family has buoyed me up just enough to start moving beyond complete despair.


Something for which I will be eternally grateful is the utter exhilaration and enthusiasm with which Pickles lived his life. He was so happy and so very funny that he has left me with a treasure chest full of memories that bring a smile to my face. Some cause me to laugh out loud, even now. The balance in the wineskin of sadness is tipping. With each tear shed it gets replenished with a happier tonic -- an elixir sweetened by our experience of Piccolo's sheer joy at living and loving and being loved.


I would have liked to bury Piccolo in a beautiful, peaceful place, but Ahmedabad has proven to be so very cruel a place for street dogs that it didn't feel right to leave him here, even in death. Piccolo has been cremated, and we will bring his ashes with us when we leave India next month. A few, however, will remain. With some of his ashes I will be anointing the heads of the Indian street dogs he loved to run with in our neighborhood in Kalhaar once he got his wheelchair. It seems a fitting tribute, and my prayer is that it will serve to bless those noble ones we must leave behind.


In love and sadness, and gratitude for his triumphant life,


Lisa Warden