(Wo)man’s Best Friend in Pandemic Times

Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

One more strange thing during the dark days of Pandemia was my sense, much of the time outdoors, that I may have been the only person in San Francisco without a dog. Crossing the dog play area while doing my par course thing at Mountain Lake Park, skirting the similar space in Lafayette Park, or walking along any of San Francisco Bay’s limitless varieties of woods and beaches – I have felt acutely dog-less. Despite having had and loved a long list of family canines; I am currently without. And in recent times that has seemed particularly unseemly.

“You want to know how to stay busy in a pandemic?” my daughter Sandy said to me, early on; “get a puppy.” Scooter had joined her household as lockdowns were just beginning. Although theirs is a multi-dog household that leans toward rescues, Scooter was chosen because he was a purebred Catahoula Leopard Hound, and in a sense a replacement for Blue. Actually, no creature could replace Blue, who had been at my son-in-law’s side for 17 years before succumbing to cancer and the vicissitudes of very old dog age. In one of his countless obituary remembrances someone wrote, “Blue taught all the dogs at the lake how to be dogs.” But eventually Scooter, a multicolored Catahoula with one brown eye and one blue, was chosen to join the family.

While I was a continent away from the growing Scooter, I followed his progress throughout the pandemic on Facebook and on countless videos as he learned (more or less) where to dig or not dig, what to chew or not chew, all those niceties of canine upbringing that are far easier to watch online than to teach onsite. But they kept me entertained and Scooter’s family busy.

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Ringo at rest in the garden

Two other dogs close to my heart were central to pandemic survival for their human moms and, by extension, me. Unlike young Scooter, Ringo and Delilah are both certified old dogs. I am partial to old dogs. This is partly thanks to my excellent late husband Bud’s book Old Dogs Remembered, but also because, well, we understand each others’ aches and pains and geezerly stuff.

Ringo, 14, whose official name is Ringo Dingo Django Durango, or RD3, was not partial to me in his youth. He customarily started barking about the time my car entered the driveway, and didn’t stop until he had sniffed and grumbled for at least five minutes. But we soon became cordial acquaintances, and by his middle-age and my confirmed geezerhood we were fast friends. One of Ringo’s primary daily occupations is patrolling the exquisite rose garden spilling down the hillside from his home. The back-breaking daily work involved in keeping the roses, fruit trees and other flowers flourishing perhaps doesn’t require Ringo’s attendance. But I’m satisfied that his company helped get my friend Margaret (the Ringo-namer and chief gardener) through the pandemic and constantly able to post beautiful photos of blooms to get me through.

But briefly back to Scooter. Sadly, Scooter went way too far in providing diversion from the pandemic. Several months ago, just before his family was heading back to the east coast from a winter vacation, Scooter went missing in the Wyoming forests near Jackson. No amount of searching, calling, whistling or pleading to the canine gods could get him to appear. So the family went mournfully home, finally accepting, at the end of the four-day drive (drives with large dogs take time) that he was likely dead of hypothermia in the sub-zero snows. Hypothermia, we all agreed, would not be that terrible because you fall asleep before you die. (Please don’t try to clear that up with scientific fact; it’s a comforting thought.) But the next day came a report of a Scooter sighting.

Thus began the most exhaustive search and rescue operation in this reporter’s long history of tracking operations of every sort. After flying back to stay with generous friends, Sandy took to getting up at 5 AM in order to ski out and fry bacon on camp stoves in areas where a sighting was thought to have occurred – the smell of frying bacon being something most of us, including dogs, as it happens – find worth following. No luck. She left articles of family clothing inside comfy kennels in the snow. Game cameras positioned near foodstuffs got some excellent photos of foxes – but no Scooter. Flyers were posted. Rewards offered. Drones flew around the forests to no avail. Even with the remarkable assistance of a Boise-based nonprofit called Ladies and the Trap, whose fit and determined volunteers devote themselves to finding lost pets and reuniting them with their humans – no luck.

Scooter

In the end – or perhaps it’s still the late-beginning, or the middle – no one knows Scooter’s whereabouts but Scooter himself. Unless he has a secret admirer and protector. His family has settled into a three-possibility resolution: He did indeed die, quickly and relatively painlessly, of hypothermia in the Wyoming snow country. Or. Someone took him in and began to love and care for him; someone unaware of (or uninterested in) the microchip beneath his skin or the rewards posted for his return. Or. He will, one day, mysteriously reappear. Stranger things have happened, say the Ladies who Trap – and others.

And meanwhile, all along there has been Delilah the Wise. Delilah lives in Southern California with her family, which fortuitously includes my cousin Jan (we have Virginia roots; cousins extend in Virginia to the 7th in-law generation at least.) Jan, a comedian, keynote speaker, comedy writer, and author, was available – thanks to the virus cancelling every gig she had lined up – to help Delilah find her voice.

So. “Good morning, everyone! Delilah here,” said Delilah, brightly, on a regular basis, via Facebook and thanks to the miracle of modern video-manipulation. “I hope you’re enjoying the day.” (Or words to that effect.) Delilah was consistently anxious to get us all through the darkest days. Early on (3/26/20 to be precise,) this was one of her suggestions:

“Today we’re going to play a new game! It’s called Guess What’s in That Zip-Lock Bag in the Freezer! All you do is dig wayyyy back into the back of the freezer and pull out all of the zip-lock bags. So far, Jan has found one full of orange stuff, and another with, umm, chicken bones? Just eat whatever is in it! Enjoy your dinner and relax. Let me know how it goes.”

Thus did Delilah get us through week after tedious week. Sometimes it would seem even too much for Delilah herself – at which point she would scramble to the end of the sofa and commence digging a hole all the way to China. At last report, she had not yet made it through, but if a virus variant returns she may get there. Delilah, who her family says is perhaps a “pugzu” – some sort of pug/shih tzu mix rescued years ago from the Burbank Shelter, is somewhere around “12-ish” in dog years. With age clearly comes wisdom.

The author with Delilah

So with apologies to playwright John Patrick, to whom the original version is first attributed:

The pain of the pandemic surely made us think; what else was there to do? Thought makes us wise. And wisdom – especially the wisdom of old dogs – makes life bearable.  

This essay also appears on Medium.com

New cancer insights from man's — and woman's — best friend

Lessons on love and fidelity have long been learned from the canine kingdom; now add cancer and aging.

The Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation, a not-for-profit research foundation headquartered in West Lafayette, Indiana, has a mission “to accelerate medical progress in the fields of cancer treatment, cancer prevention, and aging,” and is coming up with useful data through studies of pet dogs. (The center was named posthumously, after his untimely death, for founder Gerald Murphy, developer of the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test that remains the gold standard for early detection of prostate cancer.) Most recently comes news of discoveries made with the help of Kona, a Rottweiler who is getting along in years herself. It was reported last week on MSNBC by by Anne Marie Tiernon of WTHR-TV.

There are new clues about why some of us live longer than others. A new study of dogs has revealed a new role for the ovaries. Ovaries produce eggs and hormones and also have a primary role in bearing children. But the study in West Lafayette points to a larger ovarian ecology, meaning the ovaries have a role in how long we live.

Kona, a 13-year-old Rottweiler from Cleveland, has achieved exceptional longevity for her breed. Most live about nine years. Data about Kona and 304 other Rottweilers was collected and analyzed at the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation.’We are trying to find ways to promote exceptional longevity in pets and people,’ said Dr. David Waters, DVM PhD. director of the Exceptional Living Studies Center.

In combing through the dog data, the Center’s researchers found links between ovaries and a long life.

‘To reach exceptional longevity is to live about 30 percent longer, similar to the difference between a 100-year-old person and a person that would only live, let’s say, 72 years,’ Dr. Waters said. So we are talking about a big difference and that keeping ovaries longer was associated with an increased likelihood of reaching exceptional longevity.’

Being a female, Kona was born with a 2-to-1 advantage over male dogs to reach her 13th birthday.

‘But the interesting part was when we take a look at the dogs who lose their ovaries, the females who lose their ovaries in the first four years, now the female survival advantage disappears,’ Dr. Waters said.

Dr. Waters, whose research work has extended to a variety of complex issues relating to cancer and aging, sums up the bottom line for women:

The takeaway from these studies, including the one with Kona? That doctors and women will pause and question the routine removal of ovaries during a hysterectomy. In the United States, the standard practice for decades has been to remove the ovaries during a hysterectomy to prevent ovarian cancer and maybe some breast cancers that are estrogen-fed.

The findings are something new to add to your plus and minus columns when making a decision with your doctor.