It was November of 2009 and my husband, Jason, and I were five months hot off the heels of our wedding. We were living in a tiny rental home on Davis Islands in Tampa and I was burning the midnight oil working for Lucifer while Jason was busy studying for the engineering licensing exam.
We were far from having children and I needed a project, so we decided to get a dog. We were looking for only one, and because we didn’t want the responsibility of training a puppy, decided to adopt an adult. After researching breeds, we decided to go with one that was family friendly, smart, and physically active.
It would either be a lab or a golden retriever.
We did some digging and discovered the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, a non-profit organization dedicated to placing Labrador Retrievers in permanent homes. After filling out an application and having a volunteer come to our home (to make sure we weren’t wackos), we were given the green light to navigate their website and locate available dogs to meet and potentially adopt.
So began the process. The organization had a website that was essentially a Facebook for labs in foster homes who were available for adoption. Each dog had a profile containing a picture, the location of their foster home, and provided the dog’s name, age, gender, and personality traits. Some of the profiles featured videos of the dogs in action: chasing balls, swimming, and enjoying a smorgasbord of treats.
The first dog we visited was a young male being fostered in Tierra Verde, about 45 minutes from our house. He was found chained to a tree and had been there for several days before a neighbor called Lab Rescue and a volunteer saved him. He was a sweet boy, but not a good fit for me and Jason, as he was hyper and needed a lot of attention.
Back to the drawing board.
The second dog we visited was a gorgeous chocolate male who lived in Clearwater with his original owners, who purchased him as a high school graduation present for their teenage daughter. As luck would have it, the daughter got pregnant her first year of college and moved home to have her baby. The dog spent all, and I mean all, of its life in a laundry room because nobody had time for it. The parents thought it was only right to put him up for adoption. Problem was, when we attempted to take him for a walk around the neighborhood, the poor dog must never have seen a leash before. Us walking the dog became the dog walking us.
After a couple weeks of frustration, we got a call from one of the head volunteers letting us know that two English-style labs (the ones that are shorter with the blockier heads), which she believed were brother and sister, were dropped off at a humane society a few days before. One of the humane society volunteers called Lab Rescue, who came and got them. Their foster names were Lady Gaga and Kuma, and the organization was giving me and Jason “first dibs,” even though we were under no obligation to adopt either of them.
We got in the car and made the hour-long hike from Tampa to New Port Richey to check out the dogs, expecting to be disappointed like we were with the others. We also anticipated bringing home only one dog, if any.
When we arrived, Lady Gaga immediately approached us, rolled onto her back, and wanted her belly rubbed. Smitten, we obliged. Kuma, her brother, was in a cage with a cone around his neck, having recently lost his manhood. We were also advised he had heart worms, but Lab Rescue was working with a local veterinary clinic to cover the costs associated with treating them.
The foster mom asked if we wanted to take both dogs for a walk around the neighborhood as she handed us two leashes.
Lady Gaga and Kuma were both perfect on the leashes. No issues. Bingo!
As we were walking them, Jason got the craziest idea.
“Let’s adopt both of them.”
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked. Going from zero dogs to two dogs in a tiny 1100 square foot rental while we both worked full-time jobs seemed like a horrible idea.
“We can’t separate them, they’re brother and sister. Plus, two isn’t much more work than one.”
Being someone who is easily talked into making bad decisions, I agreed. When we returned to the foster house, we signed the paperwork and brought the dogs home.
Burby, family of four!
We had in our minds we would shorten Lady Gaga’s name to Lady and would find another name for Kuma.
But then we couldn’t figure out another name and kept referring to him as Kuma, so it stuck.
Turns out, Kuma is Japanese for “black bear,” and he did look like a little black bear, so the name was well suited for him.
Lady and Kuma were perfect dogs. They were house trained and well mannered. Our shoes remained intact, the floor remained dry, and Jason and I got lots of snuggle time from pets who would become “velcro dogs,” following us everywhere we would go.
We were obsessed with them. My friends were probably tired of hearing anecdotes about the dogs and I would literally sit at my desk when I was at work, wondering what Lady and Kuma were doing and whether they were also thinking about me.
I kissed them on the mouth and you would think that I gave birth to these flipping dogs, that’s how much I cared about them.
I was the crazy dog lady.
I even asked our veterinarian if dogs could feel love.
He said yes.
With regard to their former owners, I don’t know the story and don’t want to judge. However, I couldn’t imagine there were people out there somewhere who could just drop two perfectly good dogs off at the humane society, not knowing what would become of them.
The adage was true. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and we just hit the jackpot.
As it turned out, Kuma had a host of medical issues. In addition to the heart worms, he also was epileptic, had a strange growth on his gum, and cancer on his scalp. We didn’t know about the latter until after we adopted him, but it wouldn’t have changed our minds.
We got through it, one seizure at a time.
In the years we had the dogs, there were so many memories.
Like the time I rushed Kuma to the vet’s office because what I thought was a huge tick on his belly turned out to be a skin tag.
Thank God I didn’t try to light it on fire!
Or all the times I’d have to hide my dinner or Lady would steal it right off the plate.
She had an affinity for Mexican food.
Eventually, weekends spent with Lady and Kuma at the park or on the boat were replaced with time spent inside the house with our real children.
They didn’t hold it against us.
I swear, Lady knew I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Arden, before I even knew it. She’d come upstairs as soon as she heard me stirring in the morning and would accompany me to the bathroom to provide moral support, as I was cripplingly sick with nausea the duration of my pregnancy.
Lady started limping over Labor Day weekend in 2013. Turns out she had osteosarcoma, an incurable form of bone cancer, which originated in her back left leg. Amputation and chemotherapy were options, but they would only buy us a small window of time, and we didn’t think it was worth it to put her through the loss of a leg. The vet estimated Lady would make it six weeks but she, in the true spirit of a fighter, made it to twelve.
Five months shy of meeting our second daughter, Elle.
Through tears and grief, life went on with just the five of us. Kuma got older and his black face became a little grayer, but he was content relaxing in his favorite spot outside near the trees.
Life happened. We got busier with work and doing the fun things that accompany having young children: trips to the pool, Saturday morning gymnastics class, vacations at the beach, and rounding the kids’ birthday party circuit on weekends.
Two weeks ago, Kuma got too weak to come inside the house from the back yard. His age and arthritis got the best of him, and he was no longer able to move around or go to the bathroom.
It was time.
Jason and I loaded Kuma into Arden’s red wagon, waited for the babysitter to arrive, watched the girls say their goodbyes, and drove him to the vet’s office.
While I knew this time would eventually come, I couldn’t believe the crippling sadness and regret.
Sadness for closing a special chapter in our lives. Lady and Kuma were there for us when we were navigating the beginning stages of marriage, buying our first house, and creating our family.
Regret for all the times Lady and Kuma got the proverbial shaft once we had our kids and the dogs couldn’t be as much of a priority as they were before.
We cried and petted Kuma’s head as we watched him take his last breath inside of Arden’s Radio Flyer.
There is a sense of emptiness around the house, but the memories are vivid.
I can close my eyes and still feel the way Lady’s silky head felt when I rubbed it. I can hear the sound of Kuma’s tail beating on the floor downstairs. They will always be here and I thank God for those memories and that we got to experience their faithful love.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened with Lady and Kuma if we wouldn’t have picked them up from foster care and taken them home with us. Would someone else have adopted them? Would they have been separated?
Some say that Jason and I are the ones who rescued them, but Lady and Kuma rescued us.
Special thanks to Dr. Christine Lynch and the team of compassionate pet lovers at Animal Doctors of South Tampa for being there with us through the good, the bad, and the ugly. We appreciate you more than you will ever know.