The veterinarian was kind, but candid.
"It's not good," he said, gesturing down at the shaggy-haired German shepherd mix who lay at our feet, panting from stress and pain and fear. "See how his back paws are dragging? His hind legs are paralyzed.
"He might never walk again," the vet continued. "And even if we can fix him, we're talking thousands of dollars in medical bills." He paused, and though he wore a mask, I could still see compassion in his eyes. "He could cost you a fortune, and there's no guarantee that he'll ever be cured."
He didn't outright tell me that the other option was putting the poor dog down, then and there. But we both knew it was on the table.
The call had come late the previous afternoon. The organization I volunteer with, Raincoast Dog Rescue Society, had partnered with the Heiltsuk Nation and Pacific Coastal Airlines to fly down an injured dog from British Columbia's central coast for treatment and rehoming. The rescue needed someone to meet the dog at the airport and bring him to a veterinarian, and then to a temporary foster home.
This isn't unusual. Raincoast has a strong partnership with the Heiltsuk Nation and my friend Alexis and I have picked up a number of dogs at the airport over the last few months. Most of them are litters of puppies headed to the rescue's headquarters on Vancouver Island. But this dog was different.
"His name's Lucas," Raincoast's founder Jesse Adams told us. "Seven years old. He was hit by a car in Bella Bella and surrendered by his owner. He's having some trouble moving, so we need to get him checked out and then find him a new home."
I agreed to meet Lucas at the airport and ferry him around, figuring I'd spend a few hours with the dog before passing him off to one of our wonderful fosters. I did not expect to spend a week falling in love.
Lucas was scared, and hurting. I could see that right away, as Lexi wheeled him out of the Pacific Coastal cargo area in his kennel. He was panting heavily, curled up awkwardly in his crate, not really receptive to my overtures of friendliness or treats.
We managed to get his 80lbs+ hoisted into the back of my truck, and I set out for the Peace Arch Veterinary Hospital in White Rock, BC, about forty kilometres away. In White Rock, I stopped at a pet store to buy the supplies that Lucas's foster would need--treats, collar, leash, toys, etc--and a name tag with Raincoast's phone number and Lucas's name on it.
Then I took Lucas to the vet. In the parking lot, I struggled alone to unload him and his crate from the back of my truck to the dolly that Lexi had borrowed. I wheeled the crate to a grassy area and tried to coax him out for a pee, but he wouldn't move. Just sat there and panted at me, bowing his head and leaning into my hand as I scratched the top of his head and behind his ears.
I could see he was a gentle dog who'd had a really rough turn of things, and I hoped that the folks at the clinic could help him find his way back to a comfortable life.
But thirty minutes later I was inside the veterinarian's office, listening to the doctor outline Lucas's grim prognosis as three wonderful vet technicians worked to make Lucas comfortable. I could sense that as much as the doctor didn't like the idea of ending Lucas's life, he didn't see much sense in our spending scarce rescue resources on a big seven-year-old mutt in seriously poor health.
But the vet obviously didn't know Raincoast Dog Rescue. If there's one thing I've learned about Raincoast, and Jesse and his partner Jodie, it's that they simply do not give up on a dog. Not if there's a glimmer of hope. And even before Jesse talked to the vet and secured us a referral to the specialists at Canada West Critical Care, I knew my time with Lucas wasn't over yet.
The technicians helped me load Lucas into the backseat of my truck using a military-style litter. They were already as smitten with his sweet personality as I was, and wished me good luck. I tried to make Lucas comfortable and tried to reassure him that things would be all right as I drove another forty kilometres or so back into Vancouver to the specialist, but inside I was wondering if I wasn't driving the poor dog to his death.
What if the specialist says there's no hope? I wondered. What if we need to put this poor guy down, after all?
I bought him a name tag. What if he never gets to wear it?
I tried not to think about it.
It was dusk when I arrived at Canada West, where Lexi met me in the parking lot with Subway--the first meal I'd eaten since early that morning. We handed him off to the team there, and waited in the parking lot with our own two dogs for news.
Eventually, we were told that Lucas would be staying overnight, and would go in for surgery the next morning. The cost would be around $7000-$9000, which I'm sure gave Jesse chest pains, but there was never any question that Raincoast wouldn't pay it.
As we waited for Lucas to go in for surgery, the Raincoast fundraising machine kicked into overdrive. With the magic of social media, and donations from some absolute angels, we were able to put a major dent in Lucas's costs literally within hours. Among those who helped with our efforts were cast members of CW's Batwoman, who made major donations and also pledged personalized Instagram shoutouts to anyone who donated to Lucas's care.
I was amazed, to be honest. I'd spent enough time with Lucas that I could sense he was a special dog--a wise, gentle soul who deserved every kindness that was coming his way. But I'd not expected that an older mixed-breed guy like him would be the dog to garner such support. I'd underestimated people's kindness and empathy; miraculously, we were able to raise the funds we needed almost within twenty-four hours.
Meanwhile, Jesse was now looking for a medical foster home for Lucas. The list of requirements was long, and in the meantime Lucas needed a place to stay after being released from Canada West. I offered my apartment in the short term; my dog Lucy could stay with Alexis, and I could devote as much time as necessary to making Lucas comfortable.
I admit, I was a little daunted. The communication from Canada West was lengthy, and involved instructions on how to change Lucas's catheter, a list of physio exercises, daily medication and other duties. I would need to put mats down on my floors so that Lucas wouldn't slip on them, and should not expect that he could stand to walk to his food or water, or venture outside.
Little did we know that our shaggy mutt was much stronger than anyone had given him credit for.
Less than two days after his surgery, Lucas was walking out of Canada West under his own power. The neurologist had decided to remove his catheter before releasing him, and the first thing he did was amble over to the grass to pee.
He looked happier than I'd seen him before, despite the large patch of missing fur on his back and the angry incision wound down his spine. The surgeon had found two herniated discs, one recent and one older, and repaired them both. He had a long path to recovery, but he was alive, and walking, and wagging his big bushy tail.
Together, Alexis and I got him situated at my house, and then Lucas and I settled in together. I figured I'd keep him for a night or maybe two, and built him a nest to sleep and my own nest on the couch, not wanting to be far from him in case he needed anything.
By the next morning it was apparent that this dog was a warrior. He could stand, walk to his food and water dishes, play with his chew toy and even poke his nose out on my balcony, though it was clear that he didn't know what to do about the pee pads I'd set down. I tried to coax him to do his business on the pads, or on a grass mat on the balcony, but he just wouldn't go, though I could tell he was anxious.
Finally, I wrapped him up in his hip sling and brought him down to street level in the elevator, and boy was he happy. You'd have never believed he'd just had spinal surgery, though I tried to reign him in and restrict his pace. He motored happily down the sidewalk, determined to sniff everything he could in this new environment, stubborn when I tried to slow him down or guide him back to the apartment. I could tell he was a spirited guy and that the outdoors was where he belonged.
We spent nearly a week together, as it turned out. My apartment took on the look and smell of a first-year university dormitory as we learned to coexist together. And as the days passed I fell more and more in love with Lucas, and I could tell that he was getting attached to me, too. He woke me up in the mornings with his tail wagging and his butt wriggling, followed me around my apartment and was always ready for scratches behind the ears.
The pain and fear in his eyes was gone; now I could see contentment and comfort, his personality coming to the fore. He was a vocal guy when he wanted attention, a mooch when I was eating dinner, unfailingly friendly, tolerant of his physio exercises and his thrice-daily medicine, and determined to escape from the barricades I set up to keep him contained.
I spent a lot of time just watching him, marvelling at how far he'd come in just a few days. Marvelling at the generosity of all the folks who'd donated to his care, and at his own clearly indomitable spirit. I came to look forward to our mini walks as much as he did; he was never happier than when I was clipping on his leash and letting him out my front door to go explore again.
I fell in love. And it was bittersweet, because even as I grew more attached to Lucas, and he to me, I knew I would have to say goodbye sometime soon. I have my own dog, who I missed and hadn't seen since taking Lucas in, and Lucas deserved a home with a yard and space to run around. But that didn't mean I wanted to see him go.
Every day that Jesse didn't find a foster was a secret blessing. And I realized that knowing that our time together was so temporary was forcing me to live in the moment, to take nothing for granted. To acknowledge that things end and that we have to enjoy them while we can.
In a sense, I guess that's the joy and the heartbreak of having any pet. We know that our time with our animals is bound to be temporary and that someday we will have to say goodbye. And even if it's years that we have with together, and not just days or a week, those years will speed by, and we shouldn't take any moment for granted.
I don't want to sound cheesy. But I worked hard to celebrate every moment I had with Lucas and not dwell on the fact that his departure was looming. And I think I learned something there that I'll take with me, with Lucy, and with other connections that are important to me, both animal and human.
On Sunday morning, seven days after I'd taken Lucas into my home, I packed up the floor mats and his food bowls and toys, his medication and his hip sling and the leash and the collar and name tag I'd bought for him before that first fateful visit to the vet.
I packed up one of my old blankets, too, that he'd been spending his nights on. I wanted him to have something that smelled like my apartment, that smelled like me, so that when he went to his new home he would know he was still safe and loved.
I drove Lucas out to his new foster mother, who was eager to meet him, and seemed very lovely and kind. She has a nice house in the suburbs, with a yard and plenty of space, and I know he'll be happy as long as he's there. She has a cat, too, who captured his attention immediately, sparing him and I any painful goodbye.
I told him I loved him and I'd see him later, and he stared at the stairs where the cat had disappeared, and hardly seemed to notice my leaving. I was glad. It would have broken my heart if he'd tried to follow me then.
I didn't have time to dwell, anyway. I drove a short distance and met Lexi, and Lucy and Bentley, our dogs, and we packed into my truck for a four hour drive north and another rescue mission. Raincoast had three beautiful pitbull puppies who needed picking up in Cache Creek, and a ride back down to their foster in Vancouver, and Lexi and I were back on the job.
Rescue don't sleep, and that's just how we like it. But even as we collected the (impossibly cute) puppies and placed them with their foster, even now as I write this in my freshly-cleaned and vacuumed apartment with Lucy snoring happily beside me, I'm thinking of the big mooch who spent seven wonderful days here, and hoping our paths will cross again soon.
I can't wait to see his tail wag, and his butt wiggle, when they do.