Biographical Non-Fiction posted June 13, 2019

When a beautiful thing comes to an end.


by Sam Frearson-Tubito

Each time we moved I would get butterflies in my stomach, anticipating the excitement and adventure of discovering a new place we would call home. I loved moving. My little brother, Simon, not so much. We called Lusaka, Zambia home between 1986-1989. I was 15, my brother 12.

To soften the blow of yet another move, Dad surprised us, early on in our posting. He arrived home very late one night. Simon, Mum and I were about to go to bed, when we heard him come through the kitchen back door.  “Honey, kids, I’m home. Come and see what I have here…”

I was your typical sullen teen at the time and was of the opinion that whatever my parents had to say or do wouldn’t be of any interest. While most days I would have chosen to ignore him, I could hear the excitement in his voice, and this time, curiosity got the better of me. I went to see what the fuss was all about. We found Dad in the kitchen, stood there holding a small shallow cardboard box in his arms, but we couldn’t see what was inside.  

“What you got there Dad?” said Simon, while Dad gingerly placed the box onto the kitchen floor. Simon and I peered over and saw the tiniest pup curled up under a baby-blue blanket. “The mother died unexpectedly. I wasn’t meant to pick him up until Christmas Eve,” Dad said.  “But he’s so small,” Simon and I exclaimed simultaneously, both crouching down gently petting the pup. “He’s a little over 4 weeks old so we’ll really need to take care of him until he gets stronger,” said Dad. His fur was the color of the darkest of nights. The texture a mixture of velvet and silk. He looked like a black seal pup with shiny slick fur. He yawned giving a little yelp and we caught our first glimpse of his mesmerizing golden-yellow eyes. 

We ended up calling him Wellington. Wellie for short. It suited him well. Not only was he a mix of German Shepherd, Weimaraner and black lab, three wonderfully majestic breeds, but he also had an aristocratic superiority about him from the first day we got him. He held his head up high and turned away with his nose in the air whenever he disliked something. “Look at the size of his paws…I think he’s going to be a big fella,” Dad paused for a bit then continued, “I got him to guard the house, kids. He’ll grow quickly and be able to protect us.”

Although Zambia was relatively peaceful and deemed a politically stable country, it had its fair share of problems. It was one of the largest copper producers on the continent but the government struggled to filter the industry’s profits into the general population. This left the masses poorer and hungrier as the years went by, inevitably leading to general unrest. There were awful stories going around the expatriate grapevine of various gangs targeting homes like ours; houses inhabited by foreign nationals with disposables, things we took for granted such as multiple cars, a TV, a fridge, etc. I remember a story Mum told me one day about an elderly French couple who had been murdered because they wouldn’t give up their car without a fight. They ended up paying with their lives. Stories like this were unfortunately not uncommon, hence the insistence of Dad getting a guard dog.

Mum, during all this time, was quietly making some hot cocoa, watching but keeping her distance. Unlike Dad, Mum had not grown up with dogs. There had always been an agreement between them that Dad would take charge if they were to ever get a dog. This time was no different. However, Dad wasn’t the only person in the house who took care of the dog. When Simon and I were home for the holidays - we were boarding school kids - Wellie spent much of his time with us, but, when we went back, he shadowed Maggie, the domestic help. Wellie would love to make mischief and she was constantly chastising him. "Get out of here, you bad dog!" She’d say, sucking her teeth at the same time. She kept a broom at the ready to brush him away from stealing breakfast bacon rashers or other tempting treats. He had a voracious appetite and nothing we fed him would curb it. In hindsight, Maggie was scared of Wellie

Every month Mum would buy chicken entrails in bulk from the local butcher specifically for Wellie. Maggie cooked them in the oven and the overpowering smell of the meat brought every green bottle fly in the vicinity to our kitchen. The fly screens on the kitchen windows would be covered with the buzzing green insects to a point that the sunlight was completely blocked out. Wellie had to be chained outside whilst Maggie cooked for him. One time he managed to sneak into the kitchen without Maggie or Mum noticing. Mum had just bought the usual monthly supply of entrails and left them on the kitchen counter for Maggie to prep and cook. Maggie, distracted by something or other, left the food unguarded, and in a split of a second Wellie had grabbed the plastic bag off the counter and gulped a whole month’s worth of meat in minutes, plastic bag and all. He was as sick as could be for a good few days. After that episode, Maggie made sure that he was tied up and far from the kitchen as possible on chicken entrail cooking day.

Maggie lived on our property during the week and went back to her village most weekends unless Mum & Dad were entertaining. Her place was a humble abode at the bottom of the garden which afforded her some privacy. Despite her obvious wariness to the dog, Wellie didn’t leave her alone and found his space on the doorstep leading up to her little place.

Looking back, I realize that Wellie gravitated towards those who were around the most. Simon and I were away at school most of the time, Dad was working and Mum was in and out of the house all day. The constant was Maggie. Simon and I were merely visitors to our home in Zambia. We spent most of our time in boarding school, but came home three times a year, for Christmas, Easter and the summer months. That first Christmas in Zambia with Wellie was special. Simon and I spent every waking moment with him. I remember being extremely tearful saying goodbye to him when it was time to leave. “Dad, do you think he’ll remember me when I come home for Easter?” “Of course darling. Dogs never forget,” he replied, squeezing my shoulder. Easter, summer and another Christmas went by. Simon and I loved coming home and seeing that Wellie didn’t forget, as Dad predicted.

Over the next few years, he grew into his large paws and became a formidable guard dog, making quite a reputation for himself. Word on the street was that our house was protected and up to that time had not had an issue with security. His favorite spot was Maggie’s threshold, which was directly opposite the house gates. With this vantage point, he was the first to alert the guard of any activity nearing our gates. His ears would shoot up, his nose in high gear sniffing out who or what was outside the gate, his bark booming over the property walls.

Wellie made the security guard’s job easy. When on the job, Felix the guard, spent his days and nights smoking incessantly on a stool on the inside of the house gates. Mum would complain about the permanent dazed look he had on his face. “I just can’t get through to him, Andrew,” she exclaimed to Dad one evening. “It’s as if he’s got a screw loose or something.” It was only when a friend, wandering around the garden one day, noticed a fair-sized plot of dagga, the local marijuana, growing in our back yard, that we realized why. Felix, like many Zambians, turned to the comfort of drugs to avoid the reality of unstable times. 

It was after a couple of years when Wellie was fully grown, that we began to notice a difference in his behavior. He began to snap and growl at everyone, even his beloved Maggie. When anyone visited the house, he had to be held back or leashed up. There were many instances when he managed to prize himself free of whoever was holding him.  He would rush towards people and pin them to the sides of cars or walls and snap at them. These outbursts became more and more frequent. Due to his vicious behavior towards visitors, we got into the habit of leashing him in the garden.

The last straw was on an atypical day when Wellie was behaving rather nicely. He was in a docile mood and on such rare occasions, we allowed him to hang out with us inside. He seemed to be calm so I decided to keep him in my room while a friend and I hung out. He remained calm and didn’t seem in a threatening mood. I still kept a watchful eye on him for the first half an hour or so to make sure that he was truly as calm as he seemed. I was convinced and turned my back for a few seconds. At that very moment, he jumped on my friend in a heartbeat, growling, salivating, a crazy look in his eyes, his mouth around her wrist, ready to bite through. I was petrified of what he would do to her. The vicious sounds coming from him were terrifying. I grabbed hold of my slipper, the nearest thing my hands could find, and hit him hard on the nose, over and over, until he cowered off her and slunk into the corner of the room.

He became more and more unpredictable and increasingly more difficult to control. We felt we couldn’t trust him anymore. One day, upon hearing the report of the umpteenth Wellie attack, Dad, with his head held in despair, dropped on the sofa and let out a heavy sigh. “I think we’re going to have to put him down, honey,” he said to Mum. “This just can’t go on any longer. He’s going to hurt someone badly if we’re not careful.”

Wellie was put to sleep a few days later. It was one of the hardest things we have ever had to do. In a quick phone call, due to Wellie’s formidable stature and surprisingly quick deterioration in temperament, Dad agreed with the vet that we would donate Wellie’s remains to science for autopsy and tests. Dad and I were the ones who took him. Throughout the forty-five minute drive to the hospital, the only sound to be heard was Wellie’s heavy panting. Dad and I couldn’t muster up words to fill the void we knew was about to happen.

There was ample parking at the hospital and Dad slid the car into an empty spot a few meters away from the main entrance. We both got out of the car and opened the trunk. He had never been the most loving dog, not allowing us to pet or stroke him much, but somehow that day he allowed me to hug him and say goodbye. 

Looking back I wonder how and why Wellie became so aggressive and out of control. Was it because of the lack of bonding with a particular person, or was it the mix of breeds he was – maybe they weren’t compatible, or was it simple loneliness? Maggie took care of him but she didn’t particularly like him. She chastised him for just simply being around. As time went on and he grew out of puppyhood, he became less and less interested in human interaction. He chose to sleep under the acacia tree rather than keep us company. He was a guard dog first and foremost. So was it surprising that he turned vicious and anti-social? Maybe not. I would have loved to know the outcome of the autopsy but we never did.

One thing is for sure, he will always remain a beautiful puppy in our hearts.

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