the day Dougal died

It was on Thursday July 19th, during the early hours of the morning.

Mom was there, and Eric. We waited patiently for the doctor at the emergency vet to come in and put Dougal to rest.

We stood mostly quietly, huddled around a tiny table no bigger than a night stand – Dougal lay on his favorite bed, spread out long, eyes glazed over and breathing heavily.

You would think that working at a vet clinic for nearly the last year would have prepared me for this, but it hadn’t. I had lost many pets over the years, but never had I had to make the choice to euthanize one.

I sat there, watching my beloved, sweet boy – just the morning before, he had seemed mostly alright. Not so alright, of course – I had determined that he needed to come to work with me so the doctor could look at him, after all. But that morning he had crawled out of the cage, to go to his favorite bed. That morning he looked tired, but he was watching his siblings play.

That morning I had no idea would be the last time I’d wake up to his brilliant black eyes gazing back at me as I said good morning to all of the babies.

We got Dougal in December – just seven months before. Eric and I had wandered into a pet store to kill time and watch the ferrets play. It was there that Eric first saw a pile of ferrets – all napping together, loving each other. He had turned to me and said “Shimmy needs this. Shimmy needs a friend.”

I hadn’t considered getting Shimmy a friend – Shimmy was adopted, himself, in a time of turmoil. I hadn’t meant to get him, actually – I was at the store for cat litter. But my last rattie had died just the day before, and I was grieving. I had just said to my mom on the car ride over “No more rats…it’s too sad. Next I want ferrets, but they’re so expensive.”

Shimmy had been on sale 75% for being “unadoptable”. By unadoptable I mean he hadn’t been socialized properly, and was petrified of people. This meant he attacked us frequently, and to this stay he still gets a little too exuberant with his biting.

Shimmy had lived alone with me for over a year – there were the cats, of course, but Shimmy was a lone ferret, and soon my dedicated Emotional Support Animal (cleared through my long-time therapist, who to this day still sees the benefits Shimmy has on my emotional health).

Shimmy had been happy – he played all the time, was free-roam most of the time, and had the run of the apartment. When Eric and I moved in together, Shimmy still had the run of the apartment, and the privilege of having Eric, who stayed home most of the day since he went to school at night.

Shimmy was happy.

I took to forums and groups dedicated to ferrets. I knew that the official recommendation was to get ferrets in pairs, but Shimmy had been alone when I got him – I had no idea how he would act with other ferrets. But time and time again, ferret owners told me the same thing. “Your ferret is probably very happy. But you’ll never see him happier than when he has a cagemate.”

In just a matter of a day or two since our conversation in the petstore, I suddenly felt an urge to get another ferret immediately. I checked the humane society here in Chicago – no ferrets. I checked Craigslist.

There were three listings near Chicago.

I opened the first one – two beautiful girl ferrets, and the most amazing pictures of them. I immediately fell in love with them, especially the one with grey stripes down her head – she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

These were my ferrets. I just knew it.

I messaged the poster immediately, and sent her a link to Shimmy’s instagram. I wrote up how much I loved animals, how I worked in a vet clinic, how my Shimmy needed some best friends and I was determined to give my love to more ferrets.

The woman, Jack, responded that the girls had just been promised to a little girl – if only I’d messaged a half hour sooner. I was the perfect fit.

I was sad, but was happy the ferrets had found a home.

I looked back on Craigslist at the remaining two posting.

One had a ferret that was similar in color to Shimmy, which I wanted to avoid. The other didn’t have a picture. It was for a DEW ferret – what the hell was a DEW ferret?

I looked it up and discovered it was for a Dark Eyed White ferret.

Curious, I messaged the poster for more information, and asked for a picture.

She responded quickly, and let me know his story – he had been dropped off with his cage mate at the pet store she worked at. The note said they were three years old and had always lived together. The pet store allowed them to be separated, so she adopted him out of pity, but didn’t really have time for a ferret.

She forgot to send a picture.

I messaged her again and asked for a picture again, and her asking price.

She sent me a photo.

That was the first time I saw Dougal’s black eyes staring out at me.

That was the first time I loved him.

I knew immediately that this – definitely this one! – was our ferret.

I got home from work and showed Eric. I told him the girl agreed we could pick him up tonight. Eric agreed to go – but we would take Shimmy to see how he reacted to another ferret, first, because what if he hated him?

We packed Shimmy in a carrier and drove 40 minutes, into the middle-of-practically-nowhere.

The girl was nice and friendly – her living room was full of beautiful reptile tanks, and many lizards. There was even a turtle.

And then there was the white ferret, curled up in a hammock. He looked at us when we looked at him – I still knew this was our ferret.

She pulled him out – he was underweight and very weak. She had had trouble getting to eat, and thought he was depressed since his cagemate was gone. But I felt it in my gut – he was very sick.

We took out Shimmy – Shimmy was intrigued. He sniffed this new ferret, and seemed to want to get to know him. The new ferret seemed apathetic, but I could feel how sad he was.

We took him home, and the next day Eric picked his name: Dougal.

Dougal was a sweet ferret – relaxed, and curious. He could be found lying on the floor watching us go about.

Shimmy was never happier, it was true. Shimmy immediately learned to slow down so Dougal could keep up, but from the very first night, Shimmy made sure he slept with Dougal.

They were fast friends.

I believe in the inherent chaos and random chance of the universe – I don’t believe in fate.

But I do believe that the universe will bring you what you need, and when you need it.

A week after getting Dougal, Jack reached out that the girl ferrets had been returned. The girls were ours if we wanted – I burst into tears, thinking Eric would say no to them. Why would the universe do this? We couldn’t have four ferrets? Could we?

I realized we couldn’t have gotten the girls first, because then we wouldn’t have gotten Dougal. Dougal was meant to be ours, just as much as the girls were.

The girls became ours – Felurian and Yuffie. They also became fast friends with Shimmy, and both adored Dougal. Dougal was, after all, the best cuddle partner.

Life went on. Dougal gained strength and weight. He started getting faster, had a great appetite, and seemed happy. But then I began to notice in March that Dougal had a weird ridge in his stomach – I took him to work. It was an enlarged spleen, and his bloodwork was coming back completely normal. Probably nothing to worry about.

But I was worried.

I monitored him closely, feeling like he was getting tired. I had never shaken the gut feeling that he had cancer, but all of his testing was coming back normal.

At the end of March, one of my cousins who I rarely had spoken to since we were children reached out to me that she was giving up her ferret, and she wanted to know if I would take him. She knew how much I loved my babies, and she knew he would be happy with me.

I was distraught – we were at capacity, but her ferret was practically family, even though I’d never met him. Damn familial ties tugged at my heartstrings, and Eric and I decided to take him in.

And I couldn’t understand it. How did we suddenly have so many pets? Sure, sure – I could have said no. I didn’t have to keep accepting them. But I’ve said no to so many pets over the years – turtles my dad gave me, a bird a client offered me, other rodents and cats that over the years have needed homes that I wasn’t willing to provide.

So what was going on?

Whitaker was welcomed immediately, especially by Dougal. Shimmy didn’t like Whitaker the first night, as he was trying to cuddle with Felurian – Shimmy’s girlfriend. But Dougal let Whitaker cuddle with him, and was Whitaker’s first friend in the group.

We had this hoard of ferrets!

They all had such unique personalities, and such interested relationships with one another. Dougal was the kind older brother to everyone, always there when the others needed him. He was Yuffie’s patient boyfriend, who loved that she explored all day and then would come find him when she was tired. Dougal was Shimmy’s best friend.

We had taken Dougal back into work in June, and started him on a steroid because his bloodwork was weird. But his x-rays were normal, and there were no growths.

The steroids were supposed to help.

And they did at first. He seemed to be getting brighter eyed and bushier tailed again.

And then last week I had had enough – I knew something was wrong.

Not only had the day gone very wrong in the morning – Pan had gotten a toy wrapped around his leg and panicked, and Whitaker found a new hole in the wall and fell into the boiler room. I’d been stressed all day, and felt that something terrible was about to happen.

It was Dougal.

He was getting his medicine, and suddenly he seemed very tired again. He was still eating constantly and seemed to want to play. He still was drinking water, and walking around. But last week Wednesday, I noticed he defecated lying down. This was odd for him – he’d always stood up to have his movements.

I took him to work.

The short version of what happened is that the doctor felt several growths on his spleen, which had grown rapidly. He declined quickly at work, going from alert but tired to glazed and distant.

They took x-rays, and found growths in his lungs or lymph nodes.

They suspected he had Lyphocarcenoma.

The doctor who owns the clinic called and apologized – she tried to explain to me what might be happening. That Dougal had the worst of the worst, and it wasn’t something she’d seen often.

The doctor who had been seeing him at work told me we should cancel the bloodwork we’d just sent out. She told me to feed him, but that I was probably going to have to euthanize him that night, or the next morning.

I was devastated. I called Eric, but he was asleep and didn’t answer.

I called my mom, and tried to explain what was happening. She was heading over immediately.

I parked the car and grabbed the carrier. I went inside and work up Eric. I told him we had to put Dougal down.

He didn’t comprehend at first.

I put Dougal in the cage with the others one last time.

The girls didn’t seem to think anything was amiss – they wanted out of the cage to play. Whitaker, who had been at the vet with Dougal all day, retreated into the cage.

But Shimmy woke up, walked over to Dougal, and laid down with him. He licked Dougal’s face and neck, and put his head down, wide awake. He just laid with Dougal.

I firmly believe that Shimmy knew what was happening, and was saying goodbye to his first best friend.

We drove about 25 minutes to the emergency vet. During the car ride, Dougal continued to crash, and by the time we arrived he was breathing heavily and was so far away I don’t think he knew we were there.

I kissed his little face as many times as I could, and his paws, and anywhere I could and apologized. I was sorry he was suffering. I was sorry we didn’t have more time with him.

When the doctor came in, I knew what would happen. I’d talked so many pet parents through this, I knew.

But it is different when it is your loved one lying there. I could feel the panic as the first medicine put him into a deep sleep. I could the the regret as the beauthanasia stopped his heart.

We had Dougal for seven months.

Nearly a quarter of his life.

It was not enough time to give him all of the love we have for him.

I realize now why we were brought so many ferrets. If we had gotten the girls first, we would never had gotten Dougal. And if we had never gotten Whitaker, Shimmy wouldn’t have someone now to lean on when he’s in so much pain. Shimmy has become very sad since Dougal passed – he is playing less. But Whitaker is there every day to chase him, and wrestle him, and cheer him up.

I know now that we were always meant to have Dougal – not for his entire life, but so he can die happy, loved, and having had a big, beautiful family.

The feeling in the house is very different without him, and not a moment passes where I don’t expect to see his brilliant eyes gazing back at me.

But they are forever seared right into my heart where he rests.

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