R.I.P. BENJI (2006-2019)
A BOY AND HIS DOG
I’m still a boy at heart – no matter what my ID book says – and every boy needs his dog. Dogs keep you young and there’s no better therapy for the blues than consorting with a loving member of the canine clan. A relationship develops that stands any test of time or distance.
I MEET THE LITTLE RASCAL FOR THE FIRST TIME
It was a cold August day in 2006 The veld was wearing the weary brownish hue it always does before the spring rains come to rejuvenate the tired Highveld. I was staying in a homeless shelter at the time. I went for a walk and about a block away I passed an old house that was being used as a pub called “Uncle Tim’s”. At the back was a “kaia” or outside room where workers stayed. As I passed a tiny little dog came walking across the yellowed grass towards me as if I were the only human in the universe. It was mutual love at first sight. I asked the workers about him and they said he had no mother, brothers or sisters. They wanted R40 for him. I didn’t have anything at all in my empty pockets at that time.
I had to have him and knew I was meant to have him. That was certain.
He was smaller than a rat and beautiful, reddish brown with a ridge of darker fur down his back. He was still so young that a lady at the shelter at first mistook him for a female. His ears were still stuck to his head like little seashells. Later they would become the huge beacons that would make him such a fantastic little watchdog with the hearing of a fox.
I returned to the shelter and another resident came up with R30 which they accepted. We got permission from the shelter’s owner to keep him, and rescued the little fellow who had obviously been stolen, with or without his mom and siblings.
He was so tiny that he couldn’t even clamber up a brick, never mind a step. He was small enough to fit with ease under the collar of my t-shirt.
I had no idea what size he would grow into but he became a dog of small stature but big heart, a Min Pin who was fearless and would be quite ready to pick a fight with a Rottweiler twenty times his size if allowed to.
My new friend fell off my “stoep” once onto his back and got such a fright that he began howling as only a scared puppy can, and a little girl came to find out what the matter was with him. I had a bit of a meltdown due to being worried about Benji and pushed her away, so she began yelling too and her mom felt quite hurt later when she heard that I’d treated her so roughly. I generally find it hard to cope with too much happening at once, and go into panic “fight or flight” mode.
I took Benji on regular walks along the various spruits around the shelter, and several times we went up into the nearby Magaliesberg and looked down on the city from the rocks at the summit. This fearless and faithful fellow would follow me everywhere. For such a little guy he sure covered a lot of rough territory!
TWO NARROW ESCAPES
Benji had two narrow escapes as a puppy.
The first one was one Saturday afternoon at the shelter when I had to join “Oom” Johan to go and collect the donations from a supermarket some distance away. As we drove down the street in the ancient old station wagon, we saw that Benji had managed to slip under the gate into the street, in an attempt to follow me. We glanced back and saw that he had run under the wheels of an LDV “bakkie” – and saw it stopping. We made a u-turn and rushed back to find that the bakkie had driven off after inspecting him, finding him OK. He was on the pavement and perfectly fine, but had grease marks on his coat from the wheels. That’s how close his brush with death was! I hurriedly locked him in my Wendy house and we went to get the donations. I hurried back to my Wendy as soon as we unpacked, to see if my little rascal was OK. He suffered no ill effects from his truly close shave.
I made several attempts to put bricks or stones under the gate to prevent him squeezing under it and following me whenever I went out. He didn’t want to let me out of his sight. Eventually we found a way to keep him in the yard so he didn’t have to be locked up in my room, and when I went out for the day to visit my friend Valma, or for any other reason, I’d always find him waiting patiently at the gate for my return.
Once I accidentally hurt his little paw when I was digging in the front garden. Despite my attempts to be careful he came too close and the corner of the spade connected with his foot, luckily not too hard. I had to be very careful when doing stuff like that because Benji wanted to be as close to me as caninely possible.
Benji’s second narrow escape came when he fell ill. I had no money for the vet and hoped he’d get better quick with a bit of TLC but it became clear he wasn’t getting any better, and “Tannie” Des said to me a day or two later that he wouldn’t make it, as his gums were white – a clear sign of advanced biliary infection. I managed to scrape part of the vet money together which was supplemented by another resident from his busking money, and I walked to the nearest vet. I had to carry him as he was so weak to walk. I’m sure the next day would have been too late to save him. The vet gave him a shot. Sick as he was, the little rascal espied the vet’s cat in a corner of the room. Suddenly stung to indignant animation, he emitted one surprisingly loud bark of disapproval.
The vet’s timely treatment worked like a dream. They kindly only charged for the materials used, waiving the consultation fee. My little friend soon regained his usual strength with the help of a tonic made from the little blocks known as laundry blue or blue liquid – blue cubes grated up in a little milk. This strange folksy sort of treatment is incredibly efficacious as a dog tonic. Benji was soon as strong and feisty as ever and resumed his high-energy lifestyle.
ROLLING IN STINK
During one spruit walk Benji, who was off the leash, saw a disgusting pile of foul-smelling debris of some kind and rolled in it before I could stop him. He stank to high heaven and as soon as we got back to the shelter I punished the would-be polecat by plunging him under a cold water tap and washing him down vigorously. Luckily this was the only time during our numerous walks that he did such a thing.
He was very popular among the other residents of the shelter and made friends with a little black dog who also lived there, named Bruno, the same size as Benji. The two of them would run all over the huge grounds ad would even attend the more or less compulsory devotional services which were held most mornings in the lounge of the main house.
I only wish I had a camera at the time Benji was growing up. I never got to take any snapshots of him as a young doggie. Cellphones at that time seldom had cameras and if they did you had to pay an arm and a leg for them. I could barely afford a basic one. My friend got me one. It was in a pretty blue cover. One evening Benji went charging out with it in his mouth. I went chasing after him as soon as I realized this but some opportunist had already stolen the phone and we never found it again. It wasn’t Benji’s fault – he just wanted a plaything.
Another friend and I went out for supper one evening and as a reward for his patience, I brought Benji a T-bone. Somehow I got mixed up between my new cell phone and the T-bone, being approximately the same size and weight and when we got to the shelter my cell phone was missing, but the T-bone was safe. So we had to go out again and look for the lost phone. We retraced our steps to the restaurant but found no sign of it. On the way back we found it lying, cover and all, in a dark corner near a traffic light. No one had spotted it! So now both the T-bone and the cell phone were safe, and Benji had something to chew on…
A BIG MOVE
When I left the shelter early in 2008 and moved to Port Elizabeth Benji at first came to live with my friend and his parents in Johannesburg, but didn’t behave very well there. He was digging up plants and making himself a bit of a nuisance, so after a while they decided to send him down to me.
Thus in 2008 when he was two years old Benji came to live with my mom and stepdad in their townhouse. He was so thrilled he day we went to collect him at the airport. Though still a bit drowsy from the sedative, his little tail began swinging when he saw my familiar face through the cage bars.
i had just enrolled for a course at a training institute for disabled learners. My folks helped me get a garden flat about two kilometres from them and although no dogs were allowed there as the owners had dogs of their own, I would see little Benji regularly. I’d be out for the day during the week in any case, so being with my folks was all for the best. After completing two courses at the institute I got work at a fruit packaging company for the next four years working as the logistics person and handling all orders for packaging and dried goods, as well as doing weekly stock taking and liaising with the supervisors of the fruit and vegetable sections. I saw Benji every weekend, arriving on a Saturday afternoon and staying over until Sunday evening.
When I stopped working I had more time to see Benji and no longer had to limit my visits to weekends only.
Every time I arrived at my folks, Benji would get so excited. A few weeks ago, he spotted me from where he was at the side gate and came dashing to the front door. I hadn’t even spotted him at the gate. Somehow he always knew when I was there. On a few occasions I arrived while my folks were out shopping or at church, and I couldn’t get in until they arrived back as I didn’t have a key then. Benji, locked in their bedroom would bark incessantly until they arrived and I could get in. Those moments of reunion were precious to him and me as he showered me with affection much larger than his small physical stature. He wasn’t really a licker, but I felt loved and appreciated, as I’m sure he did too, and he valued our precious time together, making every second count.
Benji always slept over with me whenever I was at my folks, but in the mornings after I was up and about, he would usually go to my mom and stepdad’s room. Their new bed is high and he couldn’t jump up or down, so he would bark incessantly until lifted up, then bark again if he wanted to get down again for any reason, usually to see what I was up to. If I was unlocking the front door he would always come running to see what I was up to, as he hated it when I went home.
I’m afraid I used to tease him a little bit now and then by pretending to go out, then watch how pleased he became that I wasn’t leaving yet.
Increasing age had no ill effects on Benji. His muzzle gradually turned white and he could no longer jump onto couches with the ease of earlier times. He would still tear around the little garden like a puppy, and we had many a happy game of chase. He would always chase birds, especially the huge and noisy Hadeda ibises.
I’ll miss him every time there’s scraps of chicken or other meat to be had. I’ll never forget the way he asked for more chicken, biltong or whatever other treat was on the doggie menu. His little brown eyes would never leave a scrap of meat held above his head, and they would turn in all directions until I relented and gave it to him. No tennis player has glued his eyes to a ball as Benji did to a tasty dainty.
Sometimes I’d get him a little box of the specially formulated chocolate drops for dogs.
BENJI’S UNFORGETTABLE QUIRKS
Every dog is different. They develop a distinct personality, which is why so many of we dog lovers believe their souls ascend to the Rainbow Bridge and their physical bodies no longer matter.
Benji understood the landline telephone. Whenever it rang, he would start barking and howling. The longer it rang, the more insistently he howled. He even knew that if the call was short it meant someone was coming to visit, as visitors to the townhouse complex have to call the unit number and it comes through as a phone call.
I would often phone from my place and when my mom answered I could clearly hear Benji howling in the background. I’ll miss that so!
He understood a fair number of words and would always bark when hearing the word “rats”. He also got a bit upset at mention of “other puppies” as he was very jealous of attention being wasted on other members of his species, let alone any other forms of life, such as my mom’s canary.
This possessiveness was so endearing as it meant he wanted we frail humans to give him undivided attention. He would guard my mom’s supper tray and if my stepdad or me wanted to take the tray away after supper he would growl menacingly.
Whenever he found something incredibly interesting, such as the videos I took of him, he would turn his head first to one side and then the other, his eyes glued intently on the screen as he heard himself barking. This cocking his head was one of his most endearing quirks and one which I will miss the most.
TIME TO GO
The last month of Benji’s life was very happy. My mom went into hospital for a knee replacement operation and I moved in to help with chores and meals for about six weeks. During the five days my mom was in hospital it was just Benji and I, then we spent the next blissful four weeks together. His usual routine was to sleep in his little round dog bed until the early hours of the morning then jump up to spend an hour or two cuddled up next to me under the bed blankets, keeping as warm and cosy as possible. As I’m almost always an early riser, he’s stay sleeping under the bedclothes while I sorted breakfast or headed out to the streets for a short run. He’d happily wait for me to get back and would usually still be having a lazy morning. He’d have to get used to longer being permitted to access my mom’s bed due to the post-op knee tenderness and pain. But soon she felt she could have him next to her for short times, and he would lie there with her while I was busy with various tasks.
We didn’t realize that Benji ‘s kidneys were packing up. He started drinking more water but seemed fine and very active for his age. He would have been 13 at the end of July. He became constipated and wouldn’t eat. That last day he couldn’t keep anything down. He was walking with difficulty, dragging his back legs and clearly weakening so we took him to the vet. I wasn’t prepared for the end to be so sudden. I truly hoped it would just be a matter of time before he perked up.
The vet advised us that having him put to sleep would be the kindest action to take, as his prognosis for living a good quality life was very poor.
We didn’t want Benji to die alone, so arranged for my sister to take us there on the evening of Thursday 23 May, which would be his last day among us.
Benji passed on to the verdant green pastures over the Rainbow Bridge happy and at peace, surrounded by the tear-stained faces he loved best in all the world.
The vet’s assistant brought him in for the last time, and his eyes lit up at the sight of us.
Letting go was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I felt like grabbing him from the table and running out into the night with him until we both dropped. I was the last one to hold him as my sister and mom looked on. My stepdad had already left the room, too overcome to stay.
As the needle’s contents took effect I kissed his little cheek a few times in farewell. Then I had to leave so I could remember the sparkle in his eyes as the vet’s assistant carried him into the room and how he stood there, loving and being loved for those precious last moments.
Benji was so happy that I was once again living with him and that we were all together. This comforts me a good deal. Had I been at my flatlet, I would have missed out on seeing him except on occasion, and maybe been unable to be with him at the end.
There will never be another Benji to fill the void in my heart. His own heart was so big it was larger than his physical body and embraced his entire human family.
I miss him so, but his life and his departure have inspired me to seek out and love other dogs and even non-canine animals and to cherish and honour his memory by being a friend to them all and to do all I can to make their lives as happy as possible. I always have been an animal lover but Benji gave love a new meaning. His feisty, cheeky but unconditionally loving and adorable personality endeared him to all who met him and enriched my life.
All dogs are special and it’s never easy to say goodbye to our most faithful friends. The memories will live on forever.
I salute the little warrior who gave me emotional support at a time of my life when I was really down, and sustained me through my long bout with PTSD.