Goodbye Thumper

Posted: May 26, 2006 12:07 AM
My family and I are getting ready to say good-bye to Thumper.

“Marley and Me” has become a literary phenomenon, a juggernaut of a best-selling book. And it’s an amazingly simple story, a true-life account of one man’s life with an otherwise unremarkable, dopey, mischievous, wonderful dog named Marley. In the book, when the time comes for Marley to die, the author’s heart is broken.

Thumper is our Marley.

It’s hard to explain the love affair we Americans have with our pets. Me, I’m a dog person. It’s not that I find fault with cat lovers, it’s just that there’s nothing like my happy, tail-wagging dog waiting for me at the front door when I come home from work after a rough day at the office to remind me of the meaning of “unconditional love.”

Thumper is a 15 year-old Cocker Spaniel/Labrador mix. I rescued the tiny, shivering little black ball of fur from an animal shelter in Greenville, South Carolina back in 1991. He’s actually the third Thumper in my life: I grew up with Thumper the First and Thumper the Second, two black cockers that filled my childhood with joy and companionship during the years that my father, who died when I was 11, was sick and in and out of hospitals. Being the only child at home, my dog was my buddy, the one thing I could always count on to make me smile in an often difficult childhood.

Thankfully, I never had to deal with the deaths of Thumper One or Thumper Two. When the first Thumper died, I was too young to remember how my Mom and Dad handled it. And the second Thumper ran away from home. While that was traumatic, I fantasized that some rich family with a mansion and a huge backyard for him to play in found him and took him in.

After I grew up and started a family of my own, I knew I wanted my children to experience the joy of a dog, too. Of course, naming him Thumper was probably a fairly obvious hint that I was ready, too.

Like every dog, Thumper has a distinct and unique personality. He never objects to a good belly rub, and just like his distant cousins from years past, always “thump-thump-thumps” his leg while getting his tummy scratched. He has been there through good times and bad. He’s been a part of our sons’ milestones, like high school proms or graduations. He dutifully moved with us from South Carolina to upstate New York, on to New York City and eventually to Dallas. He lets me hold him when I’m upset, or lays his head on my lap when I’m reading the paper, or just sleeps in front of the fireplace while we’re watching TV, content to be safe and sound with the family that loves him.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that will require any agency receiving money from FEMA to have an evacuation plan to accommodate household pets and service animals in a disaster. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of pets were left stranded. There were countless heartbreaking stories of people having to leave their trusting, innocent dogs or cats behind as they were being evacuated from their flooded homes or apartments.

One particular story of anguish was shared with me by a paramedic in Louisiana. A middle-aged woman tried to bring her beloved Golden Retriever with her onto the rescue boat, but the man in charge of the operation had to refuse to take the dog with them. Despite having plenty of room on the boat, the man explained that the shelter had no provisions for dogs or cats. Finally, the lady had to tell her beloved dog to “stay” as the boat pulled away from the house. A hundred yards or so away from the house, the people on the boat, including the weeping dog owner, heard a bark from behind them. To everyone’s horror, the Retriever was in the water, trying desperately to paddle his way to his owner in the boat, struggling to keep up. As the poor woman began to scream, the man just accelerated the boat. The woman watched until her precious dog finally wore out and disappeared under the water.

I wish those who are complaining about the House bill that provides for an evacuation plan for pets in a disaster would consider that story before sounding off. One particular editorial, in a newspaper called The Daily Sentinel Star of Grenada, Mississippi, asked if the U.S. House of Representatives has gone “completely mad” by trying to protect our companion animals this way. The paper argues that rescuing pets is a waste of time, personnel, fuel and daylight.

Well, speaking as Thumper’s dad, I know The Daily Sentinel Star is dead wrong. Whoever wrote that editorial has obviously never experienced the sheer happiness of a dog or cat. They don’t consider how reluctant many of us would be to leave our pets behind during a natural disaster, in some cases, preferring to stay in the house with the dog or cat and face an unnecessary death. An evacuation doesn’t have to be an “either/or” proposition. Providing for removing people and their pets is the smart, sane, reasonable thing to do. On behalf of pet lovers everywhere, I thank the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the “Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act.”

Last week, I found a tumor in Thumper’s mouth. The vet says it’s an “angry” tumor, growing quickly and even impeding his ability to drink from his water dish, since his tongue is affected. She tells me that they can’t operate and we need to start planning for how we’re going to put him to sleep.

Like Marley’s dad, my heart is breaking. It would be easier if Thumper acted like he was in pain, but other than that big growth under his tongue that keeps annoying him, he seems just fine. He still wags his tail when I’m around, still rests his head on my lap.

And when the time comes, any day now, when the vet comes to the house to administer the final injection (we wouldn’t dare make him spend his final minutes in that veterinary clinic he hates so much), and my wife has to leave the house and I lay on the ground with Thumper, holding him and saying good-bye while she gives him the shot, I will be comforted by the fact that for one snapshot of our nation’s history, 349 members of Congress voted to protect the Thumpers and Busters and Blackjacks and Daisys of the world.

But boy, am I still going to miss him.