It’s February 2nd, 2018, and I’ve been contemplating the book for a couple of weeks now. As usual, Debra and I are up before daylight preparing for our unusually long workdays.
Debra’s day begins with a seventy-five-minute commute to the medical practice where she’ll spend eight to ten hours on her feet treating patients and ends with the seventy-five-minute commute home.
Mine will be the same twelve-to-sixteen-hour day, just as it has been every day for over a decade now. It’s a mentally, physically, and emotionally draining routine, the first and last two-hour periods of which are quite dangerous ones—going into the enclosures with all twenty-three wolf and wolfdog packs here and physically interacting with all but a hand full of them, with no one else on the property.
While I realize that many married couples maintain such rigorous schedules, this is particularly tough on Debra. In addition to some internal health issues that have troubled her for years, she has a thirty-seven-degree curve in her spine that presses down on her internal organs and causes considerable pain in her hips.
But with an inoperable left shoulder in need of joint replacement, a torn left biceps muscle, a ruptured right biceps muscle, two broken bones in my right shoulder—in addition to a broken right clavicle—a torn right pectoral muscle, and numerous soft tissue injuries resulting from an accident here just before Hurricane Irma—one which also broke six of my ribs, collapsed my right lung, and landed me in the ICU—things are a bit tough for me right now as well.
But despite the vast responsibilities here, my numerous nagging injuries, and zero time off ever, I’ve always felt that Debra’s situation is harder on her than mine is on me. The difficulty of her daily routine and her needs never leave my mind. As for me, though, today will involve a deviation from my normal morning routine here.
Now that it’s light enough outside, I make my way to the east side of the house and look out the window to see if I can see Damascus in his enclosure. You see, fifteen-year-old Damascus—one of the several wolves we rescued over the years who made his way deeper into my heart than the others—is dying.
I help Debra through the two massive steel gates to the sanctuary and she heads off to the medical practice for another long day at work. Time for me to begin my morning rounds to see the five dozen wolves and wolfdogs.
My first stop is obviously Damascus, who developed cataracts several months back and has now almost totally lost his sight. Also, he suffered a stroke a few weeks ago, which left him with some worsening neurological problems and barely able to walk.
As I make my way into his enclosure, I’m greeted by his lifelong packmate, Solomon, who’s needier than normal since Damascus can no longer play with him like he used to.
Solomon has become particularly fond of me over the years and is not the same wolf who crushed my right hand the day he arrived five years ago. He and Damascus were so dangerous when they arrived that it was fourteen months before we were able to safely go into their enclosure and touch them without a fence separating us.
Yet today, no one would be able to tell that there was ever anything other than a loving, trusting, and intimate relationship between these two stunningly beautiful wolves and us.
Damascus and Solomon have come a long way and they’re special. Once Damascus is gone, I will miss him dearly, but Solomon will be left all alone to deal with a pain he has never before had to experience—loneliness.
As another season of death and sorrow looms over my soul, that of Damascus’ lifelong packmate Solomon, and those of the remaining five dozen wolves and wolfdogs here—who will also feel his loss—I’m reminded of the crippling feeling of despair that always follows the death of one of these majestic creatures—a despair I’ve come to know like a brother.
But this time, the despair isn’t taking root quite the way it has so many times before. After nearly thirteen years of caring for these most awesome of God’s creatures, I finally know for certain that I will see them again in a new environment—one in which the conditions are vastly different from those we’ve endured together here on this earth.
Romans 8:19-21 says,
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Our beloved Damascus will be leaving for Heaven soon, and he’ll never again experience any pain or suffering. But Solomon and I will still be here, and the sorrow we’ll feel is still very real.
“How did I come to have so much love and compassion for these animals, so much so that I feel guilty when I find myself having more empathy for them than I do for people? Not all people, but many—the prideful ones mostly.”
While I know there’s a reason for this, I suspect my love and compassion for animals began developing a very long time ago—about five and a half decades ago, to be exact.
As I gently stroke Damascus’ head, neck, and ears, while telling him how beautiful he is and how much I love him, I ponder, “I love these animals so much—so majestic, so beautiful, so innocent—yet sometimes it seems like as soon as they settle in here and begin enjoying their lives and their relationships with us, they leave us.”
The sense of futility I feel at these inevitable times is always overwhelming—sometimes downright debilitating. But I can’t just walk out on them, I can’t leave them—their needs have imprisoned me.
Again, I think…
“My Lord, how did I get here, doing this all day, every day, taking on all of these animals, with all their needs, and ‘taking in’ all of their heartbreak and despair. How did I get here?”
It’s Sunday morning, 1964, at St. James Methodist Church in the small, working-class town of Palatka, Florida. I’m not quite four years old, a very insecure child, and terrified of being left—discarded. I’m walking through a hallway with my mother and older brother, Rod, unknowingly headed off to the nursery so they can go to “big church” without me. When we arrive at the nursery, I realize that’s exactly where I’m being taken and that they’re going to leave me there. I am instantly overcome with fear…
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