“Are you the Trammells?”
“Sullivan died as soon as we got him on the examination table. We were able to bring him back, but his condition’s critical. X-rays show he has a perforated diaphragm. Several vital organs have moved through the perforation and into the chest cavity. If he’s to be saved, we must operate immediately. In his condition, there are no guarantees; he’s a very sick old boy.”
Sullivan, our eight-year-old black Labrador retriever was dying. Why? Why today, Christmas Day? He had been fine that morning. In his stocking, Santa had left his favorite treats. My wife had given me a beautiful new Labrador retriever flag to fly in front of our home, to honor him. On the flag was a black Lab with a bright red collar, just like Sullie’s. The last words I expected to hear that day were, “Sullivan died.” Despite the doctors’ best efforts, Sullivan died before surgery could be performed. Though he was a fighter; his heart simply gave out.
Sullivan came into our lives one beautiful Friday afternoon in October 1987. Our family was living on Sullivan’s Island, across the harbor from Charleston, South Carolina. Several months earlier, we had to put our seventeen-year-old German shepherd, Prince, to sleep. After the loss of Prince, our family had emotionally debated owning another dog. The Friday that Sullivan came into our lives I was returning from lunch with a co-worker when we stopped by his house to check on his litter of Labrador retriever puppies.
As we stood outside the fence, all of the puppies but one continued to roll and play together. One little male came over and looked up at me. From that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that our family would have another dog. Later that afternoon, I returned for the little guy; his name would be Rufus.
On the way home Rufus and I stopped by a pet store and purchased a new collar and leash. Later that evening my wife asked why we had purchased a collar and leash, but no dog food. I simply told her that we had been thinking of the important things necessary for the times we were going to spend on the beach. We were promptly sent back to the store for puppy chow.
Knowing the challenge I faced convincing my wife that we really needed this precious little guy, I “massaged” the truth in order to give him time to win her heart. “We” told her that he was staying with us while his parents were on a weekend hunting trip; that part of the story was true. We simply neglected to tell her I had paid for the privilege of him staying with us, and he had no intentions of leaving.
Before going to bed Friday night, the name Rufus was history. The new puppy had joined the ranks of countless other Sullivan’s Island canine residents named Sullivan. Even the prospect of stepping onto the front porch, calling his name, and having half of the island’s dog population respond was not enough to convince my daughter that the name, Rufus, was a better choice. By Sunday night, with the help of my daughter and her friends, my strategy was working. As my wife sat holding Sullivan on her lap and rubbing his ears, I knew the battle was almost won, even though she kept repeating, “But we don’t need another dog.”
By the end of the summer, Sullivan’s Frisbee and ball catching feats were legendary. Our home was located on a section of the beach that was the favorite gathering place for College of Charleston students seeking a reprieve from studying. More than one athletic young man, bent on impressing a bikini-clad young woman, had his moment of glory stolen by Sullivan leaping through the air and grabbing a Frisbee only inches from the young man’s grasp. Once, the students threatened to penalize him for ‘interfering with the receiver’ when his leap brought him in contact with a large young man’s chest. Both landed in the surf, but it was Sullivan who proudly had possession of the Frisbee that he had caught in mid-air.
Labs are known to have great hunting instincts, but Sullivan had a rather unique one. If my son or I was playing fetch with him and he became bored, he would take his ball and drop it beside the most attractive woman he could find. Time and again, disaster was narrowly avoided when he stopped just short of dropping his cold, wet tennis ball on the back of an unsuspecting young woman sunbathing with bikini straps untied.
If my wife or daughter was playing with him and he became bored, he would instinctively take his ball to what he considered the best looking guy on the beach. Our family will always wonder from where he got this instinct. It was not a trick we taught him.
Something else set Sullivan apart from other Labs. He had some very distinctive markings. The hair between his footpads, and slightly up the back of each foot was white, giving him the appearance of wearing reflectors as he walked away. He also had a small patch of white hair on a very private part of his anatomy, and a small wart on the left side of his lower lip.
In 1989 Sullivan took our family’s move from the island to Raleigh, North Carolina, in stride. He gave up an ocean, but gained two smaller bodies of water near our home, Crabtree Creek and a small brook in the beautiful woods of Hyde Park. It was his love of escaping to the small brook that contributed to his death.
Sullivan had many great qualities; he also had some bad habits. One was to periodically slip away to go relax in the brook. One September evening while I was out of town, he slipped away when my wife took him out before going bed. During the night, he was struck by a car while returning home; a neighbor found him in her yard early the next afternoon. Initially we thought his injuries were limited to a badly broken left hind leg, and two nasty gashes. It was only when he got sick Christmas Day that it was determined he had a perforated diaphragm. Such an injury would not have shown up on X-ray unless it was herniated at the time of the X-ray.
After his death our family again faced the decision of replacing a beloved pet. Not having a dog would make it easier for my wife and me to leave town on weekends, or for her to accompany me on an occasional business trip. Another factor was to influence our final decision. Seven months before Sullivan died I had incorporated my consulting company. With my office at home, Sullivan was my constant companion. After Christmas, when my wife daughter returned to work, I was left alone in a big empty house. I missed Sullivan more than imaginable. Part of my missing him was guilt. When he and I were home together, I had too often put work first. Many times I had promised to walk him, only to end up sitting in front of my computer while he waited patiently. After his death it was too late to keep my promises. I would be less than honest if I did not say that I also thought of all the times I had put work before family when my children were young.
After several weeks of heart-wrenching debate, we decided that if we were to get another dog, it would be at least two years old, and would be one that we rescued from the animal shelter or Labrador Rescue. Weekly visits to the shelter introduced us to numerous adorable animals that would make someone a fine and loyal companion. In discussions with our local Labrador Rescue, we learned they were justifiably reluctant to give us a puppy or young Lab because we did not have a fenced yard. One day, after another futile trip to the shelter I called Lab Rescue again. That call led to a second chance.
The program director told me they might soon be in need of a home for a nine-year-old Lab. My first reaction was to tell her I was not interested in an older dog. The last thing I needed was to become attached to an older dog.
I hung up the phone and shared the conversation, and my reluctance to take an older dog, with my wife. Over the next few days I thought about Sullivan in the same situation. What if something had happened to me and no one wanted him because of his age? Once again I called Lab Rescue, “What happens if you cannot find a home for an older dog?” I asked. The director hesitated before speaking. “It’s really tough for us to find homes for older dogs, but we just have to keep trying. They deserve a loving home as much as the younger dogs – maybe even more.” In my mind I was reading between the lines, and figured exactly what happened to older pets that were not adopted. The decision was made; I would at least meet the ‘old boy’ in question before making a final decision.
After being picked up from his family, the old Lab was taken to the Lab Rescue vet for a physical and neutering. The afternoon following his surgery, I reluctantly stopped by the vet’s office. Since the Lab Rescue vet had been Sullivan’s vet, my family and I were known in the office. When I told the receptionist I was there to meet the Lab Rescue patient, her smile beamed from ear to ear.
“Oh, Mr. Trammell, that’s wonderful! You’ll love Slick.”
Slick? Only the humor of visualizing my wife’s reaction to a dog named, Slick, kept my emotions in check. The name Sullivan had a certain cultured, aristocratic ring to it. After all, he was named for a historic island. The Civil War fortress, Fort Moultrie was located there; Edgar Alan Poe had written The Gold Bug while living on the island. Suffice it to say, Slick, did not have the same ring, even if his registered name was somewhat more distinctive.
Any negative images I had of Slick were dispelled the moment I saw him in the holding kennel. I felt a burning in my throat as I realized he was in the same kennel where Sullivan had been housed after his accident. The veterinary assistant took us into the exercise yard so we could get to know each other.
Slick seemed far happier to be outside than to see me. As he trotted away, tears welled in my eyes – on the bottom of all four feet were reflectors identical to Sullivan’s. I was speechless. When he returned to my side I knelt to pet him. On the left side of his lower lip was a small pink scar, seemingly in the exact location Sullivan’s wart had been. Thank goodness, Carol had left us alone to get to know each other; it was impossible for me to hold back my emotions.
When I walked him back inside the entire clinic staff was waiting us. What did I think of Slick? Would he be spending the weekend with me? In my heart the answer was yes. My head told me to call my wife before making the big decision. The last thing I needed was to take home a dog that would not get along with our “grandcat”, Khaki. I could not help wondering if Slick’s disappointment at being returned to the kennel had anything to do with me leaving him. The moment I left the clinic, I called my wife on my cellular phone. “You won’t believe this boy.” I said. “I’ve heard that before.” was her reply. “Do you have him with you?” she asked. “Not without your permission.” I replied. Late that afternoon I returned to the clinic, leash in hand, to meet the Lab Rescue director. As we petted Slick and talked, she was amazed when I pointed out his markings and told her they appeared identical to Sullivan’s. She said that in her years of breeding and showing Labradors, she had never seen markings like them.
Before the weekend was over, Slick had a new name, Vic. The new name is short for Victura, the name of President John F. Kennedy’s sailboat. A Jamie Wythe poster of the President sailing the Victura hangs in my office. We used to tell Sullivan that someday we would cruise the coast with him on a boat named the VICTURA. Since that remains a family goal, we felt Vic was a fitting name for the old boy who may yet have that opportunity.
The vet and Lab Rescue director cautioned us about comparing Vic or any other dog to Sullivan. Like people, dogs have individual personalities. Vic and Sullivan share the same appearance and love of attention, but that is where the similarities end. Sullivan lived an easy life, was never hunted and spent a great deal of time indoors. Vic was trained to hunt, and spent his life in a fenced kennel. He has welcomed the opportunity to be a house pet. Whereas Sullivan had a real wanderlust, Vic does not want us out of his sight.
Like most Labs, Sullivan was gentle, but very protective. Each time I look at Vic, I wonder if we were brought together by Sullivan continuing to look after his family. Vic is six months older than Sullivan would have been. He may not spend many years with us, but he came into our lives when he and our family needed each other.
After Sullivan’s death, the only way I could express my feelings was to write him a letter. In the letter, I thanked him for all I had learned from him. I promised to share that knowledge and love with other animals. Vic gives me that opportunity each day. He loves his morning, evening, and often, midday walks. To ensure I get to make up for lost time in sharing affection, he has perfected using his big, graying snout to flip my hand onto his head. It is his signal for attention. No member of the family can step outside, without Vic on their heels.
Recently Vic made his first visit to Sullivan’s Island. The instant his leash was removed he went straight into the ocean. For a moment he lay in the calm, shallow surf, then he looked back at my wife and me, as if to say thank you for bringing me here – thank you for loving me. Watching him swim and chase seagulls brought back many wonderful memories.
Our family enjoys giving Sullivan credit for sending Vic to us. It is hard to explain how he managed to send an old boy almost his same age, identical in appearance, and desperately in need of much love and companionship. When Vic came into my life, we both got a second chance. I get to keep a promise to Sullivan, and give an old Lab the love and attention he deserves. Vic gets to enjoy the last years of his life in the comfort of a warm home where he is wanted, needed, and loved. Something tells me that somewhere up above Sullivan knows we are not going to let each other down.
This story was written as a tribute to Sullivan and Vic, and to encourage readers to contact local breed rescue programs, S.P.C.A chapters, and animal shelters when considering the purchase or adoption of pets. And from the author’s perspective, please always consider adoption of older animals. If they are like Vic, they will be loyal companions that seem to understand and appreciate the second chance they are being given. The quote on the Jamie Wythe print of President Kennedy onboard the Victura reads, “One man can make a difference and every man should try.” Those words hold special meaning when it comes to animal rescue. Dick Trammell
NOTE: On Friday morning, March 28, 2003, after an eighteen month battle with cancer, and only two weeks before his sixteenth birthday, our vet came to our home and put Vic to sleep on his bed in our living room. For eight years, Vic was a loyal companion and member of our family. He could only be described as “a Lab’s Lab;” he was perfect in every way to the very end. Our vet said that he came to Vic’s home to put him to sleep, rather than making us bring him to a sterile office because he deserved going to sleep in the comfort of his home, while surrounded by his family.