Wiley passed away unexpectedly just after 8 a.m. mountain time on Thursday. He was thirteen and a half years old.
Although I was not present at his death, he was cared for and comforted by Brian and Bridget of Four Paws Animal Resort, and for that I am deeply grateful. When I arrived minutes after his passing, they told me how quick and apparently peaceful the event had been. I take heart that he did not die alone while I was at work, and that he did not suffer greatly.
Wiley was born in Moscow, Russia, on a cold winter's day in early 1995. His parentage, like his earliest days, remains a mystery. He was found by a colleague of mine begging outside the American embassy. He was about four to six weeks old, hairless and green. Mange had claimed his fur and someone, either as a prank on a hapless street puppy or as some kind of homegrown anti-mange treatment, had painted him green.
My colleague took him home, intending him to be a friend to her fully grown dog... which was terrified of Wiley, then a feral monster that enjoyed biting anything he could sink his teeth into.
Unwilling to return him to the streets, she asked if I would take him. As it turned out, my Rhodesian Ridgeback Kosmo, then a strapping two-year-old, was the only thing Wiley feared. For a while. Kosmo was exceptionally patient with Wiley using him as a chew toy, and Katya, the young Russian woman I hired as a dog nanny, was able to quickly housetrain and semi-domesticate him.
Wiley's original name was not Wiley. It was Dodger, after the street ruffian in Oliver Twist. He didn't take to the name, however, so it was soon changed to reflect his uncanny resemblance to a certain cartoon coyote. It also began a long tradition of nicknames for him, including Mr. Kittenheads, Smalls, Plush Mammal, Wilbur, AdventureDog and many, many more.
From the first day I knew him, I realized Wiley was an exceptionally intelligent dog, able to understand a number of words in both English and Russian. He was a great communicator all-around, with several variations on his bark to indicate what he wanted, whether it was the percussive, incessant warning he needed to go outside or the seal-like yelpy bark that said "bacon! I smell bacon! Gimme bacon NOW!"
Wiley grew into a healthy Siberian Laika, a Russian breed of dog related to the Finnish Spitz. I had always assumed he was just a mutt, but several Russians pointed out that only purebred Laikas have a black cross shape on their tail. Whether he was a Laika or not, as soon as his mange was cured, Wiley grew an impressive five-layered coat.
He may be gone, breaking my heart, but his fur will be with me forever, as well as in the carpet and car seats of any place he's been.
When we returned to the States, Wiley quickly learned to acclimate to his new country. True to his Russian street puppy roots, however, his favorite food remained fish skin. In Moscow, vendors used to sell whole fish on a stick, like a kebab. People would toss the stick, bones and skin on the street after eating, and I'm assuming their cast-offs formed a large part of his early diet.
Wiley had his first known brush with death while living in Madison, WI, when he mixed it up with a badger who unceremoniously slashed an artery on his muzzle. It would be just one of several meetings with the emergency vet.
After a year in Orange County, NY, we moved back to Wisconsin, this time to Milwaukee, in 1998. A frequent rabble-rouser at the dog park on the northwest side, Wiley loved to start something with a bigger, aggressive dog and then run and hide behind Kosmo, who reluctantly settled the confrontation with a deep-chested woof or two.
We moved to the south side of Milwaukee, known as Bay View, in 2000, and Wiley and Kosmo quickly made themselves at home in a spacious house, a park bordering Lake Michigan and Seminary Woods, an area of forest untouched by development. It was here that Wiley scored his only two recorded kills, both rabbits, though he would probably insist he also got a possum and a squirrel.
While I underwent chemotherapy for cancer, Wiley and Kosmo were my dearest supports, never complaining if I spent hours immobile on the couch instead of taking them walkies, or forgot to feed them because I had lost my own appetite.
It was living in Bay View where Wiley had his second brush with death... an 18-pound tumor growing in his spleen turned out fortunately to be benign, but the sheer size of it required risky surgery. He pulled through like the little scrapper he always was, and even tried to pick a fight, still wobbly from anaesthesia, with a golden retriever in the waiting room.
Wiley was an extremely emotional and sensitive dog. He would show shame when Kosmo had an accident (his own mishaps were rare), for example, or tune into whenever I'd had a bad day at work and follow me around the house, staring in concern with his big dark eyes.
One of my most poignant memories of Wiley is what he did a few days after Kosmo passed away at the ripe age of 12 back in 2005.
For years, Wiley had loved to steal Kosmo's rawhides, amassing a great pile on the rug in the dining room and then laying on them while Kosmo barked pitifully for them to be returned. In the last few days of Kosmo's life, both dogs ignored their rawhides and soon they littered the house. One day, shortly after Kosmo died, Wiley very purposefully gathered all the rawhides in a pile on the rug in the dining room, looked at them for a long time and then looked at me as if to say "it's not fun anymore" and then walked away.
In the years we had together as a duo, rather than a trio, Wiley grew into his own. He could be walked without a leash, loved to go hiking and perfected his "lemme back this thing up" butt rub dance. While he got along with few other canids, discriminating on a dog-by-dog basis, he loved people, and one of his best friends was a neighbor's cat named Dash.
We met Dash when we moved back to New York in 2006. While I missed Lake Michigan, we quickly found hiking paths all over the Hudson Valley, and I would like to think that, though I spent many hours at school away from him, Wiley enjoyed his daily walkies deep into the woods.
In late 2006, when I went off to Vegas to learn fancy cookin' techniques, Wiley moved in with Dr. Virago and Bullock, where he was spoiled rotten. I approved. He and I were reunited in April of 2007 and, while I don't think he recognized me at first, we quickly fell back into our buddy routine.
Even more than Kosmo, who was sweet but dumb, Wiley became my best friend, understanding much of what I said to him (or at least playing along) and always sensitive to my mood.
One of Wiley's favorite things to do was go buh-byes, or ride in the car. For the last year or so of his life, he had to be helped up onto the seat, but once aboard he'd proudly stand with his head and shoulders out the window, ears perked and bright eyes alert for interesting things to bark at. In the past few months, he often sat with his chin on the door frame and just his nose out of the window. Looking in my sideview mirror and not seeing that little black nose is something I will never get over.
A brief but serious kidney illness in late 2007, as well as advancing arthritis, were signs of things to come. But despite his age, Wiley was still active, hiking and making friends with neighborhood dogs more readily than he had earlier in life. He even made it to the top of a fourteener less than a month before his death.
Although briefly ill earlier this month, Wiley appeared to have made a full recovery when I headed out of town for a couple days and left him in the care of Bridget and Brian. There was no indication that he was ill, which made his death on Thursday that much more sorrowful.
When I had to put Kosmo down, my vet at the time said something to me that really resonated. Dr. Rosene said: "If they didn't give us so much in life, it wouldn't hurt so much to lose them." Kosmo's breeder, when I gave her the news, also told me "I'm glad he was in your life, and that you were in his."
Both of those sentiments have given me some comfort. Wiley gave me so much, especially in his later years and especially after we moved here, away from friends and most diversions. I always said he was the best thing to come out of Moscow. I'm glad I was able to save him from the streets. I'm glad he was my friend, my hiking partner, my bed warmer and my li'l buddy for so many years.
I hope wherever he is now that he knows he always was, and always will be, a very good boy.